Saturday, April 25, 2009

Koran scholarship sparks fresh thinking

Nick Kristoff of the New York Times had a fascinating column this week about the explorations of Islamic scholars into the historical context of passages of the Koran. Those explorations are setting off debates within Islam analogous to the historical/critical scholarship done on the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. You can click through to read the column -- "Islam, Virgins and Grapes."

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Trading violence for violins a tough task

There's a poster on the wall in my office that reflects the hopes of many people who get to know residents of the tension-filled lands of Israel and Palestine.

It shows a young Palestinian boy -- perhaps 6 or 7 years old -- his hands clutching broken pieces of rock ready to throw at the Israeli army. Looming above the boy is a handsome, poised young man playing a violin.

They are the same person, a man named Ramzi. The poster reflects the work done at the International Center in Bethlehem to create hope for Palestinian children in the midst of the violence of their world, to offer them creative outlets that can transform their lives.

It's the kind of image we in America like to see. It's the kind of image I treasure as someone who has a long-time commitment to nonviolent solutions to conflicts, who as a pastor often talks about the things Jesus said about loving enemies and forgiving one another and working for peace. Those teachings come into sharp focus during this week when Christians recall the execution of Jesus -- a time when he forgave his enemies -- and the message of Easter about life winning out over death.

So you can imagine my discomfort a few weeks ago as I watched Sol Kelley-Jones' powerful play, "The Birds That Are Your Hands: How to Start a Fire Under Siege." (It's playing weekends through April 19 at the Broom Street Theater.)

There is a scene where Ingrid, a woman representing a non-governmental organization from Sweden, meets Khalad, a Palestinian described as a "former" fighter.

"He was involved in the fighting?" Ingrid asks Hassan, who has arranged this meeting.

Hassan nods. "Lost all of his friends, most of his family." He shrugs. "This is the life."

Ingrid tells Khalad her charity wants to launch a humanitarian campaign for children. It would involve violins.

"Violins?" Khalad asks incredulously.

"Trading violence for violins," she says. "It has a nice ring. Where there is a Palestinian youth holding a stone to throw, well, we replace that stone, with a violin."

There was that poster on my wall.

Khalad is more than skeptical: "I see very few violins, many stony hills and, no open ears. That's what I see." He hears her talk about the beauty of music without any of the harsh words about the realities of living in an occupied land.

He compares the Palestinians to a bird in a cage. He hears her asking this: "That song about the cage, we don't like it so much, sing a song that is pretty to our ears and then we might shed a tear for you and maybe think about letting you out of the cage."

And then there is actual news about violins from Israel and Palestine. On March 25, a group of teen musicians from the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank traveled into Israel to a suburb of Tel Aviv to present a concert for Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. There was a glow of hope around this extraordinary event.

Then a few days later, some of the political activists in the Jenin refugee camp condemned the concert and banned the Israeli Arab who led the orchestra from coming back into the camp. One of these leaders told the New York Times that the Palestinian teens had been brought into a political situation that "served enemy interests" and aimed to "destroy the Palestinian national spirit in the camp."

Once again, there were clouds over the hope that lingers in that poster on my wall. There are no easy answers here, just the tension that exists when people feel trapped like birds in a cage, when they hope to bend the bars and find freedom, when the sound of a song seems too weak in a cruel world.

For those who listen for the music, though, beauty is not enough. The music must also propel those who cling to hope to find ways to open the doors to that cage.

Published in The Capital Times, April 8, 2009