Sunday, April 10, 2016

What Is “Haram” in the West about Boko Haram? Religion

What is “haram” (forbidden) in the West about Boko Haram? Speaking a difficult truth: that this reign of terror is a war on Christians.

In the world of Boko Haram, horrors abound: murder, rape, starvation, brainwashing. We in the West report on these atrocities. We hand-wring. We send delegations. What we are forbidden to do is to speak about why this is happening. We focus on the age and gender of the victims: we send help to find “missing girls,” hold #BringBackOurGirls protests, decry the “abuse of women,” and puzzle over how young women can become suicide bombers willing to kill their own families and neighbors. We do not say about these women, “They are Christians.” Not just “minorities” and “civilians” but Christians. These women’s suffering is multiplied: they are targeted as victims because they are Christians and because—as in all wars—they are women.

As for the perpetrators of this violence, we politely use a name whose meaning we barely grasp, “Boko Haram,” which is usually translated as “Western education is forbidden.” Or we refer to them in abstractions, such as “one of the world’s deadliest extremist groups.” We do not call them by the names they use for themselves, “People Committed to the Prophet's Teachings for Propagation and Jihad” or, most recently, “Islamic State West Africa Province, ISWAP.” We do not call them soldiers of Islam, defenders of the faith, crusaders for the one true religion, bent on converting all Christians to Islam and willing to kill them if they refuse.

The women captured by Boko Haram speak more freely than we do. Rahila Amos, one of the Nigerian villagers captured by Boko Haram, tells of how she and other women, with their surviving children, were rounded up and held in a ditch for days, their massacred fathers, husbands, and children lying nearby. One day a fighter stood over them and asked one question: “Do you want to follow Christ, or become a Muslim?” (New York Times, April 7, 2016) Translation for post-Christian, secular Westerners, those who have forgotten or never experienced the power of genuine faith: If you are a Christian, if you a remain faithful follower of Jesus Christ, your Lord and Savior, you will die. If you deny Christ, renounce your God, and become a Muslim, we will let you live.”

Boko Haram is waging war on Christians. But we in the West, we who laud and defend our freedom of speech, are not free to say this. Our secularized language allows us to speak intelligently only of age, gender, ethnicity, and other social, political, and economic constructs. We are ignorant of religion as a way of life and how a deeply lived life of faith can transform the world, for good as well as for evil. We are captive to our post-Enlightenment view of religion as “irrational”: if religion is primitivism, what can you expect but nonsense, hatred, and violence? We are slaves to our commitment to neutrality and the equality of all religions: who are we to make judgements about the actions of people of this religion or that?

We are prisoners of our own secularism, and the walls we have constructed around ourselves—walls that separate what is forbidden to talk about and what is not—are blinding us to the religious persecution, torture, and massacres that are happening in village after village in West Africa. Religion should not be haram.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Why Are We Silent When Christians Are Massacred in Lahore?

27 March 2016. Lahore, Pakistan. Easter Sunday. A peaceful park. Hundreds of families picnicking and playing, laughing, running, breaking bread together, relishing foods specially prepared for the holiday, celebrating with loved ones, celebrating the most important religious holiday of their faith, a holy day commemorating the triumph of good over evil, compassion over intolerance, wisdom over violence, love over torture, hope over despair, life over death—Jesus Christ risen from a battered, broken, and bleeding body.

A welling up of hope in a world falling daily to new depths of violence.
Into this affirmation of life, Muslim extremists carried bombs.

70 killed. Over 300 bleeding, mutilated, scarred eternally. Mostly mothers and children. Murdered.

Because they were Christians. To the Muslims who murdered them, they were not just Christians but “those who stubbornly reject the one, the only, the final truth of Islam” and therefore deserving of death.

And we say nothing. No colors of the Pakistani flag lighting up the Eiffel tower in solidarity. No presidential speeches of sympathy and support. No cries of “Je suis Chrétien.”

Why this silence? Are we embarrassed by religion? Are we so comfortable in our secular world and safe in our assumption that the separation of church and state is shared by all people that we can see victims of terrorists acts only when they appear to us as random, generalized, secularized, “Western,” globalized? Only when terrorist attacks are perpetrated in places like theaters, nightclubs, bars, airports, and subways? Are we cowed by political correctness? Afraid of being charged with Islamophobia?

Why is it that we aren’t calling attention to the Christian faith of the innocent victims of the Lahore massacre, even though that is exactly why they were targeted, because they were Christians? Why is it that we don’t say too loudly that the people attacked in the kosher grocery store in Paris were targeted because they were Jews? Is it because as good post-Enlightenment people we don’t think religion should matter? Does matter? Because, confident that we’ve put all the religious wars of the past behind us, and besotted with economic and sociological theories for all action on the world stage, we don’t recognize the power of religious faith to motivate people?

Why are we not saying that these “terrorists,” these “suicide bombers,” these “evil-doers,” these “radicals,” these “extremists” are Muslims? To say this is not Islamophobia. To say this is not to say all Muslims are terrorists or that Islam is, in essence, a religion of violence. Quite the contrary. Throughout my professional and personal life, I have been a strong critic of Christianity’s abuse of power and its use of violence, and also of Jewish extremism and violence, while maintaining respect, appreciation, and admiration for both these faith traditions and their followers. Should I keep silent about violence in Islam for fear I might be misunderstood?

Let’s call the attack in the Lahore park on Easter Sunday what it is: a religious massacre, an unholy slaughter of God’s children in the name of God.

I am a Jew. But today, Easter Monday, Je suis Chrétienne.

[written on Easter Monday, 2016]

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

On Writing, Isaac Luria’s Vessels of Light Cracked at the Creation of the World, and William Blake’s Light Shining Through the Cracks

On Writing, Isaac Luria’s Vessels of Light Cracked
at the Creation of the World, and William Blake’s
Light Shining Through the Cracks

Across the empty page laid out
before me, six ragged ovals of light appear,
each one shining, like a silver chain
linking the sun to this smooth cherry desk
to the white, white page.

They bear a message.
They are traveling somewhere,
from above to below.
Where? Where are they pointing?

No. No meaning here.
Just a trick of light—
nothing but sunlight forced through
chinks in a closed blind.

But a true trick, the kind
a dervish might play to
wake you up.
But how to hear the trick?

Light shines out the six openings, as if
burning through the paper, the paper
no longer able to keep it hidden,
the fire that creates the world—
anew, anew.

Six stepping stones across
a river of forgetting.
Jump to the first. Listen. Look.
Let the light remember you to life.
Jump to the next and see again for the first time
all you had forgotten since your last
leap toward living.
Jump again.
When you slip, haul yourself up from the turgid waters,
stand full height, expand your heart, and stretch your wings
to dry like the anhinga, that prehistoric bird.
Then leap to the next.

There are only six, not enough
to make it to the other side.

You may be stranded in the rushing waters
of forgetting and forgetting.

You may die in your sleep.

You must begin the crossing.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Next Time I’ll Let You Go for Good

Next Time I’ll Let You Go for Good

Only last week I opened
the closet of sorrows
and you were there
hanging in your usual place.

I yanked you from your wooden hanger
bagged you, cinched you inside
thick black plastic and
set you by the door
one more bundle ready to be
dropped in the Good Will bin—
still useful to someone, perhaps.

Not my color, not my style anymore.
Too baggy now across the chest.
Too tight across the belly.
And who wears wool these days?
The day of the hairshirt is over.
It’s a new age, soft, smooth, convenient,
all comfort all the time.

Only last week.
Yet here you are
standing guard by my door
watching over all my comings
and goings, lying in wait
calling, calling, calling me
to open the shiny sack of my binding
bury my face in yours and breathe
in the scent of home
worlds of shelter, worlds of promise
slip inside the darkening until
I am wrapped in you, the word
I dare not utter, the word that creates,
the word that destroys, the word that gives,
the word that takes away,
blessed be the name of—
breathing out—

Next time I’ll rip you into rags
scrub the floor with you
let the dirt-sodden wads dry outside
in the sun, rot through the long winter
then incinerate the shreds
and wait
until the sky has erased the smoke,
until the wind has dispersed the ashes
to the ends of the earth,
and you are nullified,
ownerless as the dust of the earth.
Then I’ll go inside,
launder my clothes
wash and perfume my hair
scrub off seven layers of skin
dead dead
until the smell of you
no longer lingers,
beckoning me to lay
hold of you yet again.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

From Flesh to Spirit, Evil to Good: Journey with a Virgin’s Thighbone 7: Returning Home

From Flesh to Spirit, Evil to Good: Journey with a Virgin’s Thighbone 7: Returning Home
[I’m going to risk something different. I invite you to journey and discover with me as I explore the relation of flesh and spirit, evil and good in the process of writing an essay I’ve been thinking about for almost two decades. All I know is this: the essay involves reflecting on a Tibetan thighbone trumpet, flesh and spirit, good and evil. I’m just going to start writing it and see where it leads, what is uncovered. So I’ll post it in installments—kind of a serialized essay in the spirit of those 19th century writers who wrote installments of their novels for magazines, not knowing exactly what the characters would do next or what would happen. I’ll post the first installment this week and then one a week for the next five or six or however many weeks, and see where we end up. Maybe back where we started. Maybe nowhere. Maybe somewhere I can’t imagine yet. Thanks for accompanying me. ]

I couldn’t meet with the resident lama at Sakya Monastery of Tibetan Buddhism, who was very close to the Dalai Lama, I was told. While waiting, I reread David-Neel’s description of the chöd ritual with the thighbone trumpet. I was about to let her go, send her home. What was it I still needed to learn from her?

Like her, I had been in exile all those years—from myself. Living a life for others. Living another’s life. Hidden among foreign objects, belonging to a person who was fascinated by me but did not know what I was, or how to use me for good. Like her, I had to return home—to myself. And what did that mean, I wondered?

I read again and again David-Neel’s description of the end of the ritual, when the celebrant says to the demon, how once the dismembered and bloody celebrant is being devoured by the destructive forces, feeding them with his or her being, sacrificing or offering herself for the good of their existence, she must travel farther. How in the final act she must renounce her sacrifice itself, realize it is an illusion created by her pride, and that she has nothing to renounce, that “he has nothing to give away, because he is nothing.” The heap of bones she has been reduced to is but a symbol of the destruction of her phantom “I.” This “relinquishment” of the elation the celebrant experiences at “my sacrifice” closes the ritual, with the sacrifice completed, the celebrant having offered up the whole self, the spirit as well as the body.

And then I knew: I had to give up my self, my spirit as well as my body. I had to let go of all that I had created and clung to in the last 21 years—a family of my own that I had created that was loving not violent, joyful not destructive. And I had to let go of the sacrifices I had made to create and nurture such a sheltering family. Had I expected a reward for my investment of time and effort and care? A cohesive family unity that would endure until I died? Freedom from anxiety and care? Had I expected gratitude? Acknowledgment that would feed my pride? All that was nothing. I was nothing. I had nothing to give, nothing to lose but my little self that clung to demons and idols, outside and in. I was nothing. I was emptiness. There was my freedom. Everything is given. Everything is found.

At the monastery I was ushered into the lama immediately. I sat down across from him in his study, the bone on my lap. I told him where I had bought it, how long I had had it, and that I wanted to return it. Three minutes. No more. Yet in that brief telling I was aware of the fullness of pride. Look at this noble gesture I am making, what I am giving up, sacrificing for the good of you community.

The lama listened, smiling and nodding. He knew what I was up to. And he knew I would see it soon enough. I don’t recall him saying anything. Suddenly, we both stood up and I handed him the thighbone trumpet. He took it from me, smiled and nodded again, and I left. As I approached the door at the far end of the hall, I heard his robes swishing behind me. And the sound of the trumpet rang out. Full. Clear. Joyous. And in the silence that followed I heard the lama laugh.

That laugh woke me up more than the blast of the trumpet. His lightness stirred my heart, rang in my bones. His delight, like that of a child, tickled me. He was not warning evil spirits away. He was not calling demons to him. He was rejoicing in a friend returning home, ready for whatever work she was called to do.

And then I was out in the sunshine, the lama’s mirth a fragrance around me, my little self cracked by laughter, my ego slain yet again, heading home.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

From Flesh to Spirit, Evil to Good: Journey with a Virgin’s Thighbone 6: Bone of my Bone, Flesh of My Flesh

From Flesh to Spirit, Evil to Good: Journey with a Virgin’s Thighbone 6: Bone of my Bone, Flesh of My Flesh
[I’m going to risk something different. I invite you to journey and discover with me as I explore the relation of flesh and spirit, evil and good in the process of writing an essay I’ve been thinking about for almost two decades. All I know is this: the essay involves reflecting on a Tibetan thighbone trumpet, flesh and spirit, good and evil. I’m just going to start writing it and see where it leads, what is uncovered. So I’ll post it in installments—kind of a serialized essay in the spirit of those 19th century writers who wrote installments of their novels for magazines, not knowing exactly what the characters would do next or what would happen. I’ll post the first installment this week and then one a week for the next five or six or however many weeks, and see where we end up. Maybe back where we started. Maybe nowhere. Maybe somewhere I can’t imagine yet. Thanks for accompanying me. ]

I never blew the trumpet again. But before we parted, I heard it blown one more time.

After the morning I called the demons and they came to me, a mirror to my constricted heart, the virgin’s thighbone stayed safely in the Judaica cupboard among its ritual friends. I gave it no more thought. It had ceased to be a threat to me. With its help, I had found the demons and conquered them. I no longer had need of a trumpet to call them to me. And for its part, that smooth burnished bone no longer disturbed me as I passed by the glass-doored hall cupboard where it lived. The holes at the top of the joint, those darkened cavities that used to stare at me like twin eternal eyes—Warning me? Questioning me? Goading me? Judging me?—no longer followed me as I passed by, traveling endlessly from bedroom to kitchen, kitchen to bedroom.

In late March of 2008, my husband of 21 years left. By April of the next year we were divorced. In that vertiginous year in which I wrestled and sweated out the meaning of family and belonging, love and exile, ego and being, possessions and gifts, body and spirit, good and evil, one thing was clear to me immediately: I had to return the thighbone trumpet to its home. I didn’t fully understand why.

As part of the separation of property, I sifted through all the ritual objects we had used in our family Shabbats and holidays and simchas, portioning them out, these to me, those to him. I packed up all the ritual objects my husband had brought to our Jewish family, a Kiddush cup from his grandparents, his grandfather’s tallit, an ancient and very beautiful siddur, a lace head covering his grandmother had worn when lighting the Shabbat candles. I deeply loved these objects, had cared for them, and probably would care for them more tenderly than he would. Whenever I used one of those inherited objects to pray or bless, I felt the presence and the prayers of those who had used them so long ago, and I did not want to lose my relationship, which felt so personal, with them, those souls, those spirit-bodies who had come before me and laid their hands on these same objects I laid my hands on, our skins touching through time, in that eternal space of prayer and blessing, the love that knows no bounds, the peace that passes all understanding. But those ritual objects belonged to him and his family and they needed to return to their home, so I gave them back, though with an ache in my heart that lasts until this day. Where are they? Jumbled with bird books and college mementoes in a crate or a box in some stranger's basement on the mainland, my husband having moved to Hawai'i and left them behind? Molding in the tropical air? Are they lonely? Are they suffering from lack of use? I miss them.

In sorting through our ritual cupboard I came at last to the bone. The bone I had bought on our honeymoon trek. Was my sudden desire to return it to its home an act of cowardice or revenge? Did I want to destroy all reminders of our honeymoon, our marriage? Put that trumpet far away from me so I would not be reminded of the loss of my dream of a family every time I passed it? Adam’s words in the Garden of Eden, when he sees Chava for the first time, echoed in my head: “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” (Genesis 2:23) We two, Man and Woman, once joined together, had now been rent asunder. My bones amputated from his. His flesh torn from mine. The wounds still raw. Anesthesia powerless again them. Was that why the young woman’s bone had to go?

No. The bone had never been part of “us”; it had always been for me and me alone. So why then did I want to send it away?

I realized I wasn’t sending it away; I was sending it home. That young woman’s bone had lived in exile all these years: first from its land, Tibet, when the Tibetan Buddhists fled their Chinese oppressors to live in exile in Nepal, India, and elsewhere; and then from its community, the refugee community in Nepal that I had bought it from. None of her people to know her, look on her with love and gratitude. None of her people to pick her up, caress her, speak to her in her mother tongue, use her for the purpose for which she had been born and made. She needed to be used for the purpose for which she had been called into being. Without that, she was not a reminder of death, but dead. When I realized that, I could hardly bear that she should live another day in exile.

I called the Sakya Monastery of Tibetan Buddhism in the Greenwood neighborhood of Seattle, explained that I had a very old thighbone trumpet I wanted to give to the monastery. The man on the phone set up an appointment for me with the lama.
The following week I went to meet the lama. Yet another shock.

(to be continued next week)

Sunday, August 18, 2013

From Flesh to Spirit, Evil to Good: Journey with a Virgin’s Thighbone 5: Blowing the Trumpet

I didn’t know what I was doing that morning I sat down with the bone. I just knew I had to blow that trumpet to call the forces of violence and destruction I felt pressing all around me even closer to me. For what I wasn’t sure. Some kind of showdown. I hadn’t read David-Neel’s book since that long flight home from Nepal, and I had only a vague memory of the chöd ritual she described. Something to do with going to a place where cruelty and harm had occurred and fearlessly calling the destructive forces to one so they could devour you. A kind of sacrifice, it seemed to me, giving oneself over to them. Them. Or a way of laying myself open before my worst enemies, my worst fears, so some kind of transformation could take place.

For many years already I had been practicing Robert Johnson’s technique of active imagination, which had taught me how to put myself in a trance in which I reentered a dream or nightmare I had had, waited for the horror to appear, and then entered into a conversation with the horrifying destructive power, a dialogue that would end in my trembling with fear but consenting to be bitten by a poisonous snake or eaten by whatever terror showed itself to me. That practice, though excruciating, had proved healing, so I dared now to adapt it for the nightmare I had been experiencing with my family of origin.

Holding the virgin’s bone in my open palms, I began to talk out loud. I called out to the demons that had been torturing me, invited them to come and just finish me off, to put an end to the misery. Theirs. Mine. It didn’t matter. Just an end. Not exactly the chöd ritual of compassion for all beings and slaying the ego, but I didn’t care. At that moment I had no interest in being spiritually authentic or politically correct. I only wanted relief from the tearing of the flesh of my heart. And this bone of a virgin, life become death to call greater life, was the one to help me. I had to improvise for that to happen, so that’s what I would do.

I called them to me, the demons out there, the destructive forces set in my motion around me by the whirlwind of nothingness that emanated from my mother. “Here I am,“ I cried out. “Come and destroy me. Let there be an end to this now. No more suffering. For me or for you. Here I am. Do what you will with me.”

I put the bone to my lips and blew. A sound sputtered out, like someone gagging. I took a deep breath and blew harder. This time a clear blast pierced the room. I held the bone with both hands before me, the way a snake charmer holds his flute, and waited. Silence. I called out, “You want to destroy me? Here I am. Come and devour my spirit. Leave nothing behind.”

I waited. Still nothing. I looked. I listened. I think I expected to see my mother, that restless and unhappy soul, lashing out from her misery, enslaved in hurt by a habit of hurting, facing me.

I waited for what seemed an eternity. Still nothing.

Impossible. I could hardly breathe. My spirit wanted to burst the prison of my body. Something had to happen. Even I had to take that virgin’s thighbone and splinter it against the light streaming through the glass door or crack it over my skull. Something had to happen. I couldn’t carry all that pain and horror and righteous indignation and raw anger inside me anymore. It was eating me alive.

And then I realized, the demons had come. They had been there all along, living in the cemetery of my heart, that stony, blood-soaked battleground where so many dramas of violence had been played out over so many years--woundings, treachery, the rot of terror, beheadings, dishonorable surrenders, amputations, retreats, routs, banishments and exiles. The evil I had to face was not out there hiding in a dark and dank ether. It was not them I had to defeat. It was not her, my mother and her minions I had to overcome, whether by psychic courage or strength or trickery. It was my heart I had to call before me. My heart I had to invite to open before me and devour me with its truths. Destroy my divided self, the self that clung to the notion of evil out there threatening to violate and kill the innermost self of me, that most sacred of spaces I could not live without and feared most of all to lose.

At that moment, my hands were still touching the smooth, hardened bone of that unknown virgin, and I felt through my skin that hardened bone circling a most sacred space, a holy silence that made sound possible, a holy emptiness that made each life exactly what it was and no other, a holy nothingness out of which all creation sprang. Then I knew: no power on earth could destroy that holy of holies in me. That underground spring of pure water that continually gurgles forth in each of us, moistening the earth around it, nourishing life could never be stopped. That undying fountain of love would flow forever. Nothing could ever separate us from the love of God, I realized, and immediately Paul’s words from his letter to the Romans came to me: For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39) Though I did not share Paul the apostle’s vision of “Christ Jesus our Lord,” Paul the mystic’s witness to that eternal fount of love that continually refreshes each of us, that enlivening without end of our body-spirit by the One in whom we live and move and have our being—that I understood in a new way.

I felt as if I had been suffering a drought and suddenly my roots had tapped into an underground spring that now flowed through me, turning fear to love, stony ground to fertile soil, desiccated limbs to flowering branches that might one day bear fruit. I was at peace. With my mother and with myself. Whatever external events might come—and they would, violent as ever—I would meet them with a new and restful heart, no longer in a cemetery or on a battleground but in that inviolable holy of holies within my own being.

With this, I kissed the thighbone trumpet, held it against my heart, and then put it back in our Judaica cupboard, next to the shofar. I thought my journey with the thighbone trumpet had ended. The gift it had given me could not be surpassed. But that was not the end of my learning from the trumpet. I still had a long way to travel before I arrived at the slaying of the ego. That would come many years later.

(to be continued next week)