The Daniel Plan is a bunch of Christians getting together so that each of them can do what's good for themselves. The Isaiah Plan is a bunch of Christians getting together so that each of them can do what's good for others. The Isaiah Plan keeps people strong and lean through the hard but satisfying work of answering Jesus' call in Matthew chapter 25: "The total food aid provided to needy Americans by private charity amounts to 6% of all domestic food aid provided by the US government. (Source: Bread for the World – a Christian charity -- this figure was determined before the Food Stamp cuts.)) And let's use peer pressure to spread the Isaiah Plan far and wide!
The Supreme Court of the US is now considering a case from Greece, NY, in which the town board started its meetings with sectarian Christian prayers. Lower courts disallowed them as violations of the clause in the Constitution banning the state from "establishment" of religion. As I described in a recent "musing", the Air Force Academy had to restructure its policies in order to rectify a climate that put strong pressure on cadets to profess and practice evangelical Christianity. The "free exercise" of religion is permitted in the context of governmental institutions, as it is everywhere else in America. But great care must be taken to prevent the government from endorsing, or even seeming to endorse, a particular form of religion. The case of Greece, NY, fits in this latter category: the city's policy gave the impression of a preference for a particular faith. I pray that the Supreme Court will rule accordingly.
This case is a manifestation of a larger struggle. Some religious groups, witnessing the rapid erosion of their membership and influence, are blaming their woes on what they call a "war on religion" in America. They interpret a ban against sectarian prayers at city council meetings as a violation of their religious freedom. I wrote about this phenomenon a few years ago in a "musing" about my encounter with members of the Quorum of the 70 at the headquarters of the LDS Church in Salt Lake City. The rhetoric is just as heated now as it was in 2011. Currently, the requirement of Obamacare that mandates access to reproductive health care has become part of the debate. Religiously-sponsored nonprofits and hospitals, unlike churches, are required to offer comprehensive reproductive health coverage for their employees. The Catholic Church objects to this. The Obama administration has bent partway to their demands, just as it is bending toward conservatives by supporting the Greece, NY, town board's position on prayers at its meetings. But this policy could lead to further erosion of the limit against establishment of religion by the state.
There is no "war on religion" in America, and there never has been. Expecting a hospital controlled by the Catholic Church to offer birth control coverage to its employees is not an attack on religious freedom or even on freedom of conscience. The employees won't be forced to use birth control if they have religious scruples against it. The availability of the coverage does not suggest that the church has endorsed it. Religious leaders who believe that religious freedom is under attack cite occasions when people have been harassed or fired for speaking their minds on matters of faith or conscience in secular settings. Yes, that's bad, but it's old news. People get fired for all sorts of arbitrary reasons, all the time - and religion is just one of the factors. And these same religious communities are just as guilty of this behavior as other institutions. Churches are well-known for firing their pastors or employees for speaking their minds or exercising their consciences.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State reports a new controversy at the Air Force Academy. Cadets are no longer required to say "so help me God" as part of the school's Honor Oath, although they can add those words if they wish: "...the American Family Association blasted its supporters with calls for action. Their demands were simple: force cadets to use religious language -- in the name of freedom. 'Urge Air Force Academy Commandant Brig. Gen. Gregory J. Lengyel to preserve religious liberty by defending the oath and recommending the Academy keep the current language intact,' the AFA beseeched supporters."
What those who complain about a "war on religion" want is not religious freedom. They already have it. What they want are more privileges for their religious organizations. They think it should have a special, elevated status transcending the laws that everybody else has to follow. Mostly, they want the privilege to discriminate against people. If you're not religious, and you go to a city council meeting, you should listen to a prayer that ends "in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ we pray, amen". If you are a non-Catholic working at a Catholic-related hospital, you should be denied the kind of reproductive health insurance that everybody else gets. If you want to get married to your same-sex partner, you should be discriminated against because it will offend the values of some religious groups if same-sex marriage is legalized.
Dallin Oaks, one of the Mormon Church's 12 Apostles, said in a 2011 speech: “Treating actions based on religious belief the same as actions based on other systems of belief is not enough to satisfy the special guarantee of religious freedom in the United States Constitution. Religion must preserve its preferred status in our pluralistic society in order to make its unique contribution—its recognition and commitment to values that transcend the secular world.” Even if we allow the questionable assumption that religion is something special compared to other systems of belief, Oaks' argument runs aground on the sandbar of America's religious diversity. Which faith's transcendent value shall prevail? The United Church of Christ's, which endorses gay marriage, or the Mormons', which prohibits it? Religion got special mention in the Constitution not just because its preciousness should be protected, but because it had been used as a cudgel by the states of Europe to control their citizens.
Giving religious groups yet more privileges compared to other social institutions does service neither to religion nor society. Consider Iran, where theocracy has undermined the respect of young people for Islam. Consider Britain, where the state Church of England has lots of privileges but few adherents.
So let's keep Jesus out of invocatory prayers at government meetings, let's keep religious dogma out of public school science textbooks, let's make religiously-affiliated nonprofits obey the same laws that other organizations must follow. Let us separate religious freedom from religious privilege - for religion's sake!
Website: JIMBURKLO.COM Weblog: MUSINGS Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California
(2005: Howling Dog Press)
"I avoid eating anyone I have not known and cherished," wrote Jim Corbett in Sanctuary for All Life, his final testament. "When slaughter breaks the bond, the killing must be hallowed. All food is sacramental."
One sunset-streaked evening on the pasture near Jim and Pat Corbett's place along the San Pedro River in southeastern Arizona, I watched him commune with one of the cows he cherished, stroking its head with his arthritis-ravaged hand. I began to understand how he earned, among other roles, the status of the "cow-whisperer" of Cascabel. Neighbors brought animals to him for healing from gut impactions and cactus-spine wounds. No wonder that his heartfelt ambivalence about raising animals for slaughter was reflected in a sub-chapter entitled "On Killing and Eating One's Friends" in his first book, Goatwalking (Viking Press, 1991).
Sanctuary for All Life hallows humans' relationship to the earth in words that point to a realm beyond words, a Peaceable Kingdom beyond the thrall of kings and states, living a law that trumps all written codes because it is "in your mouth and in your heart" (Deuteronomy 30:14). To show the way, Corbett obstinately synthesized the disparate disciplines in which he had steeped himself, from analysis of the range-grasses of the Sonoran desert to dissection of the finer points of the medieval Jewish mysticism of Spain. But what else could we have expected from a Quaker cowboy with a masters in philosophy from Harvard? Added to these challenges for the reader was his death in 2001 at age 67 from a rare brain disease that cut short his completion of the book.
These difficulties are mitigated by the exceptional front-matter provided by Jim's devoted friends, who put the book into print. Father Ricardo Elford's touching foreword reflects his collaboration with Corbett in the Sanctuary Movement and in co-authoring a pamphlet entitled The Servant Church (1996: Pendle Hill Pamphlet #328). It is a manifesto for an earth-hallowing, justice-seeking church that exists beyond denominations and creeds. The poet David Ray says of Sanctuary for All Life in his preface that "one cannot remain the same after reading it." And on Daniel Baker's lengthy and very helpful Introduction hang many needed keys to unlock the treasures in Corbett's dense prose. Daniel lives in Hot Springs Canyon near Jim and Pat's place up the road from Cascabel. His deep understanding of Jim as a person and of the topics and texts to which the book refers, and his collaboration with Jim in the process of writing it, make his overview of the book invaluable.
The front-matter also includes a speech by Corbett when he received the Letelier-Moffit Human Rights Award in 1991. He got the award on behalf of the Sanctuary Movement, which he co-founded in the 1980ís to protect asylum-seekers who crossed the border to escape death during the Central American civil wars. As a borderlands rancher who was fluent in Spanish, driven by a conscience steeped in the tradition of such Quakers as John Woolman, the colonial-era anti-slavery activist, Corbett began guiding Guatemalans and Salvadorans over the border. He partnered with a Presbyterian pastor in Tucson, John Fife, to create a network of churches and temples around the US which offered sanctuary to refugees who were being denied for asylum status and threatened with deportation. His speech described the foundation guiding his inception of the movement: civil initiative. Civil disobedience is the willful breach of unjust law. Passive resistance is non-cooperation with unjust force or law. But civil initiative is active fulfillment and expression of the higher, natural law that is written on the heart. When he and others in the movement were charged with being coyotes, smugglers of aliens across the border, their defense was based on the argument that the US government was breaking guarantees to asylum for refugees under the international law to which it was bound.
Corbett became nationally recognized for his personal heroism. (It was powerful for me to listen to the testimonials of some of the people whose lives he had saved, during his memorial service at John Fife's church, Southside Presbyterian, in 2001.) But for Jim, the Sanctuary Movement (words he never capitalized) was a temporary distraction from the work that mattered to him most - the redemption of wildlands and the hallowing of human beings' place in it.
In "Sanctuary for All Life", Corbett, as a self-taught Hebrew scholar, delved into the nature of "torah", the law of Israel. It is a law that he aimed to follow through "civil initiative", a law written not only on human hearts, but on the hearts of cows, goats, javelinas, mescals, and saguaros.
The law of Israel specified the honoring of the Sabbath, which prohibits the exercise of "malacha", a Hebrew word that is translated as "labor" but more precisely refers to any human interference in the processes of nature. Corbett explains that the ritual observance of Sabbath was the Jewish people’s way of keeping themselves connected to a way of life in symbiotic harmony with Nature. A way of life reminiscent of that of Abraham - the wandering Aramean who followed a herd in the wildlands of Palestine. Sanctuary for All Life might be described as a theology and practice of Sabbath, and not just from sundown on Friday till sundown on Saturday, or Sunday for the Christians. Rather, it is a year-round sabbath that re-integrates humanity into deep communion with all life. A sabbath with a haunting call for us to return to what Corbett calls the cimarron (Spanish for feral livestock) way of true freedom through re-integration into the natural order.
The focus of the book is intensely local, but its implications are global. The book begins and ends on a stretch of Sonoran Desert on the east side of the San Pedro River in Arizona, a place where he and other "associates" of the land made covenant with it. The Saguaro-Juniper Covenant, described in the book, is a "betrothal" of a group of Jim's friends to this patch of earth, with a commitment to give the land back to itself. The Covenant is the land's bill of rights. First on the list: "The land has a right to be free of human activity that accelerates erosion." Many of the associates of the Covenant live in the Tucson area and are supportive with money and volunteer time on occasion. Several, including Daniel Baker, live on or near the land and either herd cattle on it according to the Covenant's careful guidelines, or participate in other land-redemption efforts.
Corbett microcosmically explored the challenges of living and ranching in harmony with his homeland in Arizona. In so doing he modeled what it will take for the whole human family to go cimarron and live in harmonious communion with all life, while confessing the limits of his and his community's ability to live out their vision of the liberation of the land. "(Jesus) doesn't condemn anyone for failing to live in full accordance with the restitutional mitzvot (Hebrew for just actions) required for redemption. We are to forgive one another our failures. He just condemns those who would lead us to think that anything less will do." (p 190)
Corbett saw Jesus as a Jewish rabbi who announced jubilee - the liberation of peasants from indenture, of Jews from Rome, of nature from human management. The Sermon on the Mount is a manifesto for the redemption not just of humanity, but of the natural order, called for in the Torah. The Jewish law required that after the 49th year (a sabbath of sabbath years, seven times seven), a time of jubilee was to be enacted in which all land was to be returned to itself. No plowing or planting was allowed, and all land divisions were erased to end unjust accumulation of property.
Sanctuary for All Life is a radical call to jubilee liberation of the natural world, but Corbett was emphatic that it was not about "eco-sainthood". He described the person who recycles everything, gives up automobiles, eats no meat, takes no vacation trips. "Yet the saint’s perfect conservational thoughtfulness can never be as effective as a single case of contraception." (p 168) "Individuals can denounce and resist a way of life, but only a community can live a way of life into being and bequeath it to succeeding generations." (p 168) For Corbett, the hallowing way is one that integrates humans into the natural world as co-creating "associates", unlike those who want to ban all human activity in wilderness. This integration is the task not primarily of governments, but rather of the "church" as Corbett described it: "a voluntary society based on communion" (p 150). And by communion he refers to a real meal, not just the ritual symbolism of wafers and chalices. "To awaken to the forgotten meaning of sacrifice is to see that all food is sacramental, that every dinner table is an altar, that life itself is the primal form of holy communion, and that God is Nature, the creative source for Whom there is no other. The way we live on life - our food - is of fundamental religious concern." (p 110) "The hallowing of our food has to do with care of the land, care that the animals on the land flourish." (p 111)
Corbett indicted capitalism for its half-hearted embrace of the free market. A full embrace would result in abandoning not only governmental interference in the "spontaneous order" of markets, but also the capitalists' attempts to interfere in the "spontaneous order" of nature. Nowhere was this better exemplified for Corbett than through the Western cattle industry's reduction of cows to cash, which has resulted in wholesale degradation of rangelands and unholy treatment of animals. The real idolaters aren't the biblical apostates adoring golden images: "it is market morality that worships the golden calf, as a commodity, in the name of profits and property." ( p 249)
"Go deep enough into eco-wisdom, and you’ll find a practicable, down-to-earth mysticism." (p 247) "Cowbalah" is Corbett's playful term to express his resonance with the Jewish system of "kabbalah", a web of relations through which the creative energy of the universe flows. "A visionary myth rather than theosophical speculation, kabbalah is concerned with humanity's quest to recover its homeland in Eden: an unfarmed, fruitful oasis; an untamed paradise of living waters. This key myth of kabbalah fuses the communion insight with the down-to-earth quest for Eden." (p 258)
In his first book, Corbett remembered two incidents from earlier in his life. "On the prairie, when the wind wails a dirge and snow sifts in rivulets through the sagebrush, I've hugged the sticky-pink, death-chilled body of a newborn lamb under my coat, and its heart fluttered in reply. And on a desert mountain, amidst the hush of soaring granite, I've opened a forgotten spring. The few who remembered thought it had long ago gone dry, but I found the hidden place and dug down until a stream ran clear and cold in the summer sun. So what are epitaphs to me? I've shared life's warmth with a lamb. I've opened a desert spring." (pp 12-13, Goatwalking) Jim Corbett's spring still runs with prophetic insight for our time, and times to come, through the practical mysticism of Sanctuary for All Life.
Obituary in the Economist Magazine for Jim Corbett (died Aug 2, 2001)
On the past two weekends, I've gone a-souljourning to a Sikh gurdwara and an Islamic masjid (mosque). As a Christian, I have a lot to learn from these faiths. That's still true after having souljourned to both sites on many previous occasions and spent a lot of time with Sikh and Muslim people. Both of these souljourns reminded me that uncertainty about etiquette is a real stumbling block for people to feel comfortable in visiting a house of worship of a tradition unfamiliar to them. (For excellent help on this topic, see the Etiquette Guide of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding.)
I took teenagers from my church, Mt Hollywood Congregational United Church of Christ, to the gurdwara in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles. The kids were a bit like deer in the headlights, experiencing exotic sights and smells as we entered the gurwara, a big building with domed turrets that glowed brilliantly in the morning sun. The aroma of Indian food wafted out from within. Women in saris and men with turbans above their magnificently bearded faces walked up the stairs and into the vestibule, where they took off their shoes, put them in cubbyholes, and then washed their hands. We followed along. A basket full of orange bandannas sat in this room, and we each took one and helped each other tie them around our heads. Then we walked single file into the sanctuary. The carpet was covered with white sheets. Women sat cross-legged on the left, men on the right. We walked up to the throne where sat the Guru Granth Sahib, the scripture of the Sikh faith - a huge book behind which a man waved a fly-whisk over its open pages. (A human dignitary in India traditionally would get the same treatment.) In front of the Sikh's paper "guru" - they consider the book to be their teacher, the last in the line after their ten founding gurus - we made an offering of money and then bowed down with our heads to the ground. (Does this bowing imply assent to Sikh doctrines? Can a faithful Christian or Muslim or Hindu bow down before the Guru Granth Sahib in good conscience? I do it, but I am sure there are others who would feel very uncomfortable doing so, for good reasons.) Usually at this point we would go to the left of the book to receive and eat a lump of pudding called prasad, but it wasn't ready yet. (Would it be proper etiquette to compare the prasad, or prashad, to Christian communion? Is there a Sikh out there who would care to comment on this question?) Then we found places on the sheets on the carpet to sit and listen to the kirtan, the musical rendition of the Guru Granth Sahib. Three imposing bearded men in white robes and white turbans sat on a raised platform, singing and playing harmoniums (hand-pumped organs), and a young man sat to the side playing tabla (small round drums sounded by the fingertips and wrists). I was mesmerized by the minor key of the chanting and the enchanting rhythm of the tabla. On a screen to their right, the text of the scripture being sung was displayed in Punjabi and English.
After a while, we stood up and went out of the sanctuary, and as we did so, an older fellow, with a turban and a beard, followed us out and eagerly greeted us. Prem Singh made himself our host, and urged us into the langar hall - the dining room where a (free) meal of Indian vegetarian food awaited. People of all ages sat on long strips of carpet on the floor, eating off of styrofoam plates. We got food and sat down and had a chat with Prem, who introduced us to the Sikh faith. The teens asked great questions. I noticed that the boys were wearing shorts, but nobody else in the gurdwara was soing so. So I asked Prem if we had violated any etiquette with the shorts. "Oh! No problem! Young people - they are visitors - of course it is okay!" As polite a way as I could imagine of letting us know to wear pants next time.
Just before leaving, one of the teenaged boys noticed a series of pictures on the wall of the langar hall that left him with a slackened jaw. Pictures of people being drawn and quartered, sliced and diced in horrific ways. "Oh, those are our martyrs, people who died in its early days when Sikhs were persecuted," said Prem with a smile on his face. It was a contradiction for me to see those pictures of violence in a house of worship filled with the most peaceable and hospitable people one could imagine encountering. But then, I remembered that I'd seen the Book of Martyrs in Amish country in Pennsylvania. The Amish are pacifists, but many of their households prominently display a book in old German, with fraktur type and old woodcut images graphically describing the gruesome deaths of Christian theological non-conformists at the hands of the medieval Catholic church. (Is it polite to stare at such pictures in a gurdwara, with one's mouth hanging open in shock? I'm guessing not...)
Last Friday I went on a souljourn to the Omar Masjid in Los Angeles with a group of students from the University of Southern California, located across the street. One woman student came well-prepared: she had looked online to see how to tie a scarf appropriately for vising a mosque. We were shown a warm welcome, as obvious visitors, even as we mounted the stairs. As we entered, being a bit late for the Friday sermon, we skipped an important part of the ritual of prayer in Islam, which is to go downstairs to wash the hands, arms, faces, and feet. (Did anybody notice, and take offense? How much slack is given to visitors like ourselves, on this account?) Inside, we saw the United Nations at prayer - people of every race and ethnicity, all aimed in the same direction, in silent worshipful submission. As at the gurdwara, we stashed our shoes in cubbies inside the mosque, its floor covered in carpet with stripes aligned to face Mecca to the east. Women sat behind an airport-style barricade of posts and ribbon. Men, by far the majority present - as women are not expected to go to mosque as men are - sat facing an ornate wooden pulpit structure in the far eastern corner. From there, a man with a trim beard, a white robe and white skullcap, spoke in Arabic and English. His sermon was about the quest for happiness. Yes, it's fine to be happy, and to pursue happiness, but only if that happiness pleases Allah, he said. I sat with the male students in the very back of the men's area, where we could follow what the people in front of us were doing. (Do Muslims take offense when non-Muslims follow along in the standing, leaning, and bowing of the prayers? Do we disrespect our own faiths by showing obeisance to Allah as do Muslims? What's really the etiquette here - both from the point of view of Muslims and the point of view of faithful people of other religions?) After the prayers at the end of the sermon, we filed out and were greeted by several Muslim USC students who answered our questions graciously.
Perhaps being a souljourner requires the same willingness to look foolish that is required in order to learn a language. I remember the crazy stuff I said when I was studying Spanish in Mexico years ago. I certainly embarrassed myself - and turned others beet-red a time or two, as well. But as long as I showed humility and a willingness to get it right the next time, people seemed to cut me lots of slack. Perhaps the most important ingredients in etiquette are genuine openness, curiosity, and an attitude, if not yet a correct appearance, of respect.
Entrance to prayer was free at the mosque, as was the langar at the gurdwara. The price of admission was the risk of embarrassment. But along the path of souljourning, it's a price well-worth paying!
What are your try-alls and trepidations in visiting houses of worship of traditions unfamiliar to you?
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