Wednesday, January 21, 2004

[64.1] TO DREAM AGAIN...

The National Council of Churches of Christ USA has forwarded copies of this flash movie to mark the anniversary of the birthday of the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr., and to recall his inspiring legacy at another time of global turmoil and division.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2004


O God, Holy and Eternal Trinity,
We pray for your Church in all the world.
Sanctify its life;
Renew its worship;
Empower its witness;
Redeem its mission;
Heal its divisions;
Challenge its wrong doings;
Place it on the side of the excluded;
Make visible its true unity.

Through Christ, who was broken and restored. Amen.

Further daily resources here.

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Friday, January 16, 2004


Post 9/11 there has been an unprecedented growth in interest in Islam among educated Westerners. But those sections of the church whose narrative is driven by fear and suspicion are growing in strength, too. Appalling (and woefully factually-deficient) books are emerging -- David Pawson's 'The Challenge of Islam to Christians', for example, has been selling in extraordinary numbers. Even mainstream religious publishers have put out titles perpetrating hugely simplistic theses on an unsuspecting public.

How refreshing then, to see a constructive and critical piece in the mainstream media from Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali of Rochester: a Christian leader of orthodox and conservative temperament whose personal and episcopal background in Pakistan enhances the authority of his words. On the question of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God, he says:

"The usual Muslim term for God, Allah, is pre-Islamic and related to both Jewish and Christian terms widely in use at the time. It is true that the Prophet Mohammed gave it a particular significance in his preaching of monotheism, but the term is still the ordinary word for God used by many Arab Christians.

"There is also social, as well as etymological, significance. In most parts of the Muslim world, language about God is common currency, used in greeting and thanking people, in praying for their welfare and so on. If Christians and Muslims were not referring to the same supreme being, daily conversation, let alone theological dialogue, would become impossible.

"[The Qur'an] claims continuity with the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and with the revelation given to the Hebrew prophets and to Jesus. If dialogue is even to begin, this claim must be taken at face value; the dialogue itself will reveal the extent of similarities and differences."

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Thursday, January 15, 2004


The Centre for Multireligious Studies at the University of Aarhus in Denmark has applied for a European Union grant to link with 22 research institutions in different European countries examining the impact of the growth and development of religious affiliation (not least among Muslims) on attitudes in public life. Previous cross-national research has not analysed migration and its consequences for changes in the perception of religion, researchers at the University of Aarhus say.

Religion has become much more important in politics, declared the Centre's director, Viggo Mortensen. "It is not only about the three to seven per cent of Muslims living in Europe, but also about the majority's re-evaluation of their values regarding religion, due to the changes in society of which immigration is a part," he said recently. (Ecumenical News International)

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Wednesday, January 14, 2004


The use of Godly rhetoric by politicians tends to send a chill down my spine, even if I have some sympathy for the politician in question. I've written elsewhere about keeping the wrong kind of religion out of politics and vice versa. This is not the same thing at all as seeking to keep the two categories apart: it's a question of who speaks for whom, how, why and on what basis.

For example, the Christian community may rightly choose to be deeply engaged in critiquing the assumptions of faith language in the political domain. A prime example is President Bush's application of hymns and biblical phrases to name America -- when they come from contexts intending to denote something quite different: a community of all nations, not a vested national interest.

Nevertheless, the entwining of discourses in the public arena is not something that can simply be wished away. And as Amy Sullivan ('Do the Democrats have a prayer?', Washington Monthly) has pointed out, if the forthcoming election in the US will not be determined by religious issues it shows every sign of being swayed by them. She notes:

"Bush and his political guru Karl Rove understand something very important about the religious vote. The President has solidified his standing among highly committed evangelicals, who, though originally wary of his conservative credentials, have been rewarded with the appointment of such religious conservatives as John Ashcroft to top administration jobs as well as through grants distributed under the faith-based initiative. But Bush has maxed out his support with conservative evangelicals; 84 percent voted for him in the 2000 election. To win reelection, he will need to hold onto the votes of another group which supported him in 2000: religious moderates--one of the least-appreciated swing constituencies in the country, and one whose allegiance is more up for grabs than most people realize. They include Muslims, most Catholics, and a growing number of suburban evangelicals, all of whom are devout, but many of whom are uncomfortable with Bush's ties to the religious right, whose agenda--from banning abortion to converting Muslims--is deeply disconcerting to them. Many of these "swing faithful" have also begun to wonder if Bush's rhetoric of compassion and justice will be matched by policy substance."

For this reason, she suggests, Howard Dean will need to grasp 'the religious agenda' for the Democrats. By way of inspiration, she says:

"When the Rt Rev John Chane, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, took to the pulpit this March [2003], his sermon sounded like a blueprint for the sort of religiously minded critique of the Bush administration that Democrats might want to study. Imploring parishioners to take seriously their baptismal vows to "strive for justice" in the world, Bishop Chane raised the example of the Bush administration budget and found it wanting. "We are embarking on a draconian program of social welfare," he declared, highlighting cuts in services to protect the poor, the sick, and the young. "This is not at all what Jesus Christ meant when he said, 'Suffer the little children.'" At the end of the sermon, the congregation spontaneously burst into applause in a very un-Episcopalian response to the bishop's political call to arms."

However, it is important to understand that Chane's address was not intended to endorse a particular party or programe. The critique he offered is as applicable to Democrats as Republicans (though they may be found wanting in different ways and to different degrees). It was, if anything, a comment on the fruits of a political duopoly which has predominantly served corporate interests and excluded the marginalised. It was also designed specifically to galvanise Christians to act on the vision of justice which is meant to characterise church, the ekklesia. For it is only out of the distinctive practices of a peculiar, all-embracing community (one demandingly critiqued by the Gospel it conveys) that a faith-speaking politics might look as if it had integrity. This could have significant ramifications on the way people behave when they enter the ballot box, but it is not prescribable by the interests that vie within the existing political system.

(Thanks to the Religious Left mailing list for drawing this article to my attention.)

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Tuesday, January 13, 2004


A prayer/poem that I return to again and again is one attributed to the late Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador, who was murdered while celebrating mass in the Chapel of the Hospital de la Divina Providencia on 24 March 1980.

In Prophets Of A Future Not Our Own, Romero writes:

"This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.

"We cannot do everything
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for God's grace to enter and do the rest."

(See full prayer here)

The Religious Task Force on Central America notes:

"Every year, in celebrations throughout El Salvador, among Christian communities animated by catechists in the countryside, in local churches, at Romero's tomb in the cathedral, people recite his words once again from the homilies that gathered up for them and reflected back to them the truth of their situation. This was a remarkable thing for the poor of El Salvador -- to hear someone pronounce their reality, to name the causes of their suffering, to denounce the injustice, to speak to their hopes and help them believe that it was right and good to believe that these hopes should be realized in this world -- that indeed this was at the heart of the meaning of the incarnation of Jesus Christ."

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Monday, January 12, 2004


An interesting Washington Post piece on the media's treatment of American politicians' religious beliefs. The article is by Steven Waldman, former reporter and editor for Newsweek and US News & World Report, now editor-in-chief of Beliefnet.

In The Candidates' Spiritual Path he points out that "[t]wenty to 30 percent of Americans now practice a faith different from the one in which they were raised, according to sociologist Robert Wuthnow. And a much higher percentage have switched houses of worship. For 20 years now, sociologists have documented how Americans have become 'consumers' of spirituality. Changing faiths or churches could mean someone is flighty, but more often it means that they take their spiritual journey seriously enough to reassess it constantly. This is what baby boomers do. They shop. And serious shoppers are often quite intense."

This is true. Whether consumerism is a good model for spirituality, is, of course, another matter entirely -- and one which should not simply be conflated with change and development of convictions in an open culture. (See also Shopping for God, A Sceptic's Search for Value in the Spiritual Market Place by Rowland Howard.)

One of the circumstances that has sparked this debate is the scrutiny applied to Democratic Presidential candidate Howard Dean, who was raised Catholic, switched to the Episcopal Church, then linked with Congregationalism and is raising his child in the Jewish faith in accordance with his wife's tradition.

Waldman goes on: "Another misconception that has crept into the media analysis of the candidates' religious statements is the idea that Americans approach religion with the mind-set of theologians. Thus, Dean and [Wesley] Clark were maligned not only because they shifted a lot but because they seemed to do so for superficial reasons. Dean, it's often been noted, switched churches because of a dispute over building a bike path. Clark left the Catholic Church in anger over the anti-military rhetoric of a priest. Such trivial matters!"

Well, recycling your spirituality is one thing, perhaps. But a Christian leader standing out against militarism in this world climate? That's seriously encouraging. And to anything other than the shopping-basket mentality, very far from trivial.

[Thanks to Atrios/Eschaton for drawing my attention to this story]

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Sunday, January 11, 2004


In a spare moment today (one of those occasions when you feel almost morally compelled to do something indisputably non-meaningful) I flicked through the style section of a well-known national newspaper. Usually I find this sort of thing depressing. For a start most of the ‘décor’ on display is invariably bereft of books. Not a good idea. This time, however, I was inspired to discover that mess is the new cool – the ‘busy, eclectic look’. Now I’ve never intended to be fashionable in my life. I just have loads of junk. Somewhere I have a self-help tape called How To Declutter Your Life, but it’s buried under a pile of papers and I can’t find it. Thankfully none of my family ever came out with that peculiar cliché about ‘cleanliness being next to Godliness’ (pretty much the opposite of Jesus’ famous observation about true purity, thankfully). But it does make me reflect that congenital untidiness obviously betokens a soul ill at ease with mere worldliness. That’ll be several steps closer to paradise for me then...

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Saturday, January 10, 2004


"We talk about religious ‘faith’ – but what we mean in plain English is of course trust. A real person of faith isn’t necessarily a person full of a particular kind of religious certainty; it’s a person who has become trustworthy because they know that God is to be trusted and that God has trusted, loved and forgiven them.

"Each person’s life gives a message of one kind or another, a message about what kind of world this is. As the New Year starts, perhaps one of the biggest questions each of us could ask is - “what message does my life give”. Am I making the world a place where trust makes sense? And, deeper still, am I confident that even in my failings and my betrayals I am loved and trusted?" (Rowan Williams)

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Friday, January 09, 2004


Controversies over 'overt and public expression of faith through appearance' (a quaint description in a recent continental newspaper) continue to rage in Europe; particularly in France, Germany and Turkey, where, to differing degrees, there are prohibitions on what might be seen as flamboyant religious symbols in schools and some other public places.

In the UK the interpretation of secularity in public life is more towards permissive pluralism than restrictive anti-clericalism. This sensible Epiphany observation is from the consistently excellent and reliably thoughtful Thinking Anglican:

"The gospel is written for [people within Jewish communities] who are being awakened to the challenge of bringing the Christian faith to other cultures. Jewish dietary laws and distinctive dress would not be sustained within a faith which sought to be universal. Perhaps also the threat of persecution under the Roman Empire might have made it inadvisable for believers to parade their faith too publicly by sporting distinctive clothes.

One legacy is that there is no distinctive Christian dress code required by all, akin to the Sikh turban, or the Jewish skull cap. Within Britain we can also point to the fact that for those who want to retain a dress code which identifies their faith, this is accommodated to the extent of allowing Sikh men on motorcycles to wear a turban in place of a crash helmet. The law clearly shows that although the majority see no necessity for a religious dress code, the wishes of those who find this an essential expression of their faith are respected."

Which is surely as it should be. The writer might also have mentioned Jesus' frowning upon ostentatious religious behaviour and the earlier prohibitions on images. There is debate within as well as without faith communities on these matters, as over the veiling of Muslim women for instance. Is it oppressive or protective? No one answer is likely to suffice.

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Thursday, January 08, 2004


Giles Fraser in this week's Church Times:

"The hopes and prayers of many of us for the New Year are focused on the work of the commission to explore the limits of diversity in the Anglican Communion.

"I suspect that, very quickly, the commission will have to face a question that is often at the heart of disagreements about value: is there some philosophical space between monism and relativism?

"The question is whether the Bible is capable of supporting different theological positions.

"I wonder whether the answer to our crisis lies in the unlikely work of Isaiah Berlin. Berlin argued for a value-pluralism that is neither absolutism nor relativism. The idea that giving up on the belief that there is one, and only one, way of reading the Bible leads to anything-goes relativism is irresponsible scaremongering."

See the full piece here.

It is good to see Berlin's voice being heard again in so many areas of public life. For too long he was written off as a derivative, anodyne pragmatist. But his 'agonistic' thought (often mis-translated by lazy sub-editors as 'agnostic') is vital for an age of pathos.

Incidentally, Giles Fraser has himself written an excellent theological account of Nietzche; a corrective both to religious romantics and anti-religious cynics.

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Wednesday, January 07, 2004


Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) has presented the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq with a dossier of statistical data compiled from seventy-two case studies of the treatment -- and mistreatment -- of Iraqi detainees, reports Ekklesia. This news item also made it onto BBC Radio 4's flagship 'Today' programme this morning. The full details are here. The CPT campaign for justice for detainees is seeking to work with the authorities to ensure implementation of human rights for all.

CPT is an action network born out of the witness of the historic peace churches (Mennonites, Quakers and others) in the USA. It has been working on the ground in the Middle East and other conflict zones since the mid-1980s.

On Tuesday 30 December 2003, at 8am, a grenade exploded on Karrada Street in Baghdad, two blocks from the CPT Iraq apartment, killing one Iraqi man and wounding two others. Said a spokesperson, "Team members saw the dead man's body lying on the edge of the street, covered with a large piece of cardboard. They watched as Iraqi men put the body in a simple wooden coffin. The men carried the coffin into the nearby mosque, before taking it away in a pick-up truck. Broken glass from shop windows littered the street and sidewalks along both sides of the street. People standing around in the crowd expressed grief and anger directed at both soldiers and those who had detonated the bomb."

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The return of FaithInSociety after the seasonal break (ah yes, happy New Year to you all!) has been hampered by some technical difficulties. Normal service is now resumed.