Category Archives: Inter-faith Activity

Families and Religion

Most of the major religions have stories about families, and often they’re confusing. However, if you are not comfortable with paradox, then you probably won’t be comfortable with religion in general, because many religious messages appear to be contradictory and are at least ambivalent, especially on messages about families.

Before the Buddha became the Buddha he left his family to find enlightenment. He never returned. Buddhism is a religion of compassion but it could be argued that abandoning one’s family is not compassionate.

Gandhi’s (Hindu) family was not so happy, with his parenting approach apparently as ascetic and tenacious as he lived his life. There was a play about Gandhi the man in the late nineties where the character of Gandhi’s wife said, “You have filled the entire sky with your love, like the clouds of a monsoon, but bend a little as you do, and pour a few drops into my son’s mouth.”

New York Times on Gandhi the man

Judaism has a story of God asking Abraham to kill his son. At the last minute God changed his mind and some poor goat was murdered instead. One irony of that story is that Abraham’s only (legitimate) son was supposed to father a nation, and there was Abraham raising a knife to him.

According to legend, three of the dominant religions of our time, came from that one man: Abraham. I’m not asserting that it is literally true, I’m telling you about the mythology of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Abraham was to be the father of the Jewish nation by his second son Isaac. His first son was Ishmael, who had a different mother than Isaac (not Abraham’s wife), and could be considered the father of Islam. Jesus became the catalyst for Christianity, and was himself Jewish.

I’m not going to interpret all these stories, I’m just pointing out that even in our religious mythology, families are not easy. In our routine lives, it can be a stretch just to have a pleasant special occasion. When it comes to hoping for a Hallmark-card kind of holiday, or even more unlikely – expecting a real family to resemble a Norman Rockwell painting – I think it is only for the lucky few or those in denial.

For many people, being around family requires sedation. I admit that I do not like to attend family events if there is no opportunity for a glass of wine. If that’s not possible-short of having a brown bag in the car, I allow myself the option to pre-medicate with my legal prescription of Xanax, the same as when I go to the dentist. I wonder what holidays are like with Bill Maher’s family? I bet they’re more fun than mine.

I love watching Bill Maher. It seems his two favorite drums, on which he beats regularly, are bad religion and good ColoradoSignmarijuana. With limits, I don’t disagree. Most of what Maher identifies as evidence that religion is bad, is evidence that religion is used badly. Most of what is good about marijuana, is not evidence that no one abuses it – or that there are not some very bad things about the infrastructure supporting marijuana use.

Here’s the thing, if marijuana were legalized it could be taxed and regulated. I call that job and revenue creation. And as to corruption and abuse, well there’s just no question that abuse and corruption occur even with legal substances. There’s also that ‘gateway’ argument; when it comes to marijuana as a gateway to worse drugs; well, for some people, beer is a gateway drug. For me, being around relatives is a gateway to drugs.

If we are to believe the mythology of the three Abrahamic religions then their inability to get along could be interpreted as an endless family feud, related as they are. What don’t families fight about? Who has more sheep? Who got a bigger inheritance? Who has a bigger house? Who gets to run the oilfields? Who has more successful kids? Then families turn into clans. Clans turn into tribes. Tribes turn into territories. Territories turn into countries. And all the time, the squabbling doesn’t stop. At some point people get killed.

For those of us who choose to explore religion, it goes with the entire complicated package of families and humanity. I have written this before and I still don’t know the original source, but human beings imagine the God we are capable of imagining – and most often our god resembles ourselves. People who thrive on hate, see an angry god. People who need rules and structure see a rigid, demanding god. And people who believe in love see a God of love.

Because bad people claim their actions are a result of religious imperatives, doesn’t mean it’s true. Bill Maher (on HBO’s “Real Time”) had Bobby Ghosh on his panel June 27th (managing editor of Quartz, qz.com). When it comes to religion and politics in the Middle East, he said it better than I ever have:

“ISIS is the worst, most successful terrorist group in modern times…They hate everybody. They are killing more Muslims than they are killing anyone else…It’s not about religion…It is a power struggle in which religion is a uniform. The Shia are not trying to convert the Sunni, the Sunni are not trying to convert the Shia. They are fighting for power…”

So, my point is that if families can’t get along, why does anyone expect it from tribes and countries? My big disappointment is if these three religions come from the same guy – according to their own mythology, then they ought to cut each other some slack and freaking learn to get along.  I mean, I keep showing up for Thanksgiving.  I’m the vegetarian bringing the damn turkey already.  True religious leaders should lead in promoting the common good, not themselves, and condemning – loudly – violence in the name of anyone’s religion.

Getting rid of religion would not reduce wars, violence, or conflict. These are unfortunate aspects of the human condition that all of us have experienced to some degree in our own flawed families. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to be better. And I think it’s ok if that takes a little sedation. Maybe they should pass around joints at Middle East peace talks. They could all relax and eat junk food and forget what they were fighting about. Think about the possibility of marijuana as a gateway drug to peace talks. And isn’t it great we have several months before Thanksgiving? – J.B.

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Real Estate, Happy Hour and Weekly Worship

My neighborhood is what planners would call ‘older ring suburbs.’  We are close to the city limits (five miles), we have mixed-design housing, and there are actually large, mature trees.  While our house is probably the oldest and most modest in the neighborhood, you can be sure that the majority of our neighbors have granite counter-tops in their kitchens, unlike our c. 1940 pre-Formica.  One close neighbor tore down a 1960-ish two-story colonial and built a mini-mansion on top of it, well beyond the original footprint.  They have an uncharacteristically large yard in which their children seldom play and the hired help grooms.  This house appears to meet the needs of their ego, but I am unconvinced it is truly necessary for their family.  Not surprisingly, this same family needs two trash toters every week, unlike the one everyone else is allotted.

This neighborhood is in a school district where the public school is considered good.  I’m not sure if that perception refers to the quality of the education, the absence of violence, or the real estate.  The highly-paid administrators decided that the condition of the local high school was not becoming of their ego and launched a major expansion.  (The vote for this increase in property taxes took place during an off-peak primary when many retirees were wintering in Florida.)  A friend of mine who is a PhD went to one of the hearings and asked how new buildings would impact the student-teacher ratio and how the property enhancements would improve education.  There was no answer.  Before the final landscaping was completed, the same school claimed budget distress and started laying-off teachers.  Seriously, the grass had not grown next to the newly expanded parking lot when teachers lost their jobs, you know, the people who really do impact the quality of education.

With my local school and with churches, I would question how organizational mission and core activities correspond to theOpenHouseChurchSign real estate.  I have been taking a look at churches and places of weekly worship.  I first announced this research in a previous blog, “The Dying Church,” last March.

“The Dying Church”

According to ChurchPick.com there are about 15 churches or synagogues within two miles of our home.  I have been collecting data and taking notes on these visits.  (I haven’t been to mosques or synagogues yet, but I will begin those visits this fall.)  On my way to visiting 30 churches in 50 weeks, I am about halfway.  I have been to Baptist, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Quaker services.  I have nearly finished my Baptist visits which included a small church in a suburban town, a mega-church in the city, a large suburban church (near a strip mall, but not a neighborhood), and an urban, family congregation.

I am collecting measurable specifics in my data, and I am making observations whether these houses of worship are welcoming and/or friendly.  I define this by: 1) Friendly = was I greeted by anyone other than the usher (it’s their job); 2) Welcoming = was I invited to return? 

Most often I go alone, but sometimes my spouse joins.  Now he makes friends wherever he goes, so his presence tends to skew my data slightly.  Still, with or without him, I have been shocked to see how few churches invite me back.  Also, my experience has been that the larger churches didn’t have anyone greet me, beyond an usher handing out programs.  Every place I visited had some ritual toward visitors as part of their service, and many had a structured greeting of each other in the service.  Well, that doesn’t count folks.  If I were sincerely church shopping and not one person talked to me except at the required time, I would not return.  Period.  Once and done.

If I expand my ChurchPick.com search to five miles, I have more than 50 possibilities.  Naturally, folks would narrow their selection to the brand name of their liking, Methodist, Roman Catholic, etc. but there are still there are a lot of choices.  If you just need a brand name and a place to go, it’s a buyer’s market.  (I once told someone I didn’t like the town in which I worked because there were too many churches and not enough bars, which inevitably means long on judgment and short on fun.)

The former Episcopal bishop in Philadelphia said it takes 200 people for most churches to be financially self-supporting, but the average attendance of churches is under 100.  This simple math takes me back to real estate.  One church I visited has capacity of 200 and has an average attendance of 60.  There is another church I visited a couple years ago that has dealt with their declining participation by renting to the Christian Scientists on Saturday, the Korean Presbyterians early Sunday morning, then enjoying their own service late Sunday morning, with a part-time priest who participates little in the life of the church during the week and whom they share with another parish.  Kudos for welcoming the Koreans and Christian Scientists, but why do you continue to strap that real estate to your back?

All this finally takes me to Happy Hour.  My spouse and I have a favorite dive bar where you can get a half-pitcher of Yuengling Lager (America’s oldest brewery and a nice beer, thank you) for about $4, and it’s usually more than half-full.  We can either socialize, or sit in a booth and mind our own business.  It is a familiar and comforting setting.  Whether we go there with old friends or by ourselves and we feel welcome.  We are always greeted.  We are always invited back.

I have spent time with more than one seasoned member of the clergy who has reminded church committees that church is not entertainment.  Well, in its ideal state, perhaps not.  I remain unconvinced that church is different from Happy Hour for most people, if they are painfully honest with themselves.  It is an affordable place to go where they expect to meet like-minded people. 

Whether or not church is more than a Happy Hour experience, what kind of worship space do you really need?  How much of the group’s collective ego is attached to the real estate?  Is the building an expression of the church you wish you were?  In the absence of a building, how would you define church?  What I am finding in my visits as a barometer of church vitality is what John Dilulio (former faith czar for two presidents in two different parties) calls “non-member services.”  What are you doing for people other than yourselves?

Whether the Christians like it or not (and lots don’t) this is a pluralistic society.  Religious diversity is not just about denominations, but other religions.  When I think about real estate and religion, I have a dream of one building housing three Abrahamic religions (to start).  The Muslims can pray on Friday, the Jews can pray on Saturday and the Christians can pray on Sunday.  They can each have shared worship space and shared community space.  During the week their young people can use the community space for after-school programs where interfaith community is not just talked about, but lived.  The real estate becomes the metaphor for what each of them could tell you their God expects from them.  And perhaps they could work together to tackle social justice, because there is no end to the possibilities for service there

Let go of the building and redefine what weekly worship and church mean to you.  Find a way to distinguish yourself from Happy Hour.  By the way, Happy Hour is crowded – church, not so much. – J. B. Good

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American Hero: Imam W.D.

What’s happened to “Star Trek”?  It’s gone mass appeal with little time for a story in between faser fire, fisticuffs and bodies spit into space.  This is not your parents’ action and adventure of the old Indiana Jones days.  No, today it means convincing, gratuitous violence, thank you J.J. Abrams (the over-lauded young director).  The title “Star Trek into Darkness” is entirely appropriate.  Yes, I admit I’m a bit of a Trekkie.  I like that it was always easy to find several interesting heroes in a “Star Trek” episode or movie.  Still, the question this disappointing movie made me ask is: who are our heroes?  What constitutes an American hero these days?

First of all, there’s trouble with the word ‘American.’  Linking our identity to this continent reminds us (or should) of the historic fact that the Europeans stole this resource-rich continent from the Native Americans, along with economic prosperity for the elite built on the backs of African (et.al.) slaves.

The exploitative heritage of this country is often glossed-over, or worse, a cliché.  In fact every time I look at Andrew journey-into-america-cover211Jackson on a $20 bill I shudder.  His systematic and unapologetic intention to exterminate Native Americans would easily be called genocide by today’s standards.  Author Akbar Ahmed assigns him the category of “predator” in describing “three distinct but overlapping identities – primordial, pluralist and predator,” in Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam, (p.45).  Ahmed’s examples and explanations of these identities are interesting, but for the sake of brevity in this column you can take them at face value, using Dick Cheney and Andrew Jackson as examples of predators, Thomas Jefferson being a pluralist, and the Puritans primordial.  Ahmed looks at these conflicting identities and their impact on society, and foundational for the conflicts we all live with today.

The book flap of Journey into America said, “This eye-opening book also offers a fresh and insightful perspective on American history and society.”  I’m backing into the story of this book because reading about my own country’s history through the eyes of immigrants was powerful.  I was not ignorant to America’s inglorious past, but Ahmed put some of this country’s history in the context of how Muslims are currently treated in America, immigrants and natives.  Not surprisingly, he reveals story after story of bigotry, though this book is much richer than any of those stories in isolation.  In fact, the context he provides is what makes reading Ahmed compelling.  It matters in general, but also because there are six to seven million Muslims in the U.S., and globally, one of every four persons is a Muslim (p.7). 

Ahmed chairs Islamic studies at American University in Washington, DC and is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.  He chose an anthropological methodology because, “Anthropologists believe that society consists of interacting parts, and that anthropology is therefore the only discipline attempting to study society as a whole,” (p.10).  Ahmed travelled the U.S. and beyond with a team of researchers for visits to mosques and personal interviews, as well as collecting 2,000 questionnaires from people of all backgrounds all over the country. 

With all these stories, from first-hand accounts and from history, there was one person who especially struck me as what I think of as a real American, and my idea of a hero.  Ahmed described him by saying, “The genius of Imam W.D. was that he single-handedly moved the African American community toward identifying with a pluralist American identity while moving away from Black Nationalist Islam,” (p.174).

In my effort to get to know him better, a well-informed source referred me to two books.  Both are dated, but offered me a fuller picture of Imam W.D.  In American Jihad: Islam After Malcolm X (1994), author Steven Barboza titled the chapter on W.D. Mohammed “Prodigal Son,” (p.94).  (The Black Muslims in America, 3rd Edition 1994, by C. Eric Lincoln was also consulted for this column.)  Over time, the world would see how W.D.’s interpretation of Islam differed from his father, Elijah Mohammed.

Barboza’s book had an undertone of disappointment that W.D. did not build on his father’s legacy and empire, which was successful, but harsh.  As one example of sanctioned non-religious activities, the Nation of Islam (NOI) under Elijah Mohammed had a team of “enforcers” (“Fruit of Islam,” FOI) which were known as the ‘punch your teeth out’ arm of NOI.  That may well have been the case since there was a story of ten people killed ‘for no other reason than they didn’t want the FOI completely dominating their lives,’ (p. 96).  Imam W.D. also ended the exclusion of whites (p.95-6).  Louis Farrakhan and his followers eventually split from Imam W.D., retaining many of Elijah Mohammed’s doctrine and practices.

Akbar Ahmed compares Imam W.D.’s impact on American Islam akin to Martin Luther’s impact on Christianity (p.173).  In 1992 he was the first imam to offer morning prayers in the U.S. Senate (Barboza, p.98).  Not only did he make great strides in pluralism, he also taught his followers how they could be good Muslims as well as patriotic Americans.  Another imam said of him: “He is the greatest inspiration to us; he inspired us to accept our obligations and responsibilities as Americans.  Since 1975 we have identified as Muslim Americans.  We have rights, duties, and responsibilities as Americans.  We have to support good wherever we see it,” (Ahmed, p.192).

I now see the late Imam W. D. as a peaceful, devout spiritual man who sacrificed and persevered to lead people of his own faith on a devout path, while maintaining and building inter-faith relationships.  In this country he was a pioneer in teaching a more Orthodox, compassionate Islam.  He’s not taught in American history classes.  Probably many more non-Muslims think of Louis Farakhan or early Malcolm X.  Imam W.D.’s influence was quieter, but likely more widespread, and more spiritual than political.  That was heroic.

With no disrespect to Imam W.D. or Akbar Ahmed, I leave you with something less lofty.  I have been enjoying Canada10340‘s Islam-light on Hulu.com.  Take a look at “Little Mosque.”  It’s not quite a sitcom, but it’s not drama either.  It is an everyday interpretation of the lives of Muslims in a small town in ‘America’ (remember Canada is on the American continent).  This show makes me makes me smile, and sometimes laugh out loud.

“Little Mosque” on Hulu.com

Asalaam alaikum: peace be unto you. –J.B.