U.S. State Department’s Report on Morocco’s Religious Freedom Record in 2017

On May 29, 2018, the U.S. State Department released its report on religious freedom in every country of the world for 2017.[1]

Here is its Executive Summary for Morocco’s religious freedom record in 2017:[2]

  • “The constitution declares the country to be a Muslim state with full sovereignty and that Islam is the religion of the state. The constitution guarantees freedom of thought, expression, and assembly, and says that the state guarantees to everyone the freedom to “practice his religious affairs.” The constitution states the king is the protector of Islam. It prohibits political parties, parliamentarians, and constitutional amendments from infringing upon Islam. The criminal code prohibits undermining the faith or enticing a Muslim to convert to another religion. According to human rights organizations and local Christian leaders, the government detained and questioned some Christian citizens about their beliefs and contacts with other Christians. Christian and Shia Muslim citizens stated fears of government harassment led to their decision to hold religious meetings in members’ homes. Foreign clergy said they discouraged the country’s Christian citizens from attending their churches out of fear they could be criminally charged with proselytism. Some Christian citizens reported authorities pressured Christian converts to renounce their faith. On at least two occasions during the year, the government expelled foreign individuals accused of proselytism as “a threat to public order,” rather than prosecuting them under provisions of the law that prohibit “undermining the faith.” Although the law allows registration of religious groups as associations, some minority religious groups reported government rejection of their registration requests. In May Spanish media reported the minister of endowments and Islamic affairs used the term “virus” when referring to Christians and Shia Muslims in the country. Some religious minority groups, such as the Bahai community, practiced their religion without formal registration. In October media reported that authorities prevented the Bahai community from publicly celebrating the bicentennial of the birth of the faith’s founder. The authorities introduced new religious textbooks during the school year following a review they said was aimed at removing extremist or intolerant references. The Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs (MEIA) continued to guide and monitor the content of sermons in mosques, Islamic religious education, and the dissemination of Islamic religious material by the broadcast media, actions it said were intended to combat violent extremism. The government restricted the distribution of non-Islamic religious materials, as well as Islamic materials it deemed inconsistent with the Maliki-Ashari school of Sunni Islam.”
  • Some Christian, Bahai, and Shia Muslims reported societal, familial, and cultural pressure on account of their faith. Passersby reportedly attacked at least one individual during Ramadan for eating in public during fasting hours.”
  • “The Charge d’Affaires, other embassy and consulate general officers, and other S. government officials promoted religious freedom and tolerance in visits with key government officials, where they highlighted on a regular basis the importance of protection of religious minorities and interfaith dialogue.” (Emphases added.)

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, International Religious Freedom Report for 2017 (May 29, 2018); U.S. State Dep’t, Briefing on the Release of the 2017 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom (May 29, 2018).

[2] U.S. State Dep’t, International Religious Freedom Report for 2017: Morocco (May 29, 2018).

 

Minneapolis Interfaith Gathering To End Homelessness 

On January 28 nearly 1,000 people gathered at Westminster Presbyterian Church in downtown Minneapolis to support the Emergency Rental Assistance Program of Downtown Congregations To End Homelessness (DCEH).[1]

The gathering was  emceed by Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey  and  joined by senior clergy from the downtown congregations (Christian, Jewish and Muslim) and two former NFL Vikings stars: punter Greg Coleman and defensive end Mark Mullaney. Testimony was offered by two individuals who had been helped by the DCEH.

Music was provided by local artists J.D. and Fred Steele, who are members of the popular singing group The Steele Family; Amwaaj Middle Eastern Ensemble; MacPhail Community Youth Choir; Mill City Singers; Street Song MN; and Klezmer Cabaret Orchestra. Teen artist Kaaha Kaahiye shared her spoken words. Below is a photograph of J.D. Steele and Becky Bratton with the Mill City Singers:

Attendees enjoyed delicious food from Holy Land Market and assembled dignity bags for people who are homeless (consisting of hygiene products, socks, hand warmers, food, etc.).

The event showcased Minnesota interfaith cooperation one week before the Super Bowl football game just several miles from this church and was co-sponsored by the Super Bowl Host Committee. An amusing promotional video for the event had Greg Coleman coaching clergy getting ready for a fictitious football game with the cheer “One Hope, One Mind, One Spirit.”

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[1]  Hopfensperger, Faith and football combine at unusual Super Bowl event, StarTribune (Jan. 28, 2018).

 

Trump’s Despicable Anti-Muslim Tweeting Undercuts Islamic Allies 

U.S. and U.K. media have had full coverage of President Trump’s despicable recent re-tweeting  of anti-Muslim images and comments and his justified rebuking by U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May. [1]

Most of this coverage has focused on the source of the three videos that Trump re-tweeted (a far-right British political group) and the specifics of those videos: a fake Muslim attack on a Dutch boy; an extremist Muslim cleric’s  destroying a statue of the Virgin Mary; and a 2013 Egyptian political clash.

Surprisingly, however, another reason why this latest example of Trump’s outrageous ignorance and ineptitude should be condemned has not been mentioned. It undercuts the efforts of Islamic allies of the U.S. to combat the misuse of Islam by extremists.

As discussed in two recent posts to this blog, Saudi Arabia, a Muslim-nation and U.S. ally,  is leading a 41-member coalition of Muslim nations to do just that (Islamic Military Counter-Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC)). At the November 26 conference of this group, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said, “The biggest danger of this terrorism and extremism is the tarnishing of the reputation of our beloved religion… We will not allow this to happen. Today, we start the pursuit of terrorism and we see its defeat in many facets around the world especially in Muslim countries… We will continue to fight it until we see its defeat.”

Another speaker at that conference, Dr. Mohammad bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa, Secretary General of the Muslim World League, said, “This meeting confirms the resolve of an Islamic consensus, one that takes its true meaning from the Islamic values of peace, tolerance and moderation.”[2]

This coalition’s efforts were preceded by the similar efforts of one of its members and another U.S. Muslim-nation ally, Morocco. In 2016 Morocco was the leader and the host of another conference that created the Declaration of Marrakesh. [3]

That Declaration recognized that “several predominantly Muslim countries [in recent years] have witnessed brutal atrocities inflicted upon longstanding religious minorities. These minorities have been victims of murder, enslavement, forced exile, intimidation, starvation, and other affronts to their basic human dignity. Such heinous actions have absolutely no relation whatsoever to the noble religion of Islam, regardless of the claims of the perpetrators who have used Islam’s name to justify their actions: any such aggression is a slander against God and His Messenger of Mercy as well as a betrayal of the faith of over one billion Muslims.”

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[1] E.g., Specia, The Stories Behind Three Anti-Muslim Videos Shared by Trump, N.Y. Times (Nov. 29, 2017); Sparrow, Theresa May says Trump retweeting Britain First was ‘wrong thing to do’—Politics live, Guardian (Nov. 30, 2017) (video of Prime Minister’s comments); Baker & Sullivan, Trump Shares Inflammatory Anti-Muslim Videos, and Britain’s Leader Condemns Them, N.Y. Times (Nov. 29, 2017); Bilefsky & Castle, British Far-Right Group Exults Over Attention From Trump, N.Y. Times (Nov. 29, 2017).

[2] MUSLIM NATIONS LEAD ACTION AGAINST TERRORISM, dwkcommentaries.com (Nov. 25, 2017); Muslim Nations Embrace Counter-Terrorism Coalition, dwkcommentaries.com (Nov. 27, 2017).

[3] Morocco Promotes Moderate Islam with the Declaration of Marrakesh, dwkcommentaries.com (May 21, 2017).

Morocco Promotes Moderate Islam with the Declaration of Marrakesh

A prior post noted that as part of its tripartite counterterrorism strategy, Morocco was promoting moderate Islam that directly condemned others who said the faith justified acts of terrorism. In early 2016 this was made express at a conference entitled “Religious Minorities in Muslim Lands: Its Legal Framework and a Call to Action” that was held in Morocco’s fourth-largest city, Marrakesh. The product of the conference was the Declaration of Marrakesh. Here is an examination of this important document and of the reactions it produced.

 The Declaration of Marrakesh[1]

The conference was precipitated by the organizers’ recognizing that “several predominantly Muslim countries [in recent years] have witnessed brutal atrocities inflicted upon longstanding religious minorities. These minorities have been victims of murder, enslavement, forced exile, intimidation, starvation, and other affronts to their basic human dignity. Such heinous actions have absolutely no relation whatsoever to the noble religion of Islam, regardless of the claims of the perpetrators who have used Islam’s name to justify their actions: any such aggression is a slander against God and His Messenger of Mercy as well as a betrayal of the faith of over one billion Muslims.”

Therefore, the conference was to “focus on the following areas: (1) Grounding the discussion surrounding religious minorities in Muslim lands in Sacred Law utilizing its general principles, objectives, and adjudicative methodology; (2) exploring the historical dimensions and contexts related to the issue; and (3) examining the impact of domestic and international rights.”

The Declaration’s two-page Executive Summary (in English) states in its preamble the following:

  • “WHEREAS, conditions in various parts of the Muslim World have deteriorated dangerously due to the use of violence and armed struggle as a tool for settling conflicts and imposing one’s point of view;”
  • “WHEREAS, this situation has also weakened the authority of legitimate governments and enabled criminal groups to issue edicts attributed to Islam, but which, in fact, alarmingly distort its fundamental principles and goals in ways that have seriously harmed the population as a whole;”
  • “WHEREAS, this year marks the 1,400th anniversary of the Charter of Medina, a constitutional contract between the Prophet Muhammad, God’s peace and blessings be upon him, and the people of Medina, which guaranteed the religious liberty of all, regardless of faith.”

The Declaration then declared a “firm commitment to the principles articulated in the Charter of Medina, whose provisions contained a number of the principles of constitutional contractual citizenship, such as freedom of movement, property ownership, mutual solidarity and defense, as well as principles of justice and equality before the law” and whose objectives are in harmony with “the United Nations Charter and related documents, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

As a result the Declaration affirmed “that it is unconscionable to employ religion for the purpose of aggressing upon the rights of religious minorities in Muslim countries” and issued the following calls for action:

  • “Muslim scholars and intellectuals around the world . . . [should] develop a jurisprudence of the concept of ‘citizenship’ which is inclusive of diverse groups. Such jurisprudence shall be rooted in Islamic tradition and principles and mindful of global changes.”
  • “Muslim educational institutions and authorities . . . [should] conduct a courageous review of educational curricula that addresses honestly and effectively any material that instigates aggression and extremism, leads to war and chaos, and results in the destruction of our shared societies.”
  • “[P]oliticians and decision makers . . . [should] take the political and legal steps necessary to establish a constitutional contractual relationship among its citizens, and to support all formulations and initiatives that aim to fortify relations and understanding among the various religious groups in the Muslim World.”
  • “[The] educated, artistic, and creative members of our societies, as well as organizations of civil society, . . . [should] establish a broad movement for the just treatment of religious minorities in Muslim countries and to raise awareness as to their rights, and to work together to ensure the success of these efforts.”
  • “[The] various religious groups bound by the same national fabric . . . [should] address their mutual state of selective amnesia that blocks memories of centuries of joint and shared living on the same land . . . [and] rebuild the past by reviving this tradition of conviviality, and restoring our shared trust that has been eroded by extremists using acts of terror and aggression.”
  • “[The] representatives of the various religions, sects and denominations . . . [should] confront all forms of religious bigotry, vilification, and denigration of what people hold sacred, as well as all speech that promote hatred and bigotry.”

 Responses to the Marrakesh Declaration[2]

A preliminary examination of responses to the Declaration revealed a huge split in opinions about its importance and validity.

In April 2016 the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which represents 57 Muslim countries, endorsed the Declaration and summit urged all member states “to establish inter-governmental bodies for social peace, inclusion, intra-social tolerance, security and harmony.” The World Council of Churches, a global ecumenical organization claiming nearly 600 million constituents across 150 countries, through its General Secretary, Reverend Olav Fykse Tveit, called the Declaration “a very timely and significant text with an important message for us all.”

The U.S. Institute for Peace also welcomed the Declaration and made the following recommendations: “ensure greater visibility and awareness of the Declaration in the Muslim world; encourage the creation of, and buy-in for, a more specific roadmap for implementation; ensure that the Declaration is associated with a movement; support indigenous organizations’ efforts to use the Declaration as a tool for advocacy; support efforts by indigenous Muslim organizations and actors to use the Declaration as a tool for education; [and] non-Muslim states and organizations must play a supporting, rather than leading, role.”

A negative review, however, was provided by Sheikh Michael Mumisa, a research scholar at the University of Cambridge’s Trinity Hall and one of Britain’s top Islamic scholars. He starts by pointing out that the two-page English-language “Executive Summary” omits most of the much longer original Arabic-language source document that emphasizes the need for careful examination of the Qur’an, the hadith corpus in the original Arabic before coming to any conclusions. The Declaration’s emphasis on the Charter of Medina, in his opinion, is also flawed because it fails to recognize that it was “a purely secular document” as the “product of deliberations, consultation and consensus between the various communities of Medina, not of divine revelation.” Thus, the Charter should be the basis for concluding that “modern Muslims should be able to develop their own constitutional laws through deliberation, consultation and other democratic processes without the need to invoke divine revelation.” Instead, the Declaration takes the Charter as sacred and interpreted in accordance with “inclusivist” texts while ignoring other “problematic” and “exclusivist” texts. Mumisa also said the Declaration is the latest in a long line of Muslim declarations that have “provided PR cover to the various governments and religious establishments . . . in the worst violations of Islamic principles and fundamental human rights.”

Another negative reaction was voiced by Prof. Sami Aldeeb, a Swiss-Palestinian expert on Islamic law, who said the Declaration would be toothless unless a series of fundamental legal reforms were enacted by Muslim countries to truly end discrimination against their religious minorities.” Otherwise, he thought, it was merely “propaganda” and “a waste of time.”

Amjad Mahmood Khan, a California attorney and UCLA law professor, https://law.ucla.edu/faculty/faculty-profiles/amjad-mahmood-khan/ opined that the Declaration “fails to provide any roadmap for Muslim-majority countries to engender meaningful reforms.” In addition, he says, “life as a Christian in Morocco remains underpriced. No church is officially recognized in Morocco, the Moroccan Penal Code criminalizes Christian proselytization, and a Christian woman can neither inherit her husband’s assets nor bequeath anything to her children.” Another criticism was the Declaration’s failure to include the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights’ “robust protections for religious freedom and freedom of expression” and thereby “indicates a troubling unwillingness on the part of some of the Morocco Conference attendees to jettison legislation aimed at criminalizing insults to Islam.”

A lengthier negative review was published by Andrew Harrod, author of over 150 articles online and in print concerning various political, religious, and international relations topics. He said the Charter of Medina was “little more than a tribal alliance between the early Muslim community and Medina’s various Jewish tribes. . . [regulating] blood money payments” and having provisions against religious freedom. Harrod also asserted that Christians in Morocco “face harassment and imprisonment, often called a “second baptism” and that Moroccan law prohibits a Christian wife from inheriting from a Muslim husband and bequeathing to her Muslim children.” Criticism of some of the attendees at the conference was also voiced by Harrod.

Framework Speech by His Eminence Shiekh Abdallah Bin Bayyah

The negative comments by Sheikh Michael Mumisa prompted me to examine what he says is the original source document for the Declaration: (in English) the “Framework Speech” or “Abridgement of the Rights of Religious Minorities in Muslim Majority Communities: Its Legal Framework and a Call to Action” by Shiekh Abdallah Bin Bayyah, a Mauritanian professor of Islamic studies at the King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and a specialist in all four traditional Sunni schools. This speech is available in 16 pages in English in the Booklet on the conference website.[3] Below is a photograph of Shiekh Bayyah. 

 

Perhaps there is more substance in the original Arabic version, but I failed to see in the English translation the basis for Mumisa’s opinions . For example, on pages 08 and 09 Shiekh Abdallah Bin Bayyah with references to passages in the Qur’an asserts the following as “Values of Islam in Dealing with Others:” kindness; honor; cooperation, solidarity and rectification; reconciliation; human fraternity and interaction; wisdom; commonweal; being just with others; mercy; and peace.

The Shiekh also relies on the Charter of Medina, which he says “is merciful to creation, reaffirms wisdom, calls for justice; or secures the commonweal for all—not just Muslims but for every citizen there, regardless of religion, or race.” Therefore, he continues, the Charter “is the foundation for an inclusive, multicultural, multi-religious society in which all individuals enjoy the same rights and shoulder the same responsibilities, which are outlined in a just constitution.” Now, he says, these values find expression in the U.N. Charter and its amendments, including “a declaration of human rights and international treaties,” which “are considered universally adopted by all nations.” (P. 11)

The conclusion of the Shiekh’s speech says the following:

  1. “Enough of bloodshed and fighting one another for survival, as that will lead only to annihilation; instead, let us all cooperate for survival.”
  2. “The accusation that Islam oppresses minorities has no basis in sacred law or in history.”
  3. “The actions of criminal groups . . . have stolen the name of Islam; . . . their real name should be ‘the terrorist organization.’”
  4. “The Eastern Christians exist to remain, and they were born to live.”
  5. “Academics and scholars of various faiths . . . [are] developing a historical charter that may serve as a basis for contemporary conceptualizations of citizenship.”
  6. “Constitutional citizenship . . . is . . . committed to a mutuality that ensures freedom and guarantees societal peace.”
  7. “[Let] peoples of all faiths . . . establish an alliance for peace—spiritual and psychological peace, the kind that inspires us to do good in the world. [As Hans Kung, the noted Christian theologian said], ‘There can be no peace in this world without peace among the religions.’
  8. “We want to improve the conditions of peoples everywhere.”
  9. “We want to end these killings and other attrocities. . . . ‘No!’ to terror and terrorism.”

Conclusion

 Others more knowledgeable about Islam need to sort through the above criticisms of the Declaration, but I find it a remarkable and praiseworthy statement that needs to be heard in the U.S. and around the world.

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[1] The Marrakesh Declaration: The Conference Aims (Jan, 25-27, 2016); The Marrakesh Declaration: About (Jan, 25-27, 2016); The Marrakesh Declaration: Organizers (Jan, 25-27, 2016); The Marrakesh Declaration: Executive Summary (in English) (Jan, 25-27, 2016); The Marrakesh Declaration, The Rights of Religious Minorities in Predominantly Muslim Majority Countries: Legal Framework and a Call to Action: Conference Aims (Jan. 25-27, 2016); The Marrakesh Declaration: The Rights of Religious Minorities in Predominantly Muslim Majority Countries: Legal Framework and a Call to Action (Jan. 25-27, 2016); Marrakesh Declaration, Wikipedia; Alami, Muslim Conference Calls for Protection of Religious Minorities, N.Y. Times (Feb. 3, 2016).

[2] OIC endorses Marrakesh Declaration, MarrakeshDeclaration.org (Apr. 15, 2016);  Hayward, Understanding and Extending the Marrakesh Declaration in Policy and Practice, U.S. Inst. Peace Special Report (Sept. 2016); Mumisa, The Problem with the Marrakesh Declaration, By Michael Mumisa (Shaykh), Muslimwise (May 9, 2016); Coakley, Cambridge scholar criticizes Marrakesh Declaration on Muslim treatment of religious minorities, AnglicanINK (May 11, 2016); Khan, The Marrakesh Declaration: Promise and Paralysis, Georgetown J. Int’l Affairs (Mar. 2, 2016); Szerman, The Marrakesh Declaration and a Critique of It, MEMRI (Feb. 23, 2016)  Harrod, Islamic Declaration Offers Slim Religious Freedom Hop, Juicy Ecumenism (Feb. 17, 2016).

[3] Bayyah, “Framework Speech” or “Abridgement of the Rights of Religious Minorities in Muslim Majority Communities: Its Legal Framework and a Call to Action”Marrakesh Declaration, Booklet (Jan. 25-27, 2016).

An Exciting Introduction to Morocco 

Last month my wife and I went on a wonderful two-week tour of Morocco with Overseas Adventure Travel. Here is the OAT map for the tour:

We were impressed by the country’s fascinating history and people, its beautiful architecture, cities and rugged Atlas Mountains, the immensity of the rolling Sahara Desert along its southern border and its current construction boom.

While there we also learned of Morocco’s recent re-establishment of its diplomatic relations with Cuba, a country about which I have written a lot, and of Morocco’s membership in the African Union, both related to Morocco’s lingering conflict over the Western Sahara, which was the subject of a recent U.N. Security Council resolution, all of which were discussed in recent posts.[1]

Also fascinating was the country’s religious profile. Its population of 33.7 million is 99% Sunni Muslim with 1% Shia Muslims, Christians, Jews and Bahias. In every town the mosques’ minarets were the instantaneously recognizable tallest structures.[2]

Our OAT tour guide told us that the current king, Mohammad VI, has been leading efforts to ensure that Muslims in Morocco are not encouraged to join extremists groups like ISIS or Al Qaeda. All imams have to complete an education course at the capitol at Rabat that is organized and administered by the government’s ministry of religious affairs (The Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs of the Kingdom of Morocco) and that excludes the extremist ideologies promoted by ISIS and Al Qaeda.

We also were told that neither the government nor the Muslim leaders discriminate against Christians or Jews, and we visited a synagogue in Fez. On the other hand, we were told, the Christians and Jews are forbidden from preaching or proselytizing or evangelizing in public.

Previously I had learned that the five “pillars” of Islam are (1) shahada, declaring as a matter of faith and trust that there is only one God (Allah) and that Mohammad is God’s messenger; (2) salat, saying the Islamic prayer five times a day; (3) zakat, giving to the poor and needy; (4) slym, fasting during the month of Ramadan; and (5) haji, making a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca at least once in a lifetime.

Although in Morocco I only experienced hearing the call to prayer over a minaret’s loudspeaker, I came to see these pillars of faith as similar to various practices of Christian spirituality, as ways of reinforcing a believer’s connections with God (Allah), and as ways that help believers live in accordance with the will of God (Allah). These pillars and practices, in my opinion, also rest on the belief that no one is perfect, that all find it too easy to stray from the path of faithfulness and that all need reminders of God or Allah’s way.

I felt fortunate that my Minneapolis church (Westminster Presbyterian) has warm relations with a local mosque and that we have hosted at least two worship services including its leaders. [3]

After returning to the U.S., I conducted research and discovered more about the previously mentioned government ministry; Morocco’s positive relations with international anti-terrorism groups; the important Declaration of Marrakesh promoting respect for religious minorities in Muslim countries; the most current U.S. State Department’s assessment of Morocco’s religious freedom; and the nature of current U.S.-Morocco relations. These topics will be explored in subsequent posts.

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[1] Cuba and Morocco Re-Establish Diplomatic Relations, dwkcommentaries.com (May 7, 2017); U.N. Security Council Orders More Negotiations About the Western Sahara Conflict, dwkcommentaries.com (May 9, 2017).

[2] CIA World Factbook, Morocco.

[3] Interfaith Worship Service at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, dwkcommentaries.com (Dec. 2, 2015); A Christian-Muslim Conversation About Forgiveness, dwkcommentaries.com (May 15, 2017).

 

A Christian-Muslim Conversation About Forgiveness

At the center of the March 26, 2017, worship service at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church was a conversation about forgiveness between its Senior Pastor, Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen, and Makram El-Amin, the imam of the historic Masjid An-Nur (the Mosque of the Light) in north Minneapolis. The service was opened with an Islamic Call to Prayer by Elijah Muhammad, the Muezzin (the man who calls Muslims to prayer) of Masjid An-Nur.[1]

The Reading from Holy Scripture

The Holy Scripture reading for the day was the following, Luke 6:27-38 (NRSV):

  • “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
  • “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
  • “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven;give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

The Conversation

Hart-Andersen: “This morning’s reading of the gospel in both English and Arabic, from the Egyptian Coptic Bible, comes from Luke’s version of the Sermon . . . on the Plain. . . .

It’s a pivotal sermon. Here Jesus puts forgiveness in the broader context of the wide-open love of God. Jesus delivers a string of commandments that represent a serious re-directing of our lives. This is Christianity at its most challenging.”

“’Love your enemies,’ Jesus says, the first hint that he expects us to live in a way that will be difficult. And then he goes on… ‘Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you.’ Jesus is proposing an ethic that goes far beyond anything we would consider reasonable in the normal course of life and human relationships. If we thought following Jesus would be easy, we will have to think again.”

“’If anyone strikes you on the cheek,’ Jesus says, ‘Offer the other, also. If someone takes your coat, give them your shirt, as well. Give to everyone who begs from you.’”

“I wonder if those who heard these words of Jesus 2,000 years ago had a response similar to mine. To comply with these commandments, frankly, seems to be humanly impossible.”

But then Jesus reframes his teaching. He shifts his emphasis from those on the receiving end – those who have been hated or abused or cursed or unloved, those who have little power in a relationship – and, instead, turns toward those on the doing end, those with agency and power in the relationship. To them, to us, when we’re in that situation, Jesus offers a summary imperative that underlies all his teaching. It’s deceptively simple: ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you.’”

The Golden Rule. The foundation of Christian living. The core of the teaching of Jesus on how we are to get along as human beings.”

Do to others as you would have them do to you. This teaching is not unique to Christianity. It’s found in other traditions, as well.”

“Makram, . . . Islam teaches something similar to the Golden Rule. Would you comment on the Muslim version of this teaching?”

El-Amin: “Yes, Islam’s Golden Rule is very similar to that which is in Christian and other traditions. . . . Mohammad, the prophet to Islam, said, “You . . . do not have faith, until you love for your brother or sister that which you love for yourself.’”

“So he made this a matter of faith, not just simply a good thing to do. It is not just a nice idea. But for those of us who want to be faithful and trusting to God, we are required to transcend our own desire, our own self-interest even, and to expand that to our neighbor, those with whom we share common space. Mohammad also said, which I have found to be a very transformational teaching, ‘Your religion, in fact, is in your human transactions, or your human interactions.’ It is one thing to profess faith, it is another thing to adorn the robes of faith. But how we interact with each other on a day-to-day basis, how we act in our local human interactions, this really determines and shows the quality of our faith together.”

Hart-Andersen: “Jesus uses the Golden Rule as another way to teach about forgiveness. We offer forgiveness, because each of us would want to be forgiven. It’s a pragmatic approach to forgiveness. We do it because we would want it done to us. The next time you are asked to forgive someone, and you really don’t feel like forgiving them, remember the rule and respond in the way you would want them to respond. We can’t ask someone to do something we’re not willing to do ourselves. ‘Forgive our debts, as we forgive our debtors.’”

“The danger here is that we begin to think of God’s love as merely transactional, between us and God or between us and neighbor…an exchange. But Jesus teaches here that we don’t love others because we expect others to love us in return. That approach to human relationships imagines an unwritten contract between people: we will do this – forgive, share, give, love – if and only if you will do the same for us.”

“Life in the realm of God is not like that. It is not contractual, not a negotiated deal between people or between God and us. The Bible is not the story of contractual love, but of covenantal love. Life in covenant with one another begins with our first extending love to the other, with no expectation of anything in return. God loves us like that, with no conditions. God forgives us like that, as well.”

“It is really the core, defining quality of our understanding of who God is. God is the Generous One. Generosity underlies the ministry and teaching of Jesus, his entire life, and certainly his death for us on the cross. We hear that in his Sermon on the Plain. ‘If you love those who love you,’ Jesus says, ‘What credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.’”

Generosity. No expectations.”

“If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. But love your enemies (and) do good…expecting nothing in return.” Generous living in the way of Jesus compels us to forgive, to share, to love one another. Expecting nothing in return.”

“Makram, is there a similar mandate in Islam to live generously toward others, including people of other faith traditions?”

El-Amin: “Yes, my understanding of our religion is that Islam, in and of itself, is about generous living. It is about living abundantly, a life of abundance, versus a life of scarcity. The idea that we are to go beyond our very selves and to convey courtesies and peace upon one another.”

“There are many attributes of God that we call upon throughout our religious tradition. [One is] . . . Ar-rahmaan, the merciful benefactor. The one who gives all of the benefits, everything that we enjoy in life, everything that we sometimes think of as small and insignificant, the breath that you just took. . . . [Another attribute is] Ar-raheem, the merciful redeemer. The one that, after we have enjoyed all of these wonderful gifts from God, and we make a mess of things, we go astray, we err, we sin, it is the Ar-raheem now that we call to redeem us, and who comes to put us back on a firm footing with God. Mohammed, peace be upon him, used to say, ‘Oh God, you love to forgive. So forgive me.’”

“Again, we are called to abundant living. This idea of forgiveness must not get stuck in a grudge. Not to stay small in our own disturbed sensitivities. But to live a life that is truly free.”

Hart-Andersen: “It sounds as if the teaching of Islam on forgiveness and generosity is very similar to Christian teaching on those subjects. We might think Islam and Christianity would be getting along pretty well these days. But . . . in other lands and in our own nation, the reality is that we don’t live as friendly neighbors. We live as people suspicious of one another, assuming things of one another, afraid of one another. . . . ”

“We speak of generosity in our traditions, but what we’re experiencing oftentimes is a distortion of that teaching. Current politics, the campaign last year, and our government’s recent proposals to ban anyone coming from several Muslim-majority nations tend to exacerbate the tension. We’ve seen a rise in America of crimes against people of traditions other than Christianity. The politics of intolerance make the situation worse, and move us from the religions traditions we have described today into a more extreme view of one another. I’m sorry that that happens in our tradition; you in your tradition are often on the receiving end of that, as we have our own extremists. But I want to make clear: that is not the way of Jesus. The way of Jesus is a loving path, a generous path, a forgiving path.”

El-Amin: “I really appreciate this recognition of what we experience in the world by those who operate under the cloak of faith, and, instead, the attempt to discern what is really the essence of faith. I believe that, also, we can see the fate of our country, and many of those who are suffering at the hands of this intolerant rhetoric that we hear day-in and day-out begins to play itself out in hate crimes and discrimination and other forms of oppression and we have experienced this, many times, at our mosque and against others of the Muslim tradition. Even here in Minnesota, . . . there are those who have experienced a degree of anxiety and fear. We have also seen those who have been driven to cause physical harm to others, as well.”

But one thing that I would have to say, in all honesty, is that I’ve also seen the opposite. I’ve also seen good people of faith to come to the support of those who are under siege. To come to the support of those who are in need the most. When we are under fire, when we are not having a good day, when things are not going well, we call upon our friends. We call upon those who care about us. We call upon those with whom we have established relationships for a comforting word, for some peace to be conveyed, and we have that. And we share that. I would hope that we would model this more in this time when leaders must lead.”

Hart-Andersen: “Makram, can you help us understand how a person who has a religious tradition rooted in peace, salaam –meaning “peace,” Islam – moves from that kind of position and understanding of a tradition to an extremist position that might result in violent actions? We don’t understand how that happens in our tradition. Maybe you can help us understand.”

 El-Amin: “I’ve done a lot of work recently on this idea of de-radicalization. One of the things that I’ve found is whether it is a terrorist, under the cloak of Islam, or a right-wing group promoting a certain ideology, one of the things I’ve found that is very surprising to me, is when we took the labels off of each of these particular extremist groups, we found them to be eerily similar. So if we covered the label, and looked at the content of actions, thoughts, behaviors, and what ultimately began to be these acts of aggression towards others, we could not discern any difference.”

“So how does this happen? I think it happens to us who find it hard to forgive. We have some hurt that we’ve experienced in our life that blocks us from abundance. And it begins to taint and jade our thinking and our view of life. And it allows us to justify things that, when seen through clear eyes, we wouldn’t even tolerate. So I believe there is a way that it happens and that in some way they have codified it and produced other minds that are radical and extreme. But I also think that there is a way of combatting this in my view, that we have the power of our traditions to reverse-engineer radicalization. And get us back to a state of peace. Because ultimately, to become radical or extreme, you have to depart from your tradition at some point and some time.”

Hart-Andersen: “In the [Biblical] text today, the Sermon on the Plain, we hear the heart of our tradition. “Be merciful,’ Jesus says, ‘Just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged… Forgive, and you will be forgiven; Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.’”

“Following Jesus is not for the meek or indecisive. To follow Jesus is demanding and difficult work, and it all begins with living generously, by forgiving, by loving, even as we are forgiven, and loved, by God.”

Conclusion

As a Westminster member, I am thankful for our encouragement of respect, love and forgiveness for our Muslim brothers and sisters.

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[1] Makram El-Amin also is a member of the Minneapolis Downtown Clergy group and serves on the advisory board of the Muslim-Christian Dialogue Center at the University of St. Thomas. In 2014 Imam El-Amin was named a Bush Foundation Fellow and received an appointment as Chaplain to the Minneapolis Police Department. In addition, Muezzin Mohammed participated in an interfaith worship service at Westminster, as discussed in a prior post. The bulletin for this worship service and the text of the conversation are available on the Internet.

 

What is Westminster’s Way of Faith?

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster Presbyterian Church

June 12 was Heritage Sunday at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church when we celebrated the history of our church and honored those who have been members for 50 years or more. The sermon–“What is Westminster’s Way of Faith?”–was based upon Psalm 145 and Hebrews 12: 1-3.[1]

Readings from Holy Scripture

Psalm 145 states as follows (NRSV):

“I will extol you, my God and King,
and bless your name forever and ever.
Every day I will bless you,
and praise your name forever and ever.
Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
his greatness is unsearchable.”

“One generation shall laud your works to another,
and shall declare your mighty acts.
On the glorious splendor of your majesty,
and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.
The might of your awesome deeds shall be proclaimed,
and I will declare your greatness.
They shall celebrate the fame of your abundant goodness,
and shall sing aloud of your righteousness.”

“The Lord is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
The Lord is good to all,
and his compassion is over all that he has made.”

“All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord,
and all your faithful shall bless you.
They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom,
and tell of your power,
to make known to all people your mighty deeds,
and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.
Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,
and your dominion endures throughout all generations.”

“The Lord is faithful in all his words,
and gracious in all his deeds.
The Lord upholds all who are falling,
and raises up all who are bowed down.
The eyes of all look to you,
and you give them their food in due season.
You open your hand,
satisfying the desire of every living thing.
The Lord is just in all his ways,
and kind in all his doings.
The Lord is near to all who call on him,
to all who call on him in truth.
He fulfills the desire of all who fear him;
he also hears their cry, and saves them.
The Lord watches over all who love him,
but all the wicked he will destroy.”

“My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord,
and all flesh will bless his holy name forever and ever.”

The New Testament Scripture (Hebrews 12:1-3 (NRSV)) reads as follows:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”

“Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.”

The Sermon

Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen used his recent interviews of finalists for appointment as the church’s next Director of Choral Ministries as the entrée to his sermon because they all wanted to know “’Who is Westminster?’ They wondered about how we express our faith, how we worship, how we reach out to the community, how we make a difference in the city. They wanted to hear Westminster stories, those experiences and encounters with the Holy and the mundane that happen here, and have for many years, that make us who we are.”

In answering this question, Hart-Andersen realized that “the continuing life of a congregation depends upon telling and re-telling its narrative.”

“In their stories people find meaning that forms them. Their narratives – and I use the word in the plural because there never is simply one story – their narratives give them identity. Christian faith lives beyond any particular time in a congregation’s history and is passed along in the telling. Memories are formed and those memories impart meaning from one era to the next.”

“Westminster has nearly 160 years of stories. Some of us know some of them; no one knows them all. And yet, known and unknown, the stories continue to shape us as a people. We’re not always conscious of that dimension of worship and education, of mission and hospitality – how we pass on the faith we have received and in which we stand and by which we are saved. We’re not always cognizant of the movement of the people of God through time, not always aware how our faith is shared by those before us and with those who follow.”

“Not always, but today we are.”

“On Heritage Sunday we recognize the long-time members of Westminster. Two hundred twenty-two of you have been a part of this particular community of faith for at least fifty years. Two and a half generations ago you embraced the story of Westminster; over the years you have now become its story.”

“One generation shall laud your works to another,” says the Hebrew poet to Almighty God. And through the psalm we hear over and over that the people continue to pass on and sing of the stories of God’s deeds and works among them to the generations to come. The faithful people of one age pass their faith on to those of the age to follow. (Ps. 145:3)”

“You heritage members of this church have lauded the works of God from one generation to another. For half a century and more you have told the story and lived the story of our faith in ways that compel and transform. For five-plus decades you have worshipped and taught and sung and showed who we are as a people of faith, and we are grateful. We have heard you, and seen you, and followed you.”

“At the heart of Judaism lies the commitment to entrust the narrative of the people of God to the next generation. The formative history in that tradition is never forgotten. At a Bar-Mitzvah or Bat-Mitzvah, the coming-of-age ritual for young people, the story of the Jews is re-told. The heirs of the tradition then take it up and make it their own.”

“One generation lauds the work of God to another.”

“Baptism and confirmation serve the same purpose for us in the Christian community. At the font and in the teaching we tell the story of Jesus and watch as that story moves from one generation to the next. ‘For I handed on to you,’ the Apostle Paul says, ‘What I in turn had received.’ (I Corinthians 15:3)”

“Over the years the details of the faith story of this particular people called Westminster have changed. In the early days there were the pioneers from Wales and Scotland, eight of them who set up shop in the muddy little village on the Mississippi. They started this congregation and from the beginning they were aware of their role in helping build the city.”

“Years later, when immigrants from Europe began showing up looking for work and hoping for a better life for their children, Westminster responded. We fanned out into poor immigrant communities down on the flats along the river on Sunday afternoons and started mission schools for the children. “

“And God was in that work.”

“When we heard from fellow Presbyterians on the west coast that Chinese immigrants were being persecuted we invited them to come to Minnesota. The first Chinese to arrive in this town in the 1880s were welcomed and supported by Westminster. Our work increased after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. For the next 80 years we maintained a Chinese ministry; some of you remember it.”

“And God was in that work.”

“When Abbott Hospital was given to the church in the last will and testament of William Dunwoody, we learned how to run it, and did so, for the next half-century. Some of you were born in Abbott when it was owned by Westminster, before the church spun it off 50 years ago. We helped train doctors and nurses. We served the medical needs of the residents of the city, especially women and children.”

“And God was in that work.”

“When Hmong families began coming to this city 100 years after the Chinese, in the 1980s, Westminster responded again. The Hmong were seeking refuge and a new life after war in Southeast Asia. We already had one Boy Scout troop at Westminster back then, Troop 33 led by Scoutmaster Dave Moore since 1965, but we went ahead and chartered another, the first Hmong Boy Scout Troop in the country. Thirty-five years later Dave – who joined Westminster in 1948 – is still leading it.”

“And God is in that work.”

“If the question is, ‘What is Westminster’s way of faith?’ the response may be found in our stories. There’s a pattern in how God’s work has been made manifest among us, when we take a look back. How have we pursued and lived and embodied the gospel of Jesus Christ in the life of this congregation and in this city over the years? Simply put, we have not closed ourselves off from the world around us. On the contrary, we have understood our faith to be a living faith and we have followed the gospel right into that world and worked with others to change it.”

“A telling presence in the city.”

“Whatever questions of justice are on the hearts of the people of this city and nation and world, especially the most vulnerable, they have set the direction for Westminster’s mission from the start.”

“In worship last week we announced the distribution of signs of support for our Muslim neighbors by wishing them a Blessed Ramadan. The question of how we will learn to live with people of other faiths is critical not only in this city, of course, but in the nation as a whole. It is on our congregation’s agenda.” [2]

“Our God is an incarnational God, not an abstract, detached, distant deity. Jesus comes to bring the divine into the world, to draw the universal into the particular, to step right into the real stuff of human life, the injustice and poverty, the exclusion and hopelessness which hold sway over much of the earth. The incarnation inserts Jesus into human history – real human history. His story of redemption and forgiveness and unconditional love is the one passed down through the ages, the one we have heard in our time, the narrative that forms us as a people.”

“Last Sunday I noticed [a young man] taking photos of the Blessed Ramadan signs [at our church]. He told me he was a Muslim, and was surprised to see the signs. ‘They give me hope,’ he said.”

“Not everyone was so pleased. Some of you may have heard that Westminster was in the news last week and we began to hear responses from some in the community who did not agree with our participation with the Minnesota Council of Churches effort to show respect to our Muslim neighbors. We received unkind phone calls and emails from a few, but we also heard that the signs were beacons of light in a world struggling in the shadows of religious misunderstanding, struggling to figure out how to live with religious diversity.”

“The memorial service honoring Muhammed Ali this week – which he planned himself – offered the same message: we can learn to live in peace with one another, in spite of differences in our religious traditions. We need not fear one another. We need not feel threatened by one another. We need not feel the desire to exclude one another.”

“This message is more important than ever this morning, [with the news] that the mass shooting at a gay bar earlier today in Orlando may have been linked to extreme Islamist ideology. I hope not, but if it is, we will need to strengthen our witness in supporting the Muslim community, being more present with the message of respect for our Muslims neighbors, the vast majority of whom reject violence. They will likely be on the receiving end of a backlash.”

“The tragedy in Orlando brings up the question of the full equality and acceptance of gay people in this country, something we have stood for and worked for at Westminster. We may need to step up and strengthen our witness in support of the gay community in light of this latest attack.”

“The tragedy also brings up the challenge of the easy availability of guns and weapons in America, another issue where this church has taken a stand. In the aftermath of this latest mass shooting we may need to strengthen our witness in support of efforts to end gun violence.”

“Today we are pursuing Westminster’s way of faith. We are creating the stories in our time that in another fifty years will be remembered by those who follow us. In some ways they’re not that different from the narrative of this church since the beginning. This is the race we are running, Hebrews tells us, with Jesus as ‘the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.’ It is a race for justice and peace in our time.”

“We are not alone in that race, Hebrews tells us. There is a ‘great cloud of witnesses’ surrounding us. Some of their names appear in the bulletin this morning. Some are seated among us wearing yellow carnations. Others have been here for many years but not yet fifty; and some in that great cloud are just getting started at Westminster.”

“I heard about one of them this past week. She was baptized here and is now six years old and has been attending this church and our church school all her life. Out in the city this week this Westminster first grader saw a Muslim woman in a burqa. Having been at church last Sunday, she turned to her mother and said, “Is she a blessed Ramadan? Can we say it to her?”

“One generation shall laud your works to another. You long-timers have done well in carrying forward the heart of who God has called our church to be and to do in this city. You have conveyed the hope of the gospel to those who came after you. We have received it and, together with you, we will pass it on. The future is full of promise.”

“Thanks be to God.”

Conclusion

This sermon tied directly to the one the prior Sunday for recent high school, college and graduate school graduates that was the subject of a prior post. Both sermons emphasized the interconnectedness of the generations of the faithful. Indeed, churches and other houses of worship are perhaps the only institutions where there are intergenerational groups of people learning and being together.

This was most evident in the June 12th sermon’s reference to the six-year old girl’s asking her mother if she should say “blessed Ramadan” to a woman in a burqa. It also was present in that day’s “A Time for Children,” when Associate Pastor Sarah Brouwer had the children face the congregation as we all sang together, “Jesus Loves Me.” I pray that the children were impressed that this favorite hymn is not just for children and that their parents and other adults are enriched by their religious faith.

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[1] The bulletin for the service and the text of the sermon are available online.

[2] As mentioned in a prior post about Westminster’s June 5th service, the church is participating in a project of the Minnesota Council of Churches to post signs at churches and homes announcing “To Our Muslim Neighbors: Blessed Ramadan.” These signs, said Rev. Peg Chemberlin, the Council’s executive director, are reminders that “Minnesota is respectful of religious differences.” Asad Zaman, executive director of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, said, “If I see a sign, it tells me that the person believes this country belongs to everyone, that no one should be excluded. There is a vast reservoir of good will among people. The Blessed Ramadan signs allow that to be expressed.”