Thursday, May 19, 2011

Calling Out the Church

Here is an excerpt from a paper exploring how we can reform our society to better facilitate the discovery and pursuit of a fulfilling calling. The first portion speaks to the vision of calling articulated by Robert Bellah and his colleagues in their classic commentary on American society, Habits of the Heart. The second portion explores how our religious institutions, and more specifically our mainline Chrsitian churches, might instill callings in their congregants. Enjoy.

In Habits of the Heart we see how our expanding public sphere increasingly marginalizes moral, social and spiritual goods to a contracting private sphere.

However, the book's authors are sanguine about the possibility of reforming our society and its institutions in order to more perfectly align our competing individual aspirations and relational responsibilities to address the challenging technical and moral problems facing our increasingly complex society. Central to this ambitious micro/macro integrative project is the reclamation of the concept of calling.

In a calling, the individual must take personal responsibility for “contributing to the common good and responding to the needs of others as those needs become understood.” Rather than simply accept one’s providentially ordained fate, the individual discovers his/her social identity as the primary drives for self actualization and genuine human community mutually reinforce one another.

“In a gives oneself to learning and practicing activities that in turn define the self and enter into the shape of its character...It connects the self to those who teach, exemplify, and judge these skills. It ties us to still others whom they serve.” Through such a calling we achieve tripartite progress: personal growth, the fostering of true constructive community, and the contribution to the “greater good” of the society.

How can our religious institutions better instill such a comprehensive calling in their members?

Over the last several decades, many of our religious institutions have dutifully retreated into the private sphere. Those who have resisted have often taken divisive stances on a narrow selection of polarizing social issues, rather than seeking a more comprehensive approach to how we bear witness to our faith in all areas of our society.

Methodist theologian Rebecca Chopp challenges us to cast aside the overly otherworldly orientations of a rationalized positivist orthodoxy and an emotionalized, experiential psychologism in favor of an everyday praxis understood as a “common vocation or work,” a praxis she calls "bearing witness." This comprehensive approach is ritually reified through testimony, the sharing of narratives of “how we enact and perform following God in the world” through our respective callings.

Testimony grounds one’s personal relationship with the divine in work, human relationships, and social engagement, integrating self actualization and service. The practice of testimony challenges the congregation to consider and pursue their own calling.

Furthermore, each calling is shaped through other shared practices which embed and embody the faith of the community. Thus, while every calling is unique, all share a common habitus which defines a collective understanding of the greater good: the mission to love all of our neighbors. Through the concept of bearing witness, divine revelation of "who we are, where we are going and how we will get there" is manifested on earth through our individual and collective callings.

Within the theological framework of “bearing witness,” congregational leaders are empowered to confront economic and political realities which constrain the pursuit of calling and seek to transform them. The concept of financial “stewardship” has primarily been utilized to exhort giving and help sustain church coffers, while sacrelizing capitalistic financial prudence.

True stewardship demands a more thoroughgoing accounting of how one’s time, talents and treasure are leveraged to serve divine purposes. We need to take a more active role in reframing one’s career choices in the context of his/her relationship with God and ethical commitment to serve him through others, particularly "the least of these."

This will involve challenging participation in unethical economic practices in unique ways befitting a particular church’s constituency and variety of religious presence. For example, a disadvantaged activist congregation may lobby for economic policy which promotes greater equality of opportunity, a middle income civic congregation may exhort and support individual giving and volunteer work, and a wealthy evangelistic congregation may challenge business leaders to demonstrate the love of Christ by paying unskilled laborers a living wage above the market price.

More practically and positively, we must create space for young people to share their hopes, dreams and concerns through small group gatherings and topical programs. We can then leverage the community’s knowledge concerning the individual’s particular gifts and available opportunities to advise them regarding general education and career paths as well as particular employment opportunities.

Finally, the church can use its resources to facilitate the callings of its congregants, particularly disadvantaged members and/or those striving to serve “the least of these.” In this way, the resources of the church “family” can function to create opportunities for those who lack family resources to realize their full potential through scholarships and interest-free loans.

By reclaiming its mission to “bear witness” to the gospel, the American church can positively shape member identity, orient individuals toward ethical economic and social engagement, and provide practical support in hearing and responding to God’s call to service.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Integrating Atlanta's Muslims: Interfaith Interaction Since 9/11

Soumaya Khalifa describes her move with her husband to metropolitan Atlanta in 1988 as “a breath of fresh air” after a short stint in rural South Carolina. But during a visit to Khalifa’s suburban home in Peachtree City, her sister was shocked by the homogeneity of shoppers at the local supermarket. “Everyone here is white!” she exclaimed.

“I hadn’t really noticed,” Khalifa says. “I don’t think about it, I just get involved. If I feel left out I’m going to do something about it.”

Thanks to her outgoing nature and initiative, Khalifa says she had relatively little trouble planting roots in Peachtree City. But back in 1988, getting involved in Atlanta’s fledgling Muslim community was another matter. Worshipping at the local mosque meant driving 40 miles every Saturday to the Al-Farooq Masjid in Midtown, the closest of only two mosques in the metro area at the time. Today, there are more than 40 mosques throughout Atlanta.

In that time, Khalifa has labored to establish the Islamic Speaker’s Bureau, the Fayette County Interfaith Network and a multi-faith women’s baking group. All of these organizations have played significant roles in the long, gradual process of establishing and integrating Atlanta’s burgeoning Muslim population into the wider metro Atlanta faith community.

Like all immigrant communities, Atlanta’s various distinct Muslim immigrant groups work to find a balance between preserving their cultural heritage and integrating into the American mainstream. Consequently, Atlanta’s mosques are more than Islamic places of worship, they are cultural bastions which connect American Muslims with an enormous diversity of family lineages, local Muslim leaders say.

“The mosques in the area have tended to be very segregated by type of belief or culture.” asserts Kelly Wentworth, co-founder of the Atlanta-based American Islamic Fellowship (AIF). She says interfaith organizations have aided Atlanta’s diverse Muslim population in building bridges across differences within the faith as well as without.

Interfaith activists and Muslim leaders agree that September 11th, 2001 was a pivotal turning point for both groups. While the tragic terrorist attacks exacerbated Islamophobia and prejudice, they also provided an impetus for Muslims and non-Muslims to reach out to one another.

“We’ve come a long way,” Khalifa asserts. “Is the Atlanta Muslim community fully integrated? Probably not. Does it need to be? Yes. There is still a lot of work to do.”

Education Through Exposure

Soumaya Khalifa steps to the podium with a clear gaze and a gentle smile, impeccably dressed in a gray suit and elegant purple headscarf. She cracks a joke to lighten the mood, eliciting a collective exhalation of relief. Wielding the clicker expertly, she plows through an information-packed Powerpoint presentation, providing expert elaboration in a firm, confident tone. Audience members nod slowly as she speaks directly to the relationship between jihad and extremist violence, cultural variations concerning appropriate dress for women, and the diversity of relevant applications of Shar’ia to everything from divorce to finance.

Her tone warms as she describes the Five Pillars of Islam, gesturing to an aerial photo of teeming pilgrims circling the Ka’ba. As she reaches her closing slide, she scans the crowd with a gentle smile. “Now let’s get to your questions. We have plenty of time, so please, ask anything you like.”

Hundreds of these enlightening, professional presentations are delivered each year on request to businesses, schools, government agencies and faith organizations through the Islamic Speaker’s Bureau, founded by Khalifa in 2001. Expert knowledge concerning the diversity of Muslim practice and complexity of contemporary issues is tailored to fit the needs of these specific audiences.

ISB’s efforts to raise awareness, increase familiarity and mitigate fear regarding Islam are complimented by Atlanta Interfaith Broadcasters’ innovative television programming. By the time AIB President and CEO Collie Burnett Jr. was hired in 2000, AIB was the largest interfaith broadcasting network in the country. While Burnett proudly proclaims that the network has covered Atlanta’s Muslim population since its founding in 1969, Muslims have been much more fully integrated into AIB’s coverage under his leadership.

“We try to make sure we interview Muslims regularly for general stories. Or we might do a segment on how a local family is preparing for Ramadan,” executive producer Audrey Galex illustrates. “We want to showcase the multiplicity of voices and represent the rich diversity of Islam in America.”

AIB refuses to shy away from controversial issues such as Islamophobia and radical fundamentalism, says Galex. But while mainstream news media continues to portray Muslims as alien, controversial, and threatening, AIB seeks to combat prejudice by depicting Atlanta’s Muslims as “just another faith community.”

Galex, a former CNN Middle East correspondent, sees portraying Islam positively as integral to the unique mission of Atlanta Interfaith Broadcasters. “There’s a spiritual dimension to life which would not even be hinted at in the mainstream news media” she says. “We want to explore the many ways that faith works in the world for good.”

While education is crucial, Khalifa emphasizes the importance of face-to-face interaction. Long-term relationships founded upon honest, open dialogue are much more transformative, she says. Fears and controversies are “humanized” when people meet Muslims from their own communities who share many of their hopes and interests.

Playing Together, Praying Together

Audrey and Soumaya laugh in the kitchen as they knead large lumps of freshly prepared dough. “Audrey, have you met Nadia? She and her husband Ali just moved here from Boston.” “So nice to meet you, Nadia. I’d shake your hand but mine’s a little doughy. Grab a fistful and join in!”

As the evening twilight fades, a chilly breeze blows against the shutters. The yeast begins to rise as laughter spills outward from the crowded sink where Muslim and Jewish women wash and dry their caked hands. Nadia inhales greedily and turns to Audrey. “Smells like my mother’s kitchen.”

Khalifa says this women’s baking group was founded in 2003 by a group of Muslim and Jewish women who wanted to forge personal bonds through shared human experience.

She cites a similar impetus for the formation of the Fayette County Interfaith Network following a successful joint 9/11 commemoration a year after the attack. Today, members participate in a joint program to provide lunches during the summer months for impoverished children in the area who receive free lunches throughout the school year, Khalifa says.

Jan Swanson has been laboring to facilitate such cooperative interaction in Atlanta for decades, working throughout the late ‘80s and ‘90s as the Outreach Director of the Christian Council. For many years, it was a lonely effort characterized by indifference and tokenism, she says.

“Nobody even knew what a Muslim was and they didn’t care,” says Swanson. “They were the majority.”

But after the 9/11 attacks, “Christians came alive” Swanson remembers. “Many stepped forward to stand with our Muslim friends. We had a lot of catching up to do.”

Swanson took charge in the founding of the Faith Alliance of Metro Atlanta, the area’s largest and most influential interfaith organization. “At my age I can just put my foot down and say if we’re going to play together it’s going to be fair” quips Swanson. “There has to be equal representation on boards and throughout the organization; otherwise we’re never going to be the Beloved community” she explains.

“It took us a year to learn how to play together” Swanson muses. “But we’ve come a long way since then.”

Swanson seeks to move beyond dialogue into shared practice through World Pilgrims, an interfaith collective which organizes trips to international destinations of spiritual significance to all three Abrahamic faiths. AIB won its first Emmy for an enormously compelling documentary of a 2007 World Pilgrims tour of Turkey, says Galex.

“We’re getting people together and it’s working,” Swanson marvels. “We’re really bonding people in ten days flat and building trust.”

Evolution Through Exploration

A motley crew gather for the American Islamic Fellowship’s weekly Prayer Service on a warm Wednesday evening. A white college kid wearing a green “Live Simply” t-shirt, a dark skullcap and a patchy beard takes his place on the floor next to a clean shaven, tie-clad Pakistani immigrant in his forties. A svelte Moroccan-American woman throws her gym bag in the corner and plops down next to him, folding her spandex-clad legs beneath her as she shakes her long dark hair out of its lopsided pony tail.

The casually dressed blonde-haired woman at the front of the room looks at her watch and smiles broadly, scanning the dozen faces in front of her. She nods, then turns to face the colorful carpet-clad wall behind her. Together, they prostrate themselves solemnly, touching their foreheads to the floor as they begin praying in Arabic in unison...

AIF co-founders Kelly Wentworth and Melissa Robinson describe how interfaith organizations not only help integrate traditional Muslim communities, they help facilitate the emergence of new, distinctly American ways of practicing Islam.

AIF has close partnerships with a number of other similarly minded groups across traditions, including Punk Torah and the Emergent Cristian Cohort, Robinson says. Most recently, the groups held a joint celebration of Passover.

“We provide opportunities for people who want to experience other faith traditions, not just learn about about them” explains Wentworth. The group hosts alternative progressive prayer services weekly, enabling guests to “experience what it’s like to pray as Muslims do.”

“We want to provide safe space for Muslims and non-Muslims alike to express themselves and explore,” Wentworth states. “We’re really lucky because the Islamic community here get what we’re trying to do and is largely supportive. Our interfaith partners have been really helpful in helping us establish ourselves and be seen as a legitimate, non-divisive organization.”

Robinson sees their alternative approach to Islam as part of a wider global reformation movement within the faith. Wentworth concurs: “9/11 really made a lot of people sit up and say ‘what the heck are we doing here?’ People are starting to critically examine how Islam is practiced.”

“The internet is enormously helpful in connecting groups like ours,” Wentworth says. “It helps progressive Muslims around the world see that we’re not alone, which is empowering.” She suggests that, ironically, the extremist jihad launched against the United States may have fomented a significant, global counter-shift away from fundamentalist Islam towards the more progressive practice promoted by many American Muslims.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Narrative, Womanist Theology and the Human Experience

On this lovely Saturday afternoon, I find myself mired in final paper projects which will occupy the bulk of this month and into the next. As fun as writing this blog can be, the margin of return diminishes sharply when most of my productive hours are spent typing in front of a computer screen. So, in order to avoid a month-long blogger strike, I will be issuing weekly excerpts from my current paper projects as posts. I'll try to provide a little bit of context for each to make them somewhat intelligible. Sorry for using 'thus' and other pretentious words too much.

The first follows the recent flow of our discussions of "othering," discrimination and related (counter)practices. I describe how Womanist theologians utilize the sharing of personal stories (testimony) and theological anthropology (religious understandings of what it means to be human) to counter prejudice and provide insights relevant to the realization of true human freedom by all. Personal stories of struggle are linked to biblical stories, bringing comfort and hope while challenging all of us to "image God" in our particular circumstances, whether of privilege or disadvantage.

The first portion focuses on a study of the use of testimony in black churches in Atlanta by Anne Wimberly, the second on Womanist commentary on the power of personal narrative, and the third on an excellent book about theological anthropology by Shawn Copeland called Enfleshing Freedom. Enjoy!

Anne Wimberly demonstrates how the liturgical practice of testimony continues to transform the personal narratives of black women, men and children into authoritative sacred stories as the practice evolves to meet the moral and spiritual needs of the contemporary church.

Ritual narrative performance “recaptures the rich African-American oral tradition that has its roots in African ancestry and the historical situation of slavery,” connecting the individual’s story to “the communal and larger societal narratives.” “The experience of re-membering, then, signifies that narrative takes on vital and transformative qualities when it becomes part of a dynamic process of story sharing and story linking.”

Through this experience, the communicant addresses God explicitly and/or implicitly and receives spiritual resources “‘to resolve situations incompatible with the happiness of the reign of God and its growth in our midst.’” Linking the personal narrative with scriptural narratives places the latter within the larger Christian story, fusing transcendent belief that one has “already” been saved through God’s Grace with eschatological hope in the “not yet” achieved perfection, liberation and divine unification.

Thus, the storyteller re-members and identifies with the community’s collective past, mediates the Holy Spirit to the congregation in the present, and orients the faithful toward the divine promises of the future. Her address to the community of memory “is a call waiting for a response and a response to God’s call.”

Wimberly’s discussion of the power of narrative in the formation of hopeful belief in Christian education highlights the supernatural efficaciousness of grounding narrative identity in a theological framework. This framework sacralizes the individual’s story with a prophetic power to convict and exhort the community (including the storyteller) to “struggle together with how to act in ways that reflect God’s reign in the midst of chaotic circumstances.”

This prophetic power is necessary to pursue the practice of counter-hegemony cultural radicalism. It is both ontologically and teleologically Divine, as its prophets are “blessed with resources and abilities and a divine mandate to use them with a spirituality that will not let go of that relentless sense of justice that can only come from a rock-steady God [emphasis mine].”

Thus, the individual is empowered to move beyond contributing to the formation of the community of memory to engage the whole society. The theological framework enables Womanist theologians to boldly proclaim their hold on “the standard and normative measure for true liberation” from “all forms of oppression for all people.”

The “mundane” personal narrative is powerfully transformed into a sacred story through theological anthropology. The tension of recognition—each individual as both fully equal and unique—is resolved through the cherishing of each individual as an imago Dei, a unique manifestation of the Divine. Thus, all of God’s children are invested with prophetic power to defend human dignity and particularity in the face of external oppressive powers which seek to dominate them.

Furthermore, the understanding of imaging God as a “daily ethical endeavor” directs this formative prophetic power back toward the individual through an ongoing dialogue with God. As Emilie Townes recognizes, “we must live our lives not always comforted by the holy, but haunted by God’s call to us to live a prophetic and spirit-filled life.”

Divine Truth and Power are thus mediated through embodied experience which dialectically negotiates the nuance of particularity and the infinity of the Ultimate. From this foundation of theological anthropology, “radical subjectivity” transcends the relativistic impotence of expressive individualism as proactive manifestations of Divine power or “emergent spiritual acts”: “testifying, telling the truth, and shaming the devil; making ritual space and doing holy acts; confronting evil forces with supernatural power; drawing on ancestral properties; and radically transforming oneself into the image of God.”

Shawn Copeland’s Enfleshing Freedom is such an “emergent spiritual act;” heart-wrenching and inspiring narratives of black women’s and men’s struggles under slavery and segregation are sacralized through linking with the subversive story of Christ’s life, death and resurrection within a compelling theological anthropological framework. Copeland frames the project in terms of “culturally radical” individual empowerment: “to place their black broken bodies beside his crucified broken body is a condition for a theological anthropology that grasps the sacramentality of the body in the concrete as an expression of the freedom of the human subject.”

Yet her theological anthropological framework enables--indeed, compels--her to convict all peoples of conscious bias and include all human subjects within her project of liberation. Indeed, Copeland specifically rejects narrow identity politics in favor of a more inclusive proactive mission of human solidarity:

“In our agitation for social justice, whether in church or in society, we cannot surrender to the temptation to secure ‘gains’ only for ‘our’ specific group...Solidarity enfolds us, rather than dismiss ‘others,’ we act in love; rather than refuse ‘others,’ we respond in acts of self-sacrifice--commiting ourselves to the long labor of creation, to the enfleshment of freedom.”

Nonetheless, Copeland maintains the Womanist commitment to privileging the experiences of women of color as their realization of their sanctity as imago Dei “holds foundational, even universal relevance” concerning “authentic meanings of human flourishing and liberation, progress and salvation.” Within this compelling theological anthropological framework, black women’s narratives serve as a source of personal empowerment for Copeland and other women of color in the face of oppression and further human understanding of what it means to fulfill the “ethical task of imaging God.”

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Islamophobia and Coverage of the Middle East Uprisings

Reading the associated press coverage of the recent referendum to Egypt’s Constitution sent a disconcerting rumble through my abdomen. It was not consternation over the threat posed by an Islamist Egypt which gave rise to my quivering queasiness, but rather the fear of fear itself; fear that the current political unrest in the Middle East would feed longstanding fear of Islam in general.

The author of the AP article portrays the inspiring culmination of the January and February demonstrations against the Mubarak regime--18 million Egyptians freely casting ballots, the first of their lives for many--as overshadowed by the looming threat of an authoritarian Islamist regime and sectarian violence. The author cited “critics” who warn of a “nightmare scenario” in which the Muslim Brotherhood and Mubarak regime loyalists band together to establish a “fundamentalist state.” Such concerns may be legitimate, but a popular vote to maintain the preexisting relationship between Islam the Egyptian state and Islam should not be presented as foreshadowing such a turn of events.

The ambivalent tone of the article highlights both the anticipation and trepidation permeating Americans’ nervous observation of the recent powerful popular demonstrations confronting longstanding authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Iran, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria and Jordan. While faith in representative democracy fosters hope for its propagation throughout the region, ignorance and misunderstanding of Islam sow fear.

My uneasiness over fear-mongering thrust of the article reminds me of how I felt sitting in the audience of a seminar addressing “The Challenge of Islam” led by former Georgia Tech professor Dr. Atif Debs at Cumberland Community Church in Smyrna several months ago. Dr. Debs painted a disturbing picture of a top-down, worldwide clerical conspiracy to wield Shari’ah to penetrate western civilization under the guise of “tolerance” and religious freedom, despite the fact that Islam does not have a centralized authority to coordinate such an elaborate effort.

Dr. Debs supported this theory with a litany of references to the Quran which seemingly sanction such an underhanded expansion of Islam. Muslims are exhorted to say and do whatever is necessary to further Islam, they are not to trust their Jewish and Christian neighbors, etc. From this perspective, the democratic rhetoric of the anti-Mubarak movement is merely clever maneuvering for an opportunity to impose a fundamentalist regime.

Having read an English translation of the Quran myself, I perceived his scriptural support to be highly selective and decontextualized. Alarmists like Dr. Debs point to the infamous “sword verses” of the Quran which seem to advocate violent opposition to all non-Muslims. Yet these verses emerge in the contexts of particular battles against the pagan tribal establishment which had persecuted the burgeoning faith movement. On the other hand, the Quran constantly emphasizes that the choice to “submit” to God is a matter of personal will. The text frequently exhorts Muslims to live peacefully among Jewish and Christian neighbors and allow God to judge between their differences.

Yet for the uninformed listener, Dr. Debs’s frightening presentation carried the seemingly irrefutable authority of a former Muslim. For many, Dr. Debs provided an official stamp of factuality on preexisting fears.

In fact, Dr. Debs’s sources supporting his conspiracy theory are all second-hand and anecdotal. I believe Dr. Debs to be a sincere and enormously intelligent man, but his privileging of questionable sources is obviously rationalized by his personal experiences.

Throughout the presentation, Dr. Debs emphasized that Islam is more than a religion, it is a “complete system of life.” Indeed, the mid-20th century Lebanese society where he was born and socialized is far more “traditional” than our own: religion, politics, economics and education remained integrated as they have been throughout human history. Dr. Debs arrived in a much more differentiated U.S. context as an adolescent. Through hard work, he enjoyed a top-notch education, considerable economic success and enhanced political freedoms while drifting away from the luke-warm religion of his youth. In mid-life he made a voluntary, life-changing commitment to evangelical Christianity which framed the Islam of his childhood in a whole new light.

In Dr. Debs’s eyes, the social “backwardness” he experienced in youth is essentially Islamic, a view reinforced by the author of the AP article. Yet there are millions of Muslims who have achieved the American dream and made similarly substantial contributions to our society while maintaining their commitment to Islam.

History suggests that the violent scriptural interpretations and narrow religious prejudice do not arise from the inherent moral inferiority of particular traditions, but the concentration of dogmatic power amid widespread poverty and ignorance. A millennium ago, Muslim Arabs were at the cutting edge of science, mathematics and reigned over what was arguably the world’s most free and prosperous empire. Within this empire, Christian and Jewish minorities enjoyed legal protection and some limited autonomy. Meanwhile, the theocratic papal regime roused the destitute rabble of Europe to a “holy” invasion of the "heathen" Middle East with promises of plunder in this world and salvation in the next.

Christians like myself are quick to dismiss this skeleton from our closet on the grounds that such brutality is clearly contradicted by Jesus’s teachings that the peacemakers are blessed, the meek shall inherit the Earth, and the Kingdom of God is not a political entity. Yet the Old Testament is chocked full of bloody holy wars led by God’s anointed kings against inferior infidels in order to (re)claim the promised land. Consequently, Pope Urban II had little trouble shepherding his predominately impoverished and illiterate flock to war.

Poverty and desperation persist in the Middle East, increasing the potential for violence and radicalism to win the day. Yet the explosion of proactive public demonstration and democratic participation is clearly linked to the expansion of an educated middle class throughout the Muslim world. These inspiring movements of public power have been facilitated by informed, engaged Muslims Tweeting, Skyping and YouTubing on smartphones obtainable thanks to decent incomes. Rather than an impending “clash of civilations,” we may have what Martin Indyk of the Bookings Institution celebrates as “an unusual confluence of our values and interests.”

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Elevated "Other"

What images does the name "Tibet" conger up in your mind? Dramatic Himalayan vistas? Colorful prayer flags? Chanting robed monks? The Dalai Lama's peaceful, smiling face?

Over the past two weeks we have discussed "othering" as the practice of negatively stereotyping and distancing groups of people we deem different. We also imagine and exaggerate differences we perceive to be positive and essential. Perhaps no group is so thoroughly "othered" in almost exclusively positive terms as Tibetans.

Throughout the 20th century, novels and films such as Lost Horizon and 7 Years in Tibet have helped to establish a "Shangri-La" image of Tibet as a pristine, quasi-mythical land where Westerners can escape and seek adventure, revitalization and enlightenment. In recent decades, the "Free Tibet" movement popularly promoted by Hollywood actors and famous musicians has provided opportunities for Americans to flaunt their cosmopolitan compassion and express passive aggressive opposition to Chinese expansion. Meanwhile, Multiculturalists have lamented the Chinese "endangerment" of the beautifully distinct Tibetan culture and made efforts to preserve it.

Many have argued that Americans' fascination with and support of Tibet has much more to do with our desires and needs than those of Tibetans.

Tibet, of course, is closely associated with Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism is a unique blend of ancient Tibetan folk religious traditions and the three major Buddhist "vehicles" or traditions--Theravada, the "foundational" or "orginal" vehicle, Mahāyāna, the largest and most diverse of the three, and Vajrayāna, or "Tantric Buddhism." If we tried to imagine a rough Christian equivalent, we might conceive of an African-American Episcopal church with Catholic liturgy, Protestant theology, Charismatic/Mystical practices, and African-American folk culture sensibilities.

Last week was "Tibet Week" at Emory University, an institution that actively promotes Tibetan Buddhism through institutional partnerships, campus events, research projects and course offerings. This intimate relationship is certainly a bit odd for a postmodern secular research university in the American South. However, it has drawn few serious critiques due to the widespread romantic, cultural, religious and political fascination with Tibet.

The "Emory-Tibet Partnership" brings honorary faculty member His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama to campus every 18 months or so. Tibetan Buddhist Faculty member Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi teaches courses in Tibetan studies and nurtures the university's relationship with the Drepung Loseling monastery in Atlanta. Scholars from around the university are engaged in a massive neuroscience research project assessing the neurological nature and value of Tibetan Buddhist meditation practices. Several scholarships make it possible for Tibetan Buddhist monks to study a variety of subjects (primarily sciences). On campus, the monks' ankle-length maroon robes signify their "otherness" to the rest of the Emory population, as does "Tibet Week" itself.

Although Emory's Tibetan Buddhist contingent participate actively in the "Tibet Week" festivities, 5 of the 6 meditation events were lead by Americans. This demonstrates how thoroughly Americans have appropriated Tibetan Buddhist practices and how fascination with Tibet facilitates their promotion and propagation.

One of these meditation sessions was lead by Dr. Tara Doyle, Senior Lecturer and Director of the Tibetan Studies Program. Dr. Doyle spends half of her life teaching Emory undergrads about the wonders of the many Buddhist traditions and communities scattered throughout the world in the classrooms of the Atlanta campus and the other half immersing them in the community of Tibetan Buddhist exiles in Dharamsala, India through a study abroad program associated with the wider Emory-Tibet partnership.

Dr. Doyle was one of the more serious, intelligent and dedicated among the thousands of hippies who went "East" in the '60s. Folks like Dr. Doyle found Eastern cultures (including Tibet, Nepal, India, etc.) a radical and welcome alternative to the rat-race of American consumer culture. She readily admits to being drawn by a over-romanticized image of the exotic East as young adult. Most of her fellow travelers eventually found there way back home and more or less fell back in line. Not Tara.

Last semester, I took a course on "Buddhism in America" with Dr. Doyle. I found that a significant portion of her students are not only intellectually intrigued by Buddhism, but spiritually inspired. Dr. Doyle struck an incredible balance between dispassionate (and often critical) social and historical analyses of Buddhist traditions and a transparent reverence reflecting her own Buddhist practice.

Many would view such bias as problematic. After all, Christian bias has been gradually and systematically eliminated from most of our colleges and universities; famously heralded by the changing of Harvard's motto from "Veritas Cristo et Ecclesiae” (“Truth for Christ and the Church”) to simply "Veritas" (Truth) in the late 19th century.

Dr. Doyle, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, is well aware of the double standard. While she is able to lead meditation exercises, similar Christian practices would not be welcome in Religion Department courses. They're hardly welcome in the Theology School classroom!

Dr. Doyle has actively encouraged me to bring my own Christian faith into her classroom and my scholarship in general. In her view, the diverse spectrum of personal religiosity and spirituality should be welcome in religious scholarship and college university. Personal piety provides us with a deeper, more textured appreciation and understanding of religious traditions. Certain forms should not be privileged or excluded based on the appeal of stereotypical images to Americans' romantic and aesthetic sensibilities.

Dr. Doyle actively seeks to debunk her students' romanticized, exotic images of Tibetan Buddhist culture specifically and Buddhism generally in favor of a more balanced view. In her view, such elevation of the "other" is almost as dehumanizing as the fearful demonization of Muslims discussed last week. Thus, it is important to counter images of Tibetans as essentially gentle and helpless with an appreciation of violence in Tibetan history, including opposition to the Chinese annexation.

Dr. Doyle illustrated the problematic nature of such positive "othering" through an anecdotal experience of one of her Tibetan Buddhist friends. After giving a speech to a receptive audience, the man was approached by a woman from the crowd. "I just love Tibetans," she exclaimed. "You're the dolphins of the human race."

This awkward and offensive attempt at a compliment illustrates the issue at hand. The man did not want to be a "dolphin of the human race." He would rather be treated like a human being, no more, no less.

What minorities or cultures do you characterize as having positive essential differences? Might these views be problematic? How can we admire and appreciate other cultures and their differences without imposing essential stereotypes on them in restrictive ways?

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Counter-practices of the "Othered"

Perhaps no group has been so easy a target for "othering" as the African-American Muslim community, formerly known as the Nation of Islam.

While black female Womanists emphasize the uniqueness of their experience of "tripartite oppression"--race, gender and class, African-American Muslims historically shouldered the burden of their own trifecta of difference: race, religion and radicality.

Today, overt prejudice and festering fear against American Muslims emanates from the horrific reality of violent acts of terrorism perpetrated by a handful of modern fundamentalist Muslim groups, most particularly, the Al Qaeda attack of 9/11. However, Edward Said controversially argued over thirty years ago that westerners have derided Muslim populations as violent and barbaric for centuries, even as they conquered and colonized Muslim territories through military force.

Yet for African-American members of the Nation of Islam in the 20th century, prejudicial fear had more to do with their race and outspoken subversive politics of racial sectarian nationalism. Leader Elijah Muhammad called for poor African-Americans to create an alternative nation within a nation in defiance of the racist ideologies and oppressive power structures of the white mainstream.

When I read the cosmology, or creation story, of the Nation of Islam for an undergraduate religion course several years ago, I was appalled. This fantastic narrative relates how a portion of the "original race" of black people was corrupted into white devils by a sinister genetic engineer thousands of years ago. The story seeks to overcome white racism through an elaborate assertion of "reverse racism" which affirms black superiority, as opposed to the emphasis on human equality of the Civil Rights Movement. In other words, the "othered" subversively "othered" the "otherer."

While the hopes, goals, religious symbolism and rhetoric of the Nation of Islam and the Christian Civil Rights Movement differed drastically, the central strategy was the same. Both groups sought to reveal the awful lie of dehumanizing racism by embodying human dignity.

Recently, Mansoor Sabree, the resident imam at the predominantly African-American Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam, provided a model presentation of such dignity to my "Reporting on Religion" class. Despite being "the youngest imam in America," Sabree, 30, carried himself with the stately air of a sage, exuding wisdom. Like his bow-tie clad forbears, Sabree was impeccably dressed. His posture was perfect and his movements were deliberate, yet elegant. His tone melded the soft-spoken confidence of the academic expert, charisma of an emerging leader, and peaceful repose of the enlightened mystic.

After learning our names and majors, Sabree launched into a share a vivid, balanced, detailed, candid account of the often tumultuous history of the Nation of Islam, illustrated by a litany of photos. He straightforwardly portrayed the reverse racism, anti-state rhetoric, rigid hierarchical discipline, and scandalous abuse of power against the successes of empowering the urban underclass toward a functional lifestyle of defiant dignity and self control in the face of an onslaught of racial prejudice.

Sabree candidly explained how the Nation of Islam selectively borrowed the symbols of Islam to sacralize a wholly new religious, political and social movement which advocated a radically distinct theology. He characterized the gradual and controversial realignment of the former Nation of Islam with mainstream Sunni Islam under W.D. Muhammad in the final quarter of the last century as the righting of past wrongs and correction of untruths. African-American Muslims now practice normative Islam and emphasize human equality and welcome all peoples.

Since this transition, many African-American Muslims have traded in their formal uniforms for more traditional forms of modest Muslim dress, particularly women who choose to wear the hajib. Thus, they now identify themselves with the rest of the global Ummah in dress as well as in theology and practice. Through the process, they have come to experience more of the general fear and prejudice suffered by all American Muslims in place of the overt racism and sociopolitical suspicion which confronted the Nation of Islam.

Our friend Stephen Prothero relates the story of a hajib-clad African-American Muslim woman told to "go home" by an angry fellow shopper at the supermarket. The cruel irony is that this woman's ancestors were forcibly brought to this country as slaves hundreds of years ago.

When asked how African-American Muslims have responded to post-9/11 prejudice, Sabree highlights the community's emphasis on "staying local and staying relevant." "It's difficult to be asked to represent 1 billion people around the world" he says. "We try to achieve a just recognition of why this conversation is happening, while challenging the mainstream understanding of what it is to be American."

It seemed clear to me that Sabree's forthcoming acknowledgment of the reality of Islamic terrorism does far more to mitigate the fear of American Muslims than the staunch stance of defensiveness taken by other Muslims.

When this same class visited the beautiful Masjid Al-Farooq in midtown Atlanta, Dr. Saddiq, our middle-aged Pakistani tour guide understandably took such a stance when asked about Islamic terrorism. Rather than pointing out the absurdity of holding one billion people responsible for the actions of mere thousands, or offering a political and economic explanation of the radicalization of Islam, Dr. Saddiq attacked the overrepresentation of Islamic terrorism in the media and exhorted our journalism class to be more fair. He threw out statistics indicating that there is as much or more non-Muslim terrorism, which seemed to have little impact on the audience.

Dr. Saddiq no doubt has a point. The knee-jerk, incorrect assumption of news reporters that the Oklahoma city bombing was committed by "Islamic terrorists" demonstrates that such prejudicial media portrayal was prevalent prior to 9/11. But by taking an aggressive defensive stance and denying the elephant in the room, Saddiq only gave skeptics an excuse to dismiss his perspective entirely.

Our stereotypes are broad lies we apply indiscriminately to large numbers of people through the embellishment and universal application of narrow and limited half-truths.

The Nation of Islam acknowledged the excess of violence, drugs and prostitution in the black urban ghettos of the early 20th century and sought to demonstrate that such deprivation resulted from social injustices rather than inherent racial inferiority through the transformation of the urban underclass into a productive new nation. Similarly, American Muslims throughout the country are proving that Islam is not inherently violent or antagonistic to American values and culture by contributing to our society through charity, peace, and proactive political participation.

These proactive practices challenge the "otherer" to examine their prejudices. Just as we all "other" people, all of us are "othered" in various ways. Who might be "othering" you because of your class, clothes, age, religious affiliation, etc. How might you seek to peacefully disprove their oversimplified stereotypes and help them arrive a broader and more inclusive view?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Practice of "Othering"

Over the past several decades, discussing "the other" and "othering" has emerged as the dominant practice in the broad academic field known as the humanities. Given the dominance of the Western powers over the past half millennium, this discourse tends to focus on "white Protestant patriarchal imperialism." In other words, us white boys are taken to task for centuries of oppression of "others."

WASPs of my generation have various reactions to the preoccupation with deconstruction of "white male hegemony" in today's humanities classrooms. Many become defensive, others get angry or simply dismiss such critiques. Some submit shamefully and silently, while others embrace these critiques as "allies" of "others."

Our brains are design to stereotype and generalize. Such simplifications are necessary to navigate a complex world. Psychological research employing the controversial Implicit Association Test has suggested that we instinctively react to people who look differently from us (often with mistrust or fear), no matter how egalitarian or "colorblind" we consider ourselves to be.

Throughout history, people all over the world have compounded this effect by inventing all sorts of myths that frame these perceived differences as signs of fundamental inferiority. In our Western context, this has typically meant that "others" are compared to the white male "norm."

From a biological point of view, racial and ethnic differences are elusive. Geneticists agree that there is no concrete biological basis for race; no "black genes" or "white genes" to be identified. So if race isn't real, why do humanities scholars seem to be focusing on it more than ever?

One answer is that they spend a lot more time than the rest of us thinking critically about our cultural heritage. "Real" or not, the concept of race has been made determinative throughout much of human history and remains powerful today. Historical and cultural differences continue to be exaggerated as fundamental as we "other" one another.

The arbitrary power of this "othering" process is demonstrated in Paul Cowan's book An Orphan in History.

Cowan (1940-88), a journalist, was born into a radically assimilated Jewish family. His father Lou rose to prominence as the president of CBS-TV just as the medium was taking off. Lou Cowan, the grandson of an orthodox Lithuanian rabbi, decided he didn't want to be "the other." So he changed his name from "Cohen" to "Cowan" and fashioned a WASPy culture for his family, one that included Christmas and pork chops while excluding all distinctly Jewish practices.

As a result, Paul Cowan (a blonde) didn't look or feel all that different from the WASP elite surrounding him. That is, until he arrived at the famous Episcopal boarding school Choate in the mid 1950s, where he was thoroughly "othered."

Cowan painfully relates how classmates would berate him with Jewish stereotypes, slurs and mock Yiddish accents. His lack of understanding of his heritage made him particularly defenseless, but Cowan speculates that his Jewish peers felt similarly helpless in the face of such prejudice. "Since none of us had the courage to exchange stories of the anti-Semitism we had experienced, each of us felt we were being tormented because we were personally deficient."

Cowan's story illustrates that "othering" has historically been much more than the rationalization and extension of an innate fear of difference. His tormentors propped up a false and fragile sense of superiority by reinforcing social boundaries which kept them in and Paul out...His lack of physical distinctiveness and his father's strenuous efforts to sacrifice his religious and cultural heritage for the sake of inclusion notwithstanding.

Thankfully, such blatant bigotry is generally no longer socially acceptable, particularly in our self-consciously egalitarian educational institutions. But in-group power continues to be wielded in ways subtle and unintentional as well as forceful and blatant. And while we have come a long way since Cowan's school days, white Christian men like myself still hold disproportionate power and stand to benefit from the universal practice of "othering."

Still, there are certainly excesses in the practice of critiquing white patriarchy. Sometimes it seems that there is so much deconstruction going on in the humanities that there is little time left for the construction of new collective orientations. Great emphasis is placed on difference rather than focusing on common features of the human experience. And our universities are increasingly fragmented with the proliferation of "_________ Studies" departments.

Personally, I often wonder if such developments only divide us more. But when I read the stories of people like Paul Cowan and the black women represented by the Womanist scholars I am currently studying, I grasp an inkling of the pain of exclusion and witness the healing power of such assertions and celebrations of difference.

An Orphan in History traces Cowan's efforts to recover and affirm the Jewish heritage tossed aside in the face of exclusion. He commits himself to learning and fulfilling the orthodox practices of his people with the support of his WASP wife Rachel (who eventually converted to Judaism). The shame of his youth is replaced with an immense pride in the spiritual, cultural and communal richness of his heritage. The tension and anxiety surrounding his identity is resolved. Cowan emerges as a whole Jew, a whole American, a whole man.

Whether explicitly and implicitly, we perceive some as "like us" and others as "different." It is a fact of life. It doesn't make much sense to waste energy feeling guilty about it. After all, there are instincts and inherited categories of difference which influence these perceptions.

But all of us are faced with an ethical choice of exaggerating such differences or attempting to transcend them through an emphasis on the reality of our common humanity. Such inclusiveness does not require us to sacrifice our subcultural identities and attachments. Rather we must recognize and celebrate difference in order to more fully appreciate the richness of our common humanity.

We can imagine our identity as a series of expanding concentric circles. We are all members of families, organizations, communities, traditions, cultures, nations, humanity, planet Earth...

How do you resist "othering"? How can we identify strongly with some without distancing others in hurtful ways? How can we best move forward with greater unity and equality of opportunity? How do you see our educational institutions as helping or hindering in this process?