Friday, December 26, 2008

Be Good and Grow Rich: Reversing the Economic Meltdown

Frank Kaufmann

December 23, 2008

"Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."
Albert Einstein

Why is it that suddenly everyone seems lost. Only weeks ago, the pantheon of cable news finance wizards flooded our lives around the clock with pride, bluster, and "expertise." And while they frothed and “explained,” lust and frenzy infected world markets like bone cancer. A financial world was built with bedrock institutions packaging, selling, and buying less than nothing.

When natural laws of economics finally tore though the mirage, financial meltdown fell on us like a flesh eating virus that continues relentlessly and with a vengeance. Extreme responses arose in all sectors with leaders scurrying about like those on the deck of the Titanic hit. Makeshift measures to stanch hemorrhaging in this spot or that were passed in panic, but none brought about a settling, stabilizing, or passing of the storm. We wait with baited breath to see if, when, and how great the carnage, pain, and suffering finally will be. Fully one third of savings have evaporated.

Those working on fixes are not working on a level that matches the depth and nature of the crisis. Everything that breaks does so because essentials are violated, basic elements collapse under the strain. Analyses and proposed remedies must start with clear-headed investigation of what fundamentally broke. What was violated? What snapped? What basic laws and rules were stretched to the breaking point?

Current recommended remedies stem from and remain mired in this mentality of violation and untruth. The slide will pause now at 35% loss, giving us the opportunity to awaken, change, and begin to recover. If we do not acknowledge what we have wrought, the economy will drop its next third, leaving none from this generation to see recovery.

3 sectors are responsible for failures comprising the global economic crisis, the business and financial sector, the political arena, and the media. Great wrong, great greed, and great dysfunction took place under the watch of each of these 3 sectors, each having failed in their respective responsibilities to be sure that such things never happen. The reform of the economy cannot be achieved through the application of mere “economic” fixes. Recovery requires reform, acknowledgement of wrongdoing, taking responsibility for harm done, and commitment to change in each of these three areas.

The economic crisis happened by violating two basics: 1.Self interest cannot evolve into greed to the degree that personal, material lust is sated without regard for the human condition of “the neighbor.” 2. Production and consumption may not persist in a manner and degree that outstrips nature's capacity to repair and rejuvenate herself. The economic meltdown is not merely the fruit of greed. It more accurately occurred through the the deadening of the heart.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, almost 1 billion people suffer in this year's global food shortages. The number of undernourished, the FAO said, rose by 40 million, following a 75 million jump the previous year. This is simply forbidden. Prosperity and suffering in such magnitude are not coterminous.

Growth of value (perceived by many as growth of capital) cannot continue unchecked when doing so is happens in ways that violate basic human norms and morality. The meltdown will not relent nor subside until approaches at resolution address real causes. Lust for personal profit and consumerist excess may not be sought in anti-human and anti-environment structures and patterns.

The way to genuine recovery, growth, and the return of wealth will come to enterprises oriented specifically to the causal factors of the meltdown. Industries that fit this bill will experience genuine growth and profit. These will produce jobs and wealth aplenty. On the other hand, proposals based on the persistent breaking of natural rules and rectitude not only will fail rescue the economy, but will drive the meltdown further. If we snap the 35% loss barrier through obstinately not learning, the collapse will become irreparable.

What is needed now for recovery is the very opposite of current approaches seeking desperately to resuscitate over-heated, self-gratification, and debt-fueled consumerist materialism.

Real solutions that will turn the tide to recovery will be led by industries and entrepreneurs devoted to the restoration of balance in human affairs, balance such that acquisitiveness is no longer admired if it fails to be coupled with minimum concern for vast numbers of suffering people, the millions who starve and die without hope. Industry that retools itself to create opportunity, housing, education, and work for the needy will prosper.

Secondly, everything entrepreneurial that is devoted to restoring nature's capacity to repair and sustain herself while keeping apace with non-excessive human consumption will prosper.

In short, consumption, growth, and wealth are fine. But gluttonous, consumerist materialism cannot be celebrated and encouraged 1. while able-bodied men and women with families cannot eat or lead lives with minimal opportunity and dignity and 2. when consumption happens in ways that break mother nature's ability to repair herself and sustain environmental balance and health.

In the present moment, industries designed to fix these abuses and violations naturally will inherit and enjoy the privilege of growth and profitability.

Frank Kaufmann is the director of the Inter Religious Federation for World Peace. The opinions here are his own.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

India terror aftermath - Greater integration needed

This morning's AP headline reads "Pakistan U-turns on sending spy chief to India." Three links down on the Google "news page," its collection of links is the Hollywood Today headline: "Mumbai Massacre Now Linked to Pakistan: War to Follow?" making it clear that those who generate current world problems are not merely the lawless and conscience-less villains at the extremes, but rather that our problems stem with near equal abundance from dysfunction, irresponsibility and dangerous blindness in the heart of the "mainstream." While my heart grieves for the innocent in India, a country so beloved to me, I struggle to suppress a heart of anger at institutions like Hollywood Today. I struggle for a moment to cling to the ideal of free press in moments like this. The problem is that the term "free" is false. The vast amount of world media slaves under its yolk of its economic need or lust, and this is not freedom. It is bondage. A cure must be found.

Yet the problem of living more responsibly, and with a more reasonable and holistic grasp of political life, lies not only with much needed reform of media, but also with "the body politic," namely us. We must make it increasingly possible for political leaders to have the breathing room they need to navigate sensitive and fragile territory, especially in hair trigger moments.

The AP article leads with the observation:

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) — Pakistan on Saturday withdrew an offer to send its spy chief to India to help investigate the Mumbai terrorist attacks, damaging efforts to head off a crisis between the nuclear-armed rivals.

Indian officials have linked the attacks to "elements" in Pakistan, raising the prospect of a breakdown in painstaking peace talks between South Asian rivals that has alarmed the U.S.

First, how does it help to desribe these countries as rivals? Everyone are rivals in some areas. And they are partners, collaborators or neutral in others. This is true for India and Pakistan. Why could not the copy read, "painstaking peace talks between South Asian neighbors"? Is this any less true?

Secondly, if indeed this week's horrifying attacks in Mumbai are linked to "elements in Pakistan," why should this be reported as "raising the prospect of a breakdown in painstaking peace talks between South Asian rivals"? Surely there is a vast likelihood that the Mumbai attacks are linked to "elements in Pakistan." Any 10 year old could tell us that. Shocking news would be if the attacks were not at ALL linked to ANY elements in Pakistan. In our world today, everything is linked, and it is like reporting that someone breathed in then breathed out to note the likelihood that terrorists link across national boundaries. Why should such a pat, dull observation "raise the prospect of a breakdown in painstaking peace talks"? Surely Prime Minister Singh was not suggesting that the government of Pakistan was smuggling soul-less animals into Mumbai to shoot up Indian guests and citizens.

The primary point of the AP article notes that Gilani reversed an earlier agreement to send the head of the Inter Services Intelligence agency, had been changed so that a lower-ranking intelligence official would travel instead.

OK. Yes, this can be seen as a disappointment certainly. But it is understandable. Gilani received sharp criticism from Pakistani opposition politicians and a cool response from the army, which controls the spy agency. How hard is that to figure out? Everyone knows the difficulty and stranglehold domestic partisanship poses for national leaders. This is what I mean when I say we (as the body politic) should think in ways that is supportive, helpful, constructive, and reasonable. And we should refuse to continue consuming news presented in ways that we simply know better. These realities are not complicated. Give the leaders room. Let us and the media stop playing pretend. We already know the story. Every national leader is a target from domestic opposition. Each country has a different power configuration, and things are hard.

For these reasons, the greater the persistence for quiet back channels to remain open among leaders the better we can move forward toward peace. Let Gilani and Singh stay in constant communication, and let common sense world citizens support them in all ways to deepen bonds and shared hopes and needs in the region.

The US, despite the decline of its reputation under the current administration, is always a powerful influence in global affairs. Presently nations must navigate quite a radical transition: The current US administration has being trying to persuade Islamabad to shift its security focus from India, with which it has fought three wars, to Islamic militants along the Afghan border, whereas President-elect Barack Obama has identified rapprochement between India and Pakistan as a main plank of his plan to stabilize Afghanistan and defeat al-Qaida.

The former mentioned pressure from the current administration is self-serving and short sighted, whereas the Obama position reflects insight into how stabilization expands. Should India and Pakistan succeed to develop a unified, harmonized and integrated alliance, every last sector of human enterprise in the region would flourish a hundred fold. Such a rich horizon, more than anything else would seek its own natural call through the northwest borders inviting all to the benefits of peace and prosperity.

In the dreams of such a time let us all, especially media, serve such hopes with a more constructive and more common sense to the obvious realities of life and the simple to understand challenges of national leaders.

Frank Kaufmann is the director of the Inter Religious Federation for World Peace. The opinions here are his own.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Natural and Effective Response to Poverty

1. What is poverty from a theological point of view?

If one hopes or presumes to address this wellspring of human indignity, the first and most important task is to establish one's theological assumptions regarding the nature of poverty. Is poverty the will of God? Is it a "natural evil" (like predation in nature for example)? Is it a curse or a punishment?

Is it curable? Or are the demands of our conscience to respond more like a hobby or a self improvement program?

What does God have to do with poverty? Why is it here? Can it be solved? Or are we compelled to respond even though it is a permanent aspect of the human condition?

All actions in relation to poverty must take these questions into account. It is the position of this writer that there is an expression of poverty that is natural, eternal and constructive, but that widespread poverty affecting billions of healthy, well-meaning adults is an evil, an evidence of human failure. Two matters must be solved in order to address these ills: 1. What dimensions of poverty are evil, 2. Where in the process is intervention best applied.

2. Constructive poverty?

What on earth could possibly be described as poverty that is natural, eternal, and constructive? Quite simply it is the pattern of economics that occurs naturally in the family. If we were to analyze matters purely in terms of economic and material welfare, one must confess that comparatively speaking, parents are rich and children are poor. Parents have everything and children have nothing. Why is there nothing wrong with this naturally (and infinitely) arising form of poverty? It is because of the natural impulses, reactions, and response of parents (except when these God-given wisdoms are broken or damaged and replaced by some aberrant malfunction).

Sans brokenness parents naturally respond beautifully to this "imposition of poverty" into their lives. The first thing we do is take care of those matters that are urgent. Parents make sure that "the poor" have food, clothing, shelter, and are protected from danger. No questions asked, no demands made, nothing required in advance or in response. Needs must be addressed. Next (in fact simultaneously) is the natural impulse of parents to respond to the "poverty" that springs up in their household by investing in education for “the poor." Parents naturally provide education for their children, raising them up so that the latter will realize their talents, and become able and equipped to generate their own wealth, acquire independence, and even develop the ability to help others in need . How splendid this is? Also, along the way, others chip in. Parents are not the only ones who involve themselves in lifting up "the poor." Very often older brothers and sisters help too. This constantly and naturally arising "poverty" is the occasion of so much that is sweet, lovely, good, happy and memorable.

For those who claim to be troubled by the evils of poverty and are driven from within to respond, HERE lie our guidelines. This most natural reality and response provides everything we need to know about poverty, and what our proper response should be. In these circumstances (i.e., family) we gain the direct personal experience that instructs us first hand what the ideal, essential response to "poverty" should be. We experience directly that the proper response to "poverty" is natural, good, feels good, and IS good. Poverty is only a problem whenever we fail to respond in this perfectly natural and innate manner. The gift of family life provides all people with the clear ability to respond to “poverty” in good, healthy, loving, constructive, and creative ways.

3. Where to intervene

Interestingly, this "immediacy" or "intimacy of poverty" as it occurs in its natural form (with the birth of our little ones) also shows us the ideal "intervention point" for reversing the forms of poverty that clearly are evil, and violate innate human impulses and the realization of our responsibilities.

Providing there are is no “brokenness” or malfunction in the parents who live at the center of a young family, who are the ones best equipped to address the “needs of the poor,” that attend the joys of child-birth? Is it the state? The “village?” The rich guy down the street? Quite obviously, the persons best equipped to respond are the parents. When everything is in good working order, the best mediator for everything that will lift the newborn from “abject poverty” to wealth, independence, and even to being charitable, are the parents. Many can and do help. Parents alone should not presume to, nor be left to address this transformation on their own. Nevertheless, parents (without dysfunction) are best situated of all to mediate this transformation.

The point to note from this observation is that poverty is best addressed from the “immediate outwards.” Programs or structures that “skip a step” do not work. An overpaid head of an international body for poverty reduction, living indulgently is NOT a good figure to address the evils of poverty. He or she suffers from the lack of intimacy. They are too remote from the distressing impact poverty evokes, regardless of such a person's education or expertise in the academic dimensions of poverty. The efforts of such persons and organizations “skip too many steps.” The projects are unnatural. They violate what is plainly taught and revealed in the natural structures of family.

A person driven to respond to the evils of poverty, should first raise up his or her family to inherit his or her passion and concern. Families should help families. As these bond together and experience first hand the joys and wonder of “ending poverty,” they then can go on to form larger groups and organizations that take up the responsibility to help, support and uplift groups of the next size and next level of social organization.

The point simply is that divinely infused nature reveals and carries with it everything we need to know about the alleviation of poverty. Immediate needs first. No questions, no demands, no expectations. Then (in fact simultaneously) an effective education toward self-sufficiency and independence. Secondly, intimacy first, then expansion. No “skipping steps.” Thank you for reading, now can we treat you to lunch? The kids put in some of their own allowance money too!

Monday, November 03, 2008

Interreligious reception at the American Academy of Religion conference

Please read about the recent panel and reception held by the Inter Religious Federation for World Peace, and the New World Encyclopedia at the annual conference of the American Academy of Religion.

Friday, October 31, 2008

New World Encyclopedia and Inter Religious Federaton - Meeting in Chicago

For 20 years the IRFWP has offered an evening of stimulating and relevant intellectual reflection on the eve of the annual conference of the American Academy of Religion (AAR).

Our panels are vigorous and engaging, set in a warm collegial atmosphere, and our reception provides the chance to catch up with old friends and meet new ones

If you are in Chicago this year, please come.

We would love to see you!

Frank Kaufmann
Inter Religious Federation for World Peace
New World Encyclopedia

AAR invite
About Us

The Inter Religious Federation for World Peace (IRFWP) is a 25 year old initiative for world peace through interreligious dialogue and harmony.

IRFWP has representatives in 192 countries and a database with thousands of active partners, religionists in the academy, clergy, and grass roots leadership.

The New World Encyclopedia (NWE) is designed to organize human knowledge so the reader will learn information not just for its own sake, but for its value to the reader and the world as a whole. It is designed to provide the context and values of our social and organizational relationships, and our relationship with nature and the environment.

The underlying goal of the encyclopedia is to promote knowledge that leads to human happiness, well-being, world peace. It is a useful tool for everyone, and an ideal resource for student research.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Beyond the Meltdown - Part 1

Part 1 of a 3 part series:

Part 1 Unity and division in the pursuit of solutions

The current economic crisis is showing no signs of going away. Already drastic measures have been taken, only to be met with erratic lurches and increased global contagion. There is plenty of blame to go around, and the willingness of many to be divisive at this juncture is harmful to all. These divisions harm chances at recovery. These divisions include partisan, US election-season finger pointing, the exploitation of resentment and class warfare, and the myopic approach to the problem through narrowly economic and political elements.

All thinking people capable of reason, uninfected by the blindness of partisan passions know that neither US political party is better than the other in terms of "goodness." We know that neither Republicans nor Democrats are more or less likely to be better human beings than their counterparts "across the aisle." The same is true on the negative side. In neither party are we more or less likely to find "worse" human beings. The difference between parties lies solely in commitment to differing political ideologies (for all sorts of reasons, some downright inane).

In any case, since the only thing you can find in a political party is people, it means you surely will find some who are thoughtful and some not, some who are sincere and some not, some who are reasonable and some not, some who are consistent, clear, compassionate, responsible, constructive, and some not. Some are greedy, devious, Machiavellian, and specious, and others not. Some are arrogant, closed-minded and supercilious, and others not. These concern being human, they do not concern whatever resulted in a person ending up a Republican or a Democrat. If the current global, economic meltdown is in anyway a result of people being "bad," then it is highly probable that members of both parties have participated in, if not perpetrated the problem.

Secondly it should be obvious to all that both parties function inside the same larger political, economic, and social system in the United States. Both parties function under or seek to bypass the same laws. They pursue identical ends (namely power), and they rely on the same lucre in their respective pursuits of power. These two political parties could not possibly approach parity, unless they are both doing approximately the same things.

These reasons above should make us leery of anyone who tries to convince us that one party or the other is responsible for the crisis. Both are very culpable, each in different ways, for different reasons, and due to different impulses, both good and bad.

Those looking for causes and solutions imagining that one US political party bears greater responsibility for the meltdown will not succeed, and given the urgency of forging an immediate and effective rescue should be chastised for sowing confusion and obstructing an important responsibility. Our only hope properly to analyze and prescribe an effective antidote is to approach the problem transcendent of partisan bias. This requires the capacity to understand the strengths and weaknesses of both political impulses and ideologies so as to see how each contributed the problem, as well as to see what resources and insights exist in each party that will provide for us insights and trends for strategies that will rectify the dysfunction that now threatens the global economy.

The second divisive seduction is the invocation of resentment and class warfare when seeking to analyze and solve the meltdown. The phrase to often heard is "those fat cats on Wall Street," as though we woke up to find that a small group of people have stolen our money and kept it for themselves. There are a good many reasons that make this a false starting point for understanding economic meltdown:

Everyone has long known about executive salaries long before the meltdown, and no one had anything to say

Our own age is no different than all other ages in which the painfully rich do nothing but become ever more painfully rich with each passing moment. This is reality from time immemorial, including from ancient times, the middle ages, the golden age, and all times before and since.

Wall Street maniacs are not alone in the seeking the wild ride of free money, and they are not alone in suffocating themselves in the grotesque glut of wealth and salaries. One need think only of what has happened to entertainers, and sports figures. 50% of (or 52.7 million) of US Households owned equities in some way shape or form in 2002.

Quite simply greed and excess is not best understood or analyzed from the prism of "class." It is better understood as a pervasive phenomenon, and to the extent that the current economic meltdown results from undue greed, the problem and the cure must be approached accurately and sensibly if cures and solutions are to be found.

Again, proposals that describe the problem as originating in the greed of a particular demographic at the exclusion of others are not based in truth (or in some cases in honesty) and cannot by that very fact contribute reliably in effective and necessary analyses.

The final form of division that prevents and impedes the possibility of solving the crisis, and turning back the potential devastation of this economic tsunami might be the most crucial one of the three. This is the propensity to see the problem strictly in political and economic and terms and look only to these sectors for solutions. This can never succeed, and this must be rejected urgently. This 3rd and final division is taken up in more detail in part 2 of this series, The Nature of Wealth: What can be rescued.

Part 2 The nature of wealth: What can be rescued
Part 3 Industries for short and long term prosperity

Frank Kaufmann is the director of the Inter Religious Federation for World Peace. The opinions here are his own.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Balanced analysis of the economic crisis

There is a vote McCain video (<-- click) in circulation that offers careful research to show that the current economic crisis is caused by Democrats and the history of finance and legislation designed to "provide housing for the poor." My friend and colleague Gordon L. Anderson, Ph.D., author of Philosophy of the United States: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, responded to the person who sent him the pro-McCain-the-Democrats-are-the-problem video with this following response.

I found Gordon's response balanced and insightful:


This is a pretty good description of why many of the most tragic mortgage foreclosures on poor people in the inner city occurred. However, there was a larger aspect. The two states with the highest foreclosure rates were Florida and California. In Miami, much of this was based on a "flipping" craze, where development raged and many middle and upper middle class speculators took advantage of the low interest rates to buy condos without ever expecting to personally live in them. In California, homes began to average $850,000. This was not your lower class democrat buying these homes; it was yuppies who wanted to buy a house in California. Many others around the country bought these loans on executive houses of $500,000 or more and they simply walked away from them when the credit bubble burst. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac did these bad things-and I am afraid FDIC is no better prepared. But at the core is a credit bubble designed by the Federal Reserve Banks, Oil Companies, and large companies like Hewlett Packard and auto manufactures who wanted easy credit for consumers to buy their products, as much as the sleight of hand tried by liberal politicians like Obama.

This is a long-time problem brewing. Part of it related to changes in laws by banking and financial lobbyists. They supported supply-side economics under Reagan, but under Clinton the Glass-Stegal Act, designed in the 1930s to prevent some of this was repealed in 1999 making way for the Citibank-Travelers merger. During the last twenty years a number of conflict of interest laws were repealed that reduced oversight on fraud and corruption. There is plenty of responsibility on the part of both Republicans and Democrats.

This video showed how the inner city democrats pushed for loans for poor people and destroyed lives of their constituents rather than helping them. The flip side is that wealthy industries were lobbying Republicans for easy credit for their constituents. In the end both parties and many Americans, raised in a period of economic prosperity, failed to understand financial discipline and accepted credit like an opiate of the masses. The root cause is thus lack of understanding natural laws and basic economic principles-an educational and moral weakness. Our political leaders represent the same lack of self discipline as the culture at large.

The last twenty years our economy has been rooted in the philosophy of earning money from someone else's work. When everyone is trying to get more than they personally produce you have economic decline. Couple that with the national trade deficit, of which dependence on foreign oil plays a major role, and you have a prescription for economic collapse. Republicans and Democrats are both responsible.

The only sound government stands upon citizens who produce more than they consume and have both the freedom and ability to take care of themselves. The layers of government which sit on this foundation need to each become smaller, like a pyramid, with each level of government supporting the one on top of it. It defies the laws of society to have the upper levels of a pyramid support the lower, but that is exactly what our society wants to do. It is a fiction. Family, Society, Nation, World-each is a level that needs to support the level on top of it, not the other way around.

There is another issue related to regulation which we must learn about. Total deregulation of an economy is like having a Superbowl game with no referees. You will hear big business lobby for this type of "free market" because on an unlevel playing field they will win. Just like the biggest guys will be standing at the end of a football game. This is anarchy, plain and simple. The genuine free market is what our founding fathers promoted; it included checks and balances on accumulations of power and sanctions when the actions of one person caused harm to another. This way everyone can play on the field without disadvantage.

The other side is what you see the democrats doing-trying to turn government into business. To socialize or even to create government businesses that compete with the free market by giving the government subsidized business the upper hand on the playing field. The only truly free market is one in which the government plays the role of a referee in which neither the government abdicates its role as referee-with fair laws-nor tries to become a player on the economic field itself. You won't find either party advocating this proper role of government in the economy because, simply put, lobbying is too lucrative. It is more profitable to twist the laws in favor of lobbyists than to make them consistent with the objectives of the U.S. Constitution and the Philosophy of the United States founders like Franklin and Jefferson. (Who both argued that consolidation of credit at the federal level should be avoided at all costs.)

One could get into further discussion of taxation policies that also cause unlevel playing fields, and how big players colluded with the government in ways that shifted tax policies to forms that are both unconstitutional and cause a form of serfdom (they undermine the principles of property rights and the right to the fruits of your labor. But that gets beyond the immediate crisis at hand.

But the main conclusion it this: Don't expect either McCain or Obama, or the Republican or Democratic Party to solve these problems. These are two sides the big guys give us to occupy our time. It is more like rooting for Hulk Hogan or Sting in a wrestling match than doing anything that will affect Vince McMahon's control over the entire process. Both conventions were choreographed presentations for the media. There was not one iota of a chance they would contain any real discussions or dialogue. Those who differed were thrown out by the secret service and the police.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Conflict Tests Ties Between the Georgian and Russian Orthodox Churches

On September 6, 2008, on page A5 of the New York edition of the New York Times this article (<-- click) "Conflict Tests Ties Between the Georgian and Russian Orthodox Churches," by Sophia Kishkovsky appeared. In it Kishkovsky explains the struggle and sorrow experienced by Orthodox leaders of the two respective Churches over the recent military aggression between the Russia and Georgia.

Today, blood is being shed and people are perishing in South Ossetia, and my heart deeply grieves over it,” Patriarch Aleksy said in a statement on Aug. 8 as the fighting raged. “Orthodox Christians are among those who have raised their hands against each other. Orthodox peoples called by the Lord to live in fraternity and love are in conflict.”

This article and this development is important at least for two reasons:

  1. We see potential signs that religion can serve as a harmonizing force across warring boundaries

  2. We see signs that media analysis and reportage is maturing beyond debilitating bias of secular parochialism

The struggle and lamentation of both Georgian and Russian, Orthodox Church leaders demonstrates the potential for religion to serve as a unifying factor, a voice of conscience, and an impetus to move states and militaries away from nation state habit of killing people, harming nature, and destroying property.

In this particular case, the sensibility and concern happened to be because all victims and targets were from the same religion (Orthodoxy). But isn't it possible for us as a species to evolve beyond the archaic shackles of religious parochialism, so that this type of despair suffered and expressed by these Orthodox leaders, would equally arise in the hearts of all religious leaders any and every time any believer from any religion suffers from political and military actions? Or for that matter, couldn't religious leaders grow to feel the same sense of the unconscionable, not only when a co-religionist, or a even a believer suffers, but even when when human beings degenerate to the point of killing, harming, and destroying life, the earth, and property?

Perhaps the solidarity and lament seen this time in the confines of denominationalism, for believers who happen to be of just one sort can serve as an example and as an ideal for the emergence of a broader, greater, and more expansive spirituality that draws from the same basic impulse and sensibility.

If international diplomatic efforts had less of a tin ear for clues from the universe of religion and religious identity, one might have recognized an opportunity in this “cross-enemy” solidarity so rarely found in the midst of this sort of dangerous and horrible war. Could not this Christian (albeit denominational) high-mindedness be seen as a window through which higher, less divisive positions and provocations might have been seized by the United States?

GOP presidential nominee John McCain (perhaps feeling a campaign wedge in the offing) outpaced his own government to rattle US sabers against Russia. Soon thereafter reports came in of a a rare Dick Cheney sighting, this time as he surfaced in Georgia itself to threaten and further sour US-Russia relations.

Might not a more elegant and holistic foreign policy approach to such an intensely sensitive international breakdown, benefit by recognizing a rare and pre-established harmonizing force through these Orthodox leaders? Why not trade on the so-called “Christianness” of American identity and stand in solidarity with leaders from both countries who in unison are calling on conscience and community to rise above the geopolitical forces that led to this tragic and dangerous conflict? Could not “America” have stepped through this door, to engage the leaders on both sides of this dangerous conflict?

We must note and indeed celebrate in this article an occasion in which a writer from mainstream, liberal media has done a fine and impressive job making religious matters, and religious history clear and comprehensible for a popular readership.

Let us hope that the secular bias that has so harmed and diminished the fullness of analysis and human understanding is starting to turn the corner, and fair and solid reporting like this can become a more frequent staple in the news we consume daily.

Frank Kaufmann is the director of the Inter Religious Federation for World Peace. These opinions are his own.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Getting Better the Hard Way

Religious people know that God (by whatever name) is greater than the evil of which we as a race are capable. They know that the love of God is such that our positive welfare is sought more than arbitrary punishment for our misdeeds. The combination of God's perfect love and power with with responsiveness from the faithful produce a fascinating reality, a reality that benefits everyone, not just the faithful. The reality I describe here is this, God's love and power plus the positive conditions created by the faithful (in all faiths) translate or repackage all horror into pathways from which positive good can arise. This is always the case, as it is also now in current world affairs.

On September 11, 2001 violent and resentful people attacked the United States of America, killing 3,000 non-combatants, including many Muslims. Surat 5.032 in the Qu'ran compares the murder of one innocent soul to the taking of all human life! These vile and violent assailants who in their acts violated dozens of Qu'ranic injunctions, nevertheless attributed their decisions and actions as an expression of Islam (rather than misunderstanding their actions as an expression of some other religion or ideology). All perpetrators came from the Islamic cultural sphere.

Attack on a sovereign nation is a political act that requires political and in virtually all cases even a military response. Virtually all wars (since they deal with ultimates, absolutes, and uncertainties) resort to a "God is on our side" mentality (this is a natural result of the fact the humans are related to God, and tend to call on God (or some superstition surrogate) when things are uncertain and scary). In this case the tragedy of religious error escalated drawing the beautiful religion of Christianity unwillingly into the hellish energy spawned by the 911 attacks. (Too bad famous, inhospitable, and intolerant people who are believed by many to be Christian added bigoted opinion into the foolishsphere, adding to the (false) impression that hostilities are "religious.")

As this degenerate, violent, and murderous spirit persists one is tempted to bemoan the fact that the original perpetrators chose to identify their villainy with a world religion. Indeed government and security policy decided to accept the position of the 911 killers. Something like, "11 suicidal, murderous guys called it Islam, so we'll call it Islam." As a result, great injustice, bigotry and intolerance of a religious flavor has come to influence the behavior and attitudes of secular people and institutions (as well as those who live by a perverted (bellicose) form of their respective religions) . This fact that secular activity (such as economics, security, military activity, international relations etc.) have been drawn downward under impulse of intolerance and religious bigotry, lead many in the world to imagine that ours is a time in which interreligious relations are at an all time low.

The fact however, is that this is not the case. Precisely because those carrying out demonic and murderous agendas at present do so openly relating themselves to perversions of this religion or that, behavior among genuinely religious people actually is reaching new heights of enlightenment, humility, charity, openness, and transtradition collaboration. Because genuinely religious people are being SO badly misrepresented by murderous and demonic perps, they are living their religions to an ever more beautiful and exemplary degree. Also because "combat-based" secular institutions (such as security and military) have become vaguely and confusedly tied to "religion" in name, here again genuine religious believers in a near excessive effort to demonstrate just the very opposite presently show a breadth, embrace, and respect for other traditions that we have never seen before. The great irony is that, one almost could say that this is a good time for religion. Its true adherents are showing all its best and most promising elements and dimensions.

The only unfortunate part of the tale is that it took such a terrible breakdown in secular relations to evoke, regenerate, and spur to hitherto unreached levels of interreligious, mutual embrace and collaboration. But this rubber-band style of narrative unfortunately always has been the burden borne by the divine. The best of our religiosity and spirituality almost always is evoked only by breakdown and tragedy. Hopefully soon, we will rise to point at which flourishing spirituality energizes itself through its own healthy and positive benefits, rather than laying dormant until fear, despair, and emergency awaken us as a last resort.

Under ordinary circumstances, even good religious people have tended to sit contentedly in their respective cocoons, not bothering to care about how our neighbors pray, dream, raise our children, and seek to be better people day by day. But in a world folding together as one family, even this peaceful (but parochial) way of being religious cannot be seen as acceptable. There is still too much separation in such a set up, and this "uncaring" way cannot be seen as consistent with the guidance and preferences from God (by whatever name). Strangely then, the 911 attacks have led to a flourishing of religious life, and a level of multi-religious collaboration the world has not seen in many an eon.

The flourishing interfaith world is reaching an ever more sophisticated depth and healthy complexity, but we must recognize a much higher mission that comes with this opportunity. This opportunity arose due to God's perfectly constant power to transform ill into blessing. The curse and the embarrassment that all religions face as the secular critics point to violence and intolerance is our own fault. We should have been more vigilant to prevent such a thing. So our chastisement is harsh, and our awakening is late. But the interfaith community must not undersell this opportunity. Of course religious leaders must quench the flames of violence and murder that possess the secular arena. And yes, religious leaders must rescue the reputations of our respective religions from the besmirching we have suffered from demonic perps who defile the names of our religions. But far more important than this repair work, is the mission of religious leaders in this time NOT to miss this opportunity that has come at such great cost. This time, the world of religion must reach an utterly unprecedented plateau. The persistence of discrete traditions is permissible only as the best ways to speak to believers in our respective cultural spheres. But NO other lines of division or demarcation should persist. The religions of the world, while not sacrificing their roots and identity must become "religion-blind" when realizing and carrying out our shared responsibility and scriptural obligations as centers of compassion, care, and sacrificial service.

Frank Kaufmann is the Director of the Interreligious Federation for World Peace. The opinions here are his own.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Olmert resigns, peace at hand

Bank Closing this September, Put your money here
Frank Kaufmann

I published several articles urging readers to suspend emotional attachment to or even interest in peace language and promises from Olmert, Abbas, and Bush administration representatives. Each for their own (many) reasons represents zero chance to effect peace. The US is at perilous juncture with its status and international influence profoundly threatened by this administration's forfeiture of America's stance and reputation as a champion for human rights that abhors inhumanity, Abbas does not speak for the entire Palestinian Authority, and Olmert never shed the shadow of corruption charges on top of having committed the unforgivable sin of losing Israeli lives due to bad military planning. Counting on this collection of people to broker peace is like counting on the Marx Brothers to sit peacefully through La Traviata. While no one is ill motivated, none are situated or equipped to meet such expectations.

Yesterday Prime Minister Olmert tendered a graceful exeunt and opened the door to the mild madness known as Israeli electoral politics, a high-stakes clash of intensely held views related to survival itself. Olmert's resignation might compare to opening a crack the exit door of a burning theater, hardly a conducive environment for delicate peace conversations, and worse so when half those trampling others towards the door are war hawks.

The peace pursuits of this particular group always teetered on rickety scaffolding even in their best days. That so, imagine the "have I gone mad" disorientation that had to wash over
New York Times readers to find these as the first words of the article on Olmert's resignation announcement:

The official line in Washington, Jerusalem and Ramallah is that the decision by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel to resign will not affect American efforts to negotiate a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians before the end of the year

The article then goes on to present assurances from Olmert, Abbas (speaking from Tunisia), and Rice's "senior administration official" (“Fundamentally, as Americans,” the official added, “don't give up.”)

But author Aaron David Miller is quoted later in the article saying,

The bottom line: Can Olmert reach a half-baked agreement minus Jerusalem with Abbas and with Condi looking on proudly in the next several months? Maybe,” said Aaron David Miller, the author of "The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace

But can he sell it, let alone implement it, in an environment in which he has no popular support or moral authority, with Hamas threatening from the sidelines? No way.”

But there is something more urgent and more fundamental than merely the inadequacies of this particular group (in talent, disposition, or mere circumstance) to be effective agents for peace. The most debilitating problem facing our peace hopes is not the characters in the line up at present, but rather the anachronistic spell under which such efforts are conceived and sold. This is what must be changed, not the players on the scene at any given moment.

It is not a particular bias, strategy, political skill and insight (or lack thereof) that suddenly and magically will produce a coming era of stability and security. "If only we had a take-no-prisoners Nethanyahu at the helm, THEN we'd see progress." "Our only hope is an Annapolis-committed Livni, if we are to see the end of tensions and horror." Both views miss the point. Attachment to either dogma does nothing more than extend the spirit of political contention that itself inherently contradicts what is required to dissolve hatred and conflict.

Hope should not rest with whether or not this candidate or that matches my own preferred degree of intolerance and aggression that I like to see in my political figures of choice. Hope must lie first in the prospect that peace actors and commentators awaken from the slumber and pig-headed view that state actors in isolation can succeed as agents for meaningful change.

Political reality and state to state negotiations are wholly inadequate as peace-seeking platforms when taken in isolation. They only can contribute positively when integrated into a creative, carefully designed treillage of related peace-seeking activity. These include religion, social service, empowerment economics, intercultural foundations for education, the arts, sports, and other long term investment, organizations, and activities devoted to peace. The narrow, parochial characteristics of state actors and politicians cannot in isolation bring peace. This expensive activity does not deserve the privileged, excessive attention and resources it enjoys.

The political arena itself is contentious by nature. Political figures themselves are transitional by nature. Harmonization in political terms is characterized by compromise and self-interest. These characteristics are not evils. They have a role to play and cannot and should not be excluded from peace efforts. But the hubris, and the blind adherence old and failed mentalities that imagine political figures in isolation can bring peace, by now should be an embarrassing position to hold.

State level, politically based efforts for peace should not attract much attention until they are integrated creatively, strategically, and effectively into holistic peace-seeking agendas inclusive of central, more long term, and better suited enterprises for peace, such as civil society, the private sector, voluntary associations, and those from the enlightened sector of religion.

Frank Kaufmann is the Director of the Inter Religious Federation for World Peace
The opinion here is his own

Saturday, July 05, 2008

AIDS, Medicine, and Morals

This article first appeared in Mission Herald, the denominational newspaper of the National Baptist Convention

What about AIDS has to do with being Christian? Much. Healing, sexual morality, and compassion, are but a few points of overlap. The other area appropriate for Christians trying to form a proper, personal and communal response to AIDS is the Christian obligation to have a wise and sound grasp of the relationship between religion and science. AIDS is a medical (i.e., scientific/biological) phenomenon on the one hand, and a personal-social-spiritual one on the other.

What is AIDS, how is it transmitted?

The fact is (and this may be alarming, even infuriating to some) we do not know.

There exist theories, even "prevailing theories," as to what causes AIDS, but nothing more than that. The only thing that is known for a fact is that in some people their immune system breaks down. That's the only thing we know. Once the body no longer can defend and protect itself from disease and infection, the slightest malady can be fatal. No one "dies from AIDS." People with AIDS die from diseases that healthy people, with in tact immune systems can easily withstand and recover from.

I am sure there must be some readers now who are reacting, perhaps vehemently, to what I just wrote. "What do you mean we don't know what causes AIDS?! We've known that for years. This essay must be a lot of bunk." My response to this is not only for Christian believers. It is for many in the modern world, including secular types without personal, religious belief. The impulse to regard scientific speculation as "true" is part of the secular and materialistic bias of our time, and even Christians and other people of faith are prone to be infected with this bias.

For all of us the short, simple and well-written essay "Do Science and Christianity Conflict?" by Kenneth A. Boyce could be very helpful. In it he says:

"Science is not a wholly objective enterprise. Scientific research is guided by theories, working hypotheses, operational frameworks, and the like. Scientists not only make observations to formulate theories, they also use theories to guide them in making observations and to interpret what they are seeing, and these theories and the manner in which they guide observations, reflect the biases of the scientific community at the time."

The same is true for AIDS. We have observations (the immune systems of some people break down - some irreversibly), and theories (it happens because of this reason or that).

Quite apart from all the theories (even the prevailing theories) as to what causes AIDS, we DO know at least one very important fact about causes of AIDS; a person can have AIDS as a result of his or her conscious decisions and actions, on the one hand (namely they bring it on themselves), or the person can have AIDS through absolutely NO fault of their own on the other.
Should we have different attitudes to these two different sorts of people?
No. As Christians we are called to genuine, full hearted compassion for all who suffer, (even those who bring avoidable suffering on themselves) [John 8:1 - 11]. Jesus could not be more clear about this.

But even those of us who cannot rise up to the radiant beauty of the compassion to which Lord Jesus calls us, should at the very least suspend disdain, judgment, and other non-Christian attitudes if for no other reason than the fact that there are AIDS sufferers afflicted with this horrifying, frightening, and despairing condition who did absolutely nothing to bring it on themselves.

This latter fact (of the innocent ones) should be seen as a blessing, a protection, a witness, and a teacher for "Christians" who choose for some reason to fill their faith with judgment and rejection of others. While we are so busy railing against this sin or that, this group or that, we wake up to find that we have lumped in with our little list of people we hope to send to Hell, an innocent 8 year old girl who needed a blood transfusion, or a soft, giggly baby who nursed at his mother's breast.

If for no reason than for the innocents, we should meet the AIDS pandemic of our time with the radiant beauty of compassion. "Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10Jesus stood up and said to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" 11She said, "No one, Lord." And Jesus said, (I) "Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on(J) sin no more."

The innocent ones can be seen as those who have given their lives to save US from OUR sins. [Matthew 25:35 - 40]. The tears we shed, the hospice and the prayers we offer are the gateway and the ladder to our spiritual growth and an emerging, respectable Christian character. The pain we feel for the innocents who suffer, helps us to awaken one day to find that our compassion has grown, that the arms of our embrace is wider, and that we can no longer turn our back on even one brother or sister who suffers.

If we can come to this point, with our hearts and our Christian compassion in tact, then we can address the many challenges to Christian faith that taint and defile our world.
What causes AIDS? We pray that scientific inquiry be true, sincere, not biased, not politically and ideologically driven, and that physicians and those devoted to healing come ever closer and closer to the truth, and to a cure.

Is AIDS caused by sexual promiscuity (either homosexual or heterosexual)? If so, then do not be sexually promiscuous. The answer is NOT, "wear a condom." The answer is do not be sexually promiscuous. But that advice is wise for 1,000's of reasons, not only as it pertains to dangers (some fatal) associated with sexually transmitted diseases. These issues of purity and sexual morality are unique, distinct (and important) for Christians. But it is myopic to think of these only in relation AIDS.

The Christian response to AIDS must be forged in the Christian traditions of healing, compassion, and moral purity.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Karmapa in America '08

On Saturday, May 17, 2008 I was greatly blessed to attend together with my family the discourse of His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, head of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism.

Here is the report on this day, that appears on the website of His Holiness:

Today, American Buddhism saw yet another historic occasion revealed, as His Holiness the Seventeenth Gyalwang Karmapa, Ogyen Drodul Trinley Dorje, gave his first ever public dharma teaching on American soil. Speaking from the stage of the Hammerstein Ballroom, at which he gave one morning and one afternoon talk, His Holiness provided a lively, humorous, and down-to-earth description of “Awakening the Heart of Enlightenment,” discussing topics such as developing a stable practice even while leading a busy lifestyle, realizing the inseparability of oneself and others, and working gently and playfully with our own minds.

His Holiness’s second talk was preceded by a musical tribute from the American rock ‘n’ roll legend Lou Reed, who began his brief set with an acoustic rendition of his hit, “Perfect Day.” For the thousands of members of the sold-out audience at the Hammerstein who received the historic nectar of His Holiness’s first U.S. teachings, the day was perfect, indeed.

In the evening, His Holiness was the guest of honor at a dinner offered by the local Tibetan Association, which was led in hosting His Holiness by Kalon Tashi Wangdi, Representative to the Americas of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Afterward, at Hunter College in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, His Holiness kindly bestowed the empowerment of the deity Hayagriva upon an assembly of the local Tibetan community.

To understand a bit more about the different schools of Tibetan Buddhism, and learn, for example what is the relationship of this young man to the better known His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, please read this brief and helpful exposition.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Belief and Charity in a World of Religions

This article appears in this month's issue of the Mission Herald, the denominational newspaper of the national baptist convention.

It speaks particularly to Christian believers, but the essential truths regarding strong personal and particular faith and interfaith consciousness can apply universally for believers of all faiths.

Belief and Charity in a World of Religions
Frank Kaufmann

No one ever said that life as a Christian was meant to be easy. In fact, throughout history, right up to our present time persecution and martyrdom remain possible for Christians.

Yet even though the path of the true Christian always has shadows of extreme sacrifice lurking as a possibility, and surely always the challenges of renouncing "the world," there is another sense in which the Christian life can be said to be "easy." (Mt. 11:30) Faithful and devoted Christians are spared the uncertainty, the confusion, the relativism, and the bewilderment about purpose, and about life itself. There is a peace and clarity in Christian life that differs from the chaos and the cacophony in our rapidly changing world dominated by mind-boggling upheavals in communications technology and lifestyles. This reliable access to standards, ideals, community, and purpose are some of the very important ways in which Christian life is "easy," a light yoke to bear. The Christian life is calm, without fear of turbulence (Mt. 8:26).

But today there has arisen a special wrinkle in the Christian experience that makes our lives as Christians "difficult" in ways hitherto unknown. This is not the type of "difficult" that would characterize persecution, or material hardship resulting from Christian commitment. This is the sort of thing we are used and and trained in. It is part of a 1000's year old tradition.

The difficulty to which I refer comes from the fact that, for the first time in history, we are trying to live as Christians, surrounded in our daily lives by believers from a great many religions.

In earlier times to use the term "unsaved," and to use the term "unchurched," could refer to approximately the same group of people. If we set out to "save" someone who "does not know Jesus," generally it meant that we would be reaching out to a person imprisoned by self-indulgence, vices, and various means of self-destruction. In our present world however, the landscape has changed from this simple binary reality. Today in the simple course of going about our daily lives we are confronted by a constant stream of brothers and sisters from other religions. These are people who are devout, who seek God, who lead prayerful and upright lives, who raise their children to be morally pure, and to resist the wiles and temptations of the fallen world. These are the Sikhs in our PTA meetings, the Jewish girl checking out our groceries or our library books, the Muslims on my daughter's soccer team, and the blond, blue eyed Buddhist who works in my office.

Sure we still choke at the glut of consumerism, materialism, and outright Godlessness that encroaches on our families from all sides, but this latter battle is one with which we are more familiar. Far more challenging is navigating our responsibilities to the great commission among those who are devout believers, our sisters and brothers from the world religions. To make matters even more complicated, at least two of our sister religions have their own distinct claims and positions about Jesus of Nazareth! And do not think that this is a theoretical matter. Likely every reader has a family member already believing a different world tradition. This is a unique challenge facing serious Christians today.

It is not enough simply to be insular and sectarian, confined solely to the local affairs of my own church. That is no more correct a response than if one were to behave this way in the face of social sin and decay. In just the same way, it is not sufficient to ignore the believers around us, to live in some sort of self imposed ignorance with no understanding or plan as to how this multi-religious reality impacts Christian life.

It is the responsibility of caring, and spiritually and socially engaged Christians to think through the implications of this unprecedented global and local reality. Are our fellow believers who are not Christians friends? Enemies? Allies? Targets for conversion? What exactly do they count for in terms of what the Bible teaches us about "your neighbor" (Mk 12:31)?

If I want my teen-aged daughter to be morally upright and do well in school, isn't it better for her best friend to be a Muslim or a Hindu girl who does not drink, does not smoke, and does not engage in wanton sex, than it would be for her best friend to be a girl who does all of these but claims to come from a more or less Christian family? Which is more dangerous? Is it more likely for your daughter to convert to Islam? Or is it more likely that she'll smoke, drink, and engage in wanton and dangerous, premature sex?

While this is not a simple subject, and one that needs us to study and read many more articles and books than just this brief reflection, it surely is an area that we must ponder seriously. At this there should be at least some simple starting guidelines.

We can start by asking a basic question: What are the elements of a true Christian witness?

The answer is this:

A true Christian witness is comprised of
1. The truth of the Gospel, and
2. The Imitatio Christi - compassion, self-sacrifice, humility

Of these two elements of witness, only focus on "truth" has the capacity to divide, to create enmity, hostilities, tension, disrespect, and distance. Surely an eventual testimony to the Gospel of salvation will be a beneficial part of how we relate to our sisters and brothers from different beliefs and traditions, but only in its proper time and place (Eccl. 3:1). It is not the responsibility of Christians to be disrespectful, intimidating, or lacking the common propriety of respectful discourse when seeking to represent the loving compassion and sacrifice of Jesus Christ. A person living patiently in Imitatio Christi for the sake of her brother's or sister's eternal life naturally will be guided by the Holy Spirit as to when her neighbor comes to thirst for greater understanding. It is not our mission to be impatient (1 Cor. 13:4). There are times we might have to speak the truth even at the risk of our lives, yet at other times we may be guided to serve quietly, patiently, even silently. It is for this reason that must train ourselves in a relationship with the Holy Spirit.

So does the simple and minimal obligation to treat our neighbors on different paths of devotion with respect mean that we are absolved of our responsibilities to the great commission? NO! By no means. It means that there are times, (sometimes long periods) in which we must devote ourselves to the far more challenging and demanding dimensions of the Christian witness. We must testify to the transformative power of Jesus Christ, and the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives solely through our actions. If we have the courage, fortitude, clarity, and humility to live consciously for the sake of our neighbors of different religions, even in those time when it is inappropriate to engender the divisive energies of insisting on being “right,” then the living Christ will be abundant in the world and in us.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Recent interfaith history, and the persistence of religion and faith

Interfaith as an ideal and as an activity now abounds. Very few in the world will admit they do not affirm peaceful and collaborative relations among religions and believers from different traditions. This current expanse of interfaith consciousness has been evolving and maturing for approximately 40 years since the 1970's. The elder statesmen of the interfaith pantheon coincided with the spirit of peace that gave rise to the United Nations. These include the Temple of Understanding, World Conference on Religion and Peace, and the Congress of Faiths. Also quite old and established is the International Council of Christians and Jews, a bilateral interfaith group. These early organizations paved the way for contemporary interfaith. from the 1950's onwards. They were in a way parallel to the United Nations dream only from a religious instead of a political framework.

In the 1970's UN limitations began to harden in the diminished hopes of the global community, as did any radical hope for evident change that might have been harbored for the work of these early interfaith groups. In both cases all recognized the positive value of ongoing work in both areas, but hope for real change transformed itself into recognizing peace work as something worthwhile in its own right. Sort of a "the poor you will always have with you" approach to doing good.

These organizations continued to represent what would become "the establishment" in the interfaith panoply, and many of its seasoned leaders served as mentors for the new turns and developments of interfaith work in later years. In the late 1970's another major spurt of interfaith arose that persisted in an unbroken line of development from that time until the present day.

This period of interreligious relations from the late 1970's until the present, has traversed a number of different phases based on global and international developments and contexts for their relations. During the cold war, interfaith was beneath the surface and did not concern the average person on the street, or the average religious believer. The world at the time was distracted by communist aggression and the proxy wars sponsored by the East and West blocs. Though the problem of communism should have been recognized as a religious problem, people tended to see matters as economic, or based in political theory. In all of life in this period, religion took a back stage. The same was the case obviously, perhaps more so with interreligious activity. People presumed that such conversations were simply for the few who happened to take interest in tht sort of thing, much in the same way one was a movie goer, or a classical music afficionado.

Good interfaith progress occurred during the cold war, but it was not recognized as pressing in world affairs. It was beneath the surface or in the background, so far as most people were concerned. Bbut among religious professionals and people naturally insightful about the central importance of religion in human affairs, important strides were realized in the hard and challenging work required to advance positive interreligious relations. Greater knowledge, wisdom, and facitlity in positive interreligious relations were developed, as was greater complexity and breadth. These developments and progress during this phase of obscurity remain the treasure and legacy of interfaith opportunity as seen at present.

In 1989 when communist states (particularly the Soviet Union) imploded, instead of the appearance of the era of peace expected by some, there erupted onto the horrified surface of human, and interanational relations full blown, old fashion, medeival, kill-the-infidel style religious war! The tinderbox of course was the Balkans ("former Yugoslavia') - (which by the way erupts now once more, with the declaration of Kosovo independence.) This war (and subsequent global instability) all revealed a persistent reality of religion taken with deadly seriousness in human affairs.

The path to secular enlightenment - (that finally realized itself in full blown, State-enforced atheism, proved to have made nary a dent in religious devotion and religious passions. The only thing that happened post-enlightenment was the rise of a new religiously-held passion, namely religious-ignorantism in the forms of post-enlightenment rationalism and secularism. These emerged to bcome one of the smaller "religious" communities in the scheme of things.

With the surprise evidence that old fashioned religious hatred had gone nowhere at all, the major secularist and materialist powers found themselves asleep at the wheel of world affairs. Even to this very moment, North Atlantic power centers (especially media, as well as the "management theory movement") stubbornly resist the wisdom of recognizing the enormous influence of religion (for good and for bad) in the unfolding of contemporary world affairs.

Though the interfaith movement struggles to be effective in the face of massive outbreak of conflict that involves and includes religious dimensions, it should be noted that the interfaith movement did not suddenly arise with the post-Soviet-era "discovery" that religious passions still inform human life. As noted above, these already attempted to instill themselves alongside UN dreaminess, and then arose again due to other factors in the late 70's and throughout the 1980's.

The cold war distracted many from the truth about religion and the importance of interfaith for most of the 20th century, but despite the immediate eruption of Balkan type interreligious hatreds in the wake of communist decline, the elite still imagined a non-religiously influenced world also throughout the 1990's. This "second slumber" was characterized by the dog dream that at last everyone in the world would want to be just like the United States. The rude awakening from this modernist delusion was perhaps even more stark than the religio-political clashes that shredded the Balkans. The infamous 9-11 attacks once again labored hard to remind the secular elite that religion seems to matter to some, and matter quite a lot!

Hopefully this ostrich-like attitude of the secular elite is changing, as might be indicated in phenomena such as we find in uncharacteristic New York Times quote of February 25, 2008:

Michael Lindsay, assistant director of the Center on Race, Religion and Urban Life at Rice University, echoed that view. “Religion is the single most important factor that drives American belief attitudes and behaviors,” said Mr. Lindsay, who had read the Pew report. “It is a powerful indicator of where America will end up on politics, culture, family life. If you want to understand America, you have to understand religion in America.”

Events since 9-11 evoke religion (however bastardized) are so persistent and relentless, that even those who find belief bothersome in its tenacity, seem to recognize (if reluctantly) that efforts and experts on how religions might better get along are now seen not only as not "quaint" but perhaps even welcome.

Once again we should be thankful that interfaith activists did not spring to life on September 12, 2001 green, and clueless. Rather, as I have postited in these few words, current interfaith reflection, scholarship, and activity represent an unbroken period of approximately 40 years of development, sophistication, and increasing inexperience and complexity.

There remain key and vital elements missing in the repertoire of interfaith professionals, that still leave the industry insufficient to influence radical chang and success in the face of severe, world threatening conflict. Addressing these inadequacies is one of the responsibilities of concerened, enlightened leaders with intuition into the spiritual. In the mean time steady education and information from scholars in the field of religion and peace, and interfaith relations are vital to our current situation.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The appeal of "radical Islam"

An important article appears today in The Times of India entitled "Young Muslims in UK attracted to radical Islam." The unfortunate reality is described plainly in the headline, but the article fails to unpack the implications of two key elements concealed in the very words of the writer himself.

The first clue appears in paragraph one:

Young Muslims in Britain are increasingly getting inclined towards radical Islam as it presents a more "comprehensive and coherent" ideology than the one advocated by local mosques, a report has suggested.

And the second in paragraph two:

"The growth of monocultural ghettos has led to the radicalisation of young Muslims who see extremism as the only theology available to them," the report, by British home office in 2005 said.

The essence of my commentary is twofold. The first is a call to world, Muslim leadership, especially its theologians, scholars and educators to recognize the implications of this observation. The second is a call to all concerned citizens worldwide to recognize the enduring fact that non-religious elements contribute to this harmful and self-destructive identification with deviant and aberrant "religious" interpretations.

When first reading this Times of India headline, I felt saddened. On balance I tend to admire the UK for its efforts to intuit and implement the all important ideal of religious freedom (as opposed to so many mainland European nations, which or some odd reason are lowbrow in this arena). Thus, why in the UK of all places (as one of the better places to be Muslim) should there be an increase in the trend toward what is called "radical Islam" (a misnomer in my opinion)?

The reasons for this shone through the writer's casual observations. I was not at all surprised to discover that both halves of the equation had little to do with religion per se. Yet even so, the implications for religious leaders and practitioners are great.

The two elements identified in the article as responsible for the rise of "radical Islam" among Muslim youth in the UK are: 1. Monocultural ghettos, and 2. The comprehensiveness and coherence of these evil teachings.

The fact of monocultural ghettoes is a political, economic, cultural, and historical reality, far more than a religious one (if at all). While not a religious reality, it is nevertheless a religious problem, namely something religions (and surely not just Islam) should address and fix. Monocultural ghettos are a problem. These have the potential to lead to anger and violence whether packaged in an ideology or not (for example plain old drug and gang violence), and whether the ideology happens to be the perversion of religious teachings or not (for example Marxism, a religion denying ideology is extremely violent).

The second element that completes the circle in this sad and destructive mix is that the appeal described for "radical Islam" is that it is comprehensive and coherent! Not that it is true, edifying, uplifting, consistent with tradition and historical interpretation, or responsible in anyway to genuinely religious purposes. As with the ghetto problem, comprehensiveness coherence in a thought system are not related necessarily to religion. Any thought system can be comprehensive and coherent, even one claiming to represent a religion despite violating the most important of its basic tenets.

And here with this issue of coherence, (just as it was with the issue of monocultural ghettoes), it is not a matter necessarily related to religious thought, but again it is a religious problem. If Muslim leaders, educators, and parents cannot present a comprehensive and coherent account of the Islam of peace, human equality, social cohesion, and respect for life they leave their precious children vulnerable to villains who can construct a comprehensive and coherent call, even if it is one that defiles all virtue and life itself.

It is not sufficient merely to proof-text and reiterate ad nauseum the incessant declaration that Islam is a religion of peace, and that Islam means peace. It is necessary to compete with the appeal, devotion, and ideological ardor invested in the thought systems generated by militant and violent preachers and recruiters.

The realities sadly happen to be, 1. intolerable and enraging life in monocultural ghettos, combined with 2. selfless (if perverse) devotion and intellectual striving of hateful, violent ideologues. These are the challenges that must be faced and resolved by Muslim intellectuals, leaders and educators. Wherein lies a comprehensive and coherent account of Islam's true beauty that can speak in the midst of this tragedy, this current world of offense, separation, and inequality experienced in Europe's ghettos? This is the most pressing challenge of our time. The lives of a generation of beautiful young men and women depend on our success.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Danish Foreign Ministry Errs

The ten members of the Danish parliament's Foreign Policy Committee, including Denmark's former foreign minister Mogens Lykketoft, erred when they canceled a trip to Iran two days prior to scheduled meetings. The purpose of the trip was to meet with members of the Iranian Parliament as well as to look into such issues as the country's human rights and uranium enrichment.

During this same time period
Danish police arrested two Tunisians and a Dane of Moroccan descent on Tuesday, accusing them of planning to kill a cartoonist who drew a cartoon of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) that was then published in Danish newspapers 2 years ago.

One presumes that Denmark upholds due process, and that in Denmark arrests are not equated with guilt, but remarkably fifteen Danish newspapers reprinted this very same cartoon on Wednesday in protest against the alleged plot. The alleged plot.

Even if these papers had waited for a guilty verdict following due process, it would remain the case that an infantile provocation of this magnitude is beyond reproach. Considering the vast difficulties worldwide that derived from the initial printing of these cartoons, there are simply no words to describe the decision of not one or two deranged editors, but a coordinated effort among 15 newspapers in what is generally regarded as a modern nation. Publication of the cartoons two years ago led to protests and rioting in Muslim countries around the world. At least 50 people were killed and three Danish embassies attacked.

As explained in the Feb. 16 Reuters article:

"The Iranian parliament had demanded an apology of the Danish parliamentary delegation, which they of course cannot accommodate," Foreign Minister Per Stig Moller said in a statement....

Moller said the committee could not apologize for the fact that Danish media carried out its obligation to inform as it could not apologize for freedom of expression, which is guaranteed by the Danish constitution.

Here is where Moller commits a flatuous, and indeed a gross and arrant mistake. Why "of course"? No one asked Moller to apologize for freedom of expression, or to apologize that Danish papers have a duty to inform their readers. It would be more than simple enough for Moller or a designated spokesperson to express a mature, and reasoned apology, even seizing the opportunity to elaborate on whatever particular social virtues are so sacrosanct in Moller's mind.

Here is what Moller could better have said:

"Respected citizens of Iran, indeed respected world citizens who seek to live as true Muslims in elevated and peaceful ways, we of the Danish parliament who will soon be guests in Iran, wish to express profound apologies for any offense that happens in our country to that which you hold sacred. We hope you will understand our traditions in which freedom of expression must be guaranteed, and though it pains us to see abuse of these freedoms, the Danish government will never seek to encroach on what we believe to be a vital pillar of any free society. As Danes we are sorry that Islam has been offended in our country. Likewise we pray in earnest that all who call themselves Muslims will follow Islam as it advises us all to embrace its highest virtues of tolerance and harmony seen in the Hadith "You do not do evil to those who do evil to you, but you deal with them with forgiveness and kindness." (Sahih Al-Bukhari)

While we cannot undermine the all important democratic principle that guarantees freedom of expression, we can apologize for Danes who abuse this freedom to offend. As we try to elevate the mentality and public discourse in Denmark, we hope likewise that if newspapers or government policy in Iran espouses views that offend or incite Muslim believers against Christian and Western democratic sensibilities, that this too can change.

We hope that our upcoming visit to Iran will help us grow in our mutual understanding of one another, and lead to more harmonious relations among our peoples."

For a government to stand behind actions that are so patently reprehensible as a unified media decision to offend religious believers around the world, and then to poison international relations by canceling a high level diplomatic mission is a near perfect error, a disgrace to the West, an offense, and a missed opportunity.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Bush Middle East Tour: No sadly, not a joke

The founder and board chairman of one of America's largest restaurant chains sitting beside me on a NY bound jet was fascinated to learn of my work for religion and peace on the international level. "What do you think of Bush's trip to the Middle East? I mean I voted for the guy, but it's a joke isn't it?" "Don't expect progress from this tour," was my answer. The first and main reason to abstain from hope from this tour is related to the powerlessness of the players posing in the pictures.

President Bush hovers at the lowest approval ratings of any US President in recent memory, recently presided over the unqualified repudiation of his policies through the midterm electoral loss of both houses, and now struggles to manage massive indicators of economic downturn (including China and Abu Dabi in deals for Citibank's $18 bn shortfall, Merril Lynch's $ 8 bn fourth quarter loss, the Morgan Stanely $5.6 bn 4th quarter loss, and much else). President Abbas lost control of Gaza to Hamas in democratic elections, and whose Fatah party are in shootouts and violent confrontations with Hamas in Gaza, and Olmert gasps for air in the thin and unforgiving political atmosphere following the Lebanon attack-and-military-debacle, as well as investigations related to personal, corruption scandal.

One might imagine Abbas to be the most courageous of these three considering the extreme risk any Muslim figure - especially one from the region - takes when engaged in real or imagined collaboration with US and/or Israel. But apart from the possible courage of Mr. Abbas, and whatever good might be ascribed to Messrs Bush and Olmert, the fact is that none exercises sufficient sovereignty, enjoys sufficient positive good will, or commands a sufficient, domestic majority to implement anything they might agree upon with one another. None (save perhaps Mr. Abbas) are even in any way remotely identified with peace. All three currently suffer under the persistent weight of military misadventures (Lebanon for Olmert, Iraq for Bush, and Gaza skirmishes for Abbas).

Poor Abbas was humiliated and Olmert mocked by Egypt's willingness to transport 2,000 Gazan Hajjis directly into the strip contra the Abbas-Olmert plan for their return to Gaza from Mecca. Thus the political, economic, and military insufficiency of these dialogue partners preclude the possible expectation of peace or progress from these conversations.

The second reason the Bush, Middle East tour bodes no hope for peace, is due to the addled and unfocused agenda for the journey. It was called a peace mission though a major purpose what to foment enmity and belligerence toward a major country in the region (Iran). Bush was overt and unashamed in his effort to rally Gulf Arabs into an anti-Iran bloc. He was bent on further isolating Tehran diplomatically and economically, without giving up the option of a military attack on Iran. This bellicose, anti-Iran quality of the tour, defines the word peace out of proper analysis of the tour. And even this met with no success. "The Arabs are afraid of Iran, especially the Saudis and the emirs who rule the small oil-rich states situated just across the Gulf from the Persian giant," writes Scott McLeod out of Cairo for Time, but while "they are inclined to agree with Bush's worries about Iran's nuclear intentions. But they are even more concerned about another U.S. war in the Gulf. Arabs would never want Washington to get too cozy with Tehran. But they've had enough Texas gunslinging."

The second contaminant to "peace seeking," was the cap-in-hand supplication for more and cheaper oil from Saudi King Abdullah. Bush's plea drew little sympathy from oil-rich Saudi Arabia, which said production levels appear normal, despite Bush's odd declaration that he thinks "thinks Abdullah understands the pain Americans are suffering at the pump," Are we talking about the same Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah who gave the Bush family $127,600 in jewelry and other presents last year, including a diamond-and-sapphire jewelry set for first lady Laura Bush that was valued at $95,500. This is the man Mr. Bush is sure understands the pain Americans are suffering at the pump?

The third and most egregious part of the tour that offends the notion of peace is the fact that, far more than behaving like a genuine peace ambassador, Mr. Bush instead resembled most closely an arms merchant. Presently a nuclear nation, Pakistan and US ally Musharaf teeter on the brink of implosion and falling into the hands of radical, militant clergy. Data from Fiscal Year Series report of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) of the Department of Defense explains that the United States signed arms transfer agreements with Pakistan in excess of $3.5 billion. The late Dr. Bhutto could not see through US efforts and Condi's request to help transition Pakistan from military rule. Now in the name of "peace" president Bush offers Israel a $30 billion arms deal, and Saudi Arabia (the home origin of all 9-11 "bombers") a 20 billion dollar arms deal. In essence the Bush notion of being on a mission for peace is to have the United States arm to the teeth, and intensify internecine "Muslim" hatreds, in the worst tinderbox and most unstable theatre of incurable hatred our race has ever known.

At the end of his negotiations with Abbas and Olmert, his efforts to foment tensions in the region, his supplication for more and cheaper oil, and his efforts to broker 50 billion dollars in US arms sales to the most strife ridden and unstable area in the world, and despite the fact that neither Israel nor its Arab neighbors assured Bush that they will do what the United States asks on issues ranging from democratic reform and unauthorized Israeli housing expansion to high gas prices, Bush nevertheless seemed tickled at the end of his tour. "I'm feeling quite feisty here," Bush said Tuesday, pronouncing himself to be in "a great mood" as the closely watched trip drew to a close. A day earlier he had collected enormous gold medallions in Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia, accepting the Saudi medal with a slight bow of the head and a double kiss for his host the king.

Feisty perhaps. A joke? No sadly, not a joke.