Friday, January 7, 2011

Powerful words…

I heard news from Pakistan this week that disturbed me. Perhaps you did too. I refer to the murder of the Governor of Pakistan’s largest province- Salman Taseer of Punjab- allegedly carried out by a man hired to guard him. And it’s not simply the premature death of a prominent Pakistani official that caught my attention. It was the suspected motive for the killing that stood out. It seems Gov. Taseer’s bodyguard killed him because of the politician’s opposition to lethal punishment for blasphemers.

A little context, from what I’ve gleaned: A few decades back, then-President (read- military dictator) General Zia ul-Haq instituted laws outlawing blasphemy against the state religion of Islam. These laws included prohibitions protecting the religious sensitivities of practitioners, the sanctity of Holy sites, and punishing desecration of the Qur’an and the prophet Muhammad. Defaming the latter, in fact, is a capital offense. As an American, it’s outside my experience that a government would mandate one religion. But Pakistan is officially The Islamic Republic of Pakistan, and it’s not my prerogative to judge whether that’s okay. Pakistanis can organize their country as they see fit.

What is troubling, though, is that multiple human rights and aid groups- international and Pakistani- have documented violence stemming directly from these blasphemy laws, particularly against ethnic or religious minorities. No one’s yet been executed because of a blasphemy conviction. However, mobs, religious fanatics and/or police have murdered folk simply because they were accused of blasphemy. It seems outcries against one recent accusation, and subsequent harassment, had reached Gov. Taseer’s desk. He boldly, and properly, called these laws unjust, recommending a change. Many applauded that decision. Fanatics did not, and so apparently, murdered him. Poor problem solving imagination, I’d say, but I’m not a religious fanatic.

Now, I bring this up not to inflame negativity against Islam or Pakistan. The idiocy of some practitioners or citizens does not a religion or country make. And thank God for that, since some Christians also advocated death for blasphemy or heresy. Exhibit A- Salem Witch Trials. Exhibit B- John Calvin’s theocratic rule in Geneva. Still, Christian, Muslim or otherwise, why would a religious person be so outraged by so-called blasphemy as to kill someone? Or even lock her/him in jail?

One analysis might suggest, of course, less-than-religious motivations for such killings. Namely, it’s in the perceived political interest of certain religious factions to bully non-practitioners to do what they want. I.e. Those laws aren’t about God, Jesus or Muhammad. They’re about power and control.

But as true as that analysis might be, when applied to John Calvin or a political leader (people who’d stand to gain and exercise power from social control), it’s less clear why a simple congregant- the Governor’s bodyguard- would carry out the execution. Indeed, it seems he was so outraged by the possibility that Muhammad’s dignity might, someday, be accosted by the easing of these laws, that he felt compelled to end his-life-as-he-knew-it by ending another’s. In other words, his wasn’t a political motivation. It was religious; it came from the very core of his self-identity.

And, assuming he wasn’t just deranged, he probably thought his life best used by guarding God’s honor.

Does God’s honor matter that much? Something true for all religious folk, I think, is our conviction that God- by whatever name S/He’s called- is special. So special, unique…Holy…we should treat God with more deference than other cherished people or objects. Consider that some Christians get offended when a TV character says, “Jesus Christ,” or a football coach screams, “God Damn!” Not nearly the same as execution for blasphemy, but there’s something related in those reactions: defending God’s honor.

Not enough space left to address this issue fully. But a final thought: When Jesus was dying on the Cross, his captors mocked, “If you’re truly God, come down from there and show us.” His response, “Be careful not to hate the ones killing us because they know not what they are doing. God forgive them.” Well, actually that was The Reverend Meyassr Al- Qaspotros at a Chaldean Catholic Church in Baghdad over Christmas. But I think I’ve heard that sentiment before.

Grace and Peace,
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Monday, January 3, 2011

God’s ways are different. Always…

Have you heard the tale of the Blind Men and the Elephant? Multiple Eastern religions have adapted it. Celebrated Sufi mystic Rumi had his version. American Poet John Godfrey Saxe penned a famous 19th century rendition. But in case it’s escaped you, or it’s been awhile, here’s the abbreviated Rev. Isner version:

Three blind men walked into a large room, where a King had tied up an elephant. The King said, “Before you is a beast of great power and wisdom. Please describe it.” So the first man grabbed the elephant’s leg, and declared, “My Liege, this beast is like a pillar!” The second man, feeling the ear, disagreed, “No! It’s more akin to a fan.” The third man inspected the tail, and quickly jumped in, “You are both fools! The beast is most like a rope.” But the King said, “You all are right. And you all are wrong. The elephant is all of this, and more besides.”

As a metaphor for knowing God, I like this story. Each of us can say something true about the Lord. And yet, we’ll always be limited in how far our understandings or experiences can reach. Paul says in the Love Chapter- 1 Cor. 13- “Now we see in a mirror, dimly…then (the afterlife) I will know fully, even as I’ve been fully known.” Amen!

As a metaphor for how Christians act, this story’s many versions can also be instructive. In one telling, attributed to the Buddha, the blind men fight and punch as they disagree about who’s really right, while the King looks on delighted. The story ends with, “O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim/For preacher and monk the honored name!/For, quarreling, each to his view they cling./Such folk see only one side of a thing.” In another version, the blind men calmly declare their thoughts, and await patiently as the King resolves everything. Others fall in various places between. Likewise, Jesus’ followers have fought about our differences, celebrated them, awkwardly abided them and/or simply ignored them. God’s Children are myriad, indeed!

This year, 2011, I hope Plymouth Creek will take these differences head on. That we will be honest- with God, ourselves and especially our neighbors- about our deepest faith convictions, our inevitable limitations, and endlessly curious about what we could never have come up with ourselves. As a Disciples of Christ church, one of our greatest strengths and identity markers is the Open Table, i.e. the fact that we never say, “No, communion for you; you’re unacceptable.” Such unconditional hospitality and radical openness, however, can be tough. Some want to pigeonhole us- “What does your church believe about…” The only appropriate response is, “Jesus is Lord. The rest is up to us.” Many prefer churches with but one style of music, or dominant generation, or ideological agenda. We think we’re better off remaining open, even if that means a slower growth pattern.

But rather than focus on the struggles of our openness, I want us to explore its blessedness this year. So in keeping with recent years, we’ll have a theme to emphasize that idea all year long. Here it is, what you’ve been waiting for (and probably shorter than expected!), the PCCC 2011 Annual Theme- God’s ways are different. Always…

In sermons series, scripture studies, activities and more, I hope that throughout 2011 we’ll embrace the holy wonderful strangeness of our Lord. Yes, God’s as caring, compassionate and forgiving as we’ve always believed. But in many ways we sometimes ignore (preachers more than most!), God is different. God’s vision is vastly more expansive than ours could ever be. God’s love is radically more inclusive than our hearts allow. God’s hopes are more realistic and daring than our most personal dreams. So rather than be a church contented with ever repeating the same formulas and beliefs, let’s prove to ourselves, our visitors, friends and neighbors what an open church this can be!

Why? Because striving always to adapt our ways to God’s ways is a life-giving way to be. Besides, imagine how better this world would be if more folk followed the different trajectory of God’s Kingdom.

Grace and Peace,
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