Category Archives: Interfaith Relations and Politics

The Global Reach of Martin Luther King’s “Beyond Vietnam” Speech

The views of Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were transformed in the 1960’s by their heightened awareness of the global context of the African American struggle in the U.S.  The Autobiography of Malcolm X describes the dramatic impact on the American Muslim leader’s 1964 sacred pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia and also visiting Egypt on the trip.  His travels taught him that the revolution for black freedom and equality in his country was bound up with the movement of oppressed peoples around the world.  This enlargement of his historic role also took shape in the vision and leadership of Dr. King.

In celebrating King’s legacy on the now federal holiday, the Baptist preacher’s emphasis on global solidarity of the poor from 1965 until his death in ’68 is often ignored.  His call for a “revolution of values” is a call for the nation to move from a “thing oriented” system to a “people oriented” system in its international policies.  This would mean, he made clear, that the shift would demand giving priority concern to the effect on the poor worldwide of our policies and not only on those of our nation.  “Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.”

The speech, delivered in Riverside Church, New York City, one year to the day before his assassination proclaims that the injustice done to anyone in the country is linked to the injustice perpetrated beyond our borders.  The title of the speech “Beyond Vietnam”, we need to remember, is a warning that should the nation fail to recognize the humanity of the Vietnamese people and withdraw our armed forces, we will be fighting next in Venezuela, Peru or El Salvador.  The 37 million people displaced by the U.S. led “War on Terror” since 2001 testify to our nation’s failure to learn the lessons of the Vietnam debacle and take King’s prophetic message to heart.

Although the criticism of the nation’s leading media sources, i.e. the New York Times and Washington Post, focused on King’s opposition to the war in Vietnam, the critique of U.S. policies and presence in the world went much deeper and farther.  It is a speech not just about the U.S. war on Vietnam.  It is a speech about the U.S. defense of an unjust global system.  It is a speech with a global reach.  It is  not just a speech for the Vietnam era.  It is a speech for us today and for the future of humankind.  Here below is the conclusion of the speech:

“Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism and militarism. With this powerful commitment, we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores and thereby speed the day when “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain.”

A genuine revolution of values means, in the final analysis, that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.

This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind. This oft-misunderstood, this oft-misinterpreted concept, so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force, has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man.

When I speak of love, I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response, I am not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. I’m speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the First Epistle of Saint John: “Let us love one another; for love is God and everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. If we love one another God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.

April 4, 1967 Rev. King at Riverside Church New York City Speaking at the Event Sponsored by Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam

Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day. We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee says, ‘Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word,’.

We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The “tide in the affairs of men” does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: “Too late.” There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. Omar Khayyam writes, “The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on…” We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.

We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter — but beautiful — struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message, of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.”

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For an audio recording and the text of the speech go to:

https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkatimetobreaksilence.htm

An African Plea for Tolerance and Unity

The only written record in English of the words and teachings of Tierno Bokar Saalif Taal (1875-1939) is found in this book by the Malian diplomat and intellectual Amadou Hampate Ba.

“May our love not be centered upon ourselves! May this love not incite us to love only those who are like us or to espouse ideas that are simililar to our own! To only love that which resembles us is to love oneself; this is not how to love.”

These are the words of the Malian mystic Tierno Bokar Saalif Taal, a disciple of the Sufi tradition of Islam.  The unity of all believers, like the unity of humankind, was basic in his teaching.  

“To believe that one’s race or one’s religion is the only possessor of the truth is an error. This could not be.  Indeed, in its nature, faith is like air.  Like air, it is indispensable for human life and one could not find one man who does not believe truly and sincerely in something.  Human nature is such that it is incapable of not believing in something, whether that is God or Satan, power or wealth, or good or bad luck.”

Tierno (pronounced ‘Chair-no’) Bokar grew up in a devout Muslim household surrounded by social conflict in Segou, a major town of southern Mali.  While periodic battles threatened the population, his mother, aunt and grandmother taught and lived the virtues of love and charity.  Following his father’s flight with one of the contending militias, Tierno and family settled at 18 in the village of Bandiagara where he lived the rest of his life.  As a man who exemplified modesty and humility, he taught that God bestowed faith and wisdom on all peoples regardless of their level of technological advance or education. 

His leading disciple Amadou Hampate Ba wrote that Tierno said, “Contrary to what usually happens, one should therefore not be surprised to find spiritual riches in someone from a people considered as backward, but one should instead be troubled at not finding them in civilized individuals who have long worked on developing their material lives.”  Ba urged us to remember that all of Tierno’s words “came out of a modest room of dried earth, in the heart of black Africa, in 1933”.  Amadou Ba’s 1957 record, published in French, of his master’s teaching was titled A Spirit of Tolerance: The Inspiring Life of Tierno Bokar in the 2008 English translation. 

Amadou Hampate Ba also published the African proverb “When an elder dies, an entire library burns.” He served on UNESCO’s Executive Committee and wrote many books including memoirs on his long career serving as a “cultural ambassador for Mali and for Africa.

Mali was a French colony and after the Catholic Director of the Office of Muslim Affairs read Amadou Ba’s rough transcript of Tierno’s words, he wrote,  

“These were words in their pure state, words spoken not to exalt man, neither speakers nor listener, but rather truly animating words, spoken with such sincere feeling for the other as to cause god to lie in the heart of the unbeliever, to vivify his faith, and to give a meaning to the lives of everyone.” 

At the age of 33 Tierno Bokar opened his school, or “zawiya”, in Bandiagara.  It was where Amadou Ba began his education.  After years of study in the French schools of “French Soudan”,  Ba spent six months in 1933 with Tierno, his first and foremost teacher.  He took copious notes recording for himself and others what this master of wisdom and faith taught.

Apart from his teachings of tolerance and the unity of humankind, Tierno Bokar appealed to his pupils to find what God was trying to communicate to us through our senses and the “Book of Life”. As Jesus sought to do with the parables, Tierno often based his lessons on seeking the meaning of commonly shared experience. Amadou Ba’s book tells a moving story of his teacher repairing a bird nest and follows it with Tierno recounting an incident when his dog served him as an example of faithfulness. Ba comments, “For him, all of nature, animals and plants included, should be respected because they are not only our nourishing Mother, but they are, moreover, the great divine Book wherein everything is a living symbol and a source of teaching.”

During the six month sabbatical from his post in the French colonial administration Ba asked Tierno whether it was good to study other religions.  The “sage of Bandiagara” replied,

“You will gain enormously by knowing about the various forms of religion.  Believe me, each one of these forms, however strange it may seem to you, contains that which can strengthen your own faith.  Certainly faith, like fire, must be maintained by means of an appropriate fuel in order for it to blaze up.  Otherwise , it will dim and decrease in intensity and volume and turn into embers then from embers to coals and from coals to ashes.”

Tierno Bokar then added, “That which varies in the diverse forms of Religion – for there can only be one Religion- are the individual contributions of human beings interpreting the letter with the laudable aim of placing religion within the reach of the men of their time.  As for the sources of religion itself,” he went on to say, “it is a pure and purifying spark that never varies in time or space, a spark which God breathes into the spirit of man at the same time as He bestows speech upon him.”

With his emphasis on love and humility, Tierno’s teachings on religious tolerance came naturally. A plea for the unity of all believers accompanied his teaching on tolerance:

“Brothers of all religions, let us in God lower the boundaries that separate us. Down with the artificial creations that pit human being against each other….. Let us fly as an eagle with powerful wings towards the union of hearts towards a religion that is not inclined towards the exclusion of other ‘credos’ but towards the universal union of believers, freed from their own selves and morally liberated from the appetites of this world.”

Tierno advocated respect and acceptance for Christian missionaries and colonial officials: “This religion, which Jesus sought to deliver and which was loved by Muhammad, is that which, like pure air, is in permanent contact with the sun of Truth and Justice, as well as with the Love of the Good and Charity for all.”

It is with excitement that I introduce most of you readers to the teaching of Tierno Bokar. I am looking forward to re reading Ba’s book again and expect it will soon fill with my scrawled notes and comments. The lessons of a heightened awareness of what is going on around us in nature, the animal and plant realms in particular, hold a special appeal for me as I approach three quarters of a century in age. I also plan to order the only other book I know of that treats Tierno’s insights on God’s presence. Published in 1984 it is by the author of the introduction to Ba’s book, Dr. Louis Brenner, and is titled West African Sufi: The Religious Heritage and Spiritual Search of Cerno Bokar Saalife Tall .

Franklin Graham in Disgrace in the U.K.

Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury denounced "populist leaders that deceive" in his Christmas sermon following Trump's election
In the month after the U.S. 2016 election, Church of England leader, Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury, was puzzled by U.S. “evangelical Christians'” support for Donald Trump. “I really genuinely don’t understand where that is coming from” he stated on Sunday morning television in the U.K.

“We represent a growing number of evangelical Christians who are unwilling to support mission events led by American evangelist Franklin Graham. We find it hard to reconcile his public and partisan statements on such issues as immigration, poverty, gun control and Israel with our understanding of the teaching and values of Jesus Christ.”

These words began a February 7 letter to The Guardian newspaper written by seventeen “evangelical Christian” pastors who oppose Franklin Graham’s upcoming tour of the U.K. The leaders serving parishes across England and Wales wrote in support of the action of eight commercial venues which recently cancelled the Graham team’s booking of their space. The Guardian reported that in justifying the cancellation, many of the venues had indicated that statements by Graham “were incompatible with their values, and that his appearance would be “divisive, could be disruptive or lead to a breach of the peace.”

Opposition to the Graham tour has come from a variety of civil society groups and jurisdictions. The newspaper referred to “protests by LGBTQ+ activists, petitions and requests from local councils”. Contributing to the ardent opposition is widespread dismay among some of the most prominent Christians in the U.K. over Graham’s outspoken support for Donald Trump’s policies. Liverpool’s Bishop Paul Bayes has said ‘If people want to support rightwing populism anywhere in the world they are free to do so. The question is how are they going to relate that to their Christian faith?”

Without naming Franklin Graham, Bishop Bayes singled out “self-styled evangelicals” in the U.S. for criticism, “Some of the things that have been said by religious leaders seem to collude with a system that marginalises the poor, a system which builds walls instead of bridges, a system which says people on the margins of society should be excluded, a system which says we’re not welcoming people any more into our country.” Bayes’ statements at the end of 2017 coincided with implied rebuke of Trump in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Christmas Day message the same year. In a remark widely interpreted as aimed at Trump, Archbishop Justin Welby denounced “populist leaders that deceive”.

Franklin Graham’s endorsement of Trump came as no surprise to those who knew of the Southern Baptist preacher’s fervent support for the War in Iraq,

Describing his Samaritan's Purse organization's presence in Iraq following the 2003 invasion, Graham included a boast with an interviewer, "We had Muslims who gave their lives to Christ."  Photo by John Bazemore of AP
In his fervent support for the 2003 Iraq invasion, Franklin Graham took no account of the 1.5 million Christians in the country. Photo by John Bazemore/AP

blanket condemnation of the Muslim religion, and his ongoing denunciation of homosexuals. His characterization of Islam as an “evil and wicked religion” soon after the 9/11 Twin Towers attacks helped build the case for the invasion of Iraq two years later. He is a leading advocate of “conversion therapy” and has compared the conversion of individuals from ‘gay’ to ‘straight’ with the experience of conversion to the Christian faith.

For U.S. citizens in a presidential election year, the perception of U.K. Christians that Graham’s positions sow discord and division within the culture should be especially troubling. If a leader and spokesperson for “evangelical Christians” in the U.S. is deemed capable of “disturbing the peace” in U.K. communities, we are led to question what has been the high profile pastor’s effect on communities in his own country. Some of us find it disturbing that notice of the cancellations and opposition to the tour in the U.K. appeared in a British-based newspaper and in none of the leading U.S. news outlets. In contrast to non-coverage of the British Christians’ response to Graham, an Oct. 5, 2019 article in the Los Angeles Times reported on Graham lauding Trump during a tour of several U.S. cities in the midst of the House impeachment inquiry.

When the columnist covering Religion for the left-leaning Atlantic magazine in the U.S. chooses to describe Franklin Graham as representing “the best impulses of Christianity” (Emma Green in The Atlantic May 21, 2017), one has to wonder if journalists in the U.S. have opted for “kid glove” coverage of Billy Graham’s son’s public pronouncements and actions. One also has to wonder if the high profile Christian leader’s ill-informed, thoughtless positions on present day social issues make it much harder for U.S. young adults to feel they belong in a Christian community or claim the Christian faith as their own.

Pope and the Grand Imam Pledge to Work For “Human Fraternity”

Pope Francis reached out to Muslim leaders and the more than one million Catholics working in the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) during his February 2019 visit to the Arabian Peninsula.

Pope Francis became the first Pope to visit the Arabian Peninsula in February 2019. The Abu Dhabi Papal mass was attended by 135,000 of the estimated one million plus Catholics living in the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) as migrant workers. (Photo by The National.ae)

In a dramatic initiative to ease Muslim-Christian tensions and violent conflict, the Pope and the Grand Imam, the highest authority in Sunni Islam, pledged last February to “work strenuously to spread the culture of tolerance and of living together in peace”. Although largely ignored by secular media, notably in the U.S., the leaders of the world’s two largest religious bodies jointly created a document stating that “faith leads a believer to see in the other a brother or sister to be supported and loved”.

Intended as a model and a guide for peacemaking and dialog in our times, the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” was signed by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam Sheikh Abu Tayeb in Abu Dhabi. It was the first visit ever of a Pope to the Arabian peninsula, the cradle of Islam. While Christians have led the refugee flight from Iraq, Syria and the Palestinian territories, the Pope has worked to enhance understanding and respect for Christians now living in predominantly Muslim countries. Improving relationships with Muslim leaders is a priority of Pope Francis’ papacy and can also be seen as repairing the damage done by his predecessor Pope Benedict. A 2006 speech by the former Pope was widely interpreted as characterizing Islam as a religion which condones violence.

The “Human Fraternity” document signed in February and the current Pope’s warm relationship and ongoing dialog with the Grand Imam and other Muslim leaders encourage “all who believe that God has created us to understand one another, cooperate with one another and live as brothers and sisters who love one another.” The document identifies several obstacles to creation of a culture of dialog and peace in today’s world.

The Abu Dhabi signing of the “Human Fraternity” document followed the Grand Imam’s Vatican audience with the Pope in May, 2016. (Vatican photo)

Echoing Martin Luther King’s observation that our technological advance has surpassed our knowledge of how to live in peace, the document identifies the causes of conflict today as “a desensitized human conscience, a distancing from religious values and a prevailing individualism accompanied by materialistic philosophies that deify the human person and introduce worldly and material values in place of supreme and transcendental principles.” Strongly condemned are religious groups who, “have taken advantage of the power of religious sentiment in the hearts of men and women in order to make them act in a way that has nothing to do with the truth of religion. This is done for the purpose of achieving objectives that are political, economic, worldly and short-sighted.” Such “False Religion” has supported military build up leading to “signs of a ‘third world war being fought piecemeal’”.

Also contributing to the crises today the document points to increasing economic inequality, and the exploitation of women and denial of their rights. In its conclusion the document urges “research and reflection” on its contents in all places of learning “to educate new generations to bring goodness and peace to others, and to be defenders everywhere of the rights of the oppressed and of the least of our brothers and sisters”.

Unfortunately, most American media emphasized the political implications of the February meeting of the two leaders while ignoring the document’s contents. The two New York Times articles reporting on the Pope’s visit to the Arabian peninsula failed to mention the document or its contents. By contrast, the official Vatican News headline the day after the meeting celebrated “the historic declaration of peace, freedom, women’s rights”. Conservative Catholic media and commentators rued the document language characterizing the diversity of religions as “willed by God in His wisdom”. One commentator speculated that “this is not what Muslim converts (to Christianity, ed.) want to hear from their Pope”.

The lack of attention paid the document is troubling. Our secular media’s tepid response suggests we live in a world captivated by the force of armaments. Ignorance of this significant effort to bring about a world of “human fraternity” reminds of Stalin’s reputed response to the suggestion that the Pope be invited to the Tehran Conference in 1943. “And how many divisions does the Pope have?” the Russian leader was reported to have asked.

Despite the neglect of the “Human Fraternity” document, and the opposition of Catholic critics of the Pope’s embrace of “religious pluralism”, Francis and the Vatican are following through on the dialog with Muslim leaders. Meetings in August resulted in some edits of the February document and were followed by another conversation between the Grand Imam and the Pope this month in Rome. Discussion focused on the progress of the joint “Superior Committee” in efforts to achieve the objectives agreed on in February.

To read the complete document signed in February 2019 go to:

https://www.vaticannews.va/en/pope/news/2019-02/pope-francis-uae-declaration-with-al-azhar-grand-imam.html

Creating a Culture of Tolerance

After 300 plus years of Arab Muslim rule in the city, the Alhambra in Granada, was turned over to Christian invaders from the north in 1492. One of the most visited sites in Europe today, it was the last of the Andalucia fiefdoms to fall under Christian rule.

My wife and I just returned from 18 days in Andalucia, southern Spain where Islam was the dominant religion from the mid eighth century to the middle of the 15th century. We were struck by the many traces of the Muslim legacy in the architecture, language, and diet of Andalucia today. Before our trip, it was our good fortune to have read the 2002 book The Ornament of the World in which Rosa Maria Menocal describes the debt which Spain, indeed Western civilization as a whole, owes to the medieval Muslim scholars, artists and several enlightened rulers who settled in Andalucia.

The book’s subtitle “How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain” highlights what Menocal considers one of the

View of Morocco from the southernmost point in Spain, Tarifa where Arab Muslim troops crossed over in 711 AD.

outstanding aspects of Muslim rule in Spain, especially in the first three hundred years. The author puts it this way, “Fruitful intermarriage among the various cultures and the quality of cultural relations with the “dhimmi” (the other peoples of the Book, the Bible in our language) were vital aspects of Andalusian identity as it was cultivated over these first centuries.” With respect to the first peoples of the Book, she writes of their advances under Islamic rule, “Here the Jewish community rose from the ashes of an abysmal existence under the Visigoths to the point that the emir who proclaimed himself caliph in the tenth century had a Jew as a foreign minister”.

The latter fact is an eerie reminder for us in the U.S. that Saddam Hussein’s foreign minister was a Christian, one of the nearly 6 per cent of Iraqi Christians most of whom in our day have had to flee a country due to U.S. foreign policy decisions. Indeed, let us not ignore that the suspicion, resentment and revenge directed at most Muslim Arab states by the U.S. foreign policy establishment and U.S. public today compares quite unfavorably with the tolerant treatment and policies of Muslim rulers in Andalucia one thousand years ago.

But more importantly, let us not ignore the fundamental beliefs shared by the three peoples of the Book, characterized by and united in their devotion to one God, Creator of all people and things of the world. Too many of us have ignored, myself included, that “Allah” is the Arabic name for God. So Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians worshipped “Allah” for several centuries before Muhammed lived. The “shahada” testimony of faith, one of the five pillars of Islam, simply declares in Arabic, “There is no god but “Allah”. Muhammed is the messenger of Allah.”

Last Saturday, October 27, eleven Jewish worshippers were killed by a lone gunman wielding an AR -15 semi-automatic rifle in a Pittsburgh synagogue. We cannot measure but neither can we deny the influence of the anti-Muslim language and policies of the current U.S. administration in creating a culture of suspicion and intolerance which leads an unbalanced person to commit such a loathsome act. In this context of our country’s aggressive hostility towards Muslim states and peoples we can be grateful for the rich legacy of the Islamic religion and the Arabic language displayed still in every town of Andalucia, Spain. We return from Andalucia with increased respect and appreciation of that legacy and enhanced gratitude for the presence in our lives of Muslim neighbors in Kansas City.

I close with some words written by one of the most widely read poets of all time, the Christian-Muslim-Sufi-Baha’i Khalil Gibran:

“I love you when you bow in your mosque, kneel in your temple, pray in your church. For you and I are sons of one religion, and it is the spirit.”
From The Prophet

A gallery of Andalucia photos follows below: