Cultural Jihad*: Nothing to Fear

*A note on the use of the word “jihad”: “jihad” means something like “faithful struggle.” For Muslims, “jihad” is a positive word unassociated with terrorism or violence of any kind. In this column I use the word as it is misused by many non-Muslims, that is, as a synonym for holy war, especially when such war is directed at the West. I’ve done this because I don’t know how to talk about the concept of “cultural ‘jihad'”–a figment of paranoid non-Muslim imagination–without using the awkward name given to the phenomenon.

So a pastor, a rabbi and an imam walk into a crowded, fancy hotel ballroom in California’s Silicon Valley…

Each clergyman says a few inspirational words and offers a prayer of invocation. The men of the cloth then embrace and seven hundred folks in the room clap and cheer because the three of them— the pastor in his faux-linen dog collar, the rabbi in his crocheted yarmulke, and the imam in white robes beneath an ankle-length gabardine overcoat— present a compelling image, a brief reminder that options beyond antagonism are readily available for the spiritual heirs of Abraham.
Continue reading

Sarah Palin’s Crusade

This column also is published on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum.

When her critics point out that Governor Sarah Palin is inexperienced on matters of foreign policy they tend to note what she hasn’t done —she seldom has traveled outside the United States. In fact The New York Times reports that Governor Palin had to apply for a passport before traveling to Kuwait and Germany to visit deployed members of the Alaska National Guard in 2007. She also visited Ireland on that trip—The Wall Street Journal says she was there just long enough to refuel her plane—and it’s fair to assume that she’s seen the parts of Canada between Alaska and Idaho.

Governor Palin never has been to Iraq and she’s never visited any of America’s most important allies. Even though their population is roughly equivalent to that of Memphis, Tennessee, Alaskans must engage in foreign commerce, yet Palin has not visited Alaska’s trading partners. I have no idea if Palin has received foreign delegations to Alaska. I’ll leave it to more astute political observers to decide if what Sarah Palin hasn’t done qualifies her to set our nation’s foreign policy. I am a religious commentator. My job is to point out that, what Sarah Palin has done (or, more precisely what she has said), suggests that this affable hockey mom is theologically ill-prepared to lead on matters of foreign policy; and the American people should be singularly concerned if Sarah Palin ever is in charge of representing the United States in its relationships with the Muslim world.
Continue reading

Fingerprinting Roma in Italy: A Time For Outrage

This column also ran on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum

“What the duck?”

Those were my exact words (except that I made no mention of water fowl) when, on my car radio, I heard that the newly re-elected Italian Prime Minister’s government, in emulation of Nazi Germany, has begun fingerprinting and registering Roma people living in Italy –—citizens and immigrants alike. (In English the Roma often are called “Gypsies,” a term I’ll avoid using here because most Roma people find the word offensive.)

I’ll admit it: I dropped the F-bomb, the mother of all cuss words. It is language that didn’t exactly match the white dog collar I happened to be wearing at the time (I was driving home from a graveside funeral), but I said it anyway, and I think the sentiment was appropriate, especially for a man of the cloth.

After all, this is 2008, almost seventy years after the Holocaust, when as many as 500,000 Roma people died alongside European Jews in Nazi concentration camps. The human family—especially in Europe—was supposed to evolve beyond such ethnic bigotry. The Holocaust is still a living memory for many people in the world today. What’s wrong with our collective recollection? Continue reading

Salvation by Beer

This post was also published on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum on June 22, 2008.

In the brave new world of blogging, there is an emerging breed of friendship, one in which a person writes an entry on her or his blog, a complete stranger leaves a response, and, after some cyber chat, the two people meet in person, bringing the conversation out of the internet’s ether and into real life.

This happened to me last Thursday.

Earlier in the week I had published a column in which I quoted a sermon by John Calvin as a way of supporting the notion that Presbyterians ought not break fellowship with one another over our divergent views on human sexuality. The column was (by my standards) well-read and it generated a lot of comments on my website.

One of the responders—who wrote a thoughtful dissent—gave his full name and mentioned that he was planning to be in my hometown of San Jose for the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly, the mammoth biennial meeting of the denomination’s highest governing body. I invited him for coffee but we went out for a beer instead, Continue reading

Rejecting the Racist vote

This column also was published on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Page on May 12, 2008

OK, so the Democratic primary season is just about over, and this may be a moot point, but as Hillary Clinton wages her final efforts to convince Democrats that she should be the nominee in November, I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with her rhetoric because it seems to contain a racist subtext which panders to the worst elements of American society. Continue reading

Buddhist Bocce in the Barrio

This week my column is an edited version of the sermon I preached at Foothill Presbyterian Church on April 27, 2008. The text for the sermon is Acts 17:16-34,the story of St. Paul preaching in Athens.

If you ever ask me what I like about the neighborhood in which I live the first thing I will tell you is that around the corner from my house and about three blocks from the childhood home of Cesar Chavez, in my overwhelmingly Hispanic neighborhood, there is a house that has been converted into a Cambodian Buddhist monastery. If you are lucky, when you walk by this house, you can see the monks, all dressed up in their bright saffron robes, playing bocce ball in a court that has been built in the front yard.

This is why I like living in East San Jose: we have a graffiti problem and we have gangs; the slump in the housing market has decimated the wealth of equity my neighbors and I had in our homes, but deep in the heart of a very catholic, very Hispanic barrio, you can find southeast Asian monks, playing an Italian game. To me it’s a vision of the future, and if I’m right, if the future looks like Cambodian monks playing bocce ball in an Hispanic neighborhood, then, to my mind, the future will be a friendly and pleasant place. There is hope for the world. Continue reading

John McCain and Rod Parsley: Sacrificing Peace for an Ohio Victory

By now we all know about Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s former pastor whose homiletical remarks have become a serious liability for the Obama campaign. Less known are the “pastor problems” of Hillary Clinton and John McCain. This week’s column is the second in a series of two columns that will look at the religious baggage being carried by Barack Obama’s fellow presidential hopefuls. Last week I wrote about Hillary Clinton’s involvement in “the Fellowship,” a secretive, powerful and sometimes abusive affiliation of our nation’s power elite. This week I’m focusing upon John McCain’s relationship with Rod Parsley, a Mega-Church pastor from Ohio.

Whatever you may think of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright—he of the “Goddamn America” homiletics—it doesn’t take much examination to find that Barack Obama’s relationship with his former pastor was good in many ways. A tendency toward radical theology notwithstanding, Jeremiah Wright’s church provided the Obama family with the kind of spiritual home that every family should have regardless of religious affiliation.

Something similar can be said of Hillary Clinton’s participation in the ministry of The Fellowship, a secretive network of mostly rich, mostly white, mostly powerful, mostly men, who have extraordinary influence in Washington and who have  a well deserved reputation for being creepy.  The Fellowship provided the then First Lady with a place of sanctuary and healing in the wake of the Monica Lewinski scandal. As a senator, Ms. Clinton’s Fellowship connections have helped her to forge significant and (I think) nationally beneficial bi-partisan relationships. On these two points the Fellowship gets no complaints from me.

There is, however, nothing good to be said about John McCain’s courting of Rod Parsley, the pastor of World Harvest Church, a 12,000 member congregation outside of Columbus, Ohio. Continue reading

Immigration and an Urban Garden

This column first was published on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Form on April 7, 2008. 

The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof…(Psalm 24:1)

On Saturday my kids and I planted some tomatoes in our garden.

Well, technically it wasn’t in our garden. We live in a townhouse with no back yard. Our garden is made out of planters on the patio, but this year I want to grow a lot of tomatoes, and I’ve had little luck growing tomatoes in planters. The plants have been healthy and the fruit good, but the yield has been low. In past years our garden’s tomatoes have been an occasional treat: once a week or so at the height of tomato season, I’ve been able to cut up one tomato at a time and serve it with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, basil and pepper. This is nice, but I want to make salsa and spaghetti sauce. I want to put up cans of tomatoes for the winter. I may regret it come July, but this year I want to be invaded. I want to see heirlooms slowly fester on my counter until the fruit flies won’t leave us alone. In order to get this desired bumper crop my family had to emigrate a few feet, to cross a legal boundary, to sink our fingers into the earth on property that isn’t ours.

So this year I broke the law Continue reading

Obama and Wright: the Best Thing Written So Far

My friend Jim Bennett is a Presbyterian minister who teaches American Religious History at Santa Clara University, here in the Silicon Valley. Jim’s area of expertise is race and religion in America, which makes him uniquely qualified to comment on the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s former pastor.

This morning the San Jose Mercury News ran an opinion piece written by Jim that is, in my opinion, the very best bit of writing on the issues surrounding Barack Obama and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. If you read nothing else on the subject, read this essay.

Yesterday, Jim and I had lunch together in downtown San Jose at a Vietnamese hole in the wall called (and I’m not making this up) Duc Phuc. Hearing Jim talk about Jeremiah Wright and about Obama’s recent speech on race has left me convinced that we are living in momentous times, witnessing what may prove to be a pivotal point in the history of race in America. Never before has so prominent a politician spoken so candidly and forcefully about race in so public a manner. Thanks to YouTube, Obama’s speech is being watched by millions of viewers. What Barack Obama said on Tuesday may not get him elected President, but it certainly has to potential to change American forever.

Jim and I were classmates at Princeton Theological Seminary. After seminary, Jim went on to earn a PhD at Yale. Having Jim as a friend has instilled within me the conviction that everyone should be friends with an historian. Historians are able to frame current events within historical context in a way that provides us with the wisdom of ages.

Click here to read Jim’s piece in the Mercury News. Then come back and leave a comment on this website.

Barack Obama’s Pastor

This column was published on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum on March 17, 2008.

I imagine this presents something of a dilemma for Barack Obama’s detractors and political rivals: what should be said about The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the Obama family pastor, who has made incendiary statements about the September 11 terrorists attacks and about Hillary Clinton and John McCain? Continue reading