Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Getting Better the Hard Way

Religious people know that God (by whatever name) is greater than the evil of which we as a race are capable. They know that the love of God is such that our positive welfare is sought more than arbitrary punishment for our misdeeds. The combination of God's perfect love and power with with responsiveness from the faithful produce a fascinating reality, a reality that benefits everyone, not just the faithful. The reality I describe here is this, God's love and power plus the positive conditions created by the faithful (in all faiths) translate or repackage all horror into pathways from which positive good can arise. This is always the case, as it is also now in current world affairs.

On September 11, 2001 violent and resentful people attacked the United States of America, killing 3,000 non-combatants, including many Muslims. Surat 5.032 in the Qu'ran compares the murder of one innocent soul to the taking of all human life! These vile and violent assailants who in their acts violated dozens of Qu'ranic injunctions, nevertheless attributed their decisions and actions as an expression of Islam (rather than misunderstanding their actions as an expression of some other religion or ideology). All perpetrators came from the Islamic cultural sphere.

Attack on a sovereign nation is a political act that requires political and in virtually all cases even a military response. Virtually all wars (since they deal with ultimates, absolutes, and uncertainties) resort to a "God is on our side" mentality (this is a natural result of the fact the humans are related to God, and tend to call on God (or some superstition surrogate) when things are uncertain and scary). In this case the tragedy of religious error escalated drawing the beautiful religion of Christianity unwillingly into the hellish energy spawned by the 911 attacks. (Too bad famous, inhospitable, and intolerant people who are believed by many to be Christian added bigoted opinion into the foolishsphere, adding to the (false) impression that hostilities are "religious.")

As this degenerate, violent, and murderous spirit persists one is tempted to bemoan the fact that the original perpetrators chose to identify their villainy with a world religion. Indeed government and security policy decided to accept the position of the 911 killers. Something like, "11 suicidal, murderous guys called it Islam, so we'll call it Islam." As a result, great injustice, bigotry and intolerance of a religious flavor has come to influence the behavior and attitudes of secular people and institutions (as well as those who live by a perverted (bellicose) form of their respective religions) . This fact that secular activity (such as economics, security, military activity, international relations etc.) have been drawn downward under impulse of intolerance and religious bigotry, lead many in the world to imagine that ours is a time in which interreligious relations are at an all time low.

The fact however, is that this is not the case. Precisely because those carrying out demonic and murderous agendas at present do so openly relating themselves to perversions of this religion or that, behavior among genuinely religious people actually is reaching new heights of enlightenment, humility, charity, openness, and transtradition collaboration. Because genuinely religious people are being SO badly misrepresented by murderous and demonic perps, they are living their religions to an ever more beautiful and exemplary degree. Also because "combat-based" secular institutions (such as security and military) have become vaguely and confusedly tied to "religion" in name, here again genuine religious believers in a near excessive effort to demonstrate just the very opposite presently show a breadth, embrace, and respect for other traditions that we have never seen before. The great irony is that, one almost could say that this is a good time for religion. Its true adherents are showing all its best and most promising elements and dimensions.

The only unfortunate part of the tale is that it took such a terrible breakdown in secular relations to evoke, regenerate, and spur to hitherto unreached levels of interreligious, mutual embrace and collaboration. But this rubber-band style of narrative unfortunately always has been the burden borne by the divine. The best of our religiosity and spirituality almost always is evoked only by breakdown and tragedy. Hopefully soon, we will rise to point at which flourishing spirituality energizes itself through its own healthy and positive benefits, rather than laying dormant until fear, despair, and emergency awaken us as a last resort.

Under ordinary circumstances, even good religious people have tended to sit contentedly in their respective cocoons, not bothering to care about how our neighbors pray, dream, raise our children, and seek to be better people day by day. But in a world folding together as one family, even this peaceful (but parochial) way of being religious cannot be seen as acceptable. There is still too much separation in such a set up, and this "uncaring" way cannot be seen as consistent with the guidance and preferences from God (by whatever name). Strangely then, the 911 attacks have led to a flourishing of religious life, and a level of multi-religious collaboration the world has not seen in many an eon.

The flourishing interfaith world is reaching an ever more sophisticated depth and healthy complexity, but we must recognize a much higher mission that comes with this opportunity. This opportunity arose due to God's perfectly constant power to transform ill into blessing. The curse and the embarrassment that all religions face as the secular critics point to violence and intolerance is our own fault. We should have been more vigilant to prevent such a thing. So our chastisement is harsh, and our awakening is late. But the interfaith community must not undersell this opportunity. Of course religious leaders must quench the flames of violence and murder that possess the secular arena. And yes, religious leaders must rescue the reputations of our respective religions from the besmirching we have suffered from demonic perps who defile the names of our religions. But far more important than this repair work, is the mission of religious leaders in this time NOT to miss this opportunity that has come at such great cost. This time, the world of religion must reach an utterly unprecedented plateau. The persistence of discrete traditions is permissible only as the best ways to speak to believers in our respective cultural spheres. But NO other lines of division or demarcation should persist. The religions of the world, while not sacrificing their roots and identity must become "religion-blind" when realizing and carrying out our shared responsibility and scriptural obligations as centers of compassion, care, and sacrificial service.

Frank Kaufmann is the Director of the Interreligious Federation for World Peace. The opinions here are his own.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Olmert resigns, peace at hand

Bank Closing this September, Put your money here
Frank Kaufmann

I published several articles urging readers to suspend emotional attachment to or even interest in peace language and promises from Olmert, Abbas, and Bush administration representatives. Each for their own (many) reasons represents zero chance to effect peace. The US is at perilous juncture with its status and international influence profoundly threatened by this administration's forfeiture of America's stance and reputation as a champion for human rights that abhors inhumanity, Abbas does not speak for the entire Palestinian Authority, and Olmert never shed the shadow of corruption charges on top of having committed the unforgivable sin of losing Israeli lives due to bad military planning. Counting on this collection of people to broker peace is like counting on the Marx Brothers to sit peacefully through La Traviata. While no one is ill motivated, none are situated or equipped to meet such expectations.

Yesterday Prime Minister Olmert tendered a graceful exeunt and opened the door to the mild madness known as Israeli electoral politics, a high-stakes clash of intensely held views related to survival itself. Olmert's resignation might compare to opening a crack the exit door of a burning theater, hardly a conducive environment for delicate peace conversations, and worse so when half those trampling others towards the door are war hawks.

The peace pursuits of this particular group always teetered on rickety scaffolding even in their best days. That so, imagine the "have I gone mad" disorientation that had to wash over
New York Times readers to find these as the first words of the article on Olmert's resignation announcement:

The official line in Washington, Jerusalem and Ramallah is that the decision by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel to resign will not affect American efforts to negotiate a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians before the end of the year

The article then goes on to present assurances from Olmert, Abbas (speaking from Tunisia), and Rice's "senior administration official" (“Fundamentally, as Americans,” the official added, “don't give up.”)

But author Aaron David Miller is quoted later in the article saying,

The bottom line: Can Olmert reach a half-baked agreement minus Jerusalem with Abbas and with Condi looking on proudly in the next several months? Maybe,” said Aaron David Miller, the author of "The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace

But can he sell it, let alone implement it, in an environment in which he has no popular support or moral authority, with Hamas threatening from the sidelines? No way.”

But there is something more urgent and more fundamental than merely the inadequacies of this particular group (in talent, disposition, or mere circumstance) to be effective agents for peace. The most debilitating problem facing our peace hopes is not the characters in the line up at present, but rather the anachronistic spell under which such efforts are conceived and sold. This is what must be changed, not the players on the scene at any given moment.

It is not a particular bias, strategy, political skill and insight (or lack thereof) that suddenly and magically will produce a coming era of stability and security. "If only we had a take-no-prisoners Nethanyahu at the helm, THEN we'd see progress." "Our only hope is an Annapolis-committed Livni, if we are to see the end of tensions and horror." Both views miss the point. Attachment to either dogma does nothing more than extend the spirit of political contention that itself inherently contradicts what is required to dissolve hatred and conflict.

Hope should not rest with whether or not this candidate or that matches my own preferred degree of intolerance and aggression that I like to see in my political figures of choice. Hope must lie first in the prospect that peace actors and commentators awaken from the slumber and pig-headed view that state actors in isolation can succeed as agents for meaningful change.

Political reality and state to state negotiations are wholly inadequate as peace-seeking platforms when taken in isolation. They only can contribute positively when integrated into a creative, carefully designed treillage of related peace-seeking activity. These include religion, social service, empowerment economics, intercultural foundations for education, the arts, sports, and other long term investment, organizations, and activities devoted to peace. The narrow, parochial characteristics of state actors and politicians cannot in isolation bring peace. This expensive activity does not deserve the privileged, excessive attention and resources it enjoys.

The political arena itself is contentious by nature. Political figures themselves are transitional by nature. Harmonization in political terms is characterized by compromise and self-interest. These characteristics are not evils. They have a role to play and cannot and should not be excluded from peace efforts. But the hubris, and the blind adherence old and failed mentalities that imagine political figures in isolation can bring peace, by now should be an embarrassing position to hold.

State level, politically based efforts for peace should not attract much attention until they are integrated creatively, strategically, and effectively into holistic peace-seeking agendas inclusive of central, more long term, and better suited enterprises for peace, such as civil society, the private sector, voluntary associations, and those from the enlightened sector of religion.

Frank Kaufmann is the Director of the Inter Religious Federation for World Peace
The opinion here is his own