On Jan. 16, our nation will observe National Religious Freedom Day. This day commemorates the Virginia General Assembly’s adoption of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom back in 1786. As Jefferson’s statute proclaimed, religious freedom is among the “natural rights of mankind.” Yet to this day, billions of people abroad routinely are denied this liberty.
Given the terrorist attacks of the last few weeks, one might be forgiven for feeling a bit bleak about the human species, its frequent use of violence and its failure to negotiate solutions. We must be hard-wired for violence. Or perhaps “war is a force that gives us meaning,” as Chris Hedges put it in his 2002 book of the same title.
It turns out, however, that we’re evolutionarily wired not for violence but for cooperation.
"The vast majority of the people on the planet awake on a typical morning and live through a violence-free day — and this experience generally continues day after day after day," writes Douglas Fry.
"The real story should be the 13,748 gazillion times human beings default to cooperation and kindness!"
Amid ongoing violence between Palestinians and Israelis, a school in Jaffa seems more determined than ever to teach Arab and Jewish children about coexistence.
In a sunny playground here just 3 miles south of Tel Aviv, children paint recycled tires in vibrant colors and refurbish wooden furniture to beautify a place that many in the community say is their best chance at a peaceful future.
This is the Jaffa branch of “Yad b’Yad” — or “Hand in Hand” in both Hebrew and Arabic — a school made up of four kindergarten and two first-grade classes that aims to respond to growing Jewish-Arab segregation and violence with mutual respect and open dialogue.
“Psychologically, this is the only place where we feel that my children, and my neighbor’s children, are secure,” said Hani Chamy, an Arab engineer and generations-old resident of Jaffa who was one of the first parents to send her two girls to the pre-school.
“It’s a great relief.”
My rabbinic colleague, David Saperstein, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, issued a “glass half full” report earlier this month, noting that “… over the last several years there’s been a steady increase in the percentage of people who live in countries that … have serious restrictions on religious freedom.”
At the same time, he noted, “we’ve seen enormous expansion of interfaith efforts on almost every continent to try and address the challenges.”
Much of that “enormous expansion of interfaith efforts” can be traced to the historic Nostra Aetate (Latin for “In Our Time”) Declaration that the world’s Catholic bishops adopted 50 years ago at the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council.
A majority of evangelical pastors consider Islam to be “spiritually evil,” according to one just-released poll, but on Oct. 23 an evangelical pastor and an imam took turns talking about their friendship and mutual respect.
Texas Pastor Bob Roberts and Virginia Imam Mohamed Magid joined dozens of other religious leaders in prayer at the Washington National Cathedral before signing a pledge to denounce religious bigotry and asking elected officials and presidential candidates to join them.
“I love Muslims as much as I love Christians,” said Pastor Bob Roberts, of Northwood Church in Keller, Texas, before leading a prayer at the “Beyond Tolerance” event.
“Jesus, when you get hold of us, there’s nobody we don’t love.”
So here’s my question: Is it possible to fully embrace my religious tradition, to be able to articulate eloquently what is distinctive, and true, and holy, and meaningful, and beautiful and life-giving, and even genius about it without denigrating or playing off of another one? Does my tradition have to be superior to another in order to be true, holy, meaningful, etc.? Does it have to be the only one that conveys what is true, holy, meaningful, etc.? Do we have to compete or can we cooperate?
I’m a Christian. Not always a well-behaved or particularly perspicacious one, but a Christian all the same. I have intentionally been Christian for a long time now. Did I choose this tradition? Yes. Did I canvass all available religions before I chose, picking Christianity as the clearly superior one to all others? No. I am a mere mortal with limited time on this earth, so I have not explored all of the world’s religions, made a spread sheet to compare them like a Consumer Reports product search, and then chosen the “Best Buy.” Christianity rings true to my experience (except where it doesn’t) and gives me language to articulate what I’m experiencing and what I’m hoping for at any given moment. If you ask me, I can most certainly tell you what is distinctive, true, holy, meaningful, beautiful, life-giving, and even genius about it. You’ll need to set aside some time.
A new voice is emerging in the evangelical community, and it’s turning away from the church’s vocal opposition to homosexuality in favor of a more tolerant attitude.
Researchers at Baylor University found that 24 percent of evangelicals were “ambivalent,” meaning they support civil unions or legal recognition of gay relationships, despite harboring a moral opposition to homosexuality.
“What you have is this increase in people coming out publicly and saying, ‘I don’t want to be a part of this anti-gay rights movement as an evangelical,’” said Lydia Bean, assistant professor of sociology at Baylor and co-author of the study.
The study, “How the Messy Middle Finds a Voice: Evangelicals and Structured Ambivalence towards Gays and Lesbians,” analyzed national data from the 2010 Baylor Religion Survey, conducted by Gallup.
I prefer my revolutions to be simple: A corrupt dictator/tyrant, an oppressed population, inspired reformers who risk their lives, calls for democracy, waves of marchers in the streets, background music from Les Misérables. The stories from Tunis and Cairo were epochal. The Arab spring was in full bloom as calls for participatory government could be heard from every corner of the Middle East.
Then there was Syria. The Assad government has been infamous in its intolerance to dissent. It is a military regime whose 30-year leadership under Hafez al-Assad (1930-2000) established it as one of the most severe in the region. In 2,000, after the death of Hafez, the world was intrigued to see his second son -- Bashar al-Assad -- ascend the throne. Bashar was an ophthalmologist who had studied in London, but because of his older brother's death in a car accident in 1994, he was called to follow his father. Bashar speaks English and French fluently and has been as critical of the U.S. as he has been of Israel.