Friday, February 6, 2015

A third way for Christians to engage with Muslims

Some Christians regard Muslims as the enemy, and are quick to link them all to terrorists.

Other Christians are just as eager to paper over differences between the faiths and focus on, say, their common connection to Abraham.

Joshua Ralston, a professor at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Va., sees a third way for Christians.

To approach Muslims with honesty about disagreements. With the love Jesus calls on his followers to have for their neighbors. And with a freedom that allows adherents of both faiths to bear witness to their beliefs – including Christians’ claims about Jesus and Muslims’ claims about the Prophet Muhammad.

“If we’re going to improve our encounters with one another, we have to create this space for us to both share what is deepest about what we believe,” he says. “Friendship isn’t always marked by agreement. It’s marked by honesty and exchange and trust.”

Ralston, who lived in Egypt and the Palestinian West Bank in 2011-13, will speak at 4 p.m. Sunday (Feb.8) at Charlotte’s Union Presbyterian Seminary, 5141 Sharon Road. The event is free. Here’s some of what he told me in an interview.

On the charge that moderate Muslims don’t condemn terrorism: “Islam is a diverse religion – just like Christianity – and there are numerous Muslims who have issued fatwas (Islamic rulings) against suicide bombings. There is a massive statement signed by the heads of many major Islamic institutions against ISIS. There are Muslims who are continually standing up against these terrorist militant groups. And Muslims are the ones who have been killed more than anyone else.”

On Christian amnesia: “I don’t want to justify at all what happened with the burning of the pilot from Jordan (by ISIS). But I keep seeing all these Christians posting, ‘What religion would ever do this?’ As if we’ve totally forgotten the Salem witch trials. As if we (Presbyterians) totally forgot that John Calvin – one of the main founders of the Reformed Presbyterian tradition – allowed for the burning of a heretic in Geneva. That doesn’t justify it. But Christians – our hands aren’t clean historically. And they aren’t clean right now: In the Central African Republic, Christian militias are killing Muslims.”

On Duke University’s plan – later reversed – to let Muslim students use the chapel: “There are issues that need to be discussed: Is Duke’s chapel a Christian space or a university space? But the virulent anti-Muslim backlash became the main issue. And yet when they decided to do the call to prayer (outside the chapel), there were Christians from Duke Divinity School and local pastors there there in support of the Muslims. That story needs to be told as much as the Franklin Graham (reaction to Duke’s plan).”

Being Christian in the Middle East: “You can’t be a Christian in Saudi Arabia publicly. But I think in our minds we think all of the Arab world and all of the Muslim world is like that. That’s not the case. I lived in Ramallah (in the Palestinian West Bank) for almost two years. I went to church publicly, On Easter, Muslims would come out and celebrate with Christians. And Christians would celebrate Ramadan with Muslims.”

On Franklin Graham’s claim that Muslims worship a different God: “Christians and Muslims both speak of the same God, but we speak about God differently and on some of those points we disagree. Most Christians have this belief in the Trinity. (Muslims don’t.) But neither do Jews. And I’m sure Franklin Graham thinks Jews worship the same God.”

-- Tim Funk

Friday, January 30, 2015

Religious liberty or discrimination? Think on these cases

We Americans are a divided lot these days. The problem: Too many of us seem eager to fight first and think later.

Take religion, a subject where you’d expect some thoughtfulness, even prayerfulness. Instead, the news is filled with war-like language over everything from same-sex marriage to Islam to persecution of Christians.

So let me ask you to cool your jets for a few minutes and ponder the following cases – some real, some hypothetical. Here goes:

  • A bill was introduced this week in the North Carolina Senate that would allow magistrates and registers of deeds who object to marrying gay couples to recuse themselves for religious reasons. What do you think? How about, say, Catholic magistrates and registers of deeds who may object to marrying people who have been divorced?

  • The mayor of Atlanta dismissed the city’s fire chief this month after he called homosexuality “vile” in a book he self-published and distributed to employees. What do you think? What if, say, the chief had written that Jews were bound for hell if they don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus?

  • What would you think about a Muslim public school teacher who wore a hijab, or head scarf? How about a public school teacher who wore a necklace that prominently displayed a Christian cross?

  • In a case involving Hobby Lobby, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that corporations with religious owners cannot be required to pay for insurance coverage for contraception. What do you think? What about a company whose owners had religious objections to, say, blood transfusions or even hospitalization?

  • Duke University recently sparked an uproar when it planned – than canceled plans – to begin a weekly Muslim call to prayer from the campus’ Christian chapel. What do you think? What would you think if a mosque or synagogue refused worship space to a Christian student group?

  • Saying employees are expected to abide by Catholic doctrine, Charlotte Catholic High School recently severed ties with a popular teacher after he used Facebook to announce plans to marry his male partner. What do you think? What if the high school had severed ties with a teacher because he and his wife practiced birth control – also a violation of church doctrine?

  • Does the violence of abortion clinic bombers and the Ku Klux Klan color your view of all Christians? Does the violence committed by radical jihadis color your view of all Muslims?

  • What do you think of cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad? How about cartoons making fun of Jesus?

My point: Us-vs.-them thinking often blinds us to the other side of an issue. If you want others to respect your identity – religious or otherwise – start by respecting theirs.

-- Tim Funk 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Looking for (faith) things to do? Here's list of speakers and more.

Like other news outfits, the Observer does surveys to see what our readers want more (and less) of when they open the paper or visit our website.

Well, survey says … you want more info on things to do.

On the faith & values beat, I interpret that to mean more about upcoming speakers and events.

Below are several I think may have wide interest. But first let me ask you to share with me any lectures, celebrations, seminars and whatever that you think would have public appeal.

Send them to

OK, ready with your calendars?

  • Poet/theologian/artist/author Edwina Gateley will speak at 9 a.m. Saturday (Jan. 24) at St. Peter Catholic Church, 507 S. Tryon in uptown. Her topic: “Discipleship – Giving Birth to God in a Contemporary World.” Free. Register here.

  • Temple Beth El’s 18th annual Comparative Religion Series will continue Tuesdays at 7 p.m. through Feb. 24 at the synagogue, 5101 Providence Road. This year’s focus: “Religion and Science – Can they coexist?”

Here’s the schedule: Tuesday (Jan. 27), the Buddhist perspective from Ryusho Jeffus, Shonin, Myosho-Ji of the Wonderful Voice Buddhist Temple; Feb. 3, the Catholic perspective, from Brother Guy Consolmagno of the Vatican Observatory; Feb. 10, the Islamic perspective from Syed Rizwan Zamir, assistant professor of religion at Davidson College; Feb. 17, the Baptist perspective from the Rev. Russ Dean, co-pastor of Park Road Baptist Church; and Feb. 24, the medical/religious perspective from Dr. Derek Raghavan of the Levine Cancer Institute and Rabbi Jonathan Freirich of Temple Beth El. Free.

  • Davidson College professor Douglas Ottati will speak 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (Jan. 28) in the school’s Alvarez College Union (Smith 900 Room). His topic: “Love Your Enemies – The Teaching of Jesus & Dynamics of Reactionary Violence.” Free.

  • In February, several Catholic churches in Charlotte will host courses as part of the winter semester of GIFT (Growing in Faith and Theology). Fee: $30 or $20 for Catholic school teachers and parish catechists. Brochures, course descriptions, dates, places, and registration forms are here.

The courses include: “Three Sacred Pathways to God (Franciscan, Benedictine and Ignatian)”; “Mercy, Jesus, Pope Francis and Me”; “World Religions”; “Short History of the Catholic Church in North Carolina”; “Brew Like a Benedictine”; and, in Spanish, “Los Sacramentos – Fuentes De Sanación." (This last course is free).

  • Poverty expert Donna Beegle will speak at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 3 at Wingate University in the Batte Center's McGee Theatre. The school is in Monroe. Beegle lives in Oregon and is the author of "See Poverty. Be the Difference."

She was born into a migrant family, married at 15, was homeless for 28 years, and is the only member of her family who has not been incarcerated. She went on to get a doctorate and is now president of Communication Across Borders.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Want a good movie about real religion? Go see 'Selma'

If you're looking for a movie with real religion -- as well as historical context, emotional complexity, political savvy and inspiring humanity -- I have a recommendation.

Go see “Selma,” the Oscar-nominated film about the civil rights marches that brought voting rights to African-Americans in the South in the 1960s.

Like the best films about religion – “Dead Man Walking,” “Shadowlands,” “Of Gods and Men” – “Selma” centers on imperfect people struggling to walk the talk of faith.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (played superbly by British actor David Oyelowo) clearly shines as a leader with vision and moral courage. But gifted director Ava DuVernay also lets us see his behind-the-scene battles with doubt, indecision and the tension in his marriage to Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo, also British and also excellent).

Such burdens give rise to a private dream, voiced by King in the opening scene, of a life away from the limelight, as the pastor of a small church in a university town.
But this Baptist preacher, his wife and his lieutenants soldier on, looking to God in those moments of hopelessness, despair – and awe.

Feeling drained and discouraged one night, King calls and wakes up gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, telling her he needs to hear the voice of the Lord. Obligingly, and movingly in the film, she sings over the phone, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”

Then later, after a helmeted Alabama state trooper shoots and kills Jimmie Lee Jackson, a young civil rights worker, we see King, tears brimming, try to console the martyr’s 82-year-old grandfather at the morgue. “God was the first to cry,” King tells the grieving old man, “the first to cry for your boy.”
“Selma” will make you tear up, for sure. With sadness at the evil humans are capable of, but also with joy at the faith-based solidarity so many display.

Take the scene where we see the result of King's call for reinforcements for the 54-mile march to Montgomery. Many thousands from around the country drive and fly to Selma, including Jewish rabbis, Catholic nuns, a Greek Orthodox archbishop and the Rev. James Reeb, a Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston who was to be murdered by racist thugs.

Biblical epics and churchy dramas are fine. But for those clamoring for movies that convey the positive power of religion, I say: Go see “Selma.”

Upcoming events

Two of the many Charlotte events marking Dr. King’s upcoming holiday testify to the religious roots of the civil rights movement:

  • The Rev. Clark Olsen will speak Sunday (Jan. 18), 9:15 a.m. and 11:15 a.m., at Unitarian Universalist Church of Charlotte, 234 North Sharon Amity Road. Olsen was a young UU minister in March 1965 when he answered King’s call for clergy to come to Selma and march. And he was there when his friend, the Rev. Reeb, was beaten to death by a white mob.
  • Former NAACP President Benjamin Jealous will be the keynoter at 8 a.m. Monday (Jan. 19) at the YMCA of Greater Charlotte’s 21st annual MLK Holiday Prayer Breakfast. More than 1,100 people are expected at the Charlotte Convention Center’s Crown Ballroom in uptown. Jealous plans to challenge the audience by asking: What is that one big thing you are going to change in your community before you die?

-- Tim Funk

Friday, January 2, 2015

Charlotteans worship God in these languages, too

In how many languages do people in Charlotte worship God these days?

I listed 20 that I knew of in a column last month. I should have said 21 because – as some of you pointed out – I failed to include what’s still the most prevalent worship language in town: English.

Oops! (Since the 1930s, that’s been an English word for acknowledging a blunder.)

My other mistake: I should have said that Haitian congregations here have services in Creole, not French.

I also invited you to alert me about other worship languages here that I was not aware of. Thanks to those who told me about:

22. Burmese. And 23. Hakha Chin.

Refugee congregations from war-torn Myanmar have been worshiping at Park Road Baptist Church and at Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Church.

24. Portuguese.

Brazilian members have services at Cokesbury United Methodist Church.

25. American Sign Language (ASL).

At Chapel for the Deaf, housed at Ascension Lutheran Church, worshipers pray and sing with their hands.

26. French. 27. Nepali (from Nepal). And 28. Tamil (from Sri Lanka and India).

Jehovah’s Witnesses have meetings available in many languages, including these.

Mass en Español

Speaking of language, I also ran across this fascinating factoid in my reporting:

Nearly 30 percent of Catholic parishes now celebrate Mass in a language other than English – a 7 percent increase since 2000, according to “The Changing Face of U.S. Catholic Parishes” study from the Center for Applied Research at Georgetown University.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, waves of Irish, Italian, Polish and other immigrant groups found refuge in a Catholic Church. The descendants of that first generation of immigrants have long since become part of the broad American mainstream.

But today, new waves of immigrants, particularly from Latin America, are again enriching the Catholic Church in the U.S.

To be sure, many immigrants from traditionally Catholic countries such as Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are finding spiritual homes in non-Catholic churches – Pentecostal, evangelical, mainline Protestant and Mormon.

By 2050, Hispanics are expected to account for 60 percent of Catholics in the U.S. They already make up about half of the more than 340,000 Catholics in the 46-county Diocese of Charlotte.

-- Tim Funk

Friday, December 12, 2014

Moses in 3-D -- special effects drown out theology, drama

Over the years, some clergy have confided to me that there are passages of the Bible they find difficult to accept, much less preach about.

To our modern ears, for example, some of what Paul wrote in the letters that became part of the New Testament sound sexist (“Wives, be submissive to your husbands”) or blind to systemic evil (“Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly”).

Then there are the stories in the Hebrew Bible where an angry God decides to punish or destroy, with fanfare, those who sin or stand in the way of God’s will.

You could argue that some evil people deserved to feel God’s wrath. But, as is the case with wars, a lot of innocent people who got in the way suffered, too. In Genesis, the Almighty decides to flood the world and, in Exodus, God inflicts plagues on Egyptians, including death to their firstborn children.

And that brings me to Hollywood, where biblical epics are back in style.

Some of the same passages considered difficult, even troubling, by those in the pulpit are irresistible to filmmakers with millions to spend on expensive actors and eye-popping special effects.

In this year’s “Noah,” starring Russell Crowe, director Darren Aronofsky drowns most of humanity, with hair-raising scenes of people crying in terror as the ground below them is rapidly submerged.

And in “Exodus: Gods and Kings” – now in a theater near you – I watched with awe through my 3-D glasses as director Ridley Scott and his CGI team waged apocalyptic war on the Egyptians.

Swarms of locusts rain down on Pharaoh and his subjects; frogs galore hop into their homes, even into their beds; monster-size crocodiles turn the Nile red with blood from all their human food; and, in a climax that’s more visually arresting than suspenseful, the waves of the Red Sea come crashing down on the Egyptian soldiers, sending them, their horses and their chariots into the deep.

Scott, the Brit who gave us the Oscar-winning “Gladiator,” must have felt a little like You-Know-Who as he presided over all this computer-generated doom and destruction.

The film purports to tell the story of how a faithful God sent Moses to lead the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt. Actor Christian Bale, who was perfect as Batman, is an OK Moses. And there are some intriguing scenes in which Moses, a reluctant hero, is prodded by a hyper-articulate boy who is supposed to be either God or God’s messenger.

But the drama and most of the theology are, yes, drowned out by the real reason for this 3-D movie: The “oohs” and “ahhs” from the audience every time the director commands “Action!”

-- Tim Funk

Friday, December 5, 2014

In increasingly diverse Charlotte, God goes by many names

Two newsy items I came across recently got me wondering: In how many languages do people in Charlotte worship God these days?

I counted at least 20 – not a surprise when you consider how diverse our faith community has become. And I bet some of you could add to my list. (And hopefully will – see below.)

Those two newsy items:

  • At 7 p.m. on Thursday (Dec. 11),  thousands of Spanish-speaking Catholics are expected to converge on Bojangles Coliseum, 2700 E. Independence Blvd., for the annual celebration of the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe – or “Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe.”

  • A Polish-language Mass will be celebrated at 3 p.m. on Dec. 21 at St. Matthew Catholic Church, 8015 Ballantyne Commons Parkway.

To be sure, most local houses of worship still send their prayers up to “God.”

But, all over town, the Supreme Being is increasingly invoked by other names: “Dios” (in Spanish); “Gott” (German); “Elohim” and “Adonai” (Hebrew); “Allah” (Arabic); “Deus” (Latin); “Bóg” (Polish); “Theos” (Greek); “Dieu” (French); and many others.

I consulted a few folks in town who chart Charlotte’s growing diversity – including historian Tom Hanchett of the Levine Museum of the New South – and came up with a list of the languages of worship in the Charlotte area:

  • The Catholic Diocese has parishes where some or all of the Masses are in Spanish, Vietnamese, Korean and Latin. A few parishes periodically host Masses in other languages, including Polish and Tagalog (from the Philippines).

  • Orthodox Christian churches have services that are partly or totally said in Greek, Russian, Serbian, Armenian and Arabic.

  • The Jewish synagogues include prayers in Hebrew.

  • Muslims attending masjids, or mosques, are led in prayer in Arabic.

  • Various Protestant denominations – Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian and Baptist – have immigrant congregations that worship in German, Khmer (the language of Cambodia), Korean, Spanish, Russian, Chinese and Tagalog.

  • Buddhist temples are the spiritual homes to immigrant communities that speak Chinese, Lao (from Laos), Vietnamese and Khmer.

  • The sacred language at the Hindu temples is Sanskrit.

  • Haitian churches have services in French.

  • Immigrant churches with congregations from African countries worship in such indigenous language groups as Akan (from Ghana) and Amharic (from Ethiopia).

OK, that’s our list. What languages have we left out? Email them (and any related houses of worship) to:

-- Tim Funk