Obama and Interfaith: Multi-Religious Literacy through Multi-Religious Activity

President Obama has often been accused of not carrying through on promises or projects.   That criticism would not apply to the promises he has made to make the White House’s “faith-based initiatives” into “multi-faith-based initiatives.”

Back on June 8, 2010, I did a blog titled “We’ve Got a Friend: Obama and Interfaith.” It summarized a meeting I attended at the White House, along with about 100 other religious scholars and leaders, organized by the “White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.”  The focus of the meeting was how to advance interfaith and community service on college and university campuses.

Well, Obama has carried through on the commitments he and his Office made back in June.  A few days ago, on March 17, he announced  the “President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge.”   As stated on the website of the Office of Faith-Based Partnerships, it is “an initiative inviting institutions of higher education to commit to a year of interfaith cooperation and community service programming on campus.”

Obama’s challenge lays out concrete steps calling on students and staff, teachers and administration, of higher education to promote specific programs that will enable their learning communities to become interfaith learning-through-serving communities. And there will even be awards for the most creative and effective projects.

Amid the turmoil swirling around the world and in the White House offices – the tragedy in Japan, the violence in the Middle East – clearly this interfaith initiative does not rank anywhere near the top of the list of hot news items.  But it may be one of the most significant in its long-range promise.

Obama is calling for greater religious literacy.  But he is doing so by calling, first, for greater religious cooperation.  The ideals that motivate him are the same that motivate many of us who are trying to promote more effective interreligious dialogue through interreligious cooperation.

Becoming multi-religious friends in mutual efforts to help others is an effective way of deepening not just our tolerance of each other, not just our understanding of each other, but also our ability to learn from each other.   Academics use some fancy, but engaging, language to express this dynamic:  dia-praxis leads to dia-logue. Doing leads to learning.

Religious people who act together stay together in continued learning and respect for each other.

My hopes for universities and colleges across the country reflect my hopes for our community at Union Theological Seminary – that next academic year we will all take up President Obama’s challenge and engage in specific, interfaith collaborative projects in order to meet the needs of our city and country.

By walking and acting together, we will talk and learn together.

President Obama, I don’t want to denounce you!

One of the basic principles that I try to practice as a Buddhist-Christian is to oppose without denouncing.  As a Buddhist teacher once put it to a group of Christian liberation theologians, “We Buddhists don’t denounce.” This is one of the most difficult, but also one of the most important, things we Christians can learn from Buddhists: How to oppose without denouncing.  How to offer staunch opposition and resistance without denouncing and degrading the other side and so cutting off possibilities of further dialogue and cooperation.

Recent policies by President Obama and many of his fellow Democrats have made such opposing without denouncing very difficult.  Simply stated: it seems to me that so many of the policies that the President has been following, or allowing, are undermining the very structures of our democracy.  In a recent article in The Nation, William Grieder offers an analysis of what I, and so many other liberals (yes, I’m not afraid of that word), have been feeling.  So in this blog, I’m going to turn it over to Grieder:

Political events of the past two years have delivered a  profound and devastating message: American democracy has been conclusively conquered by American capitalism. Government has been disabled and captured by the formidable powers of private enterprise and concentrated wealth. Self-governing rights that representative democracy conferred on citizens are now usurped by the overbearing demands of corporate and financial interests. Collectively, the corporate sector has its arms around both political parties, the financing of political careers, the production of the policy agendas and propaganda of influential think tanks, and control of major media.

What the capitalist system wants is more — more wealth, more freedom to do whatever it wishes. This has always been its instinct unless goverment intervened to stop it. The objective now is to destroy any remaining forms of goverment interference, except of course for business subsidies and protections. Many elected representatives are implicitly enlisted in the cause.

The administration of Barack Obama has been a crushing disappointment for those of us who hoped he would be different. It turns out that Obama is a more conventional and limited politician than advertised, more right-of-center than his soaring rhetoric suggested. Most Congressional Democrats, likewise, proved weak and incoherent, unreliable defenders of their supposed values or most loyal constituencies. They call it pragmatism. I call it surrender.

Such policies of surrender are preferring capitalism over democracy.  Capitalism is moral only when it is democratic.  If it’s not democratic, it must be opposed, and maybe  denounced.

Niebuhr and Buddha – and Obama

With this blog, I’m jumping into water over my head.  I may need someone to rescue me, or set me straight.

I want to say something about Reinhold Niebuhr and Walter Rauschenbusch (about whom I am in no way specialized, whereas two of my colleagues here at Union, Jim Cone and Gary Dorrien, are) and about Buddha (about whom I know a little more).

What triggered these reflections was an article in today’s New York Times titled “God and Politics Together Again.” The author, Sam Tanenhaus,  notes that President Obama has been influenced not by liberation theology (as Glenn Beck has been proclaiming) but by the Social Gospel of Rauschenbusch, which calls on Christianity “to add its moral force to the social and economic forces making for a nobler organization of society” in which “the burden of poverty” would be lifted from the back of millions.

But Tanenhaus immediately adds that Obama has also been strongly influenced by Niebuhr’s Christian Realism which recognizes “that there’s serious evil in the world and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief that we can eliminate those things.”

Tanenhaus draws the insightful conclusion that “the tension between these two religious ideas – one wedded to progress, the other mindful of the limits of worldly activism – reflects the broader tension in Mr. Obama’s liberalism, itself divided between an enthusiasm for bold policy initiatives and a pragmatic understanding that some things can’t be fixed or even changed through politics.”

To many of us (yes, especially us liberals), it sure seems that Obama’s tension is tilting toward Niebuhr.  Recently, the President’s words and actions, especially in confronting Republican intransigence, have slipped from “bold policy” to the “pragmatic understanding that some things just can’t be fixed.”

Here’s where I think that Buddha might offer Mr. Obama – and posthumously, Mr. Niebuhr –a helping hand.  Gautama the Buddha also recognized the tension between the “realism” of suffering (dukkha) that is caused by greed (tanha) on the one hand, and the “bold policy” of transformation through enlightenment, on the other.

But he placed his money (so to speak) and devoted his full energies to the transformation of individuals and of society that can come through awakening to our true nature, our Buddha-nature.

For Buddha, the reality of evil and the promise of awakening did not have a 50-50 chance.  Albert Nolan has said somewhere in his Jesus before Christianity, that anyone who believes that good and evil have a 50-50 chance is an atheist.  In this sense, Buddha was no atheist.

So I think Buddha would walk a middle path between Rauschenbusch and Niebuhr. (Okay, with a tilt toward Rauschenbusch.)  He would hold up the promise, calling for our full commitment, that the individual and society do not have to stay the way they are; they do not have to be caught in the “poisons” of ignorance, greed, and hatred.  But at the same time, he would tip his hat to Niebuhr in recognizing that we have to be mindful of the realities of ignorance and greed and hated.  “Being mindful” means we have to be fully aware of them, analyze them carefully, engage them through “skillful means” (upaya) – in the assurance that they can be – yes, they can be – changed.

Why would Buddha be so sure that things can be different than what they are now?  I think for two reasons:

1)    Because of impermanence (annica): everything changes, nothing – neither the human heart nor the capitalist system – has to stay the way it is.  As one Buddhist saying has it: “Impermanence makes everything possible.”

2)    Because of our inherent Buddha-nature:  In our deepest reality —  even though that reality is covered over by ignorance and all kinds of “causes and conditions” – we are Buddhas, inherently connected with all beings in mutual goodness and mutual compassion.

What Buddha discovered is in no way contradictory to what Jesus discovered.   For me, it offers the possibility of a deeper grasp of St. Paul’s announcement that “where sin abounds, grace does more abound” (Rom. 5:20) – that is, sin and grace do not have a 50-50 chance. And when Buddhists affirm that we are all called to be Buddhas, Christians affirm that we are all called “to put on Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:27)

Rather than Christian “realism,” maybe we are closer to Jesus and to Buddha if we talk about a Buddhist-Christian “mindful optimism.”

Thank you, Mr. President!

I owe President Obama a thank you — and maybe an apology.

It turns out that I was too quick to criticize and challenge him in my last blog about not really “speaking his mind” concerning the Muslim Center in lower Manhattan. Two days after I posted the blog, in which I quoted from his speech in Cairo and implored him to, more or less, give the same speech here in the States, the New York Times, in today’s edition, announced that the President, at an Iftar dinner at the White House, came out clearly, strongly, courageously in support of the Muslim Center.

Obama explained that he didn’t speak up earlier because he “did not want to weigh in until local authorities made a decision on the proposal.”   I should have thought of that.

In my previous blog, I urged Obama to provide the presidential leadership he promised in his Cairo speech “ to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.”

He has provided such leadership.  And we are all grateful.

Please, Mr. President, speak your mind!

Dear President Obama,

On Aug 3, your press secretary, Robert Gibbs, speaking for your administration, said that you did not want to take a position on the controversy surrounding plans to build a Muslim Center near Ground Zero.   When asked what was the opinion of your administration, Mr. Gibbs replied that it was “a matter for New York” and that you did not want “to get involved in local decision-making.”

That’s hard to believe.  I suspect – no, I’m quite certain – that you do want to get involved,  but that you, or your advisers, are afraid of the political repercussions from the growing anti-Muslim movement on the right. (It was a Tea-Party group that first sounded the conservative attack on the Manhattan Muslim Center.)

I am convinced that you really do want to come out publicly and defend the rights of our Muslim fellow-citizens to establish a center close to Ground Zero  – a center that is intended to provide space for dialogue between Christian Americans and Muslim Americans and that will show a different and more authentic face of Islam rather than the one embodied in the actions of extremists.

Why am I so certain that you want to so speak publicly on such an issue?  Because you said so!

May I quote for you what you said in your speech in Cairo on June 4, 2009?  And allow me to nudge your conscience on each of these statements:

  • “The attacks of September 11th, 2001 and the continued efforts of these extremists to engage in violence against civilians has led some in my country to view Islam as inevitably hostile not only to America and Western countries, but also to human rights. This has bred more fear and mistrust.” –  (Such fear and mistrust are being fostered by the ugly rhetoric of the opponents of the Center.)

  • “So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, and who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity. This cycle of suspicion and discord must end.” –  (You have an opportunity to help end this suspicion and discord by taking a clear and strong stand for the rights of our Muslim fellow-citizens.)

  • “I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.” –  (You said this in Cairo to Egyptians.  I beg you to now say it now in Washington, D.C. to Americans.)

  • “I am convinced that in order to move forward, we must say openly the things we hold in our hearts, and that too often are said only behind closed doors. There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground.” –  (Please, say openly these things that you hold in your heart. Call all sides involved in this controversy to listen, learn, respect, and seek common ground.  It is so important, it would be so helpful, for you to pronounce just these words in the midst of this controversy.)

  • “ It is my conviction that partnership between America and Islam must be based on what Islam is, not what it isn’t. And I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.” — (Such negative stereotypes of Islam are rampant in most of the public statements of those opposed to the Muslim Center.   Please, carry out your “responsibility as President of the United States.” )

Mr. President, we need your leadership.  Please, speak your mind!