Today (Oct. 4) Christians around the world celebrate the life of St. Francis of Assisi, one of the bright lights of the church and one of the most venerated religious figures in history.
The life and witness of Francis is as relevant to the world we live in today as it was 900 years ago. He was one of the first critics of capitalism, one of the earliest Christian environmentalists, a sassy reformer of the church, and one of the classic conscientious objectors to war.
The puzzle here is not that readers of the Bible would tilt toward the political left. That, for me, as well as for thousands of other American evangelicals, is self-evident. Jesus, after all, summoned his followers to be peacemakers, to turn the other cheek, to welcome the stranger and to care for “the least of these.” He also expressed concern for the tiniest sparrow, a sentiment that should find some resonance in our environmental policies.
No, the real conundrum lies in the subtitle the editors of Christianity Today assigned to Franzen’s article, which was titled, “A Left-Leaning Text.” Adjacent to a picture of a Bible tilted about 45 degrees to the left, the editors added the subtitle: “Survey Surprise: Frequent Bible reading can turn you liberal (in some ways).”
The fact that anyone should register surprise that the Bible points toward the left should be the biggest surprise of all.
"I have no interest in megachurches with jocular millionaire pastors," Ebert writes. "I think what happens in them is sociopolitical, not spiritual. I believe the prosperity gospel tries to pass through the eye of the needle. I believe it is easier for a Republican to pass through the eye of a needle than for a camel to get into heaven. I have no patience for churches that evangelize aggressively.
"I have no interest in being instructed in what I must do to be saved. I prefer vertical prayers, directed up toward heaven, rather than horizontal prayers, directed sideways toward me," he continued. "If we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, we must regard their beliefs with the same respect our own deserve."
I'm sure it will end on September 12 when the news media go back to reporting the most urgent question of our time -- which GOP candidate will win the tea party debate on Monday night? -- but this past weekend's coverage of the 10th anniversary of 9/11 was relentless. (I know I could just turn off the TV, but when you write a blog on religion, culture, and politics, you gotta do the research).
The packaging of the 9/11 narrative, with its stunning visuals, has been masterful these last 10 years -- compelling, emotional, inspiring. And ratings gold.
But it strikes me that grieving-through-media does not serve us well, individually or collectively.
Ten years on, I'm remembering the literature I read and the music that kept me going in the days and months after 9/11. I had Rumi and Whitman on my bedside table, reading them back to back, alternating between selections of the Mathnawi and poems from Leaves of Grass, sometimes feeling like the two were one, the soul of America, and that the soul of Islam were intersecting at some point beyond where the eye could see:
Whoever you are!, motion and reflection are especially for you, The divine ship sails the divine sea for you. -- Walt Whitman
Come, come, whoever you are, Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving, Ours is not a caravan of despair. Even if you have broken your vows a thousand times It doesn't matter Come, come yet again, come. -- Rumi
Until then, the Quran for me was a book of personal spiritual guidance, a convening symbol for my religious community. But after 9/11, I viewed it as a balm for my country's pain, especially lines from Ayat al-Kursi: "His throne extends over the heavens and the earth, and He feels no fatigue in guarding and preserving them."
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was at home in Washington, D.C. getting ready to go to Sojourners' office. I was upstairs listening to the news on NPR when I heard the first confusing report of a plane crashing into the south tower of the World Trade Center. I immediately called downstairs to Joy and asked her to turn on the television to see what was going on. Moments later, as we ate breakfast together with our three-year-old son Luke, we watched the second plane strike the north tower. I still remember my first response to Joy, "This is going to be bad, very bad," I said.
Of course, I meant more than just the damage to the Twin Towers and the lives lost, which became far greater than any of us imagined at first. Rather, my first and deepest concern was what something like this could do to our country and our nation's soul. I was afraid of how America would respond to a terrorist attack of this scope.
I just returned from a very moving convocation at the Claremont School of Theology where I am on the faculty. We were celebrating the historic founding of a new interreligious theological university that brings together institutions representing the three Abrahamic faiths, along with our newest partner, the Jains. The Jains are an eastern religion founded in India over 2,500 years ago who are perhaps best known for their deep commitment to the concept of no-harm or ahimsa.
While each partner institution will continue to train religious leaders in their own traditions, the Claremont Lincoln University will be a space where future religious leaders and scholars can learn from each other and collaboratively seek solutions to major global issues that no one single religion can solve alone. The CLU's founding vision of desegregating religion was reflected in the extraordinary religious diversity present at the convocation held in a standing room-only auditorium. I sat next to a Jewish cantor and a Muslim woman who had tears flowing down her face as we listened to the prayers offered in all four religions along with a reflection from a Humanist speaker.
Deep down I don't believe in the separation of church and state. Oh, I am against the idea of a state church or giving political preference to one religious sect or another, but it's the idea that somehow people can divorce their religious identity from their political identity that I just can't accept. That either our religion or our politics mean so little to us that we could restrict them to compartmentalized spheres in our lives seems absurd to me. I know people attempt to do it all the time, believing in the modern myth that an individual can assume an objective stance in this world, but reality is a lot more complex than that.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was standing in the bathroom of my apartment outside Chicago, about to hop in the shower, when I heard the phone ring and then my husband call my name.
"It's Roger from the desk," he called, sleepily, invoking the name of the morning assignment editor at the Chicago Sun-Times where I was a reporter at the time.
I padded down the hallway in my pajamas to the living room and picked up the phone.
"How quickly can you get down here," Roger asked.
"I dunno, an hour, maybe," I said. "Why? What's up?"
"A plane hit the World Trade Center in New York," he said. "They think it's a terrorist attack."
For the past 30 years, through my work with Maryknoll and Pax Christi International, I've come to know grassroots communities around the world in situations of war and poverty. My mission focus base been largely international, but people, were in the "center of my screen." The environment, I thought, would have to wait.
A few weeks ago, I went with two of my grandchildren, Lauren (10) and Bobby (9), to see the documentary Hubble, which is about NASA's final shuttle expedition to repair a a broken part of the Hubble telescope. We watched in awe at the spectacular photos of the expanding universe. What an amazing sense these photos give of our own location as humans who are part of a larger earth community, who are part of a cosmos with which our own future is inextricably linked.
Earlier this summer I attended a church service where the pastor, a man struggling with what appears to be his final bout with cancer, preached about the hope that Jesus promises to those who trust in him. After describing the returning Jesus brandishing a sword and dripping with the blood of all our vanquished enemies, he invited the audience to share what they saw as the hope that this Jesus promises. The responses ranged from no cancer, to no pain, to no worries about paying the bills, to the promise of an upgraded body -- all of course in heaven someday after we die. The congregation was encouraged to find contentment in the present from the possibility of realizing these promises someday. Our souls are what matter; the body just has to endure until our souls reach heaven. No mention of help with how to pay this month's rent or what it means for a cancer-ridden body to be the temple of the Holy Spirit, just the spiritual promise that someday all will be well.
When the Alabama legislature passed their infamous, anti-immigrant law (HB 56), the religious community in the state immediately cried foul. Jim Wallis and other national leaders condemned the law as unjust and immoral.
HB 56, which will go into effect September 1, attacks virtually every aspect of immigrants' lives. Among many punitive measures, it authorizes police to detain anyone they suspect is undocumented, mandates criminal penalties for those who transport undocumented migrants, and demands that public schools determine the immigration status of all students.
Whenever I give talks on the effects of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian livelihood, the status of nonviolence as a means to resisting the occupation, and how I believe nonviolence is the only way to move forward to resolve the conflict and create a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians, one of the first and immediate questions I get from foreign visitors to my office in Bethlehem is, What you said is good, but what about the Muslims? Do they also believe in nonviolence? Do they understand it?" Even if I don't mention religion in my presentation -- and I rarely do -- this question always seems to make its way in our discussions.