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Archive for July, 2011

There are words that seem to come into the public consciousness.  They’re the kind of words that people use to get attention.  The kind of words public figures use in their press releases, the sound bytes.  One such word for a number of years has been tolerance.  It has been heralded and praised.  People have despaired over its lack and have strived for its growth in their towns and in their schools.  However, perhaps we actually shouldn’t be striving for tolerance.  Perhaps encouraging people to be tolerant is actually the wrong thing we should do.  Maybe we should be encouraging them to have acceptance.

 

Think about it.  Who wants to be tolerated?  Who wants someone to say to them, “We’ll tolerate your presence”?  That doesn’t make anyone feel good.  Toleration means abstaining from outright persecution.  Toleration means that you will admit to another person’s right to hold an opposing viewpoint but you do not in any way acknowledge that their viewpoint is valuable or even valid.  Toleration means that you will not bully that kid in the hallway but you still think they’re a freak.  No one really wants to be tolerated, what people want is to be accepted.

 

Most people don’t need everyone to agree with their faith or their point of view or their lifestyle, but most people would like the people around them to respect their choices and to understand their choices.  They would like to be accepted by their family and their friends and their communities for who they are and what they believe.  People want other people to understand why they do or think what they do, whether or not the other person agrees with them, they want that person to at least understand where they’re coming from and above all things why.  It’s important that we learn to accept people for who they are instead of simply tolerating their presence and the method to reach acceptance is understanding. 

 

When we encounter a practice or an idea that we don’t fully understand, our first instinct should not be to judge it or to rely on hearsay.  We should ask people about their beliefs, their faith, their morals, and likewise we should be willing to explain our own.  We should not ask with the intent to pass judgment or to compare it to our own belief system, but to understand it for its own sake.  Ignorance is a powerful weapon of many people in our country.  Its why some people still believe all Muslims hate America or that all Christians hate gays or that all Republicans are ignorant.  Its why people can get away with the polarizing rhetoric and pointing fingers and demonization of other sides…because we don’t understand both sides.  Instead of teaching our children to tolerate others, we need to be teaching them to strive to understand and accept others.  Accepting others with their differing beliefs and points of view doesn’t make our own beliefs any weaker, in fact it can sometimes make it stronger.  Each person, however, deserves respect.  Toleration doesn’t communicate respect, it communicates division.

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I remember sitting with my friend one day, looking at amazon book reviews and for some reason we were on Harry Potter.  To my surprise, multiple of the reviews were bashing the series for its inclusion of magic and “satanic symbols” and one even went so-far as to call J. K. Rowling a witch.  A percentage of people seem to think that the use of magic in a book, by filing it under the fantasy genre, that somehow it is now irreconcilable with Christianity, that the two are polar opposites that belong in two separate worlds and hold nothing in common.  However, I frankly think the opposite, that one can find in the Harry Potter books many Christian teachings and corner pieces of Christian theology and in Harry a modern Jesus figure.

 

In the final battle, Harry discovers that he must die because a piece of Lord Voldemort’s soul is attached to his own and therefore Voldemort can never be defeated without his own death.  Just like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Harry knows that even though he is afraid and wishes that there was a different route, he still knows that there is only one choice and one path for him to take.  He goes willingly to be killed, just as Jesus was willingly killed on the cross.  Also, just as Jesus then rises again, Harry also comes back from the dead after spending a brief period of time in a limbo state.  In this, having gone willingly to be killed and then to be resurrected in a way, he parallels Jesus.  However, the real clincher of Harry as a Jesus figure is when it is revealed that because Harry went willingly to die and because he went for the sake of everyone he was leaving behind, he has therefore left a protection over everyone in the castle and Voldemort can no longer hurt them, he has sacrificed his life for them.

 

Love and love’s strength are focal points of the series.  It is this quality and an appreciation of love’s value that Lord Voldemort lacks, and also that Harry has in abundance.  It is his love, and his continuation to love in the face of horrible trauma, that Dumbledore says marks him as a remarkable person.  It is also the love of one to sacrifice themselves for another (Harry
with his friends, or Lily for Harry), just as Jesus’ love caused him to sacrifice himself for us.  Death also plays a significant piece in the books.  Lord Voldemort’s fear and paranoia of death is what causes him to create the Horcruxes, the focal point of the last book.  Harry’s willingness to meet death stands in stark contrast. Questions about the afterlife are also raised in the form of the Resurrection Stone.  Themes such as souls, power, goodness, innocence, et cetera all work throughout the book.

 

 

Harry Potter is not a perfect Christian allegory, it likely (though only the author can confirm or deny) was not written with that intent.  But it does ask the same universal questions that Christianity, along with most major religions, ask.  It also has many of the Christian themes, such as love and sacrifice, woven within it.  The Christian story, of Jesus’ sacrifice for humanity, can be found within its pages.  While Harry Potter is certainly an enjoyable, well-written, and entertaining story, it also is a story with depth for those who want to look and it is also a story that parents can use as an example to their children of what Christianity is all about.

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The Muslim practice of women wearing headscarves to cover their hair and neck has become a symbol in the United States for Islamic women.  Some see it as a symbol of their refusal to integrate into American society, some see it as the exercise of their religious beliefs, some see it as a sign of their oppression by men.  For most of these young women their choice of clothing is something that is reflective of their personal faith and they hold to that even in the face of ridicule or judgment by people around them.

Let’s just start with some terminology.   There are many different types of coverings, the four major ones being the hijab, the chador, the burqa, and the niqab.  The hijab is a headscarf that covers women’s hair and necks.  The chador is a full-body wear that is similar to a cloak and it leaves her face exposed.  The niqab is a full-body covering that covers everything except the eyes.  The burqa covers the eyes as well, leaving only a mesh covering to see through.  As a sidenote, the now-infamous headscarf ban in France bans only the burqa and the niqab and not the hijab and chador (though these things are not allowed in places like French schools where wearing pieces of religious symbolism is forbidden).  Hijab is also, at times, used to refer to the overall practice of modest dress.  Modest dress is interpreted several ways, most believe that it should not be form-fitting and many believe it should cover everything except face and hands (and some believe those too should be covered).

Women and girls wearing some form of the headscarf is becoming increasingly common.  While some are resistant to our country changing, I believe that it is America’s versatility and ability to change that is part of what makes this a great nation.  Just as with civil rights, an African-American girl also started to become a face of America, along with her blonde hair, blue-eyed counterpart, or as Asian-American girls also became common to see in the media, so I think that these Muslim girls are also becoming another face of America, something that bothers a great number of people.  This girl—a young woman with a hijab covering her hair, a loose-fitting shirt with long sleeves, and slacks—she is also America.

Common misperception: only immigrant women and girls still wear the headscarf and wearing it is a sign that they have not integrated into American culture.  This is false.  A large percentage of the women who wear the headscarf were born and raised in America, just like the rest of us.

Common misperception: most girls only wear the headscarf because they are forced to by their families or husbands.  This is also false.  While there are cases where women are forced by their families to wear the headscarf (particularly abroad) the majority of women make this choice freely. For the record though, in a way, isn’t a family encouraging a girl to wear a headscarf or cover herself not that different from when our parents refused to buy us a piece of clothing or leave the house in an outfit because we were wearing a short skirt or a low top?  Or when we’ve done that to our daughter?  Standards of appropriate dress are different in every family, we know this.  While this does not excuse someone forcing their daughter or wife to wear something against their will, perhaps looking at it from this perspective we might understand better why some families strongly wish their daughters to dress in a way that they think is appropriate.

Most women who cover themselves do so out of a personal choice.  They do it because they feel it is something that is mandated by their religion.  Or some do it because it is part of their faith and spirituality, it helps them to connect with God.  Some do it because they feel that, similarly while many Christians believe in saving aspects of physicality (like sex) for marriage and in only giving that to one person, they also believe in only showing themselves to their family and husband.  And there are some who do it because they prefer to dress modestly as a way of respecting themselves and their body.  Instead of feeling commoditized or insecure about body image, they cover themselves as a way of taking focus away from their body and back to where they believe it truly belongs: their heart and mind.  Many would prefer the stares from their modest dress and headscarf than the stares of boys on a street corner.  Whatever motivates Muslim women to wear their headscarves and modest dress, for many of them it is a deeply personal choice that they make because they feel that this best reflects their faith and beliefs.  Christians should understand this since so many Christians also believe in dressing modestly.  This is just a different aspect and a different way of reflecting a similar belief and practice across our religions.

However, instead many Muslim women feel isolated or ostracized.  They feel pressure from peers and get disrespectful questions about their choices.  At times they have been shouted at, had people try to pull their headscarves off, and there are even a few cases where women wearing hijab have been attacked.  In spite of public disapproval, they have continued to express their faith and they should be admired for that.  We should be supporting these women’s choice instead of condemning them or judging them.

There is a lawsuit going forward by a young Muslim woman against Abercrombie and Fitch after she was allegedly fired because they said her headscarf did not conform with their company dress code.  She had been working without a problem for a number of months and had been sure to wear her hijab in company-approved colors until a district manager saw her.  When she refused to take off her hijab while at work she was fired from her job.  (It is worth noting that this is not the first time since Abercrombie and Fitch have been sued for discrimination).

Abercrombie and Fitch has a specific dress code that they require all their employees to wear, the idea being that the dress code is supposed to reflect their “All-American Style”.  Apparently they do not believe that a hijab is an American style, that it is not All-American.  Aside from the fact that by extension this is implying that they don’t see people who wear the hijab as truly American and the indignity of this, they are wrong.  We are entitled, under the bill of rights, to freedom of expression and that there shall be nothing to prohibit the free exercise of religion.  It is this freedom that entitles us to express our Christian faith, such as wearing a cross.  And all who value their religious freedom should do their utmost to defend it for others.   But further, that these women are free to wear their hijab and express their faith in this way is not un-American.  In fact, having this freedom and right of religion and expression (and to be able to live in a society that accepts their choice) is quintessentially American.

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This book by Tony Campolo gives an view on much of the political and social issues of our time through the outlook of our Christian faith and Jesus’ teachings.  He describes a set of Christians who identify themselves as evangelicals but do not identify with the so-called Religious Right.  This group has taken the name Red Letter Christians, a reference to the many Bibles where the words that Jesus spoke are written in red letters for emphasis, the implication being that this group is dedicated to following the teachings of Jesus and his message with a strong emphasis on social justice.

 

There is a chapter on each of the following issues in the book: the environment, the Iraq War, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, AIDS crisis, gay rights, gun control, education, abortion, immigration, crime, the federal budget, the minimum wage, the debt, wasteful government spending, political lobbyists, campaign finance, and candidates.  The issues covered are broad and encompassing. Campolo offers an outlook on each issue through the lens Jesus’ teachings and Christian faith.  He suggests possible solutions to large problems and some new ideas and perspectives.  At the very least, the book can help one create an informed opinion.

 

I think this book is excellent, it is easy to read and very thought-provoking.   It is particularly relevant as we begin to go into another election cycle and we are considering which candidates to give our votes to.  It’s a fresh outlook that allows us to consider what role we want our values and our faith to play in our politics and might hit a nerve with moderate Christians who feel stuck in the middle.

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We’ve heard it after all sorts of speeches, it’s one of politicians’ favorite lines.  Is it, though, in fact disrespectful to God?  There are several issues in play.  First, is that it implies that God should bless America over other countries or Americans over other people.  If we believe that all of us are God’s children and that He loves us all equally, shouldn’t we be asking God for his blessing on the whole world and everyone who lives in it instead of some exclusionary blessing for just America?  The second, and the thing that I think is really the problem with this statement is that it’s phrased as an order.  God bless America.  It’s an order, telling God what he should do.  Wouldn’t it be better to say “May God bless America”?  Shouldn’t it be phrased as a request or as a hope, rather than a command.   God, as the king of heaven and earth, shouldn’t be treated with such arrogance as to be told what to do.

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Budgets.

 

Who just had a mental twitch?  Anyone?  Anyone?  Some sort of instinctual reaction of disgust after hearing the words?  Let’s admit it.  We all know that they’re important and that they are a necessary point of discussion on all levels of government and business and even personal lives.  But we’re all really sick of them at this point.   What with all the shouting and the name-calling and the endless arguments over the budgets that fill our newspapers, our news broadcasts, our Insert Your News Outlet of Choice web browsers, and even our personal conversations…most of us, I think, are fairly drained with all of this bickering (and probably secretly—or not so secretly—wish the issue would just disappear), I just thought that we should all admit that before we went any further.

 

We’ve all heard pundits talking about “values issues”.  “Values issues” tend to be the issues of the infamous “values voters”.  Some examples of what people see as values issues: gay marriage, abortion, condoms in schools, stem-cell research, et cetera.  However, one thing that people don’t often see as a values issues is one of our largest issues in the political debate: budgets.

 

It was several months ago, while reading an article on economics, that this idea was first put in my mind, that a budget is a set of values.  Where we put our money is our way of expressing what is important to us as a nation, as a family, as an individual, as a town, as a state, or as a company.  If someone took our budget and looked at it, what would that reveal about us?  And more importantly, what do we want our budgets to reveal about us?

 

The entire budget discussion is looked at in different terms when it’s seen as a declaration of values.  What does it say about our country if the first thing that we cut from our budget is aid to people who are struggling to feed their families?  What does it say about our priorities when subsidies are put in for oil companies and money for environmental clean-up and regulation is taken out?  What is important to us as a nation?  What is it that we care about?  And what is important to us individually or as families?  What would someone think if they knew your budget?  What would that tell them about you?  What do you want your budget to tell them about you?  And what do we want our budget to say as Americans?  In a way, our budget says more about our American values than any opinion poll or statistic.  I’m not going to argue what should or shouldn’t be in someone’s budget, or in government budgets, because the entire point is that it should represent your values and we all have different ideas about what that should be.  Looking at our budgets as statements of values can often help us make decisions about what we want to cut back on, what do we want to add in, and it starts to transform the way we look at budgets.  Such as, well yes we have money allocated for insert issue of choice in our budget, but in relation to the overall budget do we think that’s representative of how important that issue is to us?  What we spend our money on, and how much money we spend on each thing, is inherently as much a values issue as anything else.

 

So as we sit down to our personal checkbooks or as our lawmakers continue to debate where our money should be spent, we should think about what we want our budgets to say about us, about our values, and factor that into our decisions.

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