Monday, November 23, 2015

Don't Let the Politics of Fear Define Who We Are

Let us remember this: the Syrian refugees are fleeing the brutality of the very same ISIS that has now unleashed its savagery on Paris (and Beirut). In short, the millions of Syrian refugees are themselves the primary victims of ISIS. Let us not doubly punish these desperate people by associating them with the atrocity of their own tormentors. – Omid Safi, Director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center (from “Where Does it Hurt, O City of Light,” On Being, November 15, 2015).
When learning of the violence and bloodshed that beset Paris last week, I felt sickened by the distressing scenes of death and tragedy. Having once walked the streets of the City of Light, (La Ville Lumiere) I understood profoundly how close to home this act of terror had struck. I also was heartened in the days that followed by the worldwide response of sympathy and concern; by the prayer vigils attended by people of all faiths in support of the victims and their families; and by social media campaigns, including photos of concerned Muslims and women in hijabs holding signs that read: “Not in my name.” For a brief moment it seemed the world was united in opposition to hate. We had finally come together.

These feelings of sympathy were naturally augmented by anger and hatred for those responsible and for the mystifyingly horrendous group of violent thugs that debase Islam and wish to – What? Take over the world? Form a caliphate in Syria and Iraq? Kill everyone who refuses to accept their way of life, whatever that is? When France responded within 48 hours of the terrorist attacks by sending a stream of fighter jets into Syria to bomb an ISIS-stronghold in Raqqa, I confess to feeling immediate gratitude and satisfaction.

I felt the same sense of perverse satisfaction when, after 9/11, American bombers invaded southern Afghanistan and inflicted damage on the Taliban-controlled regions then concealing the movements of al-Qaeda and Osama bin-Laden. Of course, as individuals, there is little most of us can realistically do other than hope our government and the governments of our allies respond vigorously, in muscular ways that make us believe order is being restored and justice dispensed.

Appropriate responses to terrorism include robust efforts to identify and capture or kill those responsible and to defend the people and nations attacked. Bombing Raffaq was a valid reply to the tragedy in Paris, and I applaud how quickly and effectively the French dispatched its forces and coordinated successful police raids in Brussels within days of the attacks.

Unfortunately, not all of the responses and calls for action are helpful. Inappropriate responses include the voices of ignorance and intolerance, of xenophobia, Islamophobia, and fear of the Other, that predictably surfaced on social media and from the mouths of American politicians and Republican presidential candidates. Donald Trump called for the registration of American Muslims. Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush sought to apply a religious test to refugees seeking shelter in this country, suggesting that the United States admit only Christians. Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, and Ben Carson demanded that we deny refuge to any and all Syrian refugees. Then the House of Representatives voted to effectively shut down the Syrian refugee program and more than half of the nation’s Governors exclaimed that they would refuse to accept Syrian refugees into their states.

This is not the America I know and love, the beacon of light, the shining City on a hill, the country that declares, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” These are instead the voices of fear and ignorance, the same voices historically that called for the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and that opposed admittance of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe in the late 1930’s; the same voices that today wish to build walls and forcibly deport 11 million immigrants back to Mexico and Central America.

Everyone agrees that the threat of international terrorism is real and groups like ISIS must be defeated. But as with everything involving the Middle East, the solutions are complicated. Defeating ISIS will require thoughtful coordination of military, strategic, intelligence, religious and international resources among several nations with conflicting interests. And as the New York Times Editorial Board opined, “[N]o less a challenge for the civilized world is the danger of self-inflicted injury. In the reaction and overreaction to terrorism comes the risk that society will lose its way.” We cannot let this happen.

First, we must stop confusing refugees with terrorists. Building barriers to keep them out because we fear that Islam is inherently dangerous simply feeds into ISIS propaganda. As President Obama stated at the Group of 20 summit in Turkey, “Many of these refugees are the victims of terrorism themselves, that’s what they’re fleeing. Slamming the door in their faces would be a betrayal of our values. Our nations can welcome refugees who are desperately seeking safety and ensure our own security. We can and must do both.”

Second, the international community’s obligation to protect civilians fleeing persecution and war is enshrined in human rights laws, many stemming from the horrors of the Second World War. These principles of freedom and justice have historically been championed by the United States and the nations of Europe. Although acts of terrorism and the atrocities of the Syrian civil war sorely test those principles, it is imperative that world leaders – including American political leaders – not allow our darkest anxieties to render moot such principles. Statements from the likes of Chris Christie, that even “orphans under five” should be turned away, or by Ted Cruz, suggesting that “Barack Obama does not wish to defend this country,” serve no purpose other than to sow distrust for political gain. They are shameful and cowardly attempts at demagoguery.

Third, much of what is being said about the refugees is based on misinformation about the vetting process currently in place for refugees who enter the United States. Claims by Republican Governors and members of the House of Representatives that there does not currently exist adequate vetting of Syrian refugees are politically motivated untruths.

We first need to understand that the asylum seekers flooding into Europe are distinct from the refugees waiting to be admitted into the United States and many other countries. As explained by Amnesty International, of the four million Syrians registered as refugees and living in five neighboring countries, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has established a goal of resettling 400,000 Syrians into countries willing to accept them. The majority of refugees in the neighboring camps are hoping to return to Syria once the civil war is resolved. And none of the people fleeing to Europe on boats and rafts, on foot, or with the aid of smugglers, are among the 400,000 refugees assigned by the UNHCR for resettlement.

The UN resettlement process gives priority to the most vulnerable refugees, children and teenagers who have been orphaned, women and children at risk, torture survivors, and people with serious medical conditions. Indeed, more than half of Syrian refugees designated for resettlement are children. Their stories are heartbreaking and involve tales of incredible courage and bravery. These are people that will benefit and improve the nations who accept them. The small numbers of Syrian refugees who will eventually be resettled to the United States will thus have been thoroughly screened by the UN even before they begin the vetting process administered by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

To be vetted by DHS and accepted by the United States for resettlement is a rigorous and drawn-out process. As Senator Bob Casey (D-PA), the former Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee overseeing the Middle East, has explained, the vetting process: 
…includes several in-person interviews by U.S. officials, security checks by multiple agencies, significant documentation, and a health screening. This process, which is the most rigorous vetting in the world, takes over a year. The process requires refugees to be vetted by the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, the Department of Homeland Security and the Departments of State and Defense. The review process includes biometric and biographic checks, interviews by specially trained officers who scrutinize the applicant’s explanation of individual circumstances to ensure the applicant is a genuine refugee and is not known to present security concerns to the United States. The process also includes an additional layer of enhanced classified screening measures for those refugees from Syria.
Only a subset of the vetted refugees is ultimately accepted by the United States for resettlement. These refugees are then placed into carefully selected communities with the help of nine domestic resettlement agencies, including Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Church World Service, Episcopal Migration Ministries, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the International Rescue Committee. These agencies provide valuable and expert assistance in helping refugees find housing, medical care, schools, and employment. They also help the refugees learn and master English and assimilate into American life.

In short, the refugees are not the problem. Any security risks that need to be addressed should instead be focused on the U.S. visa waiver program, in which foreign nationals can apply for temporary admittance through one of 68 participating countries (including France and other European countries). All 19 hijackers in the 9/11 attacks, for example, entered the United States through the guest visa program. None were refugees.

“History will always be kinder to those who are resolute and brave,” writes the New York Times. The world is in a state of chaos. Fear is in the air. Terrorist attacks against innocent people seated at an outdoor cafĂ© and attending a music concert are as terrifying and incomprehensible as the very concept that encompasses the brutality and evilness that is ISIS. It is natural for nations to desire a sense of order and to impose laws and restrictions that help restore safety. But expressing hostility for the victims of the violence we abhor and shutting our doors to the most vulnerable persons fleeing the bloodshed, will serve only to make the crisis worse. And then history will not look kindly toward us.

In January 1939, two months after the events of Kristallnacht, after learning that Jewish homes and stores were vandalized and burned to the ground, and that thousands of Jews were beaten and murdered in a terrifying display of hatred, bigotry and mob rule, two-thirds of Americans polled said they opposed taking in as refugees 10,000 Jewish children. I suspect most Americans today would find this fact counter to their more optimistic view of American history – after all, Americans are the land of the free and home of the brave; we accept people fleeing persecution and oppression, and that’s what makes us great.

There has always been a strain of xenophobia and prejudice in the American psyche. But as a nation we have found ways of overcoming our irrational anxieties. Only by drawing on our highest ideals may we remain true to the values on which our nation was founded. We must reject the politics of fear, the scapegoating and deception, the bigotry and intolerance that so frequently takes on a life of its own in times of crisis. To defeat and destroy ISIS and radical extremism will require targeted military power and strategic intelligence, but it will also require collective understanding, compassion, and an ability to know the difference between a terrorist and the victims of terror.

I cannot explain the existence of ISIS or the suicidal ideology of radical jihadists. I do not have all the answers for how we defeat ISIS. But what I do know is this: If we succumb to intolerance and despair, bigotry and hatred; if we do not permit the forces of compassion and unity to set our agenda, we will have lost the battle. If the forces of good are to triumph over evil, we must retain our humanity. “The City of Light needs no more darkness,” writes Omid Safi. “Let us welcome light into our hearts, and be agents of healing.”

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Interfaith Imperative of the 21st Century

Rev. Heidi Neumark, New York
I reflect often on the accidental nature of faith and the impact it has on our lives – on how one’s religious affiliation is mostly determined in the first instance by the happenstance of birth. We may move away from religion as we grow older, or change our theological and philosophical dispensations. But the influence of our formative years, when we follow the lead of our parents and cater to familial expectations, stays with us for most of our lives.

I continue to identify as a Lutheran because I was born into a family that was deeply involved in the Lutheran Church – my father was a Lutheran pastor in New Jersey and my mother a devoted and faithful spouse who played to perfection the role of pastor’s wife. As a preacher’s kid, or “PK” as we were called, I was expected to put on my best clothes and attend church and Sunday school each week without complaint. Although I fulfilled my churchly duties with occasional grumbling, the Lutheran church influenced greatly the young lives of my sister, brother and I. And despite the rapidly changing social mores and generational conflicts then brewing over Vietnam, civil rights, and the sexual revolution, churches and other religious institutions retained a degree of respect in the 1960s and early 1970s that no longer seems apparent today.

I would gradually drift away from the Church after leaving home for college and discovering a world filled with doubt and ambiguity. I became disenchanted with the public representations of religion that dominated American society, especially in the judgmental harshness of Christian fundamentalism and the growing influence of Evangelicalism. By the 1980s, these forces had begun to push aside the more theologically liberal, mainline Protestant churches to which I had become accustomed. In later years, when I married a woman of the Jewish faith and raised Jewish children, the many assumptions of my childhood faith and relationship to Christianity became further strained.

And yet, although I attended church less frequently, the influence of my upbringing never really left me. I remained connected through family and the pull of heritage to my religious roots. I sought out Lutheran churches and pastors concerned with social justice and that practiced a more nuanced, ecumenical brand of religion. I was theologically and intellectually comfortable in such churches, which allowed me to reconcile my conflicting religious sensibilities. I also came to appreciate and connect with the Reform Judaism practiced by my daughters, and I found solace in meaningful participation in their Jewish education.

As I look back on my religious origins and the faith of my childhood, I find myself decades later with a broader perspective, more attuned to the many faces of religion in the world today. I am less attached now to the institutions of religion than to the human search for God in the 21st Century. I wonder how different my life would have been had I been born into a Jewish, Hindu, or Muslim family, or had I entered the world during another place and time. So much of our fate is determined by our life circumstances at birth, a matter so fortuitous and yet, so determinative of what is expected and assumed of us during our formative years. Still, I am proud of the deep and loving connections I experienced in the religion of my youth, however far I may have drifted from those shores in later years.

I am fascinated by the pursuit of God in modern times, by the human quest for meaning and purpose, and the many ways in which humanity expresses its hope and need for a divine presence. It is abundant in the faces of the people I have seen walking the streets of places as diverse as Philadelphia, New York, Rome, and Jerusalem; human beings made of the same biological design that differ only in appearance, language, customs, and beliefs.

I am presently reading Hidden Inheritance: Family Secrets, Memory, and Faith (Abingdon Press, 2015) by Heidi Neumark, a Lutheran pastor in New York City who recently discovered her German Jewish roots and learned that many of her father’s family members and relatives perished in the Holocaust. As a young girl in New Jersey in the 1950s and 1960s, and as the daughter of first-generation German immigrants, Neumark was proud of her German Lutheran heritage. She attended church every Sunday and developed a love of liturgy, a deep and abiding faith, and a strong sense of justice. After graduating from Brown University in the early 1970s, she attended the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and became an ordained Lutheran minister. For the past thirty years, Neumark has devoted her life and career to urban ministry, serving congregations in the South Bronx and Manhattan. She has lived and worked in some of New York’s poorest communities, contending with the everyday struggles of her congregants, with crime, drugs, prostitution, abused and broken homes, AIDS and gangs. Neumark thrived and was strengthened by serving among people who had originated from radically different backgrounds and life experiences.

In Hidden Inheritance, Neumark explores her family’s past and discovers that she descends from a long line of German Rabbis that ended with the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich. Many of her family members experienced the horrors of Kristallnacht; a cousin was murdered on the streets of Dresden, her grandparents and several great aunts, uncles, and their children were deported to the concentration camps of Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, where many of them died. A few fled to other countries. Years earlier, perhaps to evade anti-Semitism and in an attempt to assimilate into German society, her father was baptized as a Christian. In 1938, before the Final Solution had materialized, before the worst of the pogroms and death camps, he immigrated to America, never to reveal the secrets he took to his grave.

It is a fascinating tale of history, heritage, and the legacy of conflicting faiths. Among the most compelling parts of the book are Neumark’s reflections on how insight into her newly-discovered past affects her own inner faith journey.  I was particularly moved by her reflections on the sacrament of Holy Communion, in which Lutherans break bread and drink wine as symbols of the body and blood of Christ, the spiritual nourishment of the Christian faith. For Neumark, the newly-discovered knowledge that family members perished in the Shoah with the partial complicity of the Church in its failure to oppose centuries of Christian anti-Semitism, has forced her to reflect in a new way on the very sacrament that gives her sustenance:
“On the night in which he was betrayed, he took bread.” I feel partly like a traitor myself – that I have betrayed my own Jewish kin, albeit unknowingly. And yet I cannot turn away from the altar where for me, in spite of everything I now know, these remain life-giving words. . . . [offering] the hope that life can go on, that one day, we can sit together and share a healing, liberating meal, that shalom is possible.
Neumark’s experience is a dramatic example of how thinly veiled is our religious heritage. Had her father not been baptized, had he retained his Jewishness and passed it along to his daughter, Neumark might today be a Rabbi. But instead of lighting Shabbat candles or reciting the kaddish at Friday evening services, she preaches the Gospel on Sunday mornings. Hers is a compelling story that naturally leads me to wonder how any one religion can legitimately lay claim to exclusive truths, for what we believe and what religious rituals we practice are so often determined by chance and the circumstances of one’s birth.

*     *     *     *
Jerusalem's Old City, April 2015
Last week I listened to an episode of On Being with Krista Tippett, in which she interviewed Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom and a prominent author, religious leader, and philosopher. A leader in the Modern Orthodox movement, Rabbi Sacks spoke of the challenges and opportunities presented by a world of diverse faith traditions.

“I think God is setting a big challenge,” he explained. “We are living so close to difference, with such powers of destruction, that [God] is really giving us very little choice.” Sacks believes that we can either accept the beauty and life affirming nature of the diverse and multi-dimensional world in which we live, or find ourselves on a more negative course. Ultimately, it comes down to whether we can see the presence of God in the face of a stranger.

Two months after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Rabbi Sacks stood at Ground Zero in friendship, fellowship, and shared prayer with leaders of most of the world’s faiths. “It was then I realized it is either we go in this direction or a more negative way.” When we understand that we are enlarged and not threatened by other faiths, it becomes more difficult to practice religious arrogance and exclusivity.

Wisdom lies in the bio-diversity of life. “Everything that lives has genetic code written in the same alphabet,” Sacks explained. “Unity creates diversity. . . Don’t think of one God, one truth, one way, think of one God creating this extraordinary number of ways.” If we consider that the human race has developed nearly 6800 spoken languages, why should we think there is only one language to speak to God?

Sacks contends that the 20th century witnessed the collapse of moral language, and that today only the loudest and rudest voices win. And yet the greatest single antidote to violence and misunderstanding remains conversation, in speaking and listening to others. In On Being, Sacks observed that one of the most powerful movements for peace in the Middle East is a group of Palestinian and Israeli parents who have lost children to violent conflict. By their example, they witness to the world that through empathy and understanding, speaking and listening, one can change hearts and minds. When we can get Israelis and Palestinians alike to think of what is best for their grandchildren, rather than focus on individual claims of injustice and victimhood, we can make real progress towards peace. “It is when you can feel your opponent’s pain that you begin the path towards reconciliation.”

The world will forever remain a complex place, full of disappointment and despair. Religious extremism and religious conflict are part of the problem, but so is religious illiteracy -- the failure to understand the "other" and the many dimensions and faces of religious belief and practice in the world today. Perhaps if we recognize how fortuitous are the origins of our own  religious identities, we will make more meaningful connections to people of other faiths, or of no faith, and the many who remain conflicted about faith. Then, too, we may see more clearly that which we have in common -- the desire for community and fellowship, the need for foundational principles, and the search for God in a broken world.