Friday, May 26, 2006

Great Opportunity to Learn Islam this Summer

Professor Jane Smith of Harford Seminary's Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian Muslim Relations is presenting an on-line course, June 5th - 23rd entitled "Understanding Islam: Rumor and Reality" which I know will be very good and very important for many of us. Since it is an on-line course, you can do it from your home computer. NCC is jointly sponsoring this event with Harford Seminary. Here's the link

Changing Paradigms in Interreligious Understanding

The following is a presentation I made at the Connecticut Council for Interreligious Understanding. Its members gathered for their annual meeting on May 18th, at the University of Hartford. My friend and colleague Prof. Jane Smith is the chairperson of the Council.

Madam Chairman, dear friends, it’s a great honor to be here. Thank you for inviting me. Wasn’t the Jewish musical group great? Would you look at your song sheet  and look at the words they sang. Let’s read those words together – it could be our prayer: “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation and neither shall they study war no more.”
     I want you to close your eyes…NOT in prayer, but to visualize the world in a new way.

NOW – Picture ALL the children of the world
     ALL playing together in a GIANT playground.

SEE – Over there on the swings…
     Christian, Jewish and Muslim children
          Racing to see who can go the highest.

LOOK – Over there, see the Sikh child throwing the ball
     To the Hindu Child.

WATCH -- I love what I see over in that field…
     Children flying kits.
          Children from Baghdad, Beirut and Boston,
          Children from Beijing, Banda Ache, and Bali.

SEE – Visualize in your minds eye the children over by the picnic table
     Blowing up balloons –
          Children from Palestine, Prague, and Portland,
          Children from Paris, Pyongyang and Pittsburgh.

LOOK – Over there on the giant sliding board –
     Can you see the children laughing as they slide down –
          Children from Darfur, Damascus and Detroit,
          Children from Dresden, Dublin and Denver.

We smile, watching the children waiting for ice cream.
     Children from Jerusalem, Jakarta and Jacksonville.

Black children, White children, Asian children, Immigrant children.
Privileged children, Poor children, Homeless children, Grandchildren.
Orphans, Fatherless, Motherless, Hope filled, Hopeless –

     I have a plaque on my desk that says “Faith is knowing that there is an ocean because you’ve seen a brook.” If the ocean is that playground that you visualized, or that prayer about nation not raising sword against nation, you who are in this room is the brook. Because I’ve seen this, I can imagine that.

     I want to say how good it is to be in the shadow of Hartford Seminary. I don’t have to tell you about the incredible value the Seminary and its MacDonald Center, under Professor Jane Smith’s leadership is to you here in Connecticut, but let me tell you that it has provided cutting edge leadership to Christians in relations with Muslims.
Our two institutions, the NCC and Hartford Seminary have had a strong relationship over the years. Only a couple of months ago, we did two pilot events for our brand new joint project, one here at the seminary and the other in New York at Union Seminary. “God Is One: The Way of Islam” is a text book on Islam for Christians written by Hartford’s own Marston Speight. We are encouraging churches to use its six week long adult education curriculum in their churches, and Hartford’s Islamic scholars who are Muslims themselves are training those who will teach those classes. We’ve had at least two churches that have completed the class already and I know of another planning to do so this summer. If this project succeeds, I am hoping that in 10 years, we would have done this training in hundreds of local communities across this country, and as Christians learn about Islam, improve their attitudes about Muslims and churches and Mosques build relationships, there would be sea change in the way Americans view Muslims and Islam. I don’t have to tell you, you know why this is important.

I work for the National Council of Churches, an organization of 35 Christian denominations – Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox, who are members of the organization. And these denominations represent over 100,000 churches across the US. That we have such a table where Churches seeped in ancient traditions come together to forge a common agenda is itself a miracle. Can you imagine Armenian Orthodox sitting next to the Society of Friends, or Historic African American Churches together with Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church!
     Perhaps the most fundamental ecumenical principle that keeps churches that are so different from each other working together is called the Lund Principle: “We will act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel us to act separately.” It is a commitment that affirms the value of the common table, but at the same time affirms the distinctives and differences of the individual communions. This has been the primary paradigms for creating and sustaining the ecumenical table. Having come together, this Community of Communions works to engage the churches and the larger public in areas such as justice, peace, mobilizing against poverty and ecological concerns.  
     Last year addressing a gathering of 130 religious leaders in conference called “A Critical Moment in Interfaith Dialogue” Dr. Samuel Kobia, the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches said that it is time that we take the same Lund Principle that characterizes the ecumenical movement to the interfaith movement. That “We will act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel us to act separately.” I appreciate that coming from him. For a long time I have maintained that the word “ecumenical” itself should not be limited to the Christian ecumenical project. The word “ecumenical” derives from the Greek “oikumene” meaning the “household of God” or the entire world. It is a word with much broader meaning than the ones Christians are giving it. Although I won’t use the word to refer to interfaith contexts because that would create all kinds of confusion, I hope we can use the principle to describe the interfaith table as well. We will act together in matters except those things in which deep differences of conviction compel as to act separately.

     Someone said that there are two movements in the world these days: globalization and interfaith. Indeed, the world is going interfaith. We are in the midst of a paradigm shift. I believe, and I hope the systems theorists among us will agree that the opposition we see by those who pull back toward political unilateralism, cultural homogeneity and religious exclusivism is a sign of a systemic pullback toward homeostasis that confirms this hypothesis. A paradigm shift, as you know, is a different way of looking at the same realities. I want to share with you the excitement I feel about this paradigm shift.
     First, it used to be that religious leaders would initiate this interreligious conversation. Now, it’s the governments that are bringing religious leaders to the table. I’ve just returned from Kazakhstan where I was a group of religious leaders helping them to prepare for a religious leaders summit in September. They are trying to set up its new capital Astana as a City of Peace. And they think that the way to do solidify it is to get interfaith dialogue to be at the center. Notice: this is the government of Kazakhstan, which, as a part of the Soviet Union, just 16 years ago, was officially hostile to religion.
     Then as you probably know, the United Nations has now engaged in an initiative called Alliance among Civilizations (it used to be called Dialogue among Civilizations). Among its chief proponents is the government of the Philippines. A recent headline in Philippine newspapers read interfaith dialogue is the best solution to terrorism. "Faith is the greatest antidote to terrorism," said President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and urged religious leaders to reach out across cultural and religious barriers. What they are doing is just as important as building up military forces to fight terrorism and injustice across the globe, she said. In the Philippines, the "vestiges of conflict in Mindanao are finally fading away" due to interfaith dialogue, Arroyo said.
     Not only governments, business leaders are interested in the conversation. Already this year I’ve had two meetings with top business leaders who are wanting be engaged with interfaith relations. A group called Young Presidents’ Organization comprises CEOs of major corporations who are under 50 years of age. These people with successful businesses and lots of money are sick of the extremist rhetoric. Their Peace Action Network brought together 8 religious leaders: Jewish, Muslim and Christian to ask us about how to promote interfaith relations, how to reduce the extremist rhetoric in the media because that’s what’s good for business.
     Another group of business leaders who are Christians, said to a group of religious leaders, we’ve tried to bring our Christian values to our business. Its hard, because, someone said, businesses have one purpose – and that is to make money. There is no second purpose. At 4 o’clock in the afternoon we have to make sure that the stock is going up, one said, if not there will be other repercussions, like lay offs and the future of the company might be at stake. In the midst of that we’ve tried to bring Christian values to our business practices. But then we look around and people on our boards, people in senior management and people who are ordinary workers are Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Baha’is and so on, and we have to ask, what are their values and we don’t know. One gentleman got up and said, I am now 84. My time is gone, but I think about how things will be 20 years from now. What do we know about religion and values of people in India and China? We need you to help us find figure this out!
     Not only these: educators, health care workers, politicians, police and fire departments are now the ones calling religious leaders to the table. That’s a significant change. At a recent meeting at the UN, some religious leaders began to think through this change in paradigm. How do we avoid being co-opted by the political or governmental interests we asked?

     In our work of Interfaith Relations, we commonly refer to four types of dialogue.. Dialogue of Life: where people try to relate to their neighbors, sharing their joys and sorrows, and being challenged by and celebrating that diversity. Dialogue of Action: where people of faith come together to out of concern for their neighbors, to provide humanitarian aid for those in need, to work on advocacy issues or to agitate against injustice and for human liberation. Dialogue of Contemplation: is when persons, rooted in their own religious traditions share their spiritual riches with each other, through prayer and meditation, reading each other’s scriptures or participating in rituals, sometimes even doing interfaith services – like Thanksgiving services. Dialogue of Theological Reflection: where people of different religious traditions come together for conversation, seeking to deepen their understanding of each other’s faith stories, religious heritages, scriptures and spiritual values. Let me describe these briefly and identify for you the some new questions that lead us to this paradigm shift.

  1. Dialogue of Life:
     I don’t have to tell you: people of other religions are our neighbors. Even though this demographic shift in the US is relatively new – large scale immigrations began only after 1965, religious plurality is not new, even in this country, before our Christian fore-parents came to these shores, there was a great plurality of religions in this continent and they still survive. Some people look at that and are thrilled to see the richness that these diverse immigrants and religious people bring to this country. But others are afraid. And after 9/11 their fears are compounded, and of course we have a government that wants to play on those fears. Here are some are real questions that Christians have raised with me in my pastoral practice of over 25 years.
  • I am going to surgery. My surgeon is a Bangladeshi Muslim and prays to Allah before she does surgery. If she is praying to God, then I am happy. But if she is praying to another God, can I trust her to do it right?

  • My son’s Social Studies teacher is a Buddhist. He came home one day saying that Buddhism is very attractive to him and that he is going to a meditation class. Is this man trying to proselytize my son?

  • My daughter is going out with a young man from a Hindu family. He is a fine young man, but his family is very religious. They have a special place in their house set up for God statues and they burn incense there every night and say prayers. It seems creepy to me.

  • Some people in the neighborhood came to my door asking me to sign a petition. Some Muslims have gone to the Town Council to ask for zoning to build a mosque. The petition is to oppose that. It says the mosque is a front for a terrorist training center.
     Now, here the new question that we need to struggle with. In these situations, is the real question religion, or ethnicity? In other words, how much are our racial prejudices at play here. This is a question we haven’t asked as clearly as we should have.
     Here’s an example: The recent cartoon controversy and the current immigration debate. I have just finished writing an article to a religion journal about Christian responses to the cartoon controversy. The really interesting thing about those responses was that those Christians who have had long standing relationships with Muslims understood at some depth the pain that Muslims were feeling about this. Those who didn’t and I criticized, both the Danish council of Churches and the European Evangelical Alliance particularly for the way their statements were patronizing and even offensive to Muslims. US Evangelical Christians were confrontational. There were at least two critical questions, I suggested that Christians should have taken into consideration. One the publication of those cartoons was deliberately provocative – remember that they refused to publish caricatures of Jesus. Two, that it needs to be seen in the context of growing Islamophobia in Europe and in the United States. My challenge to them is that they cannot allow the Christian commitment to anti-racism to take a back seat to freedom of speech.  We’ve begun to ask, if one of the real difficulties of creating this table is one of racism, rather than religion.     

  1. Dialogue of Action
     In local communities, Interfaith Councils have formed to create food pantries, development organizations, and do community organizing. This is one of the more exciting things I’ve done: organizing interfaith communities to engage in neighborhood actions.     We learned that the powers that be have an interest in keeping us divided in to religious and racial communities. We discovered that if we stood together we were had power to accomplish much. If it was a matter of putting up a stop sign in a neighborhood corner or closing down a local drug house, or lobbying the State legislature and lobby for equitable school funding, small victories led to bigger victories.
     The immigration protests these days remind me of those days. If the people who protest look like those in this room, white, black, Asian, Latino, there’s great power in that. For a long time it was difficult to get African Americans and Latinos to come together. But Jesse Jackson is out to change that reality. He’s been outspoken about the immigration question. Writing recently in the Chicago Sun-Times, he addressed his African American constituency. Its time African American joined that struggle he said. “Si se puede” (Yes, we can) the slogan of the Latino immigrant movement, he said is the new “We shall overcome.”
     Here’s the question to struggle with as we move forward. Religious people are motivated by faith. But there are lots of activists who say they are not religious, but they are our best allies. What’s going on here? How can we dialogue with those of “no faith” that we often work with in causes of justice? Or is there another way to think about “faith.” For instance, if faith is knowing that there is an ocean because you have seen a brook – in other words, if faith is being able to visualize a new world and work towards it, are there people who call themselves non-religious, also people of faith? And then, if we think differently about “faith” would we be able to find a commonality between religious traditions that has been evading us?

  1. Dialogue of Religious Experience
     Sometimes local communities want to come together in prayer and worship. Many communities now have Thanksgiving services. But can Christians and Hindus worship together? What are some guidelines as we think about how to do this? Very recently the Christian Conference of Connecticut (my colleague Dr. Steve Sidorak sent it to me) adopted a document called, “Together We Pray: Ecumenical Guidelines for Christians Participating in Interreligious Prayer and Worship” It’s a great document with practical suggestions and I commend that to you.
     Not only are people seeking ways to pray or worship together with neighbors of other religions, but we are taking up other’s religious practices. For instance, these days more and more Christians are taking up Yoga, Tai Chi and various meditation practices. My friend Father Tom Ryan has written books about how Christians ought to do this.
     However, there’s a problem about this that we haven’t usually addressed. When we undertake another’s spiritual practice, we take tend to take the practice part of it, and insert different spiritual content into it. So for instance, Christians have tended to undertake meditation, like Buddhists do, but insert Christian content into the meditative reflection. Although people tend to benefit from such exercises, there is something not quite right about that. Meditation in the Buddhist or Hindu traditions has a specific salvific purpose. In other words, it is meant to lead to a specifically religious goal. The new question we are now considering is this: what if we don’t put our own religious content into another’s practice. What if we used the practice with the content with which it was originally connected? So, if I as a Christian want to use Buddhist meditative practices, what if I meditated on the things that Buddhists meditate on? Or, if I were a Hindu and want to pray like the Muslims do, what if I don’t simply follow the practice of prostrating myself in prayer, but do actually begin to pray to Allah who is One and affirm the teaching of the Prophet? These are the new questions we are beginning to grapple with. In other worlds, rather than undertake other’s religious practices piecemeal, can we undertake them with the full knowledge of what we are doing?

  1. Dialogue of Theological Reflection:
     For the longest time, we thought that all that was meant by Interfaith Dialogue was when religious scholars got together to think through theological and philosophical questions from our religious traditions. Slowly we began to realize that all these other kinds of dialogue are also taking place at the same time. Ecumenical Christians have been working on building dialogue tables for several decades now where scholars have come to the table to dialogue on concepts in their religious traditions that may be similar or different to those of other traditions. Along the way we’ve learned many lessons that are published in a booklet entitled “Ecumenical Considerations: For Dialogue and Relations with People of Other Religions.”
     A new era in the dialogue of theological reflection is now starting. Christians are asking, for instance, if it is theologically appropriate for us to do our theologizing in the presence and engagement of people of other religions. We’ve noticed that had we done our interpretations of the passion narratives in the presence of Jews, we may have been more alert to the misconceptions that have caused so much grief and suffering. So we are also asking the converse question, is there something inadequate about Christian theology that is done without the presence and engagement of people of other religions. If we say yes to that question, we will have to rethink a lot of our theology.
     I participate in an on-going group convened by the World Council of Churches, called “Thinking Together,” a group of international scholars who are themselves practitioners of several different religious traditions. Because we have Buddhists present, we can’t call it theologizing together. We have finished one project on our how our religious traditions view “The Other,” and now we are working on how our religious traditions think about “Conversion.” Hindus, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists who are part of the “Thinking Together” group think that this would be a new direction on how our traditions will begin to interpret their sacred scriptures and engage their theological traditions.

     These are some of the new questions and directions that point to the change in paradigm. The point is to get to the visualization that we began with – the prayer that “nation shall not lift up sword against nation” and children from different nations and religions on the same playground. That’s the ocean. Yes, its hard to think that we will ever get to the ocean, but I have faith that we will. For no other reason, than I have seen the brook. And the brook is right here in this room.


Tuesday, May 23, 2006

NCC Governing Board Meets in New Orleans: Engages in Prayer and Action

NCC Governing Board members participated in a silent prayer walk to the New Orleans Convention Center where much suffering took place, where we engaged in prayer.

The Special Commission on the Just Rebuilding of the Gulf Coast made a great presentation about the compexities of the issues. Dr. C.T. Vivian (celebrated civil rights leader) brought several pastors with him and shared with us his program for connecting 10 churches outside New Orleans with 1 New Orleans Church. Then leaders and Organizers of PICO Louisiana (PICO is a community organizing network) shared with us the struggles on the ground. They shared with us a video of a clergy visit and community meeting. You can view it here:

Monday, May 22, 2006

Antidote to Da Vinci Code: Inviting Women to Share Their Stories

Clicking on the above title would get you to (, a participatory Web site launched May 12. This is providing women with a place to share their stories "in safety and communion" and is endorsed by the NCC's Justice for Women Working Group.

Helen LaKelly Hunt founder of Faith and Feminism writes:
"While my Christian faith is the soul and foundation of who I am, it is also true that the history of Christianity reveals centuries of the silencing of women and the suppression of their talents and potential. This incongruity, I believe, is the reason for the astonishing popularity of The Da Vinci Code. Although the book is a work of fiction, it has nevertheless touched a raw nerve: the suppression of the feminine within all institutional religion."

I wish that not only Christian women, but Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist women may participate in this new experiment.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Teaching and Learning Strategies for Religious Leadership Formation

The American diaspora of peoples from around the world, requires their religious traditions to adapt to the new environment. For some, traditional theologies and practices of training clergy and religious leaders are changing in creative ways to address religious pluralism and relations with people of other faiths.

"How does your religious tradition prepare its clergy and religious leaders to relate with people of other faiths?” we asked a panel of leading scholars from Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Afro-Caribbean and Christian (Catholic, Orthdox and Protestant) traditions.

Their reflections are published in the current (April 2006)issue of Teaching Theology and Religion, a professional journal for educators of Theology and Religion. Kathleen Talvacchia and I were Guest Co-Editors of the issue. The gathering of these scholars would not have been possible without the able assistance of Lucinda Mosher.

The journal is available in most theological libraries. You can read the summaries of the articles at the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion by clicking on the title at the top of this post. It is also at

Monday, May 15, 2006

Did a Buddha Statue Cause the Ending of Sri Lankan Ceasefire?

On April 25th a suicide bomber blew herself up inside Sri Lanka's military headquarters in an attack on the Army commander's motorcade that killed nine people and injured 27. The bomber from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam disguised herself as a pregnant patient trying to enter an Army hospital in the compound in the capital, Colombo, today, the Army said on its Web site. She struck as the commander, Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka, left his office for lunch, killing both soldiers and civilians and injuring Fonseka.

Retaliatory strikes by the Sri Lankan forces in the past three weeks have seen the fragile ceasefire and the Norwegian brokered peace agreement go down the tubes. Today's New York Times story about violence in Trincomalee, adds a new religious twist to this otherwise non-religious conflict: of how a Buddha statue may have caused a provocation! The story follows.

Sri Lankan City Mired in Ethnic Violence

Published: May 15, 2006
TRINCOMALEE, Sri Lanka — The bad blood, you could say, began with the Buddha.

Last May, in the dead of night, someone erected a giant white Buddha statue on a five-foot-high concrete platform behind the town's main market. What followed in this multiethnic, multifaith, perennially self-destructive eastern city on the edge of the sea was a chain of anger and savagery, foreshadowing the return of a grave past.

The ethnic Tamils of Trincomalee, who are mostly Hindu and Christian, saw the clandestine raising of the Buddha statue as an act of provocation by Sinhalese Buddhists. The man who led the protests against the Buddha statue, Vanniasingam Vigneswaran, was shot to death as he went to the bank one morning.

Another morning, the bodies of five Tamil youths were found on the beach. The largely Sinhalese security forces came under steady attack by people suspected of being ethnic Tamil guerrillas.

The tit-for-tat went into overdrive on a Wednesday afternoon in mid-April, when an explosion at the mouth of the market killed 16 people, prompting a Sinhalese mob to instantly torch Tamil-owned shops and hunt down Tamil civilians.

In the reprisals that followed, Sinhalese villagers were slaughtered, Tamil homes were burned, schools and churches turned into squalid camps of frightened, wounded villagers. At the end of April, a suicide bombing in the capital, Colombo, said to have been carried out by the Tamil rebels, prompted government airstrikes on the rebel-held countryside south of here. More than a dozen died, and hundreds more fled.

After four years of livable peace since the 2002 cease-fire between the government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Trincomalee has once again sunk into the muck of fear, uncertainty, and distrust that marked the worst years of Sri Lanka's hateful ethnic conflict of the past two decades.

Nearly 200 people died nationwide in April, compared with just 9 two months earlier when the parties decided to have talks in Switzerland to strengthen the cease-fire.

With the cease-fire having all but unraveled, the latest violence raises the specter of the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom that plunged the country into all-out war. Bad memories compound the ill will. Nowhere is that more apparent than in this port city on the northeast coast about 160 miles from Colombo. Trincomalee is a demographic microcosm of the country, with Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims living in roughly equal numbers. It is here that the repercussions of the conflict, rooted in the grievances of the ethnic Tamil minority against the Sinhalese who dominate the government, are felt most intensely.

"There is right now a lot of suspicion by the communities of each other," said the Rev. George Dissanayake, a Roman Catholic priest and the secretary of the Inter-Religious Peace Foundation here. "We have gone back 20 years. It is very difficult to repair the damage."

Today, Sinhalese villagers living around Trincomalee say they have been offered shotguns to protect themselves. In their territory, the Tamil Tigers, too, are raising village defense committees.

The city and the surrounding countryside are increasingly divided along ethnic lines. The market has turned into a Sinhalese enclave, and the traders, bereft of Tamil and Muslim customers, while away the day playing cards. Nearby, a Tamil laundry, blessedly spared by the mob, waits for its Sinhalese customers to bring in their wash. Across the street, a Sinhalese grocer waits for Tamil shoppers who no longer come. Offices close by early afternoon. By nightfall, the streets are bare, except the edgy soldiers who man checkpoints at every street corner.

The latest sequence of events prompted R. Rajarammohan, one of the town's most successful businessmen, to do what he had strenuously resisted for years: cloister himself with his fellow Tamils.

Within minutes of the April 12 market blast, a gang of young men came up Central Road with kerosene cans and fishing knives and set upon Mr. Rajarammohan's household products wholesale company. They broke into his office, but seemed not to know who he was, nor his ethnicity. It signaled to him that they were not from the area.

The mob set his shop on fire. In an hour, Mr. Rajarammohan lost $400,000 in goods, computers, four trucks, a new Honda, even the insurance papers. Today, he is setting up shop in a Tamil enclave, far from the buzz of Central Road. "We'd love to go back, we'd love to work with them," he said of his Sinhalese neighbors on Central Road. "But they can't protect us, can they? We've learned the bitter way." It was the fourth time since 1983 that his business had been hit in anti-Tamil riots.

One measure of the distrust between the communities in Trincomalee is the swirl of conspiracy theories about what happened that afternoon. Among Sinhalese, one widespread theory is that the bomb killed mainly Sinhalese, and that the riots erupted spontaneously. Among Tamils, a common theory is that the bomb was the handiwork of security forces or their allies and that the majority of the dead were Tamils in what they call organized reprisal attacks.

According to the main hospital, the blast killed 16 people, representing the town's demographic mix: 8 Tamils, 5 Sinhalese, 2 Muslims and a person who could not be identified. The reprisal attacks five more: 4 Tamils and a Sinhalese, who were burned, stabbed and shot to death.

Whether the riots were spontaneous or planned is impossible to know, although one thing seems certain: the police and the army, in full force around the market, did not manage to stop them. Rohan Abeywardana, the deputy inspector general of police in charge of Trincomalee, said his forces were overpowered.

Eleven days later, terror came to Gomarankadawela, an isolated Sinhalese village on the fringes of the forest. M. B. Kalyanaratti, 45, was bending low in a rice field, when she heard gunfire and looked up. Six gunmen, in uniform, motioned to the women to stay back. Then they shot dead six men in the rice field, including her younger brother, M. B. Chaminda Prasanna Bhandara, 28.

There had been no warning of trouble, the villagers said, nor any acrimony with the Tamils who live nearby. In fact, the farmers of the village relied on Tamil labor for help at cultivation time. Mr. Bhandara's family blamed the Tamil Tigers.

Mr. Bhandara might have made a choice target because he was a member of a village defense force known here as home guards. All through the war, home guards had been recruited from among Sinhalese villages to man checkpoints and help the largely Sinhalese security forces in their military operations.

Mr. Bhandara's family insists he joined the service to survive and not to kill. His wife and son survived on his $100 monthly income. More than half the village fled after his killing.

Three days later, terror circled around to Thanganagar, a largely Tamil hamlet surrounded by Sinhalese ones. Two gunmen, their faces shielded, marched into the home of Joseph Baby, 38, as she ate with her family. They pulled everyone out of the house, and shot to death her husband, her uncle and her brother. A bullet pierced her left thigh. "Your people are hurting our people," she recalls the gunmen saying.

Her family was no stranger to hurt. Her two sisters lost their husbands many years ago, during the height of the war. The men had gone to collect honey in the woods; they never returned. On the morning of his death, Ms. Baby's husband, a day laborer, had unloaded cement bags and brought home $1.30.

Thanganagar, along with several other Tamil villages, has since emptied out.

Not far from the school where Ms. Baby has taken refuge, in a deadly quiet Sinhalese hamlet, came reports of a new perilous turn in the conflict: villagers said the police were offering guns to any Sinhalese who wanted them for protection. Reluctantly, it appears, a few villagers have taken up the offer. "This is purely out of fear," confessed W. K. Dharmapala, a farmer. "We are not really sure how to use it."

Behind the market, the Buddha, encircled by concertina wire, gazes silently on the grim crossroads at Trincomalee's once-busy market. The dozens of soldiers barricaded around the statue light oil lamps before him every day. They are the only ones who can worship at its feet today, along with the crows still free to roam.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Jimmy Carter: Punishing the Innocent Is a Crime

This is an important perspective by President Jimmy Carter on sanctions against Palestinians

Jimmy Carter
International Herald Tribune
SUNDAY, MAY 7, 2006

ATLANTA Hamas and the Palestinians

Innocent Palestinian people are being treated like animals, with the presumption that they are guilty of some crime. Because they voted for candidates who are members of Hamas, the United States government has become the driving force behind an apparently effective scheme of depriving the general public of income, access to the outside world and the necessities of life.

Overwhelmingly, these are school teachers, nurses, social workers, police officers, farm families, shopkeepers, and their employees and families who are just hoping for a better life. Public opinion polls conducted after the January parliamentary election show that 80 percent of Palestinians still want a peace agreement with Israel based on the international road map premises. Although Fatah party members refused to join Hamas in a coalition government, nearly 70 percent of Palestinians continue to support Fatah's leader, Mahmoud Abbas, as their president.

It is almost a miracle that the Palestinians have been able to orchestrate three elections during the past 10 years, all of which have been honest, fair, strongly contested, without violence and with the results accepted by winners and losers. Among the 62 elections that have been monitored by us at the Carter Center, these are among the best in portraying the will of the people.

One clear reason for the surprising Hamas victory for legislative seats was that the voters were in despair about prospects for peace. With American acquiescence, the Israelis had avoided any substantive peace talks for more than five years, regardless of who had been chosen to represent the Palestinian side as interlocutor.

The day after his party lost the election, Abbas told me that his own struggling government could not sustain itself financially with their daily lives and economy so severely disrupted, and access from Palestine to Israel and the outside world almost totally restricted. They were already $900 million in debt and had no way to meet the payroll for the following month. The additional restraints imposed on the new government are a planned and deliberate catastrophe for the citizens of the occupied territories, in hopes that Hamas will yield to the economic pressure.

With all their faults, Hamas leaders have continued to honor a temporary cease-fire, or hudna, during the past 18 months, and their spokesman told me that this "can be extended for two, 10 or even 50 years if the Israelis will reciprocate." Although Hamas leaders have refused to recognize the state of Israel while their territory is being occupied, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh has expressed approval for peace talks between Abbas and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel. He added that if these negotiations result in an agreement that can be accepted by Palestinians, then the Hamas position regarding Israel would be changed.

Regardless of these intricate and long-term political interrelationships, it is unconscionable for Israel, the United States and others under their influence to continue punishing the innocent and already persecuted people of Palestine. The Israelis are withholding approximately $55 million a month in taxes and customs duties that, without dispute, belong to the Palestinians. Although some Arab nations have allocated funds for humanitarian purposes to alleviate human suffering, the U.S. government is threatening the financial existence of any Jordanian or other bank that dares to transfer this assistance into Palestine.

There is no way to predict what will happen in Palestine, but it would be a tragedy for the international community to abandon the hope that a peaceful coexistence of two states in the Holy Land is possible. Like Egypt and all other Arab nations before the Camp David Accords of 1978, and the Palestine Liberation Organization before the Oslo peace agreement of 1993, Hamas has so far refused to recognize the sovereign state of Israel as legitimate, with a right to live in peace. This is a matter of great concern to all of us, and the international community needs to probe for an acceptable way out of this quagmire. There is no doubt that Israelis and Palestinians both want a durable two-state solution, but depriving the people of Palestine of their basic human rights just to punish their elected leaders is not a path to peace.

(Former President Jimmy Carter is founder of the Carter Center, a nonprofit organization working for peace and health worldwide. )

Monday, May 01, 2006

Christos Anesti: Sermon at Felix Premawardhana's Funeral

At the gravesite

My uncle Felix's funeral was a praise-filled and joyful celebration and as such characteristic of his life. In attendance were large numbers of people, some very influential, from the arts community in Sri Lanka who were mostly Buddhist. I am privileged to have been asked to officiate at the funeral and preach the sermon at the Cinnamon Gardens Baptist Church. My sermon follows

"Christos Anesti"
April 28, 2006

Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher/theologian once said: We usually think of the preacher and worship leaders as performers and the congregation as the audience. That’s a misnomer. In fact, the preacher, worship leaders and each person in the congregation are performers. God is the audience.

Last Sunday, in Kazakhstan, I watched an Easter service on TV. Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter one week later than Protestants. These are the folks who have elaborate and traditional rituals. I was particularly interested because this service was being broadcast from Baghdad. It was Easter in a war zone!
As the stately and solemn service was nearing its end, the old priest with a long flowing beard came to the front and shouted out – Christos Anesti – Christ is Risen. And the crowd, and yes, it was a crowd, shouted in response – Christ is Risen, Indeed! But that was not enough for the old priest. Christos Anesti, Christos Anesti he repeated over and over again getting more and more animated and starting to jump up and down. And the crowd too was getting excited and they too responded shouting and cheering. And soon the old priest with a dance in his step marched right through the main aisle shouting and cheering and right in to the street and the people following close behind, singing and dancing, and they had an impromptu procession. Even in a desperate war zone – in the midst of all the death and destruction the church proclaimed to the world, loudly and joyfully – there is Hope! Because Christ is Risen!
What happened here? Priest and people were not simply wiling to listen to the Easter story and go home and sleep. That day they dramatized the story.
First it was in the liturgy. Isn’t that what worship is, a way to dramatize the story? Every time we gather as the Body of Christ, every time we sit at the Lord’s table, every time someone gets baptized, we can see this powerful dramatization of the gospel. This priest and people were the performers, and God, the audience, must have been pleased.
But they weren’t willing to stop there. They took the story to the street, to their homes and neighborhoods, even in a war zone! They made that drama the lived reality of their lives. They lived it out!
Drama is a powerful way of telling a story. Few people knew that better than Bappa (uncle), and few people could do it better than he could. Many of you know his accomplishments in that regard better than I do. But my focus right now though is on the other side of the equation: about making the drama the living reality of his life. With that in mind, let me tell you a couple of stories he dramatized with his life.
One of the stories he dramatized with his life is our family’s foundational story of faith. Just as the ancient Israelites have a foundational story of faith in the deliverance from bondage and the subsequent covenant making, and the church has a foundational story which we will celebrate a few Sundays from now on Pentecost Sunday, families do have foundational stories. Some may have to dig deep to find it, but ours was told and retold since we were kids.
This is the story of my grandparents – of how God’s grace was abundantly available to them. My cousins would remember how this story was told to us with such passion. It as almost as if we were ourselves witnesses to those events.
The story is about how God saved my grandfather, a militant Buddhist, from killing a group of Christians on their way to a baptism under a bridge, and thus from the gallows, how that event began a series of events of questioning and struggle, and largely because of the saintly witness and depth of prayer of his Christian wife. The story is about how his militant friends waited at the same bridge to kill him for being a traitor but God again miraculously saved him. The story is too about how under that same bridge and many others he baptized people for over 50 years. God made a covenant with our grandparents. It was a covenant of grace, totally unwarranted on our part.
That assurance of faith, that confidence that the God who came through for us once will come through for us again and again, helps us to know that we act boldly, love generously and live joyfully. If there was anyone who live out that story in that way: boldly, generously and joyfully, Bappa did.

Two more quick examples:
When I was quite young, about 7th grade at Wesley College and he was my headmaster (how many times I’ve had to go trembling to his office and receive canings! Never mind I was his nephew, I think I got whacked harder than others!) In any case, at that time, I had a brief infatuation with writing plays. Perhaps I had seen too much of Minis Gathiya and Deva Varama (Kaluware Jaramare had not appeared yet). He really wanted to encourage me. He came to me and gave me two plot suggestions, and helped me think in creative ways about two old stories: The Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. I asked him why these. And I still remember, he said, these are the best stories Jesus told, and that he tries to live by them, and that I should try to bring them to life so others can live by them too.
My plays are still being written! But his drama, he has performed awesomely.
The Good Samaritan Story, you remember, came out when a lawyer tried to question Jesus about how one can inherit eternal life. And Jesus summarized the law and the prophets to him. “Love the Lord you God with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength. And love your neighbor as yourself.”
Now here, you really can’t talk about Bappa without talking about Punchi Amma (aunt) as well. Some of you know that I grew up practically as their 3rd child. I saw their ups and downs. But more than anything, I saw a depth of spirituality that inspired my own faith. If anyone loved God with all their hearts, minds and strength, they did. And they did it together.

The practical expression of that love was their undying commitment to Christ’s church. It was a long-term, disciplined commitment. That commitment was not about seeking acceptance or reward. But a discipline to stay committed even when the church rejected him.

I think they live out their love for neighbor in the hospitality they provided in their house everyday. Remember the flat at Ananda Rajakaruna Mawatha? How can you not, they lived there for 45 years! But the primary reason for that was its central location.

How many children, many of my cousins and I, children of friends, before school and after school stayed there, slept overnight and grew up there? How many people on their way to the General Hospital stopped in for a cup of tea? How many people came to resolve some problem, discuss some issue, get counseled, get prayed for, or even just get fed? Bappa always told me, as he may have told you, there is always extra rice in the house and we can easily make a sambol. Pretty soon that hospitality was so much their lifestyle that they couldn’t and wouldn’t move from there, until it was impossible to stay there!

He told me that I should start the Prodigal son play with the party and do flashbacks. Imagine who would be there, he said. What might they be saying, what kind of music, what kind of jokes, what kind of food. Food was always important to him. He told me that’s why he learned to cook good food, particularly pork!

But that’s how he lived. He lived out the joy of the prodigal coming home and being received with grace. As he lived out that joy his personality exuded laughter. Can you remember one time when he met you and didn’t crack a joke? The party, to him, was the essence of the story: the sheer joy of being received into the father’s house.

If you are not yet convinced about how he lived out the story of Christos Anesti, let me tell you just one more from these recent times.

This January, shortly after he had received the diagnosis of liver cancer, when I called him, he said, “Do you have any messages for your parents?” I laughed, but he was serious. He had begun to take this coming reality long before any of us could even get a handle on it.

About that time he also started quoting Psalm 23. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” Sometimes it was hard to know if he was being serious or joking, but we, the rest of the family, couldn’t handle that. So we told him to stop saying it. But he insisted, saying that is indeed his testimony at this time. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil. For thou art with me. Thy rod and staff, they comfort me.” He told us that he has come to terms with the inevitability of this day, and insisted that he was ready and not afraid. But we weren’t ready. We were afraid to talk about it. One night he called me aside and said, “Shantayo, I know I am dying, and we must talk about as a family.” So, I encouraged him to begin the conversation. I think he taught us a lot that day. That we need not be afraid of death, that we need to come to terms with our mortality and we need to trust God more. The following day, at his 80th birthday party he said that, to all his guests. In all that he was living into the story of Christos Anesti.

Family and friends, we’ve had some powerful role models for our faith from my family. From my father, I learned the value of respecting and appreciating those who are different from me, including those whose faith is different from mine. From Uncle Paul, I learned the value of questioning my faith and subjecting it to testing, refining and renewing. From Bappa I have learned the real world, practical ways in which we can live out our faith everyday, and how to do it with unwavering, principled consistency. He taught me how to live out those stories in everyday life. God is good!

Perhaps most of all, I think, he lived out Kierkegaard’s principle. He lived out the stories that gave him life, as a consummate performer. He didn’t do it to please anybody, not his family, his friends or even those who would get angry with him for whatever reason. He would do it only to please God, whom he knew was his only audience.

So, I think God must be wildly applauding today. And if there is a heavenly Oscar, he would be giving his acceptance speech by now. I could almost hear God shouting out – Bravo! Well done, my good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Lord.