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See the World’s Tallest Statues

"I was intrigued by the human need to build these immense shrines to power."

The photographer Fabrice Fouillet was looking to produce work about symbolism and the cult of personality, but couldn’t find the right angle – until he came across a photo of Sendai Daikannon, one of the world’s tallest statues, standing at 328 ft. (100 meters).

“This statue, [which is a Japanese representation of the Buddhist Bodhisattva Kannon], seemed so enormous, so impressive and so surreal since it was set up right at the center of this town,” says Fouillet. “I first thought that the photo was a montage, but it was real. I had found the symbol I was looking for. I was fascinated, and I needed to find out if there were more like it.”

Fouillet located dozens across the world, from Poland, where a 120-ft.-tall figure of Jesus Christ stands in the small town of Świebodzin, to China and the Guan Yu statue that dominates the city of Yuncheng.

“I first made a selection based on size,” he says. “I wanted statues higher than 100 ft. Then I made another selection made on the design of these statues, because it says a lot about the degree of idolization that surrounds them. The African Renaissance Monument in Dakar, for example, is unavoidable for its Stalinian design.”

Fouillet, who struggled to find the right balance between religious statues and those associated with political or nationalistic figures, was intrigued by the human need “to build these immense shrines to power,” he says. “These statues are symbols but they are also educational tools that communicate, to their audiences, the notion of exemplarity – an exemplarity often associated with the figures they represent.”

Fabrice Fouillet is a French photographer based in Paris.

Read next: Here’s What It’s Like to Fly From the Top of the World’s Tallest Building on an Eagle’s Back

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How Do You Talk to Kids About God?

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Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

For secular parents, explaining sex is a cinch, but tackling religion can be terrifying

Talking openly with children about sensitive subjects is hard. It always has been. In my parents’ generation, the three-letter taboo was S-E-X. My older sister was 13 when my dad gave a kid “The Talk” for the first time. It was the ’80s, and my dad dodged it like any educated man of his time. He tossed her a sex-education book and said, “Read this, but don’t do it.”

Discussing sex isn’t quite so scary today. Many modern fathers don’t flinch when their daughters ask about anatomy or start inquiring about how babies are made. But progressive thinking has a way of replacing certain taboos with others. And today, for a great many parents, there is a new three-letter word: G-O-D.

With two of Western religion’s most important holidays—Easter and Passover—in the air, I find myself thinking back to the first time I had the “God Talk” with my own daughter. Maxine was barely five years old when she piped up from the backseat on the way home from her Los Alamitos preschool one day.

“Mommy,” she said, “you know what? God made us!”

I felt like a cartoon character being hit in the back of the head with a frying pan. My heart raced. I’m quite sure I began to sputter. Visions of Darwin and the evolving ape-man raced through my mind, followed closely by my childhood image of the big guy upstairs in his flowing white robes. I couldn’t speak.

And, in the awkward silence that followed, I was forced to confront the truth: The idea of talking to my kid about God—and, more specifically, about religion—scared the bejesus out of me.

I swallowed hard and forced myself to speak. “Well,” I said, “Who is God?”

Now, I don’t remember if Maxine actually said “duh,” or whether she simply bounced a “duh” look off the rearview mirror. But I can tell you that the “duh” message came across loud and clear.

“He’s the one who made us,” she said, her eyebrows knitted. “Okay… well, what is God doing now?” I tried for casual.

Again with the nonverbal “duh.”

“God is busy making people and babies,” she answered.

This information could not have been delivered with more certainty. My little girl, who had never heard an utterance of the word “God” in our house, aside from decidedly ungodly uses of the word, now had it all figured out thanks to a Jewish classmate who also happened to be her very first boyfriend. I was beaten to the punch by a cute preschool boy.

I let the subject drop, but my chest constricted all the way home. It stayed that way for hours. Why hadn’t I been prepared for this? What was I supposed to say now that she was getting her information from this boy at school?

As a science-minded non-believer with a generally non-confrontational personality, I was stumped by how to handle the situation. I wanted to be truthful about what I believed to be truth, but I didn’t want to indoctrinate her into my worldview either. And I certainly didn’t want others indoctrinating her into theirs, either. So where did that leave me? Was I to sit Maxine down and tell her that evolution, not God, was responsible for her existence? Was I to impose my own beliefs on her, the way other parents seemed to be doing? Or should I leave her alone to explore on her own timetable? What was the difference between guidance and pressure anyway? What was I willing to “let” her believe, and what wasn’t I?

Luckily for me, I have a husband who is cool under pressure. Later that day, after I’d rather breathlessly presented him with all the facts of the disastrous car ride, I asked him, “What if she believes in God?” His answer, my wakeup call, has become a mantra I repeat often. He said, “It’s not what Maxine believes, but what she does in life that matters.”

What I took from this was: Relax . . . it’s just God.

So I set aside my own irrational concerns and began to talk with my kid about God—lots of gods, actually. We talked about Brahman and Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad. My husband bought her a Children’s Bible, and I brought home lots of picture books highlighting aspects of various religious cultures.

To my delight, Maxine became genuinely interested in religion—as long as it came in bite-size pieces, rather than overly long oratories. She became engaged in the stories we told, and good at deciphering the various “moral” aspects of various tales for herself. In her hands, the Bible wasn’t a tool of indoctrination, but a tool of religious literacy—even critical thinking. Once when she was reading the 10 Commandments, for example, she got to the 10th and read (aloud): “Never want what belongs to others.” Then she stopped and corrected Moses. “Well, you can WANT what belongs to others,” she said. “You just can’t HAVE it. You can buy one for yourself.”

In the four years that have passed since Maxine first told me about God, we have discussed the subject countless times. I have learned that compassion and an open mind are more important than being right. I’ve also learned that the best way to combat intolerance is with knowledge, and that the best way to combat indoctrination is with critical thinking. No longer is there awkwardness around the subject. We talk about lots of different beliefs, encourage her to learn about what motivates the faith of others, and make clear that there is no shame in choosing an unpopular path. After all, her own parents are happy, well-adjusted, and (I like to think) good-hearted people.

Today, Maxine is 9 and believes in God “two days a week — on Sundays and Wednesday.” Is that logical or rational? No. But who cares? It works for her, and that’s what’s important.

I haven’t always done everything right. I have stumbled sloppily through more than a few conversations along my own journey and regretted my word choices now and again. (Our unique biases have a way of filtering through from time to time, despite our best efforts.) But, because the conversations keep coming, I’ve almost always had a chance to right my wrongs, to clarify my position, to bring a new perspective to each situation. The point here is not to be perfect—as my daughter says, “That would be boring”—but to give us something to aim for.

Exposing kids to various brands of spirituality and religion (not to mention non-religious philosophies) is not only fascinating and surprisingly fun; it also has the potential to improve our children’s— and our own—awareness about and compassion for the multiplicity of kinds of people in the world. Like the “sex talk,” discussions about God may come up sooner (and differently) than you had pictured. But it’s our obligation to embrace it. After all, if we’re not prepared to explore ideas of God, religion, and faith with our curious children, someone else will do it for us.

Someone cute.

Wendy Thomas Russell is an award-winning journalist and author of Relax, It’s Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You’re Not Religious. Russell hosts a blog called Natural Wonderers at Patheos.com and writes an online column for the PBS NewsHour. She wrote this for Thinking L.A., a partnership of UCLA and Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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Inside the Most ‘Bible-Minded’ City in America

Earlier this year, the American Bible Society named Birmingham, Ala., the nation's most "Bible-minded" city

Earlier this year, the American Bible Society named Birmingham the nation’s most “Bible-minded” city, with the largest number of people who say they have read the Bible at least once in the past week and strongly believe in its accuracy. As Mark Pettus, an associate pastor at the Church of the Highlands, puts it, “You walk into coffee shops like Starbucks in the morning, and you’re going to see a group of people with the Bible open.”

Ahead of Easter Sunday, TIME sent photographer Matt Eich to visit some of the people who helped Birmingham earn that designation. His pictures show congregants at a megachurch, the generation gap at one of the city’s historic houses of worship, and the intimate moments of family prayer.

LISTEN: A sermon at The Church of the Highlands

TIME Religion

Good Friday and the Modern Version of Jesus’s Cross

Dan Kitwood—Getty Images

Christopher Hale is a senior fellow at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and the co-founder of Millennial.

We have an obligation to anybody of any faith who is killed simply because they believe

Today Christians around the world commemorate the death of Jesus on a Friday we so strangely call “good.” Our familiarity with the story of Jesus’s suffering and death tends to domesticate the horrors of the cross. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves: Jesus was the victim of brutal Roman execution by crucifixion, the greatest tool of Caesar’s state-sponsored terrorism.

Many Christians today wear crucifixes around their neck, but it wasn’t always the case. For nearly nine centuries, the Church refused to show Jesus’s cross. And it wasn’t without reason. The Roman cross became a symbol for everything unjust in the world: violence, oppression, hatred, murder, and genocide.

Two millennia later, the Roman regime is long gone, but its instrument of torture remains. Even today, young Arab Christians are being crucified for their faith. And just this past February, 21 Coptic Christians were beheaded by ISIS in Libya. The deafening silence of the media and of political and cultural leaders in the United States and across the Western world at these atrocities being committed against Christian minorities in the Middle East is unacceptable. We have an obligation to anybody of any faith who is killed simply because they believe.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington said it well last year:

Often we’re asked, “How is it possible that in human history atrocities occur?” They occur for two reasons. Because there are those prepared to commit them and there are those who remain silent. And the actions in Iraq and Syria today, what’s happening to women, children, men, their displacement – as the least of the things happening to them – is something that we really are not free to ignore and sometimes all we have to raise is our voice. …

And I ask myself where are these voices? Where are the voices of parliaments and congresses? Where are the voices of campuses? Where are the voices of community leaders? … Why a silence?

When we become complicit in this silence, we become modern-day Pontius Pilates, washing our hands of responsibility and allowing innocent men, women, and children in far-away lands become victims of oppressive tyrants.

These realities aren’t just abroad. Silence at the cross of Jesus reveals itself in our nation, our communities, and our own hearts. Unlike the violence in the Middle East, these crosses are somewhat hidden, but they’re just as deadly.

How many fall victim to the silent cross of institutional violence as our governments, our communities, and our churches again and again fail to address the needs of its people? How many aspiring Americans quietly suffer under the cross of a broken immigration system that scandalizes our nation and denies people their dignity, their families, and their future? And how many of us experience the invisible cross of broken families, poisoned relationships, and of a culture that too often honors swagger and bluster and unknowingly promotes indifference, exclusion, and death?

Acknowledging the cross of Good Friday allows us to admit that something isn’t right in ourselves and in society. When we end our naivety and open our eyes, we will see this truth. Then we can cry with out the Psalmist: “Forgive us, O Lord, for we have sinned!”

Today allows us an occasion to see that every person who suffers and that every person who is lost and broken wears the body of Jesus.

On his death march to Calvary, Roman soldiers enlisted a young African merchant named Simon to help Jesus carry his cross. Initially hesitant, Simon walked with Jesus the entire way to Calvary. Our world today is in need of more Simons, of more men and women who will walk with those who suffer and who will acknowledge their own roles in such suffering. The road Simon took is the road of Jesus, the road of humility and the only road towards the Easter resurrection. The road is uncomfortable, but it isn’t sterile.

We know that God enters into this cosmic drama to redeem all of it. No one is excluded with God’s love in Jesus. In him, we can change, turn around and be converted. And with his cross, our Easter joy can be complete.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Books

7 Inspirational Messages From Pope Francis for Easter

Loyola Press

Sarah Begley is a culture and breaking news reporter for TIME.

From the Pope's new book, Walking With Jesus

The most important event in the Catholic liturgy is this weekend, and Pope Francis has a new book coming out as an Easter present to his flock. The book is a collection of various sermons and speeches he has given in the last two years, on topics ranging from wisdom to poverty. Here are seven thought-provoking excerpts from Walking With Jesus: A Way Forward for the Church, out Sunday.

On faith:

In many areas of our lives we trust others who know more than we do. We trust the architect who builds our home, the pharmacist who gives us medicine for healing, the lawyer who defends us in court. We also need someone trustworthy and knowledgeable where God is concerned. Jesus, the Son of God, is the one who makes God known to us.

-From the encyclical Lumen Fidei, June 29, 2013

On knowledge:

[O]ur own knowledge and self-awareness are relational; they are linked to others who have gone before us: in the first place, our parents, who gave us our life and our name. Language itself, the words by which we make sense of our lives and the world around us, comes to us from others, preserved in the living memory of others. Self-knowledge is only possible when we share in a greater memory.”

-From the encyclical Lumen Fidei, June 29, 2013

On consumerism:

When we look only for success, pleasure and possessions and we turn these into idols, we may well have moments of exhilaration, an illusory sense of satisfaction, but ultimately we become enslaved, never satisfied, always looking for more. It is a tragic thing to see a young person who “has everything” but is weary and weak.

-From the Message for the 29th World Youth Day, Jan. 21, 2014

On compassion:

We have to learn to be on the side of the poor and not just indulge in rhetoric about the poor! Let us go out to meet them, look into their eyes, and listen to them. The poor provide us with a concrete opportunity to encounter Christ himself and to touch his suffering flesh.

-From the Message for the 29th World Youth Day, Jan. 21, 2014

On illness:

Jesus in fact taught his disciples to have the same preferential love that he did for the sick and suffering, and he transmitted to them the ability and duty to continue providing, in his name and after his own heart, relief and peace through the special grace of this sacrament [of the anointing of the sick]. This, however, should not make us fall into an obsessive search for miracles or the presumption that one can always and in any situation be healed. Rather, it is the reassurance of Jesus’ closeness to the sick.

-From a general audience, Feb. 26, 2014

On marriage:

It is true that there are so many difficulties in married life, so many, when there is insufficient work or money, when the children have problems—so much to contend with. And many times the husband and wife become a little fractious and argue between themselves. They argue, this is how it is, there is always arguing in marriage, sometimes even the plates fly. Yet we must not become saddened by this; it is the human condition. The secret is that love is stronger than the moment when they are arguing, and therefore I always advise spouses, do not let a day when you have argued end without making peace.

-From a general audience, April 2, 2014

On communication:

[C]ommunication is ultimately a human rather than a technological achievement. What is it, then, that helps us, in the digital environment, to grow in humanity and mutual understanding? We need, for example, to recover a certain sense of deliberateness and calm. This calls for time and the ability to be silent and listen.”

-From the Message for the 48th World Communication Day, Jan. 24, 2014

 

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME politics

This Map Shows Every State With Religious-Freedom Laws

See when each law was passed

The national outcry over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) has turned attention towards the 19 states with their own versions of the law and the others that are considering similar measures. The timeline below shows when each state passed legislation, starting with Connecticut in 1993. Click on a state for links to the laws or pending bills.

The fight over RFRAs dates to 1990, when the Supreme Court ruled against an Oregonian named Al Smith, who was a quarter American Indian. He had argued that his use of peyote in a Native American Church ritual—an act that cost him his job—should be protected by the First Amendment. He lost, and the ruling made it easier for the government to place restrictions on the freedom of religion.

That precedent didn’t sit well with state or federal governments. In the fall of 1993, Bill Clinton signed the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which restored the standard the Court had overruled. “Those whose religion forbids autopsies have been subjected to mandatory autopsies,” Vice President Al Gore said at the signing ceremony outside the White House. This legislation, he said, was something “all Americans” could be behind. And many of them did, including Republicans, Democrats, evangelicals and progressive civil rights advocates.

MORE: The Battle of Indiana

The new law demanded that the government have a “compelling interest” before infringing on religious freedom and that the government must use the “least restrictive” means of doing so. If, for example, a state law required that all vehicles have electric lights, the government might have a compelling interest in making sure Amish buggies were as visible as cars on the highway. But the least restrictive means of compelling them to follow the law could be to make sure they used reflective silver tape, rather than force them to embrace technology.

In 1997, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal law applied only to the federal government. So more states quickly passed their own RFRAs to restore similar provisions at state levels.

But the political context has changed drastically since then, and many social conservatives are now championing religious freedom bills as a way to protect them from having to provide service to LGBT people. Critics worry that states will use such laws to combat existing non-discrimination measures in court, providing legal cover for stores that refuse to serve gay customers or businesses to fire LGBT employees.

Read next: Arkansas Governor Asks for Changes to Controversial Religious Freedom Bill

TIME faith

The World Is Getting More Religious

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Muslims and Christians are expected make up nearly equal shares of the global population by 2050 for the first time.

Atheists, agnostics and other people who don’t affiliate with a religion will make up a smaller fraction of the world’s population in 2050, according to a new study.

The Pew Research Center study released Thursday found that the growth of major religious groups will outpace the rise in the unaffiliated population despite trends in the United States and other Western countries, where the proportion of religiously unaffiliated people is expected to grow. By 2050, the total global population is expected to rise to 9.3 billion from 6.9 billion today.

Islam will expand faster than any other major religion, according to the report, with Muslims and Christians expected make up nearly equal shares of the global population by 2050 for the first time. While much of the Muslim and Christian population growth is expected to occur in Sub-Saharan Africa, the share of Muslims in Europe and the U.S. is also expected to grow.

In Europe, for example, Muslims will make up 10% of the total population. In the U.S., they will make up 2.1%, up from 0.9%, and outnumbering the Jewish population in America.

Among all major religions, Buddhism is the only one that is not expected to expand by 2050, due largely to low fertility rates in countries like China and Japan. Here’s a breakdown of religious growth around the world from the Pew Research Center:

 

 

TIME Religion

Dear Indiana: Christian Love Embraces Those on the Margins of Society

Protesters
Doug McSchooler—AP Thousands of opponents of Indiana Senate Bill 101, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, gathered on the lawn of the Indiana State House to rally against that legislation Saturday, March 28, 2015.

Rev. Dr. Serene Jones is President of Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York.

Religious freedom was never meant to override the inherent dignity of human beings

In the current debate over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), conservative Christians would have America believe that they stand with a united and monolithic block of the faithful. That all of those committed to following a God who suffered on the cross in the ultimate act of love for humanity are somehow religiously required to discriminate against their fellow human beings because of who it is they love.

As a Christian minister, I take great joy in seeing conversion: conversion to faith in Christ, conversion to deeper discipleship. This week we have seen a conversion among many Americans around the dignity and worth of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.

As someone who has been deeply transformed by the Gospel, my conscience and my faith demands that I raise my voice in opposition to the oppression and discrimination allowed by Indiana’s original law. I am not alone in this. Polling shows that even among white evangelical Protestants — the most politically conservative Christian group on this issue — only a quarter believe that businesses ought to be able to refuse service to gay and lesbian people.

Religious freedom is a core American value, one that is cherished by the vast majority of Americans across all religious affiliations. This freedom has allowed Americans to practice the religion of their choice by freely gathering in worshipping communities, and to live out their deeply held beliefs without fear of oppression or discrimination.

These very convictions can and should extend into the way that people of faith engage in the marketplace and in public life. Certainly, Jesus’s commands to welcome the stranger and to care for the “least of these” guide me in the personal, professional, and even political decisions that I make.

However, when it comes to the society that we share — be it government services like libraries and schools or businesses that are open to the public— there is no place for discrimination. This is an issue of fundamental fairness — a deeply religious and spiritual value. As laid out in our Constitution, religious freedom was never meant to override the inherent dignity of human beings. RFRAs that don’t protect the rights of LGBTQ people have no place in America.

In too many parts of America, being gay is a heavy burden to bear. While marriage equality is sweeping across America, and minds are being changed everyday, prejudice toward gay and lesbian people throughout American history has left a deep scar emotionally, and sometimes physically as well.

Forty percent of homeless youth are LGBTQ. Gay teens are four times as likely to attempt suicide. The statistics (and the stories behind the statistics) are nothing short of tragic.

What the Indiana law and laws like it say to our precious LGBTQ brothers and sisters throughout the nation is that your dignity and the dignity of your relationships are still up for debate in this country.

As a Christian, I follow the example of a God who constantly placed himself with those who are on the margin, whose disciples were made up of the most reviled and marginalized people of his day. This experience of marginalization exposes our sinful theological shortcomings, specifically that we don’t treat everyone who bears the image of God equally.

While the legalistic Pharisees sat back and judged all those who did not conform to their understanding of the letter of the law, Jesus cast a vision of God’s law that includes everyone. “Love God and love your neighbor.”

Our gay neighbors are suffering. Christian love embraces those on the margins of society, and all of those who suffer. Moreover, Christian love is for each and every one of God’s children.

May we have a daily conversion that will bring us ever closer to a Christian vision of justice, freedom, and equality.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME faith

How John Paul II Became One of the Longest-Tenured Popes Ever

John-Paul II
Francois Lochon—Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images Pope John-Paul II in Zaire in August 1985

April 2, 2005: Pope John Paul II dies at age 84

Pope John Paul II’s death on this day, April 2, ten years ago, brought an end to the second-longest Papal term (26 years and change) since Peter’s reign. But it could have been much shorter if a trio of unrelated assassination plots had been successful.

The first nearly was: In May 1981, less than three years after John Paul was elected, he was shot by a Turkish terrorist while riding in an open Popemobile, greeting visitors in St. Peter’s Square. According to TIME’s account, “The Pope had apparently been hit by two bullets, fired from only a few yards away. One shattered the two joints of the ring finger of his left hand, ricocheted and grazed his right arm. The other blasted into his abdomen, passing completely through his body and ripping up the Pope’s intestines but narrowly missing his pancreas, abdominal aorta and spine.”

Italian surgeons performed a white-knuckle, five-and-a-half hour surgery to save the Pope, removing several pieces of his intestine. When they were finished, the chief of surgery issued a cautious proclamation, per TIME: “The prognosis is reserved [because of the danger of infection], but there is hope that the Pope will recover and stay with us.”

He stayed, although his injuries would torment him for the rest of his life. And within a few days of the shooting, he had publicly forgiven his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, who was pardoned by Italian officials in 2000 at the Pope’s request.

A year after Agca’s assassination attempt, the Pope visited the Basilica of Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal to “fulfill a vow of gratitude to the Virgin Mary,” per TIME, for having saved his life. As he climbed the basilica’s steps, a man lunged at him with a 16-inch bayonet. A security guard wrestled the man to the ground within an arm’s length of the Pope. This time, the assailant was an archconservative Spanish priest opposed to “the liberalizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), especially its modernization of the 16th century Latin Mass,” as TIME attests.

Even Al Qaeda once had John Paul in its sights. In 1995, when the Pope visited the Philippines to celebrate World Youth Day, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (who later masterminded the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks) and two co-conspirators planned an assassination attempt that was foiled when a fire broke out in their apartment and authorities found bomb-making materials and other incriminating evidence, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The motive behind the most damaging attack — Agca’s — has never been firmly established. At first the shooter said he was acting alone, but later claimed he had been following orders from Soviet and Bulgarian secret services, according to Newsweek, which adds, “A 2006 investigation led by an Italian parliamentary commission corroborates said claim; the investigative team said the attack had been orchestrated by former Soviet Union leaders ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’ ”

Pope John Paul II’s forgiveness alone may not have been enough to make him a saint, but it was remarkable enough to the world, and to Agca, when the Pope paid him a cordial visit in his Roman prison cell in early 1984. Thirty years later, not long after John Paul II’s canonization, Agca placed two dozen white roses on his tomb.

“A thousands thanks, holiness. This is a miracle that goes on,” Agca said in Italian, per Newsweek.

Read TIME’s original account of that first assassination attempt, here in the TIME Vault: Hand of Terrorism

TIME Religion

3 Counterintuitive Lessons From Passover

David Wolpe is the Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles.

A man in a desert alone is not free

1. You are an Egyptian. The Passover story is of a people liberated from slavery. When we celebrate Passover, we naturally identify with the Israelites, the oppressed, and not Pharaoh, the oppressor. But the Egyptians of the Bible also had to make ethical decisions. In our lives, we are constantly surrounded by those who serve us — waiters, clerks, housekeepers, hotel maids, bag boys, people who sling peanuts at the ballpark. Obviously they are not slaves, and we are not oppressors. But they are in our economic power for a moment, and how we treat people who serve us is a powerful indicator of our moral posture.

I counsel people who are dating to pay attention to how their date treats the waiter. Passover is a reminder: No amount of money entitles one to be a jerk. Don’t only identify with the oppressed. Remember what it is like to be an Egyptian in the Passover story.

2. Elijah isn’t here, so you have to be. Each year we open the door for Elijah, who in the Jewish tradition is the herald of redemption. Traditionally it is the youngest child who opens the door. As adults watch each year, an interesting transition takes place. At first, the child believes Elijah might walk in the door. Then year after year, the belief diminishes, and until a still younger child comes along, the tradition becomes rote. Children grow too old to believe redemption will walk in the door.

While that seems a sad coda to a beautiful dream, it has a powerful positive dimension as well. In the absence of supernatural redemption, we are responsible for the uplifting of those who are fallen, feeding those who are hungry, comforting those who are bereaved. Our responsibility is greater in the absence of a messianic presence. A Hasidic rabbi who once claimed that everything had a good dimension was asked: “What about atheism?” His response was that when someone approaches us for help, we should all be atheists — not believing there is any supernatural help. The burden and the privilege of helping is ours.

3. Freedom is not the absence of obligation. The famous Passover phrase, “let my people go,” is abbreviated. The full sentence is, “Let my people go that they may serve me.” Here we see Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction between being “liberated from” and being “liberated to.” To be liberated from oppression is the beginning of freedom, not its end or aim. True freedom is abundance of opportunity, not absence of obligation. A man in a desert alone is not free. Standing in a developed society with a thousand obligations but also a million possibilities, that is freedom.

Passover encourages us to understand that our lives are not about sloughing off responsibilities. Service to God, to one another and to what is best in ourselves — those are freedoms. They enable us to maximize the capacities of our own souls.

Tomorrow, people will sit down to seders all across the world. There is a deep lessons in the ceremony: We are responsible for the choices of power. Until the day when redemption arrives, we have it in our hands to mend this broken world. And true freedom is also found in service, in uplifting obligations, and in celebrating together the gifts we have been given.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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