Religious queries can yield political insight

tibetanmonks6One of our standard criticisms at Get Religion is that reporters focus on politics to the exclusion of religion. I wonder if the press grasps the flip side of this notion. By overlooking or underplaying religion, reporters fail to illuminate politics sufficiently.

Take this story in The Washington Post. Reporter Jill Drew wrote about Tibetan Buddhist monks who struggle with the forced education campaign instigated by the Chinese government. Drew’s story was interesting, informative, and well executed. But by not delving into the beliefs of the monks, she left her readers with questions about the Chinese-Tibet political conflict.

Drew’s lede was memorable. She told the story of a Tibetan abbot and the conflict between his religious beliefs and Chinese policy:

Arjia Rinpoche was 47 years old and a senior Tibetan abbot when he first signed a document denouncing the Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhism’s spiritual leader.

It was 1997, and about 50 Communist Party workers had come to his monastery to conduct what is called a “patriotic education” campaign — 45 days of instruction in the Chinese version of history and a requirement that all monks sign a document accepting Chinese rule in Tibet and rejecting the Dalai Lama as a “separatist.” For many followers, that amounts to painful renunciation of their religion’s central figure.

“It was not our wish, not our thought, but we don’t have choices,” Arjia said. “We have fear.”

Such campaigns are now a standard feature of life in Tibetan monasteries and nunneries. They are one of many tools Chinese leaders use to tighten party control of a religion whose charismatic leader, the 72-year-old Dalai Lama, is revered in Tibet, respected around the world and viewed in Beijing as a threat to the party’s supremacy.

Drew showed that monks pay a high price for flouting Chinese policy.

monks say those who don’t accept China’s terms are stripped of their robes and permanently expelled from their monasteries. If they protest, monks say, they can be jailed and tortured.

Arjia, who fled to the United States in 1998, said that fate was well-known to the 700 monks from his community, Kumbum Monastery in Qinghai province on Tibet’s border, when they gathered for a final meeting after 45 days of patriotic study.

At this point in the story, I think that Drew should have broached the idea of martyrdom. While nobody wants to be jailed, beaten, or tortured, religious and non-religious figures have braved death to uphold their beliefs. Indeed, there is an old saw about Christianity that “the seeds of the Church began with the blood of the martyrs.” So do Tibetan monks believe in dying for their faith? Have they done so? (According to the U.S. State Department, one Tibetan monk likely did.)

If monks balked at the forced education campaign and were killed as a result, Tibet’s plight would likely receive even more international tension. Think of the seven Buddhist monks in 1963 who set themselves on fire to protest anti-Buddhist policies. Such a state of affairs might well spark more outrage about China’s occupation.

Of course, China does not single out Tibetan Buddhists; it clamps down on all religious figures under its aegis. Drew ably pointed this out to her readers:

For the Chinese, the campaigns boil down to a simple loyalty oath.

“The government controls all the religions in China very tightly, such as Taoism, Buddhism and Christianity,” said Kang Xiaoguang, a professor of regional economics and politics at Beijing’s Renmin University. “The government doesn’t only aim at Tibetan Buddhism. On the contrary, it makes greater concessions on Tibetan Buddhism than on other religions.”

As they say in academia, this paragraph needed more “unpacking.” Besides not specifying which concessions the Chinese make to Tibetan Buddhism, Drew neglected to note why Tibetan Buddhists are fighting Chinese rule than other religions. Is their intransigence related mainly to their religious beliefs? Or is it related more to nationalist sentiment — the Chinese are unjust occupiers?

Posing these questions and answering them would have served Drew well. She could have highlighted that Tibetan Buddhist monks are the most tenacious fighters against China’s policy.

Perhaps I protest too much. Drew is based in Beijing, and she must have struggled to write a story about a closed country such as Tibet. But it’s important to keep in mind that in this occupied nation, politics and religion are close cousins.

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That Voodoo that you do

voodoocardsVoodoo, in its New World form, is a syncretized religion. It blends religion native to West Africa and Central Africa with Christianity. Reporter Marc Lacey wrote about the new Port-au-Prince-based head of Voodoo in a profile for the New York Times:

The goat tethered to a tree outside of Max Beauvoir’s home is doomed.

Beauvoir, tall and majestic with closely cropped white hair, is a voodoo priest who was just named the religion’s supreme master, a newly created position that is aimed at reviving voodoo.

His grand residence on the outskirts of the Haitian capital serves as a voodoo temple for practitioners and a late-night hangout for those paying customers eager to take in an exotic evening of spiritual awakening.

As you can see, it’s just a wonderfully written story. Lacey paints a picture of the vibrant dances and rituals conducted by Beauvoir. Lacey explains how the new position came about:

Popular in Haiti even among many of those who attend Christian churches, voodoo lacks the formal hierarchy of other religions. Most voodoo priests, known as houngans, operate semi-independently, catering to their followers without a whole lot of structure.

But many of Haiti’s houngans recently came together into a national federation and named Beauvoir, 72, as their public face. He is now the spokesman for a religion that followers believe too often gets a bad rap and is in dire need of an image overhaul. (Think “voodoo economics.”) Even before he got the job, Beauvoir was a voodoo promoter extraordinaire. With his own Web site, www.vodou.org, and a following among foreigners intrigued by voodoo, Beauvoir is criticized by some purists as too much of a showman.

The piece is very detailed, explaining Beauvoir’s education, including graduate study in biochemistry, and how it compares with the largely illiterate population of voodooists.

My only problem is that it didn’t really describe the beliefs of Voodoo. We learn that it mixes the animism of West African religion with Christianity. We learn that Beauvoir thinks Voodoo should play “a role” in resolving Haiti’s problems. But this is the entire explanation of Voodoo beliefs:

Haiti has long been a battleground for Christian missionaries who view voodoo as devil worship and work tirelessly to convert the population to Christ. Voodoo also has one god, modeled on God of the Christian Bible, but it incorporates pagan elements that make Christians uneasy: casting spells and catering to spirits that are seen as the major forces of the universe.

But you can learn that much about Voodoo from clumsy Hollywood depictions. I want more. Anyway, the piece really is very informative apart from that, explaining how politicians in Haiti reach out to Voodooists in order to burnish their populist credentials. Lacey also quotes people who are very leery of Beauvoir, saying they wouldn’t trust him with their money or child. All in all, a good read.

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Prayer works. That’s a “fact”?

hands folded in prayer 799927Anyone who spends any time studying the history of journalism, especially the American model of the press, knows that reporters and editors really, really, really love what they call “facts.” Some historians have even said that journalists worship “facts.”

This is one of the reasons that journalists say they have trouble covering religion news. Obviously, for many scribes, religion is all about emotions and feelings and doctrines and all kinds of things that don’t fit neatly into government reports and Excel spreadsheets. When it comes to religion, people make all kinds of decisions and take all kinds of actions for reasons that journalists simply do not, well, get.

Oh why, oh why can’t religion be more like politics, where all is reason and logic and fact? Yeah, right.

Anyway, the most recent issue of Newsweek contains two stories — it’s a classic, click here in the front of the magazine, then click here in the back — about one of those questions that drive journalists a bit nuts. The question is: Does prayer (or meditation) “work,” in any sense of the word that rational people can respect?

The first is this week’s Belief Watch mini-feature, by Lisa Miller, and offered this nice double-deck headline: “How to Make Sarah Laugh — Does being religious actually help you get pregnant? It’s possible, says a fertility specialist.” Here’s how it ends:

When Eileen Lyon, who is Catholic, was trying to conceive, her ob-gyn pressured her to try IVF but she said no. Her Catholicism, she says, gave her a sense of the sacredness of her marriage and of her own body, which she was not willing to violate. “You feel kind of brutalized by physicians who dismiss your religious views. If you choose against IVF, it’s your fault you will have no baby,” says Lyon, who is a history professor at SUNY Fredonia. Lyon finally sought treatment at the Pope Paul VI Institute, a clinic in Nebraska that seeks to help infertile couples without IVF. After surgery for her endometriosis, Lyon had a baby boy. Even though she tried — and failed — to get pregnant a second time, Lyon says she is glad she made the choices she did. “I feel a real sense of contentment,” she says. “It’s God’s will if you have a baby.”

Now here comes the really interesting part, and kudos to Miller for daring to go there:

Conventional fertility clinics may be dismissive of the Nebraska institute’s approach, but one thing appears to be true: a religious or spiritual mind-set may help infertile women. In a study of nearly 200 women published in 2005, psychologist Alice Domar and her colleagues found a high correlation between women who said they were religious and those with low rates of anxiety and depression during fertility treatment. Here, then, is the million-dollar question: does being religious actually help infertile women get pregnant? Domar says it’s possible. If religious women have less depression and anxiety, and lower rates of depression and anxiety correlate to higher pregnancy rates, “it stands to reason that religious and spiritual women should have higher pregnancy rates.” No wonder Sarah laughed.

So, is it a fact that faith “works”? Well, it appears that this small study points to some facts at the level of psychology and even medicine. But this, to me, seems almost beside the point from a journalistic perspective.

meditation pLook at it this way: Is it a “fact” that prayer works? That can be debated.

But is it a “fact” that millions of people in a wide variety of faiths around the world say that they believe prayer works and that this “fact” helps shape how they spend their time, spend their money and make their decisions?

Yes, that is a fact. Journalists have to accept that fact and, well, try to cover how all of those decisions affect life in the real world around us (even the public square).

Don’t take my word for it. Head to the back of the magazine and connect some dots by reading the feature “No Buddha Required,” which notes:

Recent studies have shown meditation can yield a host of health benefits, from increased concentration to some relief from depression. Hospitals and clinics are including meditation as therapy, and medical schools are including it in their curricula. As the practice becomes more accepted as something that can be both secular and therapeutic, publishers are responding: at least a dozen books on meditation are scheduled for release in the next three months. …

Brain-imaging research has shown that meditation reduces stress and can enhance one’s sense of well-being. Novice practitioners have increased activity in the left prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that can produce positive feelings and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, says Richard J. Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin and the director of its Lab for Affective Neuroscience.

That sounds pretty official.

My final questions: Should editors at Newsweek have linked these stories? Did anyone see the connections? And why is one a “religion” story and the other a “health” story?

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The angels are in the details

gor0 009When I worked at the Charlotte Observer, a long, long time ago, one of the stars of the newsroom was a feature writer named Frye Gaillard. He’s been writing books for years now, but it seems that one of his earlier works was a bit prophetic.

I am referring to a little novel entitled “The Secret Diary of Mikhail Gorbachev,” which pivoted, in part, on the idea that the last leader of the Soviet Union was (drum roll) a secret Christian.

Of course, there had been rumors, in large part because President Ronald Reagan was convinced that Gorbachev was hiding some kind of religious faith. Gorby had also made some public comments about his wife being the “true atheist” in the family, or words to that effect.

Now, there is a fascinating story breaking on the other side of the Atlantic. In fact, it seems that this is a story everywhere but in the elite American press. Here is the lede in The Times report by Richard Owen, with a Rome dateline:

Franciscan friars at Assisi have confirmed that Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet President, is a Christian after he was seen praying at the tomb of St Francis.

Mr Gorbachev has long acknowledged that he was influenced by his grandmother, an Orthodox believer and is a a regular participant in peace conferences in the Umbrian town where St Francis is buried. Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, has also turned to Orthodox Christianity and wears a cross round his neck.

Father Miroslavo Anuskevic, a Lithuanian priest at the Basilica of St Francis, said he had spotted Mr Gorbachev — for years a professed Communist atheist — praying anonymously “in silent meditation” for half an hour at the tomb of St Francis “with very Oriental intensity” with his eyes closed, alongside his daughter Irina.

This going to be a major shock for the old “Gorby is the Antichrist” crowd. Or maybe not. After all, it seems that Gorbachev has embraced an ancient, liturgical form of the faith.

But back to the news. This is one of those stories where the angels are in the details. Here is one example of that, which really hit home for me as an Orthodox Christian.

Mr Gorbachev’s parents reportedly kept Orthodox icons hidden behind pictures of Stalin and Lenin, as did the parents of his late wife, Raisa, who were reportedly executed for the offence.

Father Anuskevic told La Stampa Mr Gorbachev had observed to him that “St Francis is for me the other Christ. His story fascinates me and has played a fundamental role in my life. … It was through St Francis that I came to the Church, so it was important that I came to visit his tomb. I feel very emotional to be in a place which is so important not only for the Catholic faith but for all humanity.”

Now what this story lacks is an explicit quote from Gorbachev about his faith or his active involvement in a church. In fact, it is not clear whether he is Orthodox or, perhaps, a convert into Roman Catholicism. It is possible that he is in transition.

page0 blog entry260 2The language is very similar in several reports. Take, for example, the following section of Malcolm Moore’s report in The Telegraph. These quotes come long after a lede that says that the former Soviet leader “has acknowledged his Christian faith for the first time.”

“It was through St Francis that I arrived at the Church, so it was important that I came to visit his tomb,” said Mr Gorbachev. “I feel very emotional to be here at such an important place not only for the Catholic faith, but for all humanity.”

He also asked the monks for theological books to help him understand St Francis’s life.

Father Miroslavo Anuskevic, who accompanied the former Soviet leader, said: “He was not recognised by any of the worshippers in the church, and silently meditated at the tomb for a while. He seemed a man deeply inspired by charity, and told me that he was involved in a project to help children with cancer.

“He talked a lot about Russia and said that even though the transition to democracy had been very important for the world, it was very painful for Russia. He said it was a country which has a great history, and also a great spirituality.”

Stay tuned. We can, I am sure, look forward to a lengthy, detailed report in The New York Times.

We can hope. This seems like an important story to me.

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We need one more sentence, please

overhead abaya ha31Another day, another bomb and 43 more deaths. And this time there seem to be serious questions about what precisely happened near the Imam Hussein shrine in the Shiite holy city of Karbala, which is located inside one of the tightest security zones in post-surge Iraq.

Here is the crucial passage from the New York Times report by Richard A. Oppel, Jr., and Qais Mizher:

In the aftermath of the attack, a dispute broke out about what had happened. Several witnesses and Iraqi policemen said the attack was by a female suicide bomber wearing an explosive vest. An American military statement also later attributed the bombing to a suicide attacker.

But hours after the bombing the Karbala police chief, Gen. Raed Shakir Jawdat, asserted that the explosion was from a large bomb that had been hidden in the area. He also told reporters in Karbala that he believed that the bomb was made in the city. The conflicting versions could not be reconciled.

Reading between the lines, a careful reader is going to want an answer to an obvious question: How did one or more terrorists get a bomb inside such a tight security zone? Weren’t there checkpoints around the perimeter to stop this from happening? What went wrong?

This is where the Times — to its credit — dared to include one more detail that takes the reader inside the scene. Why do I say “dared”? Because the crucial detail concerns religion.

The number of female suicide bombers has increased recently, facilitated by Muslim customs that do not allow men to touch women, so they usually cannot be searched at security checkpoints. In a religious center like Karbala, most women wear a flowing head-to-toe black overgarment, known as an abaya, which provides an easy way to conceal an explosive vest or belt.

My only question concerns that safe, vague word “customs.”

Look at it this way. If you walked up to devout Muslims in Karbala and asked them about the origins of the abaya, I doubt that they would say that they are following local “customs.” I think that it is more likely that they would say this is part of Islamic traditions or even their community’s understanding of Sharia law.

This is where one more sentence, one more quote, would offer crucial insight into what is happening. After all, people are dying. Can women search women? What does Islamic law actually say? What passage in the Koran is at the heart of this debate, if there are Muslims who — obviously — reject this “custom” while others insist that it has great authority?

We need one or two more sentences. Please.

One more note about this gripping story. It ends with this reference: “An Iraqi employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Karbala.” Does this anonymous reference mean that it has, literally, become too dangerous to print the name of this journalist? Chilling.

Photo: From the Essence of Black website.

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Half a story about Russian Orthodoxy

town church russian easterDay after day, your GetReligionistas receive a steady stream of email from people who seem to pay little attention to what it is that we actually do at this weblog.

We receive notices from publishers who want to send us books so that we can review them, even though GetReligion does not do book reviews. We receive notices from people who want to cover upcoming news events. We hear from people who pass along news tips so that we will write articles about them (perhaps they are trying to reach me because of my Scripps Howard column). We receive waves of tips about editorials, opinion columns, articles in religious magazines and other kinds of writing that we rarely, if ever, discuss.

Most of all, people struggle to understand that this is not a weblog about religion news in and of itself. It is a weblog about mainstream media coverage of religion news. There are times when that line blurs, but we strive to keep an eye on it.

I also receive quite a few emails from people who, quite obviously, want me to comment on trends and events in Eastern Orthodoxy, especially if the stories point out weaknesses in my own church. Then, when I don’t write about these articles — because the coverage isn’t all that unusual, in terms of being really good or really bad — the readers often write back to accuse me of ignoring what is going on.

Here is one recent example, drawn from the Telegraph. The headline is nice and blunt, “Orthodox Church unholy alliance with Putin.” The story by Adrian Blomfield focuses on the ties President Vladimir Putin, his successor Dmitry Medvedev and Russian Patriarch Alexei II — calling this an “unholy alliance.”

The president, a proud adherent, has allowed the Orthodox Church to regain much of its Tsarist-era lustre and has won the enthusiastic support of religious leaders in return. …

The relationship might seem odd. It was the KGB, after all, that led persecution of the Church in Soviet times, when priests were regularly jailed, tortured and executed. Neither this nor accusations that Mr Putin is restoring many of the attributes of Soviet rule seem to bother Alexei.

Although he has never confirmed it, the patriarch, like the president, is a former KGB agent codenamed Drozdov, according to Soviet archives opened to experts in the 1990s. Many in the Orthodox hierarchy are also accused of working as KGB informers, a fact that critics say the Church has never fully acknowledged.

The key word in that last sentence is “fully.”

PutinPatriarchAlexeiThis is, of course, painful and tragic territory and the reality in the Russian church is very complex. You will find none of that complexity — both good and bad — in this completely one-sided story. And what is the reality? Here is a small piece of one of my attempts, as a columnist, to sum that up:

Two weeks after the 1991 upheaval that ended the Soviet era, I visited Moscow and talked privately with several veteran priests.

It’s impossible to understand the modern Russian church, one said, without grasping that it has four different kinds of leaders. A few Soviet-era bishops are not even Christian believers. Some are flawed believers who were lured into compromise by the KGB, but have never publicly confessed this. Some are believers who cooperated with the KGB, but have repented to groups of priests or believers. Finally, some never had to compromise.

“We have all four kinds,” this priest said. “That is our reality. We must live with it until God heals our church.”

That’s painful and that’s real.

There is so much information out there. There are, of course, Orthodox people who are highly critical of the Russian hierarchy. In fact, there are Orthodox people who have done some of the most candid research into the Soviet era and its crimes. There are people who can talk about the good that is taking place in Russia, as well as the bad (and there is plenty of that).

For a glimpse of the reality, check out some of the reviews of the brutally honest “The Price of Prophecy” by the American priest Father Alexander Webster. Or get your hands on the book, which is out of print but easy to find.

There are many stories to be told, in the Putin machine. The Telegraph article does little or nothing to offer any form of debate about these topics. Thus, I didn’t pay much attention to it. It wasn’t worth commentary. However, the article does exist and you are free to read it.

As is often the case, the best critics of a church or movement can often be found inside its own doors. It helps to seek them out.

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Ghosts of the partition

51BYFMMA1ELThe carving of India and the subcontinent into tense, clashing nations is, literally, the greatest tragedy of the 20th century that hardly anyone in America knows about. It was a nightmare so hellish that some of its images and stories are simply not mentioned. The denial is that deep.

Consider the top of this news report by Rama Lakshmi of the Washington Post, focusing on the latest effort to break the silence and learn the painful lessons of 1947:

NEW DELHI – Every year in March, Bir Bahadur Singh goes to the local Sikh shrine and narrates the grim events of the long night six decades ago when 26 women in his family offered their necks to the sword for the sake of honor.

At the time, sectarian riots were raging over the partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan, and the men of Singh’s family decided it was better to kill the women than have them fall into the hands of Muslim mobs.

“None of the women protested, nobody wept,” Singh, 78, recalled as he stroked his long, flowing white beard, his voice slipping into a whisper. “All I could hear was the sound of prayer and the swing of the sword going down on their necks. My story can fill a book.”

There are, of course, several clear references to religion in those paragraphs.

Yet the role that religion played in the partition is so huge and so obvious that it is almost impossible to describe in words. It’s just there, like a mountain or an ocean.

It is not a simple thing. Muslims slaughtered Hindus. Muslims helped Hindus. Hindus slaughtered Muslims. Hindus helped Muslims. And the amazing thing is that the British — looking forward to some idealistic age in which religion just wouldn’t matter all that much — tried to act as if religion already didn’t matter all that much.

How many people died?

According to conservative estimates, about half a million Hindus and Muslims were slaughtered and 14 million displaced, and about 70,000 women were abducted and raped, leaving both countries with deep psychological and political scars. Riots convulsed the newly independent nations for months as centuries-old communities split apart.

Government documents unearthed by researchers provide chilling details of what happened during partition, as well as alphabetical lists of the names of women who were abducted. Historians and witnesses have said that trains crossing the new border were filled with corpses from either side.

If anything, this report underplays the religious elements of the conflict. That’s amazing, yet I have to admit that I have no idea how a journalist could cover this topic in an ordinary A1 news feature.

It’s just too big. It’s just too painful. And, at times, it seems that not much has changed.

Thus, the ghosts remain — past and present.

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Death, burial and religion

Buddhist templeDeath and burial issues bring up a complex mix of beliefs, faith, rituals, customs and cultural traditions. The Chicago Tribune‘s religion section was able to cover a few of the issues in a rather short story on the growing number of religious traditions specially catered to today in the Chicago area.

In some ways the story reads more like a business section feature than a story about religion. Whether that is a good thing or not is up to the reader.

The headline of the story is clever but a bit generic: “Death is universal; funerals are not.” This statement could apply to just about any city, regardless of its cultural diversity. As a former obituaries writer, I can say that customs and traditions vary greatly even within religions, but one can usually predict the person’s religious denomination based on the type of funeral they are having.

This particular story deals with the fact that morticians in the Chicago area are “learning to cater to the burial customs immigrants are bringing to the U.S.”

The various cultural customs involved are mentioned early on in the story, but in a sense that is just engaging in labeling. The reader doesn’t learn the purpose behind some of the cultural traditions involved in death and burial until later on in the story:

Today, he is not surprised when patrons look to the lunar calendar to pick the right day and time for burial. He owns several Buddhist statues, which he uses for services. He does not flinch when patrons ask to include extra buttonless shirts in the casket or to burn paper money at the service.

Removing the buttons allows a spirit to travel unrestrained on its next journey. Paper money is an offering for the next life.

“When you don’t follow through with those, you’ve not just provided a disservice to the deceased, but you’ve also possibly brought bad luck to the family,” he said.

Pravin Purohit, who is helping launch the Hindu Cremation Society, said it is gratifying to see more people embracing an array of cultural and religious traditions. He mentioned, for example, how Hindus drape garlands — sandalwood for the most affluent — over loved ones as part of the cremation process, so that the spirit can move on to the next life. The increasing acceptance of these funeral customs is a sign that cherished traditions are finding a new home, said Purohit, a Skokie resident.

“You want to go with the rituals that your family has set for you,” he said. “We are trying to tell you our beliefs and how we want to do it.”

The challenge of this story is that the funeral companies aren’t necessarily going to advertise or tell a reporter the spiritual or religious purpose that is behind almost every death and burial cultural tradition. For that matter, the religious purpose probably varies among families and traditions.

For many, it is more than just peace of mind that the cultural tradition is being followed. For the religious, there is a genuine sense of peace knowing that the deceased loved one has followed the path set out for them by their religion. You could write books about this subject, so it is hard to harp on a newspaper article for not covering the subject in more depth.

A final historical question I was left wondering was what immigrants in America have been doing for the last century to serve their death and burial needs. Perhaps it is not a significant a story in the Chicago area until recently, but immigrants to the United States are hardly a new development.

Photo is of a Buddha statue and the typical interior of a Buddhist temple in Jejudo, South Korea. Used from the Wikimedia Commons.

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