Knowing when to hold my peace

WikiBookshelfThe winter issue of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review features an essay by blogger RJ Eskow (a regular at The Huffington Post) about the challenge of balancing blog-inspired activism with Buddhist disciplines. Both the promise and the limits of Eskow’s vision appear in his lede:

There is no way out of a spiritual battle
There is no way you can avoid taking sides

In the years since Diane di Prima wrote those words in a poem called “Rant,” the United States has become a rantocracy of screaming politicians, pundits, and talk radio hosts. They shout, even when they whisper. Some of us try to make ourselves heard above the shouting, and that raises Buddhist questions: Can a person maintain equanimity and stay in the political debate? And what about the precept of right speech? It forbids lying, of course. But it also means no harsh words, rumor-mongering, or frivolous talk.

In today’s political dialogue, what’s left?

Eskow acknowledges his pugnacious style — such as referring to “Cheney’s Chappaquiddick” or threatening to “respond physically” to a Joe Klein column (“I was joking, but the feeling was real”) — but suggests that pundits Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity are worse ranters still.

Eskow achieves two breakthroughs: he refrains from responding when one of his readers criticizes him for writing about JonBenet Ramsey rather than Darfur, and he chooses not to exploit aggressive email from a New York Times reporter that would have diminished the reporter’s image. These feel like rather small steps in the rantocracy that Eskow sees in American politics, but it’s something. Eskow has a clear grasp of the long-term goal:

“First, do no harm.” The physician’s precept should also be mine. In an ideal world, everything I write would come with a disclaimer that says: “No animals or humans were harmed in the production of these words.” No one. Not Tucker Carlson, or Sean Hannity, or Joe Klein. Not even Dick Cheney. I’m not there yet, but I’m trying.

I mention Eskow’s essay by way of confession. Blogging is not my default setting as a writer, and I’m not sure I’ve ever found a relaxed, unguarded voice in this medium. Blogging has sometimes made it too easy to lapse from noting irony to indulging unkind sarcasm.

Eskow makes his peace with sarcasm by consulting Dharmavidya David Brazier:

I was certainly finding it difficult to maintain an aggressive, ironic tone, so I asked Dharmavidya about irony and satire. “The Buddha was attracted to irony,” he said. “He was a prophet with a sense of humor. Once when he was debating the idea that bathing in the holy river is purifying, he said, ‘There must be a lot of holy fish.’ And when he talked about Jain asceticism, he pointed out that it was designed to end suffering by inflicting even more suffering — on its followers.”

So irony, or even its evil twin, sarcasm, isn’t necessarily un-Buddhist? “Not necessarily,” said Dharmavidya. “The Buddha judged these things based on the likely outcome and how wholesome the speaker’s intent is.”

I’m more inclined to agree with my friend Frederica Mathewes-Green, who has long argued that sarcasm is of the spirit of murder.

As Eskow confronts the Buddhist notion of right speech, I struggle with Scripture’s teachings that an abundance words can lead to foolishness (Ecclesiastes 5:3), or that the tongue is a most destructive force (James 3).

GetReligion has welcomed me during two tenures, and I’m grateful for that, but it is now time to devote myself to other callings. One year from now, I owe an editor friend a book about tithing. That book will be the primary focus of my writing in 2008.

I will continue writing a column for Episcopal Life and contributing to a blog called Covenant, which strives for irenic reflection on the Anglican Communion’s conflicts.

I think Eskow asks, in so many words: How do I blog without losing something important in my soul? For now, this is my answer: I must blog less, and do more long-view writing that generates joy — both in my life and, I hope, in the lives of my readers.

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State of the law in Pakistan

back cover bhuttoIs it too late to vote, yet again, in the poll to name the most important religion-news stories of 2007?

The events keep unfolding all around us, one shock after another.

The Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was assassinated near the capital, Islamabad, on Thursday. Witnesses said Ms. Bhutto, who was appearing at a political rally, was fired upon by a gunman at close range, quickly followed by a blast that the government said was caused by a suicide attacker. …

A close aide to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf blamed Islamic militants for the assassination, and said it was carried out by a suicide bomber. Ms. Bhutto’s death is the latest blow to Pakistan’s treacherous political situation, and leaves her party leaderless in the short term and unable to effectively compete in hotly contested parliamentary elections that are two weeks away, according to Hasan Askari Rizvi, a leading Pakistani political and military analyst.

The assassination also adds to the enormous pressure on the Bush administration over Pakistan, which has sunk billions in aid into the country without accomplishing its main goals of finding Osama bin Laden or ending the activities of Islamic militants and Taliban in border areas with Afghanistan.

No ghosts in that story at all. Right? The phrase “Islamic militants” covers it all, right now, and if that does not work then we have “extremist Islamic groups” mentioned later in the same story. All of this is, of course, linked to that great goal of the ages — a form of government in a Muslim culture that is neither an Islamist state nor a military/royal machine. Is anything else possible?

Near the end, we read another quote from inside the current regime:

The [Musharraf] aide dismissed complaints from members of Ms. Bhutto’s party that the government failed to provide adequate security for Ms. Bhutto. Ms. Bhutto herself had complained that the government’s security measures for her Karachi parade were inadequate. The government maintained that she ignored their warnings against such public gatherings and that holding them placed herself and her followers in unnecessary danger.

Asked of the bombing was planned in the country’s lawless tribal areas — where Mr. bin Laden and other Qaeda members are thought to be hiding — the aide said “must be, must be.” Militants based in the country’s tribal areas have carried out a record number of suicide bombings in Pakistani this year.

Here is my question, yet again. Is the word “lawless” accurate in that paragraph? There is no law at all, or is the form of the law the whole point?

Meanwhile, let’s also flash back to that Newsweek cover story: “Where the Jihad Lives now.” That’s the package that proclaimed Pakistan the most dangerous nation in the world.

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Muslims celebrating Christmas in Detroit

nativityOf the many routine Christmas-themed stories that local reporters could take on, The Detroit News picked a difficult story Monday that is not quite so predictable. Reporter Catherine Jun looked at what is perceived to be an increasing trend of Muslims in southeastern Michigan celebrating Christmas.

The headline of the story is vague: “Muslims warm to Christmas spirit.” Exactly what “spirit” is being warmed to is fleshed out in the article, but the reader gets the sense that it has less to do with anything spiritual and more to do with cultural aspects of the holiday. But that doesn’t make it a bad story. In fact, it delves into a few of the religious issues that come up when one discusses Christmas, Jesus Christ and Muslims:

Some Muslim leaders with more purist views see celebrating Christmas as straying from Islamic practice that can result in losing Muslim identity, said Imam Aly Lela of the Islamic Association of Greater Detroit in Rochester Hills.

But Lela himself sees it differently. To him, decorated evergreens and a jolly Santa are all harmless fun, since neither is viewed as integral to the Christian faith.

“For American Muslims, if they take it as an American cultural thing, it’s not contradictory to the teachings of Islam,” he said. “Of course, we don’t participate in the religious part of it, just like we don’t expect non-Muslims to celebrate our festivals, like the Jewish community don’t expect others to celebrate Hanukkah.”

[Fatma Muge Gocek, a sociologist at the University of Michigan] agrees. Christmas has taken on nonreligious significance for many, as holidays and traditions do take on new meanings over time and in different households, she said.

“(Christmas) becomes a civic thing and not a religious thing,” she said.

Gocek also noted that Christmas has non-Christian origins dating back two millennia when European civilizations threw grand celebrations around the winter solstice and the end of the harvest season.

The story unpacks a number of issues. Namely: What are Americans actually celebrating on Christmas? While it is appropriate to see Christmas as a “civic thing” as opposed to a “religious thing” in some areas of American society, where do the civic and the religious “things” touch, and how significant is that for a Muslim? Is this story primarily about Muslims or about how Americans celebrate Christmas? Or is it a little bit of both?

The article spends a lot of time explaining the cultural challenges of Muslim families trying to fit in with their Christian neighbors, but at the very end of the story, the reader is rightly told that Muslims and the celebration of Jesus Christ aren’t exactly oil and water. Actually, they could go together historically and theologically for a Muslim:

Though many Muslim scholars are hesitant to place Jesus above the rest of the many prophets revered in Islamic text, given what Christmas means to believers, the story of Jesus’ birth should remain the focus on Dec. 25 rather than Santa or presents, said Eide Alawan, director of interfaith outreach at the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn.

“Christ belongs not just to Christians but to all mankind,” he said.

How interesting that it took a Muslim to explain that Christmas is not just about the tree, a “sleigh-riding St. Nick,” presents and other Christmas fanfare.

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Toll, don’t peal, the bells

RussianBellsThe Washington Post Foreign Service has an interesting story today about the revival of church bells and bilos in the Russian Orthodox church. The other day we looked at the New York Times foreign desk’s treatment of the rise of piety in Islamic Egypt. That story used the prevalence of a mark of piety to explore larger cultural trends but also focused on the religious meaning.

The church bell story by Peter Finn was more straightforward observation than analysis. Reporting from Moscow, he explained how students are taught to perform rhythmically perfect ringing:

[Margarita] Krupka, a 25-year-old psychologist, stood before a head-high wooden frame from which nine bells and a bilo, a piece of flat metal, were hung. She held short ropes connected to the bell tongues and began to pull. First came one lonely bell, and then, as she deftly worked the ropes and a foot pedal, others joined to achieve a peak of controlled percussive sound.

Eyes shut, she gently rocked with the chimes. And as quietly as she had begun, she eased out of the short movement.

“I have a feeling my soul is singing,” said Krupka, who lives in a small town near Moscow.

And indeed Krupka’s chimes are not just a call to service but a binding link between the church and Heaven, according to Orthodox belief.

That last line — along with the headline claiming bell ringing was sacramental — weren’t explained in any way. There must be a theology about the chimes but it wasn’t explained in the piece. Instead the article focuses on how 800 students a year graduate from three month courses on the theory and practice of bell-ringing. The rhythmic tones have been missing from services because of a severe shortage of skilled ringers:

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, thousands of Orthodox churches have been built or refurbished, but only a small percentage have ringers, according to Viktor Sharikov, head of the Moscow Bell Center, which turns out about 800 graduates a year.

During communist times, he said, “we lost many things, and our task is to revive our traditions.”

Students such as Krupka must be Orthodox faithful and regular churchgoers, and they are selected by their local clergy to attend class. The three-month course involves two hours of theory and three hours of practice each week.

Bells were run during the Soviet period but only at famous monasteries. The most interesting part of the story was the comparison between Western and Eastern bells. In the West, chimes follow musical notes while for the Orthodox bell-ringing is purely rhythmic, according to the story:

Western bells swing as they ring; Orthodox bells remain stationary and their tongues, connected by short ropes to the hands of the ringer, do all the work. Unlike in the West, where a bell-ringer often stands at the bottom of a long rope that reaches into a belfry, a Russian bell-ringer usually stands right in front of the bells.

“For us the most important thing is the sense of rhythm,” Sharikov said. “If your ear is tuned, great, but it is not the most important thing. Our bell-ringer is not ringing music. He is ringing a rhythm, and sometimes it’s very difficult to catch any melody in it. This is our tradition.

“For Catholics, for instance, how well the bell corresponds with a note is very important,” he continued. “But what is most valuable for us is how rich the timbre is and how long the sound lasts.”

Again, I’m intrigued but left with many questions. Why are notes important to Catholics but not Orthodox? What is the symbolism of the Orthodox chimes?

This article, found on the site of an Orthodox bell seller, explains some of the theology and history behind the bells. That site also claims that when America’s first Russian Orthodox bishop — St. Innocent Veniaminov — came to Alaska, he brought with him a priest, a deacon, a subdeacon, a reader and a bell ringer.

I’ve long complained that political angles get more coverage by religion reporters than sacramental angles. Here we have a great story idea about the life of the church but it’s not explained enough.

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Blood and ouzo in Baghdad

GreekOuzoA one-question test: When you hear the word “ouzo,” what leaps to mind?

Right. Dancing Greeks who are celebrating something, or simply life in general.

So I was a bit concerned when I read the top of that New York Times story from Baghdad that ran with the headline “Iraq Bomber Aimed at Alcohol Sellers.”

Blood and ouzo mingled on the sidewalk outside a shattered Baghdad liquor store on Thursday after three people were killed in a car bombing directed at alcohol sellers in one of Baghdad’s most heavily protected areas.

The alcohol sellers, who have expanded their business as security in Baghdad has improved in recent months, were among the few merchants plying their trade during the Muslim holiday celebrating Id al-Adha, the end of the hajj, or annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

I assumed that there was going to be a major ghost in this story. Actually, there were several potential ghosts in the story and, frankly, I assumed that reporter Stephen Farrell would miss them.

The first, of course, is that one of the lines between “moderate” Muslims and traditional Muslims in a land like Iraq is the consumption of alcohol. We have talked about this here at GetReligion before. In a way, this ghost was the actual subject of the story.

But the bombers were almost certainly focusing on another kind of target. And that is the ghost I was afraid the Times would miss.

But I was wrong. Near the end of the piece we read:

Most of these businesses, residents say, are run by enterprising Yazidis, members of a Kurdish-speaking sect. Iraq’s Yazidis live mainly in the northwest, and their faith combines elements of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam and includes a Peacock Angel.

Residents say the Yazidis capitalized on the past few months of relative stability to take over the liquor stores in this area. Christians once dominated the trade locally but fled to escape death threats and kidnappings by religious militants.

Mustafa Hassan, 19, a grocery stall owner, said the blast walls and checkpoints installed in the neighborhood to protect American contractors and the nearby Palestine Hotel had fostered the mushrooming alcohol sector. He said that over the past year the number of liquor stores had increased to 30 from 5.

That covers it all, although with few specifics to make the scope of the tragedy clear. In other words, the ouzo is a sign of several Western values — not all of them good, mind you — that remain under attack. Actually, it’s hard to call the Greeks and the other Eastern churches “Western,” but I think you get my point.

Farrell saw the ghosts. A tragic story, well told.

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Headstrong in belief

Prayer in CairoThe New York Times‘ Michael Slackman had a great idea for a story: the increase in public displays of piety among Egyptian Muslims. For women that means covering their heads and for men it means having a zebibah:

The zebibah, Arabic for raisin, is a dark circle of callused skin, or in some cases a protruding bump, between the hairline and the eyebrows. It emerges on the spot where worshipers press their foreheads into the ground during their daily prayers.

Again, great idea for a story. Slackman writes that as Egypt has moved from a Muslim country with secular style to a full embrace of Islam, the prayer “bumps” have become all the rage. He speaks with hairstylists, security guards and other men on the street about how they’re developed:

Observant Muslims pray five times a day. Each prayer involves kneeling and touching one’s forehead and nose to the ground. All five prayers require placing one’s head on the ground for a total of 34 times, though many people add prayers and with them, more chances to press their heads to the ground. Some people say the bump is the inevitable result of so many prayers — and that is often the point: The person with the mark is broadcasting his observance, his adherence to one of the five pillars of Islam.

But the zebibah is primarily a phenomenon of Egypt. Muslim men pray throughout the Arab world. Indeed, Egyptian women pray, but few of them end up with a prayer bump. So why do so many Egyptian men press so hard when they pray?

prayerSymbols of piety are fairly commonplace in the Arab world, Slackman writes. Everything from long beards to robes worn in the same manner as the prophet Muhammad. But the zebibah is a home grown symbol and one encouraged through peer pressure. The ending to the story had the best vignette:

There are many rumors about men who use irritants, like sandpaper, to darken the callus. There may be no truth to the rumors, but the rumors themselves indicate how fashionable the mark has become.

Not everyone has a zebibah. Plenty of Egyptians still regard their faith as a personal matter. But the pressure is growing, as religion becomes the focus of individual identity, and the most easily accessible source of pride and dignity for all social and economic classes.

“You pray, but it doesn’t come out,” said Muhammad Hojri, 23, as he gently teased his brother, Mahmoud, 21, recently while they worked in a family kebab restaurant. Muhammad has a mark. Mahmoud does not, and did not appreciate his brother’s ribbing.

“I pray for God, not for this thing on my forehead,” Mahmoud shot back.

For such a brief report from the streets of Cairo, this story about zebibahs managed to show quite a bit of diversity about religion and public life.

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Shameless double-shot of promotion!

sd02Last time I checked, our amazingly calm and constructive thread about that Los Angeles Times feature on basic Mormon doctrines was at 100-plus comments and still growing. Go for it.

However, let me step in here with a rare double-shot blast of shameless promotion for two online items linked to this topic. One is my Scripps Howard News Service column for this week, which focuses on (cue: drumroll) the controversial subject of the doctrine of “exaltation” in contemporary Mormon theology.

The other is a column by Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher, which ran in The Dallas Morning News. Dreher set out to say some blunt things in a kind way. He opened with some journalistic fireworks, underneath the headline “Mormons aren’t Christians … and other thoughts on religion and politics sure to get your blood boiling.”

Herewith, my views on religion and the politics of the present moment, with something to offend just about everyone:

1. Mormons aren’t Christians. I don’t mean that as a criticism, only as a descriptive phrase. When Mormons claim Jesus Christ as their savior, there’s no reason to doubt their sincerity and good will, or even to deny that they are in some way followers of Christ. Yet Mormonism rejects foundational doctrines of traditional Christian orthodoxy, such that it is impossible to reconcile with normative Christianity.

2. Anyway, the Latter-day Saints church teaches that all other Christian churches are apostate. A heretic is someone who rejects one or more doctrines of religion, but an apostate is someone who has rejected the religion entirely. How is it, exactly, that you can get mad when people you regard as apostates consider you to be … apostate? How does that work?

Meanwhile, my new Scripps Howard piece is based on some materials from my own files, but seen through the lens of an interview with Dr. Robert Millet of Brigham Young University, a major figure in dialogues between Mormons and evangelical Protestants. He was very kind and generous with his time, especially during finals week on his campus.

Here is how that column begins:

Few religious leaders on earth have as much power and authority as the “prophet, seer and revelator” who leads the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

But this life, on this world, is just the beginning. Consider this glimpse into eternity, drawn from a funeral eulogy for President Spencer W. Kimball in 1985.

“In the Colorado Rockies, I asked President Kimball a searching question,” recalled Barbara B. Smith, the 10th general president of the church’s Relief Society. “‘When you create a world of your own, what will you have in it?’ He looked around at those mountains for a few minutes before he answered and then he said, ‘I’ll have everything just like this world because I love this world and everything in it.’”

After all, added Smith: “What is our greatest potential? Is it not to achieve godhood ourselves?”

This is the question that will not die when Mormons face the leaders of traditional Christian groups to discuss that blunt question: “Are Mormons Christians?”

A fussy feud over doctrinal details? Ask Mitt Romney about that.

This concept of devout Mormons achieving godhood and creating worlds “is not an idea that would be foreign to Mormons today, but it is also not a concept we hear a lot about,” said religion professor Robert Millet of Brigham Young University, a veteran of many interfaith dialogues.

Still, it’s clear that this belief — called “exaltation” — is something that remains “conceivable to Mormons, while it is absolutely inconceivable to traditional Christians.” But for modern Mormons, he stressed, there is little or no difference between talking about “exaltation” and talking about salvation and “eternal life.”

LDS Jesus 01The column also includes a quote from one of the top leaders in the Mormon faith, focusing on whether it is accurate to use the word “polytheism” when describing the church’s view of the God of this world and the gods of other worlds that will be created by dedicated Mormons who achieve divine status.

I once made a reference, here at GetReligion, to this interview during my days at the Rocky Mountain News. However, this time I dug way back into the files and found my transcript. So here is the key quote from that discussion:

“I think ‘polytheism’ is used … to describe the multiple gods of, say, the Greeks and the Romans,” Boyd K. Packer, now acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, told me in a 1986 interview. “We are talking about something entirely different, and that word conjures up ideas that are not accurate.

“I suppose that technically, it means ‘many gods.’ Technically, the word is all right. … It carries a lot of baggage.”

In other words, the word is technically accurate, to describe a version of eternity that contains many gods, yet not a word that Mormons would like to use. Millet said that, if asked about the accuracy of the word “polytheism,” he would have answered in precisely this manner.

The key, Millet explained to me, is that Mormon doctrines on this matter have not changed or been abandoned. However, they are being clarified and the trend in recent decades has been toward a more “Christocentric” approach to faith that is more rooted in the Old and New Testaments, as well as in the unique Mormon scriptures. Interesting, to say the least.

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Have yourself a Wiccan little holiday

WICCAN PENTACLEA Christmas controversy has been brewing between the Green Bay City Council and an atheist-rights foundation that objects to holiday displays at city hall.

Shocking news, huh? But there is more.

In response to the fuss, the city has allowed and encouraged other religious traditions to put up holiday displays, including a Wiccan wreath and pentacle. The atheist-rights group Freedom From Religion Foundation still objects and may file a lawsuit to protest any religious symbols on public property.

As a reader of ours pointed out, while the reporter’s focus is rightly on the political and legal issues, it overlooks the viewpoint of the Wiccans who put up the display:

Shortly after its installation, a passer-by mistook the display for the Jewish Star of David, which is a six-pointed star.

An Appleton man connected to a state Wiccan group called Circle Sanctuary of Madison dropped off the latest display at City Hall on Friday afternoon.

“That’s pretty,” [Council President Chad] Fradette said shortly after a City Hall maintenance worker set up the display. “I’m glad there’s something else up there.”

After Fradette’s display was installed and he and Mayor Jim Schmitt publicized that the display area would be open to other religious displays, the city received six requests, mayoral assistant Andre Jacque said.

I love the fact people confused the Wiccan symbol for the Star of David, and the quote from the city hall maintenance worker is a keeper. I just wish we could know the tone of voice he used.

Including the views of the Wiccans would have of course made for a deeper story than the traditional Christian v. Atheist paradigm, but that might complicate things and break the mold. We wouldn’t want that, would we?

For that viewpoint, check out the Wiccan group’s website:

“If there are to be holiday displays with religious symbols on public buildings and property, those displays need to accommodate America’s religious pluralism. I sum this up as: Many, if Any, ” said Rev. Selena Fox, Senior Minister of Circle Sanctuary, one of America’s oldest and largest Wiccan churches, which is based near Barneveld, Wisconsin.

Perahps the atheist group could be included in the “many” that are allowed to put up displays at city hall?

Feel free to send us compelling Christmas-related stories that break the traditional mold. We’ll post the best of them.

Photo from Circle Sanctuary.

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