David L Johnston  

David L Johnston

[This is the 3rd installment of the series, “Earth Warming, Faith Rising?”]

“Investing” is a business term. People invest in start-up ventures that seem promising; in company stocks that are slated to rise; in a property whose market value is climbing. In each case, the investor expects to reap financial dividends.

People invest in charities too. They invest their time and skills as volunteers to tutor underprivileged children after school, or to help run a food bank. Those dividends are not financial, but still just as tangible. We do this with great satisfaction, because we are helping others develop their potential, or we’re simply alleviating human need.

I have no doubt that “investing in the planet” will reap great dividends, though many will only be counted down the road. Investing in clean energy, for instance, will decrease greenhouse gas emissions, thus slowing down global warming. Then less temperature increase will reduce the number and intensity of future weather disasters and curb the rise of sea levels – all of which disproportionately affects the poor.

That’s for climate change mitigation. Let’s add two more factors: investing in the planet also means removing all the socioeconomic and political barriers that keep the poor beaten down (social justice) and reducing conflicts and wars that create such havoc around the world (peace building).

Now you have the three core principles behind the Earth Charter. What is the “Earth Charter,” you ask?

Initiated by the United Nations around 1990, the Earth Charter Commission was run by a coalition of NGOs and activists from around the world. After much networking by email, phone conversations and conferences, the final product was rolled out in 2000. Here is the preamble:

“We stand at a critical moment in Earth's history, a time when humanity must choose its future. As the world becomes increasingly interdependent and fragile, the future at once holds great peril and great promise. To move forward we must recognize that in the midst of a magnificent diversity of cultures and life forms we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny. We must join together to bring forth a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace. Towards this end, it is imperative that we, the peoples of Earth, declare our responsibility to one another, to the greater community of life, and to future generations.”

This document was in part behind the paper I presented (see a more recent blog on this) at the American Academy of Religion in its 2010 annual meeting in Atlanta. What is striking in its wording is the emphasis on the interconnectedness of all humans sharing one planet, and their close ties to “the greater community of life” – another way of saying “nature,” “creation” (from a monotheistic perspective), which includes animate and inanimate beings.

This blog looks at the idea from a Muslim viewpoint and the next one does the same for Christians. I will start with the theological tenets that crop up most often as Muslims today write about the environment. That will lead into naming some of the key players in today’s “greening of Islam.”


Tawhid, Khilafa, conservation, and care for all creatures

Tawhid (literally, “the process of making things one”) first designates the unity of God. Islam is fiercely monotheistic, as is Judaism. Christians too believe in only one God, but the Bible adds that he was fully embodied in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who preached and demonstrated the kingdom of God through the power of the Holy Spirit. One of the earliest suras of the Qur’an directly pushes back against this idea, because it interprets it literally (“sonship” is clearly figurative in the New Testament):

“Say: He is God, the One and Only God,

The Eternal, Absolute

He begetteth not, nor is He begotten

And there is none like unto Him” (Q. 112)

From the absolute oneness of God, then, flows the oneness of all creation, since every part directly connects to him, by virtue of its origin and by virtue of his constant, sustaining power. Islam means “surrender” or “submission” to God. Every organism, rock, tree, ocean and planet submits to the laws he puts in place. In that sense they are all “muslim.” From the start only humankind, once fashioned by God, received the breath of God’s Spirit:

“Behold, thy Lord said to the angels: ‘I am about to create man from clay: when I have fashioned him (in due proportion) and breathed into him of my Spirit, fall ye down in obeisance unto him.’” (38:71-2)

The angels were commanded to bow down to Adam for another reason too, as we read in Sura 2 (“The Cow”). Here the angels, upon hearing that God was about to place Adam on earth as his “caliph” (khalifa, meaning trustee, deputy, representative), were stunned. God gave them proof that this creature was totally unlike all other creatures. He is taught “the names of all things,” meaning that humanity alone is endowed with reason (i.e., with the power to create science and technology) and conscience (he alone can choose to submit to God or not). So we read,


30. Behold, thy Lord said to the angels: “I will create a vicegerent on earth” They said: “Wilt Thou place therein one who will make mischief therein and shed blood? Whilst we do celebrate Thy praises and glorify Thy holy (name)?” He said: “I know what ye know not.”

31. And He taught Adam the nature of all things; then He placed them before the angels, and said: “Tell me the nature of these if ye are right.”

32. They said: “Glory to Thee: of knowledge we have none, save what Thou hast taught us: in truth it is Thou who art perfect in knowledge and wisdom.”

33. He said: “O Adam! tell them their natures.” When he had told them, God said: “Did I not tell you that I know the secrets of heaven and earth, and I know what ye reveal and what ye conceal?”

34. And behold, We said to the angels: “Bow down to Adam:” and they bowed down: not so Iblis: he refused and was haughty: he was of those who reject Faith.


This of course is the central theme of my book, Earth, Empire and Sacred Text. The idea that God empowered the children of Adam and Eve as his trustees on earth is the bedrock of Muslim-Christian common ground. This concept first came to me while reading the works of Anglican bishop, Kenneth Cragg, arguably the most astute (certainly the most prolific!) non-Muslim interpreter of the Qur’an. For him, the Qur’an unmistakably links the gifts of reason and conscience to the calling of earth tenancy – “wisely colonizing” the earth (Q. 11:61), as he puts it. So accountable management of the earth’s resources is in itself an act of worship; and this calling to master the earth nicely parallels the earth itself being full of “God’s signs,” as the Qur’an repeats over and over. Borrowing a Christian word, he calls it the “sacramental earth.” In Cragg’s own words,

“Nature offers both delight and duty but only in unison. Economy and ecology, wealth and habitation, are as it were a constant interrogation of his environment by the mind of man. The questioner is himself questioned. The answers to man have to be matched and sanctified by the answer from man. It is these together which are the essence of the sacramental. The good earth is the earthly good: they require each other” (The Mind of the Qur’an, 153).

If you are serious about studying Islam and ecology, perhaps the best place to begin is with Mawil Izzi Dien’s book, The Environmental Dimensions of Islam (2000). A specialist in Islamic law and ethics at the University of Wales, his objective has been to develop a new branch of the Shari’a that deals with environmental protection. Besides some legal tools developed in Islamic jurisprudence over the centuries, the two main sources of Shari’a are the Qur’an and Sunna (the example of the Prophet Muhammad, as seen through the most authentic collections of sayings, or hadiths, circulated by his Companions). Here are just a few environmental principles he gleaned from these sources:

1. The Qur’an addresses humanity as a whole, underlining the dignity of “the environmental citizen of the globe”:

““O people! Adore your Guardian-Lord . . . Who has made the earth your couch, and the heavens your canopy; and sent down rain from the heavens; and brought forth therewith fruits for your sustenance” (Q. 2:21-22)

2. Add this idea of the solidarity of humanity as a whole to the Shari’a principle that benefit (maslaha) for the greater number outweighs the benefit of the smaller number and you have, in Izzi Dien’s words, the following environmental application:

“This principle can be extended to many contemporary environmental threats since they are potentially greater killers than any homicidal individual, and the interest achieved, in both avoiding and removing them, is often unquestionable even if there is the loss of benefits expected from them. Islamic legislation is expected to have provisions to protect the environment and guarantee its sustainability. These provisions take precedence over individual or community interests even if the latter appear to b of an overwhelming urgency. The long-term harm that results from the destruction of environmental factors such as the ozone layer outweighs any possible advantages that may arise from cheap refrigeration, which releases chlorofluorocarbon gases and damages the ozone layer (Izzi Dien 2000: 136).”

3. The value of conservation: according to one hadith, the Prophet scolded his companion Sa’ad one day for using too much water for his ablutions (wudu). Water should not be wasted, he said, even if a river is nearby.

4. The necessity of nature preserves: the prophet emphasized the sanctity (hurma) of creation by declaring a large tract of land around the cities of Mecca and Medina off limits for hunting and any kind if harvesting; later Islamic law established “protected”(or “forbidden” zones” (harim) around trees, wells, and rivers to guarantee that they would continue to serve as a public good.

Some names to remember (and look up!):

The pioneer of Islamic environmentalism is the Iranian-American scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr (with a long career at George Washington University), an acclaimed philosopher and a follower of the Perennial Philosophy movement (all religions, however different they appear on the surface, are expressions of a common Transcendent Reality). His landmark book on ecology was Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis of Modern Man (1968). More recently he published Religion and the Order of Nature (1996). All religions, he argues, teach that nature is sacred and that humanity must approach it with great humility, seeking above all to live in harmony with it. Islam, in particular, offers the potent symbol of the Pen (Q. 96:1-4):

“God wrote by means of the Pen, which symbolizes the active principle of Creation, the realities of all things, upon the Guarded Tablet, which remains eternally with Him, while through the cosmogenic act, the realities written upon the Tablet were made to descend to lower levels of existence and finally to the world of nature. The order of nature, therefore, reflects and issues from the order that exists in the Divine Realm. This thesis is confirmed by the insistence of the Quran, reaffirming the Book of Wisdom, that everything is created according to measure, or to quote the Quranic verse, ‘Everything with Him has its measure (miqdar)’ (13:8) (pp. 60-1).”


Probably too mystical for most, I’ll point out that over the years he’s influenced scores of students, and Muslim ones in particular, to actively care for creation. See this 2009 article on a Muslim website reporting on the Washington network called "DC Greens." Their website is attractive and cleverly interactive.

The most famous Muslim scholar/activist has been Fazlun Khalid, founder of the UK-based Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences (IFEES). Strangely, his website seems to be down at this time and his journal EcoIslam also hasn’t been issued in the last couple of years. Nevertheless, it showcased a flurry of activity in the 2000s, like intensive educational workshops on Islamic environmentalism in the Zanzibar Archipelago, Indonesia’s Aceh province and West Sumatra. He has worked closely with the ulama (legal scholars) of those Muslim territories, who delivered high-profile fatwas (legal rulings, usually in response to specific questions) on environmental issues as a result. One in particular read,

“Logging and mining which damage the environment and harm society and/or the nation are haram [forbidden]. All activities and businesses related to these are haram. It is fardh [obligatory] upon law enforcement agencies to act firmly to enforce the law.”

IFEES activism in West Sumatra, in particular, where the rain forest has been especially vulnerable to destruction by logging and mining companies, along with cash-crop entrepreneurs, bringing together civil society, forestry cadres and religious leaders, has been very effective.

In a nutshell, here is the IFEES philosophy:

“Human beings according to Islam are considered the best of creation. Created from organic materials, Earth, water and infused with the 'fitra' - a divine inclination - humans are from the Earth. The Earth is a part of ourselves. And it is our responsibility to protect it.” ~ The Eco Muslim

I should add too that several Indonesian environmental scientists have been training students and even publishing their research abroad, as is the case of Fachruddin Majeri Mangunjaya, professor at the Bogor Agricultural University. In 2010, his essay, “Developing Environmental Awareness and Conservation through Islamic Teaching,” was published in an Oxford University Press journal. Thanks to Prof. Anna M. Gade (University of Wisconsin) and her own research in Indonesia on these issues, Mangunjaya agreed to contribute an article to the special issue of Worldviews I am editing. Her own article chronicles the growing “green” movement in the religious schools of Indonesia, the pesantren.

  By far, the country most dramatically threatened by climate change is the south Asian Island nation, the Maldives. Out of 1,200 coral islands, 200 are inhabited, yet the elevation above sea level is nowhere above three meters. Not surprisingly, their president, Mohamed Nasheed, has been the most outspoken critic of China and the USA’s foot-dragging in the UN-sponsored climate change talks. In 2009 he held an underwater cabinet meeting in scuba diving gear to publicize the urgency of his nation’s situation (see Reuter’s coverage of the event).

Finally, if you browse the Internet, you will encounter all manner of Muslim green activism. One website especially grabbed my attention. I think you’ll agree with me that it’s inspiring – the EcoMuslim site. The woman behind it, Zaufishan Iqbal, isn’t lacking in creativity, or energy for that matter. Check out her links in the UK and beyond.

One last link – one that leads nicely into the next blog. The Renewal Project completed an exciting documentary on what eight different religious communities in the US are doing to better invest in the planet. The segment on Chicago Muslims throwing themselves into sustainable farming is worth the whole film “Renewal.”

[This is blog 2 out of 4 on "Earth Warming, Faith Rising?"]

We now know that the earth’s atmosphere contains at least 40% more carbon dioxide (CO2) than it did at the time of the Industrial Revolution. There are other greenhouse gases too – that is, gases that trap heat within the atmosphere like a shield – such as methane and the chlorofluorocarbons; but CO2 is the chief culprit for the warming of the air and oceans, the changing wind patterns and the greater weather extremes.

National Geographic has a nice summary of current signs of global warming, and some of its likely consequences ahead of us in this century. Among them are a spread of diseases like malaria, a dramatic change in many ecosystems, and the extinction of many species (a new study shows that it’s worse than we thought).

Some branches of the environmental movement, like “deep ecology,” believe that humans, as only one species on the planet, should not be considered more important than any other group – whether animals, organisms of various sorts, or inanimate matter on the planet. It’s true that we are all interdependent, and that from a Muslim, Jewish or Christian perspective, God good creation is one whole, integrated ecosystem. Yet deep ecologists go farther, arguing that the rights of survival of each and every species are just as normative as those of the human species.

The next two blogs will go deeper into this issue of humanity and nature, but suffice it to say here that the three monotheistic faiths read Genesis 1 and 2 and Qur’an 2:30 and elsewhere as teaching that humans were formed as the apex of God’s creation, and hence, are charged with managing the affairs of their planet in God’s stead, cognizant of the fact that, on the Last Day, they will be held accountable for the way they discharged this high Trust.

Put otherwise, we are all God’s trustees on earth, and issues of pollution, climate change – and yes, loss of biodiversity – are sins for which we must repent and evils we must seek to redress. So, despite the charge of “anthropocentrism” (the earth revolves around humans) leveled at us by some in the environmental community, we will resolutely roll up our sleeves and find ways to mitigate and even turn around the havoc we have wreaked on our planet. My focus here is unapologetically, “how will climate change bring about human suffering in the coming decades?"  My purpose is to emphasize how urgent it is to reduce our collective emissions of greenhouse gases, and then, in the next two blogs, show how Muslims and Christians are already tackling the issue.

What do you think? If you had to break down to only three the greatest threats caused by global warming to humankind (and otherkind, remembering we’re all deeply connected), what might they be? The following three seem pretty alarming to me: extreme weather intensifying, dramatic food shortages, and rising sea levels.

A lot more extreme weather events

This past year, the United States witnessed a record 12 weather disasters each costing over $1 billion in damages, from extreme drought, heat waves and floods, to unprecedented tornado outbreaks, hurricanes, wildfires and winter storms, resulting in the tragic loss of many human lives. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Weather Service has redoubled its efforts to create a “Weather-Ready Nation,” where vulnerable communities are better prepared for extreme weather and other natural disasters.

This promise will be tough to keep. On Christmas Eve, Justin Gillis wrote for the New York Times: “At the end of one of the most bizarre weather years in American history, climate research stands at a crossroads.” While scientists say much could be done to determine if – and to what extent – global warming is behind the record weather disasters of 2011, the NOAA and other agencies (though perhaps sparing the CIA’s Weather Center), might even see their funding cut this year, if a Republican House of Representatives has its way.

Of course, this is a problem that concerns our entire planet, not just the USA. In 2011 we also witnessed gargantuan floods covering large swaths of Australia, the Philippines and Southeast Asia. In Thailand alone, this record flooding cost the lives of 657 people and damages are now estimated to have peaked over $45 billion. Jeff Masters (PhD, University of Michigan), on his popular website Weather Underground, reported 32 weather disasters worldwide, and each one of them causing more than $1 billion in damages. He and most other climate scientists believe these calamities are tied to human-induced global warming. Justin Gillis uses the expression “virtually certain” on this score:

Climate science already offers some insight. Researchers have proved that the temperature of the earth’s surface is rising, and they are virtually certain that the human release of greenhouse gases, mainly from the burning of fossil fuels, is the major reason. For decades, they have predicted that this would lead to changes in the frequency of extreme weather events, and statistics show that has begun to happen.

Yet the increased risk of severe weather events that result from our changing global climate includes more than just torrential rains and violent hurricanes. It also means severe droughts, and especially in the areas where the world’s poor are concentrated. This raises the specter of famine.


Dwindling global food supplies

According to Jeff Masters, the “deadliest weather disaster of 2011 was a quiet one that got few headlines – the East African drought in Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia.” It is believed that 30,000 children under the age of five died there this past summer. Both the traditional “short rains” in the fall of 2010 and the “long rains” of the next spring failed to come, rendering this “one of the worst droughts of recorded history.”

Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman reported in February that “[w]orld food prices hit a record in January, driven by huge increases in the prices of wheat, corn, sugar and oils.” Though several factors can be adduced for this rise, the single most significant cause was extreme weather, he argued. The price of wheat, for instance, can be traced directly to Russia’s unprecedented heat wave in 2010 and to Australia’s record floods. He adds,

As always, you can’t attribute any one weather event to greenhouse gases. But the pattern we’re seeing, with extreme highs and extreme weather in general becoming much more common, is just what you’d expect from climate change.

Justin Gillis published an in-depth article on world hunger last June: “A Warming Planet Struggles to Feed Itself.” In a nutshell, his conclusion was that “[t]he rapid growth in farm output that defined the late 20th century has slowed to the point that it is failing to keep up with the demand for food, driven by population increases and rising affluence in once-poor countries.” The grains that keep most humans alive – wheat, rice, corn and soybeans – have grown alarmingly scarcer in the past decades, and as a result some have doubled and even tripled since 2007.

Unsurprisingly, the world’s poor have suffered the most, which in turn has caused increased political instability in several parts of the world. Mostly due to rice and wheat shortages, food riots have broken out in over 30 countries in the last couple of years. Gillis continues: “Now, the latest scientific research suggests that a previously discounted factor is helping to destabilize the food system: climate change.”

We’ve seen the devastation brought about by droughts and floods. But don’t neglect the destructive nature of rising temperatures on crops as they begin to grow. The proverbial wisdom was that greater amounts of CO2, though causing rising temperatures, would also help to fertilize soils. That optimism is running out. Recent studies show that higher levels of CO2 do increase fertility to some extent, but those benefits are largely outweighed by its negative impact – hotter temperatures during growing season. We now know that “when crops are subjected to temperatures above a certain threshold — about 84 degrees for corn and 86 degrees for soybeans — yields fall sharply."

Better strains of grains, more able to resist drought and heat, will certainly be developed, but, as the UN has recently warned, with a global population set to reach 10 billion in 2050, feeding the planet will no doubt present huge challenges ahead.


Sea levels rising

With the dramatic melting of ice on both poles, in Greenland and the glaciers in all of the world’s mountainous regions, nobody denies that global sea level is rising. That being said, the scientific issues are complex, as a site like RealClimate can show you. Yet neither those scientists nor those associated with the Washington-based NGO, The Climate Institute, deny the increased rise of ocean levels since about the 1930s. According to Climate.org, the controversy has to do with exact future projections, and in particular, the “uncertainties about the contributions to expect from the three main processes responsible for sea level rise: thermal expansion, the melting of glaciers and ice caps, and the loss of ice from the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets." Michael D. Lemonick, senior writer for Climate Central, explains how sea levels rise at different rates in different places:

Sea level, according to the best current projections, could rise by about a meter by 2100, in large part due to melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets. But that figure, too, is just a global average. In some places — Scotland, Iceland, and Alaska for example — it could be significantly less in the centuries to come. In others, like much of the eastern United States, it could be significantly more.

The gravitational pull of the polar ice caps will lessen as the ice melts, Lemonick adds, and this too will add to the variation in sea level rise from place to place. What is certain, however, is that even modest increases in sea level will wreak destruction in a world where over 600 million people live in crowded cities on the coasts.

The US east coast might be especially vulnerable. Take New York City, for example. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority commissioned a study that took two years to complete. Its lead author, Art deGaetano, a climate scientist at Cornell University and lead author of the ClimAID study published in November, was quoted in The Guardian as saying, “The risks and the impacts are huge. Clearly areas of the city that are currently inhabited will be uninhabitable with the rising of the sea.”

Factor in storm surges, and the scenario becomes even more frightening, he added. “Subway tunnels get affected, airports - both LaGuardia and Kennedy sit right at sea level – and when you are talking about the lowest areas of the city you are talking about the business districts.”

No doubt, the US has resources many nations only dream of to mitigate climate change impacts. But the situation is especially alarming for island nations like the Maldives, or the low-lying coastal areas of China, Vietnam, India and Bangladesh. The Maldivian authorities are already appraising various scenarios for a massive emigration to other countries. The Maldives may not exist by the end of this century.

Clearly, enormous challenges face us as a human race spread over this fragile planet. Can people of faith be part of the solution? Instead of reacting late and often with too little in hand to truly help, could Christians and Muslims in particular provide leadership for a groundswell of solidarity that would energize civil society worldwide and put persistent pressure on nations to solve these issues together? Indeed, this would be a sign of “faith rising” among us, a sign that God himself would most certainly welcome!

With this I begin a series of four blogs on climate change and the response of the Christian and Muslim communities (“Earth Warming – Faith Rising?”). This one refers to some of the latest studies on global warming, which, if taken seriously, leave no room for doubting the reality of a warming planet and its mostly human-induced causes.

The most comprehensive international climate agreement was the Kyoto protocol signed in 1997 that entered into force in 2005. Yet it was hobbled from the start, mostly due to the United States’ refusal to sign it. The US Senate voted 95-0 against ratification, ostensibly fearing that China (today’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases) would be let off the hook and thereby enjoy an unfair economic advantage.

As a result, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the organization responsible for launching the Kyoto protocol in the first place, looked for new strategies for securing a binding global agreement. Sadly, the UN climate talks in Copenhagen (2009) and Cancun (2010) produced no tangible progress. Again, the issue at stake was whether developing countries would be bound by any new treaty, just as much as the developed nations would be. Countries in the G-7 reason: “never mind the poorest countries of the world, mostly in Africa, but what about the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China)?” They are not only great carbon dioxide emitters; they are the ones who forced open the circle of economic powerhouses, and hence, led to the formation of the G-20.

But just when it seemed that the latest round of climate talks in Durban, South Africa, this month would suffer the same fate, a modest breakthrough took place. Thanks mostly to the skillful pressure exerted by the host country, when it seemed like China was easing its resistance to the idea, the conference was extended 36 hours.

It paid off. According to the official declaration, the outcome was an agreement launching a “process to develop a protocol, another legal instrument, or outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties.” In essence, signatories morally committed themselves to work toward a binding agreement by 2015. Let’s hope and pray that the next round of negotiations (in Qatar, Dec. 2012) keeps building on this momentum. As I see it, the force of international law, though mostly relying on shame as a deterrent, remains the only reasonable chance of curbing the emission of greenhouse gases on a global scale.

Marshaling civil society worldwide is another important tool, but considering 2011 was all about protesting despotic rule, and given that the next item on the agenda after democracy is poverty reduction, environmental concerns might take a back seat for a while. Yet all these concerns are related. Meanwhile, the planet is warming faster than anticipated, with menacing clouds gathering on the horizon.

What’s the rush, you say? First, we’ll look at how the carpet has been pulled from under the feet of the “climate skeptics”; then we’ll examine some of the alarming results of inaction on the climate front. Finally, I’ll make a few comments on climate change and faith.


A losing battle for climate skeptics

A couple of months ago, Richard Muller, a noted physicist at the University of California, Berkeley, and a long-time opponent of strident climate research “polluted by political and activist frenzy,” made public the results of his own study on the issue. “Global warming is real,” he concluded in his Wall Street Journal article. The goal of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project was to rigorously test the objections of the climate skeptics. He did, and to his surprise, what he found was very similar to previous studies.

Here’s Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson’s summary of Muller’s findings:

Muller and his fellow researchers examined an enormous data set of observed temperatures from monitoring stations around the world and concluded that the average land temperature has risen 1 degree Celsius — or about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit — since the mid-1950s.

This agrees with the increase estimated by the United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Muller’s figures also conform with the estimates of those British and American researchers whose catty e-mails were the basis for the alleged “Climategate” scandal, which was never a scandal in the first place.

The Berkeley group’s research even confirms the infamous “hockey stick” graph — showing a sharp recent temperature rise — that Muller once snarkily called “the poster child of the global warming community.” Muller’s new graph isn’t just similar, it’s identical.

What made his evidence incontrovertible was the sheer number of sites monitoring the earth’s temperature – five times more than any previous study, with a total reading of 1.6 billion records going back to the 1800s. It dismisses the objection about urbanization and temperature rise (rural areas show similar readings); the objection about cherry-picking the data (much omitted data shows the same results, but with less reliable controls); and finally the objection about some places signaling a cooling (that turned out to be negligible).

Granted, going public with a study before it has been peer-reviewed is not common practice. Peter Cox, professor of climate system dynamics at Exeter University, told The Guardian that since the results are basically in agreement with previous studies of the kind, Muller should have waited until the project was actually published. But Muller responded to this objection in his own interview with The Guardian, pointing out that discussion between colleagues was always the way science progresses: “We will get much more feedback from making these papers public before publication.”

The Guardian article also included the comments of Jim Hansen, head of Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, who has great respect for Richard Muller. Hansen, having waded long and hard through the treacherous political headwaters on this issue was hopeful that Muller’s study would be a game-changer:

“It should help inform those who have honest scepticism about global warming. Of course, presuming that he basically confirms what we have been reporting, the deniers will then decide that he is a crook or has some ulterior motive. As I have discussed in the past, the deniers, or contrarians, if you will, do not act as scientists, but rather as lawyers. As soon as they see evidence against their client (the fossil fuel industry and those people making money off business-as-usual), they trash that evidence and bring forth whatever tidbits they can find to confuse the judge and jury.”

The Berkeley Earth project promises solid and transparent data on climate change, but there is more. In a new study published in the journal Nature Geoscience, researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich determined how the earth has warmed since the 1950s by examining earth’s “energy balance” – or the difference between the energy it receives from the Sun and the energy it beams back into space. They concluded that human factors such as greenhouse gas emissions and the like account for at least 74% of this heating they observed.

The BBC’s Environment correspondent Richard Black, writing on this issue, reported the opinion of a leading British climate scientist:

“It's pretty convincing stuff,” commented Piers Forster, professor of climate change at the UK’s University of Leeds and a former lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s assessment of factors driving global warming.

“Observations and the physical law of energy conservation have been used to show greenhouse gases are responsible for global warming and that alternative scenarios violate this law of nature.

“Previous proofs have relied on complex climate models, but this proof doesn’t need such models - just careful observations of the land, ocean and atmospheric gases.”

Finally, a team of international scientists collaborated on the Global Carbon Project and published their results in the journal Nature Climate Change. They found that global carbon emissions went down by 1.4% in 2009 – certainly due to the dramatic slowdown in economic activity that year. Yet in 2010 emissions climbed up again by 5.9%, and if one looks at the overall level of carbon emissions for the first decade of this century, the rise is much faster than in any other decade since the 1950s.

The study’s co-author Prof. Corinne Le Quere, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and professor at the University of East Anglia, had this to say in an interview:

“Global CO2 emissions since 2000 are tracking the high end of the projections used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which far exceed two degrees warming by 2100. Yet governments have pledged to keep warming below two degrees to avoid the most dangerous aspects of climate change such as widespread water stress and sea level rise, and increases in extreme climatic events. Taking action to reverse current trends is urgent.”

Whether governments rise to the challenge will be largely determined by the will and courage of citizens to speak up – and especially for those in wealthier states to take up the cause of those most vulnerable to climate change, that is, those living closest to the equator. This is a challenge on two fronts: mitigating climate change and helping the poor, both individuals and states, adapt to this climate change. And it is first and foremost a moral issue which people of faith, if rightly mobilized, could push forward in a powerful way. Christians and Muslims, representing as they do over half of the world’s population, could make a huge difference in pooling world resources to help the weakest weather the hard changes ahead. If anything, they should embody a responsible and compassionate trusteeship of God’s good creation.

In my next blog I single out three of the toughest consequences of a warming world and introduce the theological discussion.

Here is a study in contrasts. Two Muslim scholars review my book and come away with strikingly different conclusions -- or at least, emphasizing very different aspects. That's not surprising, since, as one reviewer wrote, it's really three books in one. This in itself supports what I've been writing about regarding hermeneutics: the same text can look vastly different, depending on the reader!

First, Riad Nourallah (PhD, Cambridge University) is a Senior Lecturer at the Diplomatic Academy of London, University of Westminster. His review is published in the Muslim Education Quarterly (Vol. 24, #1, 2, 2011).

Second, Mahan Mirza (PhD, Yale University) is Vice President for Academic Affairs, Zaytuna University, Berkeley, California. This is a new Islamic university (first of its kind in the US), which is not yet accredited. His review appeared in the latest issue of the American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences (Vol. 28, #4, 2011).

Amina Wadud, though one of many contemporary Muslim feminists, is certainly the most contraversial. This is mainly due to her activism over the years, which culminated in her leading prayers at a jumaa prayer service in Washington, DC in 2005. It was covered by the press all over the Muslim world and even elicited some death threats against her (you can look up a YouTube interview in which she speaks about this).

This is a section of a longer article that in the end was published without this section.

A cautionary word: Muslim women all over the world are pushing for a rethinking of many traditional gender norms that still impeed them from fulfilling their calling as God's trustees on an equal footing with their brothers, fathers and sons. And no, you don't have to go as far as Amina Wadud to make a good Islamic case for that. My point in this essay as an outsider, and in line with my arguments in Earth, Empire and Sacred Text, is simply that she has worked out a theology that is more consistent and compelling than many others. And also, I don't think people of faith can ignore the postmodern intellectual context of today. I believe it can work for us and enrich our understanding of how God wants us to live out our faith in today's world.

A merry Christmas to all my fellow Christians, and to my Muslim friends a blessed celebration of the birth of Isa bnu Mariam, prophet of God!! Though Jesus can divide us, at Christmas he unites us!

In the gospel of Luke we read,

“Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, for you have found favor with God! You will conceive and give birth to a son and you will name him Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!”

In the Sura Al ‘Imran (Q. 3:45) we read,

Behold! The angels said: “O Mary! God giveth thee glad tidings of a Word from Him: his name will be Christ Jesus, the son of Mary, held in honour in this world and the Hereafter and of (the company of) those nearest to God.”

Please note that Mary is the only woman whose name appears in the Qur’an, and many more times than in the New Testament (34 versus 19 times). By any account, she is highly honored!

The birth of her son Jesus was like no other human birth, since there was no human father involved. In Matthew’s gospel an angel appears to a very confused (and likely very angry) mwo4meph in a dream. He had just found out that the woman to whom he was betrothed was now pregnant. So the angel’s message was this:

“mwo4meph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Mat. 1:20, 21).

Matthew then adds,

All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet: “Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’”

In both Qur’an and Bible the modality of the virgin birth is the same: Mary conceives by the power of God’s Spirit. In Luke the angel says to Mary,

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God” (1:35).

In Surat Tahrim, we read,

And Mary the daughter of ‘Imran, who guarded her chastity; and We breathed into (her body) of our Spirit; and she testified to the truth of the words of her Lord and of his Revelations, and was one of the devout (servants)” (Q. 66:12).

Another element is added in the sura named after Mary, in which we read a very similar dialogue to the one that takes place in Matthew and Luke:

She said: “How shall I have a son, seeing that no man has touched me, and I am not unchaste?”

He said: “So (it will be): thy Lord saith, ‘That is easy for Me: and (We Wish) to appoint him as a Sign unto men and a Mercy from Us.’ It is a matter (So) decreed” (Q. 19:20, 21).

That new element is this matter of the divine decree that Muslim commentators connect to Jesus’ title as “the Word of God”. Surat Al ‘Imran makes it even more explicit:

[The angel] said: “Even so: God createth what he willeth, when he hath decreed a Plan, He but saith to it, ‘Be!’ and it is” (Q. 3:47).

Then, a few verses later we read how creation by decree unites Jesus and Adam:

The similitude of Jesus before God is as that of Adam; He created him from dust, then he said to him: “Be”; and he was” (Q. 3:59).

Jesus and Adam are also connected by the action of God’s Spirit, with Jesus given the title of “a spirit from God” (Q. 4:171). Speaking of Adam, God addresses the angels in the following terms:

“When I have fashioned him (in due proportion) and breathed into him of My spirit, fall ye down I obeisance unto him.” So the angels prostrated themselves, all of them together (Q. 38:72, 73).

The New Testament takes this idea of Jesus and Adam’s link much further. Whereas the Qur’an sees this Adam/Jesus link reinforcing Jesus’ humanity, the Apostle Paul sees it as a parallel with a contrast:

The Scriptures tell us,

“The first man, Adam, became a living person.” But the last Adam – that is, Christ – is a life-giving Spirit. What comes first is a natural body, then the spiritual body comes later. Adam, the first man, was made from the dust of the earth, while Christ, the second man, came from heaven” (I Cor. 45-47).

This thought comes within a larger section in which Paul seeks to set the Corinthian believers straight – at least those who were doubting the resurrection of the dead. For him the resurrection of Jesus, the second Adam, is what seals his calling to redeem all of humanity from the sting of sin and death. The first Adam led humanity into evil and destruction. The man Jesus, having come from heaven as God’s Son, brings forth a new humanity delivered once and for all from the ancient curse:

“For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Cor. 15:56, 57).

Back to Christmas. Ten times Jesus is called “messenger” (rasul) in the Qur’an. In the Islamic tradition, messengers bring books sent from God. Hence, though we understand differently the implication of Jesus’ miraculous birth – incarnation in one case, and a book in the other, we can certainly celebrate together God’s gracious gift – sending Jesus as his messenger to earth with a book, the Gospel, “wherein is guidance and light” (Q. 5:46). After all, that is where the story of Christmas comes from!

[This is the last of 4 blog posts on the sociology of religion] So you read the news: in the first round of post-revolutionary elections in Cairo and Alexandria – the only places where secular parties have a chance to do well – the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party raked in 37% of the vote, while the brand new Salafi party, Al-Nour (“Light”) got 24%.

Political Islam is definitely not over, but as it enters the push and shove of democratic politics and is held responsible for solving pressing socioeconomic problems, its leaders will have to compromise their ideals, both in policies they will promote and in the alliances they will be forced to make. Then too, the army is still very much in charge and will not put up with an Islamic state. When at the helm, by necessity, pragmatism trumps idealism.

Yet, these days the Salafis pop up as you read about Egypt, Indonesia, and even France. It’s a movement with global reach certainly, but at the same time very diverse – from apolitical, world-refusing born-agains, to al-Qaeda-emulating Jihadi-Salafis. In “Whence the Salafis?” I explained the cyclical nature of conservative revivalism in Islamic history. Now it’s time to look at the sociology of salafism. This will also lead me to remark on how sacred texts are read – a theme that runs throughout my work.

Just a reminder from blog 2 on the sociology of religion (“Is fundamentalism still relevant?”): globalization has created new hybrid cultures and religious movements that become divorced from their original cultural context and focus on a “pure” version of the faith. In recent years, thanks in large part to Saudi petro-dollars, the ultra-conservative brand of Saudi Islam (Wahhabism) has dovetailed with a prevailing literalism in interpreting the Islamic texts and produced a movement now labeled “Salafism.”


Salafism and the fundamentalist enclave

Salafism is textbook “fundamentalism.” In their book Strong Religion, Scott Appleby, Gabriel Almond, and Emmanuel Sivan reexamine 75 case studies from different religions on five continents in the five-volume Fundamentalism Project. Their list nicely dovetails with Olivier Roy’s characteristics of “neofundamentalism” (see my fundamentalism blog):


        a) Leaders, typically from a conservative background, are charismatic and authoritarian, and strongly patriarchal in their outlook

        b) They infuse in the community a strong sense of self-righteousness and embattlement, i.e., they are the “true believers” in the “pure version” of their faith, in opposition to the lukewarm, the heretics and the non-believers, with a discourse often laced with conspiracy theories

        c) This in turn creates a strong division between insiders and outsiders, as they define their mission in spiritual terms, usually with “apocalyptic urgency,” and always with practices that set them apart from mainstream culture (regimented lifestyle, rigorous norms of clothing and moral purity)


The book Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement offers marvelous case studies on Salafis in Sudan, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Yemen, Palestine, the Netherlands, Britain and France. Let me just illustrate the appeal of Salafism as a religion of enclave from the French context.

Mohamed-Ali Adraoui is a French political scientist whose research on Salafi youth reads much more like sociology. Don’t be surprised: add anthropology to the mix and you will find three social science disciplines that greatly overlap in their research methods.

Adraoui starts by pointing out that even before 9/11 discussions about the resurgence of Islam dominated public debate. This is because so many French Muslims define themselves as Muslims first and foremost, and hardly at all as French. Another reason is that the religious market for Islam in France is thriving. There are dozens of organizations and currents to choose from, and all compete vigorously for potential recruits – though none so energetically as the Salafis, advocates of “absolute” or “pure” Islam.

Finally, though maybe only one out of five French Muslims actually practices his or her faith, Salafis are the best at recruiting from the young underclass – the youth who live in the poor suburbs of the big cities (the banlieus), who are for the most part unemployed and often on the wrong side of the law. Why are the Salafis so attractive? Adraoui explains:


“Salafi Puritanism exerts a strong attraction on Muslims who feel alienated and who contest the dominant national ideology of republicanism and laïcité [an extreme gulf between religion and state] that requires assimilation. The appeal of Salafi Puritanism lies in its ability to provide a way of not only opting out of society but of creating an alternative, superior community based on the unity of God (tawhid)” (p. 366).


So you become a true believer, you submit to God and your leader, and you fight all forms of heresy, which includes the beliefs and practices of just about all the other Muslims. This pays off psychologically for someone on the margins of society: “Salafism empowers these ‘dropouts’ by providing them with a transcendental dimension, a holy identity, and the belief that they are chosen.” It also involves a veritable revolution in their lives. Adraoui goes on,


“Instead of being passive ‘followers,’ they have become active ‘models’ for others. Where before the migrant lived on the fringe of society (mentally rather than effectively), as a Salafi he now stands at the centre of the world and embodies a sacred history. Morally and symbolically the migrant has climbed up the social ladder and is able to look down on the rest of society” (p. 367).


Naturally, this attitude will not likely endear him to his neighbors. In the Salafi worldview all the pride of Paris – its history, culture, wealth and values – is nothing more than kufr (“unbelief,” but stronger: already blazing in the flames of hell!). In fact, he is no longer supposed to interact with them. Culturally, he is now aligned with the Arabian Gulf. Wearing his long white robe (qamis) and his baggy trousers that stop at half his calves, he also becomes a hard worker and usually manages to make a good living – mostly in business, and never in banks (because of the ban on interest). Some even travel to Dubai, Qatar and Saudi Arabia through their Salafi contacts and come back with money to invest in other businesses.

Much more could be said, of course, but I would like go back to the issue of Salafis in Egypt. Adraoui sees three main divisions of Salafis: the purists (which his chapter focuses on), the Jihadi-Salafis like Ayman al-Zawahiri and al-Qaeda, or the political Salafis, the ultraconservative version of the Muslim Brothers (but with no political experience). Some have been known to move back and forth along this scale. In fact, people’s theology and practice evolve with a changing context, as the next section illustrates.


The Salafis and the Arab Spring

Egypt’s Salafi movement, holed up for years in its Alexandria fortress and active in Cairo’s poorest neighborhoods, remained fiercely apolitical. For Salafis traditionally, there was to be no political involvement unless the state adopts Sharia wholesale or a global Islamic caliphate is in the wings. This kind of unbending, take-all-or-nothing mentality, coupled with an unforgiving focus on dress codes, male dominance, and silent submission to leadership in all matters – all this was fine under the ironclad dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. So the Salafis were singularly unprepared for the January 25 Revolution of 2011.

In its wake, the strict enclave mentality with its rigorous policing of community boundaries took a big hit. First, some of the young leaders joined the protests in Tahrir Square, drawing lots of younger men with them. This happened with both the Brotherhood and the Salafis. Second, they realized that Egyptians were elated about the revolution toppling Hosni Mubarak. If they didn’t get on the political bandwagon, leaders were thinking, they might lose their chance to counter the secularist tide and the second amendment to the previous constitution might be deleted (“Sharia is the main source of legislation”).

Though some Salafi groups remain opposed to any contact with democratic politics (the “purists” want no part of the devil incarnate), many preachers have taken to the streets, haranguing crowds under tents and offering amenities to their followers. The airwaves, both radio and TV, have opened up to lots of new channels, most of which are religious. And now three Salafi political parties have formed, with Al-Nour in the lead.

All this flurry of activity both preceded and followed the turning point of the spring, the March 19 referendum. This is when people came to the polls to decide on whether to hold early elections in 2011 or not. A hotly debated issue, everybody knew it was about religion in Egypt’s political arena. The Muslim Brotherhood, by far the most organized opposition group, stood to gain handsomely. But the other Islamic parties – and the Salafis in particular – were not going to cede the ground to these liberal Muslims who play fast and fancy with the established dogma, at least as they see it.

The referendum drew large crowds of enthusiastic supporters for the early elections, which have now begun. Egypt is, after all, a very religious country. And though the ultraconservative Salafis will probably never beat the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood in any election, they are not far behind, and they represent more than any other group the secularists’ biggest fear. Regarding their views on women and for the literal application of Sharia penalties (see “Severe Punishments”), I can understand. But as for the use of violence and their willingness to play by the democratic rules, think again.

Take Abbud al-Zumar, for example. A young intelligence officer in Anwar As-Sadat’s army, he had taken part in the conspiracy to assassinate him. One of many in the military who were secret members of the Gama’a al-Islamiyya (the “Islamic Group”) whose aim was to overthrow the regime by force, he spent nearly thirty years for this act. Now this spring he was among the many political prisoners released after Mubarak’s fall. Some rumors have it that the army is hereby using a scare tactic, so that with the ensuing chaos of the transitional period, they will be called in to rule for the long haul.

If Abbud al-Zumar is any indication, there will be no such chaos. Out of prison, he now identifies with the Salafis who are running for office. In an April interview with the New York Times, he asserts confidently,


“The ballot boxes will decide who will win at the end of the day. There is no longer any need for me to use violence against those who gave us our freedom and allowed us to be part of political life.”


No wonder he and many other Salafi leaders are engaged politically these days. These elections will determine who will sit and write the new constitution. A lot is at stake. So al-Nour leaders, faced with the run-off elections, are doing everything they can to rein in the preachers who have issued some of the more "outrageous" fatwas (legal rulings), from the forbidding of high heels for women (even if they are all covered up), to virulent statements about Christians, to a ban on voting for anyone who is not a practicing Muslim.

Still, you have to wonder at how radically and quickly these movements changed their minds. As journalist Neil MacFarquhar writes,


“But perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Islamist campaign was the energy invested by religious organizations that once damned the democratic process as a Western, infidel innovation masterminded to undermine God’s laws.”


A revolution just took place that, as everyone could see, would have momentous implications for the future of the country.


Ideologies evolve, as do the readings of sacred texts

The “New Salafism,” as Khalil al-Anani recently put it (in a discussion on the sociology of Islam listserv), “is a mere ‘bubble’ and shallow phenomenon in Egyptian politics, whether in terms of ideological or religious rhetoric or their structural and organizational settings.” A political scientist at the University of Durham, al-Anani writes on these topics for the Egyptian press and elsewhere. With precious little political experience, they’re still part of the much wider islamist spectrum; yet because of their ultraconservative lifestyles and rhetoric, they grab the headlines.

All of the groups loosely belonging to “political Islam” have evolved their way of imagining a “truly Islamic society” – what it looks like, and what it might take to bring it about. On the other end of the spectrum you would have to include the ruling AKP party of Turkey, and in Egypt, the Wasat party, formed in the mid-1990s by a group of young, disillusioned Muslim Brothers. Following the ideology of the Brotherhood’s second General Guide, Hasan al-Hudaybi (see my blog, “Seek the Peace of the City”), they elected a Coptic Christian as their head and advocate building an Egypt that reflects the best in human values as found in both Muslim and Christian texts.

The authors Almond, Appleby and Sivan in Strong Religion (2003) speak of how islamist leaders have continually “ransacked the tradition’s past, retrieving and restoring politically useful doctrines and practices and creating others in an effort to construct a religiopolitical ideology capable of mobilizing disgruntled youth into militant cadres or into grassroots political organizations” (p. 10). I call this “doing theology” – what people of faith (and especially leaders) do all the time. Here it’s about recruiting young people to the cause. As everywhere, they are the ones most likely to join and commit.

Think again about the Egyptian Brotherhood under Mubarak. As they attempted “to provide a compelling alternative religious alternative to the state,” “they found themselves participating in a common discourse about modernization, development, political structures, and economic planning” (p. 12). As groups like this got more directly involved in politics – as islamists and Salafis are doing just now in Egypt – with time they realized that “[p]olitical involvement . . . tends to alter the exclusivist, dogmatic, confrontational mode of the fundamentalist to such a degree that the word fundamentalism or its cognates is no longer appropriate” (12).

Simply put, when people of faith dive into politics, ideals get trimmed down to what actually can be done right now. Pragmatism sets in and in discussing issues with others one’s horizons begin to widen. Think too about the US Religious Right that exploded under Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson in the early 1980s. By the mid 2000s it had lost much of its steam, and in 2008 young evangelicals were voting for Obama in droves. [I have a blog coming up showing how evangelicals concerned about the environment have the ear of the younger generation – with all kinds of implications both theologically and politically].

An Arab journalist for the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya (the same TV network on which Barack Obama was interviewed) perused the Al-Nour party platform and scratched his head. These Egyptian Salafis, he writes, are sending shock waves throughout the global Salafi movement. They contravene at least four basic tenets shared by various factions worldwide:


        1. Full obedience is owed to the Muslim ruler and democracy is an evil invention of the west – yet Al-Nour is a political party

        2. The Sharia is the only acceptable constitution – yet their charter echoes the present constitution by only stating that “the higher reference will be for the Islamic Sharia”

        3. Classical Islamic law classified Christians as a “protected minority” (dhimmi) – but they declare that Egyptian Copts should enjoy exactly the same rights as their Muslim compatriots (citizens of a civil state)

        4. Salafis despised and castigated the prestigious Al-Azhar University as a pawn of the Mubarak regime – now they are calling for its independence from the state and for transparent elections among its scholars so as to designate its next Grand Shaykh


Granted, Al-Nour is the most moderate of the three Salafi-leaning parties formed this last summer. But it’s also by far the most influential and its platform is nothing short of revolutionary.

So where might the Salafis be headed? I would venture to guess that, as happened to other religious groups who dove into politics, their ideology will moderate the nearer they get to power. But because of their lack of political experience and their own internal divisions, they are not likely to get very far. Still, many of them have already started to read their texts in more inclusive ways – and even recognize that some legal norms of the past need to be revisited in the light of changing sociopolitical conditions. Maybe revolutions do shed new light on our sacred texts and traditions . . .

20 December 2011

The dark side of empire

I'm a patriotic American, grateful to God for the many achievements of our nation -- its democratic ideals of freedom and equality, the prosperity it has afforded so many immigrants over the last two centuries, and its willingness to engage in self-criticism (think of the Civil Rights movement). If you've read Earth, Empire and Sacred Text, you will know how much I opposed the Iraq invasion before it happened and the war there and in Afghanistan as they progressed.

Our last troops pulled out of Iraq this week (Dec. 17, 2011). I wished our President had not declared the war a success -- he of all people! But this is the logic of empire. With almost 1,000 army bases worldwide and a defense budget that nearly equals the combined military budgets of all other countries, we project massive, indeed colossal power. As a follower of Jesus, I take the phenomenon of human sin seriously, and huge concentrations of power terrify me. Yes, power can be used for good; but look around you today and throughout human history. Evil can so easily infiltrate it, and often hijack it entirely.

This is a small vignette of an instance in US history when power was badly misused (an excerpt from my book, Ch. 11). I bring this up because humantrustees is about building on global networks of faith and peacebuilding. In the ensuing dialogue, therefore, we must be be honest with ourselves, ready to recognize our own faults before we attempt to highlight anyone else's. As Jesus said, "take out the log from your own eye before mentioning the speck in your brother's eye." This works for us individually; but it's also good to remember while we interact as citizens of many different countries.

Steven P. Blackburn, scholar and librarian at the Hartford Seminary, wrote the first review of Earth, Empire and Sacred Text. It came out in October 2010 in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research. I will be posting three other reviews shortly.

15 December 2011

The Bethlehem Call 2011

“The existence of international boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaigns and other forms of non-violent resistance is an established fact. . . . The severity of the Palestinian situation makes comparisons with apartheid in South Africa superfluous and almost irrelevant. The benchmark is international law and not South Africa.” This excerpt from the Second Kairos Bethlehem Conference document, The Bethlehem Call, is an angry yet hopeful statement by over 60 seasoned activists from 15 countries, including prominent Palestinian church leaders on Dec. 13th.

I say “angry,” because prophetic statements are always angry in the face of persistent and systematic injustice. Listen to what 8th-century BCE prophet Amos intoned before a stunned Israelite audience:

“This is what the Lord says:

‘The people of Israel have sinned again and again,

and I will not let them go unpunished!

They sell honorable people for silver

and poor people for a pair of sandals’” (Amos 2:6).

Then again:

“Listen to me you fat cows living in Samaria,

you women who oppress the poor and crush the needy . . .

The time will come when you will be led away with hooks in your noses” (4:1, 2).

Or again this:

“I hate all your show and pretense – the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies. . . . Away with your noisy hymns of praise! . . .

Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice,

An endless river of righteous living” (5:21, 23, 24 NLT).

The statement was forwarded to me by veteran Christian activist, Tom Getman, through the auspices of Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding (EMEU), an organization I have long followed. Tom was World Vision/Palestine Director in 1999 when I conducted my 5-week research project in Hebron, staying at the Bethlehem Bible College. He is now CEO of an NGO that networks with the UN on issues of justice (the Getman Group), based in Washington, DC.

In his email to several friends and colleagues, he had this to say about this 3-day meeting he just attended in Bethlehem:

“Amazing experience of encouragement even if not optimism in the midst of deep darkness. Not so different from the first Christmas Light in the midst of the Roman Empire. And the Palestinians are choosing exuberant hope with non-violent response rather than being victims even now that 87% of the West Bank is under Israeli control (along with all the forests and 47% of the wells).

I suspect this will turn out to be historic in the nature of the Barman Declaration, South Africa Kairos 1985, and the Dr. King Letter from the Birmingham Jail. The Church is on notice!”

Please read this document for yourselves. I only want to highlight two aspects of it: its call to dismantle the oppressive chains of global Empire; and its connection to American evangelicals.

The brutal Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, now in its 45th year, continues unabated, abetted by international silence. Palestine is indeed “a global issue” – one of many instances of how political power and economic clout converge to trample the rights of the poor and weak. In the words of the document,

“Today, the illegal regime and illegal forms of the Israeli occupation of Palestine assumes dimensions of systemic injustice whereby the unthinkable and unimaginable becomes globally accepted, supported and normalized. This is an example of Empire (global domination) at work . . .

As witnessed with our own eyes, the treacherous conditions imposed by the Israeli occupation on Palestinians and their land have reached a level of almost unimaginable and sophisticated criminality. This includes the slow yet deliberate and systematic ethnic cleansing and the geo-cide of Palestinians and Palestine as well as the strangling of the Palestinian economy. . .”

This is also a Christian statement, though clearly worded to include other faith traditions. Its tone is raw. Irritation and resentment are palpable among the lines of this collective litany. These men and women are back from visiting Palestinian villages and refugee camps, having witnessed first hand the marks of an increasingly cruel apparatus of control. Listen to this passage explain that “God takes sides for justice against injustice”:

“In the deep pain of the Palestinian people in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, of Palestinian refugees and of Israeli Arab citizens, we witnessed the tears of God. God keeps the flame of faith alive, as the darkness of despair closes in. God lives and breathes in the lament of those whose future has been stolen. In the cries of the dispossessed we have sensed the passion of God for right to prevail.”

That is my second and last point. It's a language that people of many faiths could call their own, from MLK to Gandhi, and surely the Dalai Lama (for whom “God” is a religious symbol he deeply respects). Plainly, it's also the language of the Hebrew prophets, which Jesus reappropriated, and never more vividly than when he chased the money changers from the Jerusalem Temple courtyard.

I know that my friend, the Rev. Naim Ateek, who was canon of the St. Georges’ Cathedral (Anglican) in Jerusalem during our family’s stay there in 1992-1996, had much to do with this conference. I had the privilege of working closely with him while teaching in Bethlehem. More than anyone, Naim has tirelessly brought together Palestinian Christian leaders in Jerusalem all across the traditional gamut around a contemporary reading of the Bible. This is the mission of Sabeel, the Center for Palestinian Liberation Theology, which he founded (see his Justice, and Only Justice)

Yet among all the mainline Protestants, those along the spectrum of historic Orthodox churches and Roman Catholics, all of whom gratefully acknowledged his efforts, there have also been many evangelical Protestants from several countries – like Tom Getman and myself. I mentioned EMEU, and there are many others in a fast-growing network of evangelicals who look back with gratitude to the pioneering efforts of Jim Wallis and Ron Sider in the 1960s. You would have to add to this list many Mennonites and Quakers (the historic “peace churches”) and evangelical spin-offs like the “emerging church” movement represented by Brian McLaren (A New Kind of Christianity) and young activist/authors like Shane Claiborne (The Irresistible Revolution).

I will write more about these issues, mostly because of the ignorance and hence, prejudice that surround them in most peoples’ minds. For now, I direct you to my piece on Christian Zionism in “Resources,” at the end of which you’ll find a list of books and a couple of amazing DVDs as well. We evangelicals, especially since the late 1970s, are guilty of much theological distortion, which sadly has resulted in fateful political alliances. I join many other voices in saying, “enough!”

In light of this week's broadly ecumenical manifesto, I'll end with “A Franciscan Benediction,” the chosen conclusion of the Bethlehem Call. In this precious time of Advent, waiting in our hearts for the coming of the Son, we gather hope – believing that even in Bethlehem, where Christ was born two millennia ago, his peace will change once again our broken, violent world.

“May God bless us with discomfort at easy answers, at half truths and superficial relationships so that we may live deeply within our hearts. May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation. May God bless us with tears to share for those who suffer in pain, rejection, starvation and war, so that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy. And may God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world so that we can do what others claim cannot be done. And may the blessing of the God of Abraham and Sarah, and Jesus born in Bethlehem of our sister Mary, and of the Holy Spirit, who broods over the world as a mother over her children, be upon us and remain with us always. Amen.”