TIME Religion

Pope Poo-pooed by GOP for Being too Jesus-like

Pope Francis Visits Molise
Pope Francis attends an outdoor papal mass on July 5, 2014 in Campobasso, Italy. Franco Origlia—Getty Images

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This article originally appeared on Patheos.

I can’t think of a Pope who has made a bigger impact, brought more hope and sounded more like Jesus than Pope Francis.

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan. I even Facebook-lifted a hashtag I saw on Diana Butler Bass’ page that I use all the time now: #popecrush.

And now he’s coming to the United States!

The first Pope from the Americas is coming to the U.S.

This is very exciting.

So exciting, in fact, that a bi-partisan resolution has been presented to Congress that would congratulate the pontiff on being the first Pope from the Americas and for his “inspirational statements and actions.”

#Popecrush on!

Unfortunately, it’s beginning to look like this particular resolution may never make it out of committee. It was sent to the House Foreign Affairs Committee and seems to have died there.

Why?

Because the Pope is too much like Jesus.

Yep. Seriously.

Let me explain.

There actually are a few (19 out of 221) GOP backers of this resolution and one of them is leaking a little information about why it may never pass or even be voted on. According to this Republican insider, many of his cohorts expressed concern that the Pope has been making statements on issues like “trickle-down economics,” which are “politically charged.”

A religious leader addressing the morally repugnant behavior of economic and political systems that value the powerful over the poor?

Where have I seen that before?

Oh yeah – Jesus.

Also, let’s not miss the irony that the Republicans who are resisting the passage of this resolution have the audacity to accuse the Pope actions of being “politically charged.” Their resistance to honoring a man who, as the resolution itself says, has demonstrated humility, broke from tradition to wash the feet of criminals, embraced lepers, and places an emphasis on humanitarian efforts is the only “politically charged” thing I see here.

The upside to all of this is that I suspect Pope Francis really doesn’t care if the U.S. Congress honors him this way.

Kind of like Jesus probably wasn’t hoping to be honored by Pilate.

Mark Sandlin is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) from the South. He is a co-founder of The Christian Left.

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TIME Religion

Why I’m Not Afraid to Be Too Gay on Facebook

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Social media 'Like' symbol on keyboard Peter Dazeley—Getty Images

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This article originally appeared on Patheos.

We had just lit a candle, said a blessing and were passing around the broken bread for all at the table to share when we began talking about our respective days. The kids had been about the business of getting the most out of the last days of their summer vacation (we go back to school sinfully early in Georgia) and I had been engaged in the regular ins and outs of working for the college I love, writing for the blog I adore, posting on Facebook frequently (the kids say obsessively) everything from political/theological news to rather base potty humor and the occasional dog video (what?) to responding to the regular sprinkling of hateful comments on my blog and in private messages.

I don’t usually talk about that aspect of what I do in front of my kids but I said just enough in an otherwise glib moment that my oldest furrowed her brow and went off a bit “Mom, you post everything, I mean way too much – like every moment of your life! Ugh, what you eat, who you are hanging out with, pictures of me and you even check in on Foursquare and stuff. Some day one of those crazies is gonna find you and…”

I cut her off there, first hoping to reassure her that it really wasn’t that bad and no one is looking to hurt me but what I needed her to hear was…

Let me back up a bit.

I’ve been writing this here blog for just a scooch over two years. But long before Patheos invited me to stretch my gawd-awful clothes line and hang out my weathered washin’ on the front lawn of my digital acre, I was wrestling mightily with what it meant to live life fully as God created me and to as love openly as my mamma and daddy had when I was growing up.

After stuffing down my truth for for decades I found the love of my life. We fell hard and fast and it was glorious. I wanted nothing more than to love her fiercely and openly. But as it turns out we had very different notions about how to live as a committed lesbian couple. For her it meant carefully maintaining circles of who was allowed to know and who was not. In her career she carefully selected those friends and colleagues who were permitted access to the inner circle of our life. Most of her daily professional life was conducted as if I did not exist or was simply a roommate – a babysitter. I really do understand her need to live out her career not labeled and pigeon-holed into a certain trajectory based on her superiors’ ability to grasp or not grasp equality – but it was hard, real hard to be invisible as a cop’s wife.

Thankfully, in our church and local community life we lived more openly with no secrets from our children’s teachers or folks in the neighborhood. Slowly my love invited old friends into the circle and her family, though the words were never spoken, treated us with love and genuine kindness. I never felt anything less than a daughter-in-law when in the presence of her parents. But there was a limit to our openness. Touching in public, hand holding, a stolen peck of a kiss, a loving embrace – these were always and only permitted behind closed doors. She was ever mindful of what others would think and the potential consequences of encountering hateful homophobes, especially if we were with our children.

But for me, I simply could not wrap my head or heart around the impulse to hide love. Though I tried to respect her way of living out her queerness, it would become a source of bitter conflict that would poison the wellspring of our love.

See, once I came out to my family to utterly devastating rejection, walked away from their abuse – and didn’t shrivel up and die, well a setting resentment began to grow each time I was asked to dampen and hide my affection while watching friends openly share tender moments regardless of the company.

The fault that began to open between us would be the source of many a tiny, deadly tremor in our foundation and would ultimately contribute to the dark and gaping fissure into which our love fell and could not climb out.

I simply do not know any other way to exist in this mortal coil and on this beautiful and broken planet than transparent to a fault.

So now, still fumbling my way though this thing called life, I blog about the willful ignorance of homophobic “Christians”. I post all over the interwebs about my utterly banal homosexual lifestyle, I write about the extravagant welcome of God and the radical hospitality of Christ, and I live openly and unabashedly for any and all to see.

As a result I encounter vitriol all up and down the ignorance, fear and loathing spectrum. Every day. And every day I do my dead level best to confront the vitriol with grace and integrity (but more often than not I fail to live up to my ideal).

It seems like every week someone asks me why I do what I do. “How do can you stand to jump into these abusive conversations? You must have thick skin!” Sometimes all I can say is that I have no idea why I do it and you have no idea how often I cry myself to sleep. But more often than not I answer something like “Because I am compelled beyond reason to show up over and over again and share the good news that God loves us. I am drawn into the fray to say, just for the outside chance that whosoever needs to hear, will maybe hear for the first time in their life, that they are loved beyond their wildest imagination and free in Christ. I know not why, only that I must proclaim, directly from the book that is otherwise used as a weapon, that nothing, nothing, nothing on earth, in heaven or all of creation can separate us from the love of God.”

Most of all I know that I have no skills to be anything other than nakedly, unashamedly myself.

What I need my daughter to know is this. Yes, there are people out there who hate gays and lesbians savagely enough to kill us. They hate queer folk all the more when we have audacity to claim Jesus and cry out to God in thanksgiving for making us who we are. But I must wake up every day and be me and for some damn reason I am called to do so in a public way. I am called to speak loudly to those who would silence me, stand boldly in the light in front of those who would have me skulk away in the dark and reject the heretical theology that God would create me for a life of shame, fear and self-loathing. For do anything less is to give myself over to the power of darkness and admit that evil has already won.

Kimberly Knight is the Director of Digital Strategy at a southern liberal arts college and Minister of Digital community with Extravagance UCC.

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TIME

China: Dozens Dead or Injured in Xinjiang ‘Terror,’ but Facts Are Few and Far Between

A Uighur man looks on as a truck carrying paramilitary policemen travel along a street during an anti-terrorism oath-taking rally in Urumqi
A Uighur man looks on as a truck carrying paramilitary policemen travel along a street during an antiterrorism oath-taking rally in Urumqi, China's Xinjiang region, on May 23, 2014 Stringer China—Reuters

Two vastly different accounts have emerged about the incident, which occurred on the first day of the ‘Id al-Fitr festival

Some time on Monday, in a small town near China’s northwest frontier, dozens of people were injured or lost their lives. Two days later, we do not know who died, how they were killed or what sparked the violence. And with the area effectively sealed off by Chinese security forces, and the Internet up and down across the area, it is possible we never really will.

Two vastly different accounts have emerged about the incident, which occurred on the first day of the ‘Id al-Fitr festival, which celebrates the end of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month. Chinese state media reported that dozens of civilians were killed or injured in a premeditated terrorist attack in Shache county (or Yarkand in the Uighur language). The news, which was not released until more than 24 hours after the incident, was cast as evidence of organized terrorism by ethnic Uighur extremists. Their account suggests that knife-wielding mobs went on a rampage after officials discovered some explosives and foiled a terrorist plot that may or may not have been timed to coincide with a commodity fair.

An account by the nonprofit Radio Free Asia (RFA) paints an altogether different picture. Reporters for the outlet’s Uighur-language news service say dozens of “knife- and ax-wielding” ethnic Uighurs were shot by police in a riot sparked by restrictions during Ramadan. “There has been a lot of pent-up frustration over house-to-house searches and checking on headscarves [worn by Uighur women] during this Ramadan,” Alim Adurshit, a local official, told RFA. The report also mentioned the extrajudicial killing of a Uighur family — an incident that has not been reported by Chinese state press and that TIME has not independently confirmed.

The dueling narratives point to the challenge of figuring out what, exactly, is happening in China’s vast and restless northwest. The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, where the incident took place, is contested space. It is both claimed as the homeland of the mostly Muslim, Turkic Uighur people, and also as Chinese territory. In recent years, the area has seethed with unrest attributed, depending on whom you ask, to Islamic terrorism, separatism or heavy-handed repression by the state. For years now, a small minority has fought against the government, usually by targeting symbols of state power, including police stations and transport hubs.

The past year has been particularly bloody. In October, an SUV plowed through crowds of tourists in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, killing five — including three inside the vehicle — and injuring dozens. Chinese authorities said the vehicle was driven by ethnic Uighurs, but revealed little else. In March, a group of knife-wielding attackers slashed and stabbed their way through a train station in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, killing 29. The government blamed that incident, and two subsequent attacks in the regional capital, Urumqi, on separatists from Xinjiang.

Beijing has responded by doubling down on already aggressive security measures and their campaign of forced cultural integration. Across the region, town squares are now patrolled by armed security personnel in riot gear, and villages are sealed off by police checkpoints. Ethnic Uighurs are stopped and searched. Meanwhile, the government has stepped up limits on religious practice by, for instance, putting age restrictions on mosque visits and banning students and government workers from fasting during Ramadan.

In the context of this division and distrust, it makes sense that there are competing claims. The trouble is, China prevents outsiders from gathering information on their own. The foreign press corps is, by virtue of China’s rules, based far from Xinjiang, primarily in the Han-majority cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Travel to Xinjiang, while not officially forbidden, is effectively restricted. When I visited Urumqi and Hotan in late May, security personnel harassed my Chinese colleague, questioned me, followed our movements and stopped us from traveling to the city of Kashgar.

The ruling Communist Party’s powers of information control are also a factor. On a good day, China’s Great Firewall makes it difficult for citizens to share information that censors might consider politically sensitive; other days, it is impossible. Following the violent suppression of the 2009 riots in Urumqi, the government effectively turned off the region’s Internet for nine months. There are reports the web is off and on again now, which may help explain why so little has emerged in terms of firsthand accounts or photographic evidence.

Overseas-based Uighur groups say until there is transparency, the public should not trust the state’s account. “China does not want the world to know what occurred on Monday,” said Alim Seytoff, president of the Uyghur American Association, in a statement. “As little is known of the circumstances of their killing, due to tight restrictions on information, UAA seeks an open investigation into the incident and the loss of dozens of lives.”

With every instance of violence, that looks less likely to happen.

TIME Religion

I Want My Christianity Back – Without the Ugly Baggage

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Little chapel Carlos Malvar—Flickr RF/Getty Images

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This article originally appeared on Patheos

I don’t like telling people I’m a Christian.

It’s not that I’m ashamed of being a Christian; I’m not – at all. It is just that the word “Christian” comes with so much ugly baggage.

Telling someone I’m a Christian means I must immediately follow it up with, “but not that kind of Christian.” It’s like saying, “Yeah, sure, these are some mind bogglingly ugly suitcases, but I’ve got the coolest stuff on the inside of them. No, really, I do.”

It’s just not worth the effort; and, frankly, I’m tired of lugging these ugly, heavy things around.

Truthfully, I don’t blame people who assume that if you’re Christian you’re anti-LGBT, anti-abortion, anti-real equality, anti-other religions and pretty much anti-anything else that one small but loud subset of Christians find offensive or threatening.

It completely makes sense. It’s why I don’t want to use the word to describe my own beliefs.

I get it.

Who can blame people for thinking Christians are all anti-everything kind of people when members of the U.S. congress like Michele Bachmann present themselves as speaking for all Christians –and via radio waves – accuses gay people of not only threatening the sanctity of “traditional marriage” but claim they are pedophiles who want to “freely prey on little children sexually.”

I get it. I really do.

I don’t want to be that kind of Christian. So, if that’s the only option, I’m opting out. And, I’m not alone. A whole slue of Christians is opting out as well.

As a 2012 Pew Research study indicates that while the number of people who identify as Protestant or Catholic is decreasing, the number of those who consider themselves religious, but identify with no formal religious group is on the rise. An earlier study by The Barna Group defines a big part of the problem: people who aren’t in the Church and many who are in the Church believe the Church is judgmental and hypocritical.

When looked at together, the findings of these two studies make a lot of sense. An organization whose primary religious figure taught about love has become known for being judgmental against any group they simply don’t like. Is it any surprise Christians are seen as hypocritical?

Christians are being viewed as hypocritical, because many are. Not all of us, of course, but you wouldn’t know that watching mass media. Tragically, Big Media and most of it’s consumers have no interest in coverage of food pantries and other programs across the country that feed hundereds of people each month – all without pushing their beliefs on those in need. On the other hand, the Ku Klux Klan claiming to be a Christian organization? We will Facebook “like” that article into the viral stratosphere.

I want my religion back.

Technically, it wasn’t really taken from me. It’s more like part of it’s been hijacked and held hostage inside all that ugly luggage.

Not surprisingly, the congressperson fear-mongering about gay people coming for your kids and the KKK claiming to be Christian will always make the news. Let’s face it, when the baggage carousel starts rolling around you are going to notice the neon green designer bag with the word “crazy” written across it in pink, but that 26-inch wheeled suitcase in a sensible shade of grey? No one is paying attention to it.

Christians who want to be known more for their love rather than for what they standing over and against need to more fully acknowledge this reality and begin actively speaking out and working against it.

What we see in media isn’t Christianity. Our faith tradition’s core teachings are found in the words of Jesus. The anti-everything Christianity we find on television, radio and in print would remind Jesus much more of the Pharisees than it would remind him of the people actually following his teachings.

It’s a power play. As Napoleon once observed, “Religion is excellent stuff for keeping common people quiet. Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich.”

When you see someone who claims to follow Jesus who has or wants power; when they are saying things about Christianity that cause hurt to other people, when they create divisions, stating beliefs or supporting policies that marginalize already marginalized groups, when they say things that would allow one group of people to exert their will and beliefs on another group of people, you need to immediately question their sincerity and more so their motivation.

Jesus would have advocated none of those attitudes or behaviors. However, they most certainly are tools through which those who already have power maintain their power while keeping those without power divided and bickering amongst themselves rather than focusing their attention on the small fraction of the rich who are nurturing systems that make life unnecessarily difficult for the rest of us – which is also something for which Jesus would not have been an advocate.

Jesus wasn’t a fan of ugly baggage. He confronted the Pharisees every time they tried to unload it onto him or others.

If we want our religion back, we are going to have to do the same.

If we want a Christianity that doesn’t come so unnecessarily cluttered with all of this ugly baggage, we are going to have to start standing up more consistently and begin challenging these power plays wrapped in religion.

Collectively we need to more closely follow the lead of Jesus and lovingly confronting those who want to turn the Prince of Peace into a tool for dividing and marginalizing. Every time anyone tries to exclude a group of people they dislike in the name of the Great Shepherd, we must pronounce the radical inclusion of a loving God.

And when they accuse us of being un-Christian (and they will), we must stand strong and tell them, “You no longer get to own that word. You have used it and abused it and crucified it on crosses of hate, greed, power and control. We are taking our religion back – way back.

All the way back to the teachings of Jesus.”

Mark Sandlin is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) from the South and a co-founder of The Christian Left.

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TIME Religion

Obama Nominates Rabbi to Religious Freedom Post

US Secretary of State John Kerry stands with Rabbi David Saperstein, the nominee for ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, the first non-Christian to hold the job, while delivering remarks regarding the 2013 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom on July 28, 2014 in Washington, DC.
US Secretary of State John Kerry stands with Rabbi David Saperstein, the nominee for ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, the first non-Christian to hold the job, while delivering remarks regarding the 2013 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom on July 28, 2014 in Washington, DC. Paul J. Richards—AFP/Getty Images

As State Department issues troubling edition of annual report on religious freedom across the world

The Obama administration said Monday it would nominate Rabbi David Saperstein as the next Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, as the state department issued its annual analysis of the state of religious freedom across the globe.

President Obama said he would nominate Saperstein to a position that has been vacant since October, when Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook resigned. The current director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism would, if confirmed, be the first non-Christian to hold the job.

One of Saperstein’s projects as head of the State Department’s Office for International Religious Freedom would be to help compile the International Religious Freedom Report — the 2013 edition of which was also published on Monday.

The diagnosis from this year’s report, which analyzes religious freedom across the globe, is weighty: “In 2013, the world witnessed the largest displacement of religious communities in recent memory.”

The report goes country by country to examine how governments are repressing religious groups and ways that religious minorities face discrimination. In much of the Middle East, Christian presence is becoming “a shadow of its former self,” the report states. In Syria, some 160,000 Christians lived in Homs before the conflict began. Now only some 1,000 Christians do. In Burma’s western Rakhine state, violence against Muslims has displaced some 140,000 people since 2012. Shia Muslims face discrimination in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Egypt. In Sri Lanka, violent Buddhist groups destroyed mosques and churches. In some European countries, anti-Semitism led as much as 48% of the Jewish population to consider emigrating.

The findings offer a global perspective on the contemporary fight for religious freedom, which in the U.S. has become almost synonymous with the fight against the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate, often led by conservative evangelical and Catholic groups. The religious oppression that faces millions of believers across the globe, however, represents an altogether more serious challenge to the free practice of faith.

So Saperstein, if confirmed, would have his work cut out for him. The Obama administration has faced criticism for leaving the ambassador-at-large post vacant for 10 months, particularly amid the increasing global threats to religious freedom outlined in the report. Secretary of State John Kerry underscored on Monday that religious freedom is an integral part of the U.S.’s global diplomatic engagement.

“One thing is for sure: Rabbi Saperstein is joining an important effort at a very important time,” Kerry said. “I want to emphasize this effort is not about naming countries to lists in order to make us feel somehow that we have spoken the truth. I want our [countries of particular concern] designations to be grounded in plans, action, that help to change the reality on the ground and actually help people.”

TIME 30 Days of Ramadan

Ramadan, Day 30: The Opening

The holy month of Ramadan is a time of deep reflection for Muslims worldwide. Over the 30 days of Ramadan, Imam Sohaib Sultan of Princeton University will offer contemplative pieces on contemporary issues drawing from the wisdoms of the Qur’an – the sacred scripture that Muslims revere as the words of God and God’s final revelation to humanity. The Qur’an is at the heart of Muslim faith, ethics, and civilization. These short pieces are meant to inspire thought and conversation.

The most often-recited chapter of the Qur’an by the Muslim faithful is first chapter appropriately named “The Opening” (Al-Fatihah in Arabic). It is recited at least 17 times a day just through the five daily ritual prayers. And, The Opening is recited often at the beginning and end of religious gatherings, weddings, funerals, and other important life events. The chapter consists of 7 lines that offer the pre-text to the rest of the Qur’an. Commentators have pointed to The Opening as a summary of the entire Qur’an. In the Islamic tradition this chapter is known as “Mother of the Book” (Umm ul-Kitab) because of its stature in the Qur’an and in the life of devout Muslims.

Since this is my last post for the 30 days, 30 reflections of Ramadan series, I thought it appropriate to offer some insight into this commemorative chapter of the Qur’an — hoping that the end is just the beginning of many conversations and openings. These insights are just a glimpse into the extraordinary commentary that exists in the Islamic tradition on The Opening.

The Opening begins with what becomes the opening phrase of all of the 114 chapters of the Qur’an [except chapter 9 since it is a continuation of chapter 8]: “In the name of Allah, The most gracious, The dispenser of grace” (1:1). Alternatively, you will often find this phrase being translated simply as “…The most merciful, The most compassionate.”

The Opening begins by introducing the author. God is introduced as Allah, which is the Arabic word for God. Allah is a unique name that by its linguistic nature cannot be gendered (unlike goddess) and cannot be pluralized (unlike gods). Allah is the name for God that unites all divine names and attributes into One unlike other names and attributes that point to an aspect of God. To clarify, Allah is not “the Muslim God.” Allah is described in the Qur’an as the creator and sustainer of the heavens and the earth and everything that exists in between — the God of every living reality. As such, when the Torah or Gospel is translated into Arabic, God or its equivalent from another language is translated as “Allah.”

Then, God’s chief attributes are introduced — The most gracious, The dispenser of grace. Both attributes (Al-Rahman and Al-Raheem) share the same linguistic root — R-H-M. The root word in Arabic means “womb.” So, the attributes are really expressing the mother-like mercy and compassion that God has for the creation. Interestingly, the Prophet Muhammad would often teach people about God using mother-like metaphors. Once the Prophet saw a woman endearingly holding her child and told his companions that God is more merciful to the creation than this woman is toward her child. Mercy or Grace is really seen, in Islamic theology, as the basis for all of God’s work in the universe. And, the devotees of God are those who adorn themselves with this characteristic such that they should strive to become “Servants of The most merciful” (Qur’an 25:63 — 76).

The next line reads, “All praise is due to God alone, the Sustainer of all the worlds” (1:2). Here the creations relationship to God is introduced and another essential attribute of the divine is revealed. The Qur’anic logic is based on the premise that if God is One, The merciful, The compassionate — then all praise or thanks that comes from the creation should properly be directed toward God. The second part — “the Sustainer of the worlds” — reveals this understanding of God as being the originator and nurturer of everything living thing that exists, the One who takes every living being from its immature and weakest form to its mature and strongest form.

The chief attributes of The most gracious, The dispenser of grace are reaffirmed in the third line of The Opening (1:3).

Then, in the fourth line, another of God’s attributes is revealed and an important theme of the Qur’an is mentioned for the first time: “Master [or Owner] of the Day of Judgement” (1:4). The idea of human accountability of the beliefs held and of the lives lived by human beings is one of the most central teachings of the Qur’an. It assumes a life of the soul that continues well after death. Death is not the end of the soul’s journey; death is what marks the next phase of the soul’s journey — just as when the baby is expelled from his or her mother’s womb to come into the life of this world, death expels the soul from the womb of this world into the next. And, ultimately, every human soul will be asked about how they used the gift of free will in this world. And, God is the Master or Owner of that Day [which really means period of time] in which souls will either be forgiven or taken to task. Interestingly, the word for judgement is related to the word for debt in Arabic. As such, some of the commentators say that this is the “Day in which debts are due” — meaning the debt of life and its blessings. And, since God is the Master or Owner of these debts, God can just as easily and justifiably forgive as God can take to task.

The relationship between the human being and God is really crystallized in the next line: “You alone do we serve, and You alone do we turn to for help” (1:5). Having established our complete dependency, in reality, on God in the previous lines — the central Qur’anic theme of servanthood to and trust in God is introduced. Servanthood does not simply require the life of prayer and ritual devotion — though important. Rather, serving God is about living life in the most beautiful and ethical way in accordance with the teachings of God and in accordance with the divine attributes that the servant seeks to acquire as part of his or her own character. Relying on the help and assistance of God is a natural state of servanthood and it is a profound affirmation of God’s power and majesty.

In the next line, The Opening turns into a prayer and the recitation reaches its climax: “Guide us the straight path” (1:6). This asking of God to be guided is an acknowledgement that God plays an active role in the seeker and servant’s life. God is not aloof nor has God abandoned creation after creating it. Rather, God guides through scripture and prophets and sages. And, God guides every heart that is humble enough to ask for guidance. Interestingly, the next chapter of the Qur’an begins, “This is the Book wherein there is no doubt, a guide for those who are mindful of God” (2:2). In essence, indicating that the rest of the Qur’an is an answer to the devotee’s asking God for guidance.

Finally, the very last line offers a peek into what this guidance is: “The path of those upon whom You have bestowed Your blessings, not of those who have been condemned nor of those who go astray” (7:7). Much of the Qur’an is recounting of stories of people and communities from the past who received God’s good graces. The Qur’an also offers prescriptions and proscriptions to achieve spiritual and ethical success. And, much of the Qur’an is also a relaying of past peoples who transgressed the boundaries set by God and who worshipped other than God — all as a way of warning and redirecting readers and believers to a life of devotion to what is good and right and to an absolute and pure monotheism in which nothing and no one is taken as a god besides God.

This is a brief insight into The Opening and into the major themes of the Qur’an. Ramadan, which will end on Sunday at Sunset, comes every year to remind Muslims of the gift and responsibility of the Qur’an. It is my deepest prayer that more contemplation of the Qur’an will lead to greater openings in the mind and heart that manifest in the world as new rays of light in the midst of darkness.

TIME Iran

Despite a Crackdown, Iranian Fashion Keeps Pushing Boundaries

Iranian fashion
Tehran fashion houses are pushing boundaries in Tehran ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

In the latest case of Iranian authorities cracking down on fashion they deem “un-Islamic,” a famous clothing design institute called “Khaneh Mode” or Mode House was shut down last week in Tehran. The fashion designer had caused a controversy last month when it held a show with models wearing coats which appeared to be made of the Iranian flag—minus its religious symbols. Nor did it help that the show had allowed men among its audience, which violates conservative Islamic taboos.

This was followed by intense reaction from conservative politicians and religious groups, who cited the show as yet another violation of Islamic mores and traditions, which in turn forced the government to react. “This fashion show did not match the regulations of the Fashion and Clothes Management Workgroup and therefore we have taken legal action,” said Hamid Ghobadi, the workgroup’s secretary according to the official ISNA news agency. “The Khaneh Mode institute has been shut down until further notice.”

The workgroup, which was created by an enactment of parliament, is tasked with organizing Iran’s emerging fashion industry and making it compatible with Islamic standards. It is headed by a deputy minister of Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and its members are mostly government officials, with a handful of representatives from the fashion industry. Pictures of the show first emerged on Iranian websites in late June and showed men among the audience—until recently was unheard of in the Islamic Republic. The young female models, who wore white leggings, sported loose coats in the green, white and red tricolor of the Iranian national flag.

Iran’s fledgling fashion industry has begun to evolve in recent years, with shows on the rise. Most of these shows have permissions from the authorities but also underground shows are on the rise which depict more risqué dresses and even lingerie. However, until recently all shows for female clothes were held behind closed doors with no men allowed inside. The audience was also not permitted to take pictures or film.

Following the furor of religious and conservative groups the designers, Khaneh Mode immediately tried to do damage control with a statement on their website apologizing for having inadvertently offended anyone and reaffirming their commitment to “National and Islamic values.” Nonetheless, the authorities acted a few days later and shut them down.

Javid Shirazi, the director of the fashion house, told TIME in Tehran that that “we are completely committed to working within Iran’s native and Islamic framework and we tried to observe these in our show. Inviting men to view shows is permitted since last year so long as the clothes completely cover the body of models and models do not catwalk but walk in a normal and modest manner.”

The shutting down of the fashion house is just the latest instance of an endless tug of war between authorities and women in Iran, one that has been fought since an Islamic dress code was enforced in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution. This clash comes to the forefront every summer, when the latest female attire trends pick up with a tendency towards shorter and skimpier coats and ever tighter legwear, which has been epitomized this year in leggings.

The authorities react every year by escalating their “Morality Patrols.” The outcome is a cat and mouse game between more fashionably dressed women and the authorities. The results can be bizarre—women sporting trendy attire will sometimes take taxis from one side to the other side of squares and junctions just to bypass the morality police.

But over time the will of Iranian women has slowly but surely prevailed, with acceptable dress these days now far beyond the harsh codes of the first years of the revolution, when practically no makeup was tolerated and anything less than a chador—a loose robe that covers the body from head to toe—was frowned upon. And with the election of the more moderate Hassan Rouhani as president last year, many hope that the authorities will relax their strict stance on what women can wear in public.

Officially there has been no relaxation, in fact the authorities have tried everything they could think of to counter it. But in practice it’s a losing battle.

“Since last year there’s been a transformation in the framework of the permits we can get and what we can do,” said Shirazi, who sounded upbeat in spite of the closing of his business. “With the great potential this country has and the great desire young Iranians have, there is a bright future for the fashion industry in Iran, and this [the shutting down of Khaneh Mode] is just necessary experience we need to gain to go ahead.”

TIME Religion

Immigration Laws Should Serve People, Not Politics

U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents take undocumented immigrants into custody on July 22, 2014 near Falfurrias, Texas.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents take undocumented immigrants into custody on July 22, 2014 near Falfurrias, Texas. John Moore—Getty Images

Was the law made for people or people for the law?

Throughout both legal history and Judeo-Christian scripture, there has always been tension between the “letter” and the “spirit” of the law. In the gospels, Jesus often rebuked the Pharisees for focusing too much on legalism instead of grace. He famously said, “The Sabbath was made for people not people for the Sabbath.”

In light of what’s been happening in our political systems, it’s clear that we need to ask: “are our laws made for people?” Or do we believe that people were made for our laws?

I have worked alongside many Republicans who have helped lead the battle for immigration reform. These Republicans care about the 11 million undocumented people in this country who have gotten stuck, stranded, marginalized, and jeopardized in a broken immigration system. These are Republicans who don’t want to deport millions of hard-working, law-abiding immigrants and who don’t want to break up their families. These are Republicans who believe that legalizing those immigrants would be good for the country and the economy and support an earned path to citizenship for those who want to wait at the back of the line to become American citizens, pay a fine for breaking the law, submit to complete background and criminal checks, learn English, and pay American taxes for the good work they do. These are Republicans who believe that helping vulnerable children supersedes ideology. And these are Republicans who want their party to be open and inclusive and ready to welcome the Hispanic American community into their party.

But then there are Republicans who have blocked immigration reform even though a majority of Republican party members across the country now favor it, who want to physically deport or make life so miserable for undocumented immigrants that they will “self-deport,” and who either themselves accept or are willing to accommodate to what even other Republicans call “racial factors” in their white constituencies. And there are, cynically, Republicans who simply refuse work with the President or Democrats on any issue. And there are some Republicans who are helping to fuel the alarmists that are rising up across the country to attack immigration and immigrants, and now even children from Central America who have recently come as desperate refugees.

The same voices that have blocked immigration reform are now trying to distort a very serious refugee crisis of children fleeing for their lives from the escalating violence in countries like Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador into an immigration problem, and are using those desperate and vulnerable children as political pawns in the debate around immigration reform. That is morally reprehensible. In Congress, with their consistent commitment to block anything President Obama proposes, the GOP is refusing to spend the money necessary to care for and carefully process the children who are seeking safety and asylum in America. Children are sitting alone away from their families in processing centers without the adequate resources to care for them.

And most shockingly—and absurdly—instead of doing what’s right and working to address the crisis we’re facing at the border, the leader of the Republican party would rather sue the President over failing to execute the Affordable Care Act (ACA). After a year of political maneuverings and a shutdown of the government in protest over the ACA, Speaker Boehner preferred to sue the president for not enforcing the letter of a law he opposes, than to vote on immigration reform which might have humanely addressed the crisis at the border. I fear the actions on health care and the inaction on immigration reform proves that in Congress scoring a political victory is far more important than alleviating the suffering of people. This is a matter of moral leadership and doing what’s right that should transcend ideology.

Because Congress has defaulted on its moral leadership in favor of political maneuvering, President Obama is considering what options his administration can take to fix particular aspects of our broken immigration system or at least reduce the suffering. But any steps he takes will far fall short of the ideal – because the only sustainable solution is legislative. We should the support the President’s attempts to offer compassion until Congress has the courage to act. He should start with ending the deportations of law-abiding people that would break up their families.

While any action the President takes will certainly be within his constitutional and legal authority, the fact that it will be the executive branch providing relief instead of the legislative branch enacting reform again raises the age old question of what purpose the law is supposed to serve? Too many of our supposed leaders seem to have forgotten that they were elected to serve people not politics and parties. This is a moral test of leadership that John Boehner needs to retake.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, The UnCommon Good is available in stores.

TIME 30 Days of Ramadan

Ramadan, Day 29: Death and Dying

Muslims offer Friday prayers during the holy fasting month of Ramadan at a mosque in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad
Muslims offer Friday prayers during the holy fasting month of Ramadan at a mosque in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad on July 25, 2014. Amit Dave—Reuters

Many precious souls are leaving the world through violence and war. We feel the skies crying and the earth shaking at their loss.

The holy month of Ramadan is a time of deep reflection for Muslims worldwide. Over the 30 days of Ramadan, Imam Sohaib Sultan of Princeton University will offer contemplative pieces on contemporary issues drawing from the wisdoms of the Qur’an – the sacred scripture that Muslims revere as the words of God and God’s final revelation to humanity. The Qur’an is at the heart of Muslim faith, ethics, and civilization. These short pieces are meant to inspire thought and conversation.

One of the most difficult experiences that we as human beings experience in our lives is the pain of losing someone near and dear to us. This separation, either through our own departing or the departing of our loved ones, is as inevitable as it is saddening. The Qur’an states in no unclear terms, “Every soul tastes death” and “We shall try you with something of…loss” (3:185 and 2:155).

The separation that death causes, no matter how we look at it, brings great grief to the heart. The Prophet Muhammad would often console people when they experienced loss and would encourage them to bear patiently and would give them glad tidings of the hereafter. The Prophet himself experienced a lot of loss of loved ones in his own lifetime. He was orphaned at a young age. His greatest supporters in his uncle and his first wife passed away in the same year. He lost many companions in battles and war. And, the Prophet buried five of his six children with his own hands — only one of his daughters, Lady Fatima, living longer than he by six months. When one of the Prophet’s two sons passed away in his own arms as a child, the Prophet was inconsolable as tears rolled down from his eyes. Some of the companions with him were taken aback, thinking that crying was not consistent with bearing loss patiently. But, the Prophet reminded them that these were “tears of compassion” and that God has compassion for those who have compassion.

To have patience in times of loss does not mean that we do not grieve; it means, that we do not lose faith in God and in our own capacity to endure. Patience means that we understand all blessings are a gift from God and must, eventually, return to God — just as we too, one day, must return to the Source of Life. The Qur’an says that those who are patient say upon experiencing loss, “Truly, from God we come and, truly, to God is our return” (2:156).

From the perspective of a believer, the painful separation from our loved ones, is ultimately a temporary separation. The Prophet would visit the graveyard often and would say aloud, “Peace be upon you, O inhabitants of the graves, believers and Muslims. Verily we will, God-willing, join you [in the near future]. I ask God for well-being for us and for you.” The Prophet assured his companions about the hereafter saying, “You will be with those whom you love.”

No matter how long we live or experience life with our loved ones, it can feel so short. The memories of a lifetime can feel like just a few fleeting moments. The Islamic tradition says that when the Angel of Death comes to take the human soul and asks, “How long were you on earth,” the soul replies, “A day or two.” In the Islamic ritual tradition, when a child is born the Call to Prayer (known as the adhan in Arabic) is gently chanted in his or her right ear, but this adhan is not followed by prayer. When a person dies, there is a funeral prayer but no adhan. Muslim sages point out that, in reality, the adhan at birth suffices for the funeral prayer at death — for that is how short life truly is.

In the Islamic spiritual and ethical tradition, there is great virtue attached to visiting those who are dying. It is said that the Angels of Mercy surround a person from the time that they set foot on their journey to visit the dying till the time they leave after visiting. To be there as a source of comfort and compassion to the dying and their family is in and of itself a blessed deed. As a chaplain, I have been called at times to be with the dying. It is one of the deepest, most profound human experiences to see the breath of life slowly journeying out of the human body into another realm.

These moments cause deep reflection on the life that is lived and how to make it all meaningful. The Prophet Muhammad taught that when we go into the grave, everything we worked so hard for — wealth, children, and so on — leave us behind. But, there are three things that accompany us into the grave and continue to bless the soul: beneficial knowledge that we leave behind for others to benefit from after we leave this world; sustainable charity that continues to help people well after our lifetime; and, children — whether our own or others — who pray for us after death. These are some valuable prescriptions for living a meaningful life.

In an often-cited line of poetry, Mawlana Rumi — the 13th century poet and philosopher — says that the lives of the righteous can be summarized as such: When they are born, they come out of their mother’s wombs crying while everyone around them is happy. When they die, they go into their graves happy while everyone around them is crying. When the Prophet’s great companion and scholar, Salman al-Farsi, passed away people said they felt the heavens and earth weep for his loss.

Today, many precious souls are leaving the world through violence and war. We feel the skies crying and the earth shaking at their loss.

In these final nights of Ramadan it is especially appropriate to pray for those who have passed away — those we know and those whom we do not know. And, it is a blessed time to honor their memory by committing to an act of charity in their names. May all who have passed away in the years past find rejoice in their returning to God, and may all who are experiencing the painful loss of a loved one find strength and patience through prayer, Amen.

TIME Religion

Report: Pope Francis to Visit U.S. in 2015

Pope Francis Visits Molise
Pope Francis attends a meeting with young people at the Sanctuary of Castelpetroso in Campobasso, Italy on July 5, 2014. Franco Origlia—Getty Images

Set to visit Philadelphia in September 2015

Updated 12:16pm ET.

Pope Francis has long been rumored to attend the World Meeting of Families in the U.S. next September, and now Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput says Pope Francis has accepted his invitation to join the gathering, according to a report by Catholic News Service.

The report also quotes Vatican spokesman Frederico Lombardi saying Friday that the Holy Father has expressed “his willingness to participate in the World Meeting of Families.” The Archdiocese of Philadelphia clarified later Friday that the Vatican itself has not officially confirmed Pope Francis’ visit. “We still expect that any official confirmation will come approximately six months prior to the event,” stated a press release. “Archbishop Chaput has frequently shared his confidence in Pope Francis’ attendance at the World Meeting and his personal conversations with the Holy Father are the foundation for that confidence.”

The Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family sponsors the World Meeting of Families every three years in a different city. The upcoming gathering is still more than a year away, and Pope Francis is likely to push for more activity on the issues of family and marriage before then — at least if his workrate continues at its current pace.

In October, Pope Francis will host an Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in Rome to discuss the topic, “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.” It is only the third such Extraordinary Synod since Pope Paul VI established the Synod of Bishops in 1965, and it signals that issues of marriage and family—especially in changing modern times—are of special importance to Pope Francis.

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