Poem: “Bethel”

About six months ago, I composed the following poem. It’s called Bethel, which means “house of God” in Hebrew. Initially inspired by peaceful summer sunsets and a passage of Genesis (which can be found below), I found myself weaving together strands of wisdom I’ve gathered from diverse religious sources over the years.

The words of this poem are not original. Every line contains a direct reference to a different scripture passage or myth that has informed my own personal sprituality. The sources include the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, the Qur’an and Hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), Jewish midrash (commentary), the poetry of Hafiz and Rumi, the mystical writings of Julian of Norwich and Gregory of Nyssa, and Buddhist myth.

I’ve linked each line to the source from which it comes, so you can look up the ideas inspired this piece. I hope this poem can be a source for inter religious education, to help acquaint religious and non-religious people alike with the beautiful truths contained in religious stories.

But more importantly, I hope this poem can express a bit of my own varied experience of God. The words of these great religions help me to describe a range of encounters and emotions: first, wonder and awe; then, confusion and mystery; abandonment and anxiety; pain and relief; excitement and giddiness; peace and communion. I’m  learning that of these states of being–all of these stages of joy, sorrow, boredom, and everything in between–are locations of encounter with God.

In short, the message of this poem is an elaboration of Jacob’s exclamation in Genesis 28:16: “Truly, the Lord is in this spot, although I did not know it.” Though I don’t often realize it, God is always with me.

Bethel
by Jordan Denari

This spot

where I place a stone
where the sparrow falls
and hovers like love over the waters
where He breaks a branch,
a rung on the ladder,
     and His foot touches earth near me.

where there’s a ringing in my ears,
     a tight, breathless squeezing
where fire passes between
     two wrestling beings
where I’m shoved into a cliff face
     and down into a ditch.

where a ram is found in the thicket
where mothers clutch branches of date
     and sal trees
where a father runs to me, though I was a long way off.

where the Lover leaps across the hills
     and knocks at my door
     so sweetly asking for your address.

where the lilies no longer toil and spin
where light is poured back in
where the stone is rolled away
    and the Gardener calls my name. 

Sunset in North East Washington, D.C. at the Franciscan Monastery.
Sunset in North East Washington, D.C. at the Franciscan Monastery.

Lessons from Good Pope John, Part 2: Compassion and courage

This post is the second piece in a series about Pope John XXIII, who opened the Vatican II Council on October 11, 1962.  I hope we can celebrate the 50th anniversary of the council, and live out its mission, by following the example of the Good Pope.

John’s motto for his papacy was “pastor and father.”  He didn’t just preach about unconditional Christian love, but he lived it by intimately engaging with people, even when it was unpopular.

Like a loving grandfather, John encouraged parents to “give their children a kiss from the pope,” and every day would pray the rosary for all the babies born in the world that day.

John with a little girl in her First Communion outfit.

He could easily empathize with others, and, while working as a military chaplain during World War I, wrote, “It often happened—permit me this personal memory—that I had to fall on my knees and cry like a child, alone in my room, unable to contain the emotion I felt at the simple and holy deaths of so many poor sons of our people.” As a diplomat in Europe during World War II, John worked secretly to save Jews by forging birth certificates and marriage papers.

John constantly practiced and encouraged aggiornamento—updating or renewal—during a time when the Church, for so long, had refused to engage with the modern world.

He not only pushed the Church toward aggiornamento by calling the Council, but he also sought to redefine his own position as pope. He took the name John upon ascending to the papacy, despite the fact that the name was considered “unsalvageable” after the militaristic John XXII had tainted the name.  The Good Pope reclaimed the name and transformed it.

John visits prisoners on Christmas in 1958.

John broke with the papal tradition of seclusion and made the world his home.  In a radical move, he celebrated his first Christmas as pope at a local prison. Upon meeting the prisoners he said, “You could not leave to see me so I came to you.”

Only days into his papacy—which many had assumed would be a short-term, transitional period, given John’s old age—John announced he plan to call a council.  It came in a “flash of inspiration” from the Holy Spirit, he said, and took swift action to make it happen.

John addressed the fears of Church leaders and laity who were wary about a council, and about bringing the Church into the modern world that it, for so long, had pulled away from.

In his opening speech at the council, John said, “We must disagree with these prophets of gloom,” who could only see the destruction and corruption of modernity. “We must recognize here the hand of God,” John asserted, understanding the good that modernity could do for the Church, and the good that the Church could do for modernity.  John quickly published an encyclical addressing all people (not just Catholics), which spoke about imperialism, just wage, social justice, human rights, relations with the Jews, liturgy, and religious freedom.  Speaking in modern terms about modern crises, he wanted all the world’s people to know how much he loved them.

Yesterday, I wrote about John’s humor and humility.  Tomorrow, I’ll discuss John’s attitude of detachment and trust.

The Oslo Opportunity, Part 4: ‘He’s not a Christian!’

As the terrorist attacks unfolded in Norway but before their origins were fully known, many assumed that the perpetrator was a Muslim.  To everyone’s surprise, the terrorist wasn’t Muslim, but rather a blond, Christian, anti-Muslim extremist, Anders Behring Breivik.

Immediately after the attacks, American anti-Muslim activists (like those I mentioned in Wednesday’s post) frantically distanced themselves from Breivik.  Pamela Geller, who was referenced positively in Breivik’s manifesto, dismissed Breivik as a crazy man without an ideology—all this despite Breivik’s planned and methodical killing inspired by his 1,500 page manifesto.

Stephen Colbert did a great segment about the shock of Breivik’s identity. “The point is, this monster may not be Muslim, but his heinous acts are indisputably Musl-ish. And we must not let his Islam-esque atrocity divert our attention from the terrible people he reminds us of.”  See the video below.

Click to watch.

Breivik strongly identified himself as a Christian, and the right-wing news media in America was disturbed by this fact.  Jon Stewart did a great segment highlighting the hypocrisy of FOX News’ concerns.  Here’s a few that Jon brings up in his piece:

Laura Ingram: “The idea that [Breivik] represents any mainstream or even fringe sentiment in the Christian community is ridiculous.”

Bill O’Reilly: “Breivik is not a Christian. That’s impossible.  No one believing in Jesus commits mass murder. … They call him a Christian because he says he is?”

Stewart’s reaction: “Now obviously I would have a little more sympathy for the FOX rapid response team’s nuanced concerns if their plea to distinguish violence proclaimed in the name of a religion from the practitioners and tenets of said religion were applied to more than let’s say one religion.”

As Stewart points out, the FOX News Christians are trying to make the same argument about Breivik that Muslims have been trying to make about Muslim terrorist for the last ten years. Who knew that FOX would be so quick to cling to an argument they’ve been trying to break apart for a decade.  Watch the clip below, and enjoy.

Click to watch.

*In this series, and on my blog more generally, I’ve criticized the right-wing media and the Republican party.  This is not because of my own partisan views.  I do consider myself a liberal, but because of many conservatives’ choice to embrace Islamophobia and further spread it. Except for New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who has been the lone conservative voice to call out the ridiculousness of anti-Muslim and anti-sharia rhetoric, no conservative has asked their fellow party members to embrace sanity in the midst of the fear mongering.  Democrats haven’t been much better and have generally distanced themselves from the discussion.  Though many have openly and strongly countered the Islamophobic rhetoric, they need to do a better job of making their opinions heard to the general public, not those who read op-eds in liberal websites and news outlets.  The more liberal cable news programs have done a great job responding to the hysteria, but they tend to preach to the choir, leaving the often-misinformed Americans who only get their news from FOX to maintain their mistaken beliefs.  Both parties must do better at fighting Islamophobia and encourage one another to stop making Muslims political pawns.

The Oslo Opportunity, Part 1: Talking about Terrorism

In the weeks since the terrorist attacks in Norway, I’ve read a lot of articles and op-eds attempting to flesh out their implications and identify the tensions that led to them.  Though the attacks were truly horrific, they present us with a much-needed opportunity to discuss a topic that is too often ignored in the post-9/11 world: the rise of right wing and anti-Muslim extremism.

The discussion resulting from the attacks has brought up some points that I’d like to further develop.  The discourse has also lacked in some respects, and I’d like to bring up some new thoughts for consideration as well.

In the next five posts, I’ll elaborate on the terminology of terrorism, Europe’s response to its increasing Muslim population, the role of American activists in shaping Islamophobia in Europe, FOX News’ hypocritical response to Breivik’s Christianty, and my optimism about the United States’ ability to avoid the widespread and entrenched prejudice—and now violence—we’ve seen in Europe.

Talking about terrorism

Anders Behring Breivik

In reports from the New York Times, NPR, and other well-respected news organizations, we’ve heard the suspected perpetrator, Anders Behring Breivik, referred to as the ‘attacker’ or ‘killer’ and his actions as ‘violent extremism.’  These classifications are clearly true, but we must also acknowledge that Breivik is also a ‘terrorist’ and that his actions are ‘terrorism.’  Given the ease with which the media and political commentators today jump to label violent attacks as ‘terrorism,’ it might seem surprising that they were much more wary of using the same terminology for the Norway event.

Why not call this attack what it is?  I think it’s because the word ‘terrorism’ has lost its original and intended meaning, and instead come to be understood as ‘violent Islamic extremism.’  I’d like to make the case as to why the Norway attacks are indeed terrorism, and why we must call it terrorism.

Here is the definition of ‘terrorism’ under U.S. law:

1) “premeditated, 2) politically- motivated 3) violence (or intimidation) 4) perpetrated against non-combatant targets 5) by subnational groups or clandestine agents”

For terrorists, high body counts are not their main concern.  More concerned about symbolism, their highest priority is to instill fear and destroy values and ideas.  Terrorism’s victims aren’t only those who die or are injured.  As Georgetown scholar Bruce Hoffman says, “designed to have far-reaching psychological repercussions beyond the immediate victim or target.”

It’s easy to think about how the 9/11 attacks fit into this definition.  So let’s look at the double Norway attacks to see how they fit the definition:

1) Breivik’s well-coordinated attack had been planning his attack for a long time—he even had a 1,500 page manifesto to “justify” it.
2) Concerned with the increased immigration of Muslims into Europe and his government’s failure to address the problem and willingness to submit to multiculturalism (his sentiment, not mine), he attacked a government building and a party camp for future political leaders.
3) After blowing up the building in downtown Oslo, he masqueraded as a police officer on Utoya island, offering comfort and safety before stalking through the woods and shore shooting teenagers.  His attacks claimed over 70 lives.
4) His victims were ordinary citizens—government workers and politically active young people.
5) He carried this attack out on his own, secretly planning it without law enforcement’s knowledge.

This is a plea to the media (and ordinary citizens) for consistency—we must call these attacks ‘terrorism.’  Doing otherwise is dangerous because it makes us take these attacks less seriously than attacks committed by Muslim terrorists.  No matter the ideology motivating them, terrorists and their actions should be treated with equal concern.

In my next post, I’ll talk about why Europe’s problem with Islamophobia is much bigger than in the U.S.

Happy holidays!

To all of my fellow Catholics, Happy Feast of St. Ignatius Loyola!

“Every good Christian ought to be more disposed to put a good interpretation on a neighbor’s statement than to condemn it.” –St. Ignatius

St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits

To all of my Muslim friends, Ramadan Karim!

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” –Rumi, Muslim Sufi mystic

Muslim mystic and poet, Rumi

Once again, I thank the Jesuits and the Muslim community, who have taught me so much about loving my neighbor.

(Coming soon: a post on the Oslo terror attack and its implications)