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The Editor’s Spot

Mount Merapi, seen from the Buddhist temple of Borobudur

Religion – dividing or healing?

The recent eruptions of Mount Merapi on the island of Java (the photo on the front cover shows an earlier, gentler eruption) have brought back many memories for me. The clouds over the mountain carry a majestic beauty – along with the terrible destruction they bring to so many people. I lived for ten years within sight of that beautiful volcano, as a Presbyterian fraternal worker (now called a “mission co-worker” I guess) teaching at Satya Wacana Christian University.

Like many who go to places and people that are strange to them, I learned far more in those ten years than I ever expected. One thing I learned was to respect and learn from a huge variety of religious beliefs and practices. While most of our neighbors in the small city of Salatiga were nominally Muslim, many of them were also members or supporters of the Communist Party, until it was outlawed after a purported coup attempt in 1965. Many were also deeply influenced by the worldviews of the Hindu and Buddhist faiths that had dominated Central Java centuries earlier.

So our city contained mosques, Protestant and Catholic churches, Buddhist temples, little neighborhood shrines to various local spirits, floral sacrifices to gain fertility for the rice fields, and more. A couple hours’ driving took us around Mount Merapi to the ancient Hindu temple of Prambanan; a little further brought us to the Buddhist temple of Borobudur.

Through the interwoven web of religions, people somehow managed to live together quiet peacefully. Now and then we heard reports of Muslims attacking Christian churches (and occasionally of Christians attacking mosques, too). In the aftermath of the 1965 failed communist coup (which was apparently instigated by the CIA, as a means to undercut and destroy the largest communist party outside the “Iron Curtain” countries), people took the chance to settle scores, and hundreds of thousands of people died. Many were executed (or “killed while fleeing”) by the Indonesian army, but many others were slaughtered by civilians in vigilante squads, who used the opportunity to kill people they didn’t like, often because they saw those people as not “faithful Muslims.”

The gentle tolerance of the Javanese people cracked, and in the name of religion countless people died.

And during all this, I was learning from my colleagues and students – learning about how people can live in ways shaped deeply by a variety of traditions. Many of my students were from the Central Java area, where so many strands of religion were so closely interwoven. While most of them were Christian, and some were preparing for the ministry, they were shaped by many of the older layers of spiritual traditions too – folk religion, Hinduism and Buddhism of many sorts. These all gave them a depth of patience and tolerance, along with a sensitivity to emotions and to beauty, and a gentleness of manner, that I came to respect and enjoy.

Now, why am I dredging up all these ancient memories? The cloud from Merapi’s eruption is just part of the reason. I’ve been thinking of how deeply our society is becoming divided, not by religion itself, but by the ways religion is being used. People have been using religion to throw the mantle of holiness over one political cause or another, and to condemn as evil the people and groups that they see as “different from us,” and beyond the limits of our tolerance.

Right now it seems urgent for a group like ours, committed to a faith-based progressive vision for our church and our society, to offer some response to the damage being wrought in the name of religion. What can we say, how can we act, to be a voice for reason and reconciliation in this deeply divided and fearful world?

How can we be a “witness for peace” in our nation’s religious and political life?

We might well begin with our Reformed heritage. After all, if John Calvin and others had accepted the absolutist claims of the Roman Catholic Church, we would still be Catholics. While the Reformers were certainly not against religion, they stood clearly against absolutism. This was not something new to Luther and Calvin. After all, if Jesus had not challenged the absolutist claims of the Pharisees and of the Roman Empire, his followers would not have created the communities based on grace and love and openness, which eventually grew into the world-wide Christian church.

So we follow them in recognizing that religion is a human enterprise. It is a human enterprise, just as much as politics, and the science of biology, and the art of dancing and everything else that we do. Religion is our very human effort to make sense of life, especially in light of our many and varied experiences of what we call “the holy” – the mysterious, numinous, transcendent experiences that touch our lives now and then.

Does that mean that religion is not “true,” that we’re just making it all up? Not at all. We’re trying to understand our everyday (and sometimes out-of-the-ordinary) experiences, just as physicists try to make sense of all those blips and numbers they see and measure in their laboratories, and that shape our material world. But the physicists sometimes get things wrong, and then other physicists do more experiments and come up with new theories to correct the mistaken ones. They never claim they have a complete picture of how the physical world works, but they keep getting better pictures, atom by atom.

So in religion, while it differs from physics in pretty obvious ways, we keep trying to get a better picture of how things really are, even as we keep reminding ourselves (and keep forgetting again) that God and God’s doings in the universe are infinitely beyond our understanding. So in our religions, as in our sciences, we have every reason to be humble – modest in our claims, cautious in our assertions, always open to the Beyond.

Unfortunately, though, humility is a scarce virtue for religious folk. Religious faith – especially monotheistic faith, it seems – seems to lead people to claim they alone have The Truth, and everyone else has it wrong. So we build walls to protect our True Religion, in the sure knowledge that we’re right and everybody else is going to hell.

Right now it looks as if the religious wall-building efforts are getting stronger by the day, with the Israeli “security wall” as our clearest example. The recent U.S. election campaign provides plenty of examples, too. Yet we are trying to follow Jesus, who kept pointing to a God whose love enfolds all people and calls us to love them as well. Just as Jesus sent his disciples out into the countryside to preach and to heal, so he urges us outward, pulling down the walls, opening doors of welcome and windows to let in new light, new truth.

One of the paradoxes of the Christian imperative to engage in outreach – mission, evangelism, whatever you want to call it – is that its seeming arrogance (“We have the Right Faith for you!”) in fact leads the missionary into contact with people outside his or her faith community, and into relationships that often lead to mutual respect and understanding. So I went to Indonesia, and found myself learning from and appreciating those whom I had gone out to “save.”

Our theological tradition reminds us in many ways that we do not own God, and that God is infinitely beyond both our understanding and our control. Paul Tillich and H. Richard Niebuhr both spoke of “the God beyond God,” who stands beyond (or behind or above or whatever you choose) all the many gods of our many faiths. What Tillich called “the Protestant principle” reminds us that no one person or institution has the whole truth. That alone should challenge us to be open to other faith traditions, even as it reassures us that such openness is in no way a betrayal of our own faith.

So we might begin to witness to our church, and our society, about the essential openness of the Christian faith. But mere talking is not enough. The Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, in Living Buddha, Living Christ, talks about the need for “communities of practice.” He is calling for groups of people who are intentionally living into – practicing – the disciplines and life changes called for and made possible by their faith traditions. For him, that includes the Buddhist practice of mindfulness – a deepening awareness of the self, and the myriad ways in which the self is deluded by taking itself and its ideas of the world too seriously, along with the Christian practice of a praying and loving community.

Learning just to be, instead of always busying myself with doing (even doing justice!) may help me learn that what makes me unhappy is thinking that I can achieve happiness by my own efforts. My unhappiness comes from trying to avoid uncomfortable things in my life, and to protect myself from all the threats that the world holds over me. Thich Nhat Hanh has reminded me of what Jesus has taught us too: That we cannot save ourselves by our own efforts, and cannot achieve happiness by striving for it. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16.25)

What difference might it make to our congregations, to our denomination, and to us, if we began forming such small, intentional communities of practice, committed to openness toward our neighbors – especially those with whom we seem to have the most serious differences?

What, might be some practical steps we might take to bear witness to a God whose love is for all creatures, not just for a favored few?

Here are a few ways we might put our faith into action:

•    Supporting social policies that affirm and show respect for all persons/groups/species. As Presbyterians we might do this through General Assembly resolutions, and through our offices in Washington and at the UN.

•    Strengthening programs in our denomination and our congregations that reach out to groups that are “different,” and that are being subjected to hostility, suspicion, and persecution because of their differences.

•    Helping our church and society remember that faith casts out (or at least reduces) fear, and it’s fear that drives us to build walls and conduct wars (holy and otherwise) against those whom we fear, just because they seem different.

•    Reminding ourselves and others how often Jesus told his followers “do not be afraid.” He knew they would face threats, but he knew also that in God’s care they would not be overcome, destroyed. 

God calls us to work for peace and justice in the world God has created. Such efforts involve us in conflict and struggle as we face the huge differences and tensions the divide us as human beings. But even in the struggle, may we face the world always rooted in a deep, calm awareness that God’s world is one, we are one with one another even in our differences. The walls will fall, peace will come, the reign of God will be made real among us. We can rejoice in being called to play our small parts in that great cosmic adventure. 

Doug King 

I'd like to hear your comments on this little venture
into remembering my own past
as a way into dealing with our current crises.
Please send a note,
and if you're willing,
we'll share it here.

The Editor’s Spot

Here’s your chance to help be a voice for justice in the PC(USA).

A letter from the Editor

We’re asking for help!! After almost twenty years of editing this newsletter, and then managing our website, and then, just for fun, also taking care of our membership database and correspondence, I have come to the sense that it’s time for a change. PVJ needs someone new (or better yet, two or three someones) in these various jobs, who can engage us more effectively in online social networking, put together a livelier newsletter, and keep us more closely in touch with our membership.

So the PVJ Coordinating Team would like YOU to consider seriously taking on one or more of these responsibilities, beginning by January 2011 at the latest.

You wouldn’t have to do it all! In fact what we would really like is one person to do the newsletter, another to manage the website and other on-line communications, and another to take care of our membership connections. If you’re interested, or even willing to talk about it, please let me know. I’ll tell you all I can, work with you in transferring everything, and then I’ll fade quietly away and let you have all the fun.

I have to say that my involvement in these various activities has been immensely rewarding and satisfying – above all for the wealth of personal connections, many of them real friendships, that I have enjoyed over the years. But now – it’s your turn! Let’s see what we can work out.

Doug King
Phone 608-782-5275

Lenten readings just for our unpeaceful times
Even cracked pots can carry life and light in times of death and destruction

from your WebWeaver, Doug King   [3-15-07]

Yesterday evening some people of our congregation gathered for our regular Lenten observance of a simple supper and a time of prayer using the Taizé service.

I listened to the three scripture readings after a day of hearing about the continuing concerns about the Bush Administration’s actions in firing a number of US Attorneys, and the Attorney General’s lame efforts to deal with those concerns. And I sat there knowing I would be leaving the next day (this evening) to join thousands of others for the Christian Peace Witness for Iraq, to be held Friday in Washington, DC.

The progression through the three readings led me ...

bulletfrom the psalmist’s lament at the evil all around him, and rejoicing at God’s promise to stand against the evil-doers and the liars
bulletthrough God’s word to Jeremiah that we are clay in the hands of the divine Potter, with the hope of being useful vessels, but only if we repent and change our ways as a people
bulletto Paul’s ringing affirmation that while we are just clay pots, we can serve as life-giving vessels even in times of death and destruction.

Nothing new here, but for me it was the right Word at the right time. And I’d like to share it with you.

The passages >>

Has separation of Church and State gone a little too far?   [3-25-06]

A slightly bemused thought from your WebWeaver:

There's been a lot of discussion in our local press this week (in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis - Saint Paul, Minnesota) about the removal of a "Happy Easter" display from someone's desk in the offices of the St. Paul City Council.  Arguments have raged about whether bunnies and little candy eggs and fake grass are religious symbols, or are simply symbols of the commercialization of religion.  You don't need all the details, but someone offered the helpful suggestion that in the name of church-state separation, the Capital City of Minnesota should perhaps be renamed as just "Paul."

Election(s) - a gracious gift (for Calvinists) or a privilege and a pain?

From your WebWeaver, Doug King

(just published as the Editor's Spot in the Summer 2004 issue of Network News.)

Election is one of those Basic Belief Groups for Calvinists, right? At the heart of that doctrine (which may still have more or less meaning for many of us today) is a radical notion of grace. But the elections we're facing this season are quite a different matter. Grace doesn't seem to play a big role. Love seems strangely lacking, unless it's the devotion some people seem to feel toward one candidate or another. Fear and resentment play a bigger part than the finer emotions, if we're to judge by the appeals being made by campaign speeches and ads.

We think of politics and government in terms of law (or lawlessness), and justice (or injustice). So what might grace have to do with it - and with our messy process of electing a president?

Three things occur to me.

First: In the Reformed understanding of "election," that act of divine grace frees us from bondage to self, and allows us to care for others. In this new freedom we are enabled to care for those beyond our immediate circle of family and friends - not just with some kind of mushy individualistic "compassion," but with practical, political efforts to make sure everyone in our global community gets a fair chance at a decent life. Or even, as our recent General Assembly motto reminded us, at an abundant life. Or to be a little more modest, how about a life of sufficiency?

If the church is to bear witness at all in this election season, we must begin with a prophetic call for justice that grows out of love - a love that extends to all of God's creation, that never allows us to divide the world into "friends" and "enemies," into simple categories of good and evil.

Bill Coffin says it better than I can, in his recent book Credo: "What distortion of the gospel it is to have limited sympathies and unlimited certainties, when the very reverse - to have limited certainties and unlimited sympathies - is not only more tolerant but far more Christian."

Second: Our Calvinist forbears (at their best, anyway) never took their sense of election, of being "chosen," as a reason for any claims to superiority or privilege. Election was for service, not for rule. God's love gave them no grounds for exploiting the rest of the world. Well, in fact that sense of election often was taken to just all sorts of exploitation. But that doesn't justify our nation's following in the wrong paths of our predecessors, who should have known better.

And third: The theological notion of election is never simply a gift, but also and always a call. It's a call to care for God's world, and to do so with humility (for the world is a gift, not our possession), with appreciation and respect for what is basically good - not just good for what we can get out of it, but good in itself. Good to be enjoyed, and to be shared.

So as we slog through this campaign season, let's remember the good things that we can affirm. Let's recognize that voices on the progressive side of our church and our society need to offer a positive vision - and maybe even a program - for the future of our nation and the world. Our prophetic witness must both denounce the claims to certainty and to a right to rule the world. But we must also give voice to the divinely task for humanity: to enjoy life, and to enable others to enjoy it too.

In this issue of Network News we're including two other items for your reflection in this election season: A listing from the National Council of Churches of ten principles for use in reflecting on the candidates and their positions; and an essay by theologian Doug Ottati on what he calls "utilitarian Christianity," which would use God as a guarantor of getting our way. He warns, "Beware of political spiritualities that equate God's purposes with the cherished aims and objectives of one's own nation or people."

And we have a whole page indexing other material related to the election!

We'd like to hear what you think of this connection between "election" and our elections?  Is your WebWeaver just babbling (as he sometimes suspects) or are there ideas worth debating here?  Just send a note to be shared here!

And a note of thanks from the Witherspoon board:

We're very grateful for the generous support our members have been giving in response to Treasurer Dave Zuverink's appeal for special funds to support and expand Witherspoon's communications. We're nearing $4,000 toward our goal of $10,000. That will help a great deal, but more support will enable us to reach out more effectively - distributing free copies of Network News to seminarians and others; offering someone a small stipend to help improve the appearance of our website and add to its content. If you haven't sent a contribution yet, we'll still graciously accept your gift! You can use the membership envelope in this issue - but be sure to mark your check or the envelope for "Communication Fund." Thanks!!

You can make a gift online with a credit card.  Just click here to go to the bottom of our membership form, and there you are!

Just got back from a little walk -- overwhelmed by the rainbow that arced across the whole sky, the most perfect display of God's gracious promise I've ever seen.

So forgive me if I bore you, but I just have to share this for a while.

Glory be to God, our Creator beyond all our imagining.


Should we always "respect our President"? And if so, how?

Your WebWeaver frequently receives e-mail notes from irate visitors who are offended by sometimes critical comments or analyses about policies and actions of the United States government, both at home and around the world. The basic theme of the notes is often the accusation that we are not showing proper respect to our President.

Since I believe strongly that respecting other people is an important way of showing our faith in the God who created them, that sometimes concerns me. A recent column in the Faith and Values section of the Minneapolis Star Tribune helped me clarify my own thinking about this.

Jeremy Iggers, who writes a regular column on ethical issues, poses the question, "Does the president -- any president -- deserve our respect simply because he holds the office? (Keep in mind that the issues raised here also apply to our previous president.) What, if anything, is 'out of bounds?' "

He answers his question: "We don't owe the president, or anyone else, respect simply in virtue of the office. But as citizens -- since he is our employee and acts in our name -- we bear some responsibility for his actions. That gives us the right, and even the obligation, to speak out in support when we agree with his actions and to criticize him when we think he is wrong."

But he adds that courtesy and civility are forms of respect due to any person, so "the more serious your criticisms are, the more important it is to express them in sober and dignified terms. (There is a special exemption to this general moral principle for Jay Leno and David Letterman, because late-night television would be a lot less entertaining without jokes about politics.)"

He also makes an important distinction: "A president who lies to us about his personal life diminishes our respect for him as a human being but may retain some claim on respect for his performance in office, while a president who lies to us about affairs of state diminishes our respect for him as office holder."

You may want to look at the whole essay; it's not long.

What do you think?
Just send a note,
and we'll share it here.

For a few earlier thoughts from your WebWeaver, click here.

And for even earlier ones, try clicking here.


Some blogs worth visiting

PVJ's Facebook page

Mitch Trigger, PVJ's Secretary/Communicator, has created a Facebook page where Witherspoon members and others can gather to exchange news and views. Mitch and a few others have posted bits of news, both personal and organizational. But there’s room for more!

You can post your own news and views, or initiate a conversation about a topic of interest to you.


John Shuck’s new "Religion for Life" website

Long-time and stimulating blogger John Shuck, a Presbyterian minister currently serving as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton, Tenn., writes about spirituality, culture, religion (both organized and disorganized), life, evolution, literature, Jesus, and lightening up.

Click here for his blog posts.

Click here for podcasts of his radio program, which "explores the intersection of religion, social justice and public life."


John Harris’ Summit to Shore blogspot

Theological and philosophical reflections on everything between summit to shore, including kayaking, climbing, religion, spirituality, philosophy, theology, The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), New York City and the Queens neighborhood of Ridgewood -- by a progressive New York City Presbyterian Pastor. John is a former member of the Witherspoon board, and is designated pastor of North Presbyterian Church in Flushing, NY.


Voices of Sophia blog

Heather Reichgott, who has created this new blog for Voices of Sophia, introduces it:

After fifteen years of scholarship and activism, Voices of Sophia presents a blog. Here, we present the voices of feminist theologians of all stripes: scholars, clergy, students, exiles, missionaries, workers, thinkers, artists, lovers and devotees, from many parts of the world, all children of the God in whose image women are made. .... This blog seeks to glorify God through prayer, work, art, and intellectual reflection. Through articles and ensuing discussion we hope to become an active and thoughtful community.


Got more blogs to recommend?

Please send a note, and we'll see what we can do!


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© 2012 by Presbyterian Voices for Justice.  All material on this site is the responsibility of the WebWeaver unless other sources are acknowledged.  Unless otherwise noted, material on this site may be copied for personal use and sharing in small groups.  For permission to reproduce material for wider publication, please contact the WebWeaver, Doug King.  Any material reached by links on this site is outside the control and responsibility of the WebWeaver and Presbyterian Voices for Justice.  Questions or comments?  Please send a note!