Monday, November 7, 2016

Moonstones and Traveling Between the Sacred and Profane



Recently, in the heat of Cambodia, moonstones like these mesmerized me with their beauty and wisdom about how human beings navigate the complexity of the world, ever moving between awe and production, creation and rest, forgetfulness and remembrance.

Moonstones are one of the architectural features of the early (late ninth century C.E.) large mountain temples in Cambodia that the later, more famous temples of Angkor Wat (twelfth century C.E.) do not share. After visiting Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and other later temples and being suitably impressed by their scale, grandeur, and art, I came upon these moonstones and fell in love. They’re found in three temples in Roluos, about 15 kilometers East of Siem Reap, Cambodia, Bakong, Preah Ko, and Lolei, in Hariharalaya, an early capital of the Khmer empire.

Here’s what I love about moonstones: they physically mark, support, and guide the transition one makes from the profane to the sacred, from the ordinary world of work and production to the realm that breaks with the ordinary world in play, ritual, music, and dancing. I moved up and down them many times in each of these early Khmer temples. They’re not placed only at the entrance to the outer enclosure, but at every juncture between realms in the temple complex. As I slowly mounted the lovely, curved shapes, I was grateful for their wisdom, reminding me that one doesn’t leap into the sacred, one doesn’t intrude upon it or storm it: one prepares to enter it—heart, heart, mind, spirit, and body. And as I carefully made my way down those massive yet delicate carved stones, I was grateful for the acknowledgment that when one has dwelt for a time, a moment, in that extraordinary time, that realm apart, one does not throw oneself back into life willy-nilly, all of a sudden: one renters slowly, mindful of where one has come from, where one has been, and where one is going. These weighty moonstones distinguished the two worlds, two ways of being, without dividing them; they defined their boundaries while connecting them, forming a material bridge for human bodies to walk on, passing from one to the other and back again.

I believe this moonstone reminder is still essential in the twenty-first century, even for those of us who now see or experience or live the sacred in the secular, who don’t frequent temples, who don’t believe in sacred places. However we conceive of the sacred and the secular, we still need to be mindful of the difference between them, the connection between them, and the dangers and possibilities of passing from one to the other. We still need a grounded and grounding way to walk between them in grace, so we don’t get stuck in one or the other. Perhaps that was one of the truths of Jacob’s dream, when he rested his head upon a rock for a pillow: like those angels ascending and descending a stairway between heaven and earth, we need to live in both worlds, we need to find a stairway, a moonstone that connects two ways of being for us, helps us into an experience of the sacred and out again. Back and forth, back and forth. We need to travel between the two constantly. To live in one world only is to impoverish ourselves.

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]