Sunday, December 31, 2006

Inattention to Religious Symbols May Create a Martyr

The Bush Administration --and who doesn't believe that the Bush Administration was behind the hanging of Saddam Hussein -- may have botched the timing of the gruesome spectacle creating ample opportunity for making him a martyr.

I am not addressing the injustice of the Saddam Hussein trial and the hanging here. Much has been written about it elsewhere. For example: Human Rights Watch: Hanging After Flawed Trial Undermines Rule of Law. My point is only this: The Bush Administration views Iraq as a military problem: go in and kill the bad guys. But that understanding is fundamentally flawed. As Lynn Tatum, Associate Director for Middle Eastern Studies at Baylor University rightly pointed out it is really a political problem, "a struggle for symbols and ideas."

It is clear that Bush would have wanted this done before the end of 2006. With domestic popularity plummeting, and a State of the Union speech less than 3 weeks away, in his Rove-like political calculation would have found this to be the ideal time. But by hanging him on the last day of Eid, the feast of sacrifice, they may have created a gaping opporunity for Sunnis to make him into a martyr.

Saddam was hanged on the first day of the Eid al adha, or Feast of Sacrifice. Celebrated by Muslims worldwide, it's a major holiday like Christmas or Hanukkah, commemorating the willingness of the Prophet Abraham to sacrifice his son Ishmael to Allah, who stopped Abraham just before he killed Ishmael by giving him a lamb to sacrifice instead of his son.

The Eid al adha also marks the end of the Hajj - the pilgrimage to Mecca made by millions of Muslims each year. Every Muslim who can afford to do so is obligated to make this pilgrimage at least once in their life. After several days of rituals in Mecca, and a visit to Mount Arafat, the Feast of Sacrifice arrives. Traditionally, the pilgrim killed the animal himself, or at least oversaw the killing. These days, an animal may be killed in the pilgrim's name without the pilgrim being physically present.

Jews and Christians also believe that God spared Abraham from sacrificing his other son, Isaac. Christians give the story even greater meaning by symbolically connecting the Abrahamic sacrifice to Jesus, where "God so loved the world he gave his only begotton son..." to sacrifice his life for the sins of others.

In a farewell message to Iraqis written from prison, Saddam cast himself as the sacrificial lamb. He was giving his life for his country as part of the struggle against the US, “Here, I offer my soul to God as a sacrifice, and if he wants, he will send it to heaven with the martyrs,” he said.

Neither the Bush Administration nor the western media pays attention to religious symbols. Indeed from the western point of view, the trial and execution of Saddam may seem to bring closure to an era of brutality. But this is not the view in Iraq -- which is in reality three nations jostling for power within a very weak state. Mark Long, Director of Middle East Studies at Baylor adds: "From the Sunni perspective, their kinsman has been tried before a Kurdish judge and his death sanctioned by a Shia prime minister. His execution will likely cause a spike in violence and further deepen the sectarian divide.”

Click here for an article by Paul Wolf, a lawyer for Saddam Hussein: Dying for Our Sins

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Beliefnet's Most Inspiring Person of 2006: The Amish of Nickel Mines, PA

This year, Beliefnet's Most Inspiring Person award goes to the Amish of Nickel Mines, PA, which I featured in my blog on October 29, 2006. This the story of how a grieving community's act of radical forgiveness demonstrated to the world an alternative response to violence.

This small religious farming community, whose members do without cars and electricity, was invaded by 21st century violence when a gunman took over a one-room schoolhouse and shot 10 young girls, leaving five of them dead. One of the girls who was slain, Marian Fisher, reportedly offered to be killed first to spare the others. Within hours, despite their grief and loss, the Amish had extended forgiveness to the killer and reached out to help his widow and children. Beliefnet members were amazed by this example of radical forgiveness and voted overwhelmingly for the Amish.

Click here for the article: Why the Amish Won? which includes stories and descriptions of other inspiring persons of 2006.

Click here for a video of Marian Fisher: A Young Girl's Sacrifice.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Interesting Blog Exchange on Jimmy Carter and Apartheid

I received information about this interesting exchange today from Sojourners who run an interesting God's Politics Blog in Beliefnet. This recent exchange is occassioned by the use of the Apartheid on Jimmy Carter's recent book "Palestine: Peace or Apartheid." President Carter in an interview with Larry King Live on CNN recently admitted that the use of the term "Apartheid" was to provoke discussion on Israel/Palestine which was seriously lacking in the United States. Judging by the following blog exchange, he has certainly succeeded.

I quote from God's Politics Blog:

Beliefnet recently invited the God's Politics Blog to participate in a discussion of the controversy surrounding Jimmy Carter's new book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. We invited Israeli peace activist Jeff Halper to respond. Here's the discussion, in order of posts:

Rabbi Eliyahu Stern: A President's Foul Play
Jeff Halper: Yes Virginia, It Is Apartheid
Rabbi Joshua Waxman: Twisting the Truth
Jeff Halper: Untwisting 'the Truth'
Rabbi Susan Grossman: Israel's Good Fences Against Bad Neighbors
Jeff Halper: Moral Blindness
Rabbi Eliyahu Stern: Mr. Halper, Please Respond to the Facts
Jeff Halper: The Occupation is the Issue

The Bloggers:

Rabbi Susan Grossman, a Conservative rabbi, is the rabbi of Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia, Maryland. She was one of the first women to receive rabbinical ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary. She serves on the Committee for Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement (CJLS). Before entering the rabbinate, she directed Holocaust programming for the National Jewish Resource Center (now CLAL) under Rabbi Yitz Greenberg and worked for many years as a journalist and editor. Rabbi Grossman has lectured and written widely on Jewish law and tradition and on the role of women in Judaism.

Rabbi Eliyahu Stern, an Orthodox rabbi, received rabbinic ordination and an M.A. in Talmud from Yeshiva University. After leaving Yeshiva he moved to Berkeley, California where he was a Koret Fellow in Judaic Studies at U.C. Berkeley. Currently, he is scholar-in-residence at Park East Synagogue and is in the process of completing a Ph.D. in Jewish Studies at University of California Berkeley.

Rabbi Joshua Waxman, a Reconstructionist rabbi, is the spiritual leader of Or Hadash: A Reconstructionist Congregation, located in Fort Washington, PA. Before graduating from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 2003, he studied Russian history and literature at Harvard University, worked with progressive Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union, and studied in Israel. He is a member of the faculty of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in the Biblical Civilizations Department.

Jeff Halper is the Coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House demolitions (ICAHD) and a Professor of Anthropology at Ben Gurion University. He has lived in Israel since 1973. Jeff has researched and written extensively on Israeli society and is the author of the book Between Redemption and Revival: the Jewish Yishuv in Jerusalem in the nineteenth century, Westview, 1991. Jeff founded and directed IsraelÍs Committee to Save the Ethiopian Jews. He has been active in the Israeli peace movement for many years. As the Coordinator of ICAHD, he has forged a new mode of Israeli peace activity based on non-violent direct action and civil disobedience to the Israeli Occupation authorities and in close cooperation with Palestinian organizations. Jeff is married and has three children

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Today is the Second Anniversary of Deadly Tsunami

Ten year old "Tina," whom I met in January 2005 in a refugee shelter in Banda Aceh, Indonesia represents for me the tens of thousand children whose lives were devastated by the tsunami

Moments of silence, prayers and low-key ceremonies marked the day to remember the moment when huge waves slammed into 12 countries around the Indian Ocean leaving a trail of death and destruction. An estimated 230,000 people were killed or went missing.

Indonesia's northernmost province, Aceh, lost about 167,000 people in the disaster and authorities on Bali island held a tsunami drill to test a new alert system and raise public awareness early Tuesday, December 26.

Sri Lanka officially marked the anniversary with Buddhist prayers for its 35,000 dead, and by erecting the first of 100 coastal towers to warn of impending disasters, but it was believed that the minority Christians held their own ceremonies. Elsewhere, multi-faith ceremonies are taking place in India, which lost 18,000 people to the tsunami, and in Thailand, where 8,200 people died, about half of them foreign tourists, news reports said.

The tsunami was caused by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake under the ocean floor off Indonesia's Sumatra, experts say.

Today, we remember with particular sadness the second death anniversary of our dear friend, Tamara Mendis of Chicago. Her husband Eardley is pastor of Purna Jiwan South Asian Church, an ELCA affliated congregation in Chicago.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Christmas Greetings!

Dear Friends,

The December issue of the Interfaith Relations Newsletter is now online.

This Christmas I am reminded of the ultimate biblical vision in the last chapter of the Bible. Reveleation 22:1-2 has this beautiful picture of a river of life flowing through the middle of the street of the city. On the side of this river of abundance is the tree of life, yielding a full complement of fruit, and its leaves are for the healing of the nations.

This vision which was also the theme of this year’s NCC General Assembly, reminds me that the work of interfaith relations is indeed about healing of the nations. Many conflicts that go on around the world today are legitimized by religion. Other conflicts arise because political leaders misunderstand religious sentiments. In this context, initiatives that create strong dialogue tables that bring religious, political, corporate, and community leaders for conversation, are of high value.

I am grateful to God for your partnership in this important ministry. Here are a few highlights from the many interesting initiatives we undertook this year:

· Built new relationships with business executives, NGO community and governmental leaders (mostly through the Alliance of Civilizations initiative at the UN).

· Started work on a Muslim-Christian leaders’ dialogue table set to start in 2007, similar to the Jewish-Christian dialogue table I co-convene.

· Continued to address theological questions. A panel of Christian theologians presented papers on “Christian theology’s engagement with religious pluralism: Biblical Texts and Themes” at the American Academy of Religion. At the Congress on the World’s Religions after 9/11 in Montreal, we had two panels, one on the variety of Christian perspectives and the other on a variety of religious perspectives addressed the question of Forgiveness and Reconciliation.

· Participated in the “Thinking Together” process where a small group of international scholars and leaders of several religious traditions are forging a new paradigm in the methodology of theologizing,

· Set up a new website for gathering prayers, scriptures, litanies, liturgies and songs/hymns from many traditions that can be used in joint events of witness for peace in local communities, particularly during times of war and conflict:

· In addition, this year we successfully concluded pilot projects on two important initiatives that we are now ready to take out to local communities:

o “God Is One” the six-week long adult curriculum for use in churches and

o “Interfaith Dialogue Training” a two-day long experiential learning event for training interfaith leaders in local communities.

The National Council of Churches is an organization of 35 member denominations that together comprise over 100,000 churches in the United States and we are connected to a substantial network of ecumenical and interfaith councils across the country. Hence, it is our strong belief that these initiatives will have significant impact in the way Americans think about people of other religions and relate to each other in this, the most religiously diverse nation in the world.

We need your support: your prayers, your engagement in our programs and your financial investment to effectively engage in this ministry of “healing the nations.”

Here are some suggestions about how to do it.

First, please check out my blog for regular reflections on critical issues on interfaith relations. It is also a vehicle for me to hear your reflections. So, please use the “Comment” button to add your thoughts.

Second, let me know about opportunities in your local community to which we can bring our educational and training programs. We also have a variety of other resources available on our website that you might use.

Third, particularly at this time of the year, but also at other times, I invite your tax deductible contribution to our programs. You may write a check to the National Council of Churches, USA and mail to

Office of Interfaith Relations,
National Council of Churches USA,
475 Riverside Drive #880,
New York, NY 10115

or click here to make an online contribution.

In both cases please write Interfaith Relations in the memo or comment line.

My wife, Dhilanthi, joins me in wishing you peace and joy during this Christmas season and throughout the coming year!



December Interfaith Relations Newsletter is Now Online

Please click here to read the December 2006 issue of the Interfaith Relations Newsletter. The current issue has several interesting articles:

1. Thinking Together -- why the group of inter religious leaders brought together through the initiative of the World Council of Churches might the a cutting edge experiment in the methodology of Chiristian theologizing.

2. A report from the Interfaith Relations Commission meeting in September 2006. This includes reports on:

  • the two panels we organized at the Congress on World Religions after 911 on various Christian and various religious perspectives on the important question of Forgiveness and Reconciliation.
  • two key initiatives of the Commission, on Christian Zionism and on the 400th anniversary of the settlement of Jamestown, VA
3. An article by Robert O. Smith on Apocalyptic Theology: Its Challenge to the Church.

4. A page of Interfaith Relations Resources

Please read and forward to those whom you think might be interested in this.

Monday, December 18, 2006

A Christmas Meditation: From a Six Year Old in Jaffna

The war in Sri Lanka between militant Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan Government forces has taken a severe toll particularly on the (mostly Tamil) people who live in the nothern city of Jaffna, who feel constantly under seige. By any reckoning its a humanitarian catastrophe.

Now my appa* not bring anything to me
Nothing in the shops he says
Why, how, reason they say I can’t understand
Sweets , biscuits, butter, milk powder
Even egg and fish , Where all these have gone?

My loved ones give calls asking what I want?
A list I used to give, but helpless , no way to send it.
Three days ago my friend in my class told me
Her aunt from Colombo sent a postal parcel
Containing Milk powder, Sugar, biscuits, and washing powder
When they opened , a mixer! sugar with washing powder
But biscuits and Milk powder they enjoyed

My aunt too gave a call to know how we are?
I told her to send Biscuits and Milk powder
Not to send washing powder!

Every morning waiting for the postman
Yesterday morning my appa was late
To buy bread in the queue, no bread
I went to school without breakfast
And nothing for school interval

Today as usual curfew lifted at 5 A.M
People are in several queues
To ship, co-operative, Kerosene, etc.,
My appa went to the bread queue
Came with bread and plantain
I ate two slices and taken two to school

During the interval I opened the Tiffin box
My friend looked at me from next seat
She has not brought anything to eat
I found she has not eaten breakfast too
She has lost her father, no one to be in the queue
I broke the bread shared with her
I realized that the SAME BREAD
Appa breaking in the Church
I broke it in my small class room

- Thaniya Nesakumar

- * appa is a Tamil word for father

Sunday, December 17, 2006

A Palestinian Christmas Greeting

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Top Baptist Leader on Swearing in Congressman Ellison on the Qur'an

Walter B. Shurden, a highly respected Baptist leader in the United States is the author of The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms. He is the Director of the Center for Baptist Studies at Mercer University. I am posting his entire article on the Swearing in of Congressman Keith Ellison here. It is worthy or careful reading and serious reflection.

"Should We Swear Congressman Ellison in on the Quran?"
By Walter B. Shurden, Director of the Center for Baptist Studies, Mercer University

Some Christians have a hard time understanding that the United States of America is NOT a Christian nation but a democratic republic that allows religious freedom for all its citizens.

The issue surfaces again in the controversy over Minnesota Congressman-elect Keith Ellison’s desire to be sworn in by placing his hand on the Quran rather than the Bible.

Should he be able to do that? YOU BET!
Should Jews be able to use the Hebrew Bible? YOU BET!
If Mormon faithful Mitt Romney is elected the president of the United States in 2008, should he be able to use the Book of Mormon? YOU BET!
If an atheist wants only to swear on the Constitution of the United States, should she be able to do that? YOU BET!

Of all people we Baptists ought to understand and endorse Ellison’s call for free expression of religion! Our ancestors went to jail for that kind of freedom! Our ancestors suffered idiotic indignities for that kind of freedom. Our ancestors struggled for a century and a half in this country for that kind of freedom!! Some of our ancestors suffered physical abuse for that kind of freedom.

Do we Baptists not remember any of our history at all?

Have we really forgotten the sorry saga of Roger Williams being chased out of Massachusetts by Christian zealots and his subsequent heroic founding of Rhode Island where religious freedom could flourish?

Have we forgotten the sad tale of Baptist fathers John Clarke, Obadiah Holmes, and John Crandall being jailed for conducting a worship service in a blind man’s house in Lynn, MA?

Have we forgotten John Clarke’s bloody whipping on the streets of Boston?

Do we not remember that long list of jailed Baptist ministers in eighteenth century Virginia?

But even if we were not Christians and even if we were not Baptists, if we were only good citizens of this republic with no religious faith at all, we ought to understand that call for religious freedom that Congressman Ellison wants. Article VI of The Constitution of the United States says, “The Senators and Representatives . . . shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

Christmas may be the best of opportunities for Christians to act Christianly toward persons of minority religions or no religion in the United States. Give yourself a very expensive Christmas gift during this season. Paste the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States to your computer and read it daily: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. Those are forty-five very expensive words.

Thank God for that amendment, birthed partially because of the hard work of our Baptist ancestors. Let that noble idea of freedom find a place to lay its fragile head on your Christian, Baptist, and American heart this Christmas. Let’s be more than good citizens this Christmas; let’s try to be good Baptist Christians.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Help Stop Walmart Selling Religious Violence and "Would Jesus Shop at Walmart?" Baptist Pastors Challenge the Retailier

What's Wal-Mart promoting this holiday season?

The religious right's extreme apocalyptic theology. Just in time for Christmas, a violent video game has been released in which born-again Christians aim to convert or kill those who don't adhere to their extreme ideology. Disturbingly, the game's apparent attempts at religious indoctrination are aimed at children and focus on violent, divisive, and hateful scenarios. While the religious right apparently has no problem pushing the product this holiday season, America's #1 video game seller should know better.

This is the website for the game:

This is the description of what happens in the game:

The game is based on an extreme ideology, and promotes the conversion or even killing of those who do not adhere to a specific interpretation of Christianity - including Muslims, Catholics, and Jews.

"Left Behind: Eternal Forces" takes place in New York City, shortly after the rapture. Gamers are charged with creating Christian militias who roam the streets of New York City, looking to convert non-believers and killing those who they are unable to draw to their side. In fact, after particularly bloody battles, players must use prayer to recharge their "soul points" that have been diminished by the killing.

Click here to read more about it at Faithful, the e-advocacy network of the religious community.

Take action now and urge Wal-Mart to stop selling religious violence this holiday season. Click here:


In a related story -- a group of Baptist pastors are challenging Walmart to become a "Golden Rule" company. Rev. Joe Phelps of Highland Baptist Church of Louisville, KY, asks "Would Jesus Shop at Walmart" in a TV commercial. Click here for the story on Ethics Daily

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

More on Jimmy Carter and the "A" Word

Former President Jimmy Carter has been receiving severe criticisms from all over, but particularly from the Jewish world for his use of the word "Apartheid" in the title of his new book. Carter does not call Israel an apartheid state, rather he says, I am "referring to Palestine and not to Israel." David Harris, Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee also points out that Carter "never claims that Israel is engaging in racially motivated policies and rightly argues for a two-state solution to the conflict."

M.J. Rosenberg's opinion column entitled "What Did Jimmy Carter Mean?" in the Israel Policy Forum's website is among the most balanced Jewish opinions I have seen. Its well worth reading.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Theology of Flip-Flopping: More on the Pope

Is Benedict Flip-Flopping?” is the title of an analytical article by Jeff Israely in Time magazine, on the Pope’s visit to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul where together with Istanbul’s Mufti Mustafa Cagrici, he paused for a “Moment of Prayer.” Flip-flopping has got a bad name in the American media these days in the context of a president who is a resolute non-flip-flopper. On the other side of the coin was the flip-flopper-in-chief Senator John Kerry, who having voted to authorize the President’s going to war, changed his mind.

In his analysis of the Pope’s visit to the Blue Mosque, author Jeff Israely wonders, “Has the man who was once iron-clad Cardinal suddenly gone soft?” The question in the mind of New York Times write Ian Fisher was “Has the Pope gone wobbly?” This is the subtitle of his article entitled, The Pope Without His Sting.

Pope Benedict XVI, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, was a resolute non-flip-flopper. With dogmatic rigidity he defended and reaffirmed Catholic doctrine and took disciplinary measures against out-spoken liberation theologians and those engaged in interfaith dialogue. Papal observers were not particularly surprised when in September he delivered a controversial lecture on faith and reason at the University of Regensburg, which seemed, at least to the Muslim world, to equate Islam with violence. This event, which Israely calls “the young papacy's quintessential Ratzinger moment,” set off massive protests in the Islamic world and a worldwide debate about how Islamic and western cultures should talk to each other.

Last week, the same man did something few could have imagined. He flip-flopped. Only the second Pope in history to visit a mosque, the Pope visited Istanbul’s grand 17th century Blue Mosque. His purpose was nothing more than a brief meeting and a photo-op with Istanbul’s Mufti (chief cleric) Mustafa Cagrici to show the world that he was willing to mend fences with the Muslim world.

Having warmly welcomed the Pope, the Mufti walked over with his honored guest to a place of prayer which faces the direction of the holy city, Mecca. But when he told the Pope it was time for a "moment of serenity," Isarely writes, “Benedict looked for an instant as if he had been caught off guard.” Despite previous planning, he may not have been entirely ready for this moment. But God works in mysterious ways, even in the life of a Pope. Despite knowing full well that this act might not sit well with some of his followers, Israely writes, “Benedict neither turned away nor turned cold, and simply lost himself in prayer for all to see (he actually prayed twice as long as Cagrici)” providing the most powerful and eloquent moment of the entire trip, perhaps his papacy.

If the Pope flip-flopped, he is in high company. Indeed, flip-flopping is a valued Biblical exercise. The Bible has many instances in which God’s mind changes. “God repented” is not an uncommon biblical phrase. Indeed, when a calamity that will cause significant human suffering is contemplated, the divine mind is prone to change. Among the several examples is the favorite biblical story of Jonah, where just a third of the way into the city, the people of Nineveh hear Jonah’s preaching and turn from their sin; and God “changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; he did not do it” (Jonah 3:10). God flip-flopped!
The divine mind similarly flip-flopped, even after 70,000 Israelites had died in a divinely ordered pestilence and an angel was sent to destroy Jerusalem for the sins of King David. “[T]he Lord took note and relented concerning the calamity; he said to the destroying angel, “Enough! Stay your hand.” (1 Chronicles 21:15)

And Jesus flip-flopped. At one point in his ministry he had clearly indicated that he was sent “only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 15:24) That was in the context of a gentile woman’s desperate request of him to heal her devil-tormented daughter. Biblical scholars struggle to explain Jesus’ reaction to his poor woman, which sounds worse than Michael Richard’s recent rant, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Perhaps as some say it was a common saying. But Jesus seems to have been startled by the woman’s response; perhaps in somewhat similar ways to the way the Pope may have been startled at the invitation to pray facing Mecca. “Yes, Lord,” she said, “yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Faced with the immediacy of her request, with the parochial nature of his mission and startled by the power of her faith, he flip-flopped. Jesus changed his mind, the course of his mission and lifted up her faith as an example to his disciples. “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done to you as you wish,” he said to her, and the daughter was healed instantly (Matthew 15:28).

Many others in the Bible and throughout Christian history – too numerous to mention -- flip-flopped. The Bible has a different word for flip-flopping: repentance. The word metanoia in Greek means turning around, going in another direction, changing your mind. When he flip-flops the Pope is standing steadfastly upon a solid Biblical and Christian tradition. And so are all of us flip-floppers, who change our mind and go in another direction.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Pope's "Moment of Prayer" at the Blue Mosque Heralds a New Chapter in Catholic Muslim Relations

Pope Benedict XVI joined Istanbul's Mufti (top Islamic cleric) Mustafa Cagrici in prayers under the towering dome of Istanbul's most famous mosque Thursday in a powerful gesture seeking to transform his image among Muslims from adversary to peacemaker. The pope's minute of prayer was done in silence, but the message of reconciliation was designed to resonate loudly nearly three months after he provoked worldwide fury for remarks on violence and the Prophet Muhammad.

"This visit will help us find together the way of peace for the good of all humanity," the pope said inside the 17th-century Blue Mosque — in only the second papal visit in history to a Muslim place of worship. Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II, made a brief stop in a mosque in Syria in 2001.

Benedict's steps through a stone archway and into the mosque's carpeted expanse capped a day of deep symbolism and lofty goals. Hours earlier, he stood beside the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians and passionately encouraged steps to end the nearly 1,000-year divide between their churches.

The pope walked to the mosque after touring another majestic tribute to faith: the 1,500-year-old Haghia Sofia and its remarkable mix of Quranic calligraphy and Christian mosaics from its legacy as a marvel of early Christianity and then a coveted prize of Islam's expansion.At the mosque, the pope removed his shoes and put on white slippers. Then he walked beside Mustafa Cagrici, the head cleric of Istanbul.

Facing the holy city of Mecca — in the tradition of Islamic worship — Cagrici said: "Now I'm going to pray." Benedict, too, bowed his head and his lips moved as if reciting words.Before the pope left, he thanked Cagrici "for this moment of prayer."

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Jim Wallis' Radio Address: We Need Greater Moral Leadership

My colleague and friend Rev. Jim Wallis, author of God's Politics and Director of Sojourners gave the Democratic response to President's Bush's radio address today. This was the first time a non-partisan religious leader gave that address.

Following is the text of the radio address which was broadcast this morning.

+ Download audio of the radio address

I'm Jim Wallis, author of God's Politics. I was surprised and grateful when Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid called to say his party wanted to set a new tone and invite, for the first time, a non-partisan religious leader to deliver their weekly radio address and speak about the values that could unite Americans at this critical time.

So, I want to be clear that I am not speaking for the Democratic Party, but as a person of faith who feels the hunger in America for a new vision of our life together, and sees the opportunity to apply our best moral values to the urgent problems we face. I am not an elected official or political partisan, but a religious leader who believes that real solutions must transcend partisan politics. For too long, we have had a politics of blame and fear, while America is eager for a politics of solutions and hope. It is time to find common ground by moving to higher ground.

Because we have lost a commitment to the common good, politics is failing to solve the deepest crises of our time. Real solutions will require our best thinking and dialogue, but also call us to transformation and renewal.

Most Americans know that the important issues we confront have an essential moral character. It is the role of faith communities to remind us of that fact. But religion has no monopoly on morality. We need a new, morally-centered discourse on politics that welcomes each of us to the table.

A government that works for the common good is central. There is a growing desire for integrity in our government across the political spectrum. Corruption in government violates our basic principles. Money and power distort our political decision-making and even our elections. We must restore trust in our government and reclaim the integrity of our democratic system.

At this moment in history, we need new directions.

Who is left out and left behind is always a religious and moral question. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the health of a society was measured by how it cared for its weakest and most vulnerable, and prosperity was to be shared by all. Jesus proclaimed a gospel that was "good news to the poor."

I am an evangelical Christian, and a commitment to "the least of these" is central to my personal faith and compels my public actions. It is time to lift up practical policies and effective practices that "make work work" for low-income families and challenge the increasing wealth gap between rich and poor. We must find a new moral and political will to overcome poverty that combines personal and social responsibility with a commitment to support strong families.

Answering the call to lift people out of poverty will require spiritual commitment and bipartisan political leadership. Since the election, I have spoken with leaders from both parties about creating a real anti-poverty agenda in Congress. We need a grand alliance between liberals and conservatives to produce new and effective strategies.

This week, President Bush met with Prime Minister Maliki of Iraq, seeking solutions to the rapidly deteriorating situation in that civil-war torn nation. Nearly 3,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died. The cost and consequences of a disastrous war are moral issues our country must address. Leaders in both parties are acknowledging that the only moral and practical course is to dramatically change the direction of U.S. policy, starting with an honest national debate about how to extricate U.S. forces from Iraq with the least possible damage to everyone involved.

Our earth and the fragile atmosphere that surrounds it are God's good creation. Yet, our environment is in jeopardy as global warming continues unchecked and our air and water are polluted. Good stewardship of our resources is a religious and moral question. Energy conservation and less dependence on fossil fuels are commitments that could change our future - from the renewal of our lifestyles to the moral redemption of our foreign policies.

A culture that promotes healthy families is necessary to raise our children with strong values, and the breakdown of family and community in our society must be addressed. But we need serious solutions, not the scapegoating of others. And wouldn't coming together to find common ground that dramatically reduces the number of abortions be better than both the left and the right using it as an issue to divide us?

We need a new politics inspired by our deepest held values. We must summon the best in the American people, and unite to solve some of the moral issues of our time. Americans are much less concerned about what is liberal or conservative, what is Democrat or Republican. Rather, we care about what is right and what works.

The path of partisan division is well worn, but the road of compassionate priorities and social justice will lead us to a new America. Building that new America will require greater moral leadership from both Democrats and Republicans, and also from each and every one of us.

I'm Jim Wallis. Thank you and God bless you.