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Archive for August, 2011

Now, I first want to say, that I am going to add in those next two parts on religious literacy, however, I came across this and felt that it was important and wanted to share.

I am one of the many people who continues to be concerned over dialogue in the political arena that seems to foster anti-Islamic sentiment or to reinforce people’s narrow views of the religion.  I’ve at times noticed similarities between the preoccupation with many on the right with the supposed threat of Islam to our country and national identity and with the red scare of the mid-twentieth century, including senate hearings.  Another parallel is politicians use of specific words to incite fear or prejudice, trying to appeal to the concerns of a number of Americans.  One of these code words that has appeared is the sudden obsession with sharia law and the so-called danger that it poses to our country.  I found this article by Amy Sullivan of the Huffington Post entitled “The Myth of Sharia Law in America” and thought that it was excellent and certainly worth sharing and discussing.

Link to the article: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/amy-sullivan/sharia-myth-america_b_876965.html

Sullivan starts out with the phrase “if you are not vitally concerned about the possibility of Muslims infiltrating the U.S. government and establishing a Taliban-style theocracy, then you are not a candidate for the GOP presidential nomination”.  Part of this is people’s idea of the concept of ‘creeping sharia’, that sharia law will slowly come into our laws and culture without us noticing it and in the process take away our American values, freedoms, and identity.  Sullivan goes onto some of the examples of Republican presidential candidates who have started speaking out against Sharia.  Rick Santorum referred to sharia as a “threat” to the country.  However, this is nothing compared to some of the concrete suggestions at combating sharia law that have been discussed by Republican candidates that Sullivan quoted.

Presidential candidate Herman Cain stated that he “would not appoint a Muslim to a Cabinet position or judgeship because ‘there is this attempt to gradually ease sharia law and the Muslim faith into our government.  It does not belong in our government.’”  I first want to state that what Herman Cain is suggesting, keeping people out of government posts because of their faith, is illegal and it is stated in the constitution that “all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States” (article VI, paragraph III).  It is worth noting that Herman Cain also believes that it should be legal for towns to refuse to accommodate mosques being built if the majority of the population opposes them.  However, by that logic a town could refuse to accommodate any minority religion’s house of worship, for instance a town that was predominantly Catholic, as my own town is, could choose that the Episcopalian, Unitarian, Methodist, Baptist, and Congregationalist churches in the town, along with the Jewish synagogue, could also be banned.  I hadn’t realized that in our country that rights of the minorities were dependent on the whims of the majorities.  Herman Cain continues to be an outspoken critic of sharia law and Islam, saying that “our constitution guarantees the separation of church and state.  Islam combines church and state” as his argument for why Islam is entirely antithetical to America.  The major flaw in his argument is that, as anyone who has read the Old Testament or the Jewish Torah is well aware, Christianity and Judaism both have strong roots in the combination of church and state.  There are laws and regulations in the early books of the Bible on many of the same subjects as sharia such as prayer, contracts, interest, dietary needs, crimes, and welfare.  Christianity and Judaism’s holy texts combine church and state just as much as Islam.  Cain doesn’t seem to realize this however, reasserting: “Islam is both a religion and a set of laws—sharia laws.  That’s the difference between any one of our traditional religions where it’s just about religious purposes.”  Christianity has, plenty of times in the past, instituted governments where there was no separation between church and state, many of these governments existed very recently as well, even now national churches exist in many European country.  The separation between church and state was a new and radical idea at the inception of our nationhood, it is not a religion itself that opposes or affirms the separation between church and state, but how the people of that religion choose to carry out their faith.

Sullivan also cites Newt Gingrich, current presidential candidate and former speaker of the house, who has been calling for a federal law stating that sharia cannot be used in any court case.  The issue is actually a familiar one and has not been confined to sharia.  Many people in the past have said that judges should not be able to use international precedents (as in, decisions or laws from another country) as justifications in American court decisions or sentencing.  The logic behind this is valid.  However, singling out sharia as a threat isn’t quite as valid.  Sullivan addressed the issue of when and where sharia is used in United States courts, describing how examples where sharia might be brought in is when the two litigants are Muslim who would like a Muslim arbiter to settle issues around marriage contracts or business deals in compliance with sharia, or in executing an Islamic will.  Sullivan points out: “They are no different than the practice of judges allowing Orthodox Jews to resolve some matters in Jewish courts, also known as beth din.”  The other times that sharia is brought up is when courts hear cases where the litigants are from different countries, or deals or custody arrangements were made in other countries under different laws, in this case sharia is brought in as the foreign law, it should also be noted that Catholic canon law is permitted in such cases as well, as Sullivan pointed out.  A large number of states in the past two years have debated or passed laws to ban the use of sharia in courts.

However, it actually wasn’t Newt Gingrich’s attack on sharia’s use in court cases that I had a problem with, it was his assertion that supreme court justices and other judges who oppose that idea should be removed.  The judicial system is critical to our fundamental system of checks and balances.  Our judges are meant to augment our legal system and to provide a check on the legislative and executive branches; if we start removing judges based on what decisions they make, not only do we undermine the job they’re meant to be doing, but then we might not get the same opinions, judges might change their verdicts based on which political party is in power out of fear of losing their jobs.  They can no longer contribute to the system in the same way.  When the supreme court handed down their decision in the case of Brown versus the Board of Education, President Eisenhower was in office.  President Eisenhower was a segregationist, but the courts said that schools had to be integrated.  Though Eisenhower didn’t agree with the court’s decision, he knew that as president it was his job to carry out the court’s decisions no matter what.  The courts and judges need to be able to come to their own conclusions about cases and laws, no matter what those conclusions may be, and threatening the very judicial system’s principles that our nation relies on not only undermines that system but fundamentally threatens it.

Sullivan continued her article by defining sharia, noting that although it has become a word in many sound bytes, few people actually understand what sharia is.  Later in the article she quoted the example of a state senator from Alabama, Gerald Allen, who was sponsoring a bill banning sharia, but when asked to define it by a reporter could not actually say what sharia was.  In her explanation of sharia, Sullivan says: “More than a specific set of laws, sharia is a process through which Muslim scholars and jurists determine God’s will and moral guidance as they apply to every aspect of a Muslim’s life.  They study the Quran, as well as the conduct and sayings of the Prophet Mohammed, and sometimes try to arrive at consensus about Islamic law.  But different jurists can arrive at very different interpretations of sharia, and it has changed over the centuries.”  I think one of the closest parallels to sharia, as so defined, would be the Talmud, a text in Judaism of discussions by rabbis over Jewish laws, ethics, and traditional customs, among many others.  I also will admit that I smiled a bit at the last part of the quotation.  In my daily listening to the news and in the research for this article I’ve heard a number of the candidates expounding on how Islam is different from what we think (though I’m not exactly sure who “we” is supposed to be and I wish they would all stop using pronouns like “us” and “they”) and Muslims are therefore fundamentally different from the rest of us.  However, that last part of the quotation sounds exactly like Christianity or Judaism or any of the other major religions.  We all interpret God’s will for us, the Bible, and Jesus’ teachings in very different way.  We come to different conclusions about what the text says or what God means every day and what we believe has evolved greatly over two millennia since Jesus first spoke his teachings.  I think if someone said that all Christians believe _________, if it wasn’t something like “in God”, I think most of us would realize pretty quickly that all Christians don’t agree with whatever it was.  Christians disagree amongst themselves on basically everything, from marriage to gender roles to morality to government to economics to hell to the Bible to church.  The idea that you could say that all Christians think alike or believe in the same things is absurd.  I think the idea that all Muslims think alike or believe in all the same things is equally absurd.  You can’t lump people of all the same religion into one box.  It seems to me that much of sharia is just the process through which through study and faith, many Muslims try to find the best way to live out what they see to be God’s will, the same as any of us.

Sullivan noted at the end that “unlike the U. S. Constitution or the Ten Commandments, there is no one document that outlines universally agreed upon sharia” (though it is worth noting that different faiths use different versions of the ten commandments as well) and began to answer the question of how some Muslim countries use sharia in their legal systems.  While Sullivan acknowledges the extreme scenarios, such as the Taliban ruling Afghanistan using sharia, most countries sharia usually makes up the laws around contracts.  In other countries, where the government is secular, Muslims still use sharia in their practices like prayer or diet.  Sullivan adds, “In general, to say that a person follows sharia is to say that she is a practicing Muslim.”

Lastly, Sullivan addressed many people’s fears about the “extreme punishments” in the sharia like stoning someone to death, beheading, et cetera.  She points out the very important fact that even though a judge can consider sharia in their decisions, sharia cannot override our laws or constitution.  Sharia cannot be used in a way that contradicts the laws that we currently have and no one can force a judge to consider sharia.  Also, despite people’s horror about some of the punishments described in sharia, people have to remember that things that many of us would describe as equally inhumane are proscribed in our Bible.  Stoning is named as a punishment in the Bible.  Yet, in our country’s long history with a Christian majority in the population, I don’t recall stoning ever being chosen as a punishment by a judge, certainly not within the last century.  The fact that the Bible named it did not mean that judges rushed to use it in their decisions and I find it equally unlikely that something different will happen with sharia.

Sullivan questions why sharia has become such a concern for many Americans and such a force in our national debate and elections.  She points out that many people either believe that such laws against sharia are necessary to preempt sharia’s invasion of our laws or, “assert that all Muslims are bound to work to establish an Islamic state in the U. S.”.  Aside from the fact that there is no evidence of that, I don’t see why if people are afraid of something like that why they’re not more worried about the many public figures who continue to call out that our nation is a “Christian nation” and that we must preserve its status as such.  Personally, though hypocrisy among politicians is nothing new, I still have to say that I wish we could expect better of our presidential candidates.  The Republicans are running on the core value that we need to restore America’s focus on the document of the constitution, while many of them are not only threatening the first amendment’s protection of people to be able to practice their religion freely but are also disregarding laws about religious discrimination in public offices and the checks and balance system of the three branches that was at the very core of the constitution.  Sullivan seems to think it is more likely (and I agree) that instead of Muslims slowly working together to impose their religion upon us “that politicians who cry ‘Sharia!’ are engaging in one of the oldest and least-proud political traditions—xenophobic demagoguery.”  She says that one of the easiest ways to tell “is when politicians carelessly throw around a word simply because it scares some voters.”  A sad example of the many ways that politicians like to use emotionally charged words to incite people to make emotional decisions motivated by fear rather than reason.  Sullivan finishes her article strong, stating: “The anti-communist Red Scare of the 1950s made broad use of guilt by innuendo and warnings about shadowy conspiracies.  If GOP candidates insist they are not doing the same thing to ordinary Muslims, they can prove it by explaining what they believe sharia is and whether they’re prepared to ban the consideration of all religious codes from civil arbitration.  Anything less is simply fear mongering.”

Now, for my final word, I’d like to say why any of us who are not Muslim should be actively involved in fighting against any attempts to limit Muslim’s religious freedom.  It might be easy to not be too concerned, since either way, we could argue, it doesn’t affect us.  However, there is first the danger that the erosion of the religious civil liberties of any one group threatens the religious civil liberties of us all, and we might very well find ourselves in the same place later down the line, one never knows.  There’s also the simple fact that it’s wrong, and as the Bible extolls us to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” this should mean that we are vitally concerned with the treatment of other people.  Lastly, I think history has shown, that while those who led charges against discrimination against a people are always villified, it is really the people who stood by and let it happen that history lays the most blame at the feet of.

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Here are the answers to the quiz that I posted the other day.  Some of the questions have flexibility in answers, such as it being said differently in another language or so on so please take that into account.  Two more parts to this series of articles still to come.  Again, the answers to this quiz (like th quiz itself) come from Stephen Prothero’s book “Religious Literacy”.

1. Name the four gospels.  List as many as you can.  (1 point each).

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John

2. Name a sacred text of Hinduism. (1 point).

There are many possiblities here.  They include: the Vedas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Upanishads, Puranas, Mahabharata, Bhagavad Gita, Ramayana, Yoga Sutras, Laws of Manu, and the Kama Sutra.

3. What is the name of the holy book of Islam?  (1 point).

Quran

4. Where according to the Bible was Jesus born?  (1 point).

Bethlehem.

5. President George W. Bush spoke in his first inaugural address of the Jericho road.  What bible story was he invoking? (1 point.)

The Good Samaritan

6. What are the first five books of the Hebrew Bible or the Christian Old Testament? (1 point each)

Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy

7. What is the Golden Rule? (1 point.)

“Do unto others as you would have them do unot you” (Matthew 7:12), or a similar sentiment from Rabbi Hillel or Confucius.  (“Love your neighbor as yourself” is NOT the Golden Rule)

8. “God helps those who help themselves.” Is this in the Bible?  If so, where? (2 points.)

No, this is not in the Bible.  It was said by Ben Franklin.  It contradicts Proverbs 28:26: “He who trusts in himself is a fool”

9. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God”: Does this appear in the Bible?  If so, where? (2 points.)

Yes, this appears in the Beatitudes of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:3)

10. Name the Ten Commandments.  List as many as you can. (1o points)

The Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish traditions all have different versions of the ten commandments.  Give yourself credit if you have any ten of the following twelve.

1. I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.

2. You shall have no other gods before me.

3. You shall not make ourself a graven image.

4. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.

5. Remember the sabbath day and keep it hol.

6. Honor your father and your mother.

7. You shall not kill/murder.

8. You shall not commit adultery.

9. You shall not steal.

10. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

11. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife

12. You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods

11. Name the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism.  List as many as you can.  (4 points.)

1. Life is suffering

2. Suffering has an origin

3. Suffering can be overcome (nirvana)

4. The path to overcoming suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path

12. What are the seven sacraments of Catholicism?  List as many as youcan. (7 points).

1. Baptism

2. Eucharist/Mass/Holy Communion

3. Reconciliation/Confession/Penance

4. Confirmation

5. Marriage

6. Holy Orders (Nuns or the Priesthood)

7. Anointing of the Sick/Last Rites

13. The First Amendment says two things about religion, each in its own “clause”.  What are the two religion clauses in the first amendment?  (1 point each.)

“Congress shal make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”.  The words before the comma are referred to as the establishment clause; the words that follow constitute the free exercise clause.

14.  What is Ramadan?  In what religion is it celebrated? (2 points.)

Ramadan is a Muslim holiday characterized by a month of fasting.

15. Match the Bible characters with the stories in which they appear by drawing a line from one to the other.  Some characters may be matched with more than one story or vice versa.  (7 points).  (I’m not going to retype this whole thing.  I’m just going to put the answer).

Adam and Eve and the Serpent-Garden of Eden

Paul-Road to Damascus

Moses-Parting of the Red Sea and Exodus

Noah-Olive Branch

Jesus-Garden of Gethsemane

Abraham-Binding of Isaac

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This quiz is taken from a book entitled “Religious Literacy” by Stephen Prothero.  It is designed to test some basic knowledge of the main world religions.  It leans more to the Judaic-Christian faiths, but I think it is partially designed to be correlated to the religious makeup of the country.  I will be posting the answers and scoring subsequently, if you’d like to share your answers to the questions in a comment, or afterwards if you’d like to share your score (there shall be no judgment, don’t worry) by all means do.  No cheating though, please, this quiz is designed to be informative for you and reaching for google rather defeats the purpose ;).  If you have any questions or comments please feel free to leave a comment.  I took this several years ago and while I was reading the book I often did an informal quiz with friends or family who were around, I found the results very interesting.  The third part of this will be a book review of “Religious Literacy”.  Thank you!

1. Name the four gospels.  List as many as you can.

2. Name a sacred text of Hinduism.

3. What is the name of the holy book of Islam?

4. Where, according to the Bible, was Jesus born?

5. President George W. Bush spoke in his first inaugural address of the Jericho road.  What Bible story was he invoking?

6. What are the first five books of the Hebrew Bible or the Christian Old Testament (also known as the Pentateuch)?

7. What is the Golden Rule?

8. “God helps those who help themselves”: Is this in the Bible?  If so, where?

9. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God”: Does this appear in the Bible?  If so, where?

10. Name the Ten Commandments.  List as many as you can.

11. Name the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism.

12. What are the seven sacraments of Catholicisim?  List as many as you can.

13. The First Amendment says two things about religion, each in its own “clause”.  What are the two religion clauses of the First Amendment?

14. What is Ramadan?  In what religion is it celebrated?

15. Match the Bible characters with the stories in which they appear.  Hint: some characters may be matched with more than one story or vice versa:

Adam and Eve                            Exodus

Paul                                           The Binding of Isaac

Moses                                        Olive Branch

Noah                                          Garden of Eden

Jesus                                         Parting the Red Sea

Abraham                                    Road to Damascus

Serpent                                     Garden of Gethsemane

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When I was in eighth grade at a Christian school, our teacher had us debate whether or not, as Christians, we should or shouldn’t read books like The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman.  The Golden Compass is part of a trilogy known as the Dark Materials series that is considered to have themes that are anti-Christian.  Many of my classmates had had parents who had forbidden them from reading the books or later from seeing the movie or had had similar experiences with other books.  Many people see the books as an attack on Christianity, Christian tradition, Christian values, and the Church. 

 

To my surprise, a large number of my classmates said that we shouldn’t read books like that.  The main argument that they had against them was this: it might cause us to question our faith. 

 

First, do we really think our faith is that weak and that fragile and we have so little faith in our own faith that reading the book will cause us to question all our religious beliefs?  Secondly, if reading a fiction book does cause us to question everything we believe, doesn’t that say that that faith wasn’t very strong in the first place?  And that maybe we should be questioning why our faith isn’t that strong?  Third, why is questioning always a bad thing?

 

To address the first part of this post which is censorship, I think that while some reasonable limits should be put on making sure that truly inappropriate literature does not find its way to young children, I think that in general that trying to shelter our children is a futile and often dangerous thing to do.  For instance, Laurie Halse Anderson’s book Speak portrays a girl dealing with the aftermath of a rape after a party.  It has been banned in many libraries.  I think though that while we would like our children not to know that these kind of things don’t happen, the fact is that they do, and that people need to understand this and be prepared to better protect themselves and their friends.  If the character in the book or one of her friends had had more awareness she might have been saved a lot of pain.  People should be allowed to freedom to read.  After a certain point they should have a degree of autonomy over what literary content they choose to digest.  Most of the best literary works have been banned at some point or another. 

 

The second issue at play here is questioning.  I’ve noticed that a number of Christians seem to fear questioning their faith.  While I can sympathize with wanting to avoid those periods of disorientation, isolation, doubt, and confusion, I think we can’t live in fear of them.  First of all, periods of doubt, particularly during difficult periods in our life, are inevitable for many of us.  Second of all, questioning is not always a bad thing.  Questioning can make our faith stronger, it can push away doubts, it is often vital to our faith.  Questioning strengthens us and real faith, faith that has a solid rock, is rooted in answering real and honest questions.  Religion means little if it does not answer the questions that we ask ourselves, if our questions about the universe, destiny, ourselves, humankind, are not found in our faith.  Much of the Old Testament is filled with prophets questioning God.  John questions Jesus in the New Testament.  Periods of doubts in our faith are part of our faith journeys.  I gave a sermon on this earlier in the year at my church (if anyone’s interested I can post it here at another time).  Jesus himself experienced moments of doubts.  If Jesus, supposedly our perfect example, had doubts, why are we ashamed of them?  Doubts are a natural part and they are not a sign of being a bad Christian, I believe that periods of doubts and questioning are part of God’s plan for us.  Instead of discouraging our children not to question, or to fear these periods of questioning, we should support them in their questions and try to provide what answers we can give and encourage them to find their own.  We have little faith in our own faith if we continually fear it being torn down.

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