Thursday, June 30, 2011

The National Religious Campaign Against Torture -- Sightings

Call it the Jack Bauer syndrome, but large numbers of Americans, especially since 9-11, have concluded that torture is okay.  Indeed, large numbers of American Christians have concluded that this is true, even Roman Catholics, whose own social teachings rule it out.  Indeed, not only are there religious conventions against it, there is the UN Convention Against Torture, to which the US is a signatory, that also rules against such "techniques" as water boarding.  In today's Sightings, Sidney Callahan focuses on this issue in light of the work of The National Religious Campaign Against Torture.  I invite you to read and respond to this informative essay, considering how a person of faith can assent to such acts (while also acknowledging that historically we have not only assented but participated).

Sightings  6/30/2011 
 The National Religious Campaign Against Torture
-- Sidney Callahan

For many Christians a banner reading “Torture Is A Moral Issue” does not begin to describe torture's inherent evil. Nevertheless when our affluent Roman Catholic parish erected a “Torture Is Wrong” banner on the church lawn, some parishioners complained. This display was considered objectionable because it was “political.”

Polls have shown that more Republican Catholics approve of torture than Catholic Democrats. Fifty percent of Americans think that torture is justified against suspected terrorists “often” and “sometimes,” according to a May 2011 poll by Roper Public Affairs. These results compare with Pew Research Center findings that almost half of Americans, polled since 2004, think torture is justified in order to gain important intelligence information. Half of American Catholics in the Pew data approve of torture, with higher rates of acceptance correlated with frequency of church attendance. 
In response, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture was founded in 2006. Their mission is to eradicate use of torture and change attitudes towards it. Enrolled members consist of a broad-based group of religious communities who join in educational programs, petitions and protests. In June an awareness campaign included the display of banners reading “Torture Is Wrong,” and “Torture Is A Moral Issue” outside churches. Other distributed materials and programs seek to provide accurate information to members.

The campaign seeks to inform church members that under the UN Convention Against Torture, signed by the United States, torture is always illegal and forbidden, despite exceptions made under the Bush administration. The UN defines as torture the use of  waterboarding and other cruel Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (EITs). Ironically those who used waterboarding were prosecuted by the US government because waterboarding was considered a war crime when employed by the Japanese in WWII, yet it has admittedly been used by CIA interrogators. Comparable torture techniques used against captured American prisoners in the Vietnam War were also seen to be equally illegal and immoral.

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church state that the prohibition against torture is “a principle that cannot be contravened under any circumstance.” This prohibition follows the scriptural teaching of St. Paul who in Romans 3:8 proclaimed that doing evil to achieve good is forbidden. During the Inquisition the Church itself tortured and burned victims’ bodies “for the good of their souls,” a practice now recognized as a sinful violation to be repented. The fact that torture was legal in all European law codes until the reforms of the eighteenth century was no excuse, only compounding the failures of Christendom.

Now NRCAT petitions are directed at Obama and his administration concerning torture in US prisons, and the abuse of solitary confinement. Most crucially, the campaign seeks to publicize the upcoming Senate Intelligence Committee Investigation of CIA interrogation practices. The use of prolonged indefinite detention without trial is also being protested as an abusive practice.

Catholics explicitly affirm that each human is created in the image of God and is an equal member of God’s family. Even more to the point are the words of Jesus Christ when he proclaimed that whatever you do to the least of these human bodies you do to me.  The National Religious Campaign Against Torture calls its member congregations to fulfill their core commitment to compassion by recognizing the primacy of the moral prohibition against torture.    

Marjorie Cohn, “Torture Is Never Legal And Didn’t Lead Us To Bin Laden,”, May 13, 2011.

Vincent Iacopino, Scott A. Allen and Allen S. Keller, “Bad Science Used to Support Torture and Human Experimentation,” Science volume 331,  January 7, 2011.

Kenneth R. Himes, "Divided On Torture: How To Build A Public Consensus For The Moral Treatment of Detainees," America, April 18, 2011. 

Sidney Callahan is a Distinguished Scholar at The Hastings Center.  


Editor's Note: Sightings will be on hiatus for the month of July and will return in August.  

Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Religion, Allegiances, and the Common Good

There are many conflicts scattered across the globe.  Most of these conflicts are tribal or national, and often religion plays a role, in that it becomes a marker of identity.  To take one example -- Northern Ireland.  Is the conflict really one of theology or is it one of tribal identity, with a religious face placed on it.  In Bahrain, there is conflict between a Sunni majority that rules the country and a Shia majority.  The conflict has a religious face, but it's also quite political and involves the struggle for dominance between the Saudis and the Iranians (also an issue in Iraq).  When religion is a factor in such situations, it's really not about God, but about a desire for dominance and power, and God gets dragged into the conversation.  That is, we want God to bless our side of the debate.  Thus, God blesses America -- right!?

Although a full review of Miroslav Volf's book Allah:  A Christian Response is to be written in the coming days, I wanted to share a paragraph from the book in which he shares a conversation with a Franciscan priest and theology professor, a conversation that I think speaks volumes to the issues of our day.  In a book that argues that Christians and Muslims (as well as Jews) worship a common God, even if at points we have differing understandings of that God, he brings to bear the issue of Ultimate Allegiance.   This is, of course a concept I explore in my reflection on the Lord's Prayer, and here he argues that the "the fear of God" or "ultimate allegiance" is an important key to overcoming these conflicts.  

Religion, seen as a marker of identity, has swallowed up allegiance to the common God.  Even though God is on everybody's lips, religion has become godless (or maybe religion is godless partly just because God is on everybody's lips).  The consequence?  Each community thinks only of its own injuries and hopes, pursuing only its own interests and its own good.  Neither cares for the other or for the common good.  It would take allegiance to God in love and fear to cure them from self-preoccupation and excessive fear of others, my friend suggested.  To care for the common good, and not just for our own good, in face of powerful impulses to protect the group and enhance its power, the God of truth, Justice, and love must claim us.  (Volf, p. 241). 

 Is not our problem today that religion as a marker of identity has swallowed up our allegiance to the common God?  That is, because we have so committed ourselves to our own concerns we fail to understand that God is much larger than these pre-occupations that lead to conflict.  So, what would it take to shift our allegiance from our own national/tribal identities to that of God?

Note -- bolded words for emphasis (mine).

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Secularization of the Cross -- Sightings

In his book God in Public, Mark Toulouse speaks of "iconic faith," that is, the use of sacred icons for a public purpose -- thus the Bible serves an iconic function in American society when we swear oaths on it.   Something of this also happens with the cross, which serves in places as a public memorial (Mt. Soledad).  In recent years there have been court battles over whether it is appropriate for such symbols to be displayed on public lands.  Supporters of these monuments have on occasion sought to secularize the symbol so it can pass legal muster.  But is this good for the symbol?  Does the defense of its use as a public icon rob the cross (or the Bible) of the reverence that it's due as a sacred object?  Martin Marty wrestles with this question in yesterday's edition of Sightings.  
Sightings 6/27/2011

 The Secularization of the Cross
-- Martin E. Marty

 Weekly, year in and year out, we sight new evidence that defining what is “religious” and what is “secular” remains difficult in the United States. One way to trace some attempts is to read The Humanist, as we often do. “Cross Purposes,” in the current July-August issue, is an example. In it Rob Boston plots the curious, not always thought-through, and apparently self-contradictory actions by “the religious right” which “secularize” the Christians’ sacred “central symbol.” Boston provides legal examples.
He takes for granted that “the cross is the most [sic] preeminent symbol of Christian faith,” the unifying marker for more than one billion people, the reminder to them of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. You’d think believers would guard the centrality and sacrality of the cross. Yet, to achieve certain worldly and civil ends, many recent court cases reveal the religious right leaders in public contexts saying, in effect, “Never mind. We don’t mean it. The cross isn’t really religious. . . it has become a generic symbol to memorialize any dead person” (e.g. in the Salazar v. Buono case where friend-of-the-right Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia ruled that the cross can be a secular symbol. If so, asked plaintiff Buono, a Catholic, “why don’t we see crosses in Jewish cemeteries?” Similarly, a Utah court said the cross can be deprived of religious significance, as on highway signs).
Boston writes that such uses of the cross reduce it to the “level of a public service announcement,” which is “a novel interpretation of law and theology, to be sure.” Agreed. You’d think firm Christians would be the first and loudest to protest such reductions, but in these court cases they promote the secularizing practice. For this “meager payoff,” as Boston calls it, “the religious right is willing to deny the meaning of the most significant symbol of Christianity.” He is brusque: “Rubbish. Who looks at a cross and thinks, ‘My, what an interesting way to arrange two planks of wood?’” Why, he asks, with this reduction prevailing, should believers still be asked to “take up the cross”? Why make it the focal point of churches, incorporate it into devotional art, and celebrate it in hymns? Has any non-Christian, he asks, ever felt compelled to cling to “the old rugged cross?”
Believers and non-believers alike have reason to back off in some cases on this scene, and not always be crabby, jumpy, and super-scrupulous about the intrusions across the “wall of separation of church and state.” Ours, we remember, is a messy religious, secular and pluralist society in which lines are never clear and walls are seldom the best symbols for separation, which is complex and changing. Sometimes to keep the civil peace or civil tone, citizens can wink and live with the mess a pluralist and contentious society creates.

Boston may be over-alert to these issues, but he raises enough flags that Christians, including many not only on the right, may become more aware of the risks. “At the end of the day what will [the cross-planters on public spaces] have achieved?” Not all of their games played with the cross as symbol have to be as cynical as Boston sees them. There can be naïveté and generalized reverence in some of these cross-posting moves. But critics may be doing articulate Christians a favor when they observe militant Christians having mounted crosses alongside highways and atop mountains, “simply and conveniently forgetting they did so by denying the symbol’s importance. They should ask ‘what if the secular symbolism sticks?’” For many, it has stuck.


Rob Boston, "Cross Purposes: What's Behind the Religious Right's Drive to Secularize Their Central Symbol?" The Humanist, July-August 2011.

Martin E. Marty's biography, publications, and contact information can be found at

The Divinity School is now on Facebook! See videos of presentations, pictures of events, and publications as well as blogs by current and past Div School folks.  Check us out here.  


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Purpose of the Constitution

There are a lot of people arguing about the meaning and the use of the Constitution of the United States.  When the new Congress began a group of Republicans decided to read an edited version (one that didn't include the part about slaves being 3/5ths of a person).   There are those who we might call strict constructionists or originalists who demand that we read it and apply it exactly as it was understood in 1788.  Now, a lot of water has passed under the bridge since 1788 was enacted creating the United States of America.  Although we celebrate the birth of the nation on July 4th, we didn't really become a nation until 1788 when the Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation.  Before that we were a loose "confederation" not much different from the European Union.  But the Constitution changed all of that.

Many of the "strict constructionists" have been arguing of late that the purpose of the Constitution was to limit the Federal Government.  As Richard Stengel writes in an excellent and timely article in Time, this isn't exactly true:
 Nor are we in danger of flipping the Constitution on its head, as some of the Tea Party faithful contend. Their view of the founding documents was pretty well summarized by Texas Congressman Ron Paul back in 2008: "The Constitution was written explicitly for one purpose — to restrain the federal government." Well, not exactly. In fact, the framers did the precise opposite. They strengthened the center and weakened the states. The states had extraordinary power under the Articles of Confederation. Most of them had their own navies and their own currencies. The truth is, the Constitution massively strengthened the central government of the U.S. for the simple reason that it established one where none had existed before.

Indeed, if the Founders had wanted a really limited, decentralized government they could have stayed with the Articles of Confederation, but that didn't work, so they created a Federal Government.  Yes, it does limit some powers, and makes sure that authority is shared between Congress, Judiciary, and Executive, but as Stengel notes, the Constitution actually strengthens the center and weakens the authority of the states.  

 I have argued before and I will argue again -- the "strict constructionist" line is a lot like the "literalist" reading of Scripture.  It allows for no interpretation, but if the text of the Constitution (like Scripture) is to speak to today, it has to be interpreted in light of the world in which we live now.  As Stengel notes, the Founders new nothing about health insurance or predator drones, so how can a strict reading apply to such things?  Thus, if this wonderful document, which is neither inerrant nor infallible, is to have any value for our day, then we must allow it to be read, interpreted, and applied with a degree of flexibility.  

Or, to paraphrase Jesus -- the Constitution was made for human beings, not human beings made for the Constitution.  It is a human document and needs to be read as such.  I really doubt that if James Madison were alive today, he would want us to read and apply it in the same way as in the late18th century!  With that in mind, let us have a vigorous conversation about what the purpose of this document!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Reward of Being a Welcoming People -- A Sermon

Matthew 10:40-42

In his book The Hidden Gifts of Helping: How the Power of Giving, Compassion, and Hope Can Get Us Through Hard Times, Stephen Post suggests that the “recipe for living a rich, less stressful, healthier, and more meaningful life than you thought possible . . . [is to] give of yourself to someone else” (pp. 27-28).

The responses I heard from the Peace Week mission teams and from the congregations who helped support their work, such as by providing meals, confirm this observation.  Not only were the recipients of this help blessed, but so were the givers of help.   That is, giving and receiving help is circular – you give and you receive and you give again, and in this relationship between giver and receiver, there is great reward.        

In this morning’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew,  Jesus debriefs his disciples after they have returned from a mission trip. He seems to want to know how they were treated.  Hopefully when the teams from Indianapolis, Lexington, and Lincoln Road, were asked how they were treated by the folks in metro-Detroit, they could give a positive report, because as Jesus says – how they receive you is how they receive me, and the one who sent me.

The mission trip under discussion involved the twelve disciples being sent out in pairs.  Jesus told them to proclaim the reign of God, heal the sick, raise the dead, and cast out demons. They weren’t  supposed to take anything with them, but instead they were to live off the generosity of their audience.  When they entered a home, they were to offer a blessing in exchange for this gracious hospitality.  And if the people to whom they went refused to offer hospitality – well, woe be unto them!

So here we are at the debriefing – something we’re going to do this Wednesday evening when Carl Zerweck and Carl Gladstone come to talk to us about Peace Week.  From Jesus’s tone, it appears that not everyone had a good experience.  But, Jesus tells them – it wasn’t you, it was me they were rejecting, and in rejecting me, they rejected God.   But if a community welcomed you, they were also welcoming me and the one who sent me  (Matt. 10:1ff).

The Gift of Hospitality

When Abraham and Sarah welcomed the three visitors to their tents at the Oaks of Mamre (Gen. 18:1ff), by offering them food and shelter, they were abiding by the expectations of their culture.   Their response stands in stark contrast to the way these same strangers were received by the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Lot and his family did the right thing, but their neighbors tried to rape and kill the strangers, and as a result suffered the judgment of God for failing to abide by their covenant obligations.

There’s a principle at work in these stories that was very prominent in the ancient world. You should treat the stranger well, because you might be entertaining “angels unawares.”  As it says in Hebrews:  “Don’t neglect to open your homes to guests, because by doing this some have been hosts to angels without knowing it” (Heb. 13:2).

  Maybe that’s why we read so many stories in the Bible about people and communities practicing hospitality.  They knew that in welcoming the stranger they were welcoming God into their homes.  How do we see the practice of hospitality in our own lives – both at home and at church?

A Welcoming People

Remember when we laid out our core values more than two years ago.  We decided that two of them should describe us as being a serving and accepting congregation.  But what does this require of us?

Everything I read these days says people are seeking spiritual things, but they don’t think that the institutional church has answers to their questions.  Even if they’re open to the possibility that God could be found residing in our churches, they’re not all that hopeful that this true.

In the gospel reading Jesus says that the way in which people receive the message that we’re called to share is a sign of their receptivity to the things of God.  But I’m wondering if after two thousand years we shouldn’t turn this passage on its head, so that the question isn’t whether we’re being welcomed into the lives of the recipients of our message, but whether we’re willing to welcome the stranger into our lives and our communities.  That is, could it be possible that God is present in the stranger who comes to us?

In the book of Acts, some of the disciples left the comfort of the Upper Room and headed out into the world, bearing the message of God’s realm to that world, eventually taking the message beyond the Jewish community to the non-Jewish world.  They took a  message of grace, mercy, love, freedom, and justice, and while some people received the message, others didn’t.  Some of the hearers of the word found the message of the cross to be foolishness, but the message continued to be proclaimed, and it took root in the hearts and minds of some of the hearers of that word.

We are, of course, an extension of that ministry, even as we embrace the call to be a missional congregation.  To be such a congregation also involves being a welcoming community.  But are there limits to our hospitality?  

Remember what Doug Pagitt shared with us in February about his congregation in Minneapolis?  About how the two young women who found a home in that community, even though one of them didn’t know what she believed about God and the other saw herself as an atheist.  Although Doug and his church don’t shy away from proclaiming Jesus as Lord and Savior, these young women found in that congregation a place of welcome and safety and spiritual wholeness, even if they weren’t ready to embrace the whole of the Christian faith.

Being a welcoming people is more than an abstract principle.  It’s more than words on paper.  It’s about real people and real lives.  In her closing sermon at the Streaming Conference at Rochester College last month, Katie Hays  suggested that all the directives found in the Letter of James about the use of the tongue and showing favoritism to the rich while neglecting the poor, and even the directive to call on the elders when you’re sick so that they might pray for you, suggests that this letter is written to a “pre-missional” community.  They have too many issues to work through before they can invite the world into their lives.  That is, they hadn’t yet learned how to welcome each other, so how could  they hope to welcome the stranger?

Are we ready to go into the world bearing the message of God’s reign?  Are we a pre-missional community?  Or are we a missional one?  That is, have we become a truly welcoming people?    And are there limits to our welcome?
What about people who speak a language other than English?   Or whose race, religion, or culture is different from the majority of our members?   What if their theology is a bit different from ours?   Or their taste in music?  Maybe it’s more Jayzee than Bach.  Indeed, what about the generational differences that are present in this very congregation?  And of course, there’s the matter of sexual orientation, which we don’t talk much about, even though it’s a major topic in the broader culture.

What does it mean for us to be a people who are truly welcoming of others?    

Jesus says that in welcoming others, he is welcomed, and when he is welcomed God’s presence is affirmed and welcomed.  In this there is great reward.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
2nd Sunday after Pentecost
June 26, 2011

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Hidden Gifts of Helping -- Review

THE HIDDEN GIFTS OF HELPING:  How the Power of Giving, Compassion, and Hope Can Get Us through Hard Times.  By Stephen G. Post. San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 2011.  Xii + 200 pages.

            It has become clear that one’s attitudes and one’s actions contribute greatly to how one experiences difficult times, whether it is a cross-country move, a surgery, the death in one’s circle of friends/family, or a loss of a job (just to name a few possibilities).   When our focus is totally placed on our own self, moving forward in life becomes very difficult.  If, however, we change our focus outwardly then positive things can and often do happen.  That doesn’t mean that positive thinking or even positive action will cure all that ails you, but it does make a difference in how we engage the world that we know, especially during difficult times.  Conversations such as these must take into account the deep resources to be found in our faith traditions, most of which call on the individual to look outward to the needs of the other and the needs of the community, especially at those times when we’re tempted to close in on ourselves. 

            Stephen G. Post’s The Hidden Gifts of Helping: How the Power of Giving, Compassion, and Hope Can Get Us Through Hard Times has the initial look of a self-help book, a genre that I have always kept arm’s length, because too often “self-help” books offer easy answers to difficult questions or push the reader to a bit too much self-involvement, and thus ultimately fall short of the mark.  Post’s book is in the self-help genre, but it’s more than the typical self-help book.  Written by someone deeply rooted in a particular faith tradition (Episcopalian) who has done graduate work in theology, this is book suggests that we can derive spiritual, emotional, and physical benefit from reaching out to others. 

           As noted, Post writes as a person of faith, but the spirituality that provides the foundation for much of what he writes is often left more implicit than explicit.  He brings into the conversation biblical texts and Buddhist writings.  That is, he believes that the principles espoused here – that helping others brings health and hope to one’s own life as well as contributing to the common good of all – can be found present in almost all faith traditions.  He draws on these varied resources – both sacred and secular – in a fairly seamless manner, so that we’re able to grasp his basic premise, which is that both the giver and the recipient of self-giving love benefit from this exchange is deeply rooted in the spiritual principle of the golden rule as well as the commandment to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. 

Although he draws upon a variety of stories in the course of the book, one of the key drivers of the narrative is the story of his family’s move from Cleveland to New York in 2008.  He tells us that moving from one place is difficult, and thus, if one is able, it is best to stay put.  But, when one must move from one place to another, it is possible to make a new life in this new place.  It can and often is painful, but when one is able to look outwardly and draw on one’s ability to help others, showing compassion and love to the other, then one’s own life is changed through these acts of engagement with the other.  Having moved my own family across the country, I understand his point, but I have to note that not all moves are as “successful” as the one he describes.  For instance, his wife was able to get a job right away, a job that enabled her to contribute to the lives of others, while his son is an extrovert who quickly made new friends (he also drove his son back to Cleveland every few months for the first couple of years so as to ease the pain of separation – that isn’t always possible).  Therefore, when your spouse can’t find a job and your child is an introvert, things work differently.  But, with that caveat, the point is clear – giving to others, helping others does make a difference in one’s own life.
      The chapters are six in number, with the initial chapter introducing us to the possibilities for learning as we “travel on life’s mysterious journey.”  It is as we take this journey that we learn to find joy even in difficult circumstances and develop the confidence to face the future that has not yet been revealed.   With this introduction to the possibilities inherent in the journey of discovery, Post introduces us to the “gift of the ‘giver’s glow’”; a gift that involves learning that helping others makes  us human, that helping is built into our brains, and that helping others has therapeutic value.  Indeed, helping others can help us live longer lives, belying the saw that “only the good die young.”  There is benefit in reaching out to others and engaging in work that will heal the world.
        Pushing the discussion deeper, Post suggests that there is a gift to be found in connecting with the neediest among us.  There is difficulty in reaching out to the truly needy, but there is also great reward, if we’re willing to take the risk.  From this connection with the neediest, he moves to the “gift of “deep happiness.”  The question, of course, is “what is happiness?”  Post suggests that there are three types, two of which are false and will ultimately lead to disappointment.  One of these false types is the “free pursuit of pleasurable experiences,” and the other form is the desire to exert power over others.  True happiness, he suggests is very different.  It’s not rooted in hedonism, greed, or materialism, but is instead rooted in “meaningful friendships and in contributing to others.”   Pushing even deeper, he speaks of the gift of compassion and unlimited love.  The phrase “unlimited love” is his definition of the Greek word agape, which we often translate as “unconditional love.”  In fact, he suggests we might want to speak of God as “Unlimited Love,” which he says would prevent us from conceiving God as either “Unlimited Hatred” or “Unlimited Anger.”  His discovery of this concept began with his encounters with a blind African American musician, the Rev. Gary Davis, who helped him to discern a calling to study love.  It was fueled as well by his readings of Howard Thurman, Benjamin Mays and Martin Luther King.  It was also influenced by his encounter with Buddhism.  Ultimately, he would commit himself to the scientific study of love.  From a scientific perspective we’re able to see that love is rooted in the principle that humans are relational/interdependent beings.  Thus, self-giving love and self-love belong together, as the Second Commandment stipulates. 
          The final chapter is entitled “The Gift of Hope,” which Post suggest completes the circle – “every act of self-giving, love, and compassion gives birth to hope” (p. 149).  Hope, of course, needs to be distinguished from “mere optimism,” which is “easy and smiley-faced.”  Nor is it “mere expectation.”  Hope is much more intentional than this, pushing us to move forward into the future believing that “something good will eventually come” (p. 142).  Another way to speak of hope is to use the concept of vision, and Post uses that well known Proverb: “Where there is no vision the people perish” as a point of reference.  Ultimately, he suggests, “every act of giving is an act of hope.”  It draws on one’s gifts and strengths, enabling one to contribute to the greater good.  There is, then, reward in doing good for the other.  Altruism and egoism are not two incompatible poles.  One need not denigrate oneself to help the other, but understand that we “love our neighbors as we love ourselves.” 
Post has written a very good book that needs to be read by a people who have become attracted by an ultimately destructive ideology of selfishness.  Committing ourselves to the principle that “God helps those who help themselves” will not bring us happiness or hope, but committing ourselves to living lives rooted in “unlimited love” can transform our lives.  This is the kind of self-help book, I can embrace – one that recognizes that we will find our happiness and fulfillment by being in relationship with others.  It is also a principle that is deeply rooted in our faith traditions.  This is, then, a book well worth reading.

Review copy provided by publicist. 

 Article first published as Review: The Hidden Gifts of Helping by Stephen G. Post on Blogcritics.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Why Did Kuwaiti Islamists Divorce the Government? -- Sightings

Since the revolution broke out in Tunisia that launched the Arab Spring, many of us have been watching closely the events breaking out across North Africa and the Middle East to see where this trend will lead.  We in the West are hoping for a broad democratic movement to take root, though we're not always sure what that would look like.  One of the central issues for the observer from the outside is the role of Islamist groups.  What role will they take and how will that influence relationships with the West and with Israel?  Mona Kareem wrote a reflection yesterday for Sightings on the developments in Kuwait, a chief US ally, that helps us understand the variety of issues that face a very complex region.    
Sightings  6/23/2011

Why Did Kuwaiti Islamists Divorce the Government?

-- Mona Kareem

As a country that has an elected parliament but not an elected prime minister, Kuwait is a paradox. In the course of the Arab spring, Kuwait has witnessed sit-ins, rallies, and protests against Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser Al-Mohammed Al-Sabah. Politicians have been divided over this issue, but many support his ouster, including Islamists, liberals, and conservatives.

This ongoing movement in Kuwait might be aiming for reforms but it also reflects a clash within the ruling family. In order to win the battle, members of the ruling family chose to form alliances with parliament members. As a result, Salafis now support and serve the interests of Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad while the Kuwaiti Muslim Brotherhood focuses on expanding its base by being part of the opposition.

Unlike similar groups in the Arab world, the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis in Kuwait do not have a clear agenda. The Muslim Brotherhood does not aim to make an Islamic state out of Kuwait. Kuwait's Muslim Brotherhood faced a turning point during the Iraqi invasion when other Muslim Brotherhoods supported the invasion, at which point the Kuwaiti Muslim Brotherhood announced their new name: The Islamic Constitutional Movement. They speak of their support for Hamas and Saudi Arabia but they stand against Hizbollah and Iran, although Hamas is in agreement with both, while Saudi Arabia supports Fatah against Hamas!

Salafis in Kuwait are an anti-Shia movement that focuses on the danger of Iran in the Gulf region, especially after the protests in Bahrain. They took the side of the government up until the current Prime Minister was appointed. Both groups use the names “Muslim Brotherhoold” and “Salafis” to gain a majority in the parliament.

Islamists demand that Sharia be the only source for all laws in Kuwait. Sharia is one of the sources of public laws; however, it is not the only one. Acts like adultery and drinking alcohol are forbidden in Kuwait based on Islamic Sharia yet those who commit them are not punished according to the Sharia but based on civil laws like imprisonment, fines, and legal pledges not to repeat the incriminating action. The article in the Kuwaiti constitution relating to public law and the role of Sharia in it has been debated for decades, with liberals opposing the Islamist view.

Whether they gain or lose power, this does not shape Kuwaiti foreign policy. Because of its strong alliance with the United States, Kuwait's foreign policy is not influenced by the Kuwaiti parliament even if the majority campaigned in favor of Saudi Arabia against Iran, for instance. Instead, decisions relating to foreign policy are made by the Amir.

When compared with conservatives in the parliament, Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood both use their tribal backgrounds to get more votes. However, conservatives are less concerned about social issues like censorship, limiting women’s freedoms, and fighting homosexuality. Conservatives are more concerned with serving the interests of their voters who, for the most part, share the same tribal background.

Two years ago, Kuwaiti Islamists (both Salafi groups and Muslim Brotherhood) lost half of their seats in the parliamentary elections. From 21 seats, they now have 11 out of 50 seats that represent Kuwait's five electoral districts. On the other hand, four women, for the first time in history, were elected. In addition Shia representatives went from having five seats to nine.

The Kuwaiti Muslim Brotherhood has historically been on the side of the government, but in the past two years they chose to take the side of the opposition since they are small in number and lack the power to effect parliamentary decisions. In the previous parliament, Islamists tried to create a group with a larger number, to have an effective role in the parliament; however, this experience failed and forced them into going back to their small groups as Salafi or Muslim Brotherhood.

In 2006, the Muslim Brotherhood's leader Abdullah Al-Ali passed away; leaving the movement weaker, since he had invested a fortune into empowering the Muslim brotherhood base, both in society and the political sphere. Former Muslim Brotherhood parliament members who preferred to follow their group rather than their tribes, have lost their bid and were not able to get reelected.

This experience forced the new Muslim Brotherhood parliament members into playing the tribal card and choosing the side of opposition against the current Prime Minister who has been known of his liberal mentality. Previously, Islamists in Kuwait have preferred to take the side of the government because they were in agreement with the former rulers of Kuwait who had supported Islamists since the 70's against leftists. The leftists were the most powerful up to the Iraqi invasion.

Salafis, on the other hand, have faced many difficulties in the past elections which caused them to lose their seats. Current Salafi parliament members chose to be part of the opposition against the Prime Minister, most importantly because of their known alliance with Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad, who is another member of the Al-Sabah ruling family opposing his cousin, the Prime Minister.

It is obvious that Kuwaiti Islamists have been badly affected by their loss in 2009. We are witnessing an opposition Islamic movement based on strong alliances and the public thirst for charismatic Islamic opposition figures. All those factors put together can explain the current tactics that the Islamists are using in the parliament to demand the removal of the Prime Minister.
Mona Kareem is a Kuwaiti journalist, poet, and blogger. She has published two poetry collections and keeps a blog at


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Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Obedience's Rewards -- A Lectionary Meditation

Genesis 22:1-14

Romans 6:12-23

Matthew 10:40-42

Obedience’s Rewards

The old hymn goes: “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”   Then, in Hebrews 11, we read that “by faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was going to receive as an inheritance” (Heb. 11:8).  Abraham is supposed to be our example of faithful obedience.  When God called, Abraham said “here I am” and obeyed, and therefore, he was deemed faithful and righteous, because of that obedience (Rom. 4:1-8).   The question is: if we’re to follow in Abraham’s footsteps what does this obedience require of us?  Is it blind obedience?  Following God’s lead without question, submitting fully and completely to these directives?
Blind obedience is not part of our general cultural make up.  We ask questions and push the boundaries.  What then do we make of stories such as the one told in Genesis 22, where Abraham follows God’s command to sacrifice his son, seemingly without flinching, even though this is the very son whom God had provided to him and his wife Sarah in their old age to be his heir, and thus the means of God’s blessings to the nations?  Should this be an example to us as well?  I mean God called the bluff just in the nick of time, but Abraham was ready to go through with it, so what do we make of such obedience?  

When it comes to obedience and its rewards there are other questions to be asked – what kind of God would deserve our obedience?  I mean, what kind of God would demand that a father kill his son as part of a test of faith?  

Of course, it’s possible that we will end up obeying someone or something, as Paul seems to say, so to whom will you enslave yourself?  To sin or to God?  And as Darth Vader reminds us the dark side is powerful!   

Finally, there’s the question of reward.  Is there no reward for our faithfulness?  Jesus seems to suggest one – but he does state it in terms of his followers being the source of the reward.   So, is it simply “trust and obey, for there’s no other way!”

Do you find the text of Genesis 22 to be troubling?  Does this passage fit with your vision of God?   And, what of its picture of faithful obedience?  Is it an appropriate one, as I asked earlier?   It could be that this simply explains why and when the practice of child sacrifice ended – God simply provided an alternative – a lamb – so you don’t have to offer your first born son anymore.  Of course, there’s the Christological interpretation, where this act prefigures Christ’s sacrifice – he being the lamb who dies for our sins.  But that may read too much into the text, and besides, doesn’t that idea still prove troubling?  And what of the idea that God would  test a follower in this way, doesn’t this present a problem to our understanding of God?  Of course, this isn’t the only place in scripture where God tests his people – think of the story of Job (even if Satan is the one delivering the test, the test was authorized by God).    

Soren Kierkegaard famously wrestles with this in his book Kierkegaard: Fear and Trembling (Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy). In one scenario, Isaac pleads with God to save him from his father’s murderous intent.  In the story Kierkegaard pictures Abraham murmuring to God: “Lord in heaven, I thank you; it is surely better for him to believe I am a monster than to lose faith in you” (p. 9).    In other words, Abraham is willing to take the rap for God’s monstrous request.  But as the story goes on, even though the lamb was provided, “from that day on Abraham became old; he could not forget that God had demanded this of him.  Isaac flourished as before, but Abraham’s eyes were darkened, he saw joy no more” (p. 9).  I wonder what kind of questions this passage raises in our hearts and minds about the nature of God and God’s expectations of us.  What do we make of this suggestion that God “tested” Abraham.  Does God really do such things?  If so, did someone tip Abraham off so that he needn’t flinch since he knew God wouldn’t make him do it after all.  Or, did he take solace in the belief that Isaac would be going to heaven anyway?  Kierkegaard reminds us that for Abraham the afterlife was to be found in the blessing provided by his posterity, and the only way he would have such a blessing was if Isaac lived.  Thus, according to the Danish theologian, Abraham “believed the preposterous,” and had he doubted, “he would have done something difficult, something great and glorious.” (p. 17).    Yes, in the end God provides and Abraham and Isaac return home together, but I imagine something did change in the relationship.  So, what is the moral of the story?  Could it be that doubt is an important part of faith?  That questioning God has its place, even if it could be called sin?  I wonder.  And if obedience has its rewards, might doubt have it’s own rewards? 

If Abraham seems to have blindly obeyed God, even at the cost of his own legacy, Paul seems to double down on the benefits of obedience.  Indeed, he makes this dualistic contrast between two forms of slavery – to sin or to God.  The choice is ours.  To be a slave is to give up control of our lives – it is to live in obedience to another.  Paul even suggests that if we are slaves of sin, then we are free with regard to righteousness, which has no control of our lives.  For Paul, the choice is whether we’ll let sin reign in our bodies through our passions.  The euphemisms seem hard at work, suggesting that Paul is concerned here about sexual morality.  We can use our “members” as “instruments of wickedness” or instruments of righteousness.  If we choose to be slaves to God, then righteousness will take hold, and the reward will be sanctification (holiness) and eternal life.  Then, in closure, the chapter offers us one of those memorable passages, the kind that we tend to memorize, if we’re going to memorize a scripture text: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:23).   Death, it would seem is earned, while eternal life is a gift.  Wouldn’t you rather have the gift than have to work?  But of course, the gift implies slavery and obedience.  The choice, however, is yours – will you let sin reign in your bodies, or will you put yourself at the disposal of righteousness.

In the gospel reading for this week, Jesus suggests to the disciples, that they will be a source of blessing to the broader community.  How that community receives them, will demonstrate their receptiveness to him and to the one who sent him.  There is a word about the rewards that come from receiving the prophet, the righteous one, and the little one – the disciple.  It is important to note this final comment about the ones through whom blessings will be derived – the little ones.  It is a reminder that those called of God are not called because they are powerful, but they are called to be humble.  And obedient?    

 This brief passage is a meditation upon hospitality, something that is so deeply ingrained in the biblical story.  The idea that one might entertain angels in disguise is always present, going back at least to the story of Abraham and Sarah welcoming the three travelers at the Oaks of Mamre (Gen. 18:1-8).  There is much talk in the prophets about welcoming strangers and foreigners – it is incumbent upon the people, if they wish to enjoy the blessings of the covenant, to remember that they once were strangers and they should then act accordingly.  Ultimately, to receive God’s people – the church, the body of Christ – is to welcome God’s presence.  If one does this, one will not lose the reward of experiencing that presence. 

In many ways the gospel reading fits awkwardly with the lections from Genesis and Romans.  It’s less about obedience than the other two, but maybe here too there is a word about obedience.  In our obedience, in our faithfulness to the calling of God, we put ourselves in a position to bring blessings (rewards) to the community.  For surely, to be a disciple, is to be obedient to the call of God.  But, is this blind obedience?  Might there be a place for asking -- are you sure about this God?  Even if obedience is part of the calling, could doubt be as well?