Sunday, October 24, 2010

Holy Ground, Holy Land, Holy Places?

I’ll soon be on my way to the Sinai, Jerusalem, and Safed—my first trip to these “holy” places.  And so I find myself wondering about holiness and space.  For I am of two (at least) minds about holiness and place.  I reject the assignment of permanent holiness to any place on earth, or in the heavens or anywhere within the creation for that matter.  But  I also recognize that some places on earth carry  palpable memories of encounters with God, the Holy One. 

Rabid monotheist that I am, I resist any and all permanent identification of holiness with a particular place. It is encounters with the God who  can be contained nowhere, who can surprise us anywhere that give us a sense of holiness, the sense that we have gone beyond our ordinary experience.  What was holy about that rock where Ya’akov lay his head was his dream experience of the nearness of heaven and earth, which announced his imminent meeting with the face of God as forgiveness in Esau.  What was holy about that ground Moshe stood on was his encounter with the divine presence,  I Will Be Who I will Be, in that little bush.  The holiness was not in the rock or the bush, but—as Martin Buber might say—in that extraordinary I-Thou “betweenness” that occurred there, a holiness to be remembered in story, not visited as a monument erected on that very spot. 

When King Solomon dedicated the temple in Jerusalem, he is recorded as saying:

But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold the heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You; much less this temple that I have erected. And You shall turn toward Your servant's prayer and to his supplication, O Lord my God: to hearken to the song and to the prayer that Your servant is praying before You today.That Your eyes may be open toward this house night and day, toward the place which You said, 'My Name will be there;' to listen to the prayer that Your servant will pray toward this place. And You shall listen to the supplication of Your servant and of Your people Israel that they will pray toward this place; and You shall hear in heaven, Your abode, and You shall hear and forgive. (I Kings 8: 27-30).

It was not the temple as a holy place Solomon was after, it seems, but the temple as an invitation to prayer, the encounter between God and human beings, in which one can meet the One and experience the forgiving face of God turned toward them.  That meeting was the holiness Solomon wanted to make available, a meeting that would transform lives. God would not, could not dwell in that magnificent space.  Human beings might, however, remember there that the Holy One of Israel dwelt in the midst of Israel whenever and wherever Israel acted as they were created to be, in the image of God, justly and with lovingkindness.  It also seems to me that in hoping that Israel would pray toward “this place,” Solomon was asking not that the people limit God and holiness to that impressive and luxurious space, but that they keep their hearts turned toward HaMakom, God the Place, to live always as if standing before the face of God, the center and circumference of the world, wherever they were.

When we fight over owning “our” holy places, what are we fighting over?  Emptiness—and not in the good sense of spiritual emptiness as openness to the One. Why are we not fighting to hallow the world by inviting God into our lives were on earth with acts of mercy and justice?

In the weeks to come, I will return to my second point--those palpable memories of encounters with the Holy One that seem to linger in certain places.  I don’t know how my views on holy ground, places, and land will change in the coming weeks as I experience the Sinai, Jerusalem, and Safed, but I am sure they will. 

Thursday, October 7, 2010

How Does Anyone Dare Talk About God?

This is the question I have been asking myself.  What arrogance to talk of God.  Who of us can say who or what or why or how God is?
And then today I passed two young people on the street near the University of Washington,a young man and a young woman.  What stopped me, dead still, was a poster hanging from their makeshift table, a photo of President Obama as Hitler.  I had seen the photo on the Internet.  But I was not prepared for its impact on me as I walked down University Avenue among scores of students in Seattle.  “Is that a joke?” I asked the young man behind the table covered with pamphlets.
“What has Obama done for you?” he asked me.  
“What did George Bush do for you or me or anyone?’ I asked. 
“No, “ a young man waiting for the bus said to me.  “Don’t talk to them.  I’ve tried.”
“It’s so offensive I don’t know what to say,”  I told him.
I walked on, looked in a few stores, then turned back to the corner that had disturbed me so.  I approached the young man at the table.  A young woman was handing out fliers nearby.  “Do you know who Hitler was?” I asked him.
“I know nothing,” he replied.   And the look in his eyes as they stared at me, not vacant but exactly what I could not tell, said he would tell me nothing.
“Are you saying that if Obama hasn’t done anything for you or me personally that that qualifies him as a mastermind of genocide?”
“I know nothing.”
“That’s what they always say,” the man who had tried to warn me before said.  He was still waiting for the bus.  I wondered lwhy he was still there and if he was a shill, the "voice of reason" somehow luring other reasonable people passing by into the argument they had set up and were baiting people for. But there was no way to tell.  “They just tell you to read their literature," the voice of reason told me, "but there’s no information in there.  I’ve read it.  Maybe they don’t really know anything and they’re just paid to hand out this stuff.”
“I don’t know what’s worse,” I said, “someone being paid for advocating violence or they’re just salespeople who don’t know what they’re selling.”
“They believe in what they’re doing,” my friend said.  “I heard that some Vet actually punched out one of these LaRouchers, then went to court, and told the judge he’d be happy to pay three times the fine if he could punch out two more of these guys.”
At this, the male LaRoucher became animated.  “I’m going to call the police and tell them you’re advocating violence.”
“I said,” my friend told the LaRoucher, “ that I read that that happened. It’s a fact and I’m repeating it.”
“You’re advocating violence,” the LaRoucher repeated to my supporter.  “I’m going to call the police.” 
His female counterpart came over to stand by her man.   Or maybe she hoped she would be punched out and make the papers and further their cause, whatever it was.. 
“You’re the ones advocating violence,” I told the LaRouchers. “Do you even understand what you’re doing?”
The LaRoucher tried to stare me down with his hazel eyes.  “I know nothing,” he said.
“Leave it,” my young friend advised me.    “I’ve tried.  They don’t listen.”
I walked to my bus stop.  But I couldn’t shake the experience.  The first black president of the United States of America.  Coupled with a legacy sick with hatred and racism.  Irrationality.  Unspoken threat.   Refusal to take responsibility for what they were saying and doing.  Complete disregard for the consequences of their words and actions. 
In a world gone made like this with hatred and irrationality, on street corners of major universities filled with young intelligent human beings, how can anyone not talk about God, the power that makes for justice and peace, the power that drives toward truth and mercy, the power that brings good out of evil? 

Friday, October 1, 2010

Islamophobia: Bred of Ignorance, Breeding Violence

Fear and ignorance feed on each other, and when they are allowed to do so unchecked, they result in hatred and violence.

How many examples, from religious or secular history, do we need to confirm the truth of this statement?   There are too many to list, and we all have our favorites on that list—usually involving the persecution of our own people:  the early Christians, the pagans, the Protestants, the Anabaptists, the Huguenots, the Roman Catholics, the Armenians, the Jews, the Palestinians, the Tibetans, women, black people, gay and lesbian people...

Right now, in the United States and Europe, what we are most ignorant of and what we fear most is Islam.  Is our Pakistani neighbor or that Algerian or Somalian stranger a terrorist? Is that woman wearing a hijab or a burqah  a sign that our freedom to choose—from religion to the clothes we wear—is under threat? Do the mosques and Islamic centers appearing in “our” city landscapes mean “our civilization” is at risk?

It’s not just members of non-Muslim religions that are scared; secular people are, too.  Why do we assume that certain people living in our free, democratic societies do not share those values?  Because of their religion or dress? The people we are most suspicious of have come here precisely because of those values—because they value freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of expression, and because they appreciate—in many cases far better than we do--the safety afforded by a pluralistic culture undergirded with laws to protect minority rights and enforcement agencies that, though not wholly free from corruption or prejudice, can be challenged by legal means.   

Who is the real threat to the United States and Europe today?  Not the millions of American and European Muslims trying to live decent lives with their families and communities.  The real enemy is us:  xenophobic nationalists, fundamentalists of all stripes, smug rationalists,  all of whom want the protections of a pluralistic democratic society for their way of life only, and who pre-judge everything they do not recognize as “theirs” to be impure, evil, or primitive. 

When will nationalists wake up to the reality that we are living and have always lived in a global, human world that transcends race and motherlands or fatherlands? When will Christian and other fundamentalists remember that "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18)? When will rationalists acknowledge that faith is not by definition irrational or anti-rational, but a well-reasoned way of orienting oneself in the world for good? 

When will we stop playing the righteous god punishing all who do not follow our ways?  When we will start using our imaginations not to inflate our fears but our understanding of others?  What would “Americans”  or “Europeans” do if anyone burned a Christian Bible?  The nation’s constitution or flag? What would they do if anyone vandalized their cemeteries? Fire-bombed their places of worship and social halls and schools?  Attacked one of their people on the street?  Publicized lies and words of hate about them on the Internet? 

In fighting ignorance and fear of those who differ from us, let’s start listening  to one another and learning about the other.  Let’s talk to our neighbors, find out their history, their values, their hopes, their dreams. And, as we learn about one antoher, let’s take as our guide not only the values of a free, democratic society, but also these words of Rabbi Hillel:  "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is interpretation." (Talmud, Tractate Shabbat, 31a).