Faith and Politics

Hospital in Kenema, Sierra Leone, where Ebola virus samples are tested, in June 2014. Courtesy of Leasmhar via Wikimedia Commons

As Western nations evacuate their citizens from West Africa’s growing Ebola outbreak, some Christian leaders have begun to speak of the virus as a curse from God.

On Friday, the World Health Organization declared the Ebola crisis ravaging the region an international health emergency. On the same day, Nigeria became the latest country in West Africa to declare the virus crisis a national emergency, the day after Spain evacuated a priest and a nun from Liberia to Madrid.

On Saturday, a Congolese nun died from Ebola in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, the AP reported.

The outbreak started in December in Guinea, but was not discovered until March. It has since killed more than 1,000 people in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone.

“People are having different misconceptions that this is [a curse] from God,” said Bishop Sumoward Harris, now retired from the Lutheran Church in Liberia. “This is depending on how they are interpreting the Bible. But I don’t think God is angry and is issuing a punishment.”

In Liberia, more than 100 Christian leaders meeting in early August declared that God was angry and Ebola a plague. 

the Web Editors 08-08-2014


1. U.S Considers Air Strikes and Air Drops to Help Iraqis Trapped on Mountain by ISIS
"The move comes as Qaraqosh, Iraq's largest Christian city, was all but abandoned as the jihadist group Islamic State (Isis) advanced through minority communities in the country's north-west and towards the Kurdish stronghold of Irbil."

2. Inclusive Language for God Does Note Equal Heresy
Rachel Marie Stone brings it on her Religion News Service blog, calling out the criticism of Gungor for supposed 'drift from biblical orthodoxy' for 'experiments with female metaphors for God' among other 'heresies.'

3. What Is Really Happening in Iraq? 
"In June, ISIS overran the northern capital of Mosul and began a violent march southward, proclaiming the imminent destruction of Kerbala, Najaf, and Baghdad — strongholds of Shi’a religious and political power. Sectarianism reignited and militias re-armed. ISIS was a Sunni problem and the Shi’a were either fleeing or beating their chests in fear. So, these few weeks later, with Christians and others being marked and driven from their homes, a Muslim movement that says, 'We are all Christians,' is subversive in the most daring of ways."

4. Dear Fashion Industry, Please Stop Glamorizing Rape
Fashion is a powerful medium and it can have a big influence in a vast country like India—and the world over. The more we depict violence against women in beautiful, glamorous ways, the more we normalize this violence.

Columnist Ann Coulter at the 2004 Republican National Convention. Photo courtesy of Kyle Cassidy via Wikimedia Commons.

Prominent conservative voices are criticizing the decision to bring two medical missionaries who contracted Ebola back to the United States for treatment.

Real estate mogul Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson were both critical of bringing the infected missionaries back to the U.S. Columnist Ann Coulter went further, questioning why the missionaries were working in the “disease-ridden cesspools” of Africa.

Dr. Kent Brantly, with Samaritan’s Purse, and Nancy Writebol, with Service in Mission, are medical missionaries who were infected with Ebola while working with patients in Liberia. They are being treated at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.

“If Dr. Brantly had practiced at Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles and turned one single Hollywood power-broker to Christ, he would have done more good for the entire world than anything he could accomplish in a century spent in Liberia,” Coulter wrote in a column.

But the professional provocateur is facing a backlash from the mainstream Christian establishment, especially evangelicals, for whom overseas missionary work is an article of faith.

Gil Shefler 08-07-2014

Oil-on-canvas painting of Melek Taus, a peacock deity. Via Jennie Rosenbaum/Flickr.

Senior leaders in Iraq’s minority Yazidi community say their wives and daughters, forcibly held by Islamic militants, are being given a choice: Convert to Islam and marry jihadists — or else.

Mirza Dinnayi, a senior Yazidi leader and a former adviser on minority affairs to the Iraqi president, said he has spoken on the phone with several women who cry out to him: “I love my husband; my faith is Yazidi.”

Others have attested to harsh treatment bestowed on members of the religious minority by the Islamic State militant group since its gunmen captured parts of Iraq earlier this week.

As many as 200,000 Yazidis left their homes in the Sinjar region of northwestern Iraq. Untold thousands are believed dead and at least several hundred women and children are being held prisoners.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands are stranded on the Sinjar mountain range without access to food or water in an ongoing humanitarian crisis.

Even in a long history marred by persecution, this week’s tragic events stood out.

Kevin Riggs 08-07-2014
Man behind bars, ANURAK PONGPATIMET / Shutterstock.com

Man behind bars, ANURAK PONGPATIMET / Shutterstock.com

“Capital punishment is against the best judgment of modern criminology and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God” (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.)

I despise labels, but I guess you can’t get away from them. For example, I am called an American (a label). I would prefer to be called a United States Citizen because the term “American” is ethnocentristicThe term should mean I am part of the American continents, but it is never used that way. “American” is almost always used to refer to a person who lives in the United States. However, Canadians and Mexicans are also Americans; and so are Hondurans and Brazilians.

I wish I could simply be called “Christian.” But that label necessitates the need for additional labels. Am I Protestant or Catholic? Am I orthodox or neo-orthodox? Am I a fundamentalist, an evangelical, or main-line? Am I emergent, traditional, liberal, progressive, or contemporary? To which denomination do I belong, or am I non-denominational? Maybe I am inter-denominational? Am I charismatic or cessastionist?

It’s maddening!

My preference would be to be called a follower of Jesus. But what does that mean?

Then there are political labels … and they are the worst!

Am I conservative or liberal? Am I a Republican or Democrat or Independent or Libertarian or something else? Am I pro-life or pro-choice? Am I a patriot or and antagonizer? Am I a capitalist, socialist, or communist? Where do I stand on gun rights? What about human rights, or same-sex marriage, or LBGT issues, or immigration, or Obamacare, etc., etc., etc … blah, blah, blah …

Why can’t I just be me?

It’s a lost cause. No matter how hard I try not to be boxed in, people label me. So, let me give you my best shot at who I am based on labels. (Of course, if your definition of the labels is not the same as my definition, then we will have a hard time communicating.) Here goes:

A view of the Tricycle Theatre in London. Photo courtesy of Cnbrb, via Wikimedia Commons.

A London theater is refusing to host the UK Jewish Film Festival because it receives partial funding from the Israeli Embassy.

The Tricycle Theatre has hosted the film festival for the last eight years and was scheduled to screen 26 films in November.

But the theater’s artistic director, Indhu Rubasingham, the English-born daughter of Sri Lankan parents, issued a statement Tuesday saying that because of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the theater’s board decided not to host the festival under its current sponsorship arrangement.

“The festival receives funding from the Israeli embassy and given the current conflict in Israel and Gaza, we feel it inappropriate to accept financial support from any government agency involved,” she said in a statement. “We offered to provide alternative funding to cover the loss of the contribution from the Israeli embassy. However, the UKJFF decided it was not willing to decline sponsorship from the Israeli embassy and, to our regret, withdrew the festival from The Tricycle.”

Tom Ehrich 08-05-2014

Image: Taking out the trash. Photo courtesy of Rissy Story via Shutterstock

I went to the town dump today, and I found it open, functioning, filled with people doing the right thing in the right way, giving useful advice to a novice, and able to drive in and out without mayhem, all under the watchful eye of a single employee.

Its no-nonsense efficiency reminded me of church suppers, where everything seems to work because people are helping, not managing. Imagine Congress being that capable.

I suppose we should be thankful that Congress scampered out of town for five weeks. If they’re going to do nothing, at least they should do nothing out where the constituents who elected them can take their measure.

I suppose we should also be thankful that July 2014 only had 31 days. Imagine a longer month for suicidal conflicts and epidemics.

We should be thankful, too, that the world’s three great religions — wealth, technology, and the Abrahamic faiths — are getting on people’s nerves. Irritation might lead us to expect better.

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the first Muslim member of a British Cabinet. Photo by Kaveh Sardari/Council on Foreign Relations.

The first Muslim to serve in a British Cabinet resigned Tuesday over her government’s “morally indefensible” policies in Gaza and its role in the Middle East peace process.

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, who served as senior Foreign Office minister for faith and communities, announced her decision on Twitter, saying: “With deep regret I have this morning written to the Prime Minister & tendered my resignation. I can no longer support Govt policy on #Gaza.”

In her resignation letter, Warsi wrote: “I believe our approach in relation to the current conflict is neither consistent with our values, specifically our commitment to the rule of law and our long history of support for International Justice.”

Labour leaders and human rights groups have criticized Britain’s Conservative government, led by Prime Minister David Cameron, in recent weeks for not unequivocally condemning Israel’s handling of the Gaza crisis.

Conservative leaders expressed disappointment over Warsi’s “unnecessary” resignation on Tuesday, while Labour opposition leader Ed Miliband said Warsi had acted with “principle and integrity” in deciding to step down.

Italy’s Interior Minister Angelino Alfano at the EPP Study Days in Palermo in 2011. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Italian officials on Tuesday moved to expel a Moroccan imam who was caught on video inciting violence against Jews during Israel’s military offensive in Gaza.

Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said he had ordered the imam, Raoudi Aldelbar, to be expelled “for seriously disturbing the peace, endangering national security, and religious discrimination.”

The imam was filmed during a Friday sermon in a mosque near Venice last month calling for Jews to be killed “one by one,” according to the Washington-based Middle East Media Research Institute, which published the video on its website.

“Oh Allah, count them one by one and kill them all,” the imam allegedly preached during the service at the mosque in the northern city of San Dona di Piave.

After the video was aired in Italy by the center-right daily, Libero, Alfano said: “Uttering anti-Semitic sermons that explicitly incite violence and sectarian hatred is unacceptable. May my decision in this case be a warning to all those who think you can preach hatred in Italy.”

The government’s decision drew widespread support across the political spectrum and from the Muslim community in the Veneto region, where the imam is based.

Police cars have been repainted to say “Islamic police.” Women are forbidden from wearing bright colors and prints. The homes of Shiites and others have signs stating they are property of the Islamic State. And everyone walks in fear amid a new reign of terror.

That’s what life is like in Mosul, Tikrit, and other cities in northern and western Iraq under the control of Islamic extremists after their lightning-fast military campaign that overwhelmed the Iraqi army in June.

The new normal for these residents means daily decrees about attire and raids to root out religious minorities in a campaign to impose strict Islamic rule in cities that tolerated multiple religions for centuries.

Video courtesy of USA Today.

Image: Creative Commons image by the Catholic Church (England and Wales)

How partisan and unproductive is the current Congress?

The epitome of its dysfunction may have arrived with last week’s wrap-up before a five-week summer recess, as House Republicans failed to pass their own scaled-back bill on the border children crisis on Thursday. Realizing how bad that looked, lawmakers returned on Friday to pass an even more severe bill that had no chance of going anywhere.

But a better gauge of the problem may be the fact that despite the almost universal popularity of Pope Francis, the House of Representatives was unable to muster enough bipartisan support to pass a resolution lauding Francis’ election — nearly 18 months ago.

The bill, H.Res. 440, seems straightforward, as it aims to congratulate Francis on his March 2013 election and recognize “his inspirational statements and actions.”

Gay rights activists in Nairobi at a demonstration against Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act. RNS photo by Fredrick Nzwili.

Uganda’s top Anglican leader criticized the constitutional court for striking down the country’s controversial anti-gay law on a technicality, saying the law is still needed to protect children and families from Western-imported homosexuality.

A five-judge panel on Friday declared the Anti-Homosexuality Act, 2014, null and void since it was passed by parliament without the required quorum. Dismissing the law on a technicality maintains the possibility that it could be revived in a different form.

The law punishes homosexual acts with life imprisonment. President Yoweri Museveni signed the measure in February, drawing harsh criticism from Western nations and cuts in foreign aid.

Anglican Archbishop Stanley Ntagali called the decision a disappointment for the Church of Uganda, religious leaders and many Ugandans.

“The ‘court of public opinion’ has clearly indicated its support for the Act, and we urge Parliament to consider voting again on the Bill with the proper quorum in place,” Ntagali said on Monday.

Illustration by Ken Davis

Four ways to organize around military testing and student privacy.

Kirsten Powers 07-30-2014

Kirsten Powers portrait by Len Spoden Photography, courtesy of Kirsten Powers.

Iraq’s Christians are begging the world for help. Is anybody listening?

Since capturing the country’s second largest city of Mosul in early June, the Islamic State, formerly known as ISIS, has ordered Christians to convert to Islam, pay taxes levied on non-Muslims, or die. The extremist Sunni group is also persecuting and murdering Turkmen and Shabaks, both Muslim religious minorities.

Human rights lawyer Nina Shea described the horror in Mosul to me: “[The Islamic State] took the Christians’ houses, took the cars they were driving to leave. They took all their money. One old woman had her life savings of $40,000, and she said, ‘Can I please have 100 dollars?’, and they said no. They took wedding rings off fingers, chopping off fingers if they couldn’t get the ring off.”

“We now have 5,000 destitute, homeless people with no future,” Shea said. “This is a crime against humanity.”

For the first time in 2,000 years, Mosul is devoid of Christians. “This is ancient Nineveh we are talking about,” Shea explained. “They took down all the crosses. They blew up the tomb of the prophet Jonah. An orthodox Cathedral has been turned into a mosque. … They are uprooting every vestige of Christianity.” University of Mosul professor Mahmoud Al ‘Asali, a Muslim, bravely spoke out against the Islamic State’s purging of Christians and was executed.

U. S. Commission on International Religious Freedom was created in 1998 as an independent, bipartisan body. Public domain image.

An independent religious freedom watchdog panel has welcomed the State Department’s annual religious freedom report and its list of the world’s worst offenders, which had laid dormant for three years.

The list of “countries of particular concern” had remained unchanged since 2006 — and hasn’t been formally issued by the State Department since 2011 — when Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan were cited.

In April, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended that the list be doubled to include Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Vietnam, Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, and Egypt. Turkmenistan was the only new addition to this year’s CPC list, bringing the total to nine countries.

The State Department and the independent USCIRF have often been at odds on who makes the list of worst offenders, and in a statement, USCIRF noted the “disappointing omission” of Pakistan in particular.

“Pakistan represents the worst situation in the world for religious freedom for countries not currently designated by the U.S. government as CPCs,” said USCIRF Chair Katrina Lantos Swett.

Richard Wolf 07-29-2014

David Boies, left, and Ted Olson, of the American Foundation for Equal Rights. Creative Commons image by Steve Rhodes.

A federal appeals court panel in Virginia became the second one this summer to strike down a state ban against same-sex marriage Monday, making it more likely that the Supreme Court will settle the issue as early as next year.

The three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond ruled 2-1 that gay men and lesbians have a constitutional right to marry that is paramount to state marriage laws. The ruling affirmed a district judge’s decision rendered in February.

“We recognize that same-sex marriage makes some people deeply uncomfortable,” said Judge Henry Floyd, originally appointed a district judge by George W. Bush and elevated to the circuit court by President Obama. “However, inertia and apprehension are not legitimate bases for denying same-sex couples due process and equal protection of the laws.”

The circuit court has jurisdiction over Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina. The panel’s decision will not take effect until at least Aug. 18 while circuit clerks defending the state’s ban decide whether to appeal to the full appellate court or the Supreme Court.

Like the first appeals court panel to rule on the issue this year in Utah and Oklahoma, the three-judge panel was deeply divided.

Tom Ehrich 07-29-2014

When I was a child, I lived in a black-and-white world of all-this or all-that.

Humankind meant my family. The world meant my neighborhood. Religion meant my church. Politics meant my father’s beliefs.

Oh, I was aware that more was out there, but it had little claim on my imagination or loyalties. My world was complete. There were no gray areas, no compromises, no maybes.

That was a child’s view, reality writ small. In time, I advanced beyond it, until the world became large, complicated, and gray, with places beyond imagining, people totally unlike anyone I knew, ideas beyond anything I heard at my parents’ table.

It’s called growing up. Discovering through knowledge and experience that the little I grew up knowing wasn’t enough to know.

We are witnessing today a headlong retreat into the not-knowing and simplistic partisanship of childhood. Ideas that make people uncomfortable are banished. Science that calls faith into question is shouted down. Politics isn’t just hardball, it’s dumb-ball: I must win, at any cost, and you must lose. I am right, and you are wrong. My tribe is the only tribe that has value and rights.

A man waves a flag in May 1989 at China’s Tiananmen Square. Creative Commons image by Robert Croma

While last month marked the 25th anniversary of China’s silencing freedom in Tiananmen Square, this month China has been cementing this grim legacy — particularly regarding religious freedom.

From repressing Muslims to bulldozing churches and tearing down crosses, Chinese officials have been denying the internationally guaranteed right to believe or not believe. The simple proposition that individuals have the right to live out their beliefs openly and peacefully, without fear or intimidation, clearly frightens Chinese authorities, as evidenced by their repressive persecution of numerous faith communities.

During the just-concluded month of Ramadan, China denied Uighur Muslim students, teachers, professors, and government employees the freedom to fast and fulfill related duties. With Ramadan coinciding this year with the commemoration of the Communist Party’s founding, Chinese authorities used the occasion to identify fasting Muslims, particularly in Xinjiang province. Those defying the ban have been subject to threats, detention, and arrests.

In recent years, officials have shut down religious sites; conducted raids on independent schools, leading to multiple injuries and even deaths; confiscated religious literature; restricted private study of the Quran; monitored the sermons of imams and forced them to undergo political training; restricted Muslim dress and religious expression; banned children from being brought to mosques; and arbitrarily deemed religious gatherings and activities “illegal.”

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, in Washington, D.C. in 2002.

President Obama on Monday said he plans to tap Rabbi David Saperstein as the next ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, the first non-Christian to hold the job, which was created in 1998.

As ambassador, the man named as the most influential rabbi in America by Newsweek magazine in 2009, will head the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, and will be tasked with monitoring religious freedom abuses around the world.

“When it comes to the work of protecting religious freedom, it is safe to say that David Saperstein represents the gold standard,” said Secretary of State John Kerry, announcing the nomination at the State Department.

A Reform rabbi and lawyer, Saperstein, 66, has led the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism for 40 years, and has spent his career in Washington, focusing on social justice and religious freedom issues. He was instrumental in the 1993 passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which requires the government to show a compelling reason for any action that impinges upon the exercise of religion.

Jack Moline 07-22-2014

In Jewish folklore, a golem is an anthropomorphic entity created from inanimate matter. Creative Commons image Matthias Ripp.

Corporations are not people — no matter what five Supreme Court justices and a failed presidential candidate may say.

I take that position on the basis of my religious faith, the very test that the justices applied in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.

My tradition tells me to ask essential questions.

So here is where I start: May a golem be counted in a minyan? A minyan is a quorum required for certain Jewish prayers, and a golem is a mythological creature created from clay and animated by a sacred incantation.

The golem’s “sculptor” controls its actions; it has no real will of its own.

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