Responding to the March Against Sharia

On June 10, cities across the United States hosted what they termed a “March Against Sharia.”  The event page on social media stated the following rationale behind the event, “If you stand for human rights, please join us to march against Sharia. Sharia is incompatible with our Constitution and with American values. We stand against female genital mutilations and child marriages.”  The rhetoric of the march attempted to demonize the Islamic faith, grouping the entire religion with the worst actions of a handful of its practitioners.  We have seen this type of behavior before, in Klan marches against African Americans, in the internment of Japanese and Italian Americans during World War II, in the persecution and murder of Mormons, and more.

Today, the world faces a growing fear of and a demonizing of the Muslim faith.  Over the years, I have had the good fortune to meet and befriend many Muslims.  I’ve worked with members of local masjids to try and build interfaith relationships and unity.  I’ve written about some of those interactions before. (https://shaunjex.com/2017/02/26/what-ive-learned-from-valley-ranch-islamic-center/ and https://shaunjex.com/2016/11/25/building-bridges-instead-of-walls/).  One thing I’ve learned in the process: as allies we often risk speaking over the very voices we ally ourselves with.  To learn about true Islam, ask a Muslim.  With that in mind I’d like to share the following thread.

I’ve had the privilege of interaction with Muslim scholar and author Qasim Rashid, Esq. He writes frequently about Islam and social justice and shared these thoughts on Sharia the day of the march.  He shared then via Twitter.  To help spread this important information, I’ve coped his tweets into paragraph form below:  

“As the white supremacist led March Against Sharia goes live—here’s my thread as an American Muslim lawyer on what Shariah *factually* is: Shariah is the law of Qur’an & literally means “A path to life giving water.” Yarrah (root of “Torah”) means same. Shariah is Abrahamic!  Shariah has 5 branches: adab (behavior & morals), ibadah (worship), i’tiqadat (beliefs), mu’amalat (contracts) and ‘uqubat (punishments).  

Shariah forbids compulsion. (Islamophobes hide this fact) There’s no permission for govt to ever force Shariah—Shariah itself forbids it.  Qur’an does not promote any specific form of Govt, but requires govt be based on adl or “absolute justice.” Not religion—justice. HQ 4:59 “Verily Allah commands you to give over the trusts to those entitled to them, and that, when you judge men, you judge with justice.  And surely excellent is that with which Allah admonishes you.  Allah is all hearing, all seeing.”  This is a critical point.

Qur’an: Judge humanity w/justice
Extremists: Judge w/a theocracy?
Q: No, Justice
E: Religion?
Q: JUSTICE

So contrary to what  March Against Sharia bigots say—Qur’an teaches separation of mosque & state. Why didn’t Muhammad(sa) enforce Shariah? He had political power. He had an army. He didn’t b/c Islam forbids theocracy. Plain & simple.  Shariah obliges Muslim loyalty to our nation of residence. Thus—American Muslims must adhere to US Constitution as Supreme law of land.  Jews have Halacha. Catholics have Canon. Muslims have Shariah. It’s our personal faith on prayer, food, Ramadan fasting, inherit, marry.  The 1st Amendment to the Constitution protects freedom of worship. Banning Shariah = Banning Halacha & Canon. It is Unconstitutional.  

What about regimes like Saudi & Iran? Isn’t that Shariah?  No. That’s theocracy, which the Qur’an & Muhammad(sa) vehemently condemn.  Let’s be clear. There’s not even 1 example of a “Shariah compliant” country today. They’re draconian regimes bent on power—not justice.  Likewise there’s not 1 example of Muslims trying to enforce Shariah in USA. (http://www.jurist.org/forum/2015/03/steven-schwinn-sharia-law.php) The drive to “ban Shariah” is lunacy.  As far as allegedly “violent” verses commanding Muslims “take over” w/Shariah—Nonsense. I address here in detail :(http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/islam-muslim-terrorism-islamist-extremism-quran-teaching-violence-meaning-prophet-muhammed-a7676246.html) .

I sat and read every single case of “Shariah in US Courts” & wrote a law review article dismantling that garbage. (http://claremontjournal.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/America%E2%80%99s-Muslim-Problem-Anti-Shariah-Laws-and-the-Threat-to-American-Civil-Rights-by-Qasim-Rashid.pdf)

Those promoting fear of Muslims & Sharia today are no different than those who claimed JFK would hasten a Papal takeover of America.  2017: Muslims accused of infiltrating USA as “Creeping Shariah.”  1957: Catholics accused of infiltrating USA as “Subtle Conspirators.”  US History shows similar propaganda & bigotry against Jews, Mormons, Black Christians, Native Americans, Italians, Irish, Chinese,& Japanese.  And just as McCarthyites & Anti-Semites & Segregationists are remembered w/disdain, tomorrow Islamophobes will be remembered w/disdain.  But to get there in peace, we need to stand together as a United America against hate. What’s that look like? Here are a few suggestions:

1) Sign up as a Muslim Ally at http://trueislam.com
2) Attend a Ramadan Iftar at http://trueislam.com/events
3) Educate yourself on Islam

4) Reject govt policies that discriminate Americans who are Muslim
5) Speak up when you hear someone promoting hatred & fear of Muslims

6) Support non-profits working to educate & build bridges of interfaith harmony
7) Elevate the voices of American Muslims in media

8) Vote. For the love of God vote
9) Be committed for the long haul. Anti-Muslim hate didn’t come overnight & won’t dissipate over-night

Looping back. Shariah isn’t the enemy—ignorance & hate are. Shariah = justice for all people regardless of faith, just like our US Constitution.  We’ve a long way to go but we’ll get there together. Thank U for your solidarity & support. Much love to all of you. Peace!”

Check out more of Qasim’s writing at http://www.qasimrashid.com/

For followers of Christ, we are commanded to love our neighbor as we love our self.  We are commanded to love mercy, seek justice and walk humbly with God.  We are told that the world will know that we follow Jesus Christ, whom we claim as God incarnate, not by who we exclude, but by how we love.  

I believe that a better world is possible, but it will take concerted effort by all of us.  It will require us to choose love in the face those who would sow division and hatred.  It will take education and a willingness to listen.  In a future post, I plan to write more about the historical relationship between Christianity and Islam, as seen in events like the Migration to Abyssinia, in which a Christian kingdom protected persecuted members of the Islamic faith, and the Ashtiname of Muhammad, in which Muhammad declared the respect and protection that Muslims should provide to their Christian neighbors.

 

 

Dirk Willems: A Fool and Martyr for Christ

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For much of their history, Anabaptists faced violent persecution at the hands of their fellow Christians.  Labelled as heretics, bounties were set on for their capture.  They were imprisoned, tortured, and murdered.  They were often burned at the stake or beheaded, the punishment varying with their willingness to recant their faith.  Officials even declared it a crime for others to give Anabaptists food or shelter.

In 1569, a Dutchman named Dirk Willems faced imprisonment and execution for being re-baptized as an adult and for hosting Anabaptist services in his home.  While in prison, he created a rope out of strips of cloth and escaped, fleeing for his life across a frozen pond.  A guard gave chase and, during the pursuit, fell through the ice into the freezing water below.  Rather than continue his flight, Willems turned back and pulled the guard to safety.  This act of mercy moved the heart of the guard and for a moment it seemed he would let Willems escape, but a nearby Burgomaster witnessed the event and insisted on strict adherence to the laws against Anabaptists.  

A statement by the court recounted his aforementioned “sins” and then states:

“all of which is contrary to our holy Christian faith, and to the decrees of his royal majesty, and ought not to be tolerated, but severely punished, for an example to others; therefore, we the aforesaid judges, having, with mature deliberation of council, examined and considered all that was to be considered in this matter, have condemned and do condemn by these presents in the name; and in the behalf, of his royal majesty, as Count of Holland, the aforesaid Dirk Willems, prisoner, persisting obstinately in his opinion, that he shall be executed with fire, until death ensues; and declare all his property confiscated, for the benefit of his royal majesty.”

On May 16, 1569, Willems was burned at the stake.

I’ve thought a lot about Willems story over the years.  I can’t imagine the faith and compassion it took to return and save the man who meant to kill him.  The action goes against all common sense and all human instinct.  He might have lived if he only kept running.  Instead, he turned around walked willingly into the arms of death.  How foolish!  But then… “what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?  For what can a man give in return for his soul?” (Mark 8 :36-37)

I admit that I don’t have Willems faith.  I want justice when I am wronged, and if not justice, at least revenge.  This is, I think, the human response.  This response embraces the wisdom of the world.   Still, I can’t help but wonder, what if we were all willing to turn around?  What if we were willing to go back?  What if we tried to pull our enemies up to safety and life rather than leaving them to drown?  What would the world look like?

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:44-45)

 

 

Martin of Tours

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We live in chaotic and uncertain times.  As noted in previous posts (https://shaunjex.com/2017/03/19/rooted-in-story/) we are strengthened by a knowledge of our history, by the intentional connecting of our story to those who came before us.  In that light, I’d like to begin sharing bits of Christian history that I believe can guide us through the violence of our modern times.

Born in 316 CE in modern day Hungary, Martin of Tours converted to Christianity at the age of 10 years old though he would not be baptized until the age of eighteen.  Five years after his initial conversion, the Roman military forced him into service.  

While in the army, Martin encountered a beggar suffering in the cold.  Moved by his plight, Martin removed his cloak and cut it in two, giving half to the beggar.  That night he dreamed that he saw Jesus wearing the cloak and when he awoke the garment had been made whole.

At 23, he refused a war bonus and famously said, ““I have served you as a soldier; now let me serve Christ. Give the bounty to those who are going to fight. But I am a soldier of Christ and it is not lawful for me to fight.”  He petitioned emperor Julian (known as Julian the Apostate) to be released from service. According to tradition, when accused of cowardice Martin offered to go to the front lines of battle armed only with the sign of the cross.  His refusal to fight resulted in his imprisonment, but he eventually gained his freedom and went on to study under Hilary of Poitiers.

Today, Christians remember Martin as Patron Saint of soldiers and conscientious objectors.

When faced with violence, may we remember the example of St. Martin of Tours who chose to follow the path of the Crucified Lamb.

The  Prayer of St. Francis beautifully compliments the example of Martin of Tours.  May it be our daily prayer:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Amen.

 

 

A Modest Proposal for the Church

Like many Americans, I watched in dismay this week as the House of Representatives passed the American Health Care Act.  I felt a further sense of dismay as hosts of conservative Christians praised a bill that will potentially cause 24,000,000 Americans to lose their health insurance and roll back protections for those with pre-existing conditions.  Mark Green, a Tennessee senator, once went so far as to say that government funded healthcare turns people away from religion because it keeps them from turning to God for aid.  Green said, “I think it interrupts the opportunity for people to come to a saving knowledge of who God is.”   

I have heard from people celebrating the bill claim that, “The government isn’t supposed to take care of us.  We’re supposed to take care of each other.  People should get their help from church groups and the like.”  This is similar to the response many people give to government welfare programs.  I often hear opponents of welfare say things like, “If you give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day.  If you teach a man to fish he’ll eat for a lifetime.”  While both of these answers sound good in theory, I distinctly remember life before the passage of so called “Obamacare.”  I do not recall the time as a utopia of giving, a paradise where everyone supported their neighbor.  I do remember crowded emergency rooms.  I remember families desperate for healthcare, but with no means to pay for it.  I remember people skipping necessary treatment because they were not covered or could not afford the expense.

I tend to agree with Christian blogger Jory Micah who recently stated, “Stop saying it’s the Church’s job to care for the poor, hungry, & sick when you know darn well that the Church alone cannot provide all that is needed; and even if we could, we wouldn’t.”  I would love to be proved wrong, and as such I am offering the following modest proposals for the Church.

  • A local masjid, Valley Ranch Islamic Center, has an on site clinic that offers primary care, internal medicine, women’s health, pediatrics, and lab service referral.  According to the masjid’s webpage, they provide the service “to patients who have no other medical insurance available to them, or are not eligible for any forms of medical insurance.”  The page also states that they provide the service, “regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, creed, or color.”  I propose that every congregation with the means to do so follow the example of our Muslim neighbors and offer similar services.
  • I propose a moratorium on church spending related to building expansion, and refurbishment.  No new audio/visual systems, no new sanctuaries or recreation areas, no new construction.  Congregations should willingly place a hold on all non-essential spending.  Mission and aid work will still constitute essential spending.  It is key to the Church’s purpose to act as the hands and feet of God on Earth).  Instead, this money can be placed in a fund that can help with medical expenses for members and non-members.
  • Members of the church should be allowed to specify that their tithes and offerings be directed to funds specifically set aside for healthcare assistance.

These solutions are plausible methods for the Church to aid those in need of health care assistance, though they will by no means reach everyone in need of help.  If we aren’t willing to do this, perhaps it is time we stop with the platitudes and admit that we really have an issue with sharing God’s wealth with others.

The Continuing Travesty of the Arkansas Executions

The death penalty continues to make headlines in the United States.  Tonight (4/27/17) Arkansas seeks to execute Kenneth Williams, a man convicted of multiple murders.  A few facts worth knowing about the Williams case:

If Arkansas carries out Williams’s execution, it will mark their third execution in less than a week.  On April 24, 2017, Arkansas executed Jack Jones and Marcel Williams; it marked the first double execution in the United States in 16 years.  Jones, a diabetic amputee in a wheelchair, suffered from mental impairment, bipolar disorder and, like Williams, had a past that included physical and sexual abuse.  

During Jones’s execution, officials searched for approximately 45 minutes to find a vein to insert the IV in.  They even attempted to insert the needle into Jones’s neck.  According to witnesses, Jones gulped and gasped for air during the consciousness check (a claim the Arkansas AG disputed – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/this-activist-nun-live-tweeted-the-arkansas-executions_us_58ff4bfce4b0288f5dc7edc8).  These irregularities lead to a temporary stay of execution for Marcel Williams due to concerns that his obesity would make it impossible for officials to find a vein.

One of the drugs used for the execution, Midazolam, has a past of leading to botched executions in Oklahoma and Arizona.  In those cases, the executed were said to writhe in pain on the gurney as the execution was carried out (http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/04/arkansas-executions-170425003426592.html).

The State of Arkansas has sought to push through these executions and others (originally planning eight in an eleven day period – the highest number in 40 years for the United States) because their supply of midazolam expires on April 30, 2017.  Further complicating matters is the fact that the State of Arkansas essentially acquired the drugs illegally. (https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/04/arkansas-wants-to-execute-seven-inmates-before-their-drugs-expire/522861/).

Taken on their own, these issues are troubling enough.  They are made more troubling when seen through the lens of Christianity, a religion whose central figure was executed by the state.  The death penalty stands in direct contradiction to the teachings of mercy, grace, and forgiveness taught by Jesus.  As followers of Christ Crucified, we have a responsibility to speak out against this violence.  

The death penalty is immoral.  It is inhumane.  It does nothing to deter violent crime and it does not heal the vicious wounds left behind by violent crime.  It is time to end the death penalty.

For more on this subject I strongly recommend this article:  http://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2017/04/26/last-suppers-jesus-christ-and-ledell-lee

Postscript (written 4/28/17): After a temporary stay during which the Supreme Court debated the Constitutionality of executing a mentally impaired individual, the State of Arkansas executed Kenneth Williams.  Media witnesses describe Williams as coughing, spasming, jerking, and more during the execution after movement should have ceased:

http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/lethal-injection/arkansas-executes-kenneth-williams-4th-lethal-injection-week-n752086

Blessed are the Merciful: Thinking about the Death Penalty

I am troubled by the death penalty.  As a Christian, I believe that the teachings of Jesus stand in opposition to capital punishment.  I believe that Jesus meant it when he said, “Blessed are the merciful.” (Matthew 5:7).  As the follower of a crucified Savior, I believe that we are called to stand against the deliberate taking of life.

In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also..You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?”  The entire concept of grace rests on the foundation of forgiveness and love when justice calls for condemnation and death.

Over the past few weeks American Christians have been forced to reckon with the death penalty as the State of Arkansas attempts to conduct eight executions in a matter of days.  Beyond the theological questions, substantial ethical questions have emerged about how the State of Arkansas obtained the lethal injection drugs and the assembly line nature of the state sanctioned killing.  

Cases like that of Ledell Lee highlight how the death penalty disproportionately targets minorities and the poor.   Sister Helen Prejean, of Dead Man Walking fame, detailed details about the representation Lee received:

  • Ledell’s first appellate lawyer showed up to court drunk, slurred his speech, and ended sentences with “and blah, blah, blah…”
  • Ledell’s second set of appellate lawyers missed appeal filing deadlines and ignored Ledell’s phone calls and letters.
  • Ledell’s federal lawyer represented him for 10 years but had no files. By the time she left the case, she hadn’t talked to Ledell for years.
  • Ledell’s next federal lawyer had his law license suspended “to prevent possible harm to clients” due to a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
  • In addition to these issue of representation, requests for DNA testing.

We must also consider the risk of executing the innocent.  Groups like the Innocence Project have successfully exonerated numerous individuals slated for execution.  We should all lose sleep knowing that, as long as the death penalty exists,  innocent people have and will be wrongly executed.

We cannot eradicate murder with murder.  We cannot bring about peace through violence.  We cannot walk the path of Christ and the path that leads to the execution chamber.

Let us pray for the victims of violence.  Let us pray for the perpetrators of violence.  Let us pray.

Kyrie eleison.  

 

Post Script: As I wrote this post the Supreme Court lifted the stay of execution for Ledell Lee.  The State of Arkansas proceeded with its first execution in over a decade.  With the denial of DNA testing, there remains the possibility that the state executed an innocent man.

The Way of the Crucified: Following Jesus on Holy Week

Today marks the first day of Holy Week, the most significant week in the Christian calendar.  On this Sabbath, Christians across the world celebrate Palm Sunday in memory of Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem.

At our church, children carry palm branches and wave them during the processional. The congregation sings the hymn “Hosanna, Loud Hosanna” and the children’s choirs sing songs like “He Comes” and “Sing Hosanna!”  In this way, we re-enact the the Holy Scripture.

12 On the next day the large crowd who had come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, 13 took the branches of the palm trees and went out to meet Him, and began to shout, “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel.” – John 12:12-13

Interestingly, other processions were taking place that same Sunday some 2000 years ago.  The Romans led a major military procession into Jerusalem, an enormous display of force meant to instill awe and respect in the occupied citizens of the city.

These two visions of Kingdom stand in stark contrast to each other.  In one, Jesus humbly enters the city astride a donkey, cheered by the poor and marginalized, followed by those longing for salvation.  In the other we see the theology of empire, the notion that salvation comes from power and might.

This message seems particularly potent this year, when we see rumblings of war in the Korean Peninsula, chemical attacks and airstrikes in Syria, bombings in Egypt’s Coptic Churches, the continued massacre of the Rohingya people in Myanmar, and more.

We are being given a choice, a choice that Moses presented to the Children of Israel before his death:

15 See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction.” Deuteronomy 30:15

Both suicide bombings and tomahawk missiles represent the way of Caesar.  Christians are called to the Way of the Cross.  As the soldier Martin of Tours said after converting to Christianity, “I have served you as a soldier; now let me serve Christ. Give the bounty to those who are going to fight. But I am a soldier of Christ and it is not lawful for me to fight.”

The concept of “me first”, and “my country first” represents the way of Caesar.  The way of Christ calls us to look to God first and then to the interest of our neighbor.

“37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ -Matthew 22:37-39  

The state of Arkansas is currently planning on carrying out seven executions in a single week.  This is the way of Caesar.  The way of the crucified savior calls us to forgiveness and mercy.  We are called to remember Jesus’s words when facing his own death:

“”Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” – Matthew 26:52

And later:

“”Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” Luke 23:34

The Way of the Cross does not resemble conventional wisdom.  In fact, to most it will resemble the height of folly.  It reeks of naivety and idealism.   After all, the way of Jesus leads us to the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Tears.  It leads us to death on the Cross, the ultimate sign of Caesar’s power.

However, the way of Caesar ends in the tomb, in death and darkness.  The Way of Christ eventually leads us to Easter, to resurrection, to rebirth.

This Holy Week we have set before us life and death.  What will we choose?

 

Rooted In Story

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(Cherokee Dancer Kasey Reynolds; photo by Kara Jex)

Yesterday (3/18/17) I attended the 13th Annual Santa Fe Days in the Park held at Sandy Lake Amusement Park in Carrollton, Texas.  The event highlights indigenous culture from around the United States, Mexico and Canada.  Traditional dancers perform, artists sell their crafts, and crowds gather around storytellers who regale them with tribal legends of trickster gods and how various aspects of the world came about.

I met Samuel Holiday, a 93 year old World War Two Veteran and Code Talker of the Dineh Tribe and purchased a copy of his memoir.  After I bought the book, Holiday took time to show me the pictures in the text, speaking softly about the story behind each photograph.  He even cracked a few jokes about his own appearance, referring to himself as a “goofy man”.

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(World War Two Veteran Code Talker Samuel Holiday of the Dineh Tribe; photo by Kara Jex)

I felt deeply moved to meet so many people with such a deep connection to their heritage.  It brought to mind a Bible verse:

“Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.” – Exodus 20:12

Whether or not they thought of it in these terms, each performer and artist at the Santa Fe Days Festival was actively fulfilling this command.

The modern world, specifically in the western hemisphere, has become a disposable culture.  We like new things, having little time or patience for the old.  We quickly come to think of our belongings as obsolete, discarding them for the latest and greatest attraction.

I fear this mentality infects our relationships with people.  A brief perusal of popular film or television reveals that we, at best, have an ambivalent relationship to old age.  Once an actor or actress reaches a certain age Hollywood ceases to have a use for them, unless it comes in the form of camp.  Advertisements and commercials are rife with the suggestion that we must hide away any trace of old age.  We hide away the elderly in rest homes and hospitals, out of sight and mind, as though by ignoring them we will somehow delay the inevitable fate that awaits us all.  We have created a cult that worships the young, new, and beautiful.

It is hard to overstate how much we lose through this mentality.  Bruce Feiler (author of Walking the Bible, The Council of Dads, and The Secrets of Happy Families) relates studies that show the importance of being rooted to our past.  In an essay titled “The Family Stories that Bind Us” (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/17/fashion/the-family-stories-that-bind-us-this-life.html)  Feiler relates research showing that families (and by extension societies) are strengthened through a strong family narrative.

The research, conducted by Dr. Marshall Duke, found that families with a strong core narrative tended to be more resilient in the face of crisis.

“Once again,” Dr. Duke said, “the ones who knew more about their families proved to be more resilient, meaning they could moderate the effects of stress.”

Why does knowing where your grandmother went to school help a child overcome something as minor as a skinned knee or as major as a terrorist attack?

“The answers have to do with a child’s sense of being part of a larger family,” Dr. Duke said. 

“The most healthful narrative,” Dr. Duke continued, “is…called the oscillating family narrative: ‘Dear, let me tell you, we’ve had ups and downs in our family. We built a family business. Your grandfather was a pillar of the community. Your mother was on the board of the hospital. But we also had setbacks. You had an uncle who was once arrested. We had a house burn down. Your father lost a job. But no matter what happened, we always stuck together as a family.’ ”

– from The Family Stories that Bind Us by Bruce Feiler

This core narrative grows organically from stories told repeatedly around the kitchen table, in the living room, or by bedsides.

While attending the Santa Fe Days Festival, I began to think of my grandmother Paulina Phillips.  A member of the Tlingit tribe of Southeast Alaska, she grew up during a time when being native meant being less than.  Tlingit children were discouraged from speaking their language.  Alaskan history even reveals that signs hung in business windows declaring “No Indians or Dogs Allowed”.  Like many Tlingit, she came from humble means.  In a letter she wrote to my mother she related this story:

“My mom did her best to take care of us.  I remember how tenderly and lovingly she made us comfortable when we were on our way to fish camp in an open boat and it was raining and the wind was blowing.  Mom laid a canvas down in the bottom of the boat and put blankets on the bottom of the boat and she had me and my sister lie down and she covered us with the canvas and the blankets and tucked us in.  We were so loved.  It kept us warm.”

As an adult, my grandmother battled multiple bouts of cancer and a Parkinson’s diagnosis, all the while serving faithfully in the Salvation Army Church, along with teaching Tlingit youth their traditional songs and dances, never allowing circumstances from a challenging youth or later health struggles to keep her down.   Her story has become an anchor in my life, giving me strength in the face of adversity, but only because I took the time to listen to the stories that she and my mother (Kathy Jex) told me.

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(Paulina Phillips – SAAWDU-OO; photo taken by David Phillips – Yeieeskitch)

Jewish culture seemed to understand this implicitly with commands throughout the Torah and later books of the Old Testament reiterating the need to repeat the stories of their people until they were written on the heart.

To learn these stories we first have to learn to slow down and listen, we must learn to pay attention to those who have gone before us who can give tell us our history.  We must reject the idolatry that says we discard the old and worship the new.  We must follow the Biblical command to honor our father and mother, not simply through obedience, but through careful attention to their history and stories.

 

 

Salam Neighbor: Inside Jordan’s Za’atari Refugee Camp

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(photo from the Living on One webpage)

A few weeks ago our church (www.fumccoppell.org) hosted a screening of the documentary film “Salam Neighbor”, produced by the non-profit media company Living on One (www.livingonone.org).  The documentary follows the film’s directors, Chris Temple and Zach Ingrasci, as they travel to the Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan, currently home to approximately 79,000 Syrian refugees.

To gain a true understanding of life in the camps, Temple and Ingrasci received the permission of the United Nations to register as refugees and were given a tent inside the camp (the first filmmakers ever granted this right).  They then spent a month in the camp and in the neighboring city of Mafraq, immersed in the lives of refugees.  They learn the stories of those who have been forced to flee their home to build a new life in a foreign land.

The film is a mixture of heartbreak and inspiration.  Viewers learn the story of a young boy residing in the camp whose school in Syria was bombed.  They meet a couple who lost two adult sons to the war.  Viewers hear the stories of families who fled in the middle of the night, leaving home, career, and more with no promise of return.  In these moments the full weight of the human tragedy unfolding becomes visceral and real.  However, the stories do not end there.  The film uncovers remarkable stories of resilience and innovation in the face of countless setbacks.  They follow refugees who work with aid and support groups inside Za’atari, refugees who attend school or who devote their time to teaching.  Temple and Ingrasci even discover large groups of refugees who have started their own businesses within the camp.  They meet woman named Um Ali who gathers plastic bags discarded around the camp and transforms the plastic into yarn, making a variety of arts and crafts.  The U.N. refugee agency has since hired her to teach the skill to other young women.

Just as remarkable are the friendships that Temple and Ingrasci develop.  Throughout the camp they are welcomed into tents, provided with food, and even play games with their neighbors.  They swap stories, share jokes, and develop relationships.  It is remarkable to see that, in the midst of so much adversity, so many residents of Za’atari are able to maintain a spirit of hospitality.

The film stands as a remarkable document, providing a clear picture of the day to day struggles of the estimated 11 million Syrians who have fled their home since the beginning of the country’s civil war in 2011.

In a time when a prominent member of the United States government saw fit to suggest that “other people’s babies” pose an existential threat to Western Civilization, this film reminds us of our shared humanity.  As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…This is the inter-related structure of reality.”

 

 

 

 

What I’ve Learned from Valley Ranch Islamic Center

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On February 25, my family attended a community picnic sponsored by Valley Ranch Islamic Center.  Like the VRIC barbeque we attended in November (https://shaunjex.com/2016/11/25/building-bridges-instead-of-walls/) , this was an amazing interfaith event.  Multiple Christian congregations attended, while VRIC supplied all of the food and drinks.  Several hundred people attended, mingling together, sharing stories, laughing, and bonding over good food and beautiful weather.

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Over the last few years I’ve learned quite a bit from my Islamic friends and neighbors, things that I think would benefit the Christian Church.

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VRIC is consistently active in the surrounding community.  They host breakfasts, picnics and barbeques on a regular basis, holding the events in public places and inviting any and all to attend.  The events I’ve attended have focused exclusively on fellowship, devoid of overbearing efforts to convert.  That is not to say that they shy away from speaking about their faith, but they allow their hospitality and kindness to bear witness first, inviting people to come and see who they are and what their faith represents.

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Though by no means true of all Christian congregations, I’ve noticed a tendency for the church to become somewhat insular, existing like a community apart.  The community events the church holds tend to be seasonal, with events around Halloween, Christmas, and Easter.  Rather than venturing out into the community these events tend to put the initiative on the community.  We ask others to come to the church instead of the church going out into the community.  There is also an unspoken (sometimes spoken) agenda behind these events, operating under the premise that we’ll draw them in and then convince them to stay.  One of the most significant things I’ve learned from VRIC is that our service should be given without strings, or even expectation of reciprocity.  The service functions as its own reward.

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Through committees and classes, I’ve heard a continuous refrain that suggests that visitors and new members at churches often struggle with the feeling that they are unwelcome.  They come to the building looking for a new congregation or church home and then find themselves thrust into the middle of a well established social circle that can be difficult to penetrate.  Cliques develop within congregations, with certain members failing to interact with and sometimes even avoiding those outside of their group.  I’ve heard complaints from visitors who were never greeted or who got lost in the building because no one took the time to help them.  Perhaps just as damaging, sometimes they are warmly greeted on their first or second visit and then forgotten about once they become regular members, as though what mattered most was adding their name to the record books.

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At every VRIC event, I’ve found a consistent spirit of hospitality and that the members are just as welcoming as the leadership. During the picnic, our family was approached by several dozen VRIC members, each of whom welcomed us, shook our hands, and then offered to get us food, drink, or anything else we might need.  Every time someone stood up from their picnic blanket they asked their neighbors if there was anything they wanted.  We were regularly thanked simply for our willingness to attend, as though we were the ones extending the hand of welcome and not the other way around.

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As Christians, this welcoming attitude and desire to serve should be second nature to us as well.  As Jesus says in the Gospel of John, “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” (John 13:35 ESV).  Often, when we discuss declining numbers in church attendance we discuss superficialities like the style of hymns we sing, the mixed media we do or do not use to present our message, the time services are held, or the dress code.  Of course, details like these can be important, but I think that the first and most important step for the church to take is to cultivate a culture of welcome, hospitality, and love.

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Perhaps most importantly, I’ve learned how important it is to move past any sense of “other”.  Our church recently held a month long class studying Methodist Theologian and Bishop Wil Willimon’s book “Fear of the Other” (https://willwillimon.wordpress.com/).  The book explores our human tendency to fear those we view as “other” and how we can move beyond this fear, to fulfill the Biblical command to welcome and care for those viewed as the “other” and how they can, in fact, aid in our salvation.

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These are important steps to take, but if we stop there we haven’t gone far enough.  We need to begin to see each other as neighbors, as brothers and sisters, to move beyond this concept of “other” and to embrace each human being for their inherent, God given worth.

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I am indebted to the members and leadership of VRIC for welcoming me, for giving me the opportunity to gather with and to learn from them, but most of all to join with them in building a community of love and acceptance, a love that does not ignore our differences, but embraces them, knowing that we are stronger together.

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