No Room For Hate

[Rev. Josh Pawelek’s comments at the Connecticut Council for Interreligious Understanding’s event, “An Interreligious Call to Love They Neighbor and Act for All Americans,” at the Cathedral of St. Jospeh, Hartford, CT, January 29, 2017]

Friends:

It’s an honor to be invited to say a few words this evening about the call at the heart of all our faiths to love our neighbors as ourselves. Thank you to the Connecticut Council for Interreligious Understanding for organizing this event. Thank you to the Archdiocese for hosting. It is good to be together.

Like so many of us, I am concerned, unnerved, angered by the increasing normalization of hate—not only in our country, but in so many countries around the world. This hate is not new. Hate has always been a possibility in human hearts and in the hearts of nations, but in recent times—at least in my lifetime—it has been kept in check largely by human decency, compassion and love. Something has shifted. Hate seems to have found its way out into the open.

Let’s be clear about the difference between anger and hate. There are legitimate reasons for people to be angry. All across society, across faiths, across races, across classes, across the political spectrum from progressive to liberal to moderate to conservative to Tea Party—there are legitimate reasons for people to be angry. There are legitimate reasons for people to protest. There are legitimate reasons for people to engage in civil disobedience.  But hate? There’s no legitimate reason for hate. There’s no social, economic or political problem for which hate is a sustainable solution. There’s certainly no just law or policy that has hate at its core.

As people of faith we are called to resist this resurgent hate. Our ethics call us to resist. Our scriptures call us to resist. Our prophets (peace be upon them) call us to resist. Our Gods call us to resist. Anyone who professes to be a faithful adherent of any religion and yet urges us to hate another group, to exclude another group, to ban another group, to commit violence against another group has grossly misunderstood or purposefully disregarded their own ethics, their own scriptures, their own prophets (peace be upon them), their own God.

Love your neighbor as yourself. In my Unitarian Universalist tradition, this is our first principle. We say “respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” This simple principle—love your neighbor as yourself—has always resided at the heart of our respective faiths. It has always been there to guide us. And it has always been an enormously difficult commandment to fulfill. But in the struggle to resist hate in our time, this principle is our plumb line, our north star, our grounding, our guiding light. Love your neighbor as yourself. Does your neighbor have to look like you to worthy of your love? No. Does your neighbor have to speak like you to worthy of your love? No. Does your neighbor have to pray, worship, or believe like you to be worthy of your love? No. Is the immigrant worthy of your love? Yes. Is the refugee worthy of your love? Yes. Is your political opposite worthy of your love? Is the transgender person worthy of your love? Is the coal miner worthy of your love? Is the police officer worthy of your love? Is the prisoner worthy of your love? Is the domestic worker worthy of your love? Is the corporate CEO worthy of your love? Yes, yes, yes.

Oh, there is room for disagreement and debate. There is room for anger, even rage. There is room for winning and losing in the political process. There is room for sticking to your convictions and fighting a principled fight. But there is no room for hate. Resist hate in everything you think, say and do. Let love prevail. Love will prevail. Great love, we pray, that you will prevail. Amen and blessed be.

Decolonizing Our Faith

READING

An excerpt/adaptation from “Queer(y)ing Religious Education: Teaching R(evolutionary) S(ub)-V(ersions)! or Relax! . . . It’s Just Religious Ed” (Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajaje, Provost and Professor of Cultural Studies and Islamic Studies at the Starr King School for the Ministry)

Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajaje

“Decolonizing” [religion] means looking at how it can subvert the dominating paradigm instead of merely reflecting it or having a merely reactive response to it….  [We must name how] the demonizing of the dark leads to the war against women and their bodies from the Inquisition to the beginning of the dismantling of women’s reproductive rights [and] is connected to the masculinization of the healing industry, to the hardening of Christian religious dogma in northern Europe, to the driving out of the Goddess, to the destruction of the Earth, to the mass killing of kweers of all colors, is connected to the expulsion of the Dark Other, i.e.,  the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from Spain, is connected to the Afrikan slave trade and the invasions of the Americas, Asia, and the Pacific Islands, where indigenous peoples, Afrikans, and Asians were enslaved and massacred (and continue to fuel a fear of brown-skinned immigrants and the brutal murdering of dark-skinned peoples, women, kweers, etc.) because they were considered to be like women: incarnations of evil; incarnations of unbridled lust; like women, they were considered to be too connected to the body and to sex; and where the Earth was destroyed because like women, the Earth was considered to be wild and needing to be dominated; like dark-skinned peoples, it needed to be dominated and controlled. This interlocking vortex became reflected in our language, where all that was evil was “dark” and vice-versa. The Dark Other was soon not only people living with brown skin, but anyone who was other: people living with disabilities, women, kweers, etc.

SERMON: Decolonizing Our Faith

“Evening breeze sings to me…. Mother earth awakens me.”[1]

Friends, this sermon is about awakening—waking up, opening our eyes, rising, stretching, greeting the dawn, greeting a new day, greeting a new way of being in the world which, in some respects, is not new at all. That is, greeting a new way of being in the world whose roots are ancient; or greeting an ancient way of being in the world that has been with us all along and even though it has been hidden, suppressed, denied, distorted, discounted, ridiculed, colonized, marginalized, made invisible, lampooned, bamboozled, attacked, assaulted, bombed, burned, bashed, bullied, battered, tainted, taunted, targeted and terrorized it has survived and has been asserting itself anew; has been speaking, calling, singing like the evening breeze, shining like the morning sun. This sermon is about awakening to an ancient way of being which is also new.

Throughout my entire ministry I’ve wrestled with the claim—a philosophical and academic claim—that we live in the end times of the modern world.  Not the Biblical end times—that’s something completely different and involves far too much hellfire and brimstone for me. The era scholars call modernity is slowly coming to a close. I encountered this idea in college in the 1980s and then in seminary in the 1990s. While I’m not convinced anyone knows entirely what this means or what the future holds, I do think naming and reflecting on this claim provides insight into the mission of the liberal church today.

I wrestle with this claim because I don’t believe the modern world will transition to something new without considerable conflict. Despite all the wonderful gifts of modernity—modern science, medicine, technology, industry, transportation, democracy, freedom, liberty, individual autonomy, human rights—all of which I fully expect will continue in new forms in whatever era is coming—despite this positive legacy it is also true that the modern world has always held itself in place through violence and oppression. For nearly six centuries modern nations and their leaders have far too often turned to domination and exploitation to achieve their goals: domination and exploitation of the land, of natural resources, of the global working poor and laboring classes, of the global south, of peoples of color, of women, of indigenous peoples and cultures, of (in the words of Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajaje) “kweers of all colors,”[1] of Jews and Muslims—and sometimes Christians—of Goddess religions, earth-based religions, and all manner of traditional folkways, including healing and agricultural practices.  

The modern world may be ending but its insidious underside—its tendency to resort to violence and oppression—won’t just disappear. Over the centuries it has insinuated itself deeply into modern consciousness, into our social, political and economic structures. It is the constant, unspoken threat of violence at the heart of so many international negotiations. It is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate saying “all options are on the table,” which we know is code for “we reserve the right to bomb you.” It is the rise of drone technology striking up and down the Afghan-Pakistan border and across the Southern Arabian Peninsula. It is gang warfare on city streets and corporate warfare on workers and the environment. It is wealthy nations with no will to address crushing poverty within their borders. It is the crazed search for fossil fuels despite incontrovertible evidence we’ve already combusted the climate beyond recognition. It is theories of “legitimate rape.” It is all the uninvestigated, untried murders of transgender people. None of this will simply disappear with the end of modernity. It must be confronted, challenged, resisted, subverted and undermined in creative, innovative, artistic, nonviolent ways. It must be declawed, defunded, dismantled, disorganized and voted out of office. It must be transformed into something peaceful, just, fair and sustainable. In my view this is our work as free, liberal, loving people of faith. This creative, innovative, artistic, nonviolent work of confronting domination and exploitation is a critical role of the church in these end times of the modern world. In embracing this role I believe we awaken to that ancient way of being which is also new.

Let me tell you how the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) has recently said yes to this task of challenging the violence and oppression at the heart of modernity. At our 2012 General Assembly (GA) in Phoenix, delegates voted overwhelmingly to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery. I was not familiar with this term until UUA board members started talking about it a year ago. I was familiar with some of the history surrounding it, but not the term itself. In short, the Doctrine of Discovery provided the intellectual, moral and spiritual justification for European colonization and slavery at the dawn of the modern era. Here’s a quote from the UUA website: “The Doctrine of Discovery is a principle of international law dating from the late 15th century. It has its roots in … papal decree[s] … that specifically sanctioned and promoted the conquest, colonization, and exploitation of non-Christian territories and peoples. Hundreds of years of decisions and laws continuing right up to our own time can ultimately be traced back to the Doctrine of Discovery—laws that invalidate or ignore the rights, sovereignty, and humanity of indigenous peoples in the United States and around the world.”[2]

These original papal decrees were written in Latin, but you can find English translations online. Two in particular stand out. The first, entitled Dum Diversas, issued in 1452 by Pope Nicholas V to King Alfonso V of Portugal, is widely regarded as the first official sanction of the African slave trade. Here’s a quote: “We grant you full and free power, through the Apostolic authority of this edict, to invade, conquer, fight, subjugate the Saracens and pagans, and other infidels and other enemies of Christ, and … to lead their persons in perpetual servitude and to apply and appropriate realms, duchies, royal places, principalities and other dominions, possessions and goods … to you and your use and your successors the Kings of Portugal.”[3]

Then in 1493, in response to Christopher Columbus’ first Atlantic voyage, Pope Alexander VI issued a decree entitled  Inter Caetera to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. “We … out of the fullness of our apostolic power, by the authority of Almighty God … give, grant, and assign to you and your heirs and successors, kings of Castile and Leon, forever … all the islands and mainlands found and to be found, discovered and to be discovered towards the west and south, by drawing and establishing a line from the Arctic pole, namely the north, to the Antarctic pole, namely the south, no matter whether the said mainlands and islands are found and to be found in the direction of India or towards any other quarter.”[4]

A picture emerges of 15th-century European power elites—popes and monarchs—authorizing the domination and exploitation of foreign lands, peoples and resources, and thereby ushering in the modern age.  A few centuries later Protestant rulers of Europe and the United States adopted the Doctrine of Discovery for their own uses. You can see it in Mass Bay and Virginia colony charters; in the Atlantic slave trade; in American expansionism and manifest destiny; in centuries of Indian wars, countless broken treaties, trails of tears, and detainment on reservations. You can see it in the Mexican-American war, the annexation of the American southwest, the colonization of Hawai’i, American imperialism, the history of immigration law, the war on drugs, the war on terror and the mass incarceration of black and brown people in American prisons. You can see it in a variety of United States Supreme Court decisions, the most recent being a 2005 case called City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York. [5] “The case involved a dispute over taxation of ancestral lands…. During oral arguments, it became clear that [the case] would hinge on whether … the Oneida Indian nation ‘has sovereignty status’ with regard to [its] ancestral lands…. In [the first] footnote [of her] decision for the Court majority [Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg writes:] ‘Under the Doctrine of Discovery … fee title to the lands occupied by Indians when the colonists arrived became vested in the sovereign—first the discovering European nation and later the original states and the United States.’”[6] For me this underscores how deeply modernity’s tendency toward domination and exploitation is quietly woven into our legal system.

When the UUA was designing the 2012 GA and the various ways our delegates would bear witness against Arizona’s harsh immigration laws, our Arizona partners started talking to our leaders about the Doctrine of Discovery. They said, essentially: the reason state and federal governments and the sheriff’s department can treat us this way, can racially profile us, can raid our neighborhoods, can keep us from accessing our ancestral lands, can tear families apart in the middle of the night is because the United States still believes in the Doctrine of Discovery. They asked us: Will your General Assembly repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery? Will your General Assembly ask your leaders to work with indigenous people to propose a Congressional resolution calling on the US government to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery? Will your General Assembly call upon the US government to fully implement the standards of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples?[7] We said yes. We voted, resoundingly, yes.

This yes is important to me; I hope it’s important to you. This yes meant, first, that as a historically white religious association with a distinct European American heritage we were able to hold ourselves accountable to people of color organizations in Arizona. That’s what it means to be antiracist: white institutional power made accountable to people of color, their institutions, and their organizing for a more just society. But deeper than that: in repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery we said yes to decolonizing our faith. That is, we said yes to a vision of our world free from the violence, oppression, domination and exploitation at the heart of modernity. We said yes to working as Unitarian Universalists to achieve that vision. We said yes, we are ready to wake up to a new way of being in the world—a new way of being whose roots are also ancient.

What is that way of being, asserting itself anew, singing now on the evening breeze, waking with the morning sun? If Professor Farajaje is right—and I believe he is—that one of the central strategies of modern domination was the demonization of the Dark Other, which connects the demonization of the earth to the demonization of women, people of color, indigenous peoples and cultures, immigrants, Jews and Muslims, ‘kweers of all colors,’ and on and on, then this new way of being must point us away from demonization, away from division, away from distancing us from them; it must point us towards balance. The modern world has been out of balance since its inception. We need to regain our balance—our own, internal sense of balance and a collective, global sense of balance.

We need balance between the dark and the light, between the beauty each has to offer, and all the beauty that lies between them. We need balance between day and night, dawn and dusk.

We need balance between our current habits of consumption and what we truly need for living well—a movement away from the fetishizing of material things and the resulting rape of the earth towards more holistic modes, methods, practices and principles of sustainable living, of renewable energy, of reduced carbon footprints—an honest, realistic balance between the needs of humanity and the needs of the earth accountable to generations upon generations into the future.

We need balance between our technological lives and our natural, flesh and blood lives. We need balance between our technological relationships and our natural, face-to-face, body-to-body, person-to-person relationships. We need balance between our online friends and our actual friends.

We need balance between male and female energy, between the beauty each has to offer, and all the beauty that lies between them—indeed, a recognition that male and female not only balance, but blend, mix, merge and cross—a wonderful truth of human diversity—the reason we bear witness at the Transgender Day of Remembrance this Tuesday evening, saying no to the murders of transgender people, and yes to the dignity of transgender lives, yes to the human capacity for changing, transitioning, bending, crossing and queering.

We need balance among all faiths and cultures for a world in which no faith or culture dominates, where each faith and culture has access to the public square, yet where each refrains from imposing itself on the others, where each respects the others, where each seeks to understand the others, where all come together on common ground to work for the ongoing advance of justice and equality for all people and for the earth.

We need balance between the tools of war and the tools of peace, and much greater wisdom when it comes to declaring war.

We need a more just balance of wealth, for a world in which the rich and the poor and not so far from each other, not so unfamiliar to each other, not so disconnected from each other.

This sense of balance is that new way of being that has been asserting itself in these waning days of modernity; that new way of being that has been speaking, calling, singing like the evening breeze, shining like the morning sun. And in fact, it has been with us all long. Have you heard it? Its roots are ancient: It is there in the Tao, yin and yang, wu wei, neti neti, namaste, the middle path, shalom, the great commandment, the Sacred Way. Yet is also new. We have tools, knowledge and insights the ancient masters could never have imagined. So let us awaken from our modern slumbers, open our eyes, rise, stretch, and greet the dawn; and in this new day let us first regain what we have lost—our balance; and then let us begin to refashion the world.

Amen and Blessed Be.



[1] Farajaje-Jones, Elias (now Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajaje) “Queer(y)ing Religious Education: Teaching R(evolutionary) S(ub)-V(ersions)! or Relax! . . . It’s Just Religious Ed”  Unitarian Universalism: Selected Essays, 2001 (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, 2001) pp. 19-20.

[2] See “What is the Doctrine of Discovery?” at http://www.uua.org/multiculturalism/dod/index.shtml. Also, the UUA has produced a helpful introductory video at http://www.uua.org/multiculturalism/dod/199378.shtml.

[4] An English translation of Inter Caetera can be found at http://www.doctrineofdiscovery.org/inter%20caetera.htm.

[5] City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York, 125 S. Ct. 1478, 148384 (2005).

[6] Frichner, Tonya Gonnella, “Impact on Indigenous Peoples of the International Legal Construct Known as the Doctrine of Discovery,” a preliminary study submitted to the United Nations Economic and Social Council, Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, 9th session, February 4th, 2010, p. 19. See: http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/documents/E.C.19.2010.13%20EN.pdf

[7] Language to the UUA Board’s Responsive Resolution for repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery is at http://www.uua.org/statements/statements/209123.shtml.

 


[1] Composer Unknown, “Evening Breeze” Singing the Journey (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 2005) #1072.

September Ministers Column

Dear Ones:

By my calculation, August 15, 2012 marked the beginning of my tenth year serving as UUS:E’s minis­ter. What a blessing it is to be doing work I love with people I love. What a blessing! I can’t thank all of you enough for the love, support and encouragement you’ve given me over the past decade. I’m excited to see how our shared ministry will continue to deepen and grow in the coming year and into the future.

***

Our ministry theme for September is “transitions.” There are some very obvious transitions at this time of year as children and youth head back to school; as tree leaves begin turning and falling; as the land gives forth its final bounty of the year and awaits the coming of winter. For me these autumn transitions evoke a sense of poignancy. I’m feeling it a lot these days. My kids are one year older. Max has a full day of school for the first time. Their childhood is moving quickly now. I recognize how precious this time is. I recognize that I don’t get this time with them back. As much as their transition back to school is fresh and exciting, it is also infused with loss. I suppose this is why our life transitions can be so hard at times. In order to enter a new stage of life, we need to let the previous stage go—and we don’t get it back. We need to accept loss.

So this month I’m wondering what spiritual resources we have at our disposal to meet the challenges of our life transitions. If change alone is unchanging, as Heraklietos said, then how do we change well? I’ll be exploring this question in my September sermons. If you have thoughts about spiritual resources for managing life transitions, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

***

On Sunday, September 23rd, UUS:E is deeply honored to welcome the Rev. Mark Kiyimba into its pul­pit. Mark is the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Kampala, Uganda (also known as New Life Kampala) where he has been a leading voice in the effort to block Uganda’s infamous anti-gay laws. For his courageous work he recently received the National Education Association’s “Virginia Uribe Award for Crea­tive Leadership in Human Rights.” His congregation runs an orphanage and school for children impacted by HIV/AIDS. He is a wonderful speaker with a gentle, caring and fearless presence.  During his time in Con­necticut he will be speaking at a number of other venues including the Charter Oak Cultural Center in Hartford on Thursday evening, September 20th at 7:00 P.M. Please give Rev. Kiyimba a warm welcome when he comes!

With love,

September Ministry Theme

Transitions

The concept of transition seems to be predicated on a binary condition: presence and absence.

The shift from one physical or metaphysical place to another. Indeed, we in the west have a culture of transition. We’re always moving, expected to move, from point A to point B. Perhaps we create this culture because we are moving from birth to death.

The Transitions

Dr. Sandeep Kumar Kar

The state of darkness
accelerates our delight in the sunlight.
The state of stagnation,
glorifies the state of motion.
The taste of nectar is achieved,
after the bee has thoroughly wandered.
The brightness of the sunlight
and their triumph in outshining,
The twinkling stars,
activates my taste
for the cosmic starlight.
The boredom at noon,
increases my delight,
for the games at twilight
The hurly burly of life,
increases my appetite,
towards the divine.
The state of isolation,
increases my inclination for
the poetic expressions.
All these phenomena hum a common rhyme.
The transition glorifies the succession.

Now I Become Myself

by May Sarton

Now I become myself. It’s taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces,
Run madly, as if Time were there,
Terribly old, crying a warning,
“Hurry, you will be dead before–”
(What? Before you reach the morning?
Or the end of the poem is clear?
Or love safe in the walled city?)
Now to stand still, to be here,
Feel my own weight and density!
The black shadow on the paper
Is my hand; the shadow of a word
As thought shapes the shaper
Falls heavy on the page, is heard.
All fuses now, falls into place
From wish to action, word to silence,
My work, my love, my time, my face
Gathered into one intense
Gesture of growing like a plant.
As slowly as the ripening fruit
Fertile, detached, and always spent,
Falls but does not exhaust the root,
So all the poem is, can give,
Grows in me to become the song,
Made so and rooted by love.
Now there is time and Time is young.
O, in this single hour I live
All of myself and do not move.
I, the pursued, who madly ran,
Stand still, stand still, and stop the sun!

Hindus: The First Universalists?

On Sunday morning, June 24th, UUS:E was honored to welcome Dr. A. V. (Sheenu) Srinivasan.

Dr. A. V. (Sheenu) Srinivasan has functioned as a Hindu priest for four decades performing a wide variety of Hindu religious ceremonies of worship, weddings, housewarmings, and bhajans or kirtans. He has written extensively on Hinduism. Dr. Srinivasan’s most recent publication (2011) is Hinduism for Dummies. His publication, The Vedic Wedding: Origins, Tradition and Practice, is widely acclaimed and won the USA Book News 2007 Best Book Award in the category of Eastern Religions. With a contemporary format for Vedic (Hindu) weddings which retains all essential Vedic rites in an hour long ceremony, he has blended this approach with those of other creeds in many interfaith weddings. In addition, he has published a series of booklets on “How to Conduct Puja to …” providing simple set of instructions to perform a worship ceremony to Soorya (Sun god), Shiva, Rama, Krishna, Ganapati, Durga, Lakshmi, Saraswati and the Navagrahas (nine planets).

A popular writer and speaker, Dr. Srinivasan has published/presented numerous papers on a variety of cultural, social and religious issues in the U.S. and India. He has given courses on the classical literature of India at the University of Connecticut and Wesleyan University. Principal founder member of the Connecticut Valley Hindu Temple Society in 1979, he also founded the Raga Club of Connecticut in 2006.

The text to his sermon is below. We were also blessed to welcome  Joseph Getter, who offered traditional music from Southern India on the bamboo flute.

Hindus: The First Universalists: Audio Version (click here to listen to the MP3 or right-click or command-click to save)

 

Hindus: The Earliest Universalists?

by Dr. Sheenu Srinivasan*

Moksha and Hindus

For Hindus the goal of life is moksha or liberation from the wheel of rebirth. Ancient Hindu
sages sought to define the path towards moksha through the centuries. The most relevant
question in this context was posed in a compelling episode in the second Hindu epic, the
Mahabharata. The hero of the epic, prince Yudhishtira was challenged with this question:

“What is the path?”

His answer:

What great men have followed –THAT is the path
Because arguments are futile, the Vedas are complex
and different, no single saint has the whole truth and
the truth is mysteriously hidden

This prescription is simple, practical and straightforward and results from several centuries of
attempts by Hindu sages to seek answers to one of the most vexing questions pertaining to
individual liberation. Hindu ancestors, we are told, busied themselves in addressing the
fundamental problems of life: Who are we? Why are we here? Why do we die? Is there a
purpose to life? Who controls our life? Questions for which humanity is still seeking
answers.

The Revelations: They “heard it”

While Hindu ancestors contemplated fundamental questions about life on this earth, we learn
that their penance resulted in certain truths revealed to them and these are
referred to as Shruti. They comprise the most sacred scriptures of the Hindus: the Vedas. The
word Veda means knowledge.

The most fundamental truth emerging out of the penance on the banks of the river Indus is
described by the Indologist Sir Monier Monier-Williams (1819-1899) as “a creed based on
an original, simple, pantheistic doctrine, …” (See HINDUISM, Society for Promoting
Christian Knowledge, 1906, page 11). This meant that the earliest thought about a belief
system identified a Supreme Spirit. It excluded nothing. By definition it included all living
and non-living, ugly and beautiful, noble and evil, gentle and harsh, sophisticated and crude,
darkness and light … EVERYTHING.

This supreme spirit is identified as Brahman, a universal spirit that is always referred to as
“It” and not as a He or a She; this is the basis for the famous saying: Tat-Tvamasi i.e. Thou
art That, meaning “You are verily Brahman.” Brahman was understood to be the only thing
real in the universe. All else is therefore unreal, false or illusory and untrue. Brahman sounds like an abstract entity, but is entirely real and in every sense the Supreme Soul, Supreme
Being, Creator, the One and Only Reality. And if some wanted to call it God, so be it.
This pantheistic doctrine led to the firm declaration: ekameva advitiyam i.e. ‘There is but one
without a second’ referring to Brahman. The root word for Brahman is (brh) ‘to grow’ to
indicate infinite growth and expansion of the concept, from visible living or non-living
objects at the lowest level to the highest forms including humans. Brahman has no form.
Brahman is everywhere, the pure and formless One, limitless and all-pervading; the
Almighty and All-merciful. Think of this concept as each of us representing a ray of light
from that great source of light. Hindus believe that we are Brahman; (aham brahmasmi) i.e.
“I am Spirit” makes that assertion.

However, that belief comes with a very important caveat which ends up being the most basic
identifier of our life as humans. And that caveat is that when we are born as humans, we
inherit what I refer to as Brahman plus. The plus is known as maya (illusion) that comes with
the package. The illusion lets us forget our true nature that we are truly Brahman and
therefore our identification is not with the Supreme Spirit but something incredibly less
significant and reduced to a mere “ I ” identifying with the physical body and mind. This
illusion is like impurities that may creep in while developing a pure metal. These impurities
need to be removed to enjoy the beauty of the pure metal. Or think of this illusion as a
coating on this brilliant diamond that is the Brahman within us. Think of this as the cocoon a
caterpillar builds using its own saliva and imprisons itself. This saliva and the resulting
cocoon are the results of our actions and therefore need to be controlled. Hindu philosophy proclaims that we can remove this coating, this illusion and recognize our true self. Swami Vivekananda stated this eloquently in his speech to the Parliament of Religions in Chicago on September 11, 1893.

“Here I stand and if I shut my eyes, and try to conceive my existence, “I”, “I”, “I”, what is the
idea before me? The idea of a body? Am I, then, nothing but a combination of material
substances? The Vedas declare, “No”. “I am a spirit living in a body. I am not the body. The
body will die, but I shall not die. Here am I in this body; it will fall, but I shall go on living.”

From the One to the very many

But this was too abstract to some and therefore the attempts to visualize something more
tangible came about. Personifying and deifying components of this universe became a Hindu
specialty. When we step on the earth after waking up, we beg forgiveness from goddess
Mother Earth for stepping on her. We chant our salutations to the divinities in the seven
sacred rivers as we bathe. We salute Prana, the sacred breath of life when we partake food.
Thus we also tend to associate rituals with everything we do including as routine a step as
eating. The Upanishads warn us to be aware of the fundamentals and not be distracted by
mere rituals. Rituals and worships and ceremonies are and should be just a first step towards
realization.

Sir Monier Monier Williams (ibid) explains this development as follows:

“It is a creed based on an original, simple, pantheistic doctrine, but branching out into an
endless variety of polytheistic superstitions. Like the sacred fig-tree of India, which from a
single stem sends out numerous branches destined to send roots to the ground and become
trees themselves, till the parent stock is lost in a dense forest of its own offshoots, so has this
pantheistic creed rooted itself firmly in the Hindu mind, and spread its ramifications so
luxuriantly that the simplicity of its root-dogma is lost in an exuberant outgrowth of
monstrous mythology.”

True. But that is the price to pay when individual preferences towards a goal are respected!
And the “root-dogma” is not quite lost.

Seeking alternatives to the intellectual pursuit

From that most fundamental doctrine of The One, the ancients observed, with a sense of awe
and reverence, life sustaining natural forces such as the sun, the wind, rain, fire, and so on.
They could have stayed with that sophisticated, abstract concept of the universe, the supreme
spirit. But they did not. They needed more than philosophy.

So the ancients worshipped these natural forces. They bathed in the rivers. Lifting a handful
of water and looking at the sun, they offered it to him. They built a fire and made offerings to
the fire. They worshipped trees, animals, planets and even hand made tools used in
enterprises. When a Hindu stands before a deity and offers worship, the core belief that that
worship is to The One is in the background of the mind. An often quoted part of a verse in
the Rg. Veda (ekam sat vipra: bahudha vadanti) proclaims that “Truth is One but the wise
express it many ways.”

The basics are intact

In its August 31, 2009 issue, Newsweek proclaimed that “We are all Hindus now”. The
billion plus Hindus around the world may not have thought that but probably nod in
agreement. Hinduism, the mother of all religions, has a unique perspective on life and has as
its adherents a broad spectrum of people who span from the extremely orthodox immersed in
elaborate ritual worship to those who openly declare that they do not believe in God. The late
Swami Satchidananda of Woodstock fame used to say about the latter group: “That is what
they believe in!” They were not excluded.

Chapter 6, verse 72 of the Mahopanishad declares with no ambiguity

ayam bandhurayam neti laghuchetasam
udara caritanam tu vasudhaiva kutumbakam

This is my relative and that is a stranger is what small minded persons think, but for the
magnanimous the whole world is a family.

That the whole world is a family with each member of that family a Brahman is a Hindu
belief that connects the individual with the vast universe.

Therefore when I see you as audience, I notice you do not all look alike of course, but you
are indeed alike when I identify you with that “free, unbounded, holy, pure, and perfect”
souls.

A parable

That ability to see the real you comes with study and constant reminder of the true nature of
man. That ability is there in each of us and we need to remind ourselves of that reality
frequently. The Upanishadic mandate is unquestionably to begin that spiritual journey and
rise above mere rituals. To illustrate that spiritual journey I made up the following scenario in
my book:

You’re climbing some rock-cut steps to an ancient temple on a hill. But this temple is not to a
deity. It has no priests. It has no bells to ring, and you do not bring any offerings beyond your
self in body and spirit. As you climb, at each step, one after another, you discard a dogma.
You reject ritualistic approaches. You sweat through the futility of pride and vanity and settle
for humility. You seek satisfaction beyond pleasure of the senses — something deeper.
As you climb higher and higher, you recognize that ignorance of your real nature is the
source of all problems, so your goal is to destroy ignorance. Another step up and you realize
that you do not need to abandon anything but simply remain detached! As the ancient Hindus
said, real knowledge and infinite joy are yours, and they didn’t mince words. And with the
next step, you realize that simply believing is not enough; you must experience it yourself.
Yourself. One more step, and you rise above mere intellect and stand on the threshold of a
mystic experience with your heart and intuition tuned to that experience. Experience and only
experience counts here on this hill.

The sanctum sanctorum—the holiest of holy places—at this temple contains Bliss. Yes, bliss.
That is what the ancient Hindus considered worth living (dying?) for. Bliss is your birth
right, proclaims the Upanishads. Your interest is nothing but spiritual illumination. You have
entered the temple of the Upanishads. You have reached the source of joy. Now you can
begin your earnest inquiry into the ultimate Truth.

With this background I may perhaps summarize our core beliefs:

1. In general Hinduism has no hierarchy: No person who is the equivalent of a pope.
2. We have no single book. The Four Vedas, the Upanishads, the two major epics and
the Bhagavad Gita provide lessons and examples.
3. No concept of original sin – only of karma: a bank of good deeds and bad deeds with
consequences which follow an individual from one life cycle to the next until a pure
life allows one to escape rebirth.
4. Modern Hinduism or Vedanta puts stress on being and not simply believing
5. Through 5,000 years and more, absorbing every ritual and idea that has arisen or
arrived on Indian soil,
6. This tolerant view leads not just to recognition of the validity of different faiths but
other choices.
7. Nature plays an important role in Hindu worship.
8. Hinduism does not believe in proselytization. It lets you be. The philosopher
statesman Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan said in his book The Hindu View of Life,
“Hinduism requires every man to think steadily on life’s mystery until he reaches the
highest revelation. While the lesser forms (including idols and images) are tolerated
in the interests of those who cannot suddenly transcend them, there is all through an
insistence on the larger idea of purer worship … Every man has a right to choose that
form of belief and worship which most appeals to him … Hinduism is not a sect but a
fellowship of all who accept the law of right and earnestly seek for the truth.”

These fundamental beliefs have paved the way for the Hindu towards development of a
philosophical outlook on life. These fundamentals comprise a code of behavior that form the
contemporary Hindu view of life that Dr. Radhakrishnan says is “an attempt to discover the
ideal possibilities of human life”.

So our approaches and beliefs may be somewhat different or in some aspects, quite different,
but we are indeed one because in each of us there is a soul that is perfect and eternal. That is
the uniting factor that brings us together as a community. That community spirit is especially
needed now as we face very trying times with close to 50% of our population facing poverty,
with student loans exceeding a trillion and the approval rate for the congress is less that 10%.
The Supreme Court ruled that corporations are people too, breathing just like you and me.
Day in day out we are bombarded with a lot of noise on television, radio and newspapers,
whose intent it may not be, but its effect surely is, to divide us and discourage us. The
institutions on which society must depend on seem to be falling apart. While I don’t want to
dwell on these aspects at length here this morning, suffice it to say that the most reliable
umbrella under which we can and must now gather and seek shelter to come together as a
community of concerned citizens. Under that umbrella we can gain strength once again,
achieve a certain level of quiet and tranquility and try to restore ourselves to a level
normalcy.

I find your philosophy so close to Hindu thought; I could not do better than quote a single
paragraph from a speech by Swami Vivekananda which sums up the outlook of Hindus, like
nothing else written by anyone, anywhere and at any time. On September 11, 1893, Swami
Vivekananda addressing the Parliament of Religions in Chicago said “… if there is ever to be
a universal religion, it must be one which will have no location in time or place; which will
be infinite, like the God it will preach, and whose sun will shine upon the followers of
Krishna and Christ, on saints and sinners alike; which will not be Brahminical or Buddhist,
Christian or Mohammedan, but the sum total of all of these, and still have infinite space for
development; which in its catholicity will embrace in its infinite arms, and find a place for
every human being, …. It will be a religion which will have no place for persecution or
intolerance in its polity, which will recognize divinity in every man and woman, and whose
whole scope, whose whole force, will be centered in aiding humanity to realize its own true
and divine nature.”

With that I salute you for giving me this opportunity to be among you.
_____________________________________________________________________
*www.avsrinivasan.com

No Greater Love (or Not Your Kind of People)

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Watch video here.

Last month the rock band Garbage released its most recent album entitled “Not Your Kind of People.”[1] The lyrics to the title track seem so relevant to what I want to say this morning that I’ve decided to share them with you as a starting place:

We are not your kind of people / You seem kind of phoney / everything’s a lie  / We are not your kind of people  / Something in your makeup / don’t see eye to eye / We are not your kind of people / Don’t want to be like you ever in our lives. . . . We are not your kind of people / Speak a different language / We see through your lies  / We are not your kind of people / Won’t be cast as demons / creatures you despise.[2]

I don’t know if the band intends to convey a specific meaning with these lyrics or if they are describing a specific situation. It isn’t clear. I assume at some level they want listeners to find their own meaning and apply it to their own situation. Although the music is gentle (especially for Garbage) the lyrics convey a strong—even harsh—sentiment. We are not your kind of people conveys a feeling of disconnection, separation, alienation—a feeling, even, of brokenness in the human family. It’s akin to the feeling—a mixed feeling to be sure—that arose in me when I watched the film, “No Greater Love,” a 2009 Lionsgate and Thomas Nelson film. (Thomas Nelson is the world’s largest Christian book publisher and is Lionsgate’s exclusive distributor to the Christian entertainment markets.)[3] I don’t normally watch films like this. Alan and Kathy Ayers suggested it to me as background for this sermon which they purchased at last year’s goods and services auction. Alan and Kathy wouldn’t normally watch a film like this either. They watched it thinking it was something else.

Here’s the story-line: in a haze of alcohol and drug-use a young woman, Heather, walks out on her marriage and new-born baby due to her depression and disappears.  Ten years later her “ex” husband, Jeff (who she’d known since childhood), accidentally runs into her again when he sends his son to a summer Bible camp where she is working. They start to get to know each other again.  In turns out that during those ten years of separation Heather has become an evangelical Christian. She’s been saved in the traditional sense. Jeff, who is not religious in any sense, realizes he is still in love with Heather and calls off his engagement to another woman. But Heather’s minister, Chris, tells Jeff they can’t be together because he is a non-believer. (That’s when the not your kind of people feeling started rising in me.) This upsets Jeff; but then he reveals that he never actually executed divorce papers—he and Heather are still legally married. Now Pastor Chris tells them they have to stay together based on their church’s interpretation of Biblical law: under any circumstances marriage is better than divorce.  (We can assume they wouldn’t apply this standard to same-sex marriage, or in the event one of the partners underwent sexual reassignment surgery—that would be a very different movie entirely!) Heather is concerned that her unbelieving husband won’t allow her to practice her Christian faith. Jeff is concerned that Heather is now only staying in the marriage because the Bible and her pastor demand it.

I suspect most people can watch this film and, no matter what spiritual or religious beliefs they profess, get caught up in its romantic plot, and really root for Jeff and Heather to be in love and to be together. I certainly wanted a happy ending. What Alan and Kathy are reacting to, at least on the surface, if I understand what they’ve said, is the role of the pastor and church law and what appears to be Heather’s inability to think for herself beyond trying to fit herself into the framework her church and the Bible demand. And right there is the border between conservative religious people and liberal religious people. There are many ways to describe this border, but in this case the conservative religious person looks to some external authority—the Bible, the Ten Commandments, church law, the minister, a transcendent God—and the liberal religious person looks to some internal authority—conscience, reason, personal experience, “the still small voice in me”[4] as we just sang, “that place inside where we know our truth,” an imminent God, an inner sense of the divine. In this case the conservative religious person assumes the situation is black and white, that a definitive, correct answer exists, and can be found through a careful reading of scripture and church law—and the minister is the expert in these matters, or at least should be. The liberal religious person encounters a whole lot of gray and will search through that gray looking not for the “right” answer but for what is hopefully the “best” answer given all the nuances of the situation. The liberal minister’s job is to help the individual discern their best answer.

While the differences are more complex than I’ve just described them—some liberal religious people would identify more with what I’ve described as conservative; some conservative religious people would identify more with what I’ve described as liberal—they are very real.  Because of them, liberal religious people typically experience conservative religious people as unthinking and irrational. Conservative religious people typically experience liberal religious people as not actually religious, as non-believers, postmodern, relativistic, rudderless, etc. There’s a border here. (Remember: borders is our ministry theme for June.) It cuts through countries, states, cities, towns, neighborhoods, workplaces, schools and families. From the perspective on either side of that border it is quite possible to feel we are not your kind of people.

Kathy and Alan asked me to preach on how, as Unitarian Universalists, as liberal religious people, we can best relate to people like Heather and her minister when we encounter them.  How can we relate to people who live on the other side of this border from us? How can we respect beliefs that at times seem illogical or irrational to us?  How do we accept people who hold those beliefs? How can we resist the temptation to judge?  Even in suggesting these kinds of questions, Kathy said she felt she was coming across as arrogant—but said it seemed like the same kind of arrogance she feels conservative religious people direct at her liberal religious identity.  So that’s the question: how do we relate across the religious border?

I’m pretty sure the capacity to relate across religious borders—and across many of the borders that divide people from people—doesn’t come to us naturally. It takes practice. It requires patience. We need to work at it. And I think we acquire it through a developmental process. That is, we develop the capacity to relate well across religious borders as we move beyond an initial sense of excitement about our own faith, an initial sense of pride in our own faith, an initial sense of feeling special because of our own faith to a deeper place of humility, a recognition that our faith is one of many, that there is room within a family, a neighborhood, a workplace, a school, a town, a city, a state, a nation, a planet for many faiths. None is set above. None is set below. None is set apart as special. It’s a movement from pride to humility.

The film “No Greater Love” does not reach that humble place and that’s not why it was made. The proof is in the title. There’s the romantic meaning, which has to do with how Jeff and Heather feel about each other. And then there’s the Biblical meaning. I read to you the Bible verse that contains this phrase, John 15:13, “there is no greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” In the film nobody lays down their life for their friends, not even remotely.  So, it seems like a bad title. But if you read the next few verses it becomes clear why this title might make sense. Jesus says: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.”[5] In my experience this is one of those Bible passages often used to justify an attitude of Christian exceptionalism. Not always, but often. Jesus says: “I chose you.” I didn’t choose everyone. I chose you. This is not universalism. This is exceptionalism.  And all through the film, although the characters don’t use the language of chosen-ness, they say it in many ways: We’re different. We’re special. There’s something about us that sets us apart from other people. Can’t you see? And Jeff, the unbeliever, who wants to be with the believing Heather, begins to see this difference; he sees that Heather’s faith has helped her resolve the problems that led her to leave him in the first place, and he admires it. He says, essentially, “I want what you have.”

There’s nothing wrong with a movie studio making a movie like this. There’s nothing wrong with people being excited about their faith, proud of their faith, even feeling special because of their faith. But let’s be clear: humility is a sign of a mature faith, and this is not humility. This film sets Christians—and a certain kind of Christian at that—apart and above other people. Despite its pleasant, romantic vibe, it contributes to a strengthening of the religious border by proclaiming we are not your kind of people. And that’s why liberal religious people, including liberal Christians, might react negatively.

To emphasize this last point, let me be clear: I am not suggesting that religious exceptionalism is somehow unique to religious conservatives. We religious liberals have our own version of it. It’s perhaps more subtle than the religious conservative version, because the language we typically use to describe our liberal faith expresses an openness to other religions, an embrace of religious pluralism. Our Unitarian and Universalist roots inform us all are chosen, all are welcome, all matter, all possess inherent worth and dignity regardless of who they are, what they believe, who they love, how they live. This is beautiful. It’s exciting. It fills me with pride. It makes me feel special. But I am also aware the line between humility is thin. If I’m not vigilant I can very easily fall into that place of assuming my faith is the more enlightened faith. My faith sets me apart. My faith is forged in the crucible of my life experience, my intuition, my reasoning mind, not a set of ancient books that tell an exaggerated if not false history of the ancient Near East and promote a patriarchal culture whose values run completely counter to modern, democratic principles. My faith emerges from the story of my life, from the place inside of me where my truth resides, where I discern and connect to the Sacred, not from a church doctrine designed to control the people, to wage a war on women, to make sexual minorities invisible by preventing them from achieving full legal status, or to inspire holy war against perceived infidels. Can you hear it? I believe the sentences I’ve just uttered are true; they express who I am; they express my social, political and spiritual commitments. But let’s be honest: they can also be heard as an expression of liberal religious exceptionalism.

This is primarily because of the words I chose to use. I emphasized who I am not as much as who I am. I said “not in a set of ancient books” and then spoke about those ancient books in a condescending way. I said “not from a church doctrine,” and then implied that church doctrine is responsible for a whole host of social evils. I built my faith up while tearing the faith of others down. It’s divisive language, it’s fighting language, it’s us vs. them language, its exceptionalist language. It’s not empty rhetoric, but it is rhetoric all the same. It’s easy. I’m pretty good at it. There’s something satisfying about it. But it’s not humble. And it’s not effective if the goal is to relate well across the border.

Meeting the challenge of relating well across the religious border does not require us to change our liberal religious values. It does not require us to moderate our excitement about our liberal faith tradition, or our pride in it, or the way it might make us feel special and grounded and whole. The first step towards spiritual humility at the border is speaking our truth without denigrating others. My faith emerges from the crucible of my life experience, my intuition, my reasoning mind. It is consistent with modern democratic principles: freedom, liberty, human rights. My faith emerges from the story of my life, from the place inside of me where my truth resides, where I discern and connect to the Sacred. It leads me to support reproductive rights for women and families, equal pay for equal work, civil rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. It leads me to reject war and other forms of violence as methods for resolving conflict. It’s the same statement, but it doesn’t intentionally create an us and a them. It says who I am without criticizing who I am not.

But even more important than this is our capacity to bring curiosity to the border; to bring a genuine desire to learn about people who live across the border and to become well-versed in the religious ways of the world. Curiosity does not necessarily change who we are, but it does challenge us to clarify and deepen who we are. How different it would have been—and how much more authentic—if the character of Jeff has said, “Wow, Heather really believes the Bible is true. She strives to conduct her life in response to it. Well, what is true for me? Where do my truths come from? To what truth does my life respond?” Learning another’s faith enables us to become more of who we are, not less. Learning another’s faith challenges us to clarify and deepen our own faith; it challenges us to become more mature in our faith; and it calls us to humility as we approach the borders of our lives.

I suspect it is true there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends or one’s family. But in an age when we are so prone to exceptionalism, often without even realizing it; in an age when we are so divided, especially by religion; in an age when our borders are places of tension and conflict, cheap rhetoric, and deep feelings of  “not your kind of people,” I say it is also a sign of our desire to be more loving, more compassionate, more connected, more related, more peaceful when we approach the borders of our lives with humility, as curious searchers, and as people with strong opinions who may nevertheless be able to find common ground with those who believe differently. It may not be the greatest love, but it is an essential love for our time.

Amen and Blessed be.



[1] For more information on Garbage and “Not Your Kind of People, “ explore:  http://garbage.com/ and  http://www.amazon.com/Not-Your-Kind-People-Deluxe/dp/B007H9B8FS.

[2] Check out the song, “Not Your Kind of People” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zEClCAFjYHg.

[4] Denham, Shelly Jackson, “Blessed Spirit of My Life,” Singing the Living Tradition, (Boston: Beacon Press and the Unitarian Universalist Association, 1993 # 86.

[5] John 15: 13-16.

The Unified Principles of Our Faith

On Sunday morning, January 8th, UUS:E was honored to welcome Imam Kashif Abdul-Karim, resident Imam of the Muhammad Islamic Center of Greater Hartford, into its pulpit. The text to his khutbah (sermon) is below. We were also blessed to welcome Mr. Bashir Labanga, who offered a traditional Muslim call to prayer. You can listen here:

Bashir Labanga, Call to Prayer, UUS:E, 1-8-12

Video here.

Imam Kashif Abdul-Karim

The Unified Principles of Our Faith

Islam is a religion that many people believe has its origins in the city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia. But true students of Islam know that the religion of Islam has its origins in the establishment of the creation. Muslims believe there are only two things that exist: The Creator and the creation. We believe the creator is God and the creation is Muslim. God is not in any part of the creation but the supreme creator over creation. We also believe that the creation itself is Muslim. This means the stars, the moon, the trees, human beings, all that exist is Muslim. Regardless of what we may call ourselves, be it Christian, Jew, or other, we are all Muslim. We believe this to be true because Muslim means one who submits to the will of God.

The Arabic term gets in the way. If I asked you if you are one who submits to the will of God you would say yes. But if I asked the same question using an Arabic term–are you Muslim?–many of you would say no. We are told in the Quran, the holy book of the Muslim, that everything is Muslim. “Everything submits willingly or unwillingly to God.” We believe it is in our universal nature, and in our universal origin to do so. So through this basic understanding we see a shared guiding principle. We have a universal brotherhood with all of mankind, and also a universal relationship with creation and with God. In Islam this concept is called “tawheed”. It is the basic understanding of the oneness of God and the oneness of creation. This means we must also respect the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We must respect the inherent good that God has placed in the “fitrah” nature of all of creation, this nature of excellence. We do not believe that man is inherently evil, but that he is inherently good. We do not believe in original sin or in sin that is transferable from one soul to the next. We believe no soul bears the burden of another. However we do believe we are our brother’s keepers. So we believe we should protect the inherent worth that God has established in human beings.

We must stand for justice and equity and have true compassion for one another. In Islam we believe this is an inherent right that God has established for not only human beings but for all of creation. The body has rights over us, just as the soul has rights over us. The whole of creation has rights as well. We should be environmentalist. God has established rights for water, trees, and the environment at large. We are told that we should not waste, not do anything in excess, such as cutting down trees beyond our needs, or running water wastefully.  To be reminded of these concepts, God has named himself after these attributes. We call him by 99 Names from the Quran. God is named The Just, The Compassionate, The Equitable, and The Source of Peace. These attributes are attributes that we as Muslims are told to strive towards.  The goal of God as stated in your principles and ours, are for a world community of peace, liberty, and justice for all.

 

In Al-Islam we are told in our holy book that we will all be judged by our books. Unlike many of our brothers and sisters in the Abrahamic faith we believe there is a variety of doors to God. We believe in God’s openness and diversity in faith.

God says in the Quran in Sura 2:Ayat 62:

(Y. Ali) Those who believe (in the Qur’an), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians,- any who believe in Allah and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.

God goes further in Sura 5, Ayat 48 (Y. Ali) to stress the universal brotherhood of the prophets and the continuity of revelation:

5:48 To thee We sent the Scripture in truth, confirming the scripture that came before it, and guarding it in safety: so judge between them by what Allah hath revealed, and follow not their vain desires, diverging from the Truth that hath come to thee. To each among you have we prescribed a law and an open way. If Allah had so willed, He would have made you a single people, but (His plan is) to test you in what He hath given you: so strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of you all is to Allah. it is He that will show you the truth of the matters in which ye dispute.

As we examine this brotherhood in scripture and in prophecy we should see the need to accept one another and encourage each other’s spiritual growth, for it brings us closer to finding the higher truths that God has established for mankind. It should also instill in us a respect for the interdependent web of God’s full creation.

I was born a Muslim by nature but I was raised as a Southern Baptist. My mother introduced me to Christianity in Rockingham, North Carolina. This is my answer when people tell me I should go back where I came from.

As a college student I had an innate passion for African American History and Social justice. I was president of the African American Cultural Center and president of the Black Student Association at UConn. All my research and courses I attached to “my people” and to social change. When I researched my history I found that my ancestors had come from the west coast of Africa. This is true for most African Americans. The most interesting finding in my research was that the slaves who came to America came to America as Muslims. This was a great surprise; I had to find why this was kept out of the general African American history books. What were the Secrets in The Quran and in The Religion that were hidden so well? I concluded it was the aspects of freedom, justice and equality that Islam taught. I found that Islam offered me a way to address social justice and to serve God. This is the essence of my faith and I’m sure aspects of my faith resonate with your faith as well.

The question then arises, if what I have said is true, why do we see so much oppression in the world from Muslims. Why do we see shariah laws that are oppressing people around the world and even Muslims? The simplest answer is illiteracy, cultural baggage being promoted over religion and the political agendas of countries being denied there humanity, having these agendas of the suffering forced upon religious leadership.

Illiteracy is as high as 70 percent in some Muslim countries. It is higher in parts of Africa and among Women. Many Muslims are unable to understand the Quran in their own languages. They can recite the Arabic by memory but many are unable to translate the meaning into a language they can understand. Many Muslims are therefore dependent on scholars and sheiks to tell them what the Quran means. So words like jihad that mean internal struggle between good and evil can come to mean “Holy wars against the infidels”. The word jihad is never used in the Quran for war. It is used to deal with internal spiritual conflict. It is used for holy wars by the prophet only during times of self defense, not aggression. A Muslim is told that he can only engage in war when he is being denied the freedom of his religion or in periods of oppression. The same founding principles were hailed by Patrick Henry when he said “Give me liberty or give me death.” These are the same basic elements found in the US Constitution that we as Americans value and for which we have sacrificed.

As Muslims we have a democratic process that was in place 1400 years ago. It is called Shura. It is a process that supports elections and voting, a process that gave women the right to inheritance, council, divorce and a voice in community life. This did not occur in America until the 1940s. The concept of democracy is a deeply entrenched Islamic principle but it is based on limited freedoms. We are free to engage in good and support good but immoral things we are not free to engage in or support. The majority is not always right in Islam, if the final vote is unjust. We see this evident in our congress and in our senate. Look at what the house has voted for in terms of healthcare, and the detainment of US citizens without due process. The majority wins but the outcomes are not just and not Islamic.

Muslims lean on Shariah law for direction. Shariah is what all people of faith lean on for guidance whether they are Muslim, Jewish or Christian. As the issue of shariah is being addressed in this country its implications impact Jews as well as Muslims. This is a common concern that Muslims and Jews could deal with together. Shariah literally means the path to the water hole. When we consider the importance of a well-trodden path to a source of water for man and beast in the dry desert environment, we can appreciate why this term could have become a metaphor for a whole way of life ordained by God. Shariah law, like all laws, is based on interpretation. When good men interpret the law it produces good. When evil men interpret the law it can produce evil. This is true in the American judicial system as well. Muslims need to understand that the application of Shariah law may have different applications in America than other places. Shariah is derived from two primary sources of Islamic law: the precepts set forth in the Quran, and the example set by the prophet Muhammad in the Sunnah. This is similar to the Jews obeying the Torah and the instructions of Moses. To deny Muslims the shariah is to deny the Muslims the Quran and the prophet.

Muslims have been part of the American fabric for 500 years. Muslims have been on the plantations of the south, merged into Native American culture, fought in the civil war, excelled in sports, entertainment and many fields of science. However, negative reaction to the flux of immigrants, racism, and the horrid pictures of 911 continue to distort the good picture of the American people and what we stand for. Terrorist will win if we stop being the America we are proud of. If we lose our morality, our element of freedom, and our appreciation for diversity the terrorists will win. Their goal was to make America a lie. We the faithful must keep the morality of the just in front. So it is our prayer that God strengthens us and empowers us to move towards his good. We ask all the people supporting the spirit of truth to help us in this work. Let us begin by asking the people to say:

Amin

 

 

When Worlds Collide: Countering Islamophobia

Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek

Preface: See Rev. Josh’s May 30th blog post on the annual conference of the Islamic Circle of North America and the Muslim American Society here.

“Moderation in religion…offers no bulwark against religious extremism and religious violence.”[1] The words of Sam Harris[2]: American pubic intellectual, best-selling author, blogger, one of the so-called “New Atheists,” and co-founder and CEO of Project Reason, a nonprofit foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society.[3] “Moderation in religion…offers no bulwark against religious extremism and religious violence.”[4] I disagree. He says: “The problem that religious moderation poses for all of us is that it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism.”[5] I disagree. In fact, religious moderates, by whatever name we call them—they have many names and many denominational identities including Unitarian Universalism—when acting courageously; when speaking truthfully in response to religious extremists; when living out of and into a prophetic vision of religious pluralism and interfaith cooperation; when using the tactics of nonviolence grounded in the ethic of “love your neighbor and your enemy as yourself; and when nurturing (as we heard earlier in the Islamic Circle of North America’s Interfaith Statement[6]) a politics of justice, an economics of fairness, and a covenant of community; when doing all these things; when functioning as we ought to be functioning, when living as we ought to be living, religious moderates offer, in my view, the only serious, long-term, sustainable bulwark against religious extremism and religious violence.

I had heard of Sam Harris; I’d never felt compelled to read his work. Then Stan McMillen purchased a sermon at our 2010 goods and services auction and e asked me to preach in response to Harris’ 2004 book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason. Stan had two intersecting ideas in mind. First, he accepts Harris’ view that religion—especially in its fundamentalist and extremist forms—can and often does wreak havoc in the world. Second, while Harris has no love for any religion, he holds unique—and what I consider to be misguided—contempt for Islam. Stan wanted me to address this aspect of Harris’ thinking out of his own deep concern about the rise of Islamophobia in the United States. Thank you, Stan, for this suggestion.

I begin with Islamophobia. Our Muslim-American friends live today with a pervasive sense of anxiety, fear and anger due to widespread and increasing anti-Islamic activities and sentiments. The most recent increase has come in the wake of House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee Chairman, Peter King’s hearings on what he calls the “radicalization” of American Muslims. Those hearings began in March.[7] King points to the increase in home-grown terrorist plots, including an incident last May when a Connecticut man drove a car bomb into Times Square. King’s opponents, among whom I place myself, contend it is not fair to single out an entire religion for such high profile interrogation. Yes, there are terrorists who are Muslims, just like there are terrorists who are Christians or Jews. But a hearing like Representative King’s turns this equation around, sending a not-so-subtle message that all Muslims are worthy of interrogation, that Muslims in general are—or, at least could be—terrorists. This blanket stereotyping of all Muslims is one face of Islamophobia.

There are many more faces. You likely remember the loud chorus of Anti-Islamic sentiment that swept through the nation last summer as debate raged over the proposed building of an Islamic cultural center and mosque near the site of the 9-11 terrorist attacks in lower Manhattan. Mark Williams, then-chairman of the Tea Party Express, called the proposed prayer space “a mosque for the worship of the terrorists’ monkey god.”[8] Again, turning the equation around.

You likely remember the Rev. Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainsville, FL, threatening last fall to burn a Koran and then finally doing it this past March. You may remember last September when Imam Kashif Abdul-Karim of the Muhammad Islamic Center of Greater Hartford was invited to pray for the opening of a Hartford City Council meeting, and then uninvited due to the protests of a few local hot heads. You may remember last summer when members of Operation Save America held a protest at a mosque in Bridgeport, confronting worshippers and shouting “Islam is a lie” and “Jesus hates Muslims.” Flip Benham, the protest leader, yelled at worshippers with his bullhorn, “This is a war in America and we are taking it to the mosques around the country.”[9] This particular protest gained notoriety as one protestor yelled “Murderers!” at a group of young children who were leaving the mosque.

These are a few examples of what we encounter in the media. There are many more that are not so public. Last fall, when our “Neighboring Faiths” class visited the mosque in Berlin, CT, home to the Islamic Association of Greater Hartford, our young people were stunned to hear stories from Muslim children about regular visits to their homes from FBI agents. Imam Kashif confirmed for me that such visits to mosques and homes are a regular feature of Muslim life in Connecticut.

Then there is a 2011 report compiled by Thomas Cincotta of Political Research Associates that finds that United States “government agencies responsible for domestic security have inadequate mechanisms to ensure quality and consistency in terrorism preparedness training provided by private vendors; public servants are regularly presented with misleading, inflammatory, and dangerous information about the nature of the terror threat through highly politicized seminars, industry conferences, trade publications, and electronic media. In place of sound skills training and intelligence briefings, [an] influential sub-group of the private counterterrorism training industry markets conspiracy theories about secret jihadi campaigns to replace the U.S. Constitution with Sharia law, and effectively impugns all of Islam—a world religion with 1.3 billion adherents—as inherently violent and even terroristic.”[10] The equation gets turned around. Some terrorists are Muslims so quickly and unreasonably becomes All Muslims are terrorists. And it’s worse than that. The report describes one trainer, Walid Shoebat, saying in a speech to the International Counter-Terrorism Officers Association in Las Vegas last October, that the way to solve the threat of violent, militant Muslims is to “kill them, including the children.”[11] The report warns that such messages will result in law enforcement officers conducting biased intelligence analysis, stereotyping and profiling, unlawful searches, illegal surveillance, hate crimes and silencing free speech.[12]

There’s much more, but I’ll stop there. For me, all of this confirms that American Muslims are quite justified in feeling fear, anxiety and anger. Islamophobia is increasing in the United States and, friends, it is wrong. Its presence in our public discourse, in the halls of government, in the media, in our counter-terrorism trainings, on street corners in front of mosques; and in unnecessary FBI visits to the homes of law-abiding citizens reflects our nation at its worst—at the height of its arrogance and the depth of its ignorance. In the very least I feel called to work with my Muslim colleagues and friends to nurture a United States that is more welcoming towards Muslims, more knowledgeable about Islam, more nuanced in its appraisal of what constitutes an enemy, and far less beholden to the false assumption of its own purity and exceptionalism.

Sam Harris would say, “Hold on Rev. You need some nuancing as well. You sound like a typical religious moderate. You’re positioning yourself in solidarity with Muslims, you’re celebrating religious pluralism, you’re demanding that law enforcement officials not engage in religious and racial profiling, you’re saying all the politically correct things. But you’re ignoring the full extent of the violence in the Koran (just as so many religious moderates ignore the violence in the Bible). If you’re unwilling to challenge the call to violence in the sacred books which so many proclaim to be the unerring, unchanging word of God, then you offer no bulwark against religious extremism and religious violence. In affirming Muslims in the way that you do, you tacitly affirm the violence against unbelievers and so-called infidels to which the Koran incites them.” That’s not a direct quote, but it is essentially what Harris says in The End of Faith. The scriptures say what they say. As long as religious moderates fail to challenge the more problematic passages; as long as we fail to hold extremists accountable for their murderous behavior; and unless we are willing to say definitively and forcefully in a sustained and organized way that the passages that incite some of the faithful to violence do not meet the moral standards for a civilized society, then religious extremism will thrive. I believe this is what Harris would say.

I have a few responses. First, certainly Harris is correct—and it doesn’t take a Ph.D. in anything to understand—that there are passages in many sacred books that appear to unambiguously call on the faithful to commit acts of violence against those who believe differently. Such passages are, in the very least, the fuel religious extremists use to maintain the fire of their rage and their desire to achieve their destructive ends.

Second, while this is true, Harris goes too far when he turns the equation around and holds all Muslims responsible for acts of violence committed by a few extremists. This is egregiously unfair. This is Islamophobia. Imagine if our congregation held our friends at Center Congregational Church in Manchester responsible for Operation Save America yelling “murderers!” at Muslim children in Bridgeport, simply because they are Christians. Imagine if we held them responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing because the bomber had Christian leanings. It doesn’t make sense. And worse, it yields no effective strategy for countering religiously-motivated violence.

Third, in the encounter with people of faith who ground their lives in sacred texts that include problematic passages—passages that call for violence, for destruction of unbelievers, for oppression of women and gays and people with disabilities—and when one’s intent it to build relationship and community with them, rather than force them into a theological corner, I think it is fair to ask, “What do you make of those passages?” “How do you read those passages and interpret them so that they do not incite violence and oppression?” Engaging in such dialogue across faith lines seems essential in building communities that have the capacity to hold religious extremists in check. I asked Imam Kashif this question. I am deeply grateful for the time he took to be in dialogue with me. He said something similar to what many moderate, liberal and progressive Christians and Jews say about the problematic passages in the Bible. He said you have to read those passages in their historical context. He reminded me that the early Muslims, including the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), were themselves oppressed by the ruling Arab elites of the day. They were hunted, attacked and killed. They were forced to flee their homes. He said these passages must be understood in the context of early Muslims defending themselves from persecution in the 7th century. They speak not to the need for aggression, but to the need for self-defense. Knowing the history helps our understanding. Listening helps. Being in dialogue helps. Asking fair questions helps.

Finally, with regard to Harris’ statement, “moderation in religion offers no bulwark against religious extremism and religious violence,” I am willing to concede that both globally and locally, moderate, liberal and progressive people of faith do not today offer a powerful alternative to those individuals who might be convinced to commit acts of terror in the name of religion. (We also don’t offer a powerful alternative to young people on our city streets who might be convinced to join street gangs.) I am willing to concede that. But I am not willing to concede, as Harris seems to, that it cannot be done. It can. We—all of us—Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, Buddhists, Unitarian Universalists—all of us who care about the quality of our communities, who care about and value religious pluralism, who take seriously the proposition that it is possible to love your neighbor and your enemy as yourself, who want to live in societies that prioritize a politics of justice, an economy of fairness and a covenant of community—we can and must come together. We can engage in dialogue. We can honor and respect each other. We can break bread and celebrate with each other. We can struggle for justice together. We can feed the hungry together. We can comfort the sick together. We can heal our broken communities together. We need to engage with each other in all these ways because that is how we offer a powerful alternative to those who might otherwise pursue violence.

And when arrogance and ignorance rise up to insult, interrogate, injure, frighten, harass and oppress as they are now doing to our Muslim friends in the United States of America, we must confront them courageously with a resounding no. No Islamophobia on our watch. No Islamophobia in this nation that claims to be a peace-loving nation. No Islamophobia in this nation that claims to be a justice-seeking nation. No Islamophobia in this nation that claims to be a democratic nation. Amen and Blessed Be.


[1] Harris, Sam, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2004) p. 20.

[2] More on Sam Harris at http://www.samharris.org/site/about/.

[3] More on Project Reason at http://www.project-reason.org/.

[4] Harris, Sam, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2004) p. 20.

[5] Harris, Sam, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2004) p. 20.

[6] See the statement at http://www.muslimcoalitionct.org/resources/interfaith-statement.

[7] More on Rep. King’s hearings at http://articles.latimes.com/2011/mar/10/nation/la-na-muslim-house-hearing-20110311.

[8] See http://articles.nydailynews.com/2010-05-19/local/27064852_1_muslims-ibrahim-hooper-ground-zero.

[9] http://www.ctpost.com/news/article/Angry-protesters-descend-on-mosque-606515.php.

[10] Cincotta, Thomas, Manufacturing the Muslim Menace: Private Firms, Public Servants, and the Threat to Rights and Security (Somerville, MA: Political Research Associates, 2011) p. 1.

[11] Ibid., i.

[12] Ibid., p. 4.