Thursday, September 28, 2006

Meeting with Iranian President Ahmedinejad

Despite several reservations, believing that dialogue even with those with whom we seriously disagree can be productive, I participated in a meeting with the Iranian president organized by the Mennonite Central Committee.

The meeting was so tightly structured that there was no room for individual questions. However, Robb Davis who chaired the meeting asked several tough questions on behalf of the group.

In the debrief meeting that followed, I said to my colleagues that I was very disappointed with his answers to two questions: one on the holocaust and the other on the State of Israel. However, I was pleased with his answers to the nuclear question. President Ahmadinejad came across as a deeply religious person and I am inclined to believe him that his nuclear ambitions are for peaceful purposes.
I am also pleased that he extended an invitation to religious leaders to continue the dialogue in Teheran. In a context of building distrust with the US government and impending military action such conversation, I believe is critically important.

The following is the press release from the Mennonite Central Committee

MCC Press Release
U.S. religious leaders meet President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Sept. 22, 2006

NEW YORK, N.Y. - Nearly 45 religious leaders from Christian and Muslim faith backgrounds met with the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Sept. 20, in an open discussion about the role religious communities can play in reversing the deepening crisis between Iran and the United States.

This was the first face-to-face meeting between the Iranian leader and leaders from mainline Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, evangelical and historic peace churches. Much of the discussion focused on a mixture of religious and political issues such as the harsh language between the U.S. and Iranian governments, Ahmadinejad’s publicly stated position on the Holocaust and the role of religious groups in the nuclear weapons dispute.

The group met for about 70 minutes in a conference room Wednesday morning at the Barclay New York Inter-Continental Hotel, 111 East 48th St., where President Ahmadinejad was staying while in New York.

The event was organized and sponsored by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), of Akron, Pa., a relief, development and peace organization of the Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches in the U.S. and Canada.

“The Iranian government invited us to organize a conversation between religious leaders and President Ahmadinejad,” said Robb Davis, MCC Executive Director. “As an agency of one of the historic peace churches we viewed this as an opportunity to build mutual understanding between two peoples who have lived too long with mutual suspicion.”

Both Davis and Ahmadinejad opened the meeting with comments about their respective faith positions.

In a prepared statement, Davis focused on the need of religious leaders in the U.S. and Iran to pursue peace and encourage those in government to resolve differences peacefully.

“We believe that people of faith must come together to mend the breeches that exist and seem to continue to grow between nations and faith communities in this time,” Davis said. “This is why we are here—to talk, to raise difficult questions and to begin to build relationships that will lead to honest and open exchange to confront the very real divisions that tragically lead to animosity, hatred and the shedding of blood.”

Ahmadinejad said, "At any point in the course of history when a group of people anywhere in the world put their instructions into practice, they actually set themselves as examples of peace, order and progress and served as role models for ideal communities.”

Davis followed with a question about the language being used by the U.S. and Iran, such as President Bush referring to Iran as one of the “Axis of Evil” countries, while Iranian protesters march through the streets shouting “Death to America.”

Ahmadinejad responded by saying that “Death to America” does not mean death to the American people, but in fact Iranians love the American people. What it pointed to, he said, were problems with how U.S. government policy has negatively impacted the recent history of Iran from the Shah to the present crisis.

“There was no cause for anger as they are not addressed to the American nation but to the aggressive, unjust, warmongering and bullying U.S. policies,” he said. He later added that there are times when people need strong language to express themselves.

When asked about his controversial views related to the Holocaust, Ahmadinejad referred to previous statements in which he raised questions about the Holocaust and said there is need for additional historical research to be done about it.

He made a direct connection between the current conflict between Israel and Palestine and the Holocaust in which he said the Palestinian people are being asked to pay the price of the Holocaust. In this context “the Holocaust is a European problem not a Palestinian one,” he said.

Acknowledging the millions of people who died in World War II, Ahmadinejad asked why so much attention was being paid to those who died in the Holocaust and very little to the millions of other civilians who also died.

Davis told Ahmadinejad that more dialogue was necessary on this issue. In a discussion among the delegation members following the meeting some of the participants said Ahmadinejad’s responses on the Holocaust were less than satisfying, according to Davis.

On the issue of nuclear weapons, Ahmadinejad said, Iran is not producing weapons and has no need to. He also said that religious people should assume a role in monitoring the nuclear activities in all countries, including the U.S. and Iran.

Ahmadinejad suggested faith groups should join with scientists to visit nuclear facilities around the world to make certain countries are adhering to nuclear agreements.

“The president broke very little new ground in his responses but had some helpful suggestions for the role of people of faith in engaging more deeply around the issue of nuclear nonproliferation,” Davis said.

Toward the end of the meeting, promises of further discussion and a possible visit to Iran by a religious delegation were agreed upon by the delegation and Ahmadinejad.

“Come in winter when the nights are long and we can spend many hours discussing things,” Ahmadinejad said. Davis closed by saying that in the Christian faith tradition God calls on believers to pray for all leaders and that the delegation would be praying for Ahmadinejad and U.S. President George Bush. Ahmadinejad acknowledged the point and said he welcomed the group’s prayers.

For more information contact Mark Beach, MCC Communications Dept.,, office – 717-859-1151 or cell phone at 717-203-7174.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Lessons from the Pope's Remarks and Controversy

1. Particularly During Times of Tensition It Is Imperative that Religious Leaders Come Together
Rome’s Mayor Walter Veltroni (second right) reaches out with other religious leaders at the end of an interfaith meeting at city hall in Rome yesterday attended by (from left) Rome’s chief rabbi Riccardo di Segni, Community of Sant’Egidio president Andrea Riccardi, the Vatican’s top official for inter-religious dialogue Cardinal Paul Poupard, president of Rome’s Islamic Cultural Centre Abdullah Redouane, Imam of Rome’s mosque Sami Salem and Rome’s Jewish community president Leone Paserman

2. Muslim Protests Can Be Non-Violent

On Friday in the Middle East, thousands of people rallied against the Pope. This was in response to a call by an influential moderate Muslim cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi for a peaceful Day of Anger following Muslim prayers. A similar International Day of Anger was held in the height of the cartoon controversy in February. I have not yet seen, and thankfully there have not been any acts of violence or destruction of churches during this event.

For a news report on the protest from the UK Guardian, click here.

US Muslims denouce the remarks and reaction saying loudly that Muslims stand against violence. For several stories go to the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR)

CAIR also has organized a drive to help repair the Palestinian Churches that were damaged or destroyed in the violence. More...

Click here for a video news clip of the CAIR Press Conference

3. Religious Communities Must Self Critically Examine their Scriptures and Traditions for Legitimizations of Violence. This was the problem with the Pope's remarks say two prominant commentators.

Yesterday, at a meeting of the Tripartite Forum on the Dialogue Among Civilizations commemorating the UN's International Day of Peace, I called for religious traditions to engage in a self-critical reflection about those parts of our scriptures and theological traidtions that seem to legitimize violence. The difficulty of the Pope's comment, I suggested was that he did not address Christian legitimization of violence which continues to this day. That's also the trend of thought expressed in two columns, one by eminent church historian and noted commentator on religion in American Martin Marty, in the Chicago Tribune and the other by commentator James Heffernan.

Pope Benedict XVI and Islam

By Martin E. Marty, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago Divinity SchoolPublished September 19, 2006

Pope Benedict XVI has had a free ride so far. Back when there were still Protestant anti-Catholics, some would have found much fault with him, but most appreciated his encyclical on divine and human love and said so. Many Catholics and non-Catholics whose friends suffered under him as Cardinal Ratzinger now empathetically choose to help the wounded nurse their bruises. Some among the Catholic right even think he should be more of a hard-liner.

For all those reasons, it is regrettable that in the midst of a well-worked out (of course) formal speech at the University of Regensburg in Germany, his old academic turf, the pope lapsed for a moment and did what we tenured folk sometimes do--and remember, the pope has lifetime tenure--we come up with an allusion that gets us in trouble, let a side point take center stage or fail to count the cost of a remark. So it was that almost inexplicably the pope began his talk in Regensburg with inflaming words from an obscure Byzantine emperor from the 14th Century to show that jihad as holy war is bad. That emperor, through this pope, said that what the Prophet Muhammad brought to the world was "only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." Like Christians often did? The pope did not mention that.


"When will the Pope Apologize for the Long History of Christian Violence"

By James Heffernan

Here are his last few paragraphs:

In Christianizing the Roman empire by force, Constantine set a precedent for the crusades, which began in 1095 and lasted for two centuries. To reclaim the Holy Lands from Muslims, Christian forces conquered Jerusalem in 1099, killed every Muslim in it, herded all Jews into the synagogue, and burned it. In 1204, after Jerusalem had been reconquered by Muslims, armies of Franks and Venetians sacked Constantinople-capital of Eastern Christianity-and brutally vandalized its greatest church, the Hagia Sophia.

Since Manuel II (who reigned from 1391 to 1425) was not only surrounded by Ottoman Turks but under vassalage to the Sultan of Byzantium, he might be forgiven for forgetting the history of Christian violence and focussing instead on the savagery of Muslims in the letter from which Benedict quotes. But if the Pope aims to make religion less violent and more reasonable, as he said yesterday, he should recognize that Mohammed did not preach a gospel of violence. Though he fiercely defended Medina in the Battle of the Trench, when his men defeated an attacking force of Meccans that outnumbered them by more than three to one, his ultimate goal was peace. According to the Quran, war is so catastrophic that Muslims must do all they can to restore peace as soon as possible whenever it is broken (8: 16-17).

Why doesn't the Pope remind all Muslims of this passage? And while he's at it, why doesn't he remind all Christians-especially our war president--that Christ repeatedly preached a gospel of peace, that he resolutely refused to be a warrior, that he counselled us to turn the other cheek when attacked, and that he rebuked one of his followers for cutting off the ear of the servant of a high priest who came to arrest him: "for all who draw the sword will die by the sword" (Matthew 26: 52). Is it not time for Christians and Muslims alike to recognize what our prophets share, and to admit how far we have strayed from their teachings?


Sunday, September 17, 2006

September 11 -- A Century of Non-Violent Protest

Satyagraha -- meaning truth or soul force as a means of non-violently achieving justice and peace, first tested one hundred years ago on September 11th, is still a potent strategy. So argues David Cortright, one of the main organizers of the peace movement the Win Without War coalition which came together just before the Iraq war began in 2003. His book Gandhi and Beyond: Nonviolence for an Age of Terrorism takes a critical look at Gandhi the man, but distinguishes satyagraha as a strategy that has worked in many instances throughout this century. He outlines the influence of the strategy of non-violent social change through examples in the United States, such as Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, Dorothy Day, Saul Alinsky and others making a strong case for the strategy even in today's age of terrorism.

Justin Huggler, in yesterday's Independent UK has a great article entitled Mahatma Gandhi: A Century of Peaceful Protest. He writes....

Indians this week have been remembering the day which changed the fate of their nation for decades to come. A hundred years ago, on 11 September, 1906, a young British-trained barrister named Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi addressed a meeting of 3,000 Indians in the Empire Theatre building in Johannesburg and asked them to take an oath to resist white colonial rule without violence. It was the birth of the modern non-violent resistance movement- and it has not been forgotten.

Suddenly the Mahatma is back in fashion in India. Two years ago, it was unthinkable that the centenary of a speech by Gandhi, seen as a relic of the past by most young Indians, would be so much as noticed in a country that was obsessed not with figures from its past, but with its headlong rush to embrace modernity.

Pope's Remarks on Islam, Repercussions, Apology and Commentary

I have just returned from the Congress on the World's Religions After 911 in Montreal and the NCC's Interfaith Relations Commission to the controversy over the Pope's comments and the outrage expressed in the Muslim world.

Please come back later this week for postings on "Forgiveness and Reconciliation" panels that we hosted at the Congress in Montreal and actions of the Interfaith Relations Commission including our thinking on the question of Christian Zionism and the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown settlement in 2007.

However for now: here are some important perspectives on the papal story.

Pakistani Muslims Protesting Pope's Remarks

Pope “Deeply Sorry” for Comments About Islam

Pope Benedict XVI apologized in person on Sunday for offending some Muslims with a recent quotation from a medieval text that said Islamic teachings on holy war were "evil and inhuman."
A day earlier, the Vatican's secretary of state issued a statement saying the Pope sincerely regretted that Muslims were offended by his comments — but the measure stopped short of the personal apology being demanded by many Muslim leaders in the Middle East and Asia.
On Sunday, Benedict told pilgrims gathered at his summer retreat in Castel Gandolfo south of Rome that the text he quoted during a university lecture in Germany on Sept. 12 did not reflect his personal opinion.

Text of the Pope’s Personal Apology

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

The pastoral visit which I recently made to Bavaria was a deep spiritual experience, bringing together personal memories linked to places well known to me and pastoral initiatives towards an effective proclamation of the Gospel for today.

I thank God for the interior joy which he made possible, and I am also grateful to all those who worked hard for the success of this Pastoral Visit.

As is the custom, I will speak more of this during next Wednesday's general audience.
At this time, I wish also to add that I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address at the University of Regensburg, which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims.

Churches Attacked in Protest Over Pope’s Statements

Churches in the West Bank and Gaza were damaged in several shooting and fire bomb attacks over the weekend, in response to the words of Pope Benedict XVI criticizing the Muslim religion. Thousands of protesters flooded the streets of Gaza to protest.

On Saturday, a Greek Orthodox Church in the Zeitoun neighborhood in Gaza City and four other churches in Nablus were attacked by Palestinians wielding guns, fire bombs and lighter fluid. At least five fire bombs hit the Anglican Church and its door was later set ablaze. Smoke billowed from the church as firefighters put out the flames. The fire bombings left black scorch marks on the walls and windows. No injuries were reported from those incidents.

A Bavarian Provocation

A Commentaty by TARIQ ALI

Was Benedict's most recent provocation accidental or deliberate? The Bavarian is a razor-sharp reactionary cleric. A man who organises his own succession to the Papacy with a ruthless purge of potential dissidents and supervises the selection of Cardinals with great care leaves little to chance.

I think he knew what he was saying and why.

What the Pope Should Have Said to the Islamic World
By Rosemary Radford Ruether

(A prominent Catholic theologian and leading scholar in feminist theology and Palestinian issues -- I quote her fully since this comment is not available online.)

On September 12 Pope Benedict XVI aroused the fury of the Islamic world with a speech given at the University of Regensburg in which he assailed the Muslim concept of holy war as a violation of God’s will and nature. The Pope quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologus, who derided Islam and its founder Muhammad for introducing “things only inhuman and evil,” such as spreading the faith by the sword. The Pope held up (Catholic) Christianity, by contrast, as a model religion that promoted a “profound encounter of faith and reason.”

From many parts of the Islamic world there were angry reactions to the Pope’s words, reminding the Pope of the evil history of Christian crusades. Although Western Christians may think the crusades are ancient history, these medieval wars in which Christian crusaders slaughtered Muslims and established crusader states in Palestine are vivid memories for Muslims. Current Western threats against Islam and invasions of Islamic countries, such as Iraq, are seen as a continuation of the crusades. The US and other Western nations who promote such wars are regularly referred to as “crusaders” in the Muslim press.

The Pope’s words condemning Islam and its founder for holy war, while holding up Christianity as innocent of any such warlike tendencies, has infuriated Muslims and deeply damaged Catholic-Muslim relations. In using a Byzantine emperor to assail Islam, the Pope also failed to reckon with the fact that the Fourth Crusade (1201-4), called by Pope Innocent III, was diverted into an assault on the capital of the Byzantine empire, Constantinople. The Crusaders pillaged and occupied the city, leading to a weakening of the Byzantine world and its eventual fall to the Muslims

Although the Vatican has not invited me to be a papal speech writer, I would like to suggest what the Pope should have said about holy war that would have won Muslim good will and opened up new dialogue between these embattled worlds. The Pope might have opened with some generalities deploring the current state of war and violence in the world. Then he would remark that such tendencies to war are deeply aggravated when religion and the name of God are wrongly used to foment violence and hatred between peoples. God desires peace and love, not war, he might have said.

The Pope would then turn to the history of the crusades and acknowledge with sorrow that Christianity has often been wrongly used to promote hatred and violence against others, perhaps quoting some pithy statements of popes who called for crusades against Islam. He would then declare that Christians must repent of such religiously inspired war-making. He would ask for forgiveness from “our Muslim brothers and sisters” for having wronged them in the past by calling for crusades against them. He would end with a call for all peoples to unite to overcome war and violence, and to reject any use of religion to promote violence.

This speech, I suggest, would have won the hearts of Muslims around the world and would have made the Pope welcome in Turkey for his planned visit there on November 28 of this year rather than putting this trip into jeopardy. Catholic-Muslim dialogue would have been put on a new and positive footing by having the “leading cleric” of the Western world publicly repent of the errors of the crusades. It would also have put Christians in the US and elsewhere on notice that the language of promoting Western “anti-terrorist” wars against the Muslim world in the name of a “crusade” (the term George W. Bush actually proposed for his wars against Afghanistan and Iraq) are not acceptable.

Some more historically aware advisors of the Bush administration realized the volatile nature of this term and warned him against his use of it. But Christians need to do more than not use the term “crusade,” while continually the reality of such war and warlike God-talk. We need to confront the questionable history of such wars against the Muslim world and the use of Christianity to promote such wars.

Is it too late? Although my influence in Vatican circles is limited, there is no reason why other Christian bodies, Catholic and Protestant, might not come together to publicly issue an apology to the Muslim world for the crusades and to call for a rejection of militarist responses to terrorism and the use of religious language to justify such militarism.

September 2006

We cannot afford to maintain these ancient prejudices against Islam:
The Pope's remarks were dangerous, and will convince many more Muslims that the west is incurably Islamophobic

By Karen Armstrong: Guardian UK, Monday, September 18, 2006

(Karen Armstrong is a Catholic scholar of Religion. She is the author of Islam: A Short History.)

In the 12th century, Peter the Venerable, Abbot of Cluny, initiated a dialogue with the Islamic world. "I approach you not with arms, but with words," he wrote to the Muslims whom he imagined reading his book, "not with force, but with reason, not with hatred, but with love." Yet his treatise was entitled Summary of the Whole Heresy of the Diabolical Sect of the Saracens and segued repeatedly into spluttering intransigence. Words failed Peter when he contemplated the "bestial cruelty" of Islam, which, he claimed, had established itself by the sword. Was Muhammad a true prophet?"I shall be worse than a donkey if I agree," he expostulated, "worse than cattle if I assent!"

Peter was writing at the time of the Crusades. Even when Christians were trying to be fair, their entrenched loathing of Islam made it impossible for them to approach it objectively. For Peter, Islam was so self-evidently evil that it did not seem to occur to him that the Muslims he approached with such "love" might be offended by his remarks. This medieval cast of mind is still alive and well.

Last week, Pope Benedict XVI quoted, without qualification and with apparent approval, the words of the 14th-century Byzantine emperor Manuel II: "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." The Vatican seemed bemused by the Muslim outrage occasioned by the Pope's words, claiming that the Holy Father had simply intended "to cultivate an attitude of respect and dialogue toward the other religions and cultures, and obviously also towards Islam".

But the Pope's good intentions seem far from obvious. Hatred of Islam is so ubiquitous and so deeply rooted in western culture that it brings together people who are usually at daggers drawn. Neither the Danish cartoonists, who published the offensive caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad last February, nor the Christian fundamentalists who have called him a paedophile and a terrorist, would ordinarily make common cause with the Pope; yet on the subject of Islam they are in full agreement.

Our Islamophobia dates back to the time of the Crusades, and is entwined with our chronic anti-semitism. Some of the first Crusaders began their journey to the Holy Land by massacring the Jewish communities along the Rhine valley; the Crusaders ended their campaign in 1099 by slaughtering some 30,000 Muslims and Jews in Jerusalem. It is always difficult to forgive people we know we have wronged. Thenceforth Jews and Muslims became the shadow-self of Christendom, the mirror image of everything that we hoped we were not- or feared that we were.


Tuesday, September 12, 2006

A Season of Prayer and Peace Action

3 million people gathered for a Peace Action event in Sri Lanka

For more information please go to

Beginning September 21st – International Day of Peace

(A joint initiative of,,
The Shalom Center and Sarvodaya, Sri Lanka)

During this season we encourage you to engage

  1. your faith community in special times of prayers for peace.

  2. with other communities of faith in joint events of witness for peace.

  3. In local actions that enhance justice and peace.

We also encourage you to

  1. Write new prayers, litanies, meditations and songs and submit them to the Season of Prayer website so others could use them

  2. Submit announcements of joint events so others in your area may also participate.

  3. Submit stories and pictures of your event.

The Season of Prayer website features prayers, litanies, meditations songs and such prayer aids.

Religious Celebrations and Peace Action Events Calendar

(Several Religious Holy Days occur during this period. Please use those observations as appropriate to promote peace. For more information please see the Shalom Center website:

September 21st: International Day of Peace

Stand up for PEACE on September 21
So far more than 800 events have been posted in 170 countries including concerts, festivals and fairs, conferences, assemblies, ceremonies, prayer services, service projects, marches and parades, peace film screenings, peace vigils and many other observances. For more information please go to:
If there aren't any big events taking place near you, get family or friends together and have a Peace Vigil. Please post your event on the website so that our leaders, the media, and the mainstream will see that we want a more peaceful, just and sustainable world for all, every day of the year!

September 22: Ramadan begins
The Muslim fasting season Ramadan begins (depending on sighting of the new moon) about September 22-24 and ends about October 22 with Eid al-Fitr, the Festival of Breaking the Fast. The month-long commitment to fast from dawn to dusk each day offers food and life-abundance as a sacrifice, focusing on devotion to God instead of on material success, and calls us to turn toward each other in repentance.

September 22 (Evening): Rosh Hashanah begins:
The Jewish New Year begins a month of of turning toward God and toward harmonious relationships among human beings and the earth.

September 23: Navaratri (Nine Nights) to October 1
This Hindu season of prayer and devotion to the Divine Mother in which devotees restrict their food intake to once per day and focus on spiritual disciplines, ending in Vijaya Dashami (October 2) which celebrates the triumph of good over evil.

September 26: Religious Service, Vigil and Non-violent Action – US Senate, Washington DC
The Declaration of Peace National Working Group has set a Framework for Nonviolent Action for the Week of September 21-28 in Washington, D.C., and around the country, aimed at ending the Iraq War.
For more information go to:

October 1: World Communion Sunday (Christian)

October 1 – 2: Yom Kippur
Yom Kippur Retreat, Gainesville Florida
For more information go to:

October 2: Gandhi Jayanti (Birthday of Mahatma Gandhi)
Sarvodaya movement will hold a massive peace demonstration bringing together one million people on Monday, Oct. 2. A two hour long mediation from 3 – 5 p.m. will focus on the theme Vishva Sama Samadhi (the universal consciousness of peace). At a time of increasing violence in Sri Lanka, the peace demonstration is held at the ancient sacred city of Anuradhapura located at the edges of the areas of the most serious violence.

For more information go to:

October 4: St. Francis of Assisi stood almost alone among the Christians of his day in opposing the Crusades and investing months of his life in studying and praying with Muslims

October 8:
“Sacred Seasons, Sacred Earth: An Interfaith Call to Reflect and to Act”
Songs, Chants, Dances, Prayers Celebration in the Sukkah Breakfast meal from Ramadan fast, after sundown

For more information go to: http://www/

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Recognizing Christ: Sermon at the Memorial Service for Felix Premawardhana

"Bappa" during his visit to New York last year
with my wife, Dhilanthi and daughter Amali

I preached the following sermon at a Service of Praise and Thanksgiving for the life and witness of my uncle, Felix Premawardhana on September 1st at the Cinnamon Gardens Baptist Church, Colombo, Sri Lanka. The service was attended by over 300 persons and many from the Sri Lankan arts community.

“Recognizing Christ”

Swamini! [Lord!] Swamini! [Lord!] Swamini! [Lord!]

So begins Minis Gathiya one of the first plays Bappa directed back in the early 1960s. Noah is calling out to God. Softer at first and getting progressively louder so that those of us in the audience at the edge of expecting an audible answer. I was a little kid then, but I so vividly remember my father playing Noah when one day a heckler in the audience did provide an audible response. Swamini – aah!, Swamini – aaaah, Swamini – aaaaaah!

Andre Obey’s play “Noah” was called “Minis Gathiya,” because it is indeed a commentary on the behavior of human beings so alienated from God that they are incapable of hearing God’s voice or understanding God’s ways. In contrast to them stands Noah, one who hears God’s voice in the oddest of places and is audaciously obedient. Imagine building a house boat in the middle of a jungle during a drought! Village people thought he was crazy. Frankly, most of us would have. I mean, imagine getting all the animals two by two in to his ark! I think Bappa liked Noah – not just the play, but the man. When he felt that God was asking him to do something – and he heard that voice in the oddest of ways, despite what anybody thought or said, he would do it. And although the villagers thought Noah was crazy, he would finally be vindicated. After getting the animals and his family in the ark and Noah closed the door, it started to rain. And it poured as if from a waterfall.

Archetypes are those ideal people who give our lives meaning and purpose. All of us have them and they are the heros by whose example we try to live our lives.

You may remember the time when Bappa played the unsuccessful hunter who let a deer he shot get away. He became the accidental storyteller to two young people about their archetypal mother, Kuveni. The dialogue and songs of Henry Jayasena’s masterpiece are forever etched in my memory and and I sure yours too. Kuveni is the story of the colonial subjugation of the native people of this island and how this powerful archetypal woman with wit, charm and shrewd political negotiation won concessions for her people. But she was subjugated again by the colonialist storytellers who framed Kuveni as a witch. Henry Jayasena resurrected this archetypal woman – Kuveniya mai ekama geheniya, eda upnath ada upannath! [Kuveni is the only woman, whether she was born then or born today]

Mr. Jayasena’s casting of Bappa in his role as hunter/storyteller was perfect. Some 14 years earlier he had named his own daughter after that archetypal heroine. In my youthful innocence I once asked Bappa why he gave his two children such awful names: Kuvera, a tyrannical yaksha of wealth and Kuveni, a witch who did nasty things to people. No, he explained, these were strong leaders of an advanced culture that existed in this island in very early times. We need to reclaim the original stories of Kuvera and Kuveni, these are archetypal heroes of the original Sri Lankans from the colonial misinterpretations, he said.

If Noah and Kuveni were archetypal heroes, they were no match in Bappa’s life to his most significant archetypal figure, the supreme ideal one upon whose life and teachings he based his life, Jesus Christ. The one regret he had is that he didn’t get to produce Jesus Christ Superstar. He wanted so much to communicate to our modern world the story of this most powerful archetypal man. I told him that his life of discipleship – of doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God on the one hand and his generous hospitality was the most powerful communication of that story. You’ve already heard wonderful tributes to this great human being. My job is different. Based on my reflection on his life and witness – not perfect, but forgiven, it is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. Let me explain it this way.

Two people walking from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus are downcast and despondent over the death of their beloved guru. They had hoped that he would be the one to deliver them from the brutal Roman occupation. But now their hopes are dashed. As they are walking a stranger joins them. They don’t recognize him as the risen Christ, and they tell him about how their beloved teacher had been arrested and killed. But the stranger who seems to know a lot about what the scriptures say about this, explains it to them. You might think that after such an explanation, they would recognize him. But they don’t. Their understanding of Jesus was limited to their memories and images. He was confined within their theology and worldview, bound by their lack of faith and imagination. They could not fathom a risen Christ unbounded by time and space breaks through culture, language, race and class structures that keeps us bound. This Christ we cannot put inside our theological or structural boxes. This Christ appears to us in all kinds of odd places.

The travelers don’t know who he is. But they invite the stranger to stay and eat with them. I want you to notice, how crucial the invitation is to this story. If it wasn’t for the invitation, the stranger would have continued on his way and remained unrecognized. It is the invitation that leads to a meal and in the simple of act of breaking bread, to a recognition of who he is. . The text says: "Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.” Resurrection itself is not enough -- you still need the invitation. You need exposition of scripture and the experience of breaking bread together; you need people who come together in community, who invite each other to their homes and share meals; otherwise divine presence remains unrecognized and human eyes remain unopened.

I think the most powerful part of Bappa’s testimony is that he was able to recognize the risen Christ in unusual and odd places. I think this was the case because he was always very generous with his invitation: his table always ready for the breaking of bread with a stranger. I have been at his house when some of the most distinguished public figures as well as the beggar down the street or the lowliest workman received a warm welcome. His heart strangely warmed by friends who visit and unknown people on the road with whom he would crack jokes. And the door of his mind was always open to new ideas and new ways of looking at life. I have been with him at many events where although he may have been in the oldest person in the room, often his was the youngest voice. Perhaps it was because of he was trained as Christian communicator to find the presence of Christ as he critically viewed dramas and movies. Perhaps it was because he often related with people outside the church, often with the arts community. In the innovative idea, in the strange twist of a plot, or in unlikely relationships he often found the risen Christ.

I wanted to highlight this part of his life and testimony, because as we read in scripture tonight, this is the central part of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In this story of the Last Judgment when the Son of Man comes as King, he will separate people of all the nations gathered before him as a shepherd separates sheep from goats. To those on the left side he would say “Away from me you that are under God’s curse! Away to the eternal fire which has been prepared for the Devil and his angels.” These people are flabbergasted. Why, some of them may have been devout Christians. “I was hungry, you would not feed me. I was thirsty, you would not give me to drink. I was a stranger but you would not welcome me in your homes. I was naked and you would not clothe me. I was sick and in prison and you would not take care of me.” And they answer, “When Lord, did we ever see you hungry, or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and we would not minister to you.” These people are totally surprised. Why, Lord, if we ever saw you hungry, we would have given our own food to you. The problem was that they did not recognize Jesus. They were expecting Jesus to fit into their image, their theology and their religious structure. They do not understand that the risen Jesus is always above and beyond the limitations they impose. Now, here’s the kicker: Whenever you did not do it to one of the least of these my sisters or brothers, you did not do it to me.”

The same surprise was in store for those who were on the right side. They too said, when Lord, did we ever see you hungry. These were the people who as they lived their daily lives as a matter of daily attitude and practice, opened their hands and hearts to anyone in need -- a neighbor who needs child care, a colleague who needs a helping hand, a poor person who needs food or shelter, someone sick in hospital or jailed in prison. And they didn’t do it thinking that if they didn’t they would end up on the wrong side on judgment day! They did it because loving their neighbor is a part of their character. And in doing so, to their great surprise they found out that they were serving their King.

I hope you hear this clearly. Recognizing Christ in the stranger is not a social gospel, it is not a part of the gospel – it is the gospel. If my job is to do anything, it is to prepare you to meet the King, so that when the question is asked you would be on the right hand side with the sheep. And the question is not about what you believed. The question is not about whether you came to church faithfully. The question is not about whether you lived a moral, upright life. The question is not even, are you saved. Although all these things are important, in the text the question is simply this: I was hungry, did you give me to eat? And which of us wouldn’t give him to eat if we recognized him? So my point is simply this. If Bappa’s testimony means anything, it is that, he recognized the risen Christ in the least of these my brothers and sisters. The question is do we recognize Christ in such unusual places? Now let me bring this home.

There once was a little boy who wanted to find God. He knew it would probably be a long trip, so he decided to pack a lunch, a couple of maalu paans and a can of Sprite. He set out on his journey and shortly came to a park. On one of the park benches sat an old woman looking at the pigeons. The little boy sat down beside her and watched the pigeons too. They watched for awhile, and when he got hungry, he pulled out a maalu paan. As he ate, he noticed the woman watching him, so he offered her the other one. She accepted it gratefully and smiled at him. He thought she had the most beautiful smile in the world. Wanting to see it again, he opened the can of Sprite and offered some. Once again she smiled that beautiful smile. For a long time the two sat on that park bench eating, drinking, smiling at each other and watching the pigeons. Neither said a word. Finally the little boy realized that it was getting late and he needed to go home. He started to leave, took a few steps, turned back and gave the woman a big hug. Her smile was brighter than ever before. When he arrived home, his mother noticed that he was happy, but strangely quiet. "What did you do today?" she asked. "Oh, I had lunch in the park with God," he said. Before his mother could reply he added, "You know, she has the most beautiful smile in the world." Meanwhile, the woman left the park and returned home. Her son noticed something different about her. "What did you do today, Amma?" he asked. "Oh, I ate maalu paans and drank Sprite in the park with God." And before her son could say anything at all, she added, "You know, God’s a lot younger than I had imagined."

And let me add this: during my entire lifetime, I too feel that I have seen something of God. And you know what? He’s much funnier and than I thought, and wears an impressive moustache!

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

World Reglious Leaders Confront Violence, Advance Peace

World religious leaders concluded their meeting in Japan on August 29th with 800 delegates from more than 100 countries and all major religious traditions endorsing the The Kyoto Declaration on Confronting Violence and Advancing Shared Security.

The declaration calls on people of religious conviction to assume responsibility for confronting violence in their own communities through "shared security."

"At a time when religion is being hijacked by extremists, the religious leaders gathered in Kyoto demonstrate for all the world the power of religious communities to illuminate the path to peace when they work together," said William F. Vendley, secretary general of WCRP. "The Kyoto Declaration offers a new vision of shared security that properly places religious communities at the centre of efforts to confront violence in all its forms."

"As people of religious conviction, we hold the responsibility to confront violence within our own communities whenever religion is misused as a justification or excuse for violence. Religious communities need to express their opposition whenever religion and its sacred principles are distorted in the service of violence," reads the declaration.

Assembly delegates adopted 20 recommendations for religious leaders, governments, international organizations and businesses to address violence and advance "shared security" through advocacy, education and partnerships with religious communities.

Religious leaders from Iraq, South Korea, Sri Lanka, and Sudan illustrated the Assembly’s unique capacity to bring together delegates from zones of conflict. "Today, religious leaders from those nations presented statements to the assembly, invoking the positive and necessary role religious communities must play in transforming conflicts and building peace," the declaration noted. "Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish religious leaders from Iraq chose to meet during the assembly after having bypassed UN-sponsored and other established forums for negotiation."

It went on: "Speaking in a single voice through its chosen representative, Sheikh Seyed Saleh Mohammed Saleh Al-Haidari, Imam of the Al-Khelani Mosque in Baghdad and the Iraqi Government's Minister of Shi'ite Religious Affairs, the 13 members of the Iraqi delegation stated: 'We have talked not behind curtains and not behind walls but we have talked like normal people. We have talked with boldness and with courage and with confidence. We are going on this path, God willing, and will reach a green line of good for all of Iraq'."

Delegates at the Kyoto meeting included Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, Shinto, Sikh, Zoroastrian and Indigenous leaders at the site where the first World Assembly of Religions for Peace took place in 1970. The WCRP is the largest coalition of the world's religious communities.