Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Interfaith Prayer, the Bishop of Lund, and Making a Difference with Chocolate!

I want to begin today's post by saying how meaningful it has been to be here in this embodied world-wide community. I know that the world comes to us via the web every day, and I know that the internet can take us to all ends of the globe. Nevertheless, there simply is no way to compare this virtual encounter with the physical experience of being shoulder to shoulder, eye to eye with particular individuals, who have specific names and stories, who come from Japan, Tibet, Ghana, Italy, Brazil, Australia, the Netherlands, India, South Africa, etc., etc., etc. To see their faces, to hear their voices, to touch each other--it is a powerful, tangible reminder both of the larger world community and the larger body of Christ of which I am a part; and I am profoundly grateful to feel myself a part of this vast body. It is a invigorating jolt to the system, and a wonderful antidote to the incurvatus in se that can affect all of us, in our tendencies to think of ourselves, our families, our communities, our churches, our states, and our countries, all to the exclusion of others.

The first session I attended this morning was on the thorny topic of interfaith prayer. The presenters were all from Melbourne, and grounded their presentations in what are called the Black Saturday bushfires, which were burning in and around the state of Victoria on Saturday, February 7th, 2009. Somewhere around 400 fires were documented, and they resulted in the greatest loss of life from a fire in the country's history. All three of the presenters [Orthodox Jewish, Catholic, Tibetan Buddhist] were involved in the interfaith prayer service that was held to commemorate the event. All three talked about their belief that it is important for us to be able to pray together as people of faith, but it is a very difficult practice. Certainly, we don't all share the same language, nor do we pray the same way. The Buddhist representative, Dr. Diane Cousens, was helpful in that she corrected the misperception that Buddhist prayers are all about emptying the mind: one of the most common Buddhist mantras is "May all beings be happy," and by all beings, they mean every single living thing--"including bacteria in another galaxy, if scientists can find them!" This is a gift that Buddhists can bring to the table--the reminder that our prayer should be radically inclusive. Each of us has something to offer the other in our prayer traditions, and we can learn from each other and come to appreciate something that often at first feels alien and uncomfortable to us.

The Orthodox rabbi, Ralph Genende, named what is in some ways the most vexing issue of interfaith prayer when he admitted that, "It rankles for me when someone says I pray for all people in the name of Jesus. I don't pray in that name." We have to admit, he said, that sometimes the language that is most valuable and precious to you is something I can't accept, and is a barrier to me. This is a hard word to hear, but a truthful one. He also talked about the "orderedness" of Jewish prayer--there are specific prayers for almost everything; and many prayers are very particular. He laid out a typology that I hadn't heard before: he said that the three of the patriarchs are used to typify the three daily prayers Orthodox Judaism requires. Abraham is the man of the morning, up early and optimistic about the day; Isaac is the troubled man of the late afternoon, when the sunshine and the shade are mixed, and there is a lack of clarity--it takes courage to pray in this situation; finally, Jacob is the man who struggles at midnight, who discovers himself in the deepest darkness. Each of these, then, represents a different type of prayer. [I just thought that was interesting!]
As part of their presentation, each presenter offered two prayers from his/her tradition, on which we were invited to meditate for a minute or two. The Catholic priest chose, as his first prayer, Ephesians 3:14-21, which, frankly, I thought was kind of an odd choice. It got me thinking what I would have chosen: if it had been you as the Christian representative, what prayer "from the tradition" would you have offered?

The last thing I want to comment on from this session was one of the comments from the floor. One woman stood up to advocate for the activity of interfaith prayer, saying several times, "We should be able to leave our labels at the door." My response to that statement? Yuck! Religions are not simply 'labels' we slap on arbitrarily to the same universal experience, event or reality--I find that idea terribly problematic, as it simply does not do justice to the depth to which we are not only shaped and but even created by the different religious beliefs and practices that fundamentally structure our lives. This certainly doesn't mean that we cannot or should not come together in prayer with people of other faith traditions--I think we can and should--however, it does mean that such an activity is fraught with challenges, and must be undertaken with humility, respect, and integrity. [Clearly, this is why, interestingly enough, there are no official interfaith prayer services at this Parliament.]

The one part of her long statement [which only turned into a question at the end, after direct prodding by the moderator!] that did resonate with me was her statement that today we live in a post-religious age, where many people do not affiliate with a church, but nonetheless, are not devoid of spiritual yearnings: What language for prayer do we offer those people? How do we include them? This is a good question for many contexts in the US, I think.

The section session I attended was on "The Doctrine of Discovery and Indigenous Peoples." In case you didn't know, the doctrine of discovery refers to the series of papal bulls [and other subsequent documents] that gave European nations the right to seize what was considered to be uninhabited land [because it wasn't being "properly cultivated"] and enslave any people they found there. Christianity was an explicit partner in this colonization, and Christian people/nations were given specific permission [better said--imperative] to "subjugate barbarous nations." What is important to note about this is that the Doctrine of Discovery continues to provide a key piece of the foundation for property law in the United States, having entered our legal framework in the decision Johnson vs. M'Intosh, an 1823 U.S. Supreme Court case which, on the grounds of the Doctrine of Discovery, ruled that American Indians have a mere right of occupancy to their lands. [Note--occupancy, but not ownership.] It remains determinative in US federal law, particularly in the context of decisions involving Native Americans. As one of the presenters said, "Catholic Doctrine of Discovery morphed into a Protestant nation-building project."

One of the presenters in this session was Chief Oren Lyons, who is what is called "the faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan," the Onondaga Nation of the Iroquois Confederacy [sometimes called "the Six Nations"]. Among people who know, he's quite famous! In 1982 he helped establish the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations; and in 1992 he was invited to address the General Assembly of the United Nations which inaugurated the International Year of the World's Indigenous People. He reminded us that Benjamin Franklin got the idea of a democracy from the Iroquois, who had been functioning that way for centuries before the Europeans arrived here. [I haven't checked this with my American history-loving husband yet--since he is convinced I didn't learn anything about American history in my Colorado public schooling, we'll see if Virginia had anything to say about this….]

Anyway, lest you think all this is merely a history lesson, let me submit the following for your consideration. While the ELCA was wringing its hands and thumping its Bibles about gay and lesbian ordination this summer, the Episcopal Church, at their national assembly in July 2009, overwhelmingly passed a "landmark" resolution [Resolution D035] repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery and urging the U.S. government to endorse the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Part of their rationale for the decision was their conviction that such a doctrine was "corrosive to themselves" and to their faith. Something to be learned there, I think.

Before I went to my afternoon sessions, I ran into an acquaintance, Antje Jackelé n, the Bishop of Lund, Sweden. It was fun to see another Lutheran, and we caught up on what has been going on in each other's churches. She told me that in April, the Swedish government voted to abolish the government's gender bias in its marriage laws: before that time, only heterosexual couples could be legally married in Sweden; same-sex couples could register domestic partnerships only. Thus, the Church of Sweden only legally married heterosexual couples; it blessed the civil unions of registered domestic partners. So, once this happened, the Swedish church had to decide if it was going to forgo acting on behalf of the state altogether and only bless all marriages, or if it would begin to legally marry all couples. [The Church decided in favor of the latter, to the consternation of some.] I wonder if the ELCA will be faced with a similar decision in a few years.

The two afternoon sessions I went to are linked, in that they both could have been cause for despair, but instead, both were sources of hope. The first session was on human trafficking, a terrible subject. However, the two speakers, one of whom was a Catholic nun [more proof that overwhelmingly, nuns are unstoppable forces of good in the world!], the other of whom was the social justice director for The Salvation Army in Australia, refused to allow us to wallow! They showed us a video, which you can find on the website of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime [www.unodc.org], and also pointed us to the 2009 Trafficking in Persons Report of the US State Dept. [available at http://www.state.gov/g/tip/]. There is some great information on both those websites. It's a terrible situation, but there is reason to take heart, and there are many ways to get involved. One of the easiest, and yet most effective things you can do was pointed out to us by Danielle Strickland, the woman representing The Salvation Army: commit yourself to eating only fair-trade chocolate!! Because of how and where chocolate is grown and sold, almost 80% of the mass-produced chocolate in the world is tainted by slave labor. Thus, the network of organizations working to stop human trafficking have targeted the largest chocolate companies, to try and persuade them to use only fairly-traded chocolate. She was happy to report that Cadbury, the first group they targeted [because of its Quaker roots] agreed in 2009 to change its practices. Mars followed, with a commitment begin producing free-trade chocolate in 2010, and to be "traffic-free" entirely by 2020. As of just yesterday, Nestle announced that its "Kit-Kat" would be fair-trade ASAP, and they would follow suit with all other chocolate products. Pretty amazing! Think about adding such a commitment to your New Year's Resolutions, please!!! [Or, even better, your Advent practices!]

The second session I went to this afternoon was another film, "Pray the Devil Back to Hell," a documentary about the Christian and Muslim women in Liberia who came together, organized, and in effect, ended the terrible civil war that occurred in Liberia between the military dictator, Charles Taylor, and the rebel warlords who had come together to try and oust him from power. The atrocities on both sides were unspeakable, and the entire nation was terrorized. The women finally had had enough, and under the leadership of Leymah Gbowee, they met together at her church, St. Peter's Lutheran Church in Monrovia, to form the Christian Women's Peace Initiative. Soon, they were joined by Muslim women, who wanted to work with them for peace. Over the course of two years, these women prayed, demonstrated, and laid their lives on the line to push for peace and democracy in Liberia. This is one story that has a happy ending, too: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected president in 2005--the first woman ever elected to hold the highest office in an African nation. She continues as president today, and the country continues to be peaceful. If you can find this film, I highly recommend it--it's an amazing story! [Incidentally, it concludes back at St. Peter's Lutheran, with the celebration of a Mother's Day service in 2007.]

Such presentations, linking one's faith to the practice of justice in the world--a hallmark of the Parliament, I would say--have both convicted and inspired me. Convicted me, because I know that not only do I not do enough to put my faith into action, I doubt the power of my faith, and the power of God working in and through God's people to change the world. However, it also inspired me, because it's never too late to start making a difference, and no difference is too small to matter.
Advent blessings, everyone.

Kristin Johnston Largen

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