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.

Pride and Patience: the Spoils of Victory

If God likes the game of soccer, then he would probably be pleased with Team Germany. That isn’t to say he would be picking sides in the World Cup, of course. How could he? After all, Pope Francis and more than 90% of all Argentinians have a long tradition anchored in the Catholic faith. But there is a lot about the team spirit in Germany to be proud of today.

As Pope Francis tweeted this weekend:

Pope Tweets on the World Cup.

Far different from the battlefields of war, ethnic tension and interfaith conflict, soccer fans from around the globe come together in events like the World Cup to put differences behind themselves and engage each other in a friendly and sporting environment.

Since World War II, Germany has risen to the challenge and taken the World Cup four times. On the current occasion and faced with the daunting task of defeating Brazil in the semi-finals, Germany did so with confidence and humility. In the routing the Cup’s host country 7:1, Team Germany went out of it’s way to show grace toward Brazil both in the media and on the playing field. Now that it has won the championship by defeating Argentina 1:0, Germany has earned the right to be proud of it’s accomplishment. The spirit of the World Cup would be best served if that national pride is now used to further encourage the values of fairness, inclusion and sportsmanlike behavior in all walks of life.

By denouncing racism, supporting gay athletes to live openly and fighting corruption at all levels in the sporting business, Germany can be a leader with impact that goes far beyond the world of soccer. Step by step it can, in short, prove that true victory is not measured by the spoils of war, but by the progress achieved in a long fought battle.

Applied to the “real world”, challenges abound. With a unique historical perspective and sense for moderation, Germany can use its strength and power of example to help resolve ethnic and sectarian conflicts, humanitarian refugee crises, income inequality and the struggle between security and personal freedom. Admired around the world, it is time for Germany look beyond the national pride of the moment and to build and advance its reputation as a reliable force for real progress on the world stage.

Both Germany and Argentina can take heart in the aspirational words found in Ecclesiastes:

The end of a matter is better than its beginning, and patience is better than pride. (Ecclesiastes 7:8)

For Argentina, who itself is no stranger to World Cup finals, both team and country can look back at a hard fought and successful competition, which could have ended a lot earlier if it didn’t have the faith and the will to succeed. In Sports like in life, there is consolation that the next opportunity to prove your faith is just around the corner.

Sheep vs. Goats

Screenshot 2014-07-09 11.32.36 Source: UNHCR

If Christian life is full of hardship, whose suffering is worse: the fate of a lost and hungry child or that of the family “forced” to take the child in? Wasn’t it also the fate of Jesus to wander in search of those who are loving and faithful – not only to the Son of God, but also to each other.

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.

Matthew 25:35

The United States prides itself as an exceptional nation and a beacon for the poor and downtrodden. Conservatives across the country are quick to declare their moral views and family values. When faced with the current refugee crisis on the southern border, however, these good shepherds look more like the euphemistic goat.

Americans outraged by the inflows of children and their mothers from Central America should consider this – you are not alone. Just this year more that 68,000 refugees from Africa crossed the Mediterranean Sea to reach Italy, slightly higher than the number of “illegals” entering the US during the same time frame – and the European refugees were mostly adults, not children. In fact, the most recent UNHCR data shows that many other countries are shouldering a much larger burden than the United States. The number of refugees to the US pales by comparison with Europe for example. At only a quarter of the size of the United States, Germany took in 600,000 refugees in 2010 compared with less than 300.000 refugees to the US.

While the humanitarian refugee crisis is also hotly debated in Europe, it’s mostly a debate about an acceptable level of care for refugees and their equitable distribution within the EU while giving the refugees due process to plead their case. In the US, on the other hand, the debate centers around how to beef up border security and “protect the homeland” against “illegals.” Shutting their eyes to the real source of the humanitarian crisis in Central America, unchristian-like protesters prefer to blame President Obama and block busses of immigrants from entering their communities. Ironically, the more generous European policies are arguably the result of enlightened post WWII politics which were shaped at least in part by the United States.

The reality is that the United States AND Europe ARE beacons of hope for many around the world. Increasing numbers of refugees are not the result of failed border controls, but a symptom of the growing income inequality in parts of the world that Pope Francis discussed with President Obama during their visit in March. Clearly the United States and Europe cannot integrate all of the world’s suffering people into their countries – and yes they have many of their own problems to solve. Unless Americans wake up to the true reality and invest more time and energy in the political and economic development of their neighbor states (instead of fighting long distance wars), the refugee crisis will continue.

In the meantime it would be a welcome change of tone if more Americans would demonstrate a little more patience and Christian-like compassion while working with the President on meaningful long-term immigration reform. Progressive or conservative, most Americans should be able to find common ground. I pray that Washington just gets it done.

‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Matthew 25:40

Refugees in EU

Honor your father AND your mother.

Twitter Prayers for the Pope

Each Spring Fathers’ Day and Mothers’ Day come and go with tradition and ritual, but little thought toward their deeper meaning. Reading the many personal tributes on twitter and Facebook this fathers’ day weekend reminds me of the virtues of my own father and of the Proverb (15:20):

A wise son brings joy to his father, but a foolish man despises his mother.

To all religions, from Christianity to Islam, fathers and mothers alike are entrusted to be good guardians and shepherds of their flock and children are taught to respect the teachings of their parents. Even those who feel disappointed or misled by their parents can honor their father and mother by giving thanks to the life they were given. Considering the good virtues passed on by the family as a whole, including by grandparents, siblings, aunts and uncles, wives and partners, we can be thankful that all of these people have shaped who we are.

A few hours ago Pope Francis tweeted this prayer: “May the Lord bless the family and strengthen it in this moment of crisis.” While there are those who will narrowly interpret this as an appeal to uphold “traditional family values” with regard to marriage, sexuality and the respective roles of men and women, it is important to remember that these roles have been the subjects of controversy and evolving interpretations throughout time and across religions. I prefer a more universal understanding of the Pope’s blessings today.

The crisis of which the Pope speaks is manifold and the evildoers are for the most part *men* who show nothing but disregard for their roles and responsibilities as good shepherds within the family, let alone as leaders within their community. By appealing to the strengthening of the family, the Pope is not only suggesting the new roles we must play in honoring our God given responsibilities as parents and children, he is importantly reminding us that we can only solve our crises TOGETHER as a family unit and in a broader sense in the community as a whole, not by the tired habit of divide and conquer.

It is time for us to open our minds to this broader context. Just as the Enlightenment changed the way Western predominantly Judeo-Christian societies have thought about the world, so too has Islam instructed that “seeking knowledge is mandatory for every believer.” Everything that we have learned over the years is that all men and women are created equal (although women are clearly a more level-headed and moderating force in society), that peace comes about through dialogue and understanding, not war, and that the sustainability of our entire world depends upon a mutual commitment and respect to the environment and resources which we all share on God’s green earth.

Given the efforts to which Pope Francis has encouraged a more forward looking, tolerant and inclusive world view, I firmly believe that this is the wise and joyful approach to honor the legacy of my father.

But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.

– Joshua 24:15

 

Happy ペンテコステ

It is a great gift to celebrate our differences of land, language and liturgy while sharing the blessing of a common purpose.

All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in foreign languages as the Spirit gave them that ability. (Acts 2:4)

It is an obligation to raise our voices and speak out against the politics of division. Just as Pope Francis joins in prayer together with Presidents Mahmoud Abbas and Shimon Peres, Pentacost is a calling for us to come together and receive the blessings of unity and peace.

Thou shalt not judge.

Judge Not

Where would we be if the media were not to judge the words and actions of others. I enjoy a healthy public debate, especially when religion is involved. Indeed, the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution puts the freedom of religion and freedom of speech on equal footing. To profess one’s religious beliefs, however, as a right to do harm and injustice to others, is a wrongdoing both to the Bible and the Bill of Rights.

It is human nature to judge and to condemn wrongful actions, which does require a moral compass. I believe that God gave us free will and the intelligence to discern between right and wrong, with religious teachings as a guide. That should not be an excuse to blindly follow those who are too quick to render judgement. The responsibility for interpretation lies with each of us. Inevitably, we will disagree from time to time – but hopefully without being disagreeable.

I stepped into the fray today over a cancelled reality show when – once again – an ill-informed politician raised the evil specter of facist nazism when the “liberal” A&E network cancelled a television show because of the “anti-gay” views of it’s makers. It is an obscene injustice to compare this flap over a home-flipping show to Nazi atrocities. It is all the more onerous when the accusations come from the elected representative, especially one from the Republican Party, which is quick to otherwise defend the rights of “corporate citizens.”

More than the content of this so-called “scandal,” though, I am struck by the lack of reservation and historical perspective that so many politicians seem to have these days. Easter this year has prompted me to revisit the foundations of the New Testament. As I read Mathew, Mark, Luke and John, I am impressed by the humility and sense of justice with which Jesus makes his case to the people. Pope Francis rekindles this authoritative spirit in both word and deed.

We should not fall prey to social injustices even if they are made in the name of religious tolerance. Instead, we should use our God given good judgement to ask ourselves whether scandal mongers are simply after personal or professional gain and reject them as such. In the spirit of Pope Francis we should focus on individual responsibility and the ties that bind us beyond our personal and political differences.

Tweet @pontifex 01. May 2014