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—
[God].

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.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

I Hope I Break God's Heart Like That

I Hope I Break God’s Heart Like That

Returning from dumping the garbage
in the basement three floors below,
finding my dog not in her usual spot,
I call her name.
She appears in the loft,
where she’s been looking for me
sniffing under my comforter
nosing her way behind my bathroom door
seeking the stay of her existence
my absence urging her
to climb the perilous stairs whose every step
hurts her bones
to know that I am there,
here
with her.

I hope I break God’s heart like that
when he sneaks out the door of my world,
returns to find me not in my usual haunts
and calls my name
catches me roaming the place where he
sleeps, washes, works without me while
I sleep and wait trusting below
when he sees me staring down at him with cataract eyes,
straining to hear his voice, not sure
if it is the one that is my life
or a stranger
when he watches me trundle down the stairs
accepts an offhanded kiss as I brush
past on my way to nestle into my dark corner to sleep
all well in the world
the absence of his presence become a present absence again.

I know that’s not how maturity is supposed to work.
Good selves leave the womb, individuate from the mother, let go
the hand of the father to walk on their own,
let the wandering lover go free,
befriend the absence of God in the world and
shoulder the heavy pack of human responsibility
like a barefooted Sherpa gracefully climbing
snow-covered peaks.
But spirits are not psyches.
The spirit lives and move and grows how it will,
in fits and starts, somersaults and handsprings,
backbends and roundups, comings and goings,
leaps and falls.
And I keep falling,
falling into love, into longing, into need
for that in which I live and move and have my being,
anxious to turn the absence of its presence into
a present absence
yet again.
I hope that breaks God’s heart and he comes to me
where I’m sleeping, bends down to stroke
the soft fur between my ears, and kisses my cheek,
in silence, saying, “I’m here now. I always come back.”

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

God? The human body-spirit? Where to begin?

Our lives are marked by the questions that dog and lead us. The two questions troubling the waters of my life—for good though at times for ill and often for a great deal of discomfort—are these: What and why is this reality we call “God”? Why are we human beings such a strange and disturbing mix of body and spirit, and how are we to live out this amalgam?

These are the same two questions that have dogged many philosophers and theologians, including John Calvin (which may annoy you if you believe him to be the father or all things puritanical, responsible for sucking all the joy and pleasure out of living, or amuse you if you have a taste for irony). It’s not just philosophers and theologians who spend their days answering these questions. Each one of us, every day, every moment, is answering these two questions in the way we live as this particular body-spirit.

And now it’s come time for me, erstwhile theologian, human animal, earth wanderer, wonderer, woman, once again to confront these two questions. I learned long ago from Calvin, standing in a long line of Clement, Augustine, Aquinas, and unnamed others, that these two questions are inextricably related. The first arresting sentence of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, which stood its opening ground through Calvin’s many revisions, is stamped on my heart: “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” (1.1.1)
For the past two years, as this linkage of fundamental questions began once again to well up in my, I thought, Yes, after my sojourn as a theologian and a Christian, after so many years as a Jew and a fiction writer, in my years of opening, I will have to look again at these questions and see where I stand now.

But where to start? How to get started? This is the bane of everyone who feels the pressure to put marks on a page and begin the futile task that the writer of Ecclesiastes calls the “making of many books.” Calvin’s next sentences in Institutes describe why this is particularly difficult in this case, sounding the mystical themes of existing in the One and humility before the splendor of God:
1.1.1 But, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern. In the first place, no one can look upon himself without immediately turning his thoughts to the contemplation of God, in whom he “lives and moves [Acts 17:28]. For, quite, clearly, the mighty gifts with which we are endowed are hardly from ourselves: indeed, our very being is nothing but subsistence in the one God. Then, by these benefits shed like dew from heaven upon us, we are led as by rivulets to the spring itself. Indeed, our very poverty better discloses the infinitude of benefits reposing in God…. Accordingly the knowledge of ourselves not only arouses us to seek God, but also, as it were, leads us by the hand to find him. (Ibid.)
1.1.2 Again it is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself….
Knowing ourselves leads to knowing God and knowing God leads to knowing ourselves. So one should be able to start at either point. Calvin chooses to start with God, giving only this reason:
1.1.3 Yet however the knowledge of God and of ourselves may be mutually connected, the order of right teaching requires that we discuss the former first, then proceed afterward to treat the latter.
I’m not sure why, modernist that I am, I assumed for the past few years that I, too, would start with the first question, God, and let it guide me to human being. Perhaps it was my theocentrism, my anti-anthropocentrism that led me to this. Why do we persist in thinking we human beings are the center of the universe? Hasn’t there been enough scientific evidence by now to bump us out of that privileged place? Unfortunately, not. Perhaps that is what Calvin means by “the order of right teaching,” to move from the greater to the lesser, to orient ourselves properly at the beginning so we do not lose our way and overvalue the lesser, ourselves, by placing ourselves at the center of creation.

And why go the round-about way? Why not go straight to the heart of the matter, ask those hard questions about God, crack open the nut of our confusion? If not us, who? That is what I have tried to do in the last years, face the question of God in our post-Renaissance, post-Enlightenment, post-post-postmodern world head on, trying to shoulder my way into that strange battlefield of the armies of fundamentalist atheists against the armies of fundamentalist religionists, their literalism and absolutism soaking the ground with blood, littering it with torn limbs and severed heads, ruining the very ground where so many wander without signposts, without comfort, looking for a way to answer these two questions—as we all must—of who we are and what, finally, confronts us.

I failed. I read. I pondered. I tried to write. Emptiness and worn out words is all I found.

But lately I’ve begun to realize that it’s the second question, who we are, that’s stirring up more trouble for me right now, and it’s there that I need to start if I want to find my way to a new understanding of God. Perhaps it’s a kind of second naiveté—once we realize human beings aren’t the center of the universe or the end for which it was created, we are able, armed with humility, to start with the question of who we are and have it lead us where we need to go.

So that is the question I will be pursuing for the time being: Why are we human beings such a strange and disturbing mix of body and spirit, and how are we to live out this amalgam?

Who knows where it will lead? Perhaps you will accompany me along the way.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Performance, Ritual, Bewilderment—Easter, 2013

This past Sunday, the sixth day of Passover, walking through the riot of sun and blooming, I happened upon a crowd of people in their Easter finest. Their outfits shouted celebration! Peach kimonos. Red-and-white hounds tooth-checked men’s suits. Pink crinoline skirts. Flowered tights. And the hats! Vintage feathered affairs. Multi-colored turbans. Homemade hats as tall and floppy as the Cat in the Hat’s. Easter baskets affixed at a rakish angle. Fuzzy bunny ears. Poor Boy caps. Black hats with netted veils pulled so tight they distorted the wearer’s face. A glittery crown of thorns atop a young woman’s tousled brown hair.
They were heading toward the Century Ballroom. Each dressed more fancifully than the next, all of them wrapped in a mood of anticipation and joy. How could I not follow them up the stairs?

Pastor Kaleb’s 14th Annual Easter Service, the posters in the grand ballroom announced. I stood beside the donations jar and peered inside. The place was packed. Singles, couples, mothers holding infants, families with small children, older people, younger people. Each one dressed more fancifully than the next. “Welcome!” the usher greeted me. “So glad you’re here!” She meant it. Her voice was warm and she was cheerful, in a genuine, so-happy-to-be -here way, and I took to her immediately. Her shoulder-length wig was a bright, almost-Smurf blue, a perfect contrast to her bare and beautiful face, with skin the color of a warm cappuccino. “Come in! Don’t be afraid. Everybody’s welcome!” As she nodded to me a purple plastic egg fell from her Easter-basket hat to the floor and rolled away. Laughing, she chased it down. She was tall and her very short skirt showed off her very long legs—she was a dancer, she told me later—and off-white sling-back heels. As she tucked the egg back in its nest on her head, I stepped inside the door. She pointed to the balcony. “Go ahead, take a seat upstairs.”

I planted myself next to her, my guide. While she greeted those on the way in or called out the bathroom code to those on the way out, I stood, my back against the bar area, where the bartender was working hard to keep up with the constantly replenishing line, surveying the scene and trying to orient myself. I was bewildered by what was happening. Was it a mock service? A theater performance? Another slam—albeit a colorful and good-natured one—at Christianity and the failures of the church? Or at all religion and religious ritual as “established,” boring, stodgy, empty, meaningless, intolerant, hypocritical, moribund—in a word, unhip? Was it a condemnation of our materialistic and conservative culture, using the medium of the church as theater to dramatize the judgment? Or a chance to openly flaunt what was sacred to others, to be irreverent or even give offense, with impunity—a kind of Mardi Gras or Purim of its own, when everything is turned topsy-turvy and the chaos of life or the pagan wellsprings of later ritual are given permission to come into the light for a moment?

Or was the key to what was going on the cacophony of images? Church hats, church clothes, bunny ears, a crown of thorns, a giant wooden cross dangling from a petite woman’s neck, gold dreadlocks, wigs of all the colors in a Skittles rainbow, eggs and flowers everywhere—it was dizzying. Was that it? Was this a post-post-modern feast of meaninglessness? In a world gutted of meaning, people left wandering about, in a pathless world, in tangled confusion, the old left behind, no new yet established , bewildered, yet hungry for meaning, hungry, picking up the dried and brittle carapaces of cast-off images, the bones of once-living symbols, and shaking them to try to create a new world of meaning, or the sound of a joyful noise? Strangely, this last seemed to me, a Jew, to fit the meaning of the season, a community of people wandering in the wilderness, escaped from an old order, desperate for a new order, groping toward freedom and new life. But neither this nor any of my wonderings fit the feel of the gathering. The picture of what was happening around me religiously speaking just wouldn’t come clear. I was lost.

My guide leaned over to me. “The sermon’s about to start,” she said. On the stage a man was standing behind a pulpit cobbled together out of tree branches. A church lady in a white suit and heels sat in a pew to his left. A choir of fantastically dressed individuals stood to his right.

“Is this a service or a performance?” I asked.

“We’ve been doing this for 14 years,” she said. “It’s a lot of people in the theater community, the drag community, families, a lot of people.”

Pastor Kaleb took the pulpit, dressed in black pants and a black shirt with what looked like huge Boy Scout badges patched all over the front. He riffed on the significance of the number 14, the years the community had gathered to celebrate. His text was random sentences from the weekly newspaper The Stranger, which he interpreted to great laughter. But amongst the jokes, this truth: “We wait all year for this! We prepare all year for this.” “Amen!” my guide.
The choir sang a rousing number worthy of the best off-Broadway theater. When they sang, “I’ve lost my way and I don’t know which way to turn,” my guide called out in merriment, “Turn left!”

The next preacher’s message was hope: “We made it! From the dark to the light, we made it!” And, “I’m a fool. Are you a fool?” And he brought out the day’s special guest, the “old” pope, Pope Benedict, a very old man dressed in full papal regalia, including a mitre. The pope took a seat on the stage and the preacher removed the pope’s mitre, revealing a full bunny cap and long ears. The Easter Bunny stood up, called the children to him, and handed out Easter baskets. Then they took a collection from the congregation.

All this time my guide was greeting the people who wandered by or gently rubbing the back of an infant whose mother stood near us, rocking the babe to sleep. She spoke so sweetly and lovingly to the child. She was cooing to the child as I left. I wanted to tell her “Thank you.” Tell her, “You are a beautiful person.“ But I was too shy. I left without speaking to her.

Walking home in the glorious sunshine I realized I had been in the presence of and why I had felt so comfortable in spite of my mind’s thrashing about for a meaning. I had witnessed, in sociologist of religion Emile Durkheim’s understanding, a true ritual celebrating the sacred. For Durkheim, the sacred is something that is set apart, non-ordinary, or forbidden. And ritual is the public action of a community that strengthens the bonds of the believers toward their god and “at the same time really strength the bonds attaching the individual to the society of which he is a member, since the god is only a figurative expression of the society” (The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, pp. 257, 474-57, passim). This community, whatever its gods may or may not be, was strengthening its hope, strengthening its bonds to one another and deriving hope and strength from that. They were at this moment, together, after great planning and preparation and anticipation, stepping outside (entering ecstasy, ek-stasis, standing outside) the ordinary world, a world where they had perhaps known more than their share of rejection and “difference” and pain and sorrow, and entering a non-ordinary reality together, as a sustaining and supportive community, stepping into a moment when all ordinary time and space is suspended, a place in which their hope could be renewed, their bonds to life strengthened, and their bond to one another strengthened, so that they could go on living and live more fully. Is this not human? Is this not wonderful?

Forget cynicism and the emptiness of the post-modernists and chilly superiority of those too hip to live among us. Forget those too evolved to have anything to do with “empty rituals” or “crutches.” Forget those afraid to be fools by showing their longing for hope and community and daring to live it out loud and sacrifice to create it. Forget those who fear laughter and merriment and experiment on the way to new traditions. Remember to love. In the words of my guide, "Come in. Don't be afraid. Everyone is welcome!"