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The Power of Interfaith-Based Community Organizing

LA Voiceby Minister Zachary Hoover

On May 15, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously passed the Responsible Banking Ordinance, which requires banks seeking city contracts to disclose detailed information about their lending and foreclosure practices. This victory allows people to see which banks are investing in their community or being responsible neighbors and which ones are not. Big banks are incredibly powerful and pay millions of dollars for lobbying to write rules that benefit them. Angelenos won a rule that shifts some power back into the hands of the people. And that rule would not have been won without the power of organized religious communities under a common banner.

I am blessed to lead LA Voice, a multiethnic, federation of 25 churches, synagogues, and mosques that is striving to be something healing and striving to do something healing. The climate of racial anxiety, divisive politics that pull at our implicit biases, and the growing diversity of our country urgently call all of us to speak, listen, and struggle together for a different set of outcomes for our cities. Our organizational leaders, clergy and lay, are striving every day to shift the balance of spiritual and political power so that our great city might truly reflect its glorious name and the dignity of all—not just the dignity of those with the means and privilege to protect their opportunity and promote the future of their children, but of all those who have been left out or pushed out of the land of opportunity we claim to inhabit.

Pastors, imams, rabbis and laity from the member congregations of LA Voice have played key leadership roles in the struggle to gain leverage to end unfair foreclosures, to increase small business lending to communities of color, to end costly, unjust police impounds of immigrants’ vehicles—immigrants whom our state does not afford the opportunity to get a driver’s license; and to increase access to food in public housing in East LA. These same leaders have sent clergy to represent them with the Governor of California to influence the outcome of much needed revenue initiatives for our schools, and they have sent thousands of letters and made countless visits to state political offices to write new rules that make life fairer for suffering communities. The power of faith and interfaith struggle is alive and well in many places, including in PICO National Network organizations like LA Voice.

In acting together for justice, our leaders find their voice and voices. When sixty African American Muslims join 700 Christians of all colors and 50 Jews at a gathering to launch a campaign, and their leaders sit together onstage with political and business leaders, I see interfaith power. When Fr. Margarito goes to Shabbat services at a neighboring Jewish community to tell his community’s story and proposes going to city hall together, with translation, new ground is broken. When I, an American Baptist Minister, have the honor to sit with five respected Imams and dream about what we might change together about mass incarceration, as we speak about li ta’arafu and how knowing one another is something God desires for us, I hear interfaith dialogue. When our Jewish leaders from West LA journey to East LA to fight together for a better life for those whose migration is more recent, and they share their personal Exodus stories, and they take the power of that bond into meetings with LAPD, they live interfaith peacemaking. When 250 PICO affiliated clergy gathered in New Orleans last fall to launch an initiative to bring a bolder prophetic voice and the power of organizing to bear to bend the arc of U.S. history toward justice, and those leaders experience moments of discomfort at the different approaches of their fellow clergy, we build new life as they commit to each other despite those gut rumblings. When passersby see clergy of different colors and creed standing together at a press conference, defying what they have heard in the media about how much we all really hate each other, there is a witness to a more powerful Spirit.

I truly find God’s Spirit alive, and where we find power to change our world for the better, is in the messiness of our stories and contending for our public space together. Those same Jews and Christians and Muslims who have won real change have plenty of moments where understanding each other isn’t the first thing that happens—whether it’s a Jewish leader cringing at the “in Jesus’ name,” or a Muslim leader wondering why we haven’t thought about a space for their afternoon prayer on the agenda, or a Christian pastor explaining to a congregant why it is OK for them to be in relationship with non-Christians without aiming for their conversion, or explaining to another Christian how real the power of prayer is in his church.

Organizing is messy. And leaders are the ones who shepherd their people down a new path that leads to more abundant life and wrestles with the consequences of the status quo. We at LA Voice are interested in being with people who want to be together because it gives them the power to be transformed, to transform others, and to change our world. Transformations aren’t real if they don’t change our transactions.

I am not under the illusion that organizing is equally easy in all of the countries to which this newsletter makes its way. I cannot speak about the dangers and fears that must come with organizing right now in Northern Mexico or Syria. And I can only confess shame at the countless opportunities powerful countries like ours miss to act with our human family in other countries. But wherever we are, if we do not use our shared values, stories, and relationships to build real power to unyoke the burden of disproportionate death and suffering that we all allow to be visited upon some while protecting others, then no God can save us. As Bob Dylan says, “You’re gonna’ serve somebody, it might be the Devil, it might be the Lord, but you gonna’ serve somebody.”

Minister Zachary Hoover is Executive Director of LA Voice, an affiliate of the PICO National Network (a national network of faith-based community organizations working to create innovative solutions to problems facing urban, suburban and rural communities).

 

Adieu Raimon, A Dieu

Raimon Panikkar, known to many in this society of Hindu-Christian Studies as a teacher, scholar, mentor, or friend, died at his home in Tavertet, near Barcelona, on August 26, 2010.  He was ninety-one and had been in poor health for some time, but he did live to see the day when his Gifford Lectures, originally delivered in Edinburgh in 1989, and over which he had agonized ever since [he produced some nineteen different versions of parts of the texts], finally saw the light of day in June of this year as The Rhythm of Being (Orbis Books).

Panikkar taught and lived in the United States from 1966-1987 and was known to generations of students here and around the world through both his lectures and his many books.  What they heard and read were the arresting reflections of a multi-dimensional person, who was simultaneously a philosopher, theologian, mystic, priest and poet.

It was also that combination of personae that made him at times difficult to understand.  He was a formidable scholar with doctorates in philosophy, theology, and chemistry and an acquaintance with the worlds of learning and religious reflection in more than a dozen languages.  But at heart he was a mystic and a contemplative, who chose at the end of his academic career in 1987 to live in the small mountain village of Tavertet (population 75) in a remote part of the Pyrenees north of Barcelona.  Even there he was not easily accessible because he would shut off his phone for half the week.  The prayer and meditation room in his house was right next to his study, and he would drift imperceptibly between the two spaces both literally and in consciousness.  He once wrote

“Writing, to me, is meditation—that is medicine—and also moderation,

order for this world.  Writing, to me, is intellectual life and that in turn

is spiritual existence.  The climax of life is, in my opinion, to participate

in the life of the universe, in both the cosmic and divine symphonies to

which even we mortals are invited.  It is not only a matter of living but

also of letting life be—this life, offered to us as a gift so that we may

sustain and deepen it.” (A Dwelling Place for Wisdom, 79)

He was born the son of an Indian Hindu father and a Spanish Catholic mother on November 3, 1918.  He received a conventional Catholic education at a Jesuit high school in Barcelona before launching on his university studies in the natural sciences, philosophy, and theology, first in Barcelona and then in Madrid.  Shortly thereafter, the Spanish Civil War broke out, and Panikkar was able to take advantage of his status as the son of a father who was a British citizen to go to the University of Bonn in Germany to continue his studies.  When World War II started in 1939, Panikkar returned to Spain and completed the first of his three doctorates, this one in philosophy, at the University of Madrid in 1946.

In late 1954 when he was already 36 Panikkar visited India, the land of his father, for the first time.  It proved to be a watershed, a decisive reorientation of his interests and of his theology.  He had entered a dramatically new world, religious and cultural, from the Catholic Europe of his youth.  The transformation was aided by his meetings and close friendship with three monks, who like him were attempting to live and to incarnate the Christian life in Indian, predominantly Hindu and Buddhist, forms:  Jules Monchanin (1895-1957), Henri Le Saux, also known as Swami Abhishiktananda (1910-1973), and Bede Griffiths, the English Benedictine monk (1906-1993).  All four of them, in different ways, discovered and cherished the riches and the deep spiritual wisdom of the Indic traditions, and attempted to live out and express their core Christian convictions in Hindu and Buddhist forms.  To some extent this multiple belonging was made possible by their embrace of Advaita, the Indic idea of non-dualism, which sees the deep, often hidden, connections between traditions without in any way minimizing the differences between them.

One of Panikkar’s many striking sentences looking back on his life’s journey asserts:  “I left Europe (for India) as a Christian, I discovered I was a Hindu and returned as a Buddhist without ever having ceased to be a Christian.”  A wealth of meaning lies in that assertion.  Christianity in its historical evolution began as a Jewish tradition and then spread to the Greco-Roman world, acquiring along the way Greek and Roman cultural expressions which have given it a certain form and character.  Panikkar, having grown up and having been trained in a traditional Catholic and neo-Thomist environment, had a profound knowledge of, and respect for, that tradition.  This knowledge prepared him for discussions with some of the great minds of twentieth-century Catholicism:  Jean Danielou, Yves Congar, Hans Urs von Balthazar, and others.  He was also invited to take part in the Synod of Rome and the Second Vatican Council.  But Panikkar did not confuse or conflate historical contingency with spiritual truth.  In Hinduism and Buddhism Panikkar found other languages, in addition to Biblical Hebrew, Greek philosophy, and Latin Christianity, to express the core convictions (the kerygma) of the Christian tradition.

That was the main thesis of The Unknown Christ of Hinduism, which Panikkar originally presented as a doctoral thesis to the Lateran University in Rome in 1961, based as it was on a close textual comparison between Thomas Aquinas and Sankara’s interpretation of a canonical Hindu scripture, the Brahma-Sutras.  Christ and his teaching are not, so Panikkar argues, the monopoly or exclusive property of Christianity seen as a historical religion.  Rather, Christ is the universal symbol of divine-human unity, the human face of God.  Christianity approaches Christ in a particular and unique way, informed by its own history and spiritual evolution.  But Christ vastly transcends Christianity.  Panikkar calls the name “Christ” the “Supername,” in line with St. Paul’s “name above every name” (Phil 2:9), because it is a name that can and must assume other names, like Rama or Krishna or Ishvara.

This theological insight was crucial for Panikkar because it provided the basis of the inter-religious dialogue that he and Abhishiktananda and Bede Griffiths were both advocating and practicing themselves.  Far from diluting or in any way watering down core Christian beliefs and practices, such dialogue, in addition to fostering inter-religious understanding and harmony, provided an indispensable medium for deepening the Christian faith.  Such dialogue provides an insight and entry point into other, non-Christian names and manifestations of Christ.  This was particularly important for Panikkar because together with other Asian theologians he saw how historical Christianity had attempted, especially during its colonial periods, to convert Christ into an imperial God, with a license to conquer and triumph over other Gods.  This for Panikkar is the challenge of the post-colonial period inaugurated in the mid-to-late twentieth century and continuing into our present and the future.  In his words,  “To the third Christian millennium is reserved the task of overcoming a tribal Christology by a Christophany which allows Christians to see the work of Christ everywhere, without assuming that they have a better grasp or a monopoly of that Mystery, which has been revealed to them in a unique way.”

Needless-to-say, such striking ideas carefully and rigorously argued and dramatically expressed got the attention of religious thinkers and secular institutions around the world.  Panikkar was invited to teach in Rome and then at Harvard (1966-1971) and the University of California, Santa Barbara (1971-1987).  He was now, as Leonard Swidler, occupant of the Chair of Catholic Thought at Temple University, called him, “the apostle of inter-faith dialogue and inter-cultural understanding.”

In true apostolic fashion, he traveled tirelessly around the world, lecturing, writing, preaching, and conducting retreats.  His famous Easter service in his Santa Barbara days would attract visitors from all corners of the globe.  Well before dawn they would climb up the mountain near his home in Montecito, meditate quietly in the darkness once they reached the top, and then salute the sun as it arose over the horizon.  Panikkar would bless the elements—air, earth, water, and fire—and all the surrounding forms of life—plant, animal, and human—and then celebrate Mass and the Eucharist.  It was a profound “cosmotheandric” celebration with the human, cosmic, and divine dimensions of life being affirmed, reverenced, and brought into a deep harmony.  The celebration after the formal service at Panikkar’s home resembled in some respects the feast of Pentecost as described in the New Testament, where peoples of many tongues engaged in animated conversation.

At the center of these celebrations, retreats, and lectures stood Panikkar himself and his arresting personality.  People who heard or encountered him could not help but be struck by this physically small man who in his earlier days was like a cluster of fireworks exploding in an array of shapes and colors.  Here is what the great Mexico poet Octavio Paz, who was his country’s ambassador to India from 1962-1968, had to say about him:

It is impossible not to recall a Catalan Hindu, both a  theologian and

a migratory bird in all climates from Benares to Santa Barbara,

California:  Raimundo Panikkar.  A man of electric intelligence,

with whom I would spend hours discussing some controversial point

in the Gita or Buddhist sutra—I have never heard anyone attack

the heresy of Buddhism with such furious dialectics as Panikkar

(In Light of India 209).

In later life, his persona managed to combine the dignity of a sage, the profundity of a scholar, the depth of a contemplative, and the warmth and charm of a friend in his effervescent personality.  An Australian friend of his, Dr. Meath Conlan, mentions having dinner with him at his home when the phone rang.  It was the Pope calling from the Vatican, seeking Panikkar’s advice on how best to handle the aftermath caused by his ill-advised remarks about the Prophet Mohammed in his Regensburg Address of 2006.

He is well known to readers of this journal as a great scholar of both the Hindu and Christian traditions and the dialogue between them.  The 940 page translation and commentary of the Vedas and the Upanishads, published as The Vedic Experience: Mantramanjari, is a sensitive hermeneutical study that attempts to bring the ancient Vedic world alive as a resource for contemporary celebration.  Likewise, his account of Hindu myths in Myth, Faith, and Hermeneutics tries to bring out their deeper cross-cultural philosophical resonance.

Critics, of course, charged him with proffering a Christian interpretation of Hinduism to which his wry response often was that he had a Hindu interpretation of Christianity.  The point for Panikkar as a thinker was to move beyond labels and the conventional ideas they carry to deeper spiritual truth.  Indeed, one of the main purposes of inter-religious dialogue for Panikkar is the intra-religious dialogue it should spark and the discovery of often hidden treasures in one’s own tradition.

Perhaps the most daring of Panikkar’s attempts at charting a Hindu-Buddhist-Christian spirituality within a still Christian self-understanding came in his early and path-breaking little book first published in 1970 as The Trinity and World Religions.  Here he imposed a Trinitarian structure on Hinduism and an advaitic structure on Christianity, both “trinity and “advaita” being alternative symbols for the cosmotheandric Mystery.  Drawing on traditional and unacknowledged, submerged dimensions of the Christian trinity, Panikkar attempted to connect Buddhism with the silent, self-emptying dimension of the Father; Christianity, Judaism and Islam, as religions of the word, with the Son, the incarnate Word; and advaitic Hinduism with the immanent, radically inner dimension of the Spirit.  In doing so it was not his purpose imperialistically to provide a Christian grid onto which other traditions could be forced.  Rather, taking Christianity as his point of departure, he wanted to show that Christianity has no monopoly on Trinitarian understanding and that such understanding enriched by the contributions of different traditions can in fact deepen and transform all of them.

It is important, however, to balance this account of Panikkar as thinker with the stress he placed on living an authentic life.  “My aspiration,” he would often say, “does not consist so much in defending my truth, but rather in living it out.”  As one of his students speaking for many put it, “He integrated intellect, commitment, and practice in a very important and inspirational way for so many of us.  Many of our lives and paths have benefitted from his touch.”

To cite just one example of that commitment, in September 1994 at the age of 76 Panikkar made a pilgrimage of almost a month to Mount Kailash.  He had a weak heart, and the doctors were against it, but Panikkar was determined.  Anyone who has been on such a pilgrimage can vouch for its hazards—there are no resources for rescue and hardly any medical amenities.  It was in part a fulfillment of a promise to his Hindu, Saivite father.  As Panikkar wrote after the expedition

I have always been more inclined to the spiritual pilgrimage.  And

yet that memory of a hindu father telling his teen-age son

about Kailasa reverberated in him when the occasion arose to join the

last batch of sadhus the Chinese would allow in 1959.  He had then

to renounce by virtue of ‘holy’ (christian) obedience, and later on

due to other reasons, not the least his heart not supporting high altitudes.

By an inexplicable synchronicity of events he found himself this time

almost led to undertake the pilgrimage which for him was likely to

be not only ultimate but final (Setu ed. Bettina Baeumer, January 1996, 8)

Sixteen years later, Panikkar did indeed embark on a pilgrimage both ultimate and final.  May God and the gods grant him rest in the Great Source which he sought with such intensity and single-mindedness during his earthly sojourn.

Joseph Prabhu

Philosophy Department

California State University, Los Angeles

September 20, 2010

Rebranding Interfaith

NewGroundby Rabbi Sarah Bassin

Inspired. Energized. Confused. Naïve.  I had asked a Jewish audience to share a single word to capture their thoughts of my presentation on Muslim-Jewish relations.  I had spent the last hour painting a picture of the broken communication between Jews and Muslims over the last 20 years – the public spats, the failed dialogues and the wounded relationships.  I devoted the last portion of the session to envisioning a more positive paradigm and cultivating the tools to get us there.

Some people entered the session eager to acquire the skills needed to strengthen relationships with the Muslims who share their city.  They had witnessed the breakdowns but refused to think of “Muslim-Jewish” as synonymous with “conflict.” They walked away from the session recharged.  Inspired.  Energized.

Others entered as skeptics, poised to dismiss interfaith work as a charming but ineffective effort to bridge an unbridgeable chasm of differences.   The cycle of conflict exists for a reason and those who champion engagement with the other don’t understand the threat to their own community.  Openness and vulnerability lead to exploitation.  Interfaith activists are unrooted. Confused. Naïve.

Those words may have felt cutting in the moment but they were also a gift.  It was early in my work as the Executive Director of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change though I had long been devoted to interfaith relations.  As someone who grew up with a mixed religious background, the importance of interfaith was engrained in my Jewish identity.  But my own experience blinded me to the experience of those for whom interfaith was not a self-evident good.  It was beyond my worldview that someone could see interfaith engagement not only as superfluous but as threatening.  I realized that I needed to take a step back and explain why the work matters in the first place.  More specifically, I needed to make a compelling case for why the work matters to them.

There is something that feels base about using the language of self-interest to undergird interfaith work.  I imagine that many of us find ourselves committed to interfaith activism because our highest ideals have led us down this path.  As someone who chose to become a rabbi to pursue a career in interfaith relations, I certainly felt compelled by the holiness of the endeavor.  My tradition demands it of me.  The Jewish philosopher Emanuel Levinas captures my deeply held belief with his claim that we experience divine commandment through the face of the other.

But I am also in this line of work because I believe wholeheartedly that a commitment to interfaith relations and Muslim-Jewish relations in particular tangibly benefits the Jewish people.  This work is, as they say, “good for the Jews.”

As a teenager and young adult, I despised the “good for the Jews” cliché.  It seemed to be an excuse for isolation, a justification for turning a blind eye to the plight of others.  But those excuses represent a narrow interpretation of what is good.  Those justifications conflate that which is in our self-interest with that which is self-serving.

Asking whether something is “good for the Jews?” is actually a useful question.  As my colleagues in community organizing assert, acknowledging one’s self interest is the first important step to social change.

When I engage Jewish audiences now, I open by speaking to that self-interest.  I lay out the vast overlapping domestic agendas between the American Muslim and Jewish communities and spell out the missed opportunities for collaboration.  I articulate how changing demographics will impact Jewish community relations.  Jews are becoming a smaller proportion of the American population and we will need to rely more heavily on coalitions.  I cite how the younger generations of Jews understand “Jewish values” more universally than their parents did.  Interfaith activism thus has a role in engaging these generations’ Jewish identity.

No part of me imagines that I will transform every skeptic in an hour by framing Muslim-Jewish relations in terms of Jewish self-interest.  But I often see something click for Jewish audiences when I cite the 2010 Gallup poll that directly links anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.  The single greatest predictor for whether someone holds Islamophobic beliefs is whether they also hold anti-Semitic beliefs.  This simple statistic reframes the issue from an abstract good to a concrete need.  Combating Islamophobia is not some altruistic endeavor for Jews rooted in the collective memory of our own historical persecution.  It is a strategic approach to prevent latent anti-Semitism from resurfacing today.

The rhetoric that we use to describe our work serves to undermine or enhance the power of our impact.  Early on, a supporter once described NewGround as “the ones getting everyone to love each other.”  She soon learned that this does not begin to capture what NewGround does.  We equip Jews and Muslims with the tools, space, and relationships to identify what matters to people in both communities– our fears, our values, our narratives and aspirations.  Sometimes, the conversation feels uncomfortable because interests do not always align (for example, we do not expect everyone to agree about how to handle the conflict in the Middle East). But the willingness to articulate what is at one’s core creates the foundation for a more honest and trusting partnership when there is alignment.  At NewGround, we are not the ones getting everyone to love each other.  We are the ones transforming intergroup relations in Los Angeles from a civic liability into a communal asset.

There will always be a core of people drawn to interfaith work for its more abstract ideals – people who need no convincing of interfaith’s inherent value.  But our goal ought to include preaching beyond the choir.  There is no shame in rebranding interfaith as savvy and strategic, substantive and smart.  Interfaith is all of these things and there is much to be gained by speaking of our work from this angle.  Those poised to call us naïve may instead walk away energized.  And those who thought us confused may instead find themselves inspired.

Rabbi Sarah Bassin is the Executive Director of NewGround: A Muslim Jewish Partnership for Change.

 

What place do people of faith have at Occupy Everywhere?

by Jonathan Oskins
from State of Formation

News agencies were already slow to cover the movement in New York, so it is no surprise that reporting on the involvement of religious people at Occupy Together took even longer. But the wait was worth it, with fellow State of Formation contributors having written on their personal participation: Mary Ann Kaiser wrote a great piece on her hands-on work as part of Occupy Austin and Anna DeWeese posted on her experience at Occupy Wall Street. Faith & Reason also has terrific summaries of the reasons why different faiths have become involved, including a great link to a HuffPost Religion post on an Occupy Wall Street Yom Kippur. Another HuffPost Religion post does a good job of highlighting the variety of religious groups at Occupy Wall Street, including Jumah at #OccupyDCOccupy TorahOccupy Judaism and Occupy Sukkot.

At Occupy LA, the city I am from, there has been group meditation and yoga sessions, but the most prominent story in the last few weeks on spirituality was an event organized by Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace (ICUJP). On October 7th, the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, fifteen peace activists were arrested in front of the Federal Building in downtown LA, including Anthony Manousos, a Quaker who serves on the board of directors for ICUJP and the Executive Committee of the Southern California Committee for a Parliament of the World Religions, Reverend George Regas, rector emeritus of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Shakeel Syed, the executive director of the Islam Shura Council of Southern California, Father Chris Ponnett of Pax Christi, a Catholic organization, and Friar Tom, a Catholic priest, among others.

What struck me was that while Occupy LA supporters joined them as they marched towards the Federal Building, it does not seem to have been coordinated that way. ICUJP sent out tried-and-true press releases including promises of “Visuals: some 20 activists and religious leaders wearing vestments being arrested,” but the press release made no mention of Occupy LA, though some articles made the connection.

Click here to read the full article

Gandhi Remixed in Los Angeles

The University of Southern California and the Southern California Committee for the Parliament of the World’s Religions will host a Pre-Parliament Event titled “Gandhi Remixed: Pluralism and Nonviolence in Today’s World” this upcoming Sunday, October 11th.  The event will celebrate Gandhi’s 140th birthday with refreshments and a free concert.  To learn more, click here.

October 9th, 2009 at 9:40 am