Friday, September 21, 2007

Seeking the Road to Salvation

On this erev Yom Kippur, as the gate of the year closes, we Jews acknowledge that God controls all, but that humans can "temper the divine decree." In Jewish belief, God cannot forgive all sins. The sins we commit against others have to be forgiven by those we sin against. Why is this? Thomas Merton, a (Catholic) Trappist monk famous for his writings of faith--may his soul rest in peace--writes of the need we have of others for our own salvation. He writes,

God has willed that we should all depend on one another for our salvation, and all strive together for our own mutual good and our own common salvation.

Jesus embraced the Jewish notion of forgiveness, teaching the disciples to pray, "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." In this prayer, it is we who must forgive those who sin against us, not God, and vice versa.

If we didn't need to seek forgiveness from those we sin against, we would never learn what it means to be a friend, or a lover, or a member of a community. If God doesn't forgive our sins against others, it is likely out of love.

Perhaps the path to salvation is not a narrow, lonely road, or an opening in a quickly closing gate, but an embrace. Let us seek it out together.

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Friday, September 7, 2007

Same-Sex Marriage Bans and Spiritual Separation

There is a perspective that perhaps we have lost in the public arena about law, namely, that it has a spiritual dimension. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminds us about this in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail." He writes,

Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality....Paul Tillich said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression 'of man's tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness?

Dr. King's position that laws enforcing separation of peoples denigrate human personality and dehumanize us all. He believes that these laws are rooted in our fallen and sinful natures and mirror the tragic separation of man and the divine. In King's view, just laws point toward brotherhood, and even though they may be created by a majority, the minority will find them suitable.

Are not same-sex marriage bans and laws denying equal rights to LGBTQ people laws that are rooted in separation that diminish human personality? Certainly the gay community does not willingly live under anti-gay laws that deny us visitation rights to see partners in hospitals or custody rights to our children. Certainly our personalities are not enhanced by living without the same life options and privileges that heterosexuals enjoy. Laws such as these enforce marginalization and damage our human community for the sake of maintaining the status quo.

You may argue that I am taking Dr. King's words out of context and using them to advocate a cause that he would not support. It is important to note that in "Letter from Birmingham Jail," Dr. King uses the words of Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence to support his case for civil rights. While Jefferson himself likely would not have been marching with Dr. King in Selma due to his personal racism and fear that giving freedom to African-Americans would cause civil unrest, Jefferson's words were still liberating and prophetic. I do not know if Dr. King would support gay rights if he were alive today. While he rooted his faith in strict biblical interpretation, he also considered himself like Jesus, who was, as he argues, "an extremist for love."

Even though the laws denying equality to LGBTQ people are not as far reaching and debilitating as Jim Crow segregation, they are unjust laws rooted in the principle of separation nonetheless. To let these laws stand would be a great spiritual mistake.

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Sunday, August 19, 2007

If Diversity is Wrong, I Don't Wanna Be Right

The Boston Globe's Aug. 5 article, "The Downside of Diversity," highlights Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam's findings that diversity deters civic engagement. According to the article, "the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects." The Globe reports that this finding stunned the liberally-minded Putnam, while validating Conservative pundits who have been down on diversity for years.

The findings of the study are not an indicator that diversity is bad for us. Rather, the study indicates that our thinking about diversity needs to change. If we don't feel engaged in our communities because they are diverse, then shame on us.

White Americans historically have been the most afraid of living in heterogeneous communities, and the blame for this research should lie on us. Since the days of slavery, white people have segregated themselves apart, living in fear of losing power and privilege. De jure segregation outlawed in 1954, white people kept it alive through de facto segregation by fleeing to suburbs on interstate highways built to evacuate cities under nuclear attack during the Cold War era. The nuclear attack never came, but white people were sufficiently terrified of living in interracial neighborhoods enough to flee just the same.

As W.E.B. DuBois argued, the 13th and 14th amendments to the Constitution weren't for African-Americans, they were for white people. African-Americans already knew they were free; it was white people that needed to be educated of this fact. White people needed to be educated that citizenship not be denied a person due to skin color. Perhaps it is white Americans again that need to be educated that diversity is our greatest asset: difference may lead to misunderstanding, but also to conversation, which begets growth and enlightenment. Without difference, we cannot be challenged or truly creative. We cannot reach our fullest potential.

The ancient Mayans believed that it was difference which propelled the universe forward due to the inherent creative energy in conflict. If we shield ourselves from conflict, what have we lost? Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote, "I am a part of all that I have met." Similarly, St. Augustine wrote, "The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page." How small are we who do not open ourselves to those different from us, and how greatly to be pitied.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Hope is a Water Issue and Vice Versa

Mayyim chayyim, or "living waters" is a term originating in the Hebrew Bible dealing with laws of purity. For a person ritually unclean to become clean again, s/he would have to self-immerse in a body of natural, moving water in order to be restored to the community and to God. Practicing Jews today immerse themselves in a mikveh for ritual cleansing and renewal. The notion of water as purifying of course is inherent in belief systems worldwide, but Judaism offers a perspective that is much overlooked and very important for us in thinking about our world's water issues today: the root of the Hebrew word mikveh means "to hope," and the act of immersion is a transformation likened to rebirth. That water is inextricably linked to hope and transformation is a concept we should embrace and utilize in our policymaking.

That water scarcity and pollution lead to hope loss and desperate measures for many people around the world is well documented. After years of the West mislabeling the Darfur crisis as an "ethnic" conflict, water scarcity seems to lie at the root of the issue. In the recent special issue of "The Crisis," NAACP magazine, the feature article "Dismantling Toxic Racism" reflects how contaminated water supplies are often left untreated in African-American communities, which are also more likely to be the sites of toxic waste dumps and chemical plants. Rural hog waste lagoons are finally being banned after devastating Eastern North Carolina's air and water quality and affecting the health of many rural residents. Recently, the bottled water controversy has shed light on how corporations like Pepsi Co. have bottled public tap water and given us millions of pounds of plastic to litter the landscape.

Water is a mirror that reflects not only our physical actions with respect to the environment, but also our spiritual well-being. In order to transform ourselves and our world, we must return to seeing water in its spiritual sense: a cleansing and life-giving substance to which everyone should have access. Restoring hope around the world now and in the future will have a lot to do with water, so let's get to work.

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Friday, August 10, 2007

Rehabilitating the Iraqi Diaspora Should Be a US Priority

Too long the US has been asking the question, "Am I My Brother's Keeper?" when it comes to Iraqi refugees.

This morning's article in the New York Times about the vanishing Iraqi middle class, now mostly in diaspora and impoverished in neighboring countries, reveals the extent of our blunder and the depth of our transgression against the Iraqi people. Without a civically active middle class to help the country rebuild, a troop surge will prove futile for providing any lasting stability.

It is clear from the article that as the war trudges on, Iraqi refugees grow more and more desperate. Even Jordan has closed its doors to the tide of immigration. While diaspora communities usually maintain ties and send money home to their sending countries, this is not possible for the majority of Iraqis fleeing the war. Lacking any plan for the rebuilding of Iraq, the US should have recognized its responsibility to rehabilitate and shelter Iraqi refugees long ago. Doing so would not only have been the humane thing to do, but would have also been a way to invest in a segment of the population that could provide leadership and resources to the country.

The Times reports, "The United States promised to increase the number of Iraqi refugees it takes, and the United Nations has referred 9,100 Iraqis to it this year. But so far fewer than 200 have arrived, according to the State Department. Several hundred more are expected to arrive in the coming weeks." I would like to be optimistic that we are going to follow through on our promise, and that it won't be too little, too late.

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Thursday, August 9, 2007

Are We Becoming an Impenetrable Society?

Last week's issue of Newsweek magazine features a worthy article on Islam in America, and points out the unparalleled diversity of the US Muslim community and its economic success relative to other western nations. Unlike Europe, where declining factory jobs have left many Muslim immigrants in poverty and in ghettos with escalating crime, the US has proved a place where Muslims have been able to thrive and cultivate a strong sense of American identity. Newsweek points out, however, that how the US treats its young Muslims--comprising a majority of the US Muslim population--will determine whether this trend of prosperity will continue.

Newsweek calls European societies culturally "impenetrable," resulting in even fourth generation immigrants feeling like outsiders in the countries of their birth. While it is possible to attain a German visa if you have a German grandparent, being born in Germany does not guarantee you citizenship if you are not of non-German descent. French cultural elitism similarly marginalizes its immigrant communities, giving the children of immigrants a sense of non-belonging (Click here for a fascinating related article from the International Herald Tribune about France's "Sarkozy law" requiring compulsory French integration courses for immigrants).

The United States is at a crossroads in terms of how we treat the immigrants in our midst, and we are dangerously close to becoming a more "impenetrable" society. The anti-immigrant sentiment that is gaining momentum and producing legislation around the country barring non-citizens from obtaining drivers' licenses and enrolling in school is harming hardworking people who have the potential to contribute to our society. Leaving undocumented children without an education and making it illegal for their parents to drive does nothing but create more human suffering, poverty, and resentment.

For the US government, criminalizing decent people and stealing their hope while tolerating lying and deceit at the highest levels (Scooter Libby, etc.) is an immoral way to run a country, not to mention a bad investment for the future. If we turn the tables on growing isolationism and let openness and amnesty be the values that guide us in the 21st century, we may just create a stronger and less fearful America.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Our Borders, Ourselves, and Our Classrooms

With the passage of the Secure Fence Act in 2006 calling for the construction of 700 miles of fence along the US-Mexico border, it seems like national boundaries are more real than ever. Yet some scholars have been arguing for a while that globalization has rendered national boundaries obsolete. From an economic perspective this is true, with many transnational corporations acting as essentially stateless entities. From a religious perspective this is also true, as Diana Eck underscores in her book, A New Religious America. Religion has indeed broken out of the box, making it seem weird to call Hinduism, Sikhism, or Buddhism “world” religions, since they are right here at home.

There are spiritual aspects to the boundary issues in the 21st century, as they deal intimately with our identities, our communities and our schools. Akhil Gupta, anthropologist at Stanford University argued nearly two decades ago (1993) that we must recognize that cultures are no longer bound to geographic locations in our postmodern world. With cultures being in flux, our identities are in flux as well, especially for immigrant students and students who do not fit easily into constructed demographic and cultural categories.

How we teach about cultures and understand our students' identities is important, and requires the breaking of old models. Gupta pinpoints “multiculturalism” as a flawed and shallow concept that does more to promote national myth (America as the “Melting Pot,” for example) than actually raise cultural literacy. I agree, and believe that multicultural education as generally practiced in public schools in the last decades has failed in 1) not giving students the tools to become aware of cultural assumptions and biases 2) celebrating cariacatures of cultures, rather than educating about cultural complexities, 3) not promoting religious literacy, and 4) not changing that most schools still propagate the belief that white American culture is what is "normal."

Gupta would likely say that the US-Mexico border fence is a concrete manifestation of our postmodern anxieties of feeling fragmented, rootless, and culturally invaded. This seems true. And as much as it may be packaged as a crisis of “national security,” the anti-immigration sentiment in our country today feels more like a crisis of meaning and identity with a spiritual dimension. For teachers who are capable of the challenge, the time for discussing borders, communities and identities in the classroom has never been better.

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