On January 1, 1990, Jeff Johnson, a gay man and pastor of First United Lutheran Church, and Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart, lesbian pastors of St. Francis Lutheran Church are ordained in San Francisco. Both churches were suspended in 1990 and expelled by the ELCA in 1996. (photo courtesy of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries)
My old English prof used to say “The Victorians were obsessed with death. We’re obsessed with sex.” I made an unexpected discovery on a recent assignment: sex and death have something in common: secrets.
In August of 2009, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) voted to allow gays and lesbians in committed relationships to serve as pastors. As a reporter for MPR News, my assignment was to follow up a year later on the impact of the vote. I stumbled into a news story: the church was in the process of reconciling with partnered gays and lesbians who had previously been unwelcome. In July of this year, the ELCA added seven people back to its roster in San Francisco. Then, this September, they did the same with three women in Minnesota.
Two of the Minnesota women, Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart, were the first lesbian couple to be ordained without the blessing of the ELCA in San Francisco in 1990. They invited me to their home for an interview.
For the next 70 minutes, their story spilled out, spanning a sweeping slice of a social revolution moving rapidly through in our times. They told of coming out, falling in love, losing jobs then gaining them, and feeling God work through them during the AIDS crisis and hospice chaplaincy. Their story transcends Lutheranism. It’s personal, yet tethered to movements on both coasts, inside churches, seminaries, universities, courthouses, and workplaces.
"When you’re a change agent," said Frost, "you act where you are. Some people do in the secular arena: political activists, social activists. Our arena was the church. I’m third-generation Lutheran clergy."
For me, the unexpected part of their story was how they connected their work in hospice with the battle for inclusion in the Church. Zillhart and Frost began their ministry in San Francisco just as AIDS was ravaging the city. As they plunged in to help the men, their partners, and their families prepare for death, the two women saw opportunities for forgiveness, reconciliation, respect, acceptance, and love.
The “tape” at the top of this post is my favorite, but I had to leave it out of the final radio version. My news piece needed to cover the ordination, expulsion, and eventual embrace — already a tall order — and I wasn’t sure my editor would let me wander into end-of-life stuff at all. Thankfully she did, and it gave the story more depth. I think it also showed what Frost and Zillhart have been striving to show all along: there’s more that unites people than divides them. We all have secrets. Death is a universal unburdening of secrets.
Sexual orientation can be just one of them.
"There isn’t a family that doesn’t have a secret that they yearn to share and talk about the hurts and hopes we all have," said Zillhart. "Our difference is more obvious, more politically charged, people do a lot of fund-raising around how scary we seem — that feels electrifying — but the differences we have are all among us. The commonalities are so much deeper."
Frost adds with a note of amused exasperation, “I would love to get past being an issue in the church as a lesbian. I’ve been a professional Lutheran lesbian all my life. It’s time to be meeting one another in deeper ways than that affords.”
Frost and Zillhart show just where that depth can take us.
Unedited Interview with Frost and Zillhart(mp3, 71:00) This interview is what I call “a spigot interview” — the story spilled forth with very little coaxing. Their narrative connects their individual lives to a larger canvas of social and religious history.
Sasha Aslanian is a reporter for MPR News and creator of MPR News’ Youth Radio Series. From 2000 to 2008, she produced documentaries for American RadioWorks, the national documentary unit of American Public Media. Aslanian has won awards named for famous news men: Edward R. Murrow, Lowell Thomas, Heywood Broun and Eric Sevareid. She is a graduate of Grinnell College.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
We Americans Can Learn Something from the Chilean Celebration of Miners Rescued
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
A satellite image shows the relief efforts to reach the trapped miners in the San Jose Mine in Copiapo, Chile. (credit: DigitalGlobe/Flickr)
Watching those miners emerge in a steel-cage projectile from the collapsed mine in Chile is miraculous. It’s risky business and it has been done with aplomb. What I’ve been struck with is the celebratory spirit of the event. Chileans gather in a central plaza waving Chile’s flag and laughing and cheering; rescued miners surface to quickly embrace their loved ones and then play to the surrounding crowd, pumping fists and yelling and urging supporters on.
Locals cheer in Copiapo square before the start of a risky rescue operation to hoist the 33 trapped miners from the bottom of a collapsed mine. (photo: Bruno Sepulveda/AFP/Getty Images)
I don’t think we would see that type of celebration here in the United States. I imagine a sense of solemnity and solitary viewing might take place. We Americans would silently be waiting for the news of disaster avoided rather than success achieved. And, for me, this is the lesson: acknowledge our frailty as human beings and revere how we move forward and do incredible things in spite of it — with our fists pumping in the air.
And, since I’m a father and a brother, these following three images really grabbed me. They are not shots of the first rescued miner, Florencio Avalos, but of his father and brother thanking the stars, embracing the moment and each other with amazement, and weeping over a loved one who will be coming home again.
Alfonso Avalos, father of Chilean miner Florencio Avalos, celebrates after his son was brought to the surface on October 13, 2010. (photo: Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images)
Alfonso Avalos (right) and his son Wilson embrace after learning Florencio successfully made it to the surface after spending 10 weeks trapped in a collapsed mine 800 km north of Santiago, Chile. (photo: Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images)
When Choice Means Different Things to Different People: Sheena Iyengar on Sources of Control
by Shubha Bala, associate producer
"It depends on how you define control. If you define control as ‘I will entirely write my script,’ that could be one way of thinking of having control. Another way to think about having control is to say ‘Look I was given this script, and I executed it with great aplomb.’ And there’s nothing to say that that means you don’t have control, it’s just a different kind of control."
Sheena Iyengar, a business professor at Columbia University and author of The Art of Choosing, has come to view cultural and religious rules as “life scripts.” She says they are empowering rather than stifling. In Krista’s interview with her earlier this year, Sheena Iyengar describes her journey to this revelation.
In the audio above (download mp3), she starts by describing a study that shows that religious followers are less depressed than atheists. Sheena Iyengar then talks about another study that demonstrates most Asian children are more motivated and performed tasks better when their mothers made choices for them, whereas the converse is true for most Anglo-American children: they were more motivated if they were able to choose the task themselves.
And, she explains that her interest in examining culture’s role in choice was especially informed by her own Sikh background.
Here, for example, she discusses whether an arranged marriage, such as that of her parents, is in fact devoid of choice. You can listen to the clip to the left (or download the mp3) of this portion of their conversation as well, and then share with us examples of how your culture has influenced your view of choice.
“Ten years later, it’s still tough. You never get away from it. It’s like losing family, you know? You could try to fill the hole, but you’re always going to feel the loss.”—
— U.S. Navy Supply Officer Robert Overturf
I had an NPR driveway moment yesterday listening to producer Matthew Ozug’s non-narrated piece featuring the voices of USS Cole crew members whose ship was bombed by al-Qaida 10 years ago today. I particularly like the pacing, and the use of music and the closing lines featured in the quote above.
“Writing a Torah, in general, energizes a community. It unifies people. It is not based on who you are. Everyone is equal.”—
— Rabbi Moshe Druin, a sofer stam on the restoration of a 17th-century Torah scroll with an incredible history.
The Los Angeles Times has this hopeful story about Temple Ahavat Shalom’s restoration of a 300-year-old manuscript. The sacred scroll was first created for a small Jewish community in what was then Czechoslovakia, then survived the Holocaust while warehoused in Prague, then moved to London by way of a wealthy benefactor, and finally found a permanent home again at the congregation in Northridge, California. Each member of the synagogue will be able to write a letter into the Torah during the process.
Benjamin Busch, a former Marine Corps infantry officer who served two combat tours in Iraq, writes a challenging essay for NPR on the nature of war games — with toy soldiers, in video games, on the battlefield:
"When I was a boy, I was given plastic army men. I arranged them in the sandbox behind our house, and I killed them. I voiced their commands and made the sounds of their suffering. I imagined their war — and I controlled it. But I lost those magical powers as a Marine in Iraq.
We know children are immersed in digital interactivity now, and the soldier of today has grown up on video games. It is becoming a new literacy of sorts. Playing and risking your life are different things. In the video war, there may be some manipulation of anxiety, some adrenaline to the heart, but absolutely nothing is at stake.
I honestly don’t like that Medal of Honor depicts the war in Afghanistan right now, because — even as fiction — it equates the war with the leisure of games. Changing the name of the enemy doesn’t change who it is.
But what nation or military has the right to govern fiction? Banning the representation of an enemy is imposing nationalism on entertainment. The game cannot train its players to be actual skilled special operations soldiers, nor is it likely to lure anyone into Islamic fundamentalism. It can grant neither heroism nor martyrdom. What it does do is make modern war into participatory cinema. That is its business.”
One Hundred Million Seeds of Porcelain Contemplation
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Ai Weiwei holds porcelain seeds from his Unilever installation titled “Sunflower Seeds.” (photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s latest installation at the Tate Modern is an incredible feat: one hundred million hand-painted pieces of porcelain that resemble the shells of sunflower seeds. One finds oneself moved to understand its meaning, to grasp its scale, to contemplate the immense amount of energy and ability of so many artisans to produce something this massive — and oh-so delicate — all so that can be walked on, laid on, picked up, thrown, raked, or what have you in the midst of the minimal gray landscape of Turbine Hall.
A close-up view of some of the porcelain husks used in “Sunflower Seeds.” (photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
Nothing appears to be what it seems. And, for Weiwei, the meaning goes much deeper: “From a very young age I started to sense that an individual has to set an example in society. Your own acts and behavior tell the world who you are and at the same time what kind of society you think it should be.”
A girl and her mother sit and toss some of the 100 million porcelain seeds in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in London. (photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
Where Anton Gormley’s massive humanoid sculptures somehow aid your eye on focusing on the environment in which they’re set, nature strangely becomes the focus. Here, I can only imagine, these objets d’art, these precious works of individual hands, become the focal point as you crush them beneath your heels. The sonorous echoes of this footfall is a social and political act in itself — probably one each observer doesn’t fully appreciate until you walk out to the River Thames and trample silently on concrete and manicured turf.
The Guardian has put together this insightful short video of Ai Weiwei discussing the humanity that drives his social and political stances on his art, the creative thinking coming out of China, and the way way technology enabled him to amplify his voice and “to speak for generations who don’t have a chance to speak out”:
Richard Mouw: A Twitterscript with an Evangelical Leader on Civility
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
This coming week we will be releasing our latest show, which focuses on the topic of incivility in political, religious, and civic culture with one of the leading Evangelical Christian leaders in the United States today. On September 8, 2010, Krista interviewed Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary and a professor of Christian philosophy and ethics, which we live-tweeted (@softweets) from behind the glass of Studio P at Minnesota Public Radio. Here’s a compilation, our Twitterscript if you will, of all those tiny nuggets, and a few exchanges with our followers:
Encountering Strangeness from Different Directions
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
"I come across a person who isn’t just a stranger but maybe represents a strangeness to me that initially I might feel very alienated from that person. And then to think, this is a work of art by the God whom I worship — that God created that person. And it’s something like art appreciation. It doesn’t come easy. I’m kind of aesthetically deprived and so I have to work at it. But it’s a very important exercise to engage in."
Listening to Richard Mouw describe his idea of “divine art appreciation,” I was surprised to find myself thinking of biologist and neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky. On paper, the two couldn’t be more different. Mouw is an Evangelical theologian who heads up one of the largest multi-denominational seminaries in the world. Sapolsky is a self-described "strident atheist" who studies what we can learn about stress by studying the social behaviors of baboons. Both are interested in how humans respond to strangeness and difference; they just come at these questions from different directions.
In the late 1990s, Sapolsky published a delightful essay in The New Yorker exploring our resistance to novelty in music, fashion, and food as we age. He doesn’t land on a scientific reason for this phenomenon, but he does reflect on its consequences:
"When I see the finest of my students ready to run off to the Peace Corps and minister to lepers in the Congo—or teach some kid in the barrio just outside the university how to read—I remember that, once, it was easier to be that way. An open mind is a prerequisite to an open heart… Whatever it is that fends us off from novelty, I figure maybe it’s worth putting up a bit of a fight even if it means forgoing Bob Marley’s greatest hits every now and then."
“Our humanity is not an attribute that we have received once and forever with our conception. It is a potentiality that we have to discover within us and progressively develop or destroy through our confrontation with the different experiences of suffering that will meet us through our life.”—
The Convergence of Understanding Plate Tectonics and Human Experience
by Krista Tippett, host
Scientists emerge from the submersible Bathyscaphe Archimède after a 1973 dive in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean in the Rift Valley.
People often ask me to name my favorite interviews — the people who have made the deepest impression. That is an impossible question for me to answer, as I learn and am affected on different levels by every conversation I have. But I will go on the record now to say that this show (audio above) with Xavier Le Pichon is special and has left me extraordinarily surprised, delighted, and refreshed.
His is not a famous name beyond geological circles. But he is certainly one of the wise people, and big thinkers, in our world today. He lives in an intentional community he helped create to provide retreat for families caring for a loved one with mental illness.
Before that, Xavier Le Pichon pioneered the field of plate tectonics. He has continued to work all these years as a geophysicist even as he also became a spiritual thinker and writer in France. He delightedly walks that line I’m always seeking in life and conversation — that humbling, creative alchemy that happens where theology meets human experience, where religious thought encounters real life and changes it and is changed by it.
Xavier Le Pichon’s deep Catholic faith has always been compatible with the notion of evolution. He finds evolution not merely theologically acceptable but scientifically and spiritually “ingenious.” Though, well into the 20th century, his own field of geology had retained a “fixist” view of the map of the world. There was no knowledge of tectonic plates, in constant motion, that had across time configured and reconfigured the Earth’s crust and entire continents. Xavier Le Pichon became a pioneer in deep ocean exploration that first revealed all of this. He was a key figure at one of those historical moments where science not only overturns its own assumptions but changes the way all of us see the world.
And yet, as he tells it in our show "Fragility and the Evolution of Our Humanity," he nearly quit science a few years after he published his groundbreaking research findings in the late 1960s. In a moment of personal crisis, he realized that his vision had been narrowed by his focus on science and success. He traveled to Calcutta and spent a period of weeks volunteering with Mother Teresa and the Brothers of Charity. In an essay in English, "Ecce Homo," he describes how an encounter with a dying child transformed his life forever. The story of how he then gave his life over to facing human suffering, while continuing his scientific career, is itself remarkable. I am also left with so much to ponder from the lessons Xavier Le Pichon has drawn from that choice ever since — by the synergy he has found between what spiritual community and geophysics teach him about the way the world works.
From his studies of the Earth he knows that fractures, flaws, and weaknesses are as much a part of the vitality of living systems as strength and perfection. They are what allow systems to evolve, to regenerate, and to avoid cataclysmic revolutions. Simultaneously, he is fascinated by the fragility that marks human life at its beginning, its end, and at places in between. Taking this seriously, honoring it, as he well knows, would challenge our success and outcome driven, perfectionistic “Occidental” view of the world as much as the theory of plate tectonics challenged the field of geology.
And yet Xavier Le Pichon has turned his attention to history, philosophy, and the life sciences in recent years — looking at what Neanderthal skeletal remains reveal about human compassion, and looking at the remarkable historical moment around the sixth century BCE when many pivotal spiritual figures — Buddha, Lao Tzu, and Confucius — first appeared simultaneously across the Earth. And, he has concluded that it is precisely our capacity to care and orient our collective life around the weak and suffering among us that has made us human as well as humane. This capacity, he proposes, has defined the evolution of what we call our “humanity” as much as any other physiological or cultural trait we possess.
I hope that you will be as enriched by this conversation as I am. I am excited to put it out in the world.
I’ve been holding on to this performance for a few days now, keeping it in reserve specifically for a Friday morning or afternoon. And what better way to kick off the back stretch to the weekend than with the delightful intensity of jazz musician Esperanza Spalding. In this video, she captivates the room at National Public Radio with her intimate Tiny Desk Concert.
I particularly enjoyed the way Patrick Jarenwattananon paints a lush scene of her commanding presence, including when she doffs her cap to reveal her magnificent shock of hair. But, I best like his rundown of her set list:
"…she mostly called original tunes from Chamber Music Society, her new album pairing a jazz rhythm section with a three-piece string trio. The two tunes bookending her set alternated the gossamer with the rich and darkly hued: the album opener “Little Fly,” her setting of a William Blake poem, and “Apple Blossom,” featuring her regular guitarist, Ricardo Vogt.”
Listening to this performance made it easy to buy her album. I’ve been listening to it non-stop. It’s perfect.
Parsing the Power of Bishop Eddie Long and the Black Church: An Interview with Anthea Butler
by Kate Moos, managing producer
Bishop Eddie Long (in white suit) embraces a friend in his first appearance before parishioners at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church. (photo: John Amis/Getty Images)
Allegations that Bishop Eddie Long coerced four young men to have unwanted sexual contact have riveted the media. In his first appearance before his congregation of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church east of Atlanta, Bishop Long fell short of a resounding denial of these charges.
Understanding that his “anti-homosexual” theology and activism make these accusations particularly controversial, we invited religion scholar Anthea Butler to help us understand the dynamics at play within the black church and a scholar’s perspective on the news coverage of this story.
She is associate professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and a regular contributor to Religion Dispatches. She is a past guest of this program and has written extensively about the role of women in the Pentecostal movement, especially in the Church of God in Christ, a predominantly African-American denomination that is the fifth-largest Christian tradition in the United States. We corresponded with her by email.
Is this story getting the coverage it deserves? Or is the coverage extreme? Would the story receive such prominence if his accusers were young women? Is it getting different coverage because he’s African American? Yes, the story is receiving the coverage it deserves, not only in America, but globally. He has staked a portion of his ministerial message on homosexuality as “sin” and same sex marriage is wrong in a global context, so it is also fair to question his alleged activities.
If the accusers were women, this case would not receive that much coverage at all, sadly. I don’t think Long is getting different coverage because he is African American. I think the “responses” are different because the African-American community has been so shocked, and more importantly, his physical appearance (buffed out muscular body) is so unlike most pastors we see, Ted Haggard included, that his very physical being is also being critiqued along with the allegations.
You have written that this story presents a challenge to the black church in America to get over their homophobia. You recently wrote:
"The real story, however, is that this case explodes the cover of the black church’s internal don’t ask, don’t tell policy which has had a profound effect on the community and its followers. It’s very interesting that the Long scandal broke almost immediately after black pastors led by Bishop Harry Jackson came together with the Family Research Council to oppose the repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Act. Many black pastors have staked their entire ministries on the ‘family’ and the obsession with mainstream gender norms that encourage heterosexual marriage, abstinence, and patriarchal norms."
How are attitudes toward homosexuality in the black church distinct from the anti-homosexual theology of other Christian churches in this country? The attitudes about the black church are distinctive because, even though the party line is anti-homosexual, there are plenty of gay people in black churches. The don’t ask, don’t tell policy of the churches allows for people to be a part of the congregation, welcomed, but consistently exposed to a message of “second class, sinful citizenship” because of their sexual preference. And that is wrong.
The other part that is different is that the black church’s stance is not only biblical, but it’s about social respectability and attempting to rectify disparities — for instance, the high rate of unmarried African-American women. Homosexuality is perceived to be a reason why black women are such a high percentage of those who are unmarried.
A billboard featuring Bishop Eddie Long outside New Birth Missionary Baptist Church on the day he first addressed his members about the allegations. (photo: Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)
Among the elements that distinguish this story are that the alleged sexual contact was coercive (different moral ground hiring a prostitute, as in the Ted Haggard story) and that it involved young men for whom Long was a very powerful authority figure. You point out that the role of the central, powerful, charismatic pastor in congregational life is dangerous on many levels. And yet isn’t it precisely those qualities that make churches like New Life [megachurch formerly led by Ted Haggard] successful, and draw so many people? Yes, it is what make these churches successful, but in the case of New Life, the bishop is policing his members, but who polices/disciplines him? Charismatic authority can run amok, but it is in congregations like New Birth — that don’t have an oversight board that can both protect and discipline the pastor — that these types of issues can get out of hand. If there is an oversight board for New Birth, the best way they could protect both Bishop Long and the congregation is to have him sit out a time period until the case is adjudicated. However, since New Birth is Bishop Long, I doubt that will happen.
Many of us are involved personally with religious communities that are organized in strict hierarchies that reserve power to a small number of leaders with few checks and balances. That’s something we see a lot of in secular organizations as well (though without the presumption that the hierarchy is sanctioned by the deity). Arguably, this is a model of human organization that has proven consistently ineffective at best, and criminal at worst. Some people would say that religion itself, faith itself, is the problem. Is there a way in which religion can be part of a solution? More oversight and a willingness to turn people in to the authorities (police) would be a start. Many communities harbor and move about leaders involved in scandals; the Catholic Church is the model for how churches move around problem clergy rather than taking definitive legal action. I do believe that, as these incidences rise, the privileges religious officials (non-taxable status for example) enjoy in this country right now could be on their way out in the next few years if the public outcry continues.
In the coverage we’ve all seen and in writings on this story, the term “the black church” is ubiquitous. I myself use it for convenience. But is it fair to use this aggregating term to represent African-American Christians? Is it dangerous to cast this as such a broad and monolithic category, like “the Muslim world?” It’s not exactly “fair” because this moniker means different things to different people. On the other hand, It is ubiquitous, and, although I would say that New Birth is not a traditional black church because of its size, it is because the majority of its population is African American. So to say the black church, the term that W.E.B DuBois used, is a “space” to hold lots of tensions that seem to aggregate around the social purpose of the black church (social justice and community) and the “practice” of the black church (song, prayers, preaching, etc.). It may be dangerous because it doesn’t fully express the myriad of black religious expression in the United States. But, then again, it is a term that, when spoken, is recognizable. In that sense, I don’t think it will fall out of use.
Repeated Responses to Stem Cell Show Guest Is "Life-Changing"
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
photo courtesy of the University of Minnesota Alumni Association
Oftentimes we hear from guests after a show has been released. But, it’s always by way of a direct email to one of our producers or to Krista herself. So, imagine my surprise this past Saturday when I saw this awfully gracious submission to our show on stem cells from the centering voice of that conversation, Dr. Doris Taylor herself:
"Being on your show has significantly impacted what I do and how I do it.
It forced me to think about my truths in a different way, and connected me with people who otherwise I would not have known — who in some way seem touched by our work. That is a humbling experience when it happens once or twice, but, when it happens over and over, it is life changing…
I remain grateful for your willingness to share yourself and make it possible for people like me to do likewise. Thank you Krista.”
I also used my reply to her as an opportunity to follow up with a question several listeners have wondered about: the recent news of the first human embryonic stem cell line created at the University of Michigan. Her response:
"I fully believe getting enough cells will be the rate-limiting step to building organs. Think about it, the human heart has hundreds of billions of cells in it. Having to grow those in the lab is daunting. But as they say, if it were easy, someone else would have done it."
Our show on autism with Paul Collins and Jennifer Elder remains one of my favorites. And I’ve been enjoying a wonderfully written and moving memoir by Emily Colson about life with her son Max, now 19. Dancing with Max: A Mother and Son Who Broke Free has a prologue and an epilogue written by Charles (Chuck) Colson. Colson, of course, served in the Nixon White House and went to prison for the Watergate scandal, then went on to found Prison Ministries International. He is now something of an Evangelical Christian elder statesman, whom I met and interviewed several years ago together with two Evangelicals of different generations.
Chuck Colson and his daughter have created a searching and sometimes surprising exploration of what autism may teach us about what it means to be human, written from a devout and searching Christian perspective. It is an important addition to our literary and cultural encounter with autism, and I recommend it.
On September 3, 2010, Krista interviewed New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof for our show "Journalism and Compassion." Following is the complete behind-the-glass Twitterscript of that conversation:
“He trusts God to keep him safe. And I’m here just in case that doesn’t work out.”—
—Religious Programs Specialist 2nd Class Philip Chute, a self-declared atheist who is charged with protecting Navy Chaplain Terry Moran, a Seventh-Day Adventist who is ministering to Marines in Afghanistan.
Michael M. Phillips’ Wall Street Journal article "A Chaplain and an Atheist Go to War" gives unexpected insight into some of the strange pairings of battle and the tension of war in all its humanness. Well worth a read.
On Stem Cells and Untold Stories: When Nature’s Tools Provide the Answers
by Krista Tippett, host
I’ve wondered for years how we could contribute some perspective to the moral consternation that stem cell research stirred in recent years. As with so many other real and important questions raised by medical advances, I have been unconvinced by the blunt either/or choice that culture-war debates seemed to present: defining stem cell research as either a slippery slope to killing babies or a straight path to curing a host of dreadful diseases. Efforts to humanize the issue with real-life examples — seeming to present a stark choice between condemning Michael J. Fox to death by Parkinson’s, for example, or finding an immediate way to save him — can misrepresent both the promise of this science and the moral concerns it raises.
Hearing Doris Taylor speak, then, was a revelation. I knew I had found our way in to this topic. When it comes to stem cells — as to everything else in life, it turns out — the truth is complicated. And much of the story of stem cells — the big picture that arguments have obscured — falls outside the realm of the most passionately contested issues.
From Doris Taylor I come to understand, for the first time, that the existence and function of stem cells is one of those discoveries, not unlike DNA, that will fundamentally change the way we think about the human body. I learn that there are billions of stem cells throughout my 49-year-old body, and as I write they are repairing my organs and tissues as they have done all of my life — albeit less vigorously at 49 than at 9 because of the passage of time and the stresses that life has imposed, and that I have imposed on my body.
The newness and rapidly emerging nature of our knowledge about stem cells has contributed to incomplete premises and an understandable measure of fear. Doris Taylor has spent time in conversation with people in churches these past years as well. She has come away with a conviction that, if the medical community and journalists had used different vocabulary to discuss stem cells at the outset, some of the most heated debates might have been avoided.
She has often encountered the false impression that the stem cell lines used for research came from aborted fetuses. In fact, as she says, “fetal cells” are too old for the work she does. And the “embryonic cells” she uses have all come from eggs fertilized by way of in vitro fertilization (IVF) that would otherwise be destroyed. This insight, of course, does not address moral quandaries over embryos and IVF technology.
But much of the research Doris Taylor and others are doing might one day circumvent all of these issues. If she could build me a heart by way of the process she and her colleagues are refining in the University of Minnesota Center for Cardiovascular Repair, she would use my heart stem cells to do so.
From my visit to Doris Taylor’s lab, you can see elaborate architectural glass bulbs with tubes feeding suspended rodent hearts — one lifeless with old cells; another one stage farther, a pale “scaffold” ready for stem cells to be injected; and finally a regenerated heart pink, pumping, alive and beating on its own. Also, hear the story of the man with a heart disease that told Taylor she is “building hope.”
Seeing the untold story of stem cells beyond the lightning rod, moral issues clears my vision to see unexpected spiritual implications of this work. The genius of Doris Taylor’s work is in its simplicity — in realizing that there was no need to “build” a heart from scratch. Instead, she works with a dead heart, extracted from a cadaver — nature’s cardiac “scaffolding,” as she thinks of it. She washes the lifeless heart, cleans it, and injects the decellularized scaffold with cells that know how to colonize it — and begin to beat and live again.
Doris Taylor echoes one of my favorite themes: beauty is essential to life itself — beauty as a core moral value — as she describes the architectural perfection of nature that she honors and works with. In an exhilarating “field trip” to her lab, I was able to hold the translucent heart of a pig in my hand and see its exquisite intricacy — at once delicate and muscular — for myself.
Approaching the mechanics of life at this level inevitably raises questions about life’s mystery. Doris Taylor says she is passionate about “regenerating heart on a lot of different levels.” And as she considers how new knowledge about stem cells might one day change the way we think about health across the life span — facing aging, for example, or cancer — she is studying how spiritual technologies like prayer and meditation might support that. She describes a very simple test she did on the Buddhist spiritual teacher Matthieu Ricard. She measured a vast increase in stem cells in his blood after just 15 minutes of meditation.
All of this said, the fascinating science of stem cell research still comes with a world of real and complex moral uncertainties. We hope this conversation with Doris Taylor might broaden existing conversations and inform fresh thinking on the moral and ethical questions her science touches. Let us hear your thoughts — either as they’re sparked by this conversation or through your own experiences and knowledge.
Hundreds attend the marquee event: the quilt auction. (photo: David Yoder)
The best — and perhaps quirkiest — aspects of being Mennonite were on display in northern Indiana last weekend. The Michiana MCC Relief Sale is an annual fundraising event for the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), a world-wide relief organization. The sale is part quilt auction, part junk auction, part garage sale, part bake sale, part county fair, part family reunion.
Although there are 30 MCC relief sales in the United States and 14 in Canada each year, Michiana (Indiana-Michigan area) hosts the largest, attracting between 20,000-25,000 people and raising upwards of $350,000 annually. It also happens to be in my old hometown of Goshen, Indiana.
Transportation around the fairgrounds for weary sale-goers. (photo: David Yoder)
So this past weekend I made my pilgrimage to the Elkhart County Fairgrounds with two non-Mennonite friends who have always wanted to experience this sale. They weren’t disappointed, and I was proud to call myself Mennonite.
An auction of new and used goods other than quilts. (photo: David Yoder)
The Mennonite denomination, like many others, has struggled with divisive issues over the years, and I haven’t always appreciated how these issues have been — or have not been — resolved. But this weekend we were at our best. Progressive Mennonites, Old Order Mennonites, Conservative Mennonites, and Amish worked hand-in-hand to raise money for a belief they all share in common — that it is our joyful duty to lend a helping hand to those in need.
Church groups have been working all year: quilting, woodworking, baking, and canning to donate these goods to the sale. The weekend of the sale, groups and individuals are selling their items, staffing the quilt auction, cooking food, planning logistics, and cleaning the fairgrounds. Our differences are forgotten as we work toward a common goal.
Making kettle corn. (photo: David Yoder)
The sale runs Friday night through Saturday afternoon and features multiple auctions, a garage sale, children’s auction and activities, a 10K run, and lots of food: pies, sausage, cheese, pancakes, kettle corn, moon pies, elephant ears, apple dumplings, and new ethnic foods. For my parents, Friday night is the night to buy their year’s supply of sausage from Mishler’s Meats before they sell out. So, my friends and I went with them.
Walking through the crowds on Friday night with our bags of sausage and Nelson’s Golden Glow chicken was like being at a family reunion. In addition to Goshen being a small town, many Mennonites are related and/or know one another. Mennonites in the area go to the sale; Mennonites who have left the area come back for it. Running into relatives and friends I haven’t seen since my last relief sale in 2007 felt like “old home week” at the fairgrounds.
A church group sells donated cheese. (photo: David Yoder)
One highlight of the year is the Penny Power fundraiser in which each person is asked to save pennies as tokens of the privileges and abundance he/she has. During the month prior to the relief sale, participants put aside pennies each day based on a Penny Power calendar. The way the Penny Power project links giving and self-awareness is evident in some of these example days on the calendar:
Many refugees are forced to leave home with only the shirt on their backs. Give one penny for each shirt or blouse in your closet.
In some countries there is only one doctor for every 125,000 people. Give 4 pennies for each health care professional you see.
Many people have only one ragged cloth for cover. Give two pennies for every quilt and blanket in your home.
Much of the world exists without consistent electricity. Give two pennies for each light switch or lamp in your home.
In Haiti, few people can read and write. Give one penny for every book in your home.
But, without question, the crown jewel of the weekend is the quilt auction. Hundreds of quilts are carefully and lovingly created throughout the year and are put up for auction to around 300 bidders. This year, the quilts alone raised $102,000 with one quilt selling for $5,000.
On Friday night, a woman studies one of the quilts that will be auctioned Saturday morning. (photo: David Yoder)
Perhaps most moving was the traveling quilt. The traveling quilt is a beautiful quilt that began traveling earlier this year. It has gone from one relief sale to another across North America, always going up for bids but never sold. Instead, everyone who bids on the quilt gives his/her bid as a donation to MCC. Bids started at $1,000 for a quilt you can’t take home with you and ended with $25 bids. And now it moves on to the next MCC Relief Sale to be held in Virginia this weekend.
Two volunteers “dress the bed” with the next quilt at the quilt auction. (photo: David Yoder)
Ultimately, the relief sale is not just about giving to help the poor. It is also about acknowledging our relative wealth and the resources we have. The sale helped me once again appreciate the values with which I was raised — be generous, care for others, work hard, give till it hurts, work for peace, be the hands and feet of your faith.
For nearly all of Krista’s interviews nowadays, we live-tweet (@softweets) the verbal gems and meaningful points of the conversation so that we can provide some type of real-time dialogue with our online friends. But, we realize many of you either don’t use Twitter or just simply miss our tweets because of the busy pace of a day at work or home so we’re creating a catalog of those submissions for you to read in one place.
Following is our “Twitterscript” of Krista’s interview with Joanna Macy that took place over an ISDN line on July 13, 2010. As you may know, it was a wonderful conversation that made for an instant classic titled "A Wild Love for the World." A former CIA agent and translator of Rainer Maria Rilke, a Buddhist teach and a philosopher of ecology, this octogenarian had many wise things to share that were wonderful nuggets for our Twitterstream:
"To the full extent of my capacity, I say that I am sorry … I know that many very good people have been deeply hurt, and I know that the Lord expects better of us."
I’m on record as saying that we should measure the public virtue of religious traditions not merely by the positions they take, but by the way they treat those with whom they agree and disagree along the way. It is, sadly, rare to witness religious authorities open up to this kind of human and seemingly searching encounter on an issue in which they have staked a theological and political claim. I say, “Bravo.”
Rumi ensemble from Iran performs at the Bab Makina Palace courtyard. (photo: Hussein Rashid)
Some people had Elvis. Others had The Beatles. My dream concert is the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music. With a rotating list of performers, it does not matter who was there, but the idea of the festival is what counts.
Over ten years ago, I bought a CD called B’ismillah (“In the Name of God”), a two-CD set from a Fes concert. In that moment, I knew the power of music. The organizers started the festival 16 years ago to bridge the rift amongst civilizations after the first Gulf War and they sought to use music as a common language. The concerts continue to bring in a variety of musical traditions from around the world to show what all people have in common.
My review at Religion Dispatchesexplains the mechanics of this year’s festival. However, one highlight that I was totally unprepared for was Sufi Nights. After the formal concerts during the afternoon and evening, there was an area set up for local Sufi groups to perform.
Sufism is a broad label for a wide variety of mystical traditions in the Muslim faith. Sufi groups tend to reflect their local cultures, bridging the Arabicized scholarly religious tradition with the local, living Islam of the different communities Muslims belong to. Some of these Sufi groups rely heavily on music.
In the United States, we have been exposed to Sufis and Sufi music for a long time. Jalaluddin Rumi is one of the best-selling poets in the U.S. and is founder of the Sufi group known as the “whirling dervishes.” Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones introduced the Master Musicians of Jajouka to new audiences. The late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was a musician from Pakistan known for qawwali singing, a type of devotional music in South Asia that was incorporated into films like Dead Man Walking.
Because Sufi groups are deeply embedded in the cultures in which they emerge, the free Sufi Nights concerts attracted large numbers of Fasians, in addition to the international crowd who had come for the festival. Each night the performers would be welcomed, personally, by the local community. They were part of the life of the city. They were neighbors and co-workers, cousins and clients.
There was an immediate intimacy between the audience and the performers because of their local character. It was incredibly easy to be swept into that feeling. The small theater area helped to highlight that feeling of intimacy. One night, my camera battery had run down, and I didn’t have any extras. I allowed myself to enter that world. Coming from a South Asian cultural context, I have to say that the ritual did not taste right on my tongue, but that didn’t mean that I did not relish every moment of it.
The invocations and formulas the Sufi groups used were known to all the locals. They participated with the people on stage, not just “singing lyrics” but entering the ritual themselves.
A Sufi group from Ouazzane, Ahl Touat Dar Dmana, performs with Driss Abou Sabr Zerhouni.
Young children entered the ecstatic states of coming nearer to God, moving their bodies and calling out the names of God. The adults took a little longer, but they too participated in the rituals, entering those moments of nearness to the Divine. Tears ran down people’s faces as they approached the ineffable, and smiles lit the ground as though reflecting the divine light they were seeing. It was being in a timeless, placeless space that continued for an eternity and ended in an instant.
Except, you realize that the performance ended, but the moment did not. The songs are popular ones. Young men continued singing after concerts were over.
You would go into the old city, where the stores were, and hear these songs played in shops alongside the latest Shakira tune. The difference between the sacred and the profane is much more porous in these contexts. Here, popular does not mean a-religious, and religious does not mean private. No one was forced to believe or practice anything; stores would remain open during prayer time, sisters would walk down the street, one in hijab and the other not. As a result, people lived and expressed their faith at every moment.
The great secret of the Fes Festival are the Sufi Nights. It is the bridge that the organizers so desperately want to build. You cannot be unaffected by the experience. If you have an open mind, it helps you to see the world a little differently. It’s the one part they do not put on CD; nor should they. I am too young for Elvis, too young for The Beatles. I did get my Fes Festival and I am looking forwarded to going again.
Hussein Rashid is a native New Yorker and proud Muslim. Currently an instructor at the Center for Spiritual Inquiry at Park Avenue Christian Church and based at Hofstra University, he is deeply committed to interfaith work and is passionate about teaching. He believes we need to start talking more intelligently about Islam specifically, and religion generally.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication for the On Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
The hot topic of discussion at yesterday’s God in America National Symposium on Religious Literacy held at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. were the results of the U.S. Religious Knowledge survey conducted by the Pew Forum. From Pew’s executive summary:
"Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups on a new survey of religious knowledge, outperforming evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics on questions about the core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions.
On average, Americans correctly answer 16 of the 32 religious knowledge questions on the survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. Atheists and agnostics average 20.9 correct answers. Jews and Mormons do about as well, averaging 20.5 and 20.3 correct answers, respectively. Protestants as a whole average 16 correct answers; Catholics as a whole, 14.7. Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons perform better than other groups on the survey even after controlling for differing levels of education.
On questions about Christianity — including a battery of questions about the Bible — Mormons (7.9 out of 12 right on average) and white evangelical Protestants (7.3 correct on average) show the highest levels of knowledge.
Take the Religious Knowledge survey of 15 questions. And share your results with us. Of course, we want to know how you scored, but we’re also curious to hear about the questions that made you seriously pause and think, or the questions you breezed through and then got wrong.
"My hunch is that the violence in the Islamic world has less to do with the Qur’an or Islam than with culture, youth bulges in the population, and the marginalization of women. In Pakistan, I know a young woman whose brothers want to kill her for honor — but her family is Christian, not Muslim."
The audio clip above from Krista’s interview with Nicholas Kristof, regrettably, never made it into the final show. Here, he recounts how the story of Sajida Bibi, a Pakistani woman abused by her Christian family, serves as an example of the symbiotic relationship between culture and religion. This story reminds us, once again, to question our assumptions about faith and culture as we listen to stories different than our own. It also begs the question: how much of the dominant religious belief system, even in countries that purportedly keep church and state separate, seeps into cultural customs and cultural conformity.
Thinking about this story also made me wonder about the power of conformity. Isn’t cultural conformity itself almost a religion? Do believers in synagogues, mosques, and churches around the world do what they do primarily because of their belief systems or to conform to the social or religious cultures around them? How much of what we call consider faith expression originates from actual religious belief and how much of it originates from a desire to conform to the expressions of others that share our faith?
In fact, we live neither our religious lives nor our cultural lives in a vacuum. And as the story of the Pakistani woman illustrates, neither does anyone else.
Transforming Journalism by Moving and Mobilizing Readers
by Krista Tippett, host
I wasn’t always a fan of Nicholas Kristof’s columns in The New York Times. I’d found them at times simplistic — seeming to reduce the dramas of entire nations to individual stories of despair and/or hope. But I’ve discovered that there is an art and science to this approach. It was fascinating — and quite inspiring — to sit down and get inside his head on all of this.
Nicholas Kristof has lived on four, and reported on six, continents, including spending formative years based in China and Japan, before he took his place on the Op-Ed pages of the Times in the cathartic year of 2001. And as he tells us in the audio above, he soon realized that opining, however brilliantly, left him preaching to the choir. People who already shared his perspective would cheer him on; those who didn’t would not take in what he had to say. The true power of his editorial platform, he realized, was its capacity to bring lesser-publicized events and ideas into the light.
He is credited, most famously perhaps, for bringing the unfolding genocide in Darfur to the world’s attention. But even that “success,” which brought him a second Pulitzer Prize, left Nicholas Kristof wondering and wanting. The world’s reaction to Darfur, in his mind, did not match the tragedy at hand or the moral responsibility it should have engendered. He wanted to understand the fact — as I’ve pondered with many guests on Being across the years — that horrific images and facts are as likely to paralyze and overwhelm as to mobilize us.
And so he started reading research on brain science and the biological basis for compassion, to explore what makes the difference between moral paralysis and compassionate mobilization. We are hard-wired as humans, it seems, to respond powerfully to a single individual’s story and face. But add a second face, and that response diminishes. Add facts, and multiply that story by hundreds or millions, and empathy withers altogether.
Nicholas Kristof reframed his journalistic approach accordingly. It is fascinating to hear him talk about this, and about his own enduring worries about its manipulative connotations. He works to balance the riveting story with the big picture. An empathetic response to a single human story, he’s also learned by way of science and his own experience, can become a portal to a larger awareness. Facts and context can then begin to play a meaningful supporting role.
In the early 2000s, I felt that Nicholas Kristof was simplistic about religion too. Granted, most Western journalists were on a new kind of learning curve with regard to religion. Over the years, I have been deeply impressed by his unusual willingness to learn in public — to admit that he did not understand something, to publish his surprise and self-reversals. He’s gained a very complex and contradictory view of religion as a force in the world — capable of nurturing the worst of violence and the best of care.
He also offers a penetrating view of the self-defeating liberal-conservative/secular-religious divide on global issues as in our domestic political life. He is one of the voices waking up the world to the global scourge of sex trafficking. He believes that this will ultimately galvanize the moral consciousness of this century as slavery galvanized the 19th century. But he is watching with dismay as, for now, the two most effective activists on this issue — liberal feminists and conservative Christians — cannot agree on a shared vocabulary for describing the problem, much less join their energies.
We spend a lot of words these days on the way journalism is changing — usually with an eye to the technological and financial pressures that are changing it. Nicholas Kristof embodies deep cultural shifts that are also transforming journalism as we have known it. His journalism is a new paradigm, I think, one I’m now grateful for. I’ll call it journalism as a humanitarian art. And I look forward to seeing how it continues to evolve.
Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr teaches a class at Union Theological Seminary. (photo: Gjon Mili/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
Richard Crouter’s elegant, concise book on Reinhold Niebuhr’s thought and legacy is a magnificent introduction to the life and work of this 20th-century theologian and public intellectual. I’ve been an armchair aficionado of this major thinker since the early days of this program when we produced a show and a magnificent (if you can forgive me for saying so) website we entitled "Moral Man and Immoral Society," after one of Niebuhr’s significant works.
I was struck then, and remain transfixed, by Niebuhr’s ability to articulate the moral dilemma of human beings: the necessity of moral action, the certainty that moral action will not only fall short but often result in unanticipated harm. Niebuhr came strongly to mind at the end of this week’s show when New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof spoke of his regard for another philosopher, Isaiah Berlin. Niebuhr’s thought recommends to us a humility not native to our age.
"As we reflect more on Niebuhr, we discover even more practical reasons why it’s important to have a sense of history. We deepen our experience of history through encounters with ideas and events that reflect our stories, told in other times and places. We do this amid our present surroundings. Coming to grips with history deepens our grasp of present reality, while chastening our specific hopes for the future."
Richard Crouter agreed to take our questions about Niebuhr and his meaning for the 21st century.
Why another book about Niebuhr, and why now? What’s behind the apparent Niebuhr revival, if that’s not too strong a word? A revival of interest in Niebuhr is real, even if mainly among intellectual elites. An urgency to hear Niebuhr again arose among political commentators amid shock waves unleashed since 9/11: American hubris in launching the Iraq war, the apparent quagmire in Afghanistan, and a flattening of the U.S. economy that affects all but the super rich. Because he’s on Barack Obama’s reading list (“one of my favorite philosophers”), the return to Niebuhr deepens our musings regarding presidential policy and leadership. When I began the book, Obama and financial collapse were not on the horizon. In the process of writing, even I was surprised by how often Niebuhr’s views shed light on the ongoing headlines and fears of our day, including the association of religion with violence. As in his lifetime, Niebuhr’s reception among American churches is more nuanced and mixed, for reasons that are examined in the book.
You propose that Niebuhr is concerned with, and particularly insightful about, the topic of “human nature,” and you assert that “He did so in the awareness that Christian teaching about human sinfulness is often despised and little understood, even by Christians who are regular church-goers.” So many modern and post-modern thinkers would reject the idea that thinking about sin could be in any way useful in the 21st century. Other loud voices in our world choose to focus on the perceived sins of others, rather than their own sinfulness, or on sinfulness as a quality that makes us distinctly, tragically human. What makes Niebuhr’s thoughts about sin distinct and useful in our sophisticated, technological age?
We ignore at our peril what Niebuhr means by sinful humanity, even if we choose to describe this reality differently. Self-preoccupation that leads to moral blindness among individuals and groups is undeniable in human affairs. Less obvious is the fact that for Niebuhr the thrust of moral good is ever present among us. That’s why the labels “pessimist” and “optimist” don’t work for him. Though the names and ideologies that shape history change, Niebuhr is a perennialist.
"Taking the Long View of History" (chapter 2) directly opposes being mesmerized by obsessive 24/7 news cycles. Having a large picture of human grandeur and folly puts our aspirations and losses as individuals, families, and nations into fresh perspective. Stated differently: Niebuhr speaks to our era because he never restricted himself to his own era. We gain courage to act and to persevere when we see how his view of human complexity addresses the deepest problems of our own time and place.
In this chapter on sin, you cite Augustine and say he “was aware of the fickleness and fragility of the will, its easy ability to follow a disordered desire.” Disordered desire, arguably, is the engine — or a significant driver — of the consumer economy. Is there room for this sort of insight in our daily lives? How does Niebuhr help make room for it? It’s natural for us to resist Niebuhr’s insight into our precarious condition. Yet his acerbic wit regarding our pretension and avoidance of self-knowledge is the perfect antidote to the blustering of ideology in our day, whether from the right or from the left. Like the longshoreman-author Eric Hoffer, he knew that “true belief” without any self-doubt leads to fanaticism, both in religion and in politics. Niebuhr’s analysis of human avarice perfectly captures the financial debacle and lust for consumer goods of the 21st century. He didn’t write about ecology. But his insistence upon learning to accept limits fits our need to care for the Earth more radically than at present. His sayings and wry allusions jar us into self-recognition: taking the first step towards hopeful realism is a powerful impulse towards approximations of justice in our diverse and fractious society.
One of the great services your book provides is to be a pocket-sized compendium of some of Niebuhr’s pithiest and most penetrating writing, as well as a lens into how he was viewed in his time by other thinkers and writers. I especially enjoyed the chapter “Connecting with Wit and Words” for the light it shed on his role not as a theologian and pundit and policy thinker so much as a man of letters who knew Auden and Trilling and Archibald McLeish. Auden is another 20th century figure whose once mammoth influence is not much celebrated these days, and you point out he became a thorough Niebuhrian. That put me in mind of the lines in Auden’s poem in memory of Freud: “to us he is no more a person/ now but a whole climate of opinion” True of Niebuhr? In a word, yes. Thinking about Niebuhr as a writer (“Connecting with Wit and Words”) arose from an awareness of the frequency that his sayings and aphorisms appear among pundits, not to mention devotees of Twitter and Facebook. In writing the book, I felt an acute need to bridge the gap between casual acquaintance with Niebuhr’s name and the work of specialists. Auden’s lines, penned in memory of Sigmund Freud, are most apt. Written a year after the psychiatrist’s death, the same insight applies to my effort to bring Niebuhr alive amid the clamor of opinion that surrounds his name. One of the underlying points of the book is that the dead, whether major scientists, composers, psychiatrists, or theologians, are never really gone. Being alert to their legacy is part of what it means to have a sense of history. What Niebuhr really stood for matters, even if his teaching is surrounded by a divergent and contradictory climate of opinion.
Is there one particular story or anecdote about Niebuhr you find most useful or enlightening about the man himself? One incident remains indelible in my mind and pops up in the book at various points. It’s an image of Niebuhr — the tough-minded critic of U.S. arrogance and of Communism — emerging from retirement to stand in the Social Hall of Union Theological Seminary in 1967 to address students on the folly of the war in Vietnam. He began his criticism of the war by peering into his (mostly) youthful audience and slowly intoning the words, “History always repeats itself, but never in the same way.” At the time I had no idea the underlying thought would become so deeply etched in my mind or provide so much food for thought for me as an interpreter of history. It was his way of wrestling with the perennial problem of continuity and change, the repeated and the novel aspects of our unfolding human story. Looking back I see the Niebuhr book as a meditation on the permanent value of his teaching on politics, religion, and Christian faith, even if Niebuhr’s perspective — true to his adage — asserts itself in diverse and surprising ways.
Richard Crouter is the John M. and Elizabeth W. Musser Professor of Religious Studies Emeritus at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. His book “Reinhold Niebuhr on Politics, Religion, and Christian Faith” was recently published by Oxford University Press.
When I first lived in the upper Great Plains, I did so as a freshman at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. I still remember the day when my parents’ car pulled away and I was standing by my dorm wondering why I had decided to move almost 800 miles from my home in Montana. While I would miss my parents and friends, I began to miss the mountains almost immediately.
I felt like Beret, the female protagonist in Giants in the Earth who left her home in Norway and moved to Dakota Territory. The vast grasslands and harsh climate nearly drove her mad. When I would look outward, I would think, “There’s nothing to see.” Flat land seemed to stretch everywhere and yet nowhere. Corn fields and soy beans.
Almost 15 years later, I moved back to the Dakotas, this time as a professor in a small Lutheran college in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Once again, I found myself reading Giants in the Earth, wondering if I would go insane from looking at “nothing.” The prairie winds blew hot air all summer long, and in the winter I found it difficult to ski or be outdoors because as soon as it snowed the snow was blown into crusted ice piles.
Then, bit by bit, we became acquainted with new friends whose love for the prairie challenged my notion that it was “full of nothing.” My husband and I began to walk the prairie landscapes with our friends Janet and Ross, who is an environmental biologist and knows the names of every plant, bird, and tree.
I learned about the mating dances of prairie chickens, about the oak stands in Beaver Creek Nature area, and how to listen to the multiple calls of cardinals. Naming the multiplicity and buzzing life forms on the Dakota prairies drew me into what I now see as a change of view. “Nothing” has become “something.” And that something has slowly become a perspective on the Dakotas that has me calling this landscape “home.” It’s a different home than the mountains. But it’s home.
My eyesight has changed — thanks also to my friend Sheila. She’s an artist whose recent works feature the upper Great Plains. I have several of her paintings in our house, including two large prairie landscapes in my home office. When I write or prepare for teaching, I need to have “space” — openness where ideas can move around, where I can take a deep breath.
Since the actual office space isn’t very large, I find that her paintings create that space for me. The painting right above my computer is my favorite of hers. Large boulders are in the foreground of a prairie horizon. Two tree trunks frame the view through which I look into a receding horizon. I have always thought it was late summer or early fall when the ground is browned by the sun and the sky is dotted by a few white clouds. I always want to enter that place, sit on one of the rocks, and look into the spacious expanse of prairie. The view begs one to take ample time, time that is as plentiful and full as the panorama. When my life gets full of too much — iPods, voicemails, emails — then I come to this view to redesign my life, to change my surroundings.
Sheila’s views have become my spiritual lens for a geographical restructuring and transformation of my life. I hope that while on sabbatical I can find more views, and maybe even offer to others what Sheila has offered me.
Who we are is where we are. Or at least where we have been and where we are going. I think about time: When? How long? I have been thinking a lot about the boundaries, borders, situations, dimensions, and locations of our lives. When and where are interrelated. When and where is a complicated plot between local and global, then and now, over and under. What are the maps that we take through these journeys? What does it mean to map the human genome? What are the cartographies of our culture? What are the maps that bypass the “underground” places? Recently, I drove to such a place.
It’s true that you “have to see it to believe it.” Or in other words, to step into this place is to step into the stories it tells. A few months ago, I drove to the golf course in Canton, South Dakota. Between the third and fourth hole on the Hiawatha Golf Club is a small cemetery with the bodies of those who had been kept as inmates in the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians.
I’ve read a lot about this place, but still had not been to the site. It’s not easy to find. Surrounded by a split rail fence is a large grave marker with the names of dozens of American Indians who died at the asylum. There are 121 bodies buried in the graveyard — in the middle of a golf course — on the outskirts of Canton, which is the seat of Lincoln county. In 1899, a local U.S. senator, Richard Pettigrew, brought the federal funds to start this institution. A large historic district in Sioux Falls is named after Pettigrew. When the newly developing field of eugenics was coming of age, many people in the United States believed that one way to rid the country of “troublesome Indians” was to claim that they were “insane” and could be sent to the asylum. Hundreds of American Indians from around the U.S. were sent to the Canton asylum.
The Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians was intended to be a hospital dedicated solely to the “mental illness problem” among Native Americans. What it became was a kind of warehouse for storing “problem” Indians. When the asylum was visited in its later years, the following was noted in a report from Minnesota Public Radio: “The Indian affairs commissioner under President Roosevelt called reports of the asylum reminiscent of the terrible indictments Charles Dickens leveled against English poorhouses and schools.”
More information about the asylum’s operations came from the writings of Dr. Samuel Silk, the clinical director of the country’s premier psychiatric hospital, St. Elizabeth’s in Washington, D.C. He wrote that children were abused; adults were secluded in isolation for years. The asylum did not even meet minimum standards of care.
On the fairway between the third and fourth holes on this golf course, I wondered how my ancestors (Norwegian Lutherans) could live nearby and not know what happened to all these people at the asylum. “Good Norwegian Lutherans.” A “good South Dakota senator.” A history that is painful, ominous, and only 30 miles or so from where I live.
Where do I walk today, in these times that I don’t want to know about? That I turn a blind eye to? Shame won’t do me any good. But a guilt that is confessed, that motivates me to tell this story might help me to do something about all of those whose lives are hidden, not made visible, covered by those in power who don’t want to know. Maybe this wound on the South Dakota landscape can somehow become an anchorage — a reminder of where we are, who has lived here, and most importantly, the suffering of those who went before and whose stories need to be told. I’m learning a lot about the stories that this prairie landscape is telling me.
Ann Milliken Pederson is a professor of Religion at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran in America. She loves to walk with her dogs in the country, hear stories about middle school band students her husband teaches, and read mysteries.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
Live Video: Krista at the Clinton Global Initiative
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Thursday, September 23rd, 2010 9-10 a.m.
We’re streaming live video of Krista leading a plenary session on enhanced access to modern technology at the Clinton Global Initiative. With all the new ways of leapfrogging over old models of infrastructure and bureaucracy, this is an era rife with possibility for deeper civic engagement and better ways of doing business and helping others.
Krista will be joined by five of the foremost thinkers on this topic:
John Chambers – Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Cisco
Jack Dorsey – Co-Founder and Chairman, Twitter
Ory Okolloh – Founder and Executive Director, Ushahidi
Zhengrong Shi – Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Suntech Power Holding Company
Ratan N. Tata – Chairman, Tata Sons
Please join us and share your thoughts and feedback by commenting here or on Twitter!
A 2008 Tashlikh ceremony is performed on the banks of the Mississippi River in St. Paul, Minnesota. (photo: GSankary)
We’re now on the other side of the Days of Awe — the ten-day period starting with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur. This year I participated in a Tashlikh ceremony for the first time since my childhood Hebrew school days. Tashlikh (also referred to as Tashlich) is a ritual of reflection and repentance where people throw shards of bread gather into a flowing body flowing water, symbolically casting off their sins from the previous year.
On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, as joggers and power walkers streamed by, I gathered with a few others by a lake in Minneapolis to recite prayers and sing songs including one of my favorite melodies, Avinu Malkeinu. Later that evening, a larger group of mostly strangers assembled for a Rosh Hashanah potluck featuring sweet kosher wine and home-baked challah. I learned about both of these events online and decided to show up even though I didn’t know anyone. With my family back on the East Coast, I didn’t want to experience the High Holy Days alone.
To break the ice, we introduced ourselves along with the name of a Jewish food that shared the first letter of our first name. When my turn came, I couldn’t think of anything. The group rescued me with "noodle kugel." I wasn’t the only one who got stuck. A Unitarian woman needed the group to brainstorm a Jewish food for her too.
The experience of these rituals surfaced a mix of emotions. It was nice having a place to go on Rosh Hashanah where I was received with openness and warmth. And yet, I didn’t feel exactly at home. In theory, I feel like I should experience a meaningful bond with other Jewish people based on the fact of our shared Jewishness but, in practice, it’s not necessarily enough.
I didn’t grow up reciting prayers or regularly attending services (or even eating noodle kugel for that matter, although my mother makes a mean matzoh ball soup). I’m embarrassed by my hazy recollections of the rituals and prayers and my inability to read Hebrew, much less make out the transliterations. I know that no one is judging me, but it’s difficult to feel estranged in situations that should be like a kind homecoming.
Recently back from a vacation I needed — and with fresh eyes on the intensity of the present moment — I think the most surprising thing about our name change process is how big and dramatic it feels. Names matter, and as clear as I am that our content won’t change moving forward, we are in fact changing our identity. I feel that personally — a little off balance, a little shaky, a little scared. I’m also feeling the upside of those same elemental human emotions: recharged, excited, expectant. But I have had the benefit of nearly two years of thinking about making this change, brainstorming it, seeking counsel about it, and finally reaching a decision.
I realize that most of our listeners have experienced this as sudden, without all that time and deliberation. This is one of those life lessons: the stressfulness of change, good or bad, is something that we have to re-experience and re-learn again and again and again. I want to thank everyone who has shared their thoughts and reactions across the board. We are listening, reading, and absorbing all of this into the ethos and attitude with which we will inhabit our new name. I often refer to SOF/Being as an adventure as much as a program. This process brings home anew — in a way we could not have imagined when we started — that this is very much a collective adventure.
One other dimension of this experience has struck me with surprising force: a sadness about relinquishing the word “faith.” And I want to acknowledge that there is grief in this for me too, mixed in with all those other emotions I named above. I’ve thought a lot about the limits of words in the years before and since Speaking of Faith began. I thought we could fill that phrase with connotations beyond those that had been imparted by the culture wars, and we have for many. But there are words we have to let go of, at least for a time, when they cease to carry the meaning they have for us in the ears of others. The positive challenge of letting go of the word, however treasured, is that we are then liberated and compelled to find fresh, varied, vivid language to say what we mean — not relying on shorthand that isn’t shorthand after all — and to show rather than tell.
Most of the grief we’re hearing is from Christian listeners, and I have had some interesting and heartening exchanges with Christian theologians and religious leaders — people who have a stake in the “faith” word. This came from a very esteemed Christian church historian and theologian:
Naming is always hard. I sometimes find it easier to write a book than to name it.
The old name and the surrogates admittedly don’t work well in our culture. “Faith,” “Religion,” “Spirituality” can confuse or alienate or distance some potential listeners.
We have to admit, then, though, that no replacement can please all or serve all; solutions have to be partial.
The name has to be inclusive, but also say something. “Being” is about as inclusive as anything can be; ask Paul Tillich or Martin Heidegger or other out-of-reach beings. (We Lutherans are trained to say of “church” etc that it is not a “being” but a “becoming,” but that wouldn’t be becoming for your purposes.
I think you and your conversations partners will give flesh to this spirit in countless variations. You can even allow some existentialists on, “being” being their specialty.
So I’ll be listening and watching!
I am very aware, as we have finally moved into this transition last week and this week and next week, that it is up to us to fill this new name with connotations and meaning. I think we’re up to it, and I know and trust that our listeners/readers will hold us accountable!
Helping One Person Matters More than Saving Thousands
by Shubha Bala, associate producer
"If I look at the mass I will never act." —Mother Teresa
It’s hard for people to relate to statistics and big numbers when hearing about disasters and people suffering. The question for advocates, and journalists, is how big is too big? Paul Slovic says the magic number is two.
In a study from the Decision Science Research Institute, Slovic and his team presented some people with the opportunity to donate to a starving girl named Rokia, and others to a starving boy named Moussa. People responded compassionately to their cause. He then presented a third group of people with the opportunity to donate to both Rokia and Moussa, helping both of them equally. Surprisingly, people were less likely to donate anything at all when they were presented with two starving children.
For New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, our guest on next week’s show, this has meant focusing on one person’s story. Devoted to raising awareness of human rights and poverty, he told Krista, “My job as a journalist is to find these larger issues that I want to address but then find some microcosm of it, some Rokia who can open those portals and hopefully get people to care.”
In the non-profit world, some organizations have found success by creating a model around this idea — child sponsorship organizations or Kiva, for example. Microfinance organizations weren’t new, but a model in which one could seemingly loan directly to an individual was. As a result, Kiva exploded onto the American donor scene. Even though in both of these cases donations aren’t going directly into the hands of the recipient, Kiva capitalized on the human instinct to take action to help one person in need. Organizations like DonorsChoose.org have used this same model to fund education projects within the United States.
It is not altogether shocking that we feel more compassion when we have relatable stories. But what stands out in Slovic’s paper is a study in which groups were either given the story of Rokia, a list of statistics, or the story of Rokia combined with more general statistics.
"Donations in response to the identified individual, Rokia, were far greater than donations in response to the statistical portrayal of the food crisis. Most important, however, and most discouraging, was the fact that coupling the statistical realities with Rokia’s story significantly reduced the contributions to Rokia. Alternatively, one could say that using Rokia’s story to ‘put a face behind the statistical problem’ did not do much to increase donations.”
And, this is one of the points Nicholas Kristof makes in next week’s show — how to make us care enough about massive, global tragedies to act.
On my 40th birthday, nearly ten years ago, this radio program was much more a possibility than a reality, and I was in despair. I was encountering skepticism at every turn; nothing was working out. I was about to give up — certain that this adventure, however passionately I had believed in it, was coming to an end. But somehow a copy of Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows’ translations of Rilke’s Book of Hours fell into my hand. I still vividly remember my defeated mood as I opened it up and read this poem in a coffee shop:
God speaks to each of us as he makes us, then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall, go to the limits of your longing. Embody me.
Flare up like flame and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final. Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life. You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand. —Rilke’s Book of Hours, I, 59
After reading this poem (listen to Joanna Macy’s recitation) for the first time those years ago, I began to breathe again. It cleared none of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles away. It simply gave me courage to keep moving forward, one foot in front of the other. This project might not work out, the dream might not come true, but I would see it through to the end.
So I made big shadows. I let beauty and terror happen to me. I learned a new universe of things about the seriousness of “the country they call life.” And after years of starts and stops, this program made its way into that country too.
I’ve ever after been grateful to Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows, not just to Rilke. I spent the early part of my adult life in Germany and had first read Rilke’s poetry in his singular, inventive, lush German. Until I found Macy and Barrows’ book, I didn’t believe any translator could render him into English.
They even translate his sense of the urgency about his century to the urgency of the century that is ours. And it is a gift, and a joy, to hear Rilke’s words in Joanna Macy’s English and even more in her voice as she ponders what she has learned in 81 years bravely lived and deeply examined. She knew Cold War Europe and also post-colonial India. There, her husband ran the newly minted Peace Corps, and she came to work with Tibetan refugees fleeing their country, following the exile of the young Dalai Lama. She later became an environmental activist before that term entered our global lexicon, visiting ravaged Chernobyl, protesting the Three Mile Island catastrophe. She is a delightedly wise elder, a kind of voice I love to bring to the air. And in all of her experiences, she has also acquired a long view of time with regard to political, spiritual, and ecological realities.
In our conversation for "A Wild Love for the World," for example, she says this of her early discoveries about environmental degradation. “I realized that we were, through technology, having consequences with our decisions … that reached into geological time. … That we are making choices that will affect whether beings thousands of generations from now will be able to be born sound of mind and body.”
These days, Joanna Macy is best known as a Buddhist scholar and a philosopher of ecology. Her poetic sensibility and Buddhist savvy combine to give her a fresh and challenging take on our collective encounter with the environment now — an unfolding encounter that may define economics, cultures, and wars as well as ecology in the century ahead. Joanna Macy insists that we must embrace our passionate love for the world if we are to work with our grief at its unravelings and keep hope alive. She offers courage for the whole challenge of life and love in this present day.
It is so fitting and lovely that she should become our first show as Being.
The view of the Greenbelt Festival grounds. (photo: Cary Gibson)
During the last week of August, 20,000 sojourners gathered at the 37thGreenbelt Festival in Cheltenham, England. Greenbelt’s identity as a social justice and arts festival has always been firmly rooted within a Christian tradition that is world-affirming, politically and culturally engaged, seeking embrace over exclusion.
The program is so vast and diverse it’s impossible to encounter more than a fraction of what is on offer. There’s no single Greenbelt experience; there are 20,000 Greenbelt stories. This is just a thin slice of mine.
"GB10" marked my 18th year at the festival, so it’s fair to call it something of a pilgrimage — to a sacred space that exists amongst the people in an atmosphere of intentional, mutual welcome. These four days each year have often been the closest thing I’ve had to church. And, for the friends with whom I make the pilgrimage, Greenbelt has an important role in our community: we gather from around the world to embrace togetherness, share meals that anchor our days, and have our ongoing conversations woven with new threads.
This year’s festival held personal significance for me. As I prepare to marry and immigrate to the United States, my best friend Jayne and I were on perhaps our last Greenbelt road trip together. This end of an era was salved with celebration of new beginnings ahead and the gratitude for all we’ve shared thus far. In recent years we’ve been attending as contributors with Ikon, an experimental arts collective from Belfast, Northern Ireland. Our summers are usually busy with creative planning for our festival events. Free of any such logistical responsibilities this year, I found myself looking to be provoked by others.
Greenbelt marks something of a New Year moment — an opportunity to reflect on the year since the last festival, to have one’s mindfulness reawakened, to be reinvigorated for the year to come. Contemplating the theme of “the art of looking sideways,” I found myself wondering, ‘Looking sideways at what?’
An art workshop, “I Draw To Know Myself Better,” opened with a brief reflection on the creativity all humans share: we create to know ourselves, our world, and our place in it. Making art is a constant process of asking: Who am I? Where am I? Why am I here?
Perhaps as a response, some words of the late John O’Donohue kept coming to mind:
"A review of life usually considers the facts of experience, the thresholds, the situations and the people who participated with us along the way. We take this to be the real material of our lives; it becomes the mirror that allows us to glimpse who we are and what meaning our lives have. The facts of what we have lived stand out. We take them as given and real. Yet all these facts have issued from that huge adjacency of possibility, that neighboring world that shimmers invisibly behind all that we take to be real." —The Poetics of Possibility
That adjacent realm is perhaps what lies close when one is in what the Celtic tradition calls “a thin place.” That neighboring world is one pregnant with possibility, and it is calling us to remember to look sideways. Looking askance, we might find a world of possibilities inviting us, and discover that maybe the stories we haven’t (yet) lived are the ones we haven’t (yet) heard telling themselves to us. If there is possibility that wants us to hear its invitation, tapping our shoulder so that we might notice and bring it into the visible world, to breathe its life, then maybe our alternative futures are with us all the time, walking beside us.
Greenbelt is a space in which people gather to think critically and its long tradition of social justice theology is rooted both in the realities of human experience and the hopeful possibilities of just peace. As the festival approached, I was troubled by ensuing religious controversies denying the freedom and dignity of the LGBTQ and Islamic communities. I’d been thinking a lot about Jesus’ parable of The Good Samaritan, conscious of how easy it is to walk on by in silence rather than serving those suffering on the roadside. The theme of the festival for me became one of living intentionally, mindful of possibility, seeking to turn and see the stranger in need who is my neighbor at my side. What alternative ways of being and action might I better embody? I found myself, once again, challenged to think through my own privileges — particularly of economic class, nationality, race, and education — but also inspired.
Dave Andrews stridently challenged the festival, and me, on the vital gospel response to poverty and injustice here on Earth with Jesus’ words in "The Be-Attitude Revolution." My dear friend Pádraig O Tuama also explored “incarnational theology” in "How Do You Spell Hell?" — a mirthful, moving, and characteristically poetic sharing of real stories, which express what it means to be present to one another and recover our personhood in life’s most broken experiences.
In a thought-provoking panel discussion on musicians and artists as social activists, Dan Haseltine, founder of blood:water mission said, “Activism is in the DNA of the artist” — the artist’s prophetic role is to tell real stories that expose the beauty and life that persists in the midst of horror. I’ve been thinking a lot about his comment that any act of service done for another, however small, is a counter cultural act, because our culture isolates us. When we tell of the hell experienced by our neighbor-in-need, prophetic voices are not called to provoke paralysis. For even though so many of us in the Western church are living in the persistent contradiction of our prosperity, when we choose to think critically about the impact of our actions, he added, “It’s not everything. It’s not nothing. And that’s something.”
Greenbelt 2011’s theme is Dreaming of Home. There’s a tender kind of irony to think that I’ll be living far from many of these friends I love. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from Greenbelt, it’s this: There are thin places everywhere, where the unseen is palpably present, ripe with possibility and therefore hope. I can’t do everything but I won’t do nothing. If one remembers to look sideways and be wholly present to our neighbor-in-need and welcome the possibilities for alternative peaceful & just futures we might share, then this life can be it’s own kind of pilgrimage: an everyday act of something.
Cary Gibson currently lives in Dublin, Ireland. She explores theology through the arts and recently completed an MA in Women’s Studies at University College Dublin. She has a habit of blogging and tweeting.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on SOF Observed. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
Reem El Shafaki, an Egyptian now living in New Jersey, stands in front of the proposed site of the Park51 mosque and cultural center in lower Manhattan. (photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
The news has been thick with polarized debates about proposed Qur’an burnings in Florida and the Park51 project. Tamara Lee, a listener from Hopewell, New Jersey, writes us looking for some advice:
"I’m increasingly frustrated by the inability of so many people, particularly Americans, to distinguish between the religion of Islam and the culture of some Islamic countries. I’ve long respected the religion even though some aspects of the culture are less appealing to me. Of late, I am particularly concerned that Muslims seem to be afraid of non-Muslims. I would like to become involved with a group that strives to combat this fear. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated."
If you have any recommendations to pass along to Tamara, post a comment here and we’ll be sure to relay them to her.