Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Call for Obama to Address Witchcraft Human Rights Abuses

For Immediate Release – 26th June 2006

Call for President Obama to Demand Urgent Action to Tackle Widespread Human Rights Abuses that Take Place Throughout Africa Due to the Belief in ‘Witchcraft’

As President Obama commences his visit to Africa, we call upon him to use the tour as an opportunity to demand urgent action to tackle the widespread, and systemic, violations of human rights that take place across the Continent due to harmful practices connected to the belief in ‘witchcraft’.  Such beliefs are strongly held by many in the countries that he will visit – Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania – and they often lead to some of the most horrific human rights abuses imaginable. Vulnerable individuals and groups in society are most at risk, including older women, street children and people with disabilities.
Of many examples that have been catalogued, in April 2013 the body of the 14 year old boy, Nkhumeleni Mukhado, was discovered in a village in South Africa. His skull and genitals had been removed. His is just one of many similar tragic stories where people are killed so that their body parts can be incorporated into concoctions used in what is labelled as ‘witchcraft’. It is often believed that, through ingesting such concoctions, the receiver will gain greater wealth and power.
In Gambia, which borders Senegal, Amnesty International have documented[1] over 1000 cases of suspected ‘witches’ being rounded up by President Jammeh’s special guards who then tortured the suspects and forced to drink potions that caused them to hallucinate and behave erratically. Many were then forced to confess to being a “witch”. In some cases, they were also severely beaten, almost to the point of death.
In Tanzania, according to the Legal and Human Rights Centre (LHRC)[2], an average of 500 people were murdered each year on suspicion of ‘witchcraft’ between 2005 and 2011, whilst numerous people with albinism have been murdered in cold blood for their body parts.
Such beliefs and practices self-evidently constitute a significant obstacle to the reputation, peace and prosperity of the region. They inhibit economic growth, investment and trade; weaken democratic institutions; and prevent hundreds of thousands of Africans from reaching their true potential. President Obama should demand that Africa’s political and faith leaders, and the wider international community, do more to put a stop to the horrific human rights abuses that continue to scar this great Continent.

All Party Parliamentary Group for Street Children  
Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales               

Basic Rights Counsel

Bethany Children’s Trust

Centre for Human Rights and Development

Churches Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS) 

Consortium for Street Children                 

Greenwich Inclusion Project

Humane Africa
International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU)
The Pagan Federation

Stepping Stones Nigeria

Street Invest

Witchcraft and Human Rights Information Network (WHRIN)
Baroness Sue Miller
Kirsty Brimelow QC
Professor Susan Edwards, University of Buckinghamshire
Dr Christina Oakley Harrington, Treadwells, London.
Russell Brown MP
Leo Igwe – Nigerian Humanist Movement
John W. Morehead, Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy
Hugh Davies OBE QC, 3 Raymond Buildings
Louisa Young – Author
Zoe Young – Film Maker
Paul Stockley – Development Worker

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Krister Stendahl, Mormon Temples, and Jesus as Temple: Further Thoughts for "Holy Envy" and Dialogue

The late Lutheran Bishop is well known for his articulation of various principles related to understanding other religions. These include:

 (1) When trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.
(2) Don't compare your best to their worst.
(3) Leave room for “holy envy.”

 Stendahl is perhaps best known for the last item, that of "holy envy," the attempt to find something that you value in another religion and even wish was found within your own religious tradition. The Bishop practiced this in his own life, including helping to arrange a press conference at the opening of a Mormon temple in his native Sweden and speaking favorably about his appreciation of the Mormon ritual connection between the dead and the living. Stendahl then appeared in a Mormon video, Mormon Temples: Between Heaven and Earth, where he articulated his views on this subject. In the video clip that accompanies this post you can see a segment of the temple video, and hear Truman Madsen describe Stendahl's efforts at expressing "holy envy" in connection with Mormon death rituals. I want to express agreement and disagreement with Stendahl, and in so doing point Mormons and Evangelicals toward another area for dialogue.

First, I strongly support Stendahl's principles for religious understanding, including and especially holy envy. I can point to elements that I appreciate in other religious traditions that I wish was found within my own Christianity. I've even commented previously on the poor way in which Western Christianity deals with death, and in my view Mormonism, Paganism, and transformational festivals like Burning Man do a better job of addressing death and grieving, and maintaining a sense of ongoing connectedness between the living and the dead. I disagree with their larger views and practices on the matter, but there remains a lot to envy in this area. Evangelicals should practice holy envy whenever possible in regards to other religious and spiritual traditions.

But I also want to state my disagreement with Stendahl, at least on the specifics related to the Mormon temple. While Mormon rituals connected with death and the temple are interesting, they represent a significant theological departure from historic Christianity. I was reminded of this when I came across Nicholas Perrin's book Jesus the Temple (Baker Academic, 2010). Perrin argues that there were a number of counter-temple movement's in Palestine in the time of Jesus, including John the Baptist's, Qumran, and the Jesus movement itself. Perrin writes:
If both John the Baptizer’s following and the early Church were counter-temple movements…, then this grants basic plausibility to the hypothesis that Jesus, who straddled both groups, also saw his own mission and destiny in similar terms. In other words, … Jesus found the temple of his day to be corrupt, [and] inferred from this … the onset of messianic tribulation, and then finally saw his own calling as a response to this divinely ordained crisis (78).
He argues argues that "the idea of Jesus as temple dates back to Christ himself and that he saw his following as the new temple movement, the social and confessional boundaries of which were marked off by allegiance to him." This makes for an interesting consideration in light of the theology of the book of Hebrews and elsewhere in the New Testament where Jesus is not only presented as temple, but also as High Priest and offering as well.

If Perrin's analysis holds up, and represents an accurate representation of Jesus' self-understanding and New Testament theology, then it is seemingly at odds with the theology and ritual associated with Mormon temples. It would make for a fascinating topic for discussion between Evangelicals and Latter-day Saints.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Christian Privilege and Interfaith Relations

Rabbi Seth Goren wrote a piece for Sojourners that touches on an important topic titled "Recognizing 'Christian Privilege.'" Rabbi Goren discusses Christianity's dominance in the United States, and how this privilege is a blindspot that needs to be addressed given its impact upon interfaith relations, even when unrecognized. He writes:
"Talking about Christian privilege is challenging, but essential. For our conversations to be authentic, honest, and justice-based, we must be aware of how each of us perceives and is perceived. It’s difficult to prevent the marginalization that Christians sometimes feel without considering how inter- and intrafaith dynamics play out more broadly for members of other faiths. Moreover, neglecting this topic in intentional interfaith interactions makes it that much more difficult to address in the wider world.

"I urge us all, but especially Christians, to study and reflect on these matters individually, with coreligionists, and with partners of other faiths. We can integrate questions of religious privilege into conversations we’re already having by asking ourselves what we have that others don’t, how these dynamics affect our interactions, and how we can compensate for resulting inequities."
 This topic has surfaced in conversations between Pagans and Evangelicals related to the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, as can be heard in a podcast at New Wine, New Wineskins. The Pagan dialogue partners raised the issue, and it needs to considered carefully by Evangelicals in America where privilege as a blindspot is a signficant topic.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Bewitched Children: A Human Rights Issue for the Church

Katherine Marshall of The Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs has a recent piece at The Huffington Post titled "Bewitched Children? A Problem the Church Should Tackle." This is a problem in the Christian community in Africa and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but Marshall notes that this takes place in other places as well. As Marshall's essay describes it:
What is involved? The telling is painful. A community gets the idea that a child is a witch, usually because something painful has taken place, for example a death or illness or a calamity. The children so accused are subject to acid burning, they are set alight, hot wax and oil is poured over them. They may be starved to death. Children are beaten to extract a confession. Some are buried alive or drowned. The list goes on and on.

Here is a story (the name is changed) from a reputable advocacy source:

"When her aunt died, 12-year-old Belinda's mother accused Belinda of killing her aunt through witchcraft. She was taken to a church in Kinshasa, where the pastor confirmed that Belinda was indeed a 'witch' and guilty of cursing her aunt. Her mother took her home, where her uncle held her down and ran a burning iron over her back and legs while her mother looked on. When the uncle went to fetch acid to pour on the burns, Belinda fled. She spent the next two years living on the streets, before being rescued by a Christian child-care agency."
A quick Google search reveals other good sources of information describing this tragic phenomenon. ThinkAboutIt features a piece titled "Brutalities in the name of Jesus Christ," while Free African Media has a piece titled "Witch-hunts: The darkness that won't go away." 

Marshall's essay notes that Christian churches and organizations are involved in combating this problem, but much more needs to be done. In addition to helping the victims and their families, we need to not only address the casualties of this problem but also deal with the root causes, the religio-cultural beliefs and fears related to witchcraft. It would seem to me that an educational program needs to be put together to help Christian pastors and their congregations come to a new understanding, and which helps them move beyond fear to embrace the way of the love of Christ, even toward those perceived as enemies.

I have been involved in various dialogue and peacemaking efforts that dovetail with the Pagan community, such as my support of The West Memphis Three. The alleged "witch-children" is another issue that I care deeply about, and I echo Marshall's call for the church to get involved in this in greater ways. One way to do that is to get in touch with The Witchcraft & Human Rights Information Network.

If you're an Evangelical, will you join me in fighting this injustice?

Saturday, June 15, 2013

I'm a Christian Who Hates You: The Problem of Evangelical Perception

I came across this image (by Seth Hahne) in connection with some blog posts on Christian "street preachers" who attend the Arab International Festival in Dearborn and who have created a lot of controversy given their very confrontational ways of engaging Muslims. For me this illustration symbolizes far more than the Dearborn clash to encompass the problem from Evangelicals in interreligious engagement in general. Evangelicals, consider this image. This is how many Muslims, Mormons, Pagans, Jehovah's Witnesses and others see us.

No matter how well meaning and how convinced that we have the truth that others need to hear, the perception of those we want to persuade is that we are disrespectful bigots engaging in hateful actions rather diplomats engaging in love of neighbor. In addition, I have also come to the conclusion that this is not merely a debate among Evangelicals about differences in doctrine or methodology (confrontation, proclamation, apologetic, missional or dialogical). Instead, it needs to be discussed as a problem of Christian ethics. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

An Atheist's Perspective on Proselytism

One of the debates in interfaith is the legitimacy or lack thereof of proselytism or evangelism. Here's food for thought in the perspective of atheist Penn Jillette:
“I’ve always said that I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and a hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward—and atheists who think people shouldn’t proselytize and who say just leave me along and keep your religion to yourself—how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?
“I mean, if I believed, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that a truck was coming at you, and you didn’t believe that truck was bearing down on you, there is a certain point where I tackle you. And this is more important than that.”

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Ramifications of "imago Dei" as fuction rather than ontology

I enjoy the posts at the Musings on Science and Theology blog, and today the author included his interactions with Bill Arnold's Genesis (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). This involves consideration of the ancient near eastern context as it relates to various facets of the creation narrative. In regards to the "image of God" Arnold writes:
On the basis of numerous parallels from both Egypt and Mesopotamia, it has become clear that the phrase is related to royal language, in which a king or pharaoh is the “image of (a) god.” Thus humans are created to function in the divine image through the exercise of “dominion” and “rule,” … The image of God is about the exercise of rulership in the world. p. 45
This means that "image of God" is a functional and representational concept, not an ontological one referring to an aspect or aspects of human nature that somehow sets them apart from the rest of non-human animals. I share Arnold's understanding, and I believe it can be supported not only with reference to Genesis, but also in keeping with the rest of the biblical text as it articulates a monistic anthropology rather than a dualist one found throughout much of Christendom. I'm in the minority here, but I'm in good company with some of the scholars how have articulate this view, such as Nancey Murphy and Joel Green.

I would also slightly supplement Arnold's terminology and concept in the quote to rulership with intimately connected to an ethical sense of stewardship rather than dominion in that dominion and that the idea that humanity is "better' and somehow discontinuous with the rest of creation has contributed many times to the abuse of nature, particularly when combined with some eschatologies where the creation is viewed as temporary and soon to be discarded.

Beyond that we should also note how important a shift in the idea of the image of God is to many areas of theology, not only anthropology, but also the neurotheology, creation care, and animal theology. A shift from viewing humans as created in the divine image and thus having a spirit or soul to living in the creation and tasked as wise stewards representing God has significant ramifications for Christian theology and praxis.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Nicholas Wolterstorff: Love of God = Love of Neighbor

I was pleasantly surprised to discover some comments on love of neighbor in the context of interreligious dialogue made by Nicholas Wolterstorff, the noted Reformed philosopher.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Myron Penner and "Apologetic Violence"

I just became aware of a forthcoming book by Myron Bradley Penner, The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context (Baker Academic, 2013). The book's description from Amazon reads:
The modern apologetic enterprise, according to Myron Penner, is no longer valid. It tends toward an unbiblical and unchristian form of Christian witness and does not have the ability to attest truthfully to Christ in our postmodern context. In fact, Christians need an entirely new way of conceiving the apologetic task.

This provocative text critiques modern apologetic efforts and offers a concept of faithful Christian witness that is characterized by love and grounded in God's revelation. Penner seeks to reorient the discussion of Christian belief, change a well-entrenched vocabulary that no longer works, and contextualize the enterprise of apologetics for a postmodern generation.
The book caught my eye given an interview with the author by Peter Enns at his blog. One section of the interview is particularly striking in one section where the author discusses the idea of "apologetic violence." When this happens on a personal level, Penner defines this as "apologetic arguments [that] are used to treat people badly...When they are used to demean, ridicule, show-up, or hurt another person in any way, I call that a form of violence."

The term apologetic violence may push the issue too far, and I'm more comfortable with a term like "predatory apologetics," but the idea is the same and I agree with his basic premise. In my view Evangelicals engage in apologetic violence, no matter how well meaning and "evangelistic," when they engage in apologetic argument or doctrine over person, or when they engage in identity contestation through confrontational "preaching" in the sacred spaces of others, whether among Mormons at General Conference and various  pageants, or among Muslims at the annual Arab American International Festival in Dearborn, Michigan. Instead, Penner offers an alternative, a form of apologetichs which he calls “person-preserving” and that "involves Gabriel Marcel’s concept of sympathy, which propounds a fundamental concern with others as persons, not things."

Penner also discusses apologetic violence on a social level, such as
when Christian apologetic practice merely reinforces and defends a given set of power relations operative within an unjust social structure. We then overlook real people and proclaim to them the “truths” of the gospel packaged in “universal” concepts and categories (as well as practices) to which they cannot relate in any personal way and which have often played some role in their mistreatment or exploitation.
I am sensitive to this as well, and in some of my conversations with Pagans I have been reminded that this may also be playing out among Evangelicals in regard to minority religions in America.

Regardless of whether readers agree with Penner's overall thesis, his forthcoming book includes elements that sound tantalizing and worthy of thought by reflective Evangelicals.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Neglected Aspects of a Key Apologetic Text

Today I watched a video accompanying a new study material on multi-faith engagement which at one point included a quotation from the New Testament in the form of 1 Peter 3:15. The verse is included in the image accompanying this post. As I watched the video and read this passage once again, a few new observations came to me, included below with a few comments.

This passage is frequently cited by Evangelicals interested in apologetics, both in general contexts and in interreligious ones as well. This is because the Greek word translated "answer" in English is where the term apologetics in theology is frequently connected to, making this a primary "go to" passage on the topic. However, a few additional elements need to be considered.

It should be noted that this graphic, taken from a prominent Evangelical apologetics organization, is missing the remainder of the verse, which reads in the NIV translation: "But do this with gentleness and respect." Unfortunately, apologetics is often associated with an aggressive form of engagement that is missing, or at least perceived as missing, these two important elements. I find it interesting that the apologetics organization that produced this image omitted the latter part of the verse, for whatever reasons. Evangelicals shouldn't do the same in their practice of it. Our answer for our hope needs to incorporate gentleness and respect, even for those religious traditions that Evangelicals don't like. This is in keeping with Jesus' call to love our neighbors, as well as our enemies.

But today the element that stood out for me most in this passage was the part that says Christians are to give an answer for their hope "to everyone who asks you." Notice that Christians are to share in this capacity when asked, when the invitation is extended as to why we embrace the way of Jesus. The passage doesn't tell us to provide an answer for those who aren't asking, or for those who aren't interested.

Finally and related to this, in the context of the passage, the author is arguing that when one's Christian lifestyle in the way of Jesus leads to questions, then we should be prepared to given\ an answer. In other words, this apologetic involves a relational element and is not merely an evidential presentation void of this important context. This means we have to earn the right to be heard through a lifestyle that emulates Christ.

These thoughts aren't terribly new, as my colleagues have been discussing "dialogical apologetics," "relational apologetics," "humble apologetics," and "missional apologetics." But in my view the elements discussed above deserve greater reflection by a larger number of Evangelicals. 

Kaufman Interfaith Institute lecture and response on "Religious Freedom, Predatory Proselytization, & The Case for Pluralism"

Previously I've mentioned Padma Kuppa of the Hindu American Foundation and her concerns over unethical evangelism by Christians in India which she calls "predatory proselytism." Her April 8, 2013 lecture on this topic at the Kaufman Interfaith Institute is now available in video:
Religious Freedom, Predatory Proselytization, & The Case for Pluralism
The common concept of religious freedom fails to embrace the right to freedom from religious intrusion and exploitation. "Predatory proselytism" is a term used to describe various unethical methods used in the attempt to gain converts. Evangelism should take into account the impact created by an imbalance of power, and an understanding of both colonialization and globalization. Padma Kuppa will make a case for pluralism, and how the existence of groups with different ethnic, religious, or political backgrounds within one society can work only if we respect others' beliefs and practices.
Also featuring a response from Paul Kortenhoven, a former missionary for the Christian Reformed Church to Sierra Leone and Nigeria.
Padma Kuppa is an interfaith activist in the Detroit area. She is also active in her own community, the Bharatriya Temple in suburban Troy. Padma is an IT professional in the U.S. automotive industry and a columnist for Padma focuses on interreligious cooperation as an Executive Council Member of the Hindu American Foundation
After watching this video I came away with the following observations.

In terms of production quality, unfortunately, the video is one static long shot, so it is largely best to use this as an audio file. The sound is uneven in the Q&A, and it is difficult to make out the words of Kuppa's respondent.

 On the positive side, this lecture and the response helps provide some introduction to a very important topic in evangelism, missions, dialogue, and interfaith. My reflection on Kuppa's concerns about unethical evangelism, my interactions in religious diplomacy where this and even ethical evangelism and persuasion are concerns, and my interactions with Elmer Thiessen, author of The Ethics of Evangelism (IVP Academic), come together to confirm the importance of this in a number of areas. It deserves wider distribution and reflection.

On the negative side, both perspectives would have been better served by more careful use of terminology, providing definitions of the key terms, and briefly laying out their major arguments. As it is, the listener has to work very hard to try to grasp the gist of the two viewpoints. It would have been especially helpful to hear how the unethical evangelism practices of proselytism relate to ethical evangelism, and whether these are viewed by pluralists like Kuppa as diametrically opposed, or as variations on a spectrum of unacceptability given the pluralist perspective. An argument for the ethics of persuasion from the Christian respondent would have been helpful, as would a back and forth on exclusivist vs. pluralist views on religious truth and persuasion, and how this relates to pluralism in the public square in democracies.

I hope these issues are addressed again in the future.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Evangelical Interfaith Dialogue Journal: Special Focus on New Religions

For the last couple of weeks I have had the privilege of working with Cory Wilson of Fuller Seminary's Evangelical Interfaith Dialogue journal. Cory got in touch and asked if I would write the lead essay for a special edition focusing on new religious movements. I accepted the invitation and turned in my draft on Monday. The essay addresses new religious movements and Evangelical approaches toward them, including countercult, cross-cultural missions, and dialogue. Some great people have agreed to write responses, including Gerald McDermott, J. Gordon Melton, and Terry Muck. I also suggested that a countercult perspective be included, and an individual from a significant countercult ministry has expressed a willingness to write a response. This edition will also include an essay on praxis by Philip johnson, a suggested bibliography, and several helpful sidebars. Look for this special issue later this year.

Pagan Summer Solstice Celebration in Pahokee Causes Christian Uproar

Last week I received a call from Selena Fox of the Lady Liberty League who let me know about a controversy that was brewing in Pahokee, Florida. Later this month some of the local Pagan community in the town will be celebrating the Summer Solstice. This led to an uproar at the City Council meeting last week where several local pastors and members of their churches shared their concerns about the upcoming event as summarized at The Wild Hunt:
One by one they hurled their spite on the absent Pagan menace they wished their local politicians would repel. Pastor Brad Smith called the event “an abomination,” while Rev. Raul Rodriguez said that “we don’t need this in our town. Not now. Not ever.” Bishop Jared Hines warned that the festival was “not only detrimental to our city but to our county,” and Evangelist Lillian Brown claimed that “God cannot heal our land if we have witches and warlocks violating our community.” Violating, detrimental, an abomination, and that’s only a sample from the mob that vented itself.
 Selena Fox asked if I would be willing to help if needed with the Christian community as I did previously with the Fox News Pagan controversy. I told her that I would be more than happy to help dispel misunderstanding and work toward love of neighbor. To that end, I sent emails to the Pahokee Mayor, its City Council members, and the few pastors I could track down via the email from the online news item on the story. I have also offered to fly out to present a seminar to the Christian community if I can secure a sponsor to underwrite my travel costs and a venue for the presentation.

Meanwhile, the Pagan community through the Lady Liberty League continues its own efforts at trying to defuse this unfortunate situation.

Second Installment in Predatory Proselytism Series

The second installment in my series on predatory proselytism, defined as "various unethical methods used in the attempt to gain converts." This essay is done in collaboration with Paul Louis Metzger, and it is available in "The ABC's of Predatory Proselytism: Always Be Closing." Look for our third and final entry in this series in the near future.