Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Crisis of faith in lands split by walls

When Sol Kelley-Jones was writing her powerful play about the people on the margins in the West Bank and on the U.S.-Mexican border, religious themes were only a subtext.

These, after all, were the stories of the people she encountered during a three-month stay in Palestine last spring and then a summer near Tucson working on the border. They were stories that often have a political edge, which is not surprising given how much politics affects the realities of life in these regions.

There are walls that separate people in both places, walls built by governments seeking to keep people out in the name of protecting those who are on the inside. The walls divide people in ways that the best of religious traditions would not accept, even though religious reasons may well be cited as justifications for the walls.

But for someone coming to this play – The Birds That Are Your Hands -- with a sensitivity for the religions dimensions at work in these two places, Kelley-Jones has managed to bring issues of faith into a sharp focus.

(You can read more about the play in my column in the Cap Times. The play is running at the Broom Street Theater through April 19.)

She said in an interview that in both Palestine and in the border region, she found that it was people working in faith-based aid groups that performed amazing tasks, often putting themselves at risk. What motivates her is progressive politics more than a specific religious commitment, yet she shows in the play her deep understanding of the religious tensions at work in these societies and in the lives of individuals.

There is the Jewish commitment to living an ethical life reflected in the ruminations of an old Jewish man who ponders what his country is doing to the Palestinians in their midst.
“Europe has always has a habit of hating Jews,” he tells the audience. “Now we can be colonizers. It is the Palestinians who pay the price for Europe’s anti-Semitism.”

He shakes his head in disbelief. “Jews – my people – are pondering the merits of concentration camps. I have live too long.”

Later, Jewish woman who is a rabbi talks about losing her faith in the Holy Land after witnessing what was happening there, then finding her faith restored when she began to bond with women in refugee camps – “my Muslim sisters.”

When the Palestinians face a crisis, they cry out the traditional Islamic prayer, “Allahu Akbar.” This is usually translated “God is great,” which often seems odd in a moment of tragedy. Kelley-Jones offered a more nuanced translation: “God is greater than this.”

But for a priest in the Arizona desert, the notion that God is great is mocked by the dead baby he finds. It is one of the heart-wrenching scenes in the play. The priest is kneeling, holding a rosary in his hands, reciting Jesus’ words from the Gospel of Matthew about how “I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me to drink.”

Then he looks up in anger at what people who call themselves Christians are doing to the immigrants who are dying in the desert. He mocks their words: “Who does this Jesus Christ think he is? He’s not with the program.”

As the priest’s despair over what he sees deepens, his posture shifts to the Muslim position for prayer, head touching the ground. He still holds the rosary, reminiscent of the Muslim prayer beads.

“I pray and I doubt,” he cries. “I pray for forgiveness for my doubting. God will care for you ... and the desert fills with bodies.”

Kelly-Jones does not offer any easy answers to the doubts of the priest or the rabbi or the Islamic characters in her play. She simply poses the questions for people to weight against their own faith traditions. It is provocative theater at its best.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Finding a place in a changing religious landscape

Two studies that have come out in the past few weeks raise some interesting questions for those of us who are part of the United Church of Christ.

The first study -- The 2009 edition of the Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches -- reported that the UCC was declining in membership faster than any other Protestant denomination. We were down 6.1 percent between 2006 and 2007, according to the data the UCC gave to the yearbook.

We were not alone in this decline. The two largest Christian denominations in the U.S. also reported declines -- 0.59 for Roman Catholics, 0.24 for Southern Baptists. They had been steadily growing in the past. The fastest growing denominations were the Jehovah's Witness (up 2.12 percent), the Mormons (up 1.63 percent), the Assemblies of God (up 0.96 percent).

The second study looks at the overall shifting of religious identification over a 20-year period. The headline - Christianity is shrinking as a proportion of the U.S. scene and people calling themselves non-religious are increasing. The study is called the American Religious Identification Survey and you can find it by clicking here.

Almost 20 years ago, in 1990, the survey reported, 86 percent of Americans described themselves as Christian. That percentage is now 76 percent. Likewise, in 1990, about 8 percent of Americans declared no religious affiliation. That is now up to 15 percent. And Wisconsin follows a similar pattern -- see this story from the Wisconsin State Journal.

So does this mean we should all crawl into bed and put our heads under the pillows? I don't think so.

These trends are useful to know about and to try to understand. They reflect the changing landscape in which we live. They provide material to think about as we look at we describe ourselves as followers of Jesus. But they really don't have much to do with what I believe as an individual.

My affiliation with Christianity grew out of my family experience as a child -- I was raised Roman Catholic -- but it has been shaped and refined by my experiences as an adult. I have made a conscious decision to be a Christian and I have chosen the UCC as the place that I think best enables me to deepen and live out my Christianity. Others may have chosen other denominational expressions or the non-denominational, evangelical Christianity that is has grown so much in this country over the past few decades.

I think I have something to learn from the evangelicals, from the disaffected, from Muslims and Jews and Wiccans and others. It may seem like it would be more fun to be part of a growing, thriving denomination. Within the UCC as an institution, there are all sorts of struggles about budgets and the staff and directions for the future. Those are institutionally important, but they are not at the core of Jesus' message.

That message is about loving God and loving others as we love ourselves. It's about working in this world to help it be the kind of place God created it to be. At Memorial UCC, that's what we are about. It's a vibrant community that sails against the tide of the trends showing up in these surveys.

That's not something to be smug about. That's all the more reason why need to nurture God's spirit in our midst and let it affect how we have an impact on the people and the world around us.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Finding hope in Mumbai

Ebo Patel, who heads the Interfaith Youth Core and is one of the great voices of our time for getting across the faith divides in our world, wrote this about how Mumbai avoided a religious battleground after the terrorist attacks there late last year.