Thursday, April 27, 2006

Felix Premawardhana

Felix and Indranie Premawardhana

At his 80th birthday party this January, my uncle Felix, in a speech laced with his characteristic humor said to his guests that he has only a few weeks to live. Expressing his readiness for the inevitable end, he exhorted his family and friends not to be afraid to talk about death, since it is indeed, a part of life. It was one of the more powerful testimonies I have heard about the power of hope over death. Uncle Felix died on Tuesday.

He was a prominent Baptist and Ecumenical leader in Sri Lanka. A renowned actor and director on stage he was also a movie star. As long-time director of Communications for the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka, his efforts resulted in an Arts Center that included a TV studio and an Arts garden in which artists of various sorts were welcome to rehearse. He was also an international movie critic with Inter-film. He is survived by his wife Indrani (Vice President, Baptist World Alliance), Kuvera (Physician, Cardiff, Wales) and Kuveni Wijeratne (Senior Executive, Sri Lankan Airlines)

I will officiate and preach at his funeral due to be held in Sri Lanka on Friday at 2:30 p.m. I will arrive in Sri Lanka following my meetings in Kazakhstan on the same day at 9:15 a.m. I will post more details following the funeral.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Astana, the City of Peace

The city of Astana is poised to become known as the City of Peace. The purpose of the Congresses of World and Traditional Religious Leaders is precisely that. Its a measure intiated by the President of Kazakhstan and seems to receive the highest governemental priority.

The 4th session of the Secretariat for the Congress of World and Traditional Religious Leaders spent most of its time crafting a Declaration to be adopted at the 2nd Congress scheduled for September 11-15, 2006. The document is long on words and short on action. Parts of it required intense srutiny, by different parties. At the end it was not nearly an interfaith dialogue as an interfaith negotiation. Religious leaders representing, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Taoist traditions were represented. While the document may provide an adequate platform, I suggested to them that if it lacks concrete actions, it will lack the gravity needed for sustained energy.

This is a picture of the Baiterek or the Independence Monument. The construction equipment in the background is typical of what you see around Astana. The city is booming with new construction with elegant architecture.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Kazakhstan: Taking Leadership in Interfaith Relations

I am in Kazakhsatan this week attending a meeting of the Secretariat for the Congress of World and Traditional Religions. The following is a blurb about Kazakh culture, religion and their congresses, including a picture from the 2003 congress. I'll give you my reflections tomorrow.

Kazakhstan is at the crossroads of Asia and Europe and Islamic, Christian and Buddhist cultures. The territory of Kazakhstan has been the meeting place of different religions and civilizations for centuries. The population is made up of representatives of more than 130 ethnic groups and 46 religious denominations.

Kazakhstan is a secular state where religion is separated from the state. Yet the country has created conditions for spiritual revival and has guaranteed constitutional freedoms of worship and religion.

In September 2003, the initiative of the President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev to convene in Astana a Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions has become Kazakhstan’s tangible contribution to interfaith and intercultural understanding, harmony and cooperation as a mechanism to maintain regional and global stability.

The first Congress adopted a Declaration proclaiming that its participants were prepared to make every effort not to allow the use of religious differences as an instrument of hatred and discord, in order to save mankind from a global conflict of religions and cultures. The Declaration of the Congress was circulated as an official document of the fifty-eight session of the UN General Assembly.

The Second Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions will take place in Astana in September 2006. The Congress secretariat has approved its concept and theme, which is "Religion, Society and International Security”.

Work is under way to institutionalize the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. The objective is for the Congress to function as a permanent international organization, which implements decisions taken by influential spiritual leaders.

The city of Astana has launched a major construction project - a Palace of Peace and Accord. That structure will house the headquarters of the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, an Institute of Civilizations and a large theological library for global religious studies.

The establishment of the Assembly of the Peoples of Kazakhstan under initiative of President Nazarbayev 10 years ago represents a unique experience of maintaining interethnic accord and intercultural dialogue in Kazakhstan. That institution not only contributes to interethnic unity and accord but also promotes tolerance and interfaith dialogue. Democratic legislative norms and acts regarding interethnic relations, a balanced language policy, the functioning of ethnic cultural centers and commemoration of days of cultures of the peoples living in Kazakhstan, contribute to dialogue and interaction between different ethnic groups and nationalities and cultures of multiethnic and multiconfessional Kazakhstan.

The international reputation of that body is rather strong and recognized by many countries and international organizations. On visiting Kazakhstan in 2002, Secretary-General Kofi Annan called it “a model of interethnic accord and a stable and sustainable development for other states”.

Alliance of Baptists Convocation Focuses on Racial Reconciliation

The Alliance of Baptists meeting in Birmingham Alabama elected Jim Hopkins (left), pastor of Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church in Oakland, CA, as its next president. Jim has been very active in Community Organizing and is a strong supporter of interfaith relations. For details click:

At the Birmingham meeting, the Alliance focused on racial reconciliation. During the opening worship's confession time, David Gooch of Nashville held up two signs that pointed to "Colored Only" restrooms and water fountains. These signs were a regular sight during the time he grew up in Mississippi. Offended by those signs, he confessed, that he stole them. The problem these days though is that although racism is still rampant, the signs are not that obvious. They are now more subtle, causing many to discount it.

The preacher at the opening worship was Dr. Willie Jennings of Duke Divinity School. He spoke of the power of stories that keep us bound. In the struggle between our need to acceptance and the fear of rejection we often stay with the old stories. But the new storytellers are the people with power, he said.

The previous day, I spoke briefly to the Board of Directors to let them know the new thinking that is going on in interfaith relations. A new question has come to focus in our thinking because of the work of the Alliance of Baptists: the connection between racism and interfaith relations. At our last Commission meeting we agreed to make that an important agenda item for our conversations.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Bananas: The Real Reason They Keep Coming

Bananas? Yes, Bananas!

That's the real reason the immigrants keep coming. Dr. Miguel De La Torres, director of the Justice & Peace Institute and associate professor of social ethics at Iliff School of Theology in Denver provides an illuminating take on the immigrant debate.

"They come here to take away our jobs and use up our social services. They come in search of the American Dream hoping to find a better life for themselves and their families. These are the two most common answers given when asked why They cross the border. Yet, the real reason They keep coming is bananas. Yes--bananas. And our refusal to honestly deal with the role of bananas contributes to much of the misinformation surrounding the current immigration debate."

Click here to read the entire article form Ethics Daily:

Thursday, April 13, 2006

William Sloan Coffin: A Powerful Witness for Peace and Justice

One of my heroes of faith died yesterday. Although I did not know him personally, to those of us who struggle every Sunday in the pulpit to preach the prophetic word, to those of us who organize people in the neighborhoods and to those of us who speak truth to power, Bill Coffin was a rare role model. I took courage from him, knowing that I was not alone; that there were giants of the faith who stood for the same things for which I stood.

The NCC website has reflections from Bob Edgar (General Secretary, NCC), Joe Hough (President, Union Theological Seminary) and Sam Kobia (General Secretary, World Council of Churches). Click here to read them:
Click here for his obituary in the New York Times:

Monday, April 10, 2006

Passover in Spanish: A Reflection from Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Rabbi Arthur Waskow is one whom I am privileged to call my rabbi. He is the director of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia and writes regular, thoughtful reflections that are as inspiring as his actions. Arthur not only writes and speaks, he also walks the walk.

In December of last year, he together with Rev. Sekou of Clergy and Laity Concerned about Iraq initiated the interfaith response to the kidnapping of four members of the Christian Peacemaker Teams in Iraq. NCC helped circulate this through this blog and our e-advocacy network Faithful and generated over 15,000 signatures, which we sent to Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya TV stations. While we mourn death of Tom Fox and rejoice in the release of the other three peacemaker team members, I want to offer a special word of gratitude for the valuable partnership we have with Arthur and the Shalom Center and celebrate the ways we can work together to achieve important goals for peace and justice.

Poignant as always, the following reflection by Arthur at this important time in Jewish life, the Passover, puts in context a critical issue of our time, immigration.

Thank you for reading and supporting the Shalom Center

To my Jewish friends: A Blessed Passover.

A prophetic voice in Jewish, multireligious, & American life

Passover in Spanish – in the Streets of America

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow *

"Passover" is happening in the streets of America this week.

It is coming not from a written book, but from the hearts and minds and legs and prayers of a people. It is happening in Spanish and "Spanglish" more than in Hebrew.

Two million people in the streets against a Pharaoh who is saying "Let us make it a criminal act, a felony to be punished with prison at 'hard lab or,' to live in the United States without a document. Let us make it a felony to feed or heal or educate or comfort these criminals.

"Let us build a wall, with guns to kill anyone who dares to cross it; – just as the ancient Pharaoh ordered the murder of the boy-children of this folk whose name, "Hebrews," meant "the ones who cross over"; the wetbacks.

Read Exodus 1: 9-10: "Now Pharaoh said: "Here, this people is many-more and mighty-numerous. Come now, let us use our wits against it, lest it become even many-more!" So they made them subservient with crushing-labor; they embittered their lives with hard servitude."

Why did the ancient rabbis teach that the lunar Jewish calendar must be con stantly adjusted so as to keep Passover in the spring? Because just as the flowers rise up against winter in the springtime, so the People rise up against Pharaoh in springtime.

Because as lambs are born and barley sprouts in the springtime, so new peoples are born and freedom sprouts new in the springtime. Just as the palm-waving street demonstration in Jerusalem two thousand years ago that we call "Palm Sunday," and then the Last Supper and Good Friday and Easter came from the new-uprising hopes of the Jewi sh community of ancient Palestine during Passover – when else? -- so millions are marching in the streets for this same holy time, these weeks.

Just as the Roman imperial authorities tried to smash the uprising energies by torturing and killing its leaders two thousand years ago, so the Empire can be expected to try to repress this energy today. (It has already justified using torture against even people later found to be utterly guiltless.)

It was not only Jesus who was tortured to death; on Yom Kippur, Jews recite the stories of ten other great rabbis who were tortured to death for refusi ng to obey the Roman edicts.

The real answer to the immigration puzzle is certainly not cruelty: imprisoning the hopeful, shooting at the desperate, breaking up families. It must include an invitation to become US citizens. But even more basically, it demands addressing the question of poverty and despair BOTH in the US and in Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean. It means taking the steps to help grass-roots organizers -- labor unionists, farmers, teachers, clergyfolk, environmentalists, often women – to lift the wages and working conditions below the Rio Grande, as well in the US.

To make "Free Trade Agreements" into Fair Trade Agreements, wiping out sweatshops and sweated fields on both sides of the river.

To set the Federal minimum wage in the US at what is a decent "living wage" for a family.

To insist not only on a living wage but "livable hours" -- decent working hours that allow for freeing the time that a free people needs if it is to learn, sing, govern itself, breathe .

The ancient Israelites turned the tight spot and narrow space of ancient Egypt into a narrow but fruitful birth canal that brought them into open space and time. Once they had broken the waters of the Red Sea, they were able as their first collective act to make the Sabbath -- to live in broad spaces and open-ended time, with elbow room to create, to explore, to hear God's Word, to make a new society.

So may it be with us.


* Rabbi Arthur Waskow directs The Shalom Center and has written many books on spiritual renewal and public policy, including Godwrestling – Round 2. The Shalom Center voices a new prophetic agenda in Jewish, multireligious, and American life. To receive the weekly on-line Shalom Report, click on --

Friday, April 07, 2006

Mainstream Jewish Organizations' Refusal to Engage Walt and Mearsheimer and Alliance with Christian Right Lobby Do Not Bode Well for Peace

Daniel Levy was an advisor in the Prime Minister Ehud Barak's Office, a member of the official Israeli negotiating team at the Oslo B and Taba talks and the lead Israeli drafter of the Geneva Initiative, an important initiative created through Track 2 diplomacy. He is a regular and I believe, respected commentator on Israeli Palestinian issues.

In the linked article “So Pro Israeli that it Hurts,” an Op Ed he wrote to the Ha’aretz, he comments on the Walt-Mearsheimer paper (see my post of March 27th). Admitting that the Walt-Mearsheimer paper’s “tone is harsh. It is jarring for a self-critical Israeli, too. It lacks finesse and nuance when it looks at the alphabet soup of the American-Jewish organizational world and how the Lobby interacts with both the Israeli establishment and the wider right-wing echo chamber,” Levy calls for a debate on the issues. “Avoidance of candid discussion might make good sense to the Lobby, but it is unlikely to either advance Israeli interests or the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

Mainstream Jewish organizations have so distanced themselves from this document that they don't even want discuss it publicly for fear of drawing media attention to it. I think this is really unfortunate and does not serve Israel’s long term interests. Daniel Levy writes:“In the words of the simplistic Harvard study authors, ‘the Lobby's influence has been bad for Israel ... has discouraged Israel from seizing opportunities ... that would have saved Israeli lives and shrunk the ranks of Palestinian extremists ... using American power to achieve a just peace between Israel and the Palestinians would help advance the broader goals of fighting extremism and promoting democracy in the Middle East.’ And please, this is not about appeasement, it's about smart, if difficult, policy choices that also address Israeli needs and security.”

On the other hand, today’s Forward reports that mainstream Jewish organizations, if reluctantly in public, are embracing the Christian Right's initiative of creating a Christian "AIPAC," whose main champion is Christian Fundamentalist preacher John Hagee. It is not as if the Jewish organizations don’t know that the apocalyptic vision of these Christian Zionists is nothing less than either conversion or the destruction of Jews. Daniel Levy warns against this alliance as well.

The political motivations in these two issues: the refusal to engage in debate about Walt and Mearsheimer's conclusions and the alliance with the Christian right are obvious. I think they are deeply flawed and don’t further long-term prospects for peace. I think it signals an unusual ineptitude and indeed a frightening paranoia.

Click here for Daniel Levy's article:

Click here for an article from the Forward about Jewish organizations alliance with John Hagee's Christian AIPAC:

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Shalom in the Home: Monday 10 p.m./9 central The Learning Channel

Yesterday I attended a media event featuring Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and his new TV series Shalom in the Home. It will be aired starting next Monday on The Learning Channel, and looks like a very good program. Its not particularly religious, but Shmuley's expertise and ease in working with young people and families is evident. I want to get the word out about this series and encourage you to watch. For more information, please click this link.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

A Passion Narrative and Liturgy with Sensitivity to Jews and Judaism

Some of the most serious anti-Jewish material in Christian scripture is contained in the passion narrative and liturgy, which most Christian churches will use next week during Holy Week. The NCC website featurs John T. Townsend's classic liturgical interpretation of the passion narrative. You can access that document here:

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

21st century trends: blogging and the Emergent Church

The 2006 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, written by my colleague Dr. Eileen Lindner and published by the NCC, identifies blogging and the emergent church as two significant trends in the 21st century indentifying this blog by name and including its web address. In addition to being a directory of churches and religious organizations (or different faiths), the yearbook also features statistics and trends. To read a news report about the yearbook click here: