In the redwoods

On Thursday, I was at a meeting in Camp Meeker, California, in the redwoods. In the morning, I walked out the door just in time to look out at the top of the fog bank in the valley below.

As in a traditional Chinese landscape painting, by anyone from Wang Wei down to the Ming dynasty, you could tell how far away something was by how much it faded into the mist; and then above the mist you could see a distant hilltop covered with trees. I imposed a kind of Western-style perspective into the photograph by finding lines — in trees, in the horizon, in the clouds — that seem to lead to a vanishing point about where the sun is trying to break through the clouds. There was no perspectival vanishing point in the actual landscape: just mist and trees and abrupt hills and valleys. But so it is that we use our familiar conceptual schemas to experience the world, even when they don’t really fit.

Religious tolerance and Trump’s order banning refugees

The BBC has posted the full text of Trump’s executive order titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” here.

The executive order states in part: “The United States cannot, and should not, admit those who do not support the Constitution, or those who would place violent ideologies over American law.” By the same logic, the executive order itself should support the Constitution, including the right to religious belief set forth in the First Amendment, viz.: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

What is particularly problematic here is that Trump, like both his presidential predecessors, is using executive orders too broadly. This particular executive order has the effect of proscribing persons with certain religious beliefs, notwithstanding that the courts have generally held that, while certain destructive religious practices (e.g., Hindu suttee, human sacrifice, etc.) can be prohibited by law, religious beliefs cannot be regulated by Congress. Trump’s use of a presidential executive order can be seen as an attempted end run around the First Amendment. US District Judge Ann Donnelly has issued a temporary stay of the executive order, though she did not attempt to rule on its constitutionality — that will be left to another court.

Although Trump has stated that this executive order does not target specific religious groups (i.e., Muslims), the effect of the order is to severely limit the admission of Muslims into the United States; under the order, no visas will be issued to nationals of seven countries, including Syria, Iran, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, all of which are Muslim-majority countries, according to the BBC. Furthermore, the BBC notes that in an interview of Friday, Trump specifically said that Christians “would be given priority among Syrians who apply for refugee status in the future” (BBC’s paraphrase), thus implying that the government gives preference to certain religions.

All people belonging to faith communities should be wary of this executive order; we have a vested interest in maintaining freedom of our religious beliefs in the United States, and this executive order is a definite step towards establishing state-sanctioned religious beliefs, insofar as it brands certain beliefs as not acceptable. As noted previously, Trump has indicated that Christian refugees will be considered exceptions under this executive order, but Christians should also be worried, unless you’re sure that you hold exactly the right kind of Christian belief that will receive government sanction. Atheists and agnostics, you too should be worried about the creeping establishment of government-approved religion!

Write to Trump right now to express your concern. You can send your email to president@whitehouse.gov — if you prefer to send classic mail, address your letter to:
The President
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

Do this RIGHT NOW. Then tell ten friends to write letters as well. Let’s make sure the White House receives a million or more letters opposing this executive order within a week.

I’ll put the text of my email below, along with a sample email you can tweak for yourself….

Continue reading “Religious tolerance and Trump’s order banning refugees”

Multifaith Service of Concern and Commitment

Last night, our congregation hosted a Multifaith Service of Concern and Commitment, an event sponsored by Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice. Held on the eve of the presidential inauguration, the event aimed to demonstrate that many people of faith do not agree with the stated agendas of the incoming presidential administration, especially religious intolerance and anger directed at immigrants. We had an overflow crowd, with people seated in the lobby and a few standing along the walls.

The service opened with the sounding of the Jewish shofar by Ted Kahn, a Christian call to prayer by Eileen Altman, an Islamic call to prayer by Ahmed Saleh, and a Quaker invitation to silence by Eric Sabelman. Longer reflections came from a Native American tradition (Chastity Lolita Salvador), Judaism (Sheldon Lewis), Christianity (Annanda Barclay), Islam (Samina Sundas) Buddhism (Ayya Santussika), and an immigrant reflection by Guadalupe Garcia. Here’s Samina Sundas giving her reflection on what it means to be a Muslim in the U.S. today:

We had music by an Islamic ensemble, two Jewish singers, a Catholic pianist, and a Unitarian Universalist choir. To close the evening, Amy Eilberg and Diana Gibson, two of the organizers of the event from Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice, asked everyone present to talk in small groups and commit to one or more actions to keep us moving in a positive direction over the next few years — that is, moving away from hatred and division and towards acceptance and love. Here are some of the commitments that people wrote on sticky-notes and posted for all to read:

This was a good way to mark the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, a presidency which had its faults but which was marked by an attempt to move the U.S. towards greater unity and acceptance of each other. This is a good time to commit ourselves once again to the moral ideal of loving one’s neighbor as oneself — it’s going to take a bit more effort under the new presidential administration, which so far has been distinguished morally by selfishness, defensiveness, and self-righteousness. Time to gird up your loins, campers, and get to work — ’cause we haven’t reached the promised land yet.

For reference, here’s a PDF of the program for the Multifaith Service.

“There Is More Love Somwhere”

I don’t want to spoil anything for you, but if you like the hymn “There Is More Love Somewhere,” there’s another version you should know about.

This is not a widely-sung hymn; I can’t find it in in the vast collection of hymnals at the Hymnary.org Web site, and the only hymnal I’ve seen it in is the Unitarian Universalist hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition. The version in Singing the Living Tradition closely follows the melody sung by Bernice Johnson Reagon on her 1986 album “River of Life,” and you can hear Reagon’s version on Youtube. In the booklet that goes with the CD, Reagon says that she learned the song from Bessie Jones. (The only other commercial recording I’ve been able to track down is one by Eileen McGann, a Canadian folk singer, on her 1997 ablum titled “Heritage.”)

Reagon might well have learned the song directly from Bessie Jones, but there’s also an Alan Lomax recording of Jones singing “There Is More Love Somewhere.” Now Bernice Johnson Reagon is a hugely talented singer, but I much prefer Bessie Jones’s rendition of the hymn. Reagon was making a commercial recording, and her performance is highly polished and meticulously crafted. Jones sings the tune in Alan Lomax’s living room, and her performance is by no means a commercially polished recording; yet I feel she gets deeper into the feeling and meaning of the song. Musically, Jones’s version is more direct; Reagon adds carefully articulated sixteenth notes (all of which are carefully reproduced in the Singing the Living Tradition version), where for her part, Jones varies and improvises on the melody, shades pitch and plays with the rhythm, and goes whither the Spirit leads her.

Lest there be any question, the lyrics Jones sings make it clear that this song comes from the African American Christian tradition. Her lyrics begin with “There is more love somewhere,” then go on to “more joy,” “happiness,” “Jesus,” “more peace,” and “heaven,” before reprising “more love” and “more joy.” (If you don’t like heavenly love and joy, you may not want to sing this song.) And as you’d expect from a song out of the African American Christian tradition, there is no pretence that we all have plenty of joy and happiness right here and now; joy, happiness, heaven are all theological ideals, the end towards which we direct our lives, with no guarantee that we will achieve that end now or in the immediate future — we can only hope to find them “somewhere.”

I should also note that Singing the Living Tradition names the tune “Biko,” but as much as I admire Stephen Biko I consider this to be a misleading name that doesn’t relate to the actual origins of the tune. Bessie Jones told Alan Lomax the song came from the Georgia Sea Islands, so “Sea Islands” would be a better name.

In any case — listen to the Bessie Jones version of this tune. Now that I have Jone’s version in my ear, any time I sing it I can’t help but remember that the song comes from the Gullah people of Georgia’s Sea Islands, people who managed to keep their direct cultural connections to Africa; that it’s a song of deepest spiritual longings and hope for the future; and that you don’t need to sing it like a commercially produced recording, you can sing it from the heart.

Local religious data

I love poring over data on U.S. religions, and a motherlode of such data can be found on the Web site of The Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA).

Tonight, I’ve been looking over religion data for Santa Clara County, the county which includes the UU Church of Palo Alto, as found in the County Membership Report.

ARDA’s Web page shows that 43.6% of the county population are religious adherents, essentially unchanged from 43.3% of the county’s population in 2000. The count includes 1,005,614 people as unaffiliated; 447,369 as Roman Catholic; 148,599 as Evangelical Protestant; 125,165 as Other (this includes Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, UUs, etc.); and 44,623 as Mainline Protestant. 927 people are counted as members of Unitarian Universalist congregations.

These counts are based on self-reporting by 236 religious bodies, and any interpretation should take that into account. Obvious problems: religious bodies may have different reporting procedures; some of us (like me) are regular attendees but are not official members of a congregation, so are not counted; counts may include people who are not really adherents; etc.

The basic data sets come from the Assoc. of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, whose Web site is also of interest.

My main interest in the ARDA Web page is how it helps show the incredible religious diversity of Santa Clara County. Admittedly, they miss some smaller religious groups, particularly adherents of Orisa Devotion, and several New Religious Movements; but these are groups that may deliberately hide from, or give incorrect information to, researchers. Even with the obvious gaps (Cao Dai, Scientology, Santeria), their list of religious groups shows impressive diversity: a bewildering variety of Christians; Baha’is; Buddhists; Hindus; Jains; Jews; a few New Religious Movements; Sikhs; and Unitarian Universalists.

Definitely a fascinating Web site for exploring data on religion in a given geographical region.

Noted, with minimal comment

“In the Enlightenment, ‘natural law’ functioned as a radical critique of the existing order. … [N]atural law’s most salient exponent is, without doubt, late nineteenth-century Social Darwinism. The Social Darwinists co-opted Charles Darwin’s theories of biological evolution — specifically, the idea that in nature there is an ongoing amoral struggle, in which the survivor is the most fit in a specific place and a specific time, or, simply, the most powerful. For the Darwinists this was an indisputable fact. Furthermore, the cruelty of the victory guarantees the development of the species and its advancement. Social Darwinism is the application of a biological principle to the sphere of human affairs: what is perceived as a fact of life in the natural world is deemed applicable to human affairs. The two most obvious examples of Social Darwinist thinking are Nazi ideology on the one hand, and a certain idealization of capitalist competition with its relentless preoccupation with egoistic self-fulfillment, on the other. In other words, the theoretical laws of the biological world are hereby transformed into normative social doctrines. Natural law came to be understood as amoral.” — Shalom Rosenberg, “Concepts of Torah and Nature in Jewish Thought,” Judaism and Ecology, ed. Hava Tirosh-Samuelson (Cambridge, Mass.: Center for the Study of World Religions, Harvard Divinity School, 2002), pp. 190-192.

Yes indeed. To hell with the homeless, the poor, and the unemployed. It may seem cruel to let them starve to death, but it’s just nature’s way of weeding out the unfit — so sayeth many of our politicians today, in their twisted misunderstanding of biological theory.