Wednesday, December 21, 2016

LEARNING FROM THE ELECTORAL HACK (Guest Blogger: Dr. SimonMary Aihiokhai)

For weeks now, my little head has gotten tired of the news of Russia's role in shaping our electoral process and how fake news got us to where we are today. I want to ask the following questions: is this new? Have we not also been doing the same in other countries? Are we mad because we got hoodwinked by another country (Russia), the enemy of the politicians? Russia is not my enemy. No country is my enemy. That Obama's administration declares Russia our enemy does not mean we must embrace that narrative. This is how we begin to sound the trumpet of war. Enough of enemy talk. Let us focus on friendship building with all nations.

What did we learn from the fake news and hacking stories? One thing is certain, all news outlets are agenda driven. Whether CNN, Facebook, Fox News, MSNBC, CNBC NPR, BBC, Al Jazeera and so on, serve one purpose, to make their listeners and readers embrace their own perspectives. This is the reality of life and we must accept it. Even this little writeup of mine is agenda-driven. I want you my readers to appreciate my perspective. Even when you disagree with it, I have made your thoughts to go on a certain path that i intended it to go. I make my students realize this on the first day of class. There is nothing like objective views. Every view is perspectival. Thank God I took Friedrich Nietzsche seriously during my undergraduate years.

Another lesson learned from the current discussions is that while our world currently has the most access to information, this is the first time in the world's history that a few can systematically shape the mindset of the majority of the world's population. In the past, mindsets were shaped mostly by wars of conquest. The Romans did it very well. The Greeks did it as well. The British did it as did the French and so on. But today, rather than use war to force others to think in a certain way, one can sit in one's office and spew out information intended to solicit a certain reaction from those targeted.
What can we do with what we have going for our world today? It is simple; we can either use this new medium to destroy the world by spreading hateful news globally. I am against this option because our world does not need anymore hate. Or we can systematically use this medium to shape the minds of the future generations in a way that a sense of global consciousness is appreciated. We can begin to systematically spread the best news and stories of our cultures, families, societies, towns, and so on to others so that sufficient life-affirming narratives take root in the minds of the future generations. Over the years, I have been researching into the lives of people and societies plagued by religious and cultural violence and I have found out one fact, these persons and communities have a deficiency in life-affirming stories. When societies cannot create life-affirming stories that they pass on to the future generations, life-negating ones take control of their imaginations. As you read this, ask yourselves the following, how many life-affirming stories do you have in your head or have you heard of recently? If you have few stories know that you have some urgent work to do.

Who has to do this? Everyone of us. We do not need the CIA or Trump to do this for us. We can share with the world the beauty of living with a Muslim neighbor, a Jewish worker, a Christian friend, a Hindu boss, a black classmate, a Latino executive, and so on. The power to transform our world is now in our hands.

There is no other time in human history for each person to make the greatest impact on our world than now. As the Romans say, carpe diem.

Thanks for reading my dear friends.


SimonMary Asese A. Aihiokhai, PhD

SimonMary Asese Aihiokhai is currently Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at University of Portland, Portland, Oregon and an Adjunct Professor of Theology at Saint Leo University, Saint Leo, Florida. His research and publications engage Religion and Identity in Islam, Christianity, and African Religions; African approaches to Virtue Ethics; Philosophy, Culture, and Theology; Theology and Economics; Religion and Violence; theological, cultural, philosophical, and sociological issues facing Catholicism in Africa; Comparative Theology dealing with Christianity, Islam, and African Religions; and Interreligious Dialogue in the Global South. Dr. Aihiokhai continues to be an active interlocutor in the ongoing Christian – Muslim dialogue in Nigeria and the Catholic – African Religions dialogue. He worked as a missionary among many cultures in Nigeria for ten years and continues to reflect on the rich experience he attained from his encounters with people of the Muslim and African Religious faiths.

Dr. Aihiokhai comes from a very religiously pluralistic community in Nigeria and professed the Islamic Faith until his conversion as a youth to the Catholic – Christian faith. He joyfully professes a Catholic-Christian faith that is shaped, nourished, and affirmed by Islam and African Religions.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Guest Blogger, Dr. SimonMary Aihiokhai, Ph.D. "I AM A PILGRIM"

[Today, we have a guest blog post from one of our long-time supporters and colleagues, Dr. SimonMary A. Aihiokhai, Ph.D., written on the occasion of the November 8, 2016, presidential election]


Friends, that is what all of you are to me, friends. For more than a year, President-elect Donald Trump spent everyday alienating people. At first, I was shocked at how scary his racist statements were. I believed that all decent persons will reject his agenda. But I do not know if I was too assuming or not.


There is something you my friends need to know, it is what it means to be an immigrant. To be an immigrant is to take the greatest risk, to leave all one knows and journey to the land of the unknown. It is to uproot one's tree of memories and plant it in a new land and hope it will grow and not die. One fact always remains in this process, for some the tree shrinks, struggles to survive, and sometimes, it even dies. For others it slowly begins to grow and it sure takes time.


An immigrant is a person with two stories, of which he can hardly tell completely because his/her audience can never know the complete version of each story - a story from the homeland which is alien to the ears of those in the new home and the story from the new home which is alien to the ears of those in the first homeland. When asked to tell their story, an immigrant can only tell half stories. Such is the dilemma of an immigrant.


For many years now, I have journeyed through the road of pilgrimage, one all immigrants journey through. Slowly but surely, I began to plant my tree in this country called America. It has not always been easy. I have experienced discrimination, bigotry, hatred, and most often been misunderstood. I chose never to give up because if I do give up, there is no home to go to. My first homeland has moved on and I will be a stranger in that land should I go back there.


But what happened yesterday shocked me. A man ran for office rejecting my story and those of millions of fellow immigrants. Yet, he was voted into office by people I had thought have accepted me as a member of the family. That is telling indeed. Never for once did I see a sign of Trump on lawns of houses of Trump supporters in the states I travelled to and lived in during the times he was campaigning - Indiana, Illinois, Georgia, and Oregon. Everyone said they were rejecting Trump and his message of hate but that seems to have been a LIE. Trump was the silent buddy of many.


If my fellow Americans were willing to ignore the dehumanizing agenda of Trump, which was directed at people like me, Muslims, LGBT+ persons, women, blacks, Hispanics, and so on, and still vote him into office, it means that I have not yet found a home in this land I have called home.


One thing I want to do is this - I will intensify my prayers, for that is what has never failed me. An immigrant is always a pilgrim holding on to one sure companion, prayer. It is a prayer that is uttered in the language of those at the margins. The content of the prayer is never clear. The language is never clear. But God always makes the prayer clear. God is the one who understands the language of he immigrant because God continues to be a pilgrim with us who are immigrants.


Let us now use one sure strength we have, that of being pilgrims to embrace those at the center of power in this country to transform their hearts. The embrace is not of strength but of vulnerability. May our vulnerability transform the hearts of those who are alienated by the results of last night's election results. VIOLENCE IS NOT THE SOLUTION.

SimonMary Asese A. Aihiokhai, PhD
SimonMary Asese Aihiokhai is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at University of Portland, Portland, Oregon. His research and publications engage Religion and Identity in Islam, Christianity, and African Religions; African approaches to Virtue Ethics; Philosophy, Culture, and Theology; Theology and Economics; Religion and Violence; theological, cultural, philosophical, and sociological issues facing Catholicism in Africa; Comparative Theology dealing with Christianity, Islam, and African Religions; and Interreligious Dialogue in the Global South. Dr. Aihiokhai has continues to be an active interlocutor in the ongoing Christian – Muslim dialogue in Nigeria and the Catholic – African Religions dialogue. He worked as a missionary among many cultures in Nigeria for ten years and continues to reflect on the rich experience he attained from his encounters with people of the Muslim and African Religious faiths.

Dr. Aihiokhai comes from a very religiously pluralistic community in Nigeria and professed the Islamic Faith until his conversion as a youth to the Catholic – Christian faith. He joyfully professes a Catholic-Christian faith that is shaped, nourished, and affirmed by Islam and African Religions.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

IRTPJ's Response to Recent Tragic Events

Dear Friends:

Yesterday, I was asked to join with numerous speakers from the interfaith community at a rally and vigil, held at the Islamic Center of Southern California, in honor of the victims of the recent Orlando shootings, and in solidarity with both the LGBTQ Community, and the Islamic Community.  I was truly honored to be asked to speak at such a gathering, where a large number of national news sources were in attendance.  What follows is an adaptation of the speech I delivered.  As the president of the IRTPJ, I would like to offer the following as a statement of our position on the recent violence that has affected our nation, and the need for solidarity among people at this time.  

L. Arik Greenberg, Ph.D.  


I cannot claim that I represent anyone other than myself, but at least nominally, I am from the Jewish community.  In reality, can any one person claim to represent a whole community?  I am a secular Jew.  A Jew whose conception of Judaism is to stand with the oppressed, to welcome the sojourner and the refugee, and perhaps whose greatest and most emblematic moments were our integral involvement in the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s.  

As a Jew, and a scholar of Biblical studies, I am aware that the scriptures of all religions contain passages that are embarrassing, or misleading, when taken out of context.  Such as the Bible’s Levitical codes which state that homosexuals should be stoned to death as punishment for their deeds, something that has colored how Christianity and Judaism have traditionally viewed and treated and oppressed gay people. But a religion should not be judged solely upon its most embarrassing and controversial passages, but rather on what we do with them, how we handle them with grace and compassion in the modern and changing world.  

A great tragedy has happened in Orlando recently. This happened in the wake of several other tragedies, such as San Bernardino, and these all exist in the shadow of 9/11.  As a person of conscience, at this moment, I stand with the LGBTQ community, which has been an extremely vulnerable and highly oppressed community for a very, very long time.  My heart goes out to all who have suffered directly and indirectly as a result of this tragedy.  

I ALSO stand with the Islamic community, which I believe to be one of the most vulnerable and oppressed religious communities in the US today, due to ignorant people blaming ALL Muslims for the actions of a few radicals claiming to represent Islam. 

I am incensed when I hear my bigoted colleagues, associates and countrymen—many of whom identify as Conservative, but some of whom purport to be liberal—insisting that Islam is “the religion of death”, or a “death cult”, or by nature an evil religion, thereby neglecting and ignoring the countless acts of horror and brutality committed by Christians throughout the last 2,000 years, continuing until today, ignoring the fact that these too have been committed by radicals claiming to represent Christianity, claiming to serve the Christian God, and who are in reality no more representative of Christianity than ISIS is of Islam.  The double standard, the hypocrisy, is maddening.  

During the rise of Nazi Germany in the 1920s and ‘30s, a highly effective and crucial tactic of the Nazi propaganda machine was to convince the average German that not a single decent Jew existed.  We know this as the Myth of the One Decent Jew.  They focused their efforts on disabusing the average German of the belief that each person knew one decent Jew. Underneath the carefully instilled anti-Semitism that lay within the breast of the average German, European, and even American at that time, there was still a sense of humanity.  Many people recognized that their neighbor was a Jew, and was a basically decent person.  He was a store owner, a business man, a patriot who fought for his country during WWI, and that he must be a good human being, not like all the rest of the Jews that they keep hearing about.  And so it was crucial to the Nazis’ success to convince the average German that if you scratch the surface of any Jew, you will find that they are all the same: money grubbing, dishonest sub humans who were bent on the destruction of Germany, Christendom, and the Aryan race. And that they all deserved to be eradicated. 

Right now, I see this tactic being used against Muslims in America by many of our leaders, perhaps for their own ideological and political gain.  Trying to convince us that if you scratch the surface of any Muslim, they are all terrorists underneath.  That there is no such thing as a “decent Muslim”.  I work with thousands of Muslims in my interfaith work.  And I see thousands of decent Muslims. They are the norm.  And there are millions and billions more that I have yet to meet and work with.
And so I, as a Jew, am standing with my innocent brethren and sisters in the Islamic community, just as they stood with my ancestors many times throughout history, when Jews were mistreated in the lands that they settled in as refugees.  While in Muslim lands, they were treated categorically as honored guests and beloved cousins.  

Many people forget this, opting to buy into the narrative that Jews and Muslims are, by nature, sworn enemies, a depiction based solely on relatively recent 20th century politics in the Middle East.  But I refuse to forget!  For the many times in world history when Muslims stood with Jews and protected them when no one else would.  I stand with billions of innocent Muslims.  

We as a group mourn for those who were lost in this recent shooting, and in all acts of violence that affect our nation and the world.  We stand in solidarity with the LGBTQ community.  We stand with the Islamic community.  We stand with all communities that are or have been oppressed, in any country, at any time.  Our mission is not merely religious tolerance, but also peace and justice.  Such ideals are connected to one another and are not able to be enacted alone.  Peace, justice, and tolerance are the keys to the survival of the human race.  None of us are free if any of us are enslaved or oppressed. 

Sunday, March 27, 2016

An Easter Message of Peace, With a Tinge of Foreboding

Reprinted from the blog of Dr. Arik Greenberg, with his permission.

In Nazi Germany, and prior to the rise of the Third Reich, there was a widely propagated sentiment that no matter how vehemently a person might protest that they knew one decent Jew, there was really no such thing.  That inside each and every Jew was a war profiteer, a leech upon the jugular vein of German society just waiting to cash in.  Waiting to take over and destroy the fabric of precious Aryan culture and to spread their filth everywhere.[i]  And that as hard as one might try to find one decent Jew, the existence of such an animal was a mere myth.  Today, the parallel to this is that in 21st century America, we have a growing and more vociferous group of people who claim that there is no such thing as a decent Muslim.  That at the heart of their religion is a core of evil that hates Christian society, that hates Jews, that hates America, that hates democracy, and that each and every Muslim is just here in the US to profit from our hard work, and that they—the Muslim, as a category—are just waiting to be mobilized as terrorists, to destroy and kill all of us. 

As a scholar of religion, I have studied many world religions, and have a good grasp on the core values of almost every world religion, some more deeply than others.  And I am a specialist in Early Christianity and Second Temple Judaism, so I am not without knowledge of the core values and the varied, and often highly embarrassing history of each of the two root traditions of the Judeo-Christian faiths.  To speak of Islam as if it were inherently a religion bent on the destruction of Judaism and Christianity, that it is rooted in violence and destruction and subjugation of all non-Muslims, is patently untrue, and is not supported by history.  It is a vicious and nefarious lie, rooted in a willful ignorance—arrogance—the same malignant credulity of mankind that led to the Holocaust.  And frankly, I am fearful that we, as a nation, are on the same exact road as Nazi Germany was on in the 1920s and 1930s—far closer than anyone might expect. 

NO ONE is saying that extremists do not exist within the Islamic faith, just as they do in every faith. But to label an entire religion of 1.6 billion people based upon the actions of perhaps less than a fraction of 1% worldwide, is not only madness, it is bigotry, and it is unacceptable.  As a scholar, and as an activist in the field of interfaith dialogue, I work with, and personally know more Muslims than most non-Muslim Americans will ever know.  I have worked with thousands of them, and personally know hundreds of them.  These are good people, whose religion is a lot closer to Judaism and Christianity than you would ever imagine, unless you were educated in this field. 

Over the last several years, I have brought thousands of my students to mosques, among the many field trips to different houses of worship that they attend, and not a single student, after the fact, has ever felt that Islam was inherently a nefarious religion.[ii]  In fact, I have placed on the IRTPJ blog, which you can read if you like, the academic paper of one such student who was so shocked to see how wrongly the media portrays Islam, that she wants to share this insight with others.[iii] 

There are some friends and acquaintances of mine, who happen to be of a more politically conservative mindset, but are more distinguishable by their bigotry than their conservatism per se—some of these friends happen to feel that all Muslims are essentially evil, that Islam is a nefarious religion, bent on the destruction of Democracy, Christianity, and America, and that deep down underneath, they are all terrorists, just waiting to be activated or awakened from their sleeper cells.  Sound familiar?  Just a few weeks ago, I helped lead a major interfaith march in downtown LA which was attended by throngs of peaceful Muslims whose only hopes were to share with America their love for being in this land, to share that they are peaceful people, and to ask that their neighbors stand up with them against bullies and bigots, and help to reject violent extremism in the name of religion.  And what do you know, not a single major US news source was there to cover it—go figure.  Not the first time that has happened when Muslims are involved.  But who was there?  We had LA Sheriff’s Department there to support, including several LASD deputies who happen to be Muslims themselves. Are they terrorists?  LASD didn’t think so, or they wouldn’t have hired them.  We also had LAPD out in force to support us.  The Captain of the Olympic Division marched right alongside of me in support of Muslims.  Is he cowed by the wiles of terrorists?  What about the LAPD Reserve Officer who is on the board of the Islamic Center of Southern California, which took part in our march and was the final destination?  Or the LAPD officer who is part of Community Affairs interfaith outreach, also a Muslim—is he a terrorist?  And what about my students who are Muslim, some having come from other countries to study here, others born here—are they terrorists?  What about the man who often heads the tours for my students at his mosque, who is by day a cancer researcher whose work has contributed extensively to cancer research and whose findings might one day save your life or that of a loved one?  Is he a terrorist?  Some people claim that he looks like one, since his traditional beard and garb make him reminiscent of Osama Bin Laden.  But he has contributed more to the well-being of our society than many of you ever will in your entire lives.  What about my doctors?  The Iranian Shi’ite Muslim doctor who helped save my life when I nearly died of bacterial meningitis in 2001.  Is he a terrorist?  How about your doctors?  You are likely to have at least one Muslim doctor in the course of your life, just as many of your doctors have likely been Jewish in the past.  Are they all terrorists?  Why don’t you say that to their faces while they are stitching you up after bypass surgery, or administering your chemotherapy. 

I want to address a couple of points here.  Many people throw around terms that they seem to think define Muslims the world over, yet they do not even know what these terms mean.  They have made up meanings for those terms that serve their willfully ignorant views of Muslims, that paint them as the bad guy of some 1980s action film.  Terms like Jihad and Shariah and Infidel are tossed around as if everyone knows what these mean.  I will not launch into a lesson about these here, preferring to handle that another day.  But the concept of being an infidel has surfaced, with many people putting an Arabic character ostensibly meaning “infidel” on their social media profiles, as if to say that they are proudly “owning” their identity as “infidels” as part of their resistance to the onslaught of radical Islam, which is trying to convert or slaughter everyone.  Allow me to remind you that the term “infidel” was always a term used primarily by Christians and in a Christian context, well before the advent of Islam.  And it is not the most accurate way of translating the Arabic word kaafir or kufr—which simply means non-believer and depending upon how one uses the term, can be just as innocuous as the term is in English—“someone not of our faith,” or goyim in Hebrew.  It’s all in the tone of how you use the term.  By putting this Arabic character on your social media profiles, you are not resisting anything except your own education!  You are not insulting anyone except the angels of your better nature.[iv] 

What about these so-called “No-go zones” that have ostensibly appeared all over Europe and America?  As commonly defined by conservative news sources, they do NOT exist in America, and likely not in Europe either.  There is no hard evidence for these existing in America at all.[v]  They are a myth.  Even in Britain, the reports of a no go zone were sparked by the campaign of a radical cleric named Anjem Choudary, now on trial[vi], and his neckbearded leprechaun of a henchman posting decals on lamp-posts around Britain[vii], which have no more authority and enforceability than your teenager posting a sign on his or her door that says “kids only, adults keep out!”  This does not qualify as a juvenile no-go zone.  Most Muslims don’t care what you do with your private time and are happy to be protected by the U.S. Constitution, which is the closest form of government to that which is fostered by the real concept of Shariah, which just means maintaining a Godly and compassionate lifestyle—much like how we understand Biblical values—and not what it is often misinterpreted by bigots the world over. 

And although this kind of bigotry is most commonly practiced by those from Conservative camps, it ultimately has nothing to do with conservatism.  It’s bigotry plain and simple.  I am glad that I have plenty of conservative friends that repudiate this kind of bigotry and realize that it has no place in real Christianity either.  Frankly this kind of rhetoric has a limited lifespan.  My job, both as an educator and as an activist in religious tolerance, is to make sure that it ends with these bigots and doesn’t get passed on to their children’s or grandchildren’s generations.  Even if they’re not willing to see reason, blinded by their own willful ignorance, at least their descendants will see that this is the same kind of outdated thinking that led to the Holocaust and nearly wiped Judaism off the face of this earth. 

All of you listening to this have a choice to make.  You have to decide what side of history you want to be on.  Do you want to be remembered along with the Nazis, as those whose fear of the other, of the unknown, allowed them to preach hatred and violence, all under the guise of protecting your cultural values from the purported violence of another?  Do you want to be reviled by your children and their children as bigots, much like we now ridicule the ideologues of the ante-bellum South who thought that slavery brought immense good to society and provided a civilizing influence to their slaves?  Or how we now shake our heads and cluck our tongues at the outdated sentiments of the post-bellum South, believing that the Black Man, as a category, would bring ruin upon their Lily White society of Jim Crowe and lynchings?  Or how much of the world, even America, was happy to rid themselves of the perfidious Jew, another unwanted category, and how large portions of Christian Europe were happy to glibly stand by and watch as the Nazis rounded up their Jewish neighbors, as if somehow, the Jew had earned this fate by being a “murderer of Christ.”  Is that how you want to be remembered, as one whose place in history is beside these ne’er do wells?  Bullies and bigots alike?  We stand at a crossroads here in America.  If we cultivate these sentiments, we run the risk of having our children shake their heads at our memories, saying, “never again.”  Or we can reject hatred, and do as the Lord asked us, and treat the sojourner with respect.  I know what I choose, and I am not going to allow my friends, my colleagues, my neighbors, Muslims or Jews or Christians or otherwise, to be bullied by bigots.  I will not stand quietly by.  Not on my watch. 

Happy Easter, folks.  Ask yourselves what Jesus would do right now. 


Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Dr. Arik Greenberg Answers A Question Asked Through Matt Present Of The Chicago Sun-Times

Dr. Greenberg was recently quoted by Chicago Sun-Times journalist Amos Ornstein in his regular column.  Dr. Greenberg weighed in on the issue of overt displays of religiosity in the workplace and in public, when it is okay and when it is too much.  Enjoy the article here:  
Since the author only quoted a short excerpt from Dr. Greenberg's full answer, we've decided to post Dr. Greenberg's full and unedited response to the original question right here on our blog. Enjoy!
Original Question from Chicago Sun-Times reader:

In my office, we have a Christmas tree where we put gifts for underprivileged kids. Then there's a Menorah and one of the Kwanzaa candelabras. This all seems to be in the generalized holiday spirit, and I'm okay with it. But then there's a nativity scene in the lobby, complete with baby Jesus and all of the farm animals and the three wise men and a big old cross (which seems, from my limited understanding of the bible, to be a little anachronistic). That seems way over the line. I'm lapsed Catholic and it offends my sensibilities. I can only imagine how my Jewish and Muslim coworkers feel. Am I being a Grinch if I bring this up to HR? 

December 5, 2013

Dr. Greenberg's response via Matt Present, editor of the Chicago Grid, the business section of the Sun-Times:  
This is an excellent and ever pertinent question.  Tolerance and acceptance of other people’s beliefs is a wonderful thing; in fact I believe it is the key to our survival as a human race.  But people often forget that tolerance goes both ways.  In some circles, the pendulum has swung so far in the direction of tolerance toward the minority opinion, that often the mainstream folks feel abused or marginalized themselves—and they have begun to register their complaints vociferously, such as in answer to the perceived “war on Xmas”.  While it is important to make everyone feel welcome, we need to be aware that some folks are going to feel a bit left out no matter what, simply on account of their small numbers.  If we try to speak for them, we may do them a disservice.  And we tend to see the majority of complaints coming from folks that are part of the mainstream, but are fearful of accusations that they are being intolerant. 


Rather than causing someone to take down an elaborate and treasured holiday display, especially one that may have been in use or part of the office landscape for years, I would suggest continuing the sentiment that is at play within your office, to include as many other points of view as possible without artificially limiting one religion’s opportunity to express their mirth and merriment.  And maybe even go the extra mile to ask Jews, Muslims, and others how they feel about the lobby nativity scene.  Many of them will look upon these as generalized symbols of American religious experience, recognizing that most of our country’s founders were of some sort of Christian persuasion, and they may not take issue with them as if it were eclipsing their own religious freedoms.  In fact, it has even become a point of humor among many American Jews, that it is acceptable to celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas; the more presents, the better!  But most of all, your office mates will likely feel happy that you have consulted them and asked for their input.  And if someone does have a problem with it, then let them be the ones who place a complaint with HR, letting their voices be heard, rather than presume to know what they feel.  If that happens, the situation can be addressed with sensitivity to all concerned. 


After all, tolerance is about showing people respect and giving them a voice and allowing them to express their religious beliefs in their own way.  So I highly encourage you to speak to HR—not to ask that the display be taken down, but to let HR know that you are open to displays from other religions, and that you would also be open to hearing the opinions of non-Christian occupants of the building.  Maybe one option would be to encourage office mates of non-Christian faiths to share their religious displays throughout the year, especially at times when no Christian holidays would overshadow theirs.  This way, their office mates will get a little bit of education about other religions and no one will feel eclipsed.  I applaud your desire to think critically and to show sensitivity. Just make sure it goes in all directions. 


N.B. And yes, the actual crucifix—as a visual symbol of Christianity— is a very late addition to the symbolism of Christianity, perhaps as late as the sixth century AD.  Partly because it was still in use as a form of capital punishment!  Early Christians employed other symbols, such as the still ubiquitous fish, as well as the anchor. 

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Intolerance Today?

Yesterday, I had a discussion with a friend of ours and had the opportunity to tell her a little bit about our organization.  While she had no disagreement with our organization in principle, she was curious to know if there was still religious intolerance in the world.  At first, I thought that this was a somewhat naive question, but it dawned on me that in certain circles within the U.S., we are sheltered from the tremendous intolerance in the world, and even right here in the U.S.  By the end of the conversation, she was reminded of all the intolerance that certain religious communities (sometimes minorities and sometimes not) have to experience on a daily basis. 

Among some of the first major instances of religious intolerance that I can remember in recent years was the Taliban government’s destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan. These centuries old monuments to the pre-Islamic presence of Buddhism within Afghanistan were deemed to be “idols” by the Taliban government and were demolished despite widespread worldwide condemnation of the action.  This was seen as an example of the intolerance of the Taliban regime. 

There has been a variety of incidents in the newly liberated Egypt in which Muslim fundamentalists have committed senseless acts of violence against the Coptic Christian minorities that have lived in Egypt since the earliest times of Christianity, since before the prevalence and proliferation of Islam. 

Lest one think that intolerance is the franchise only of Muslims, I must remind the reader of the recent destruction of Korans by U.S. forces in Afghanistan (whether deliberate or careless) and the subsequent murders of 17 innocent civilians committed by Staff Sgt. Robert Bates.  Allow me to remind the reader also of the many incidents in which civilian contractors, such as those employed by Blackwater, have gone unpunished for the random massacres of Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The rampant torture and murder of Iraqi and Afghani people by U.S. forces over the last decade of warfare in both countries has unfortunately become programmatic and emblematic of our presence there, despite widespread efforts by the U.S. military hierarchy to curtail this lawless and religiously unjustified violence.  It may appear to some as if the benefits of allowing soldiers to express themselves in violent ways outweigh the flak generated by the incidents—at least in the eyes of the “powers that be”. 

In China, a lack of religious freedom has become standard and programmatic for their nation since the Communist takeover in the early part of the twentieth century.  People are regularly jailed for seeking religious freedom.  An entire country—Tibet—has been conquered and denied its religious freedom, all for the sake of Communist ideology.  I had a student, hailing from North Korea, that had been jailed for many years in a Chinese Prison for seeking to investigate various religious ceremonies while on tour as a professional musician.  Her husband and son were subsequently jailed as well.  After many hard years, her freedom was won by Christian missionaries in South Korea who labored successfully to reunite her family in freedom.  They now reside here in the U.S., her having then become a student of mine. 

Lest one think that Christians have been innocent of the crime of intolerance, I remind the reader that it has become a general war cry in the U.S. to deny Islamic Americans the right to have a house of worship anywhere near 9/11 Ground Zero, as if no Muslims were killed in that disaster; as if that attack were foisted corporately upon the Christian world by the entire Muslim world.  This is tantamount to denying German and Polish Christians the right to have churches anywhere nearby the sites of former Nazi concentration camps, interpreting the Holocaust corporately as an act of Christian violence.  In addition, the intolerance embodied by Pastor Terry Jones, who has called for the burning of Korans, is by no means an isolated sentiment.  Many conservative and fundamentalist Christians today seem to have a very uninformed attitude toward Islam, their fellow Abrahamic faith, as if they did not worship the same God. 

Many Jews today, both inside and outside of Israel, seem to think that the Palestinians who for over six decades have fought for their right to exist in the nation of Israel, are interlopers, intruders, invaders, when in fact, there is strong genetic and anthropological evidence that the Palestinian people are genealogically and ethnically related to the Jews—that many of them are descendants of Jews who remained in the land of Palestine during the many expulsions and diasporas in which the majority of Jews migrated to Eastern and Southern Europe.  That is to say, the Muslim and Christian faith of many of these Palestinians is a recent change of identity of these long lost brethren—children of Jacob and Abraham. 

And needless to say, Jews themselves still suffer sometimes overt and sometimes subtle oppression and anti-Semitic behavior all around the world.  It was only a few years ago that one could see commonly posted backlash against the Jews as “Christ killers” right after the premier of the film, The Passion of the Christ”, whether intended by the filmmaker or not.  Churches in random places proudly presented their anti-Semitic sentiments on their billboards and marquees: “Jews killed the Lord Jesus”.  As a secular Jew, my father used to remind me often that “you can forget you are a Jew for only so long in this world, until there is an anti-Semite there to remind you.”

So, is there a need for tolerance in our world?  Does an organization that promotes religious tolerance still have a place?  Or are we merely barking up a tree that has already been cut down or replanted?  Is it a vain argument or a moot point, such as the outcome of the Civil War?  Or do we have a job to do, mandated not only by a benevolent and tolerant God, but also by human decency?  You better believe we do.  I’m devoting my life to it.  Who’s with me?  Volunteer to help the Institute and other tolerance-oriented non-profits.  Stand up and be counted!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Visit to a Mosque - A Student's Perspective

Last semester, one of my students was kind enough to grant permission for me to share one of her reaction papers here.  It was on the occasion of her visit to a mosque in Orange County, California.  So without further ado, I will post the paper in its entirety, unedited, with many thanks to Erica C., the author.  I shall be posting other such papers in the near future.

Dr. Arik

Erica C.

Theology 180


Experiencing Islam

            Throughout my entire experience and reflection after, I realized the vast amount of information that I was unaware of and how misperceived Islam truly is. I am very glad that I was able to attend this service and grow closer with my long time friend who I was fortunate enough to attend the service with. Very proudly, I can now say that I am enlightened and have cultured myself to another religion and am eager to continue to do so with other religions.

            My best friend is Muslim and was more than willing to invite me with her to attend a Friday prayer service held near UC Irvine. Since the service was held at around 1:00PM, we were only able to attend the service in between her classes. The service I attended is called the Jumu’ah which is a group prayer and a sermon. Due to the location, the service was mainly held for local students and the Islamic mosque was relatively small with one general area that lead into a large empty room designated for prayer. The room had no pictures or sculptures and the floor space was filled with prayer mats that were faced toward the front where there was a small podium all facing in the direction of Mecca, the Islamic holy land. Before Jumu’ah began, everyone had to cleanse themselves by washing their feet, hands, and neck. Taking their place on the mats, I noticed that men were lined up in the front and women were aligned behind them. The few children that attended were usually at their mother’s side or on the ends of the rows.  The service began with a muzim, the prayer leader, leading adhan, a call to prayer and statement of faith.  Then, individual prayers done and another adhan is recited before the Jumu’ah actually began. The khatib is the designated man who gives the sermon which was given in a mixture of Arabic and English to cater the variety of the people present.  After the sermon, the khatib says the dua, a connection to God, and then the khatib, acting as the iqama, continued to lead the group prayer consisting of two rakahs. Prior to the service, I asked my friend the specific names given for the prayers and the order, so I could follow along with the service and therefore have more insight while conducting my observation.

            After the service, I was able to meet Yasmine, who served as my guide and was in charge of maintenance for the mosque. She was able to provide more information about the purpose behind this particular service and why it was conducted in such manner. During the chaotic cleansing process, I wondered why it was necessary to wash right before prayer instead of at home. I learned that the cleansing process was very important because, like the introductory prayers which served to clean the mind, washing served to cleanse the body physically.  In Islam, worshipers address their deity through prayer and they believe that they connect with God. Therefore, they need to be clean in all aspects before inviting God into them. I now realize that the physically cleansing is just as important as mentally cleansing because of the tangible finality it provides. One of the first things I noticed was the lack of decorative wall fixtures or shrines. Jasmine explained that the plainness was done purposely because in Islam, God is not meant to be pictures and they do not want to seem as if they are worshiping a portrayed image.  

Curiosity also led me to question the purpose of the prayers before the Jumu’ah and Jasmine explained that it was to center everyone’s minds and reclaim themselves for God before beginning the Jumu’ah. This was very comparable to the reciting the Mystery of Faith that I practice as a catholic which serves the same exact same purpose—reclaiming oneself for God.             During the service, I noticed that the khatib said the sermon at the podium, but to lead the prayers he joined the people. The khatib serves as a sort of interpreter of God’s word, but is not to be put at a higher level and therefore he prays on the ground next to the fellow worshipers. I found this to be very assuring because it creates a visual sense of unity in prayer that is not as clearly found in my catholic religion. The arrangement of men in the front and women behind them struck me as odd because it seemed to establish hierarchy with men above women. However, I quickly learned that this arrangement was not meant to show power, but to show respect to the women. Since the prayers involved a series of kneeling and standing, women were placed behind men, so men would not be disrespectful by staring at the women and women were not put in a position of disrespecting their bodies.  Due to this arrangement, the space was more longitude based and had a vertical gradation of the people. Reinforcing the sense of unity, this gradation was not meant in any way to show power and there is no “front” meaning that every single person is praying equally and being at the “front” does not make your prayer stronger or more meaningful than a person’s prayer in the “back”.

            Thanks to in-class discussions and my friendship, I always had a sense of what was visually done in a prayer service, but it was not until now that I learned the associated meaning. I had many presumptions and questions about the gender hierarch that seemed to be shown because initially I thought the row organization was to show that men were closer to God.  From these assumptions, I was influenced to believe that only women are made to show modesty and I assumed this meant that only women needed purification and restrictions. However, I was blatantly wrong. Men show modesty through more internal control and through their respect of women and women demonstrate their modesty more visually through clothes and hijabs. The relationship between men and women was perhaps the greatest thing I have learned from this experience and I feel very ignorant not knowing beforehand.  

            Another main lesson that I took away from this experience was the strong similarity between my personal catholic faith and the Islamic faith that I was fortunate enough to experience. Again, due to my friendship, I always just assumed that Islam was an older faith because of the very traditional and conservative aspects that I had heard about or witnessed. However, in class and throughout the service, I realized many similarities between Islam and Christianity. The most obvious similarity was the sermon given by khatib and the homily given by the priest. The sermon’s purpose is to teach a lesson for that particular prayer service and from what I was told there is no set topic for each sermon. Since there was primarily youth worshipers, the khatib made the sermon very relatable by taking a story from his personal life and current events and putting it into a religious perspective.  The main difference is a homily usually relates the designated readings to everyday life and in the sermon the topic is more freely chosen, but the purpose of the two is to relate something back to a faith in God. The message that was said in the sermon was something that I could have easily heard about in a homily at mass. It is a shame that the media has led to a large misunderstanding of Islam when in reality it is very similar to widely accepted faiths.

            After the service was done, it was very mind stimulating to discuss with my friend the similarities that I saw and how there are the same basic intentions with our faith.  I am now enlightened to the fact that Islam is not what the media portrays it to be and want to share this insight with others.