Rohr on outsiders…

Richard Rohr

My friend Maggy sent me a quote today by the man speaking above- Richard Rohr.

It hit the spot for several reasons. Firstly, Rohr usually has something interesting to say, and his take on the role of the outsider as a source of renewal to the church feels like something important.

Important too as another friend had recieved one of those chain e-mails, and sent it on to me to ask what I thought. This is what it said;

Last month I attended my annual training session for maintaining my security clearance in the prison service.

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> There was a presentation by three speakers from the Roman Catholic, Protestant and Muslim faiths, who explained their beliefs.

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> I was particularly interested in what the Islamic Imam had to say about the basics of Islam, complete with video.

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> After the presentations, question time. I directed my question to the Imam and asked: ‘Correct me if I’m wrong, but I understand that most Imams and clerics of Islam have declared a Holy War against the infidels of the world and, that by killing an infidel, (which is a command to all Muslims) they are assured of a place in heaven. If that’s the case, can you give me the definition of an infidel?’

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> There was no disagreement with my statement and, without hesitation he replied, ‘Non-believers!’

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> I responded, ‘So let me make sure I have this straight. All followers of Allah have been commanded to kill everyone who is not a follower of Allah, so they can have a place in heaven. Is that correct?’

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> The expression on his face changed from one of authority to that of a little boy who had just been caught with his hand in the biscuit tin.’

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> He sheepishly replied, ‘Yes.’

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> I then stated, ‘Well, I have a real problem trying to imagine Pope Benedict commanding all Catholics to kill Muslims, or the Archbishop of Canterbury ordering all Protestants to do the same in order to guarantee them a place in heaven!’

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> The Imam was speechless!

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> I continued, ‘I also have a problem with being your ‘friend’ when you and your brother clerics are telling your followers to kill me! Let me ask you a question. Would you rather have your Allah, who tells you to kill me in order for you to go to heaven, or my Jesus who tells me to love you because He will take me to heaven and He wants you to be there with me?’

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> You could have heard a pin drop as the Imam remained speechless.

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> Needless to say, the organizers of the Diversification seminar were not happy with this way of exposing the truth about the Muslims’ beliefs.

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> Within twenty years, i.e. 2031, there will be enough Muslim voters in the UK to elect a government of their choice, complete with Sharia law.

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> Everyone in the WORLD should be required to read this, but with the current political paralysis, tolerant justice system, liberal media and P.C. madness, there is no way this will be widely publicised.

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> Please pass this on to all your e-mail contacts.

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I replied to my friend,  but rather than share with you my own ramblings, here is what Richard Rohr had to say;

The Sin of Exclusion  

Those at the edge of any system and those excluded from any system ironically and invariably hold the secret for the conversion and wholeness of that very group. They always hold the feared, rejected, and denied parts of the group’s soul. You see, therefore, why the church was meant to be that group that constantly went to the edges, to the “least of the brothers and sisters,” and even to the enemy.

Jesus was not just a theological genius, but he was also a psychological and sociological genius. When any church defines itself by exclusion of anybody, it is always wrong. It is avoiding its only vocation, which is to be the Christ. The only groups that Jesus seriously critiques are those who include themselves and exclude others from the always-given grace of God.

Only as the People of God receive the stranger, the sinner, and the immigrant, those who don’t play our game our way, do we discover not only the hidden, feared, and hated parts of our own souls, but the fullness of Jesus himself. We need them for our own conversion.The Church is always converted when the outcasts are re-invited back into the temple. You see this in Jesus’ commonly sending marginalized people that he has healed back into the village, back to their family, or back to the temple to “show themselves to the priests.” It is not just for their re-inclusion and acceptance, but actually for the group itself to be renewed.

Adapted from Radical Grace: Daily Meditations,

What would Jesus say to ‘Sam Bacile’?

So a few blokes get together and decide to make a film. They have a network of friends, some of them with lots of money, and share a common hatred- Islam.

The film they make is so scandalous, so insulting, that it creates ripples around the globe. America, already seen by half the world as making a Christian Crusade against all things Islamic, has dared to display images of Mohamed, something specifically forbidden by the Qur’an, and this portrayal paints him as a weak, deluded womaniser who also abuses children and is gay.

They do not even tell the actors what they are planning- dubbing in the real content later.

It is a terrible film- you can see some of the lowlights of it on Youtube here. I am reluctant to give it any more airtime, but then again it is always important to know your enemy.

But then again, who is the enemy? On one side there are the bigoted, narrow minded Christians- the film maker appears to be a Coptic Christian called Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, and an organisation called Media for Christ. They are connected to lots of other prominent Islamophobes, such as Qur’an burning Florida Pastor Terry Jones.

On the other side, there are other violent men. People who would burst into Embassies and kill American diplomats. Others who would seek to kill people for making stupid crap films, and do so in the name of God.

So, this would seem to be a slight dilemma for those who seek to follow the ways of the Prince of Peace.

Although we have some easy clues in the Gospel stories- of how Jesus refused to join in with the men of violence, no matter where he found them but particularly when they claimed to have God on their side. He would saythat his followers should always be people of the open hand, not the clenched fist.

Because there is not doubt that the people behind this film were trying to provoke a reaction, even if the death of some of their own might have come as a shock.

Following the terrible attack on the World Trade Centre, the politics and theology of fear has dominated much of American collective consciousness. There is a really good article by Glenn Greenwald on what he describes as “The Sham Terroism Expert Industry” in which he has this to say;

The key role played by this “terrorism expert” industry in sustaining highly damaging hysteria was highlighted in an excellent and still-relevant 2007 Washington Post Op-Ed by Zbigniew Brzezinski. In it, he described how the War on Terror has created an all-consuming Climate of Fear in the U.S. along with a systematic, multi-headed policy of discrimination against Muslim Americans based on these severely exaggerated threats, and described one of the key culprits this way:

Such fear-mongering, reinforced by security entrepreneurs, the mass media and the entertainment industry, generates its own momentum.The terror entrepreneurs, usually described as experts on terrorism, are necessarily engaged in competition to justify their existence. Hence their task is to convince the public that it faces new threats. That puts a premium on the presentation of credible scenarios of ever-more-horrifying acts of violence, sometimes even with blueprints for their implementation.

There is no term more potent in our political discourse and legal landscape than “Terrorism.” It shuts down every rational thought process and political debate the minute it is uttered. It justifies torture (we have to get information from the Terrorists); due-process-free-assassinations even of our own citizens (Obama has to kill the Terrorists); and rampant secrecy (the Government can’t disclose what it’s doing or have courts rule on its legality because the Terrorists will learn of it), and it sends people to prison for decades (material supporters of Terrorism).

It is a telling paradox indeed that this central, all-justifying word is simultaneously the most meaningless and therefore the most manipulated. It is, as I have noted before, a word that simultaneously means nothing yet justifies everything. Indeed, that’s the point: it is such a useful concept precisely because it’s so malleable, because it means whatever those with power to shape discourse want it to mean. And no faction has helped this process along as much as the group of self-proclaimed “terrorism experts” that has attached itself to think tanks, academia, and media outlets. They enable pure political propaganda to masquerade as objective fact, shining brightly with the veneer of scholarly rigor. The industry itself is a fraud, as are those who profit from and within it.

Is it surprising that in all of the focus groups, think tanks and lobby groups, there is a sudden deeper interest in parts of the world where Christian are being oppressed, particularly by Islamic groups- for example the Coptic Christian in Egypt?

If this is happening within the political mainstream, how surprised should we be that the religious right might seek to go even further, and attack the very premise of Islamic faith in a direct way- as somehow overtly terrorist in its very make up?

What would Jesus say to these people? He might call them a den of vipers perhaps? But then perhaps he would relent and talk about longing to gather them together like a hen might gather its chicks.

What would he say to us? Perhaps he might expect us to get on with living the lives of makers of peace- small peace and Big Peace. This might mean deliberately opening our hands to the other and refusing to raise the fist (or the gun/missile/spy satellite/propaganda film etc.)

Hmmm…

Terrorism, religion and the group dynamic…

I spent much of today talking about terrorism. This is not usually part of what I do, but I was asked to attend a local awareness session. In the end it was rather fascinating.

What we tried to think about was the sorts of processes and relationships in our communities that might draw people into extremism, and right away, we people of faith have to concede that one of the most common drivers for this in the world at present is religion.

Many people would have in their mind a stereotypical terrorist, and they well be Muslim, male and aged around 25. There are real problems with these kinds of stereotypes of course, as I have spoken about previously here. There is also a real possibility that we exaggerate the potential threat, and this plays into all sorts of paranoid murky politics.

However, we now know that even our sleepy rural county of Argyll has been touched by terrorism. Several extremist groups have used outdoor centres/outward bound courses up here to breed team spirit, and the bombers who attacked Glasgow Airport a few years ago did so from a holiday home base in our area.

What brings people to the point of being able to justify the use of extreme violence? Of course this is not a new thing, and many would regard the drivers of inequality, imperialism and oppression as fertile breeding grounds. However, today we talked about some of the societal/group pressures that might draw people in;

Belonging

The need to be ‘saved’ from an old life, and released into a special calling, as part of an enlightened elite. So we see some people drawn into extremist groups out of situations of isolation, confused identity, drug addiction and poverty.

Crusade

People often see themselves as on a special mission, to right injustice and to live to a higher calling. There is an exclusiveness to this, and a tendency to see others as weaker, more contaminated, sinful, outsiders to the truth.

Narrowed world view

Extremists are united by a compelling narrative, often focussed on a single issue and simplified to black and white kind of thinking. In this narrative, there will be good guys and bad guys, those on the inside, those on the outside, and a call to fight back.

The drive to proselytise

The need to be bigger, more powerful, to convince others of the rightness of your cause, and to win converts. All other things are secondary and this end justifies all means.

Powerful, manipulative leadership

Leaders who convince, who have elevation over others and able to use hyper emotionality and  charismatic manipulation to bring cohesiveness and common purpose.

Distortions presented as fact

Leaders like this often present historical and theological perspectives, or downright distortions as fact. They emphasis certain aspects (for example eschatology, judgement, Jihad) over others (for example, forgiveness, grace, peace.) People are not encouraged to think for themselves, to test and debate issues, rather they are expected to achieve correct belief.

Removal and isolation

Before every act of violence, there seems to be something in common- a time of removal, sequestration. People are removed, or remove themselves from wider society, and focus on the purity and certainty of their cause, and the need for their final act.

Here is the challenge then- I invite those of you who have been involved in Christian churches to consider this list from that perspective. Those of you familiar with charismatic or fundamentalist denominations may find this list rather familiar. The point is, the group dynamics of religion that distort faith and breed a kind of hatred and destruction do not just belong to the other, they arise from who we are as humans.

Jesus seemed to understand this very clearly, and anyone who knows his teaching would see it as the antidote to all of the above. He seemed to reserve his anger almost exclusively for the kind of religion that valued the law (or religious understandings of the law) over people.

And yet we stand in the shadow of two thousand years of repeated examples of where the group dynamic within our churches has become toxic and released all sorts of hatred, judgementalism and even death as a result.

 

Blog the Koran day- on women…

To commemorate the 10th anniversary of the terror attack on the World Trade Centre, I am joining Andrew Jones (aka TallSkinnyKiwi) in blogging a passage from the Koran.

I do this not in any way to disrespect the memory of all those people who died as the towers burned then collapsed but rather to open up a window through which we might seek to understand one another better.

Since 2001, America and her allies (above all, my own government) have unleashed war on whole nations, kidnapped, unlawfully imprisoned, tortured in reaction to the violence of a few Islamic terrorists. In doing so, they have created a culture of fear and revenge. To those who follow an Islamic faith all this seems like another unholy crusade. The end result is a classic feedback loop- one action creates a reaction which in turn creates a reaction and so on.

For many in the west, every Muslim is another potential suicide bomber and the Koran is a ticking roadside IED.

Except most of us have never read the Koran; we certainly have not  tested it through scholarly engagement. Perhaps most of us never will, but on the terrible anniversary of the attack on the twin towers, being open to engagement with the hopes, dreams and ambitions of the ‘other’ has never been so important.

I have been doing a little reading of An-Nisa, the 4th chapter of the Koran- dealing with the issue of women- their rights and obligations, outlining the requirements of modesty, including the verse traditionally interpreted to require wearing of the hijab. I encounter these things as a white Christian male with little real insight into the culture or theological issues, or the real experience of women across the Muslim world.

The way some parts of the Islamic world regard women is one of those things that we in the West find most difficult to understand or tolerate. It appears to amount to God-sponsored and state-enforced oppression, particularly when these understandings are allied to fundamentalist interpretations of the text.

(We Christians are familiar with these kind of interpretations of course- we still have our own voices calling for hat wearing seen-but-not-heard child bearers who know their correct place of subservience.)

It might be of interest to remember that according to tradition, Muhammad was married either 11 or 13 times. However, his first marriage lasted 25 years- he married his employer, the 40-year-old merchant Khadijah. It was this marriage that appeared to release Muhammad to follow his calling- it was foundational to the development of an entire faith.

This marriage destroys any idea of submissive, invisible, powerless women. Rather, the very beginning of Muhammad’s ministry was made possible by his allegiance to a wealthy, independent female merchant. In many ways, the writings in the Koran might be understood as a means of protecting and enhancing the freedom and rights of women within the cultural context that they were written. Does this sound familiar to those of us used to trying to grapple with the writings of Paul in the Bible?

Even accepting this, there remains the question of what might constitute freedom in terms of gender relationships NOW. There was all the fuss recently about the (scandalous) decision of the French to ban the wearing of the Hijab in public. I think that ultimately, these are not primarily theological questions, rather they are cultural-political ones.

These verses are my portion from the Koran-

“Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in (the husband’s) absence what Allah would have them guard. As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (Next), refuse to share their beds, (And last) beat them (lightly) (leave them [3]): ; but if they return to obedience, seek not against them Means (of annoyance): For Allah is Most High, great (above you all).”

These verses are troubling and disturbing to our ears. If we read them with no understanding of the context that is, or the stories of the life of the man who wrote the words.

Holy words are encountered through the lens of faith used to examine them with. Conservative Islamic scholars will clearly have a very different understanding than liberal Muslims, or Feminist Muslims. From a human rights perspective, we might hope that these latter voices are strengthened, but this is a debate that we are on the outside of and ought to be cautious for that.

What we should avoid are black and white conclusions filtered through prejudice. It is easy to condemn all of Islamic teaching based on a cartoon of the Taliban. Just as it is easy to dismiss all Christians as fraudulent tricksters based on Jimmy Swaggart. Stereotypes can not survive encounters with real flesh and blood.

Only then might we seek to protest injustice wherever we encounter it- although perhaps we should always start with our own stuff before leaning into others.

I think I will finish be quoting a poem by and unknown author, relating to freedom. It is a poem which seems to be well known in the Moslem world. I quote it because it seems to me to ask some interesting questions about freedom- because we in the West worship our own version of freedom- or some would say the illusion of freedom. We enshrine it in all our philosophies- our politics, our economics, our gender relations.

‘Freedom’ is something we will kill others for, and send our young soldiers to die for. Our freedom is something we would enslave others to preserve.

What does ‘freedom’ mean?
Does the eagle want to swim in the sea,
Restricted by the sky?
Does the fish want to dance on the wind,
Not enough river to explore?
Yet the sky is freedom for the bird
but death for the fish,
The sea is wide for the fish
but will engulf the bird.
We ask for freedom but freedom to do what?
We can only express our nature as it was created.
The prayer mat of the earth is freedom,
freedom from slavery to other than the One,
Who offers an shoreless ocean of love to swim in
and a horizon that extends to the next life,
Yet we chose the prison and call it freedom.

Terrorism and Muslims…

Two words that are often used together in the press and perhaps in our consciousness.

We tend to be of the view that whilst not all Muslims are terrorists, most terrorists are Muslims.

Until you look at the evidence that is.

Brian McLaren posted a link to this information on loonwatch.com-

In my previous article entitled “All Terrorists are Muslims…Except the 94% that Aren’t”, I used official FBI records to show that only 6% of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil from 1980 to 2005 were carried out by Islamic extremists.  The remaining 94% were from other groups (42% from Latinos, 24% from extreme left wing groups, 7% from extremist Jews, 5% from communists, and 16% from all other groups.)

In Europe, data from 2007-2009 showed similar patterns-

The results are stark, and prove decisively that not all terrorists are Muslims.  In fact, a whopping 99.6% of terrorist attacks in Europe were by non-Muslim groups; a good 84.8% of attacks were from separatist groups completely unrelated to Islam.  Leftist groups accounted for over sixteen times as much terrorism as radical Islamic groups.  Only a measly 0.4% of terrorist attacks from 2007 to 2009 could be attributed to extremist Muslims.

Forgive me if I come over all ranty- but I think we need to know this.

We need to consider this in relation to the foreign policies pursued on our behalf by our governments.

And we need to seek understanding with those whose faith is different to ours, not demonise and misconstrue.

And where violence and terror is being propagated in the the name of God, we should perhaps also understand that God has been used as an idolatrous way of achieving power before, and he will be again.

And that violence repaid with violence leads only to more… violence.

Anthropomorphising God…

We had a lovely evening last night with our friends Susan and Steven. Our kids a great friends, and they live within an easy walking distance. We ate, shared a few glasses of wine, and laughed a lot.

And as ever, we discussed religion a little. Susan is a Buddhist, and it has been really interesting to share stories and perspectives. Sometimes it seems that we share so much, whilst at other times, the differences are stark. Michaela and I have often described how good these conversations feel though- neither of us are trying to win the other to our own perspective- rather we feel a respect and a pilgrim-companionship.

Because neither of us have all of this sorted. Perhaps the adjustment was greater for us in this regard- as we have been schooled in a kind of religion that has to pretend to have all the answers, lest we miss an opportunity for someone to come a realisation of the error of their ways. And of course, there is the spectre of hell waiting for those who do not grasp the ‘truth’.

Hmmm- am I sliding still towards syncretism and universalism? Whilst I may have a lot of difficulties with the narrow way of thinking that I describe above, I remain a Christian.

Last night, Susan commented on her experience of reading ‘The shack‘. Not one of my favourite books, I have to say- I found the extended images too laboured, and the writing a bit too overblown. However Susan’s perspective on the book was shaped by her starting point as a Buddhist- and the fact that the ‘person’ of God is not part of her experience. She would not necessarily see God as an entity, or a being- for her faith is a process of becoming.

Initially, I felt a sense of loss for my friend. Because my faith is driven most of all by a developing awareness of the person of Jesus, and the Father, communicated by the Spirit.

But later, I began to think again about what this might mean- to take a look at my belief from the perspective of an outsider- which is the great benefit of these conversations with people of a different faith.

And because I love words, I started with two words-

Personification

1. (Literary & Literary Critical Terms) the attribution of human characteristics to things, abstract ideas, etc., as for literary or artistic effect
2. (Fine Arts & Visual Arts / Art Terms) the representation of an abstract quality or idea in the form of a person, creature, etc., as in art and literature
3. a person or thing that personifies
4. a person or thing regarded as an embodiment of a quality he is the personification of optimism
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Then there is this other word-
Anthropomorphism is the attribution of uniquely human characteristics to non-human creatures and beings, natural and supernatural phenomena, material states and objects or abstract concepts. Subjects for anthropomorphism commonly include animalsdepicted as creatures with human motivation able to reason and converse, forces ofnature such as winds or the sun, components in games, unseen or unknown sources of chance, etc. Almost anything can be subject to anthropomorphism. The term derives from a combination of Greek ἄνθρωπος (anthrōpos), human and μορφή (morphē), shapeor form.
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I am sure that it will be obvious to most of you why these words are important to people of faith. We humans have the propensity to attribute human characteristics to inanimate objects, to animals, clouds, gadgets. We are geared to look for human resonances- and to recognise the human face almost before we are born. It is in our wiring (there we go- I just anthropomorphised my computer!)
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So this has to raise questions as to the effect that this has on the development of religious belief, and the shape of our personal encounters with the divine.
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Atheists might suggest that all religion grows from these human characteristics.
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There are Christian voices that also point out how modernity has become mingled with culture to such an extent that we have remade God in our own image- a western, capitalistic, rationalistic, democratic God. My own personal pocket Jesus.
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It is very difficult to take this Jesus out of our pocket. We tend to just put him in a different one.
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It is perhaps interesting to make a comparison of how the different religious faiths deal with this issue of anthropomorphism- Anthropomorphism of God is rejected by Judaism and Islam, which both believe that God is beyond human limits of physical comprehension, a view which has resonance with the Gregory of Nysa’s ‘holy darkness’. The Jewish rejection of the anthropomorphism of God intensified after the advent of Christianity.
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But we Christians, unlike our brothers and sisters in other faiths have continued to seek encounter God through the face of Jesus. Whatever this means…
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What is left in me is a conviction that God became flesh and lived amongst us. And we have seen his Glory. (John 1)
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But this incarnation is of a God who lives in us, not a personification of what we are cast heavenwards.
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Hmmmm…