Cameroon’s Human Rights Record Being Subjected to Universal Periodic Review (UPR) by U.N. Human Rights Council: Background

This year Cameroon’s human rights record is the subject of its third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) by the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland. This post reviews basic information about the Council and its UPR process. Future posts will look at the pre-hearing papers for Cameroon’s current UPR and then its UPR hearing and then finally the results of the UPR.

The  Human Rights Council[1]

The Council since 2006 has been an important arm of the United Nations in recognizing and helping to enforce international human rights norms in the world.

The Council is made up of 47 U.N. Member States, which are elected by the majority of members of the U.N. General Assembly through direct and secret ballot. The General Assembly takes into account the candidate States’ contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights, as well as their voluntary pledges and commitments in this regard.

The Council’s Members serve for a period of three years and are not eligible for immediate re-election after serving two consecutive terms. The seats are allocated on the following geographical basis:

  • African States: 13 seats
  • Asia-Pacific States: 13 seats
  • Latin American and Caribbean States: 8 seats
  • Western European and other States: 7 seats
  • Eastern European States: 6 seats

The current African members are Angola, Burundi, Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, Togo and Tunisia.

The UPR Process[2]

One of the ways the Council seeks to encourage universal compliance with international human rights standards  is its UPR of individual U.N. member states. The UPR is universal in that all 193 U.N. members and all human rights norms are reviewed and it is periodic because it done every four years. Such reviews are to be “based on objective and reliable information, of the fulfillment by each State of its human rights obligations and commitments in a manner which ensures universality of coverage and equal treatment with respect to all States.” This is to be done with “a cooperative mechanism, based on an interactive dialogue, with the full involvement of the country concerned.”

The UPR process involves (a) the state’s submission of a report to the Council; (b) submission of written questions and recommendations to the state from other states and stakeholders (human rights NGO’s, etc.); (c) the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights’ summary of U.N. information about the country; (d) questions submitted to the country in advance by the Working Group; (e) the hearing by the Council, (f) the preparation of a draft report on the state by a Council working group, (g) the state’s comments on that report, (h) another hearing before the Council and (i) the Council’s adoption of the final report on the outcome of the UPR.

Council’s UPR Working Group for Cameroon’s UPR[3]

The UPRs are conducted by the Council’s 47 members acting as an UPR Working Group. In addition, any other U.N. Member State can take part in the review.

Each State’s review is assisted by a groups of three States, known as a “troika,” who serve as rapporteurs. The selection of the troikas for each State is done through a drawing of lots following elections for the Council membership in the General Assembly. For Cameroon’s third UPR the Troika members are United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Iraq and South Africa.

The UPR Hearing

The May 16 hearing lasted three and a half hours, during which the state under review was given 70 minutes to present its report, as well as answer questions made by other states and present concluding remarks. The remaining 140 minutes were allocated to states participating in the review to ask questions, make comments and recommendations to the state under review.

The second stage of the process will take place during the Council’s 39th period of sessions in September 2018, at which time the final report will be presented by the Troika.

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[1] U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Membership of Council; U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Current Membership.

[2] U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Basic Facts about the UPR

[3]  U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Cameroon’s human rights record to be reviewed by Universal Periodic Review (May 11, 2018).

 

 

 

President Trump’s Message to the Cuban People 

On May 20, the anniversary of Cuba’s 1902 declaration of independence from the U.S. after what we in the U.S. call the Spanish-American War, U.S. President Donald Trump issued the following message to the Cuban people:[1]

  • “The twentieth of May marks the celebration of Cuban independence won by patriots who wished for individual freedom and the right of self-determination, both of which have been tragically snuffed out by a tired Communist regime.  Regardless, the brave people of Cuba continue to work—under continued oppression and extraordinarily difficult circumstances—to provide for their families and to restore human and civil rights.  The names of great Cuban leaders who fought for independence, such as José Martí and Antonio Maceo, echo through history alongside names like Washington and Jefferson.  The legacy of these leaders continues to inspire and encourage all peoples to remain committed to the fight for democracy and the restoration of political, economic, and religious freedoms.”
  • “The resilience of the Cuban people and the contributions of the Cuban-American community demand our respect.  We are grateful for the many contributions in the world of literature, the arts, music, cuisine, and entrepreneurship that these communities have given us.”
  • “To the people of Cuba who yearn for true freedom, and to the Cuban-Americans who reside in the United States, Melania and I send our warmest wishes.  On this special day, we remember the Cuban patriots who lit a flame of freedom that will never be fully extinguished as long as men and women can dream of a better tomorrow.  Let us recommit ourselves to a better, freer future for the Cuban people.”

This Trump statement requires several comments.

First, under the first Cuban Constitution of 1902, the U.S. retained the right to intervene in Cuban affairs and to supervise its finances and foreign relations. Under the Platt Amendment, the U.S. leased the Guantánamo Bay naval base from Cuba. As a result, Cuba does not celebrate May 20. Indeed, for the U.S. to do so is an insult to Cuba.

Second, since 1959, Cubans celebrate their independence on July 26, the anniversary of the 1953 attack by Cuban rebels led by Fidel Castro on the Moncada Barracks,  a military barracks in Santiago de Cuba, named after the General Guillermón Moncada, a hero of the Cuban War of Independence.. This armed attack is widely accepted as the beginning of the Cuban Revolution.

Indeed, a prior post told the story of the speech on July 26, 1991, in Matanzas Cuba by South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, who was inspired by Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution.

Third, the extent of political freedoms in Cuba today is a matter of debate with Trump expressing his Administration’s  very negative views on the subject.

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[1] White House, Presidential Message on Cuban Independence Day (May 20, 2018); Trump calls for a ‘better and freer future’ for Cubans, Diario de Cuba (May 20, 2018). Trump issued a similar statement on May 20, 2017. (White House, Statement from President Donald J. Trump on Cuban Independence Day (May 20, 2017).)

 

Nelson Mandela Makes Connection with Cecil Rhodes 

Although Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) and Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902) were not contemporaries, they both played important roles in South African history. Mandela, of course, survived imprisonment  for nearly 27 years for his struggle against the apartheid regime in that country to become its president and a world-renowned figure. Rhodes was an Englishman who earned a fortune from mining diamonds (De Beers Consolidated Mines) in that country and neighboring Zimbabwe (f/k/a Rhodesia) and who served as Prime Minister in the Cape Colony.  In 1903 his will established the Rhodes Scholarships at Oxford University in England.

On the centennial of those Scholarships, Mandela established an indirect connection with Rhodes. His Nelson Mandela Foundation and The Rhodes Trust created a joint venture called the Mandela Rhodes Foundation, whose “central purpose . . . is to build exceptional leadership capacity in Africa.” It does so by operating “a Scholarships and Leadership Development programme . . . [f]ocusing on the four principles of the Foundation: Reconciliation, Education, Entrepreneurship and Leadership. It selects “young leaders from 25 different African countries . . . [to make] inward and outward journeys of self-discovery . . .[to create] community across differences, and . . . [to grow and learn] more about Africa, its peoples and . . . [to make a]  contribution towards the development of the continent.”

Mandela’s Speech[1]

To mark this historic joint venture, Mandela addressed a gathering of Rhodes Scholars and dignitaries at Westminster Hall in London on July 2, 2003. Below is a photograph of his making that speech.

He said his objective in so doing was “to close the circle” by letting “our peoples, the ones formerly poor citizens and the others good patricians – politicians, business people, educators, health workers, scientists, engineers and technicians, sports people and entertainers, activists for charitable relief – join hands to build on what we have achieved together and help construct a humane African world, whose emergence will say a new universal order is born in which we are each our brother’s keeper.” This will be “a partnership for freedom, peace, prosperity and friendship.”

Mandela also trusted that this joint venture was for “the labourer who toils on the African farm, fighting for a life of dignity; the girl child battling against great odds for an opportunity to realize her potential; the poor AIDS orphan bereft of family or care; the rural poor eking out a subsistence, deprived of the most basic services and facilities.”

Rhodes, he said, was “that great entrepreneur, [who] made most of the money [in South Africa] which he left in legacy for scholars from across the world to benefit from for the past hundred years. It speaks of a growing sense of global responsibility that in this second century of its operations the Rhodes Trust finds it appropriate to redirect some of its attention and resources back to the origin of that wealth. We can only imagine how Rhodes himself would have identified with this decision to develop human capacity in modern day South Africa, enabling that country to continue being a competitive presence in the world as it was in those fields within which he operated during his times.”

Mandela closed his speech with this quotation from the preamble of the South African Constitution: “”We, the people of South Africa, Recognise the injustices of our past, Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land, Respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and, Believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.” (Emphasis added.)

Other Participants in the Celebration

This blogger was present on this occasion in London’s Westminster Hall, and a prior post recounts the other remarks by Lord Waldegrave, the Chairman of the Rhodes Trustees; “Nicky” Oppenheimer, the Chairman of DeBeers, the diamond mining company started by Rhodes in South Africa; Bill Clinton, the former U.S. President; and Tony Blair, then the Prime Minister of the U.K.

Most memorably when all the speeches were finished, everyone on the speakers’ stage walked the over 200-feet length of the hall through the audience. Mandela, then nearly 85 years old, and frail, was aided in making the long walk; his right arm was held by Tony Blair; his left, by Bill Clinton. They brought tears to our eyes as they passed six feet from us on their journey through the Hall. Below are photographs of the three men during their walk and of the Hall (with a different audience).

 

 

 

 

 

Conclusion

The Mandela Foundation’s decision to establish a joint venture with the trust created by a white Englishman who made a fortune in South Africa illustrates, I think, at least two of Mandela’s principles that are discussed in “Mandela’s Way: Lessons on Life, Love, and Courage” by Richard Stengel: “See the Good in Others” because “no one is only good or evil and no one is evil at heart” and ” Have Core Principle–All Else Is Tactics.”[2]

As noted in another post, the world this year rightfully commemorates the centennial of the birth of Nelson Mandela and his Foundation’s website lists events around the world to commemorate this occasion. (That post also discusses Mandela’s being inspired by Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution.)

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[1] Mandela, Address at sitting of joint houses of Parliament, Westminster in celebration of 100 years of Rhodes Scholars (July 2, 2003).

[2] Stengel, Mandela’s Way: Lessons for an Uncertain Age, Chaps. 6, 7 (Broadway Books, New York, 2010, 2018).

Nelson Mandela Was Inspired by Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution

The world this year rightfully commemorates the centennial of the birth of Nelson Mandela, who survived nearly 27 years in South African prisons to become the President of his country and to end its apartheid system with grace and humility.[1]

Also should be remembered was Mandel’s “special fondness for Fidel Castro, who had inspired the African National Congress (ANC) radicals with his daring revolution in 1959 [and] Cuba’s intervention in Angola. Mandela and his colleagues saw Cuba as “a dangerous model; a freak victory, but they were fired by the story of how Castro and Che Guevara, with only ten other survivors from their ship the Granma had mustered a guerilla army of 10,000 in eighteen months, and had marched on Havana in January 1959.” For Mandela, “Castro, not the Party, . . . had realized the moment of revolution had come. He would never lose his admiration for Castro.” Mandela’s “chief defiance of the Western World was his championing of the two American bête noirés [persons one especially dislikes], Libya’s Muammar] Qadaffi and Castro.”[2]

That was why only a year-and-a-half after his release from prison, Mandela went to the city of Matanzas in Cuba to give an emotional speech on July 26, 1991, which is Cuba’s national independence day, with Fidel in attendance as shown in the photograph below.

Mandela thanked Fidel and Cuba for helping the ANC to defeat Angolan invaders of South Africa in 1988.  That defeat, Mandela said, “enables me to be here today.”[3] Here are just a few of his other tributes to Cuba that day:[4]

  • “Today this is revolutionary Cuba, internationalist Cuba, the country that has done so much for the peoples of Africa. The Cuban people hold a special place in the hearts of the people of Africa. The Cuban internationalists have made a contribution to African independence, freedom, and justice, unparalleled for its principled and selfless character.”
  • “From its earliest days the Cuban revolution has itself been a source of inspiration to all freedom-loving people. We admire the sacrifices of the Cuban people in maintaining their independence and sovereignty in the face of a vicious imperialist-orchestrated campaign to destroy the impressive gains made in the Cuban revolution.”
  • “We admire the achievements of the Cuban revolution in the sphere of social welfare. We note the transformation from a country of imposed backwardness to universal literacy. We acknowledge your advances in the fields of health, education, and science.
  • We “are moved by your affirmation of the historical connection to the continent and people of Africa. Your consistent commitment to the systematic eradication of racism is unparalleled.”

In response, Fidel in his three-hour speech without notes called Mandela “one of the most extraordinary symbols of this era” by explaining that “apartheid is capitalism and imperialism in its fascist form.”[5]

Conclusion

In July 1991 I was totally unaware of the Mandela-Fidel connection and of Mandela’s speech in the city of Matanzas. It only was in the first decade of the 21st century that I learned of the existence of that city as a result of going there on three mission trips  to visit its Versalles Redeemer Presbyterian-Reformed Church, which is a partner of my Minneapolis church, Westminster Presbyterian Church. Now I have friends from that city. [6]

I was somewhat surprised to find that Mandela’s speech has no mention of Matanzas as a major port of entry for African slaves to work on sugar plantations, especially in the first half of the 19th century. As a result, it is said, due to the high number of both slaves and, importantly, free Afro-Cubans in Matanzas, the retention of African traditions is especially strong there. Perhaps that is the reason Fidel chose this celebration to be in that city. The city’s San Severiino Museum has an exhibit about Cuba’s slave trade.

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[1] Details about the commemoration are available on the website of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. One of the events is the 16th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture on July 17, 2018, which  this year will be given by former U.S. President Barack Obama and will be covered in a future post to this blog.

[2] Sampson, Mandela: The Authorized Biography at 152, 191, 414, 554 (Alfred Knopf, New York, 1999).

[3] Id. at 414.

[4] Speech by Nelson Mandela at the Rally in Cuba (July 26, 1991).

[5] Sampson at 414.

[6]  See these posts to dwkcommentaries: The Cuban Revolution and Religion (Dec. 30, 2011); Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church’s Connections with Cuba (Jan. 13, 2015); Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church Celebrates U.S.-Cuba Reconciliation (Jan. 4, 2015).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Global Music on World Communion Sunday

As mentioned in a prior post, Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church’s celebration of World Communion Sunday on October 1 featured a sermon on where was the Reformation headed today.

As that sermon mentioned, the service included global music. Our Westminster and Global Choirs joined together to sing five anthems from other countries and to lead the congregation in singing five hymns from around the world. [1] Our leaders were Dr. Melanie Ohnstad, Organist and Minister of Music and Arts; and Tesfa Wondemagegnehu, Director of Choral Ministries; Barbara Prince, Director of Global Choir; and Jeffrey Gram, percussionist.

Introit

The Introit or hymn which is sung at the start of a worship service was “Somlandela,” a traditional South African anthem that was arranged by Barbara Prince. It had one verse in Zulu, another in French and one in English, the last of which stated, “I will follow, I will follow Jesus, I will follow everywhere he goes.”

Offertory

The Offertory anthem was “Indodana,” also from South Africa in traditional isiXhosa, which is one of the country’s official languages and spoken by about 18% of the population, and arranged by Michael Barrett and Ralf Schmitt. Luckily for me as a bass singer, most of our lines were “oo” and “oh”with “Zjem Zjem zja baba” (three times) and “Ho Baba Baba, ho Baba Baba, Je ho Va!” (twice). Just being part of the choir’s singing this beautiful piece brought tears to my eyes. [2]

The church bulletin provided the following English translation of the lyrics: “The Lord has taken his son who lived amongst us, the son of the Lord God was crucified. Hololo Father Jehovah, Zjem zja father.” (“Hololo” and “Zjem zja” are expressive words with no English translation.)

Holy Communion

During the distribution of the bread and the cup for communion, we sang three anthems.

The first was “Nasibi (My Portion),” a Palestinian Hymn arranged by Maggie Hamilton. Its Refrain was in Arabic (English translation: “The Lord is the only strength of my heart, so says my soul”). The text, which were sung in English, was the following:

  • “The Lord is my portion for evermore, so says my soul. In heav’n above, who else have I? Who else, on earth, might I desire? The Lord alone is all I need, true treasure of my soul. For God, I’ll give my wealth away, strew valleys with unwanted gold, that God may be my only prize, my portion and my share.”

The second was “O Jumalan Karitsa” by Matti Rantatalo and sung in the original Finnish language with the following English translation in the church bulletin: “O, Lamb of God, who takes away the sins the world, have mercy on us. O, Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, give us peace and blessing.”

The third anthem was “Ukuthula,” another South African piece sung in Zulu. Again, the English translation was provided in the bulletin: “Peace in this world of sin (Hallelujah) the blood of Jesus brings peace. Redemption in this world of sin (Hallelujah) the blood of Jesus brings redemption. Praise (gratefulness) in this world of sin (Hallelujah) the blood of Jesus brings praise (gratefulness). Faith in this world of sin (Hallelujah) the blood of Jesus brings faith. Victory in this world of sin (Hallelujah) the blood of Jesus brings victory. Comfort in this world of sin (Hallelujah) the blood of Jesus brings comfort.”

Congregational Hymns

The global theme of the service also was emphasized in the following five hymns.

“In Christ, There Is No East or West” (No. 317 in Glory to God: the Presbyterian Hymnal) whose first verse states, “In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.” This and the other verses were written in 1908 by John Oxenham (a/k/a William Arthur Dunkerly) and the music is an African-American spiritual, which was the very first such music used in a mainline North American hymnal in 1940.

 “O Lord, Have Mercy” (No. 578) is the traditional “Kyrie eleison:” “O lord, have mercy, O Lord have mercy, O Lord have mercy, have mercy on us.” The hymnal also contained the verses in Greek and Guarani, which we did not sing.

“Sheaves of Wheat” (No. 532) has music and text (in Spanish) by Cesáreo Gabaráin, a Spanish priest and composer, but we sang the English translation by Mary Louise Bringle. The first verse goes this way: “Sheaves of wheat turned by sunlight into gold, grapes in clusters, like rubies on the vine, feed our hearts as the precious blood and body of our Lord: gifts of heaven from earthly bread and wine.”

“Holy, Holy, Holy” (No. 594) has music and text by Guillermo Cuéllar, a Salvadoran composer, with English translation by Linda McCrae. The choir and the congregation sang the refrain in Spanish: “Santo, santo, santo, santo, santo, santo es nuestra Dios, Señor de toda la tierra. Santo, santo, es nuestro Dios. Santo, santo, santo, santo, santo, santo es nuestro Dios, Señor de toda la historia. Santo, santo es nuestro Dios.”

“May the Love of the Lord” (No. 549) has music by LIM Swee Hong, an Asian Christian, and text by Maria Ling, who are the parents of a son who stopped breathing at one day old , but who was revived by the prompt action of nurses. The hymnal has Chinese and English lyrics, the latter of which says, “May the love of the Lord rest upon your soul. May God’s love dwell in you, throughout every day. May God’s countenance shine upon you and be gracious to you. May God’s Spirit be upon you as you leave this place.”

Conclusion

In the shorter, earlier worship service that day the Global Choir with augmentation by some of the Westminster Choir members sang all but “Indodana” of the anthems and only one of the hymns (“In Christ There Is No East or West”), but we also closed that service by singing the Refrain with the congregation joining in the stanzas of “Halle, Halle, Hallelujah!” (No. 591 in the Hymnal), which has a traditional Caribbean melody with stanzas by Marty Haugen. The words of the first stanza are these: “O God, to whom shall we go? You alone have the words of life. Let your words be our prayer and the song we sing: hallelujah, hallelujah!”

There were so many things happening in these services, I once again discovered by reviewing the service, re-reading the pieces that we sung, researching about the composers and lyricists and writing this blog post enhanced my understanding and appreciation of the services.

Although I joined the Global Choir in 2014, it was created in 2001, and for the regular church calendar (September through May), we sing nine times in the early worship service in the church’s Chapel. Just contact the church to join the Global Choir! All are welcome.

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[1] The church’s website has the bulletin for the main service.  A video of the service also is there; go to http://westminstermpls.churchonline.org/ and click on the icon with three white dots and lines at the top of the video screen; next you will see small screens with the dates of services; then select “Oct. 1, 2017.”

[2] Beautiful performances of “Indodana” by (a) the combined voices of the University of Pretoria Camerata, the Missouri State University Chorale, and the Emory and Henry College Choir at the University of Pretoria Musaion, (Pretoria, South Africa) and (b) South Africa’s Stellenbosch University Choir are available on YouTube.

 

 

The Protestant Reformation: Where Does It Go from Here?  

The World Communion Sunday, October 1, worship service at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church featured Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen’s last of four sermons on the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation: ”The Protestant Reformation Today: Where Does It Go from Here?” [1]The first three sermons, as covered in prior posts, discussed the three great themes of the Reformation: grace alone, faith alone and scripture alone. Below are photographs of the church’s Sanctuary and of Rev. Hart-Andersen.

 

 

 

 

 

Listening for the Word

Readings from Holy Scripture:

Revelation 22: 1-6, 16-17 (NRSV)

“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.”

“And he said to me, ‘These words are trustworthy and true, for the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place.’”

“It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.”

“The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’
And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.”

Galatians 3: 23-29 (NRSV): 

“Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise”

Sermon:

“Where does the Reformation go from here? What does the future hold for the great Protestant traditions flowing out of Europe 500 years ago?”

“I see at least three directions we might expect the Reformation to take in coming years.”

First: an ecumenical, interfaith direction. Protestant Churches have shown themselves, especially in the last 50-75 years, to be uniquely capable of forming cross-denominational relationships, usually in institutional, organizational, and structured ways: councils of churches at the local level, the state level, nationally, and at the global level. In coming years this will happen in less institutional ways, less structured ways, and increasingly in local relationships.”

“The past week illustrates this emerging new reality. On Tuesday, for the first time ever, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America allowed one of its candidates for ministry to be ordained to serve a non-Lutheran church. We celebrated the ordination of Matt Johnson, Westminster’s Interim Associate Pastor, at Bethlehem Lutheran Church. Candidly, that break with tradition did not start in the bishop’s office or the presbytery’s office; it began with a few of us conspiring locally to make it happen. Localized ecumenical relationships, yielding that kind of change. Congratulations, Matt.”

“Then yesterday I co-presided with a Roman Catholic priest at the wedding of a Westminster woman and her Catholic fiancé, now husband. That would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. The fact that we pulled it off has less to do with relaxing of standards in Rome – we did not contact the bishop or presbytery – than with developing ecumenical relationships in local communities. The old walls separating us don’t mean as much anymore.”

“’In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith,’ the Apostle Paul writes to the Galatians. ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek’ – Paul dissects the binary way people tend to look at the world – ‘There is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’ (Galatians 3:6-8)”

“It’s as if we were undoing the divisions resulting from the Reformation between Protestants and Catholics, and among Protestants themselves. If we ask where the Reformation goes from here, an obvious first answer is that it goes in the direction of a Christianity that has fewer barriers standing among and between the various branches of the Church than it has had for the last 500 years.”

“The same thing is happening with interfaith collaboration. The Reformation taught us the God alone is Lord of the conscience, and that grace alone saves us, not our behavior or a particular creed. From those Reformation-era principles it is a short step to respectful interfaith dialogue and cooperation.”

“A major world challenge on the religious horizon – locally and globally – is learning to live with people of other faiths. Protestant churches, with our emphasis on freedom and respecting the rights and responsibilities of individuals with regard to religious matters, can and will lead the way in interfaith collaboration.”

“Westminster is certainly doing its part. Our interfaith dialogue sermons and relationships with multi-faith organizations are not one-off novelties or the whim of your pastor. They are the vanguard of 21st century open-minded, open-hearted Christianity more concerned with practicing the faith in real ways with real people, some of whom have other faiths, than perfecting or judging it.”

“In recent years I have co-presided at a number of Jewish weddings – again, something that even a few years ago would not have happened. I’ve also done this with Buddhist priests. Many of us have attended a Muslim iftar, when the Ramadan fast is broken. We never would have done that 10-15 years ago. These are local outbursts of interfaith commitment – not handed down from on high, but local efforts – resulting in a shifting religious landscape.”

“Where does the Protestant Reformation goes from here? It’s moving in an ecumenical and interfaith direction.”

Secondly, on this World Communion Sunday we’re enjoying sounds and rhythms and movement from all over the globe. Again, this is not a one-time experience, where we trot out the world music on one Sunday a year. We’re now drawing regularly from the music of Christians in other parts of the world to enliven our worship, to teach us other ways of praising God, to inspire us.”

“Over the last 150 years Protestant churches moved out from Europe to the world, in particular the global south, where the Reformation churches are growing rapidly. There are more Presbyterians today in South Korea than there are in the U.S. The same is true for Kenya and South Africa.”

“Christianity is on the move. One hundred years ago two-thirds of the world’s Christians lived in Europe. Today, nearly two-thirds of the world’s Christians live in the global south. The Church there is exploding in growth, and our churches are receding. North American churches had 15% of the world’s Christians 100 years ago; today we have 10%.”

“We can see the impact of this emerging reality not only from a distance, but closer to home. The Roman Catholic priest friend who co-presided at the wedding yesterday serves a Minneapolis parish overflowing with people from Latin America. He told me last Saturday he did 29 baptisms and yesterday 28 were scheduled. They baptize around 400 per year, and they’re all babies of Latino immigrants. The parish has discovered that their future lies not with the Euro-Americans who brought Catholicism here –Irish, Germans and others from Europe –- but with Catholics form the global south. The Roman Church in the US would be shrinking if not for Catholics coming from Latin America.”

“Similarly, we Protestants who lament the decline of our churches here can rejoice in the vast growth of the Reformation churches in the global south. We, too, can welcome immigrants coming from other parts of the world, especially sub-Sahara Africa, where the Reformed churches are so strong. Westminster has experienced an influx of West African Christians over recent decades, now serving as leaders in our church –and what a richer, healthier congregation we are.”

“The global south will bear the Protestant stream of Christianity into the future.”

“The third emerging direction for the Protestant movement, especially in this land, is increasing openness to diversity. At the local level we’re coming to see that in the future our churches will either reflect the contexts in which we minister, or they’ll not be sustainable for the long haul. We’re too isolated, too divided in our communities, racially, ethnically and culturally. It’s not the way of the gospel. Mono-cultural eco-systems cannot continue to thrive. They must be diverse in order to have the adaptive capacities to live into the future.”

“One of the last images of the Bible is found in the Book of Revelation when the Heavenly City comes to earth and settles among the human family. There is a river flowing through that city, and on the banks of the river is the Tree of Life. The leaves of the tree, the text says, ‘Are for the healing of the nations.’”

“I’ve usually interpreted that verse as pointing to healing among the political nations of the earth. But the Greek word here for nations is ethnos, that is, the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the variety of ethnicities in the human family that do not live well together. This may be less a political comment and more a call to learn to live in harmony with those different from us within our own land.”

“The vision of the Holy City invites us to be part of the healing of the racial divide that exists among us, to finally put aside, to do away with, the old reality that Martin Luther King used to remind us of – that Sunday at 11AM is the most segregated hour in America. The Church’s future lies in congregations that are more diverse, that reflect God’s hope that the human family might one day learn to live together in peace.”

“Here at Westminster our new members classes in recent years have been 10-15% racially mixed. Around 7-8% of Westminster members are people of color. We’re changing, but the world is changing a lot faster all around us.”

“A recent study of more than 100,000 Americans in all 50 states shows that only 43% of the population is made up of white Christians. Forty years ago that number was 80%. Twenty years ago it was two-thirds. Things are changing rapidly, all around us, and the church will need to change.”

“And forty years ago 55% of the population was made up of white Protestants. Today that number is under 40%. We are watching in our lifetime the end of America as a white Christian nation. And some see that as a threat. We see the rise of white supremacy and white nationalism and the clinging to white privilege in response, much of it cloaked in Christian language.”[2]

“The changing reality shouldn’t frighten us, but, rather, call us to open our doors and hearts and open our lives to new friends who’ve been our neighbors for many years. We can either move constructively with these challenging new realities and learn ways to be faithful in worship and mission, or we can struggle against them and find our churches continuing to wither and weaken and die. This is hard work, but essential to the future of the church.”

“Where does the 500-year old Reformation go from here? The Protestants churches, heirs to the great legacies of grace alonefaith alone, and scripture alone, will need to grow new ministries that reach across divisions we’ve long accepted as normative. That means creating new ecumenical and interfaith relationships and partnerships, welcoming Christians from the global south and learning from them, participating in the work of racial reconciliation, which may be the most difficult of all these things, and developing congregations that reflect our changing world.”

“To do this, the people of God will have to trust that the Holy Spirit is at work among us, stirring things up for the future health and vitality of the Christian Church.”

“We will have to use a holy imagination to see and join the new thing God is doing among us. May that imagination, that holy imagination, be kindled today at this World Communion table, as we join with Christians around the globe in celebrating the love of God that unites us in one human family, in all its wonderful and rich diversity.”

Conclusion

I agree that “Westminster and other churches need to develop  new ecumenical and interfaith relationships and partnerships, welcoming Christians from the global south and learning from them, participating in the work of racial reconciliation, which may be the most difficult of all these things, and developing congregations that reflect our changing world.”

Westminster already is engaged in global partnerships with churches in Cuba, Cameroon and Palestine, and for 10 years I chaired our Global Partnerships Committee and visited our partners in Cuba (three times), Cameroon (once) and Brazil (once). I know that they have enriched my spiritual life and of others in the church and in our partners.

As the sermon stated, music from around the world will play a major part in our worship as it did this day and as will be discussed in another post.

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[1] The bulletin for this service and the text of the sermon are on the church website. Excerpts of the sermon are  set forth below.

[2] Wilson, We’re at the end of White Christian America. What will that mean?, Guardian (Sept. 20, 2017); Pew Research Center, Religious Landscape Study.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Roger Cohen’s Gentle Words of Wisdom

Roger Cohen
Roger Cohen

Roger Cohen movingly has reflected on life and death in his New York Times column, “Do Not Go Gentle.”  Although I had read many of his earlier columns, this one stopped me to ponder its thoughts and to explore some of his other columns and biography and then to share the results of that investigation in this blog post.

“Do Not go Gentle”–Excerpts

“Home, and what constitutes it, is the most potent of memories. It’s not excess of love we regret at death’s door, it’s excess of severity. If we lived every day as the last day of our lives, the only quandary would be how to find the time to shower love on enough people. We live distracted and die with too much knowledge to bear.”

“For me, the menacing political storms of America and Europe have been accompanied by family illness; and I’ve found myself in recent days cocooned in thoughts of those I love, the fragility of life, and its delicate beauty.”

“I confess immortality, whose attainment is a hot theme in Silicon Valley, does not interest me. . . . When I think of it the image that comes to my mind is of a blazing hot day with the noonday sun beating down in perpetuity. The light is blinding. There is no escape from it, no perspective, no release.”

In contrast, “the most beautiful times of day are dawn and dusk when shadows are long, offering contrast, refuge and form. Death is the shadow that gives shape to existence, urgency to love, brilliance to life. Limitless life is tedium without resolution.”

“As Ecclesiastes [3: 1-8] has it, there is a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted. I find it hard to imagine what inner peace can exist without acceptance of this cycle — the bright green of the first spring leaf, the brittle brown leaves of fall skittering down an alley in a gust of wind.”

“None of which is to urge mere acquiescence to death, whether physical or political, in this season when death merchants are on the march. On the contrary, this is a time to rage, a time to heed Dylan Thomas: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

A “friend, who has battled and vanquished cancer, told me the other day of going to lunch with his 98-year-old father a couple of months before his death. My friend fought back tears as he recalled how his father leaned over to him toward the end of the meal and said: ‘You know, I did not want to die before I knew you were well.’ It is for sons to bury their fathers, not fathers their sons.”

“Ah, fathers, they wait so long before they let down their guard with their sons. When they do the power and poignancy of it is overwhelming.”

“My own father, now 95 and withdrawn, wrote to me on the death 17 years ago of my manic-depressive mother: ‘I know that my spirit will not soon be released from those cruel demons that tore so relentlessly at the entwining fabric of love between Mom and me. I did strive within the feeble limits of my human fallibility to preserve and cherish and sustain her. But alas — for Mama ultimately, death was the only angel that could shield her from despair.’”

“The most vulnerable parts of our nature are often those closest to our greatest gifts. I will always be grateful for the moments I was able to see my gifted father unguarded.”

“The dead whisper to us, they console us, they admonish us. Love more, love better. Do not . . . go gentle into that good night.

Other Columns

Many of his columns for the Times are online, and a hunt-and-peck incomplete search of that collection uncovered the following four columns for inclusion in this blog post. I am confident that a more thorough search would produce other thoughtful columns.

In May 2015 Cohen’s spending time at an unnamed airport prompted ruminations about status anxiety, “The Great Unease.” It included the following: “By comparison, having little or less [material possessions] seemed relatively straightforward — and could even spur illogical acts of an entirely different nature, such as going out and working for a couple of hours on repairing somebody’s car and then refusing payment, or giving time in other ways that defy measurement on the scales that hold sway over contemporary lives. There was a great deal to be said for acts of spontaneous generosity, for surprise visits, for being sidetracked, for idle conversation, for the gestures that forge community.”

The column ended with the following: “The Chinese say: ‘If you want to be happy for a day, get drunk; a week, kill a pig; a month, get married; for life, be a gardener.’ Cultivate your garden, the inner as the outer. Make it bloom.”

Another May 2015 column, “The Presence of the Past, ” contained these observations about how we experience the past:

  • “As we grow older, the past looms larger. There’s more of it. The past is full of possibility. It is ever-changing, an eddying tide, subject to the gusts — and lacunas — of memory.”
  • “Who, a friend asked me the other day, would ever want to be 90? The answer is somebody aged 89. Old age is not for sissies, my grandmother liked to comment. Nor, however, is the other option. So on we go, accumulating past with reckless abandon, like children guzzling candies.”
  • “Yet as Faulkner observed, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ Or as a disillusioned Yugoslav Communist once put it, ‘The most dangerous thing for a Communist is to predict the past.’”
  • “Only through a balanced view of the past, conscientious but not obsessive, may we shun victimhood, accept divergent national narratives, embrace decency, meet our daily obligations, and look forward.”

His June 2015 column, “Mow the Lawn,” starts with comments about his youngest child’s graduating from a London school and getting ready to start college in the U.S., but includes these words of wisdom:

  • “Life is a succession of tasks rather than a cascade of inspiration, an experience that is more repetitive than revelatory, at least on a day-to-day basis. The thing is to perform the task well and find reward even in the mundane.”
  • “I’ve grown suspicious of the inspirational. It’s overrated. I suspect duty — that half-forgotten word — may be more related to happiness than we think. Want to be happy? Mow the lawn. Collect the dead leaves. Paint the room. Do the dishes. Get a job. Labor until fatigue is in your very bones. Persist day after day. Be stoical. Never whine. Think less about the why of what you do than getting it done. Get the column written. Start pondering the next.”

This column about mowing the lawn also quoted from a commencement speech he had given:

  • “’Everyone has something that makes them tick. The thing is it’s often well hidden. Your psyche builds layers of protection around your most vulnerable traits, which may be very closely linked to your precious essence. Distractions are also external: money, fame, peer pressure, parental expectation. So it may be more difficult than you think to recognize the spark that is your personal sliver of the divine. But do so. Nothing in the end will give you greater satisfaction — not wealth, not passion, not faith, not even love — for if, as Rilke wrote, all companionship is but ‘the strengthening of two neighboring solitudes,’ you have to solve the conundrum of your solitude.’”
  • “’No success, however glittering, that denies yourself will make you happy in the long run. So listen to the voice from your soul, quiet but insistent, and honor it. Find what you thrill to: if not the perfect sentence, the beautiful cure, the brilliant formula, the lovely chord, the exquisite sauce, the artful reconciliation. Strive not for everything money can buy but for everything money can’t buy.’”
  • “In the everyday task at hand, for woman or man, happiness lurks.”

The column, “Young Lives Interrupted,” from November 2015 starts with comments on a short story by Ernest Hemingway and ends with these words:

  • “It seems, as we grow older, that we are haunted less by what we have done than by what we failed to do, whether through lack of courage, or inattention, or insufficient readiness to cast caution to the winds. The impossible love abandoned, the gesture unmade, the heedless voyage untaken, the parting that should not have been — these chimera always beckon.”
  • “What’s done is done but the undone is another matter.”
  • “There are too many words today, too much emotion, and too few letters. Truth is more often the fruit of diligence than revelation, of discipline than inebriation, of discarding than accumulation.”

Cohen’s Biography[1]

Born in London in 1955, Cohen graduated with honors at Westminster School, a top “public” school in English parlance. He then attended the University of Oxford and graduated with a B.A. (and later M.A.) in History and French in 1977.

That same year he moved to Paris to teach English and to write for Paris Metro, after which he started working for Reuters, which transferred him to Brussels.  In 1983 he joined the staff of the Wall Street Journal in Rome and later Beirut. The New York Times was his next and current employer, 1990-present, and he has served as a columnist for the paper since 2009. He also occasionally writes for the New York Review of Books.

Cohen has published these books: (a) In the Eye of the Storm: The Life of General H. Norman Schwarzkopf (with Claudio Gatti) (1991); (b) Hearts Grown Brutal: Sagas of Sarajevo (1998); (c) Soldiers and Slaves: American POWs Trapped in the Nazis’ Final Gamble (2005); (d) Danger in the Desert: True Adventures of a Dinosaur Hunter (2008); and (e) The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory of a Jewish Family (2015).

Cohen’s father, Sydney Cohen, a doctor, was born in South Africa and emigrated to the United Kingdom in the 1950s. Roger’s mother June also was born in South Africa and accompanied Sydney to the U.K. She died in 1999.

One of Roger Cohen’s columns, “The Battle to Belong,” from January 2015, told a moving account of his parents’ lives with these more general observations: “The strain of burying the past, losing one identity and embracing another, can be overwhelming. Home is an indelible place. It is the landscape of unfiltered experience, of things felt rather than thought through, of the world in its beauty absorbed before it is understood, of patterns and sounds that lodge themselves in the psyche and call out across the years. When home is left behind, or shattered, an immense struggle often ensues to fill the void.” A more expansive exploration of his own family history is found in his book, The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory of a Jewish Family.

Conclusion

Thank you, Roger Cohen, for sharing your thoughts with the world. You help us to understand and accept the truths expressed long ago in Ecclesiastes.

Recognize and rejoice in the fragility and beauty of life. Engage in acts of spontaneous generosity, surprise visits and idle conversation. See life as a succession of everyday tasks that should be well performed and that will provide happiness.

As we think about our ever-lengthening pasts, do so with balance and the realization that every one of us is haunted most by what we have failed to do. When you have these realizations, endeavor to remedy those failures.

Also accept the cycle of birth and death and see death as the shadow that gives shape to existence, the urgency to love and the brilliance to life. You too may find that the dead whisper words of encouragement and consolation.

These words are worth pondering by all of us. I look forward to reading his future columns as well as diving into the collection of his columns in the Times.

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[1] Roger Cohen’s biography may be found in the New York TImes, Wikipedia and Jewage.