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A great source of shame during the rise of Nazism were the many warning signs of Jewish persecution. Often nations like the United States limited the number of Jewish refugees. The reasons included anti-Semitism, the desire to play it safe politically and desire to save money. As a result many thousands died needlessly.
Similar oppression is happening to Christians throughout the Middle East. From 1910 to 2010 the number of Christians in the Middle East – in countries like Egypt, Israel, Palestine and Jordan declined. Once 14% of the population, Christians now make up roughly 4%. In Iran and Turkey they’re all but gone. In Lebanon long a Christian stronghold, the population has shrunk from 78% to 34%. Over this period many have been killed and many more forced to migrate as the result of civil unrest and religious intolerance.
One of the unintended consequences of the invasion of Iraq by the United States in 2002 was the destabilizing effect on the religious and ethnic minorities that make up the region. As bad as Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Assad of Syria were, their secular political parties provided protection from extremist elements. While there were great injustices perpetrated by both dictators, they did provide for freedom of worship.
The political destabilizing in Iraq and now Syria has unleashed long simmering animosity between two branches of Islam, Sunni which makes up 80% of Muslims world wide and Shia which comprise the balance. Their infighting has resulted in the rise of extreme elements such as ISIS. ISIS is committed to ethnic and religious genocide, persecuting Christians along with other ancient ethnic/religious groups (Yezidis, Druze, Zoroastrians). Each group has suffered but according to the United Nations, Christians are being particularly targeted.
A typical story is that of a young mother named Rana whose Christian village in northern Iraq was captured by ISIS. Rana’s husband was murdered, she was sold to be an ISIS wife and her 3-year-old daughter, Christina was sold to another ISIS family.
While this tragedy unfolds most Christians outside the Middle East are indifferent. The reasons for our indifference include: Desire by progressives to not to be seen as disrespectful of Islam; the siding of Christian conservatives with Israel.(Many eastern Christians support Palestinian rights, alienating them from western evangelicals); most Christians in the West have never experienced persecution; a growing secularism in the West. Such factors tend to separate us from the daily reality of Eastern Christians.
Since the invasion of Iraq 50% of Christians have fled the resulting political instability and infighting between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Many fled to Syria. Now with the civil war in Syria 2/3 of the 600,000 Christians in that country have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan.
Since the time of Christ these communities of faith (Assyrians, Chaldeans, Orthodox, Copts, Marists) persevere. Now according to the UN commission on human rights, many are at risk of being wiped out. How do we Christians in the West respond? Too often we offer a collective shrug and barely remember to offer a prayer.
Note: To learn more about the oppression of religious and ethic minorities in the Middle East go to:
https://www.facebook.com/DemandforAction And, commit yourself to the daily practice of praying for the needs of our sisters and brothers in the Middle East Christian and other persecuted minorities. Let us pray too for the well being of the many moderate and innocent Muslims who have suffered under the heavy hand of extreme groups like ISIS. May our hearts and minds expand so that the pain and hopes of others, becomes our pain and hope too.
Ty Burr begins his commentary on the death of Sandra Bland with these words: ‘This is the tale of two stories, the official version and the one we can see with our own eyes’. As a nation we are transfixed by the video of a minor traffic infraction that led to a young black woman being arrested in Texas by a white state police officer, being jailed over the weekend and her death allegedly by suicide in that jail cell.
What is obvious from the video is that the police officer became enraged when the woman was not as courteous as he would like. He ordered her out of the car and when she refused, he waved his Taser and bellowed: “Get out of the car – I will light you up!” How did a police officer who is trained in de-escalating a situation, contribute to escalating the conflict? How did a minor traffic violation lead to a threat of Tasing, being jailed and to her death?
African-Americans aren’t surprised. Ta-Nehisi Coates in his new book ‘Between the World and Me’, writes to his 14-year-old son about the real world and the role of racism. He writes of white justice and black justice. Coates voices the fear of many black parents of what can happen if their son or daughter is not submissive towards a person in authority, particularly a police officer. They understand that while African American’s make up 13% of the population the prison population is 37% black.
The family of Sandra Bland understand this reality. They watch the video as Sandra age 28 refuses to be submissive. She advocates for her rights. She refuses to put out her cigarette. She refuses to get out of her car as the police officer becomes more threatening. When she gets out of the car she is thrown to the ground and handcuffed. How did failure to signal when switching lanes lead to such an escalation? Black parents know the answer.
Put yourself in Sandra’s shoes. You are 28 years old. You have just moved from Illinois where your family and support system is, to Texas and are about to start a new job. You’ve been berated and arrested and thrown into jail. How would you have felt? What might you have done?
Over the weekend while in jail, Sandra died. It is alleged that Sandra took her own life. The family is questioning whether that is true. What is clear is that the police have moved quickly into damage control and have made Sandra’s emotional history the issue. Hopefully there will be a fair and aggressive study of what happened in that jail cell. An investigation of how a trained police officer contributed to the escalation of a simple traffic violation and how a young woman died while under the protection of the police.
What is clear is that there should never have been an arrest. What is clear is that Sandra Bland should be starting her new job at the university.
As a Father of two young adult white women, I’ve never given the talk that many black parents give to their children. I’ve never had to coach my daughters about the importance of being submissive towards those in authority. Rather, we’ve raised them to question authority, to stand up to injustice. But I live in the white world. I don’t understand that if you’re black or brown, doing so can get you killed. Not being submissive ultimately killed Sandra Bland.
Rabbi Abraham Heschel, famously walked arm in arm with Dr. King over the bridge to Selma. In the face of racial injustice during the Civil Rights era he called for a state of ‘Moral Emergency’. He called people of faith to rise up and say to those in authority, ‘no more’. He called white clergy and laity to stand with our black and brown sisters and brothers and say ‘no more’. Have we reached a tipping point in our nation where we will say no more to racial injustice? No more to the killing of unarmed black men and women by our police. No more to the high incarceration rate of people of color? Are we ready to call a state of ‘Moral Emergency’ and do everything in our power to make our nation a more just and hopeful place? Are we ready to work for a better future for the sake of all the children?
We live in a fearful world. We read about or experience random acts of violence. In a 24/7 news cycle we may become suspicious of those we don’t know and tempted to surround ourselves with those who are familiar and make us comfortable.
The flip side is that it is often the stranger, the one we do not yet know, who offers a blessing. I recently flew with a family member who became ill while on the plane. Seated next to me was a physician from Turkey. He offered compassionate advice that helped my family member feel better. He and I then spent the next two hours of our flight talking about his life as a secular Muslim in Turkey and my life as a pastor in Massachusetts. We exchanged our email address to continue the conversation.
I also enjoy getting to know my neighbors who are homeless. The church I serve provides meals several times a week to neighbors on the streets or who simply want company. This past week I talked fishing with a few men who worked in the fishing industry in Gloucester and now are on the streets. I learned much from these men and now when we see each other in our shared neighborhood we know each other’s name and greet each other as friends.
To often we separate ourselves from one another. It is easy to pre-judge the other without knowing their story. Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, ‘An Altar in the World’, believes that encountering others is a spiritual practice. It is this practice that leads us from fear to freedom, from ignorance to knowledge, from resentment to friendship. How to start? Start with ‘hello’.
I like to be naked. For reasons I’m not fully cognizant of I like taking off my clothes. Not at inappropriate places or times but when I’m alone or with my wife or in nature. I find it freeing to cast off my clothes and wearing only my birthday suit jump into a lake or mountain stream.
Many years ago while serving a church in Montana, I was hiking in the Crazy Mountains with several new friends. After a hot day of backpacking up the mountain we found ourselves sunning on a rock overlooking a beautiful alpine lake. As I lay on the rock I closed my eyes and felt the warmth of the stone easing my tired muscles and the sun on my face. Soon I heard a splash and then another. Opening my eyes I saw clothing cast around me and my companions now au natural swimming. What to do? Would I uphold my native New England reticence or take a dip? The water felt great.
Barbara Brown Taylor in her wonderful book, ‘An Altar in the World’ reflects on the Christian concept of the incarnation, the belief that the Word of God became flesh in the life of Jesus. She reminds us that this is radical stuff, that God the creator of heaven and earth would choose to make a home in the human body. Even more our tradition teaches that we are created in God’s image (Imago Dei). Understood in this way we are each a reflection of that great mystery we call God and hence have inherent worth and beauty. Do we believe this to be true?
In truth many of us don’t. We focus on our imperfections rather than our beauty, our limitations rather than our strength. Over time we acquire scars, nicks, pounds and wrinkles. Far to often we judge ourselves or others. We buy into ideals of what the physical should be forgetting that we too are God’s creation, God’s child.
As an antidote, Taylor writes: “I think it is important to pray naked in front of a full-length mirror sometimes, especially when you are full of loathing for your body. Maybe you think you are too heavy. Maybe you never liked the way your hipbones stick out. Do your breasts sag? Are you too hairy? It is always something. Then again, maybe you have been sick, or gone through surgery that has changed the way you look. Too many of us stay covered up or even bathe in the dark…This can only go on so long, especially for someone who believes that God loves flesh and blood, no matter what kind of shape it is in. Whether you are sick or well, lovely or irregular, there comes a time when it is vitally important for your spiritual health to drop your clothes, look in the mirror and say, ‘Here I am’. This is the body-like-no-other that my life has shaped. I live here. This is my soul’s address.”
We live in a society that judges and objectifies based on appearance. Too often my Christian tradition has avoided focusing on the body as unseemly. We’ve focused on shaping the intellect and neglected physical, sexual and ecstatic expression.
Too often we’ve forgotten that David danced naked in the Temple. We’ve forgotten that Jesus held the leper with his oozing sores. We’ve forgotten that Jesus’ final instructions had to do with washing the feet of others and breaking bread. Physical acts that involve touch, cooking and eating together.
We all wear skin, initially smooth and with a healthy glow and if we are fortunate enough, in time we acquire wrinkles, moles and blotches. Whatever the condition of our skin we are invited to look at our self and others as beautiful because of the Creator from whom we come and to whom we will all one day return.
Note: For those who live in the North Shore of Massachusetts, the church I serve First Baptist in Beverly is spending the summer reading and reflecting on the book An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor. To learn more or watch a sermon podcast go to: http://www.fbcbeverly.org click on heading ‘Worship’.
In our fast paced motorized society I invite you to join me in a counter cultural act: Take off your shoes, wiggle your toes in the grass or sand and walk.
Walking and walking barefoot in particular, has a way of heightening your senses and making you mindful of where you step. Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk and mentor offers this: ‘The miracle is not to walk on water but on the earth.’ True. Walking slows us down and makes us aware of where we are. More than other modes of travel, walking invites us to experience what is immediately behind, around and in front.
Barbara Brown Taylor in her book ‘An Altar in the World’ writes:
‘Jesus walked a lot. If Jesus had driven a car it is difficult to imagine how that might have changed his impact. Walking gave him time to see things, like the milky eyes of the beggar sitting by the side of the read, or the round black eyes of sparrows sitting in their cages at the market.’
It is one thing to drive by a person in need, a very different experience to walk past.
My friend Joe walked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. Only by walking do you get in touch with your own dreams and longings. Only by walking can you receive ‘trail magic’, gifts left by strangers such as a cold beer in a stream or a chocolate bar tied to a branch. Only by walking can a stranger become a friend as you listen to each others story.
This past Sunday several of us met in the woods to walk in silence. This was our Sabbath, to experience silence as we paused by a wetlands and listened to that which otherwise would have been masked by talk.
3000 years ago a prophet named Isaiah offered this gift: ‘Listen, and your soul will live.’ To walk in silence, barefoot or in shoes is a counter-cultural act. To do so is to receive gifts that otherwise would be lost to us. As Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, to walk on the earth open, attentive, engaged
is a miracle.
Note: I lead mindful walks and contemplative paddle trips. Contact me for information on the next scheduled event. This summer 2015 the church I serve is hosting a study and sermon series based on Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, An Altar in the World. Go to church web site http://www.fbcbeverly.org for more info.