Archive for March 30th, 2009

Book Review: The Tent of Abraham: Stories of Hope and Peace for Jews, Christians, and Muslims

The Tent of Abraham: Stories of Hope and Peace for Jews, Christians, and Muslims (2006) by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Joan Chittister, OSB, and Murshid Saadi Shakur Chisti tells the scriptural stories of Abraham and the conflict that rages between the peoples descended from his two sons, Jewish from Isaac and Islamic from Ishmael. The book begins with two tellings of Abraham’s journey, one from the Jewish scriptures and midrash and one from the Quran.  Toward the end of the book there is a combined account that acts as a guide for beginning to find common ground.

The heart of the book is where each of the authors takes turns writing interpretations of Abraham’s journey from the perspective of their religion.  These take the form of series of short, interelated essays both on scriptural studies and the current crisis among the Israelis and Palestinians.  These essays can be very beautiful and insightful as well as educational offering new takes on Abraham’s story in the Bible and the completely new-to-me Islamic telling of Abraham’s story.  Rabbi Waskow has an interesting take on Abraham being the most dangerous person in the lives of his two sons: one he banished into the desert  the other he tried to sacrifice. Both would have died if not for divine intervention.  Sr. Joan reflects on many conferences of Israeli and Palestine woman working to end the killing of all their children.

The appendices of the book include resources for “pitching your own tent” and working toward peace among the peoples of all three faiths as well as some related essays by other authors.

Favorite Passages

When either community mourns the death only of those on “its side” who have been killed by those on “the other side,” the outcome is often more rage, more hatred, and more death.  If we can share the grief for those dead on both “sides,” we are more likely to see each other as human beings and move toward ending the violence. – p. 59-60, Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Now, thousands of years later, Israelis and Palestinians are locked in mortal battle over the precise measurement of whose land is whose.  The painful attempt not to be cheated is, ironically, cheating both of them out of peace and fellowship and trust. And all the while, it was  precisely Abraham’s decision not to invoke his right as the elder to chose the land that would be his.  It is a painful lesson lost.  The even greater concern is that unless both peoples discover that less can be more, the more their rights they get – unlike Abraham, who was willing to trust the soul of the other – the poorer in spirit they will all be.  – p. 97, Joan Chittister

A human being is capable of holding vastly different and paradoxical points of view at the same time.  We seem to have so many different voices within us, and our motivations are often unconscious.  So simply nodding in agreement is no guarantee that I will act the way I intend. … So I find myself called not to more thoughts but bigger thoughts and feelings accompanied by real action, based on the experience of a greater reality we all share. – p. 132-33. Murshid Saadi Shakur Chisti

Book Review: Consistently Opposing Killing edited by Rachel M. McNair and Stephen Zunes

Consistently Opposing Killing (2008) edited by Rachel M. McNair and Stephen Zunes collects together essays and interviews focused on the Consistent Life Ethic.  This is a movement that opposes killing in any form: abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, assisted suicide, and unjust as war as well as promoting economic justice to end poverty, opposing racism, and seeking peaceful solutions to conflict. In addition to the editors, contributors include Mary Meehan, Michael Nagler, and Vasu Murti ,   Many of the authors refer to the Consistent Life Ethic as the “seamless garment,” a term originating with Cardinal Joseph Bernadin whose work is cited often by the contributor but not included in this book.  Bernadin’s lectures A Consistent Ethic of Life (1983, pdf) and A Consistent Ethic of Life: Continuing the Dialogue (1984) can be read online.

This book really hits home with me. When I was younger and developing my political and moral identity I was drawn to liberalism since it focused on standing up for the underdogs and the defenseless and opposing the things that damage and destroy life: civil rights, civil liberties, social safety nets, health care, opposing poverty, rehabilitating prisoners instead of executing them, opposing unnecessary war and nuclear proliferation, and seeking alternatives to violence. You can imagine my surprise that opposing abortion was not a liberal cause. I’ve become something of a political pariah in that liberal people who share many similar views to my own but support of legal abortion seems to be the one non-negotiable issue for acceptance in their ranks. On the other hand I’ve little political common ground with conservatives and often find their rhetoric and strategies for opposing abortion repellent. The authors in this book share similar experiences. Conservatives call them a bunch of peaceniks and commies. Liberals call them misogynist, racist theocrats.

These essays trace the history of the consistent life ethic (did you know that the link of feminism and pro-choice politics is a relatively development) as well as providing studies on Americans views on life issues.  Abortion is a central theme of many essays where it’s linked or compared with poverty, racism, the Israel/Palestine conflict and animal rights.  The better essays come toward the end of the books where the contributors propose consistent solutions with the essays by Meehan, McNair and Zunes being particularly moving.

One quibble I have with this book is the oft-referenced idea of the slippery slope.  Many contributors contend that those who support a legal right to abortion are likely to also support infanticide and euthanasia of the disabled and elderly.  This just doesn’t jibe with pro-choice people I know and public figures who are active and compassionate supporters of the needs of children, the disabled, and the elderly.

This book is one that should be read by anyone regardless of their political bent.  I’m sure there’s stuff in here that anyone will disagree with and will make them angry, but most of all what I find in this book is hope.  Hope that people can go beyond the battle lines of the so-called “culture war” and find common ground and solutions that will bring an end to the killing and degradation of human life.

Favorite Passages

“Many people with serious moral qualms about abortion but not wanting to unwittingly promote a reactionary social agenda therefore remain silent.  This is also a poor strategy.  The timidity of many progressives with antiabortion sentiments to speak out has led to much of the movement becoming dominated by right-wing opportunists who oppose abortion for the wrong reasons,” p. 35 – from “Israel/Palestine and Abortion” by Stephen Zunes.

“Even unconscious people, who do not have anything on that list, offer us an extremely valuable service.  As long as their lives are protected, people seen as most on the margins, the the rest of us are safe.  Those on the edge of the social fabric guard it and keep it from unraveling.  The first step on the slippery slope is not taken so there is no slipper slope,” p. 61 – from “When Bigotry Turns Disabilities Deadly.”

“The thread of respect for life, woven among these issues, is not visible in the public forum, where political ideologies dominate the analysis.  Traditional liberals favor goverment intervention to “support life” by improving the opportuinities available to the poorest members of society, but oppose legal limits on issues deemed to be matters of private morality.  Traditional conservatives attempt to reduce government intervention in the economy, but promote legal restraints to protect vulnerable human life.  Each perspective both shares and disuptes some of the policy mandates that flow from the consistent ethic of life,” p. 75 – from “Does the Seamless Garment Fit?” by Edith Bogue.

“Most people, myself included, when you look at a complicated problem start off by seeing where your friends are.  Because you trust them.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  Your friends are honorable and intelligent people, and you consult them to see what they believe in.  But that turns into a camp or culture of the Right or a camp and culture of the Left, nor based on real thinking or real dialog — just a desire to move with your particular herd.  Us against them, which arouse the most pleasurable, pervasive, and vile passions,” p. 107 – from “Activists Reminisce,” a quote from Juli Loesch Wiley.

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