Thursday, May 24, 2007

The US Bishops have declared "A Million Prayers Initiative" for the week of May 20-26, asking Catholics this week for two things regarding the immigration situation in this country: prayer and action. As the Congress debates immigration reform, the Bishops ask us to take the time to pray the Justice Prayer:

Come, O Holy Spirit!
Come, open us to the wonder, beauty, and dignity of the
diversity found in each culture,
in each face, and in each experience we
have of the other among us.
Come, fill us with generosity as we are
challenged to let go and allow others to share with us
the goods and beauty of earth.
Come, heal the divisions
that keep us from seeing the face of
Christ in all men, women, and children.
Come, free us to stand with and for those
who must leave their own lands in order to find work, security, and welcome in a new land, one that has enough to share.
Come, bring us
understanding, inspiration, wisdom, and
the courage needed to embrace change
and stay on the journey.
Come, O Holy Spirit,
show us the way.

In addition to praying this prayer, the bishops have asked us to take action by contacting our senators and representatives. Ask them to support immigration reform that does the following:

• To make family a priority in immigration law
• To insist the worker programs contain protection for U.S. and migrant workers
• To allow for an earned legalization program for the undocumented in the country
• To restore due process protections
• To respond to the economic, political, and social root causes of migration.
The Senate recently introduced S. 1348, the Secure Borders, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Reform Act of 2007, but the Bishops have serious concerns with the bill and would like to see the following improvements made to the bill:

Title IV – Temporary Worker Program
Legislation: S. 1348 fails to provide a path to citizenship for
temporary workers and their families. It also limits to two years the time temporary workers can bring their family members with them to the United States. A worker is eligible for up to 6 years. It also requires that a worker return home for a year after working for two years (two working, one at home, etc.), which could lead to visa overstays and an increase in the undocumented population.

Title V --- Family Reunification
Legislation: Title V of S. 1348 eliminates several categories of family immigration (1,2b, 3, and 4) and reduces the number of green cards available to parents of U.S. citizens to 40,000 a year. It clears up backlogs in the family preference system for anyone who applied prior to May 2005, but penalizes those who filed after that date. It replaces the family preference system with a “point” system skewed to highly educated and highly skilled workers.

Title VI --- Legalization Program
Legislation: Title VI of S. 1348 would provide a “Z” visa for undocumented persons and allow them to apply for permanent residency within 8 years. Unfortunately, it would not allow immediate family members to join the eligible worker until a green card application is approved, a minimum of eight years. It also requires the visa holder to return to his/her country of origin to apply for a green card.
For more information on the Bishops' position, see their website, Justice for Immigrants. For a fast and easy way to take action, visit Catholic Relief Services' Action Center.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

This Sunday we will celebrate the feast of the Ascension of the Lord, traditionally referred to as "Ascension Thursday," as Acts tells us that Jesus appeared to the disciples during the forty days after Easter before ascending into heaven. The feast has been moved to Sunday to enable more people to take part in the celebration (in other words, even though it was a holy day of opportunity, as my professor liked to call them, very few people were actually attending mass when it was on Thursday). The result of this move, however, is that we do not hear the readings for the Seventh Sunday of Easter.

I was struck by the fact that the first reading for the Seventh Sunday of Easter tells of the stoning of Stephen, because one of the headline videos on CNN today is a video of a 17 yr. old girl being stoned to death. (To see the video, click here, but be aware that the content is graphic.) Watching the video gave a whole new level of awareness to my reading the story of Stephen and other Christian martyrs who have been stoned, making me wonder how willing I would be to stand up and publically proclaim my faith under such terrifying circumstances. During the Easter season, during which the second reading is taken from the Acts of the Apostles, we hear the stoning or threat of stoning the early followers of Christ faced. In addition to Stephen's death, a death that Paul watched, Paul himself is stoned in Lystra and left for dead, but he didn't die, so his disciples are able to help him leave the city. Jesus was threatened with being stoned more than once, and of course, he prevents the stoning of a young woman in the Gospel of John. Stoning is horrific both in the suffering of the victim and in the mob mentality it emerges from and engenders.

More importantly, the video made me mindful that people, frequently women, are still suffering this fate today. The 17 yr. old girl in question was a Kurdish girl of the Yezidi faith (a pre-Islamic religion). She was stoned for being involved with a Sunni Muslim Iraqi boy. Yezidi girls are not allowed to date or marry outside of their religion. The stoning was an "honor killing." In retaliation, Sunni Iraqis attacked and killed 23 Yezidi men. And so the cycle of violence continues. Stoning is an issue in terms of such "honor killing" and as a form of execution in many parts of the world. Before we cast the first stone, so to speak, we must look at our own record. In our own Scripture, people were to be stoned for sacrificing their children to the god Molech, for blaspheming the name of the Lord, for being "spiritists" or mediums, for not keeping the Sabbath, for trying to convince another to serve other gods, for being a stubborn or unruly son who will not listen to or obey his father or mother, for having sex with a betrothed girl or being that betrothed girl, even if she is raped (in a city; if it takes place in a field, she is not guilty since she may have yelled for help and not been heard). As a country we also must not be quick to cast the first stone. We might not stone people, but remember that stoning is first and foremost (both now and in the days of the early Christians) a form of execution, a sentence handed down in a court of law after a trial; and as a country, we do execute people. It is difficult to take the moral high ground on issues such as this when our country is listed by organizations like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Roman Catholic Church, next to countries like China, Saudia Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc, in terms of human rights abuses in this regard. I won't continue on this line, as I have written on it previously, but the Church's teaching on this subject is very clear! For more information, see the USCCB website! When we read the stories of Christians being stoned, let us pray for all those who are being executed, both in our own country and around the world, and let us pray for all those who suffer religious persecution.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The news stories this week read something like, "Six Islamist Jihadists. . . " or "Six foreign born Muslims. . . " or "Six Islamic Militants. . . " These were followed by stories of "Muslim community fears backlash. . ." Now the men arrested in the planned attack on Fort Dix are self-proclaimed Muslims and pronounced that their plan was, in their minds, "jihad" in defense of their religion, so one cannot fault the media for proclaiming them as such. I continue to be concerned, however, about how little many people seem to know about Islam, and the contradictory perspectives and at times caricatures people in this country encounter. Obviously the Muslim community in the US has similar concerns, hence their legitimate worry about a backlash.

One of the difficulties Americans face is that like any world religion, Islam is not a cookie-cutter religion. Not only are there different sects of Islam, Islam is practiced differently in different parts of the world. Muslims themselves have very different viewpoints regarding Islam depending on their own upbringing in the religion. On the extreme level, it is the same as Catholics and members of the Ku Klux Klan both calling themselves Christian. Even within mainstream Islam though, there are differences similar to those among "conservative" and "liberal" Christians. How many of us have at one point in time met an ex-Catholic who had a VERY negative experience in the Catholic Church? Asking that person to tell you about Catholicism and a person who has found their life rejuvenated by practicing the Catholic faith is going to yield two very different pictures of what "Catholicism" looks like.

One can quote seemingly violent passages of the Qu'ran. One can also quote excessively violent passages from the Bible
"Slay, therefore, every male child and every woman who has had intercourse with a man. But you may spare and keep for yourselves all girls who had no intercourse with a man." - Numbers 31:17

Oh, but that is the Old Testament, some of you may protest!"

"If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple." - Lk 14:26

Or again:

"He [Jesus] said to them, "But now one who has a money bag should take it, and likewise a sack, and one who does not have a sword should sell his cloak and buy one." Lk. 22:36

But these passages are taken out of literary and historical context, you may protest. Exactly! But they are there to be misinterpreted by those who might choose to do so. In the Christian world of the Middle Ages, during the Crusades, in colonial times, during the Salem witch trials, etc., passages in the Bible were often used as a divine mandate for violence.

Even before the stories in the media this week, I was struck when two friends were talking about reading the writings of two different Muslim women with two completely different viewpoints about women in Islam. One was Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who wrote Infidel, a book that tells her story of experiencing a very oppressive Islamic culture first in Somalia, then in Saudi Arabia, and finally in Holland, where she left the Islamic faith and began speaking out publically on the dangers to women in Islam. The other is Ingrid Mattson, a former Catholic, who is the first woman and the first convert to be the President of the Islamic Society of North America (I have to point out here, that no woman has ever been the head of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops). Her experience is that the religion of Islam is very liberating for women. Both stories are important, because they bring home the very different ways in which the religion of Islam is practiced in the world. Neither woman is "wrong". Islam can't be judged in theory; it can only be judged in practice. The same is true for Christianity.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

A friend of mine told me about a fascinating article on, "God is in the Dendrites: Can Neurotheology Bridge the Gap Between Science and Religion?" As neuroscientists have started to study various types of religious experience, we end up with the chicken and the egg question - which came first, brains predisposed to religious experience or religious experience that developed certain areas of the brain? Further questions are asked about the meaning of brains that have the mechanics for religious experience, such as were the brains created by God to facilitate such experiences or are such experiences simply physical occurences that create an illusion of a God? The answer to this question is one that cannot be scientifically proven one way or another. It simply comes down to faith and/or opinion.

As for which comes first, the chicken or the egg, I suspect it is like most of our other traits, that there are differences physiologically that make a person more prone to religious/meditative feelings or experiences, and then that part of the brain is developed and enhanced through actual religious/meditative practice. Our intellectual frameworks, belief systems, etc., also affect the experiences we have. The Newburg study (Eugene D’Aquili and Andrew Newburg, The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience) shows that Buddhist monks and Franciscan nuns, when meditating, initially display similar MRI patterns , but if you read further in the study, there is a point in the meditative experience where those patterns diverge, and they describe their experiences differently. The Franciscan nuns speak of a oneness with God, whereas the Buddhist monks speak of an impersonal void (D’Aquili and Newburg, “Religious and Mystical States,” Zygon 23:178). The scientists tell us that the divergence of areas in the brain that are stimulated in the experience (as shown in the MRI patterns) corresponds to the nuns experiencing a positive feeling and the monks experiencing a neutral feeling, hence my argument that the fact that they come to the experience of meditation with different intellectual frameworks actually affects the experience itself. The physiological activity in their brains is different because they are operating under different belief systems. Does this mean that religious experience is a product of our brains? Yes and no. Yes, in the very physiological way that I just described, but no in that the physiological basis of the experience does not negate the religious nature of the experience.

From a religious perspective (note that I am going beyond what science can prove or disprove at this point), we are embodied spirits. We do not have spiritual experiences that do not involve our bodies. Of course religious experience is physiological! The embodiedness of the experience does not make it any less of God. In Catholic theology there is a principle that God works through secondary causes. It is this principle that allows Catholic theology to see very little conflict between most areas of science and religion. Scientific explanations do not discredit theological explanations. Ultimately they should enhance theological explanations by filling us with a wonder and awe of the God whose creation is so intricate and beautiful, from the expanse of the universe to the tiniest details of every atom. That human brains should be created in such a way as to be able to have an experience that gives them a sense that there is something "more" than our own existence doesn't "prove" the existence of God, but for those of us that do believe, it sure does make sense. That those same brains are able to reflect upon theological concepts and that the different concepts in turn affect the experience one has, says something even greater to me both about free will and the infinitely, incomprehensible mystery that we call God.