God Bless America


Patience is truly a virtue in this year’s US election. There is so much at stake in the choices Americans face tomorrow, not only for the people of the United States. It is a leap of faith to believe that after tomorrow, Americans of all backgrounds and persuasions will come together and forge a common purpose for the good of the country and the world.

I happily take my lead from Pope Francis who reminds us today that there is a greater good worthy of our aspirations.

By the grace of God and with faith in democracy, let us pray that America and the world will reject the bitterness and hatred that has been part of this election, and resolve to do and make things better. Humility is after all one of the common teachings of the world’s great religions. It is what should guide us as we move forward.


God can fix this!

God can fix this.

In the wake of yet another mass shooting in the US – this time in San Bernardino, California  – people are questioning their faith in each other and in God. “God Isn’t Fixing This” was the headline in the NY Daily News coverage, shaming prayer givers in the aftermath of tragedy. The knee jerk response is already unfolding in a twitter storm of #prayershaming and an outpouring of even more cynical attacks from left and right. Meanwhile, the victims are being forgotten and real point is being missed.

Prayer may not be the answer to all our problems, but it *is* a good starting point. It does (or should) provide a moment of focus and introspection. Prayer helps us define and vocalize our personal relationship to God, family and community. Prayer is not simply a placebo to make us feel good about ourselves. Nor is it an alternative to action, but it can be an important call to action.

In short, this is not God’s problem to fix, it’s our problem to fix. We should start by recognizing that we are all God’s children. The interfaith appeal by the muslim community in southern California is an important effort and it should be embraced and supported. Regardless of the outcome of the San Bernardino investigations, it would be wrong to indict any religious faith for the acts of individuals. Instead we should call on all communities of faith to condemn violence and use the power of prayer to unite us behind a common cause of peace and reconciliation.

It is also wrong for politicians to suggest that a single bandaid like solution such as gun control, enhanced surveillance or better mental health care is the answer to all our problems. Indeed, a combination of these and other measures is probably necessary and the greedy scoring of political points is not the best way of getting things done. We should have learned that by now.

What can and should be done immediately, is to tone down the rhetoric of blame and hatred, which only serves to divide us at a time when unity of purpose is necessary. Extremism begets extremism. Whether it is directed toward Planned Parenthood, people of color, the LGBT community or everyday Americans just going about their peaceful pursuit of liberty, vitriol sparks violence and violence inspired by hate is tantamount to terrorism.

Yes, God can fix this, but it’s really our problem to fix. We have the God given intellect and will to overcome our differences and do great things if we don’t give in to the politics of hate and division. It’s high time that we start using God’s gift as he intended for us to use it. I pray that we start fixing this now.

Pope Francis to America: Open your heart and mind.

As Pope Francis set out on his first trip to the United States he again asked for our prayers. In addition to the many worshipers and prayers he received, every papal step and message was also “blessed” with the scrutiny and spin of the media, hasty to keep score on the Pope’s liberal or conservative views and to claim victory for expedient political gain.

From the importance of the family, religious freedom and the environment to the battle against ideological and religious extremism, inequality and violence, the Pope’s message was careful not to pick sides in the raging political debates of the day. In his address to the U.S. Congress, he called for a “spirit of openness and pragmatism,” which as evidenced by thought leaders of the past can best be achieved through a “capacity for dialogue and openness to God.”

Unfortunately, ideologues and pundits are better served by polarizing headlines than calm debate and thoughtful introspection. To suggest that the Pope’s views on religious liberty justify the actions of a Kentucky county clerk against legally married homosexuals is as much of an exaggeration as to say that Pope Francis is against the Keystone pipeline because of his views on the environment. His was a more universal message.

If there is one word, which the Pope emphasized more than any other in his message to the American people, it is the importance of *individual* responsibility and decorum in society. By citing the examples of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, Pope Francis suggests that individuals can make a positive difference. While we may disagree on some of their views, the dreamers cited by the Pope are all individuals who professed their ideas in a spirit of good will and compromise.

If there is such a thing as American exceptionalism, it is not founded on the size of the US economy or strength of the military. It is based on the fact that individuals do have a voice in American society. Whether in a church, at the workplace or in the political process, individuals – informed by their personal relationship with God – can and must find their calling and stay true to their faith. That doesn’t mean, however, that the right to exercise even strongly held views legitimizes doing harm or injustice to others.  Interestingly, this leads us directly back to the Pope’s reverence for family values.

Even in the best of families there are disagreements. Siblings squabble and couples fight at times. The solution is not to “throw the bums out” let alone to subject loved ones to verbal or physical abuse. Instead, respect and empathy as well as the will to find common ground is what holds families together. Without a good portion of healthy pragmatism and compromise, marriages end in divorce, children are abused or bullied and families fall apart – an epidemic far more threatening to the “richness and beauty of family life” than the advent of gay marriage, which has no intention of harming anyone.

I pray that our politicians, colleagues and neighbors heed the Pope’s message to uphold the Golden Rule – to demonstrate the same good will and respect that we expect of our brothers, sisters, parents and children. By listening more, fighting less and working toward pragmatic solutions based on shared principles, Americans can stay true to the strong spirit and cultural heritage, which the Pope so lauded on his visit to the United States.

In short: Pope Francis urges individual Americans to show the greatness of their country by keeping their hearts and minds open to the needs of others.

Irish Pride

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
Dublin gay pride 2013 (Photo: Giuseppe Milo from Dublin, Ireland)

Ireland is not the Vatican, and one referendum in a largely Catholic country doesn’t do a thing to change church doctrine. It is all the more disappointing then, when the immediate reaction out of Rome is to decry the decision of the Irish people to allow gay marriage as a “defeat for humanity.” The opposite is true.

In a country where well over 80% of the population are Catholic, the decision to allow gay marriage is supported by more than 60% of voters. Instead of chastising this decision as a defeat, the Vatican should declare victory that civil minded, God loving people can show such courage and respect to the family-minded GLBT community. The Irish should be proud of themselves.

Pope Francis, too, should be pleased to see fulfillment of his plea for tolerance and acceptance:

“If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?”
– Pope Francis

There is no better will than committing your life to the love and care of a spouse and creating a family bond. By withholding judgement and urging respect for gay people, Pope Francis is also sending out a message of inclusiveness.

At a time when the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated “nones” are growing faster than any other religious grouping, it is important for all faiths of tolerance and respect to reach out to new communities who broadly share their values and beliefs. More importantly, in the context of the Irish referendum, it is essential for the Vatican to respect the separation of church and state and recognize that the institution of marriage is no longer only a matter of spiritual identity, but a legal institution that has consequences for couples and families committed to caring for one another.

As the Vatican prepares to discuss family issues at the Synod of Bishops in October later this year, let us pray for a spirit of tolerance, inclusiveness and respect. That would be a true victory over the hateful and parochial attitudes of vengeance and dogmatism that only leads people to reject spiritual identity altogether.

Nobody’s Perfect

Nobodys Perfect

When I was young, my mother made embroideries with inspirational messages for my brother and me to hang above our beds. “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” read my brother’s plaque, while mine simply said “nobody’s perfect.” Mirroring our different temperaments, the messages were both uplifting and grounding at the same time. My embroidery was a picture of three owls sitting on a tree branch, with one hanging upside down. Garrison Keillor would have a field day with them in the Lutheran world of Lake Wobegon. It was a message of strength and humility I needed to hear.

This week it is US President Obama who seems to be the “odd man out” with his “crusade controversy” at the national prayer breakfast. So it seems fitting to share a lesson that has preoccupied me since childhood. Even if you feel you know the truth and are right to say or do something, sometimes it is better to refrain judgement until you are sure. The reasons for circumspection are various. Sometimes it’s not the right timing and sometimes you are just wrong or out of context. I think that both were the case in Obama’s ill-informed statements.

Errors in judgement are human and with everyone watching every word of the President, all of the time, there’s little margin for error. President Obama shouldn’t have used the national prayer breakfast to draw an unjust moral equivalency between past and present wrongdoings. It would have been sufficient to re-emphasize that America is not at war with Islam. Too often, critics have accused President Obama of “lecturing” instead of leading. This time they are unfortunately right. Not only is it detrimental to his integrity as President, the poor timing undermines what is ostensibly a meeting of the minds around the world that the current and ongoing brutality by religious extremism is singularly and absolutely wrong.

While I sometimes applaud the President for his good intentions, I am now reminded of the proverb “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” and of its biblical reference in Matthew 7:13

Enter through the narrow gate, for wide is the gate that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter through it.

Sometimes it is harder *not* to say something than it is to say it. And many are those in the era of social media who are quick to spout off in public when a more quiet forum of reflection is called for. Too often our ego leads us to say things we later do (or should) regret. By making a broad brushed historical comparison, President Obama missed the mark. His speechwriters should have known better.

But, again, as my mother would say: “nobody’s perfect.” All we can do is learn from our experience and move forward with humility and commitment to do better in the future. As much as the President likes to tackle hard issues head-on, he should also follow the advice in the iconic 20th century prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr:

God, grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the Courage to change the things I can; and the Wisdom to know the difference.

In this case, the President should have left a millennium old discussion to the historians and used his wisdom and courage as President to focus on his current leadership duties.

Ailment of Rivalry and Greed

Three great religions Buddhism-Christianity-Islam

My Christmas holiday began on a plane ride sitting next to a buddhist man on his way home to Myanmar. We spoke about religious differences and the troubled state of affairs among people quick to judge others for their views rather than trying to listen and learn.

My newfound Burmese friend pointed to the importance in his faith of being mindful of one’s own anger, greed and ignorance. In a constant effort to improve oneself one must reserve judgement and hold true to the principle of “do no harm,” which is at the core of buddhist practice – no difference, I pointed out, to the spirit of deference embodied in Christianity and the golden rule.

As one year ends and another begins, it is a good time to remember these universal values we share. Sadly, as religious conflicts and ethnic rivalries abound this holiday season, a spirit of understanding and respect has gone wanting.

In the wake of today’s atrocious murdering of french journalists by religious extremists, we must be mindful that retribution alone will not solve the underlying conflict. Foremost, our thoughts and prayers must go to the victims of the attacks in Paris. Those who perpetrate, condone or applaud such acts have no place in civil society. As we move beyond the violence, we must look at the broader lessons of this event. Ostensibly, the motivations behind the attacks in Paris are the same as the less violent but equally insidious attempt to extort Sony Pictures in an effort to thwart the Christmas day release of the satirical film based on the fictional killing of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Clearly, both events were acts of terror intended to punish and scare the public for exercises in freedom of expression, which in the views of the attackers insulted their own beliefs. While the attack on Sony gives unfortunate credibility to an otherwise idiotic film that deserves to be forgotten, the attack on the cartoonists in France raises more serious issues.

It is valiant that the publics in both France and the United States have taken their outrage against such acts of “domestic terrorism” to the streets in defense of freedom. While rallying for the cause of liberty, though, we mustn’t forget that the underlying dispute remains. What to one person is a legitimate exercise of freedom, may to another be an act of provocation and disrespect that is tantamount to defamation.

Returning to my buddhist friend, we discussed an ongoing case in Myanmar, in which a bar used images of a partying Buddha for promotional purposes, which got the club shut down and the owners arrested. While such an act of “religious insult” may be outlawed in Burma, where a majority of the population is Buddhist, it would be completely legal in the US, France and all western democracies, where Buddhism is followed by only a small minority in society. This begs an important question: just because you can exercise your freedoms to provoke a response or even to criticize rival viewpoints, it doesn’t mean you necessarily should. To some, such “acts of insensitivity” will be viewed as profound transgressions. The boomerang effect of hatred and more disrespect will only lead to an endless spiral of harm.

The right to exercise our freedom of expression is a basic right, but not an absolute one. It is not a blank check to harm others. Like “shouting fire in a crowded theater” there are limits to be defined and observed. We must be mindful of our anger toward others – particularly if we don’t agree with them – and be careful not to unjustly insult the symbols they hold dear. To willfully and repeatedly offend and provoke the different-minded without concern for their well-being is selfish and arrogant. To proclaim righteousness and personal freedom to the detriment of others is greedy.

There is no excuse for the acts of violence and extortion that are in question here. In an increasingly interconnected world, we must appeal to all political and religious leaders to condemn violence in no uncertain terms.

The shift in mindset, though, must begin within ourselves. Without introspection, we are deceiving ourselves. As Pope Francis stated to the highest ranks of an uncomfortable clergy before Christmas:

“A Curia that is not self-critical, that does not stay up-to-date, that does not seek to better itself, is an ailing body. … It is the sickness of the rich fool who thinks he will live for all eternity, and of those who transform themselves into masters and believe themselves superior to others, rather than at their service.”

The new year brings an opportunity. It is time to view our cultural, ethnic and religious neighbors not as inferior rivals but as members of our own global community. To criticize and condemn adverse *behavior* is fair game in the realm of freedom of expression as long as it is done seriously and based on fact. To defame and insult our neighbors for who they are, where they come from or for the religious beliefs they hold dear is wrong. As in any community there will be differences of opinion and interpretation and these should be discussed openly, sensitively and responsibly. I dare say that disrespectful illustrations of Muhammad may be acceptable in the art and entertainment world, but they have no place in political discourse, even by our western standards of liberalism.

Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right

This is a tough one. It shouldn’t be. Even before the United States Senate released the already infamous “Torture Report” the reaction was highly charged on all sides. Critics argue that the actions taken by the CIA in detaining and interrogating suspected terrorists were necessary and effective. They foretell harms that will be directed at American citizens as a result of the report’s publication. Supporters point to the invaluable importance of “setting the record straight” and revealing the truths about CIA torture tactics to serve as a “bookend to this sorry period in our history.”

In reality, this report will unlikely bring closure to a difficult chapter of American history. Instead, it re-opens the old wounds and embarrassment felt when the pictures from Abu Ghraib first circulated around the world a decade ago. It is a painful reminder that in the pursuit of justice, even a nation which prides itself for its “exceptionalism” can succumb to the same dark and dishonorable instincts it sees in its enemies and which it is supposedly fighting against. What makes public discourse on this topic so difficult is that the true motivations on all sides of the debate are not always obvious or respectable.

To suggest a moral moral equivalence between cruel acts of interrogation and the atrocities committed by terrorists is entirely misplaced. It is not sufficient to justify all means by a well intentioned and publicly sanctioned end even if the objectives are venerable. The bottom line is – like we were taught as children – two wrongs don’t make a right.

Torturing people is a mortal sin.
It’s a very serious sin. – Pope Francis

Torture, as a moral obligation, should be rejected out of hand, regardless of its effectiveness. When Pope Francis visited convicted mafia in a Calabrian prison this past summer, he made an appeal against torture: “I invite all Christians to engage and collaborate in abolishing torture and to support victims and their families.”  Nothing in the Pope’s plea was an appeal for leniency. After all, his congregation on that day was serving time in prison. The Pope’s message is also one of atonement, to forgive even unspeakable acts through charitable acts of forgiveness. This isn’t to say that evildoers shouldn’t be stopped or punished, but they should be treated justly and in a manner consistent with the golden rule: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:31) It is a rule, which no doubt informed Senator John McCain as a victim of wartime torture, who stood in support of the report’s release.

So what good is to come out of a report, which includes no clear policy recommendations? Like other recent revelations such as the NSA Surveillance programs, they will no doubt be used by America’s enemies to chastise the United States and perhaps even justify their own wrongdoings. In the long haul, however, publishing reports of wrongdoing allow the United States to stand up for principles of liberty and justice and challenge other nations to do the same. Precisely because the United States has the ability to project incredible and sometimes unchecked power around the world, it must act with self restraint. Through transparency and accountability America can demonstrate what is truly exceptional about the United States – an ability to learn and adapt. If not forget, the world, too, must be willing to forgive.


It’s time to stop the war.

The only holy war that can surely be won is the one with ourselves – the fight against our own sins and evils that threaten to cut us off from God’s grace. While it is not wrong to fight a battle in defense of life, liberty and justice, it is another thing to wage war against even your most hardened enemies without regard for their own rights and aspirations.

It is deeply saddening to wake each morning to headlines about death and destruction throughout the Middle East. Israel has every right to defend itself against those who seek its destruction. There is no excuse for the refusal of groups like the Hamas to even accept Israel’s right to exist and for the barrage of rockets into the Jewish state that has been going on for years – even before the recent escalation.

At the same time, the killing of thousands of innocent Palestinian civilians is a terrible tragedy that must end. It must not be downplayed as simply a casualty of war, when hospitals and schools and mosques are destroyed and innocent lives lost in order to root out the evils that may be hiding among them. The cost to humanity is immense and it actually undermines the hope for sustainable peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Violence and extremism goes against the core of religious principles, whether Jewish, Islamic or Christian, which call for prudence, temperance and justice as among the key virtues. And while the courage to stand and fight for these principles is equally important when life itself is at risk, our actions must always be thoughtful, measured and just.

When King David fought wars for the rights of his people, he was reminded by the Lord that we are all accountable for our actions:

“You have shed much blood and have fought many wars. You are not to build a house for my Name, because you have shed much blood on the earth in my sight.”

Chronicles 22:8

Just before the beginning of the ongoing war in Gaza, Pope Francis tweeted: “With God, nothing is lost; but without him, everything is lost.” We should all be reminded that only our personal battle to find God is worth fighting (with ourselves) and keeping His virtues in our hearts the only measure of success. We must demand that our neighbors accept us for who we are, but everything is indeed lost if we unleash frustration and anger by waging war on our brothers and lose our moral foundation in the process. It’s time to stop that senseless battle.