A look back at 2015 — Social Awareness Table Conversations @ the Festival of Faiths
August 30 was the 3rd annual Indy Festival of Faiths. It was the first Social Awareness Table Conversations, intense and enjoyable discussions of eight topics of urgent importance. Thanks to the Desmond Tutu Center and Butler University’s Center for Faith and Vocation for helping the Center for Interfaith Cooperation to organize the event. Several students from IUPUI’s School for Public and Environmental Affairs wrote analyses of the conversations.
Report from the Festival of Faith's Social Awareness Table Conversations
The 3rd annual Festival of Faiths was held on August 30th and featured a variety of events and activities for participants to attend. One of the highlights of the festival was the Social Awareness Table Conversations event which was organized by the Desmond Tutu Center, Butler University’s Center for Faith and Vocation, and the Center for Interfaith Cooperation. This event brought together some of the leading public intellectuals in Indiana along with community members to discuss important issues facing Indiana, our country, and world. The conversations included the topics of dying well, RFRA and marriage equality, hate speech, diversity in religious institutions, community violence and racial tensions, the threat of terrorism, and the future of Indiana.
The conversations were held at roundtables in the Indiana War Memorial downtown, and if you have ever been to the War Memorial, you know it is truly awe inspiring when you enter. However, it was not the architecture or décor that was the most impressive on August 30th, it was civic leaders that were assembled at the Social Awareness Table Conversations event facilitating the discussions. The organizers of the event were able to recruit facilitators who were not only prominent leaders in Indiana but also the foremost experts on the issues. The conversations lasted nine minutes each and at the end of each conversations participants moved to another table for the next discussion. This allowed for enough time for participants to attend four table conversations of their choice. The facilitators prepared questions or other prompts to stimulate the conversation. All of the dialogue I witnessed at the discussions was very thoughtful and respectful. Even though participants and facilitators disagreed with each other, everyone was extremely respectful of each other’s opinions.
The Social Awareness Table Conversations event represents an important aspect of our current political and civic life that is lacking; civil discourse. In the current political atmosphere, rhetoric beats rational debate. The 24 hour news cycles provides an endless loop of political rhetoric in order to sell advertising instead of informing the citizenry. Social media and news apps give us the ability to customize information to our political preferences and gives us a lopsided view of the debate. Our political opinions are constantly reinforced by the echochamber of similar opinions we create for yourself. Much of political dialogue that we do engage in comes more and more in the form of tweets or comments on social media sites. As a society, we are increasingly isolating ourselves of opposing views and contributing to the hyperpolarization of politics. This description of the current debate on policy issues in the news and on social media is in sharp contrast with the Social Awareness Table event. At the tables, attendees were able to have a calm and thoughtful conversation on contentious issues even though there was a plurality of strong opinions being expressed.
The conversations were not meant to solve any of the issues that were being discussed but instead to begin a dialogue among people who care about these matters and the future of our community. The organizers wanted the event to mark the beginning of an ongoing discussion on the topics. Participants of the event were provided opportunities to follow up and be involved in the topics and continue engage in civil discourse. Events such as the Social Awareness Table Conversations are a perfect example of what civic engagement should be and how citizens can be actively involved in the debate on important issues facing our community. If we want to move beyond hyperpolarized politics and the culture wars, as a community we need to continue to engage with one another in civil conversations such as these.
On August 30th, I attended the third annual Indianapolis Festival of Faiths. I was able to attend the Social Awareness Table Conversations, in which there were eight tables set-up that covered eight different topics. Once seated at each table, there was a facilitator that opened up the conversation with two or three questions, in which we had about twelve minutes to discuss. The first table topic that immediately caught my attention was Community Violence and Racial Tensions, facilitated by Kizito Kalima and Martha Lamkin. It was interesting to talk about this topic in the context of the city of Indianapolis, in which crime seems to have become more and more prevalent.
It was also important to talk about why and how certain neighborhoods have become what they are today. I talked about gentrification, which seems to have taken on a resurgence in recent months. We wonder why there is crime, or loss of jobs, or poverty, after we displace entire neighborhoods and a way of life. One woman asked how to go about having honest conversations about race, especially since she only knows other white people. A few of us mentioned that being intentional in having conversations with people who are different from you is a great first step in changing that. Not only in terms of race, but background, class, education level, etc. Sameness is dangerous and often has devastating effects when those in power are surrounded by people who are like them, instead of diversifying their views and their experiences. Speaking with and building relationships with people who are different from you can bring not only empathy, but fresh revelations.
The next table I choose was Diversity in Religious Institutions, facilitated by Matt Boulton and Michael Saahir. It was really interesting to hear how people who were from different faiths, and who had a leadership role in their institutions or organizations in some way, defined what diversity meant to them. I talked about how diversity is, to me, a pretty vague term, and can depend on who has the power to define it for an institution. Mr. Boulton asked about how to build a safe and comfortable space to talk about diversity in all its forms, in a way that would make people open to talking about it. I mentioned how safety and comfort are two different things, that you can build a safe space and still have uncomfortable, but needed conversations. Too often things do not get done because we are afraid to have those uncomfortable conversations, but it may be those very conversations that pushes an institution to dramatically change.
Next, I went to the table for The Future of Indiana, facilitated by Fady Quaddora and Rene Stanley. This conversation was in a way a continuation from the conversation we were having at the Diversity in Religious Institutions table. We talked about what needed to change in Indiana and Indianapolis, and the first thing mentioned was our politics. We all agreed that the politics and laws passed by our legislature all too often do not reflect what the people want or agree with. There is a large disconnect. I mentioned that that was probably because a lot of our legislators live in rural areas, then come to the city, which they have absolutely no connection with, to pass laws that are at best not relevant to the people, and at worst harmful. We also talked about gentrification, how we push people, historic businesses, and historic neighborhoods out, and then ask where the heart of Indianapolis is, where is our diversity? We agreed that in Indianapolis you are able to live in your own bubble, with only the people you want to be around, unless you are intentional about doing something different.
Lastly, I went to the Hate Speech table, facilitated by Don Knebel and Hazam Bata. To begin our conversations, we were shown several different examples that may or may not be considered hate speech. The first image was “Piss Christ”, in which Christ on a cross was in a jar of urine, displayed at a museum. We discussed whether or not this should be considered hate speech and illegal. Although a couple of us noted that while we would never go see or support this, it is a freedom of speech. One of the images that was also discussed was a sign that said the Holocaust never occurred, a denial that is illegal in Germany. We agreed that that wouldn’t necessarily be illegal in the United States, in which that person would just be considered an idiot, because of the context – we are not in Germany. However, when the topic was changed from the Holocaust to slavery, I changed my vote and said that that should be considered illegal, especially if it was a sign on federal property. America has a unique way of rewriting history, and once a sign like that goes up, it would not take long before rhetoric took over and we would start believing that slavery never happened.
I thoroughly enjoyed the Social Awareness Table conversations. I had never been to an event like this before, and I think these conversations are very important to have. Although I was not able to make it to all of the tables, it was great to know that those conversations were taking place. I was also encouraged by the people who live here in Indiana, and the fact that there are more progressive citizens here than I realized. I hope that we can continue to have these discussions throughout the city in order to lead to action and sustainable changes.
What is civic engagement? Do the children of this generation even understand how to look beyond themselves and their electronics to see what’s happening in the world? Do they know the impact they could have on society? The impact they should have? Those were the question’s posed by this year’s Youth Forum.
These questions are nothing new to us. It seems like there’s at least one news story about the down fall of society because of the technology obsessed youths a week, if not in a day. The unique thing about this presentation is that it was supposedly led by the children. It starts off with a room that is jam packed with people ranging from 6 to 66. The room is dark because they’re featuring a video. A man is rapping about how much technology is taking away from the world, how the youth of America no longer interacts with one another—ironically he’s using the technology he’s so adamantly against to portray this message to the masses.
The video ends and the speaking begins. The speaker goes on to criticize the younger generation, of which he’s barely a part of, for being selfish. His name is Tony Styxx, he’s a local speaker and he’s enthusiastic but all he’s spouting is blame. Why are millennials so selfish? Then he asks pointed questions to see how selfish the group is, its feels as though the kids in the room are on the chopping block. They use technology too much, and not in the right way according to Styxx.
This begs the question, what is the right way? How do we use it more effectively? Unfortunately, no one bothered to go into details on it. Time was taken to criticize but not to assist the kids. It would have been nice to see a few examples of technology being used to convey a civic message. After all there are so many excellent examples of how technology has been used to further causes, for example the Ice Bucket Challenge for ALS. The challenge was started in the US and managed to reach all across the world, and touch people of all different statuses.
The kids are then asked to break into groups, with a youth leader heading the group discussions. The questions are generic and broad, probably to leave things open to conversational change but it really just seems to make all participants nervous. The kids have their parent’s directly behind them, to add pressure to the already nerve racking situation.
The parents have more to say than anyone else and often don’t leave room for the kids, even their own kids, to make comment. It’s essentially a massacre any good vibes of open conversation that was intend are definitely dead. The free pizza was the only sense of joy in the room.
The forum was good in theory. However, in practice it fell short on a handful of matters. The children’s interaction being the biggest trouble, perhaps if the parents had been forced to wait on the sidelines and not allowed to join the discussion things would have gone differently.
Of course we cannot just ask parents’ to give us their children and leave the room, so why not have a small parental group in the back of the room. The parents’ can still keep an eye on their children while also being able to discuss important issues. It could even goes as far as instructing the parents on how to keep their household more civically involved, and how to allow technology in their home without letting it take over.
This event will hopefully continue yearly and grow from its blunders, only getting better with time.
André Zhang Sonera
In a country where religion is often the topic of heated debates, it is not very common to see a park colored with the different spectrums of religions. The Indiana Veterans Memorial Park served as a canvas, where different religious entities harmonized their differences with the sole mission of bringing the community together for the 2015 Indianapolis Festival of Faiths. While the crowd explored and learn more in-depth regarding the different faiths at the festival, inside the Indiana War Memorial a group of the city’s brightest scholars and civic leaders gathered for a unique exchange.
In the room, eight circular tables were ready to engage participants into a provocative discussion. Each one lead by adroit in the topic, contained a unique atmosphere that sparked the minds of the attendees. The discussions ranged from hot issues like: The Threat of Terrorism, Community Violence & Racial Tensions and the controversial RFRA and Marriage Equality, to more optimistic tones like Environmental Responsibility, and The Future of Indiana.
The event was set-up as a “civic engagement-speed date,” meaning that participants were able to interact with four tables for twelve minutes each. During the time period participants were provided a space to exchange their ideas and thoughts surrounding the different issues. Many of them passionately shared their personal experiences and opinions, while others carefully soaked the new pieces of information that were presented, all of these as the room ambiance intensified with each though provoking prompts.
The affair concluded with each of the thought leaders and experts sharing their findings and annotations with the rest of the attendants. The participants then had the opportunity to learn the issues / aspirations from their fellow citizens regarding the eight different topics. The caliber of the event was characterized by the eagerness and motivation of the attendants, whom despite being from different races, beliefs, and background, came together as a collective to formulated the different ways for solutions regarding the different topics.
This unique event was hosted by Butler University’s Center for Faith and Vocation, the Desmond Tutu Center, and the Center for Interfaith Cooperation, following with a comprehensive guide of upcoming events regarding the different topics (available at provocate.org).
The Indy Festival of Faiths that was organized by the Center for Interfaith Cooperation took place on Sunday, August 30th at the Veteran’s Memorial Plaza, in Indianapolis, IN. The festival showcased lots of faiths and cultures through dance, music, art, and a Jewish, Pagan, and Sikh wedding ceremonies.
The Indy Festival of Faiths celebrated diversity and taught the Indianapolis community more about one another. An event like this allowed people to discover the commonality between all faiths and cultures. And when we become more educated about cultures we shatter our own stereotypes and biases that we have toward one another.
Different faith and cultural organizations from all over Indiana set up tables at the festival in order to engage people and inform them about the work that they do. The Muslim Student Association at Butler University has been participating in the Festival of Faiths since it first started. Maya AlShawa, President of the Muslim Student Association and an intern for the Center for Faith and Vocation, at Butler University said,” Part of Butler MSA’s mission statement is to help create understanding both in the small Butler community AND the greater Indianapolis community. The festival of faiths allows Butler MSA to interact with others who have different religious and philosophical backgrounds. This enables us to engage in interfaith dialogue, and furthermore, promotes understanding amongst people.”
As part of the Indy Festival of Faiths, two discussion forums were held in the War Memorial as a way for people to talk about issues and the future of Indiana. The first discussion was I am Change, which was a workshop about fostering young leaders. And the second discussion, which I attended, was the Social Awareness Table Conversations.
Social Awareness Table Conversations
The event was a collaboration of the Desmond Tutu Center at Butler University and Christian Theological Seminary, Center For Interfaith Cooperation, Center For Faith and Vocation at Butler University & Global Indy. Eight round tables were set up in the room each with a topic. The topics of the table conversations were: RFRA and Marriage Equality, Community Violence and Racial Tensions, Threat of Domestic and International Terrorism, Dying Well, Diversity in Religious Institutions, Future of Indiana, and Hate Speech and Free Speech. All of the conversations were lead by community leaders and experts. They all had open-ended questions to facilitate the conversations. Everyone gathered at one table and discussed a certain topic for six minutes, and then they had to switch to the next table. Everyone had the chance to go to four tables out of the eight.
Maya AlShawa said, “The Social Awareness Table Conversations allowed people with different perspectives to have face-to-face conversations about sensitive, but extremely significant topics. Participants could explore the different viewpoints regarding a specific topic, which promoted great conversation, education, and understanding of each other. The booths and tables set up in the general festival are educational, but these conversations provided a smaller, more intimate space and opportunity for interfaith dialogue and engagement. “
The Director of The Center for Faith and Vocation at Butler University, Daniel Meyers kicked off the conversations with an excellent set of rules for the participants:
- Be a student and a teacher
- Talk from not for
- Generosity of spirit
- Process not product
- Be aware of how long you comment
The first table that I sat at was, Dying Well, which was led by Daniel Meyers and Anne Williamson from WayFinding. The question that was asked was: what does dying well mean to you? Several mentioned that it meant saying goodbye to love ones, resolving relationships, and to live well. Many people from different faiths agreed that our faith talks about what is means to die well.
The second table that I sat at was, Hate Speech and Free Speech, which was led by Don Knebel who is a board member for the Center for Interfaith Cooperation and Hazem Bata who is the Executive Director for the Islamic Society of North America. The discussion was based off of four pictures that represented hate speech that was not protected by the First Amendment. Everyone at the table was shown four pictures of: cross burning on private property, holocaust denial, anti-Muslim bus posters, and “Piss Christ.” Don and Hazem then asked everyone if whether or not each of these pictures should be legal or illegal. Everyone at my table was split between legality. And argued that context matters (when, where, how).
The third table that I joined was, The Threat of Terrorism, which was led by David Shaheed – Marion County Superior Court and Douglas Hairston – Mayor Ballard’s Front Porch Coalition. The discussion was based off of a lot of themes. One of the themes was that the media influences our opinions and biases about domestic and international terrorism. Rather than labeling a terrorist for their actions, someone who is a terrorist is labeled as one only when he/she is from a certain group of people. The media has put a face to terrorism. And the media focuses more on international terrorism than domestic, which makes it seem like a lot terrorism is only internationally.
The fourth table that I joined was, Diversity in Religious Institutions, which was led by Matthew Boulton – President and Professor of Theology and Imam Michael Saahir – leader of Nur-Allah Islamic Center. The question that was asked was: Do you think diversity exists in religious institutions? Several mentioned that gender is always a barrier in religious institutions, especially for woman. Implementation is important in order to have diversity in religious institutions. Others mentioned that being surrounded by diversity allows other to forget who they are. We must always focus and talk about our commonalities between different religions rather than just our differences. Our differences make us who we are, but our commonalities bring us together.
The table conversation was then wrapped up with the question: What do we want the future of Indiana to look like? This was a great end to all the different conversations that we had because we have conversations and resolve our differences so that we can all come together and envision a better future for Indiana for all of us.
Charlie Wiles, Executive Director for The Center for Interfaith Cooperation concluded the event by saying, “The more we embrace diversity, the better we can be. I grew up in Indiana and for years the only diverse experience that we used to have was going to a Chinese or Italian restaurant across the street.” Charlie mentioned how overwhelmed with joy to see all the diversity at the interfaith festival and in the room.
Maya AlShawa mentioned,” I liked that participants could choose the tables with topics that interested them, and appreciated the opportunity to share my viewpoint with others, as well as being able to hear other people’s view points about the same topic. I believe staying at one table for more than one section was not allowed, and that could be a possible area to improve upon. The time at each table is fairly short, but if a meaningful and significant conversation is taking place, I think it’s worth letting participants stay, and continue to engage in that face-to-face conversation (assuming it does not affect the organization and flow of the event).”
I really enjoyed the table conversations because everyone was engaged and contributed to the conversations. People put their biases aside and listened. Talking is important, but we always underestimate the power of listening because we get more done and envision a better future when we listen to each other. It’s important to have fun festivals and celebrate diversity, but it’s also just as important to talk about different issues. There is so much we can learn from one another, let’s keep talking.
Over the last two decades Indianapolis has seen an enrichment of culture and religious diversity. As a way to celebrate the multiple ways Hoosiers seek to explore their faith, The Desmund Tutu center, The Center for Faith and Vocation, and The Center for Interfaith Cooperation hosted a table discussion at the Indiana World War Memorial on Sunday August 30th. To engage the community in a discussion of civic engagement through the lens of faith, the event had a series of eight tables with assigned topics.
When entering the room it was filled with raucous chatter, to a point it was difficult to hear the person sitting to your right, but this chatter stemmed from excitement; excitement to exchange ideas and hear from different perspectives.
Carefully situated around the room were eight tables. Each one designed to stimulate a guided conversation on how faith plays a factor in the many different areas of civic engagement. To spur the conversation and ensure the exchange stayed on topic each table was given two experts in the field. The topics included: Dying Well, RFRA and Marriage Equality, Hate Speech, Environmental Responsibility, Diversity in Religious Institutions, Community Violence & Racial Tensions, The Threat of Terrorism, Future of Indiana.
A timer was set enabling the guests to go to four of the eight tables, this guaranteed the conversation was moving and allowed for the participants to engage in the most possible topics. The topics of conversation were intended to challenge people and make them feel uncomfortable in some arenas.
While sitting at the diversity in religion table it was quickly apparent that the people at the table were open to other beliefs and ideas; the ironic part is the leaders of the discussion challenged the predominately European American group to “…be reminded of our own diversity, we are all many aspects of society.” This seemed paradoxical when comparing the thoughts the table had at the beginning of the discussion. It was easy to say “on Sundays we have the most segregated hour in America,” but as the table found; it is difficult to talk about diversity in religion because so many congregations are homogeneous. One person at the table stated, “people feel it is a compromise to talk about diversity.” This, building on the idea that identity in many cases is established through religion.
Out of all the tables, this conversation got to the heart of why everyone had gathered. While the other tables examined how free speech can be challenged by faith or bolstered by faith, the table on diversity in religion was a microcosm of the day.
Events such as these table discussions encourage understanding and provoke conversations about the effects faith can have in our community. The opportunity for people of different faiths and backgrounds to come together for an in depth conversation is something each community should strive for, however; the problem is when it comes to events such as these, only the people that are willing to hear opinions that are different from their own will come to the table. The real challenge is bringing people together from communities that are homogeneous and allowing them to talk; but most importantly listen. It is easy for civically minded, college-educated people to get together and have a dialogue about faith and diversity. This discussion and introduction of multiple ideas for solutions was the intent of the whole event. However, to truly engage the community and enrich the diversity of perspectives and solutions we must get people that are not as open minded to have open and safe dialogue. We must encourage conversations such as these not just in the center of the metropolis that is Indianapolis, but embolden rural communities and congregations to step outside of their comfort zone and appreciate faith as a way to connect, not alienate.
Tierny Sharpe Dioffo
The Social Table Awareness Conversations was an event that occurred in conjunction with the annual Indianapolis Festival of Faiths. The organizations responsible for forming this event included The Center for Interfaith Cooperation, The Desmond Tutu Center, Provocate, and the Center for Faith and Vocation at Butler University. This event was meant to provide a venue for face-to-face conversations about social issues during a time when our society is drifting away from personal interactions. The event included a mix of citizens and respected professionals from the Indianapolis community who engaged in meaningful conversations about a variety of topics affecting Hoosiers.
According to the websites of the groups involved, the event organizers’ goal included using the diverse and inclusive Festival of Faiths as an encouraging backdrop for this event. The topics ranged from Religious Institutions to Marriage Equality and Racial Tensions. Citizens don’t often have platforms from which to have their opinions heard; therefore, our leaders often forget that these issues can affect an array of people, not just the lobbyists and legislators before them. Unfortunately, this means that our leaders often simply cannot comprehensively consider policy about these issues as well as they could if citizens have a voice. I believe that the organizers realize this and this was a major goal of their event. This can be evident in the array of facilitators that attended which included Tim Swarens, the opinion editor of the Indianapolis Star; Douglas Hairston, Reverend and Director of the Front Porch Alliance of Indianapolis; and Hazem Bata, the Executive Director of the Islamic Society of North American. Other equally prominent and important leaders acted as facilitators as well, giving the attendees unprecedented access to experts in the issues discussed.
The target audience for the event were concerned citizens who value each and every opportunity for civic engagement. In addition, due to the range of topics discussed, it was a learning opportunity as well. Each person that attended interacted with not only civic leaders they may never have met, but also other citizens of their community they may have never interacted with otherwise. As an audience member myself, I also left encouraged by the camaraderie with other engaged, intelligent, civically responsible citizens; also hopeful that a democratic republic can still work in our country if other similar communities exist around the country.
The event was a great success. In all four of the groups that I was involved in, we had an enriching, although at times, timid conversation. The timid nature of some of the table conversations was more than likely due to the depth of some of the issues we were discussing, and I also attribute it to the respectfulness and care of each individual involved. Many people could have left offended by some of the issues discussed, but most people phrased their words very carefully. The diversity in the facilitators was also extremely well planned, as we often had facilitators that represented opposite sides of an issue. The RFRA/Marriage Equality table was a testament to this, as Jane Henegar, leader of the ACLU, and Tim Swarens, opinion editor of the usually conservative Indianapolis Star were the two facilitators.
Overall this was a great event, however, the time to discuss each topic was much too short. In the future I would suggest making this event a series, so that one to three topics can be discussed at each event, allowing attendees more time to warm up to the conversation. Because some of the issues can be a touchy subject, many people held back at first. Many times the conversation had just gotten underway when we were given our two minute warning. Also, if only a few topics are discussed, instead of eight, that could also give the attendees time to discuss each topic with more people than those that were at the table the first time they discussed it. Also, attendees could discuss all eight topics rather than being limited to only four. There were many interesting people that I would have loved to hear from, and I simply did not have the time.
Social Awareness Table Conversations @ the Festival of Faiths. (n.d.). Retrieved from Provocate.org: http://spea.provocate.org/archives/17675
August 30 was the 3rd annual Indy Festival of Faiths. It was the first Social Awareness Table Conversations, intense and enjoyable discussions of eight topics of urgent importance. Thanks to the Desmond Tutu Center, Butler University’s Center for Faith and Vocation, and the Center for Interfaith Cooperation for organizing the event. read a report of the conversations, and keep talking about the eight issues.
Daniel Meyers — Butler University Center for Faith and Vocation
Anne Williamson — WayFinding
Much of the conversation was devoted to exploring what dying well means. Some thoughts from the discussion. Some said it involves the personal feeling that you are at peace, experiencing no regrets. It can mean feeling that you are leaving behind of legacy.
Several mentioned that dying well entails accepting that you did everything you could to achieve forgiveness and reconciliation with those around you. It means saying goodbye, resolving relationships, saying what needs to be said. This could mean that those around you know that your end is coming so they can also prepare
For some dying well means having some control over one’s own death … not necessarily having a saying when to die, but at least having a say on how. Perhaps having the comfort of “my” home for the end.
Many agreed that the key to dying well is having lived well. Dying well is part of what one called the Art of Living.
Much of the conversations also addressed some of the social, ethical, and legal details of dying well. There’s an ethical question of how expensive it is to provide treatment in the final months of keeping a person alive: someone observed that 80 percent of healthcare dollars is spent on end of life care, for the final six months of a person’s life. Could that money be spent better in other ways?
Many agreed that it’s important to educate and inform doctors of what you want. More doctors are being open and transparent about options these days, but many legal problems and questions remain. Not everyone in the conversations understood how a living will works. At any rate, it’s important to start talking with family members and others courageously and honestly about what you want before and after dying.
Many people talked about how faith can inform the process of dying, how religious beliefs can provide a resource. Many believe death is part of Gad’s plan. For instance, if a person in pain asks “why am I still here?” the answer might be because you have something to learn, or something to teach.
For some, a religious perspective tells us that death can come at any time, so we should always be prepared. For others, a religious view can make it troubling to prepare for death, even with hospice: there is no need to plan for dying because God has the plan.
Some worrisome questions about dying and dying well remain. How do we reconcile when the views of family members, doctors, and the dying are very different One participant likes the idea of having choices, as is allowed by the law in Oregon; but how do these choices apply to people who are mentally ill, or children?
RFRA and Marriage Equality
Jane Henegar – ACLU Indiana
Tim Swarens – Indianapolis Star
The conversations all began with dismay that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) was such a national and even international story in the spring. Participants bemoaned that the controversy was unnecessary, embarrassing, a PR disaster. They said it made Indiana look intolerant, backwards and behind the times. It made the General Assembly look even worse. It may have contributed to some people not wanting to move to such a close-minded state. The controversy went beyond what the law actually authorized, and in fact in all the shouting RFRA’s goal of protecting religious rights was lost.
Why was the issue so divisive? Issues of marriage and religion can be inherently polarizing, and lacking positive solutions … so they are hard to discuss civilly. (Someone pointed out that even though conversations about LGBT rights are hard, some are even harder, such as reproductive rights.) When the conversation is framed as fundamental rights being constrained or abused, compromise is difficult.
Even in the table conversations, you could see the clashes that gripped Indiana in the spring re-emerge. For instance, one person expressed being uncomfortable with people being told by the government to do things they don’t want to do. It was said that businesses should be able to refuse whoever they want, and then suffer the consequences. That provoked disagreement, and several said that “open the public” means “open to all,” and no discrimination whatsoever can be allowed. One participant said that allowing private businesses to discriminate against gay people will undermine progress in civil rights laws; another said in response that discrimination by race is not the same as with LGBT people.
Some thought that things might be better if misunderstandings were clarified:
- There’s a difference between businesses being forced to do things they think are harmful (e.g. printing a poster containing hate speech) and businesses refusing to serve someone because of who she is
- There is a difference between civil marriage (which should be open to all adults) and religious rites (which depend on the religion)
- Some thought that Citizens United has defined corporate “personhood” in a way that confuses the idea of religious freedom
Many hope to discern some balance between the rights being claimed. Many conflicts and potential harms could be avoided through common decency.
Don Knebel — Center for Interfaith Cooperation board
Hazem Bata — Islamic Society of North America
These conversations were essentially discussions of pictures that represent particular instances of hate speech intersecting with free speech. Discussants were given by Don Knebel a short background about the sorts of hate speech not protected by the Frist Amendment: speech intended to slander, to intimidate, to provoke fights and disruptions of the public order. Participants were then asked for their opinions of different pictures, asked whether the speech depicted in the pictures should be permitted or be illegal.
Cross burning on private property
In response to an African American family moving into a previously all white neighborhood, one of the neighbors set up a burning cross on his own property. Should this have been legal? All of the discussants agreed that it should be. It was clearly an act of intimidation: cross burnings have historically been a signal of direct physical violence to come. An African American in the conversation said that if this had happened to her, she would have immediately started looking for a new place to live. As an intimidating warning of impending violence, then, a burning cross has a different status than other offensive symbols of racism such as a Confederate battle flag.
Don Knebel showed a picture of a poster denying the Holocaust ever happened. If this had been posted in a German institution such as a bank, it would have been illegal. Germany is one of 16 countries in the world in which it is against the law to claim the Holocaust never happened. (The picture Don used was actually from a case in South Africa, where Holocaust denial is not against the law.)
Participants were asked whether denying the Holocaust should be illegal in Germany. And should it be illegal in the US? There was reluctant agreement that it could or should be illegal in Germany … it was such an inhuman and inhumane act that Germans should never be allowed to forget. But no one thought denying the Holocaust should be illegal in the US. The context is very different.
The context changes with the question of whether denying slavery should be illegal in the United States, a case that seems similar to Holocaust denial in Germany. Almost everyone agreed that it’s worse than denying the Holocaust in the US, but it should still not be illegal. An African American in one of the conversations disagreed: she worries that if powerful institutions in the US adopt the view that slavery didn’t happen or that it was actually good for the slaves, they will be able to rewrite history.
Anti-Muslim bus posters
A third case discussed deals with a government agency rejecting an advertisement that was perceived as offending Muslims. “In any war between civilized man and the savage,” the advertisements read, “support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat jihad.” American Freedom Defense Initiative sought to display these signs on public buses in cities on the East Coast. Because the bus lines were run by the cities, they were subject to the First Amendment in their decisions about what advertisements they would run. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, a government agency, turned down this advertisement, saying that that reference to “savage” disparaged all Muslims. The MBTA agreed to run an advertisement that compared only “those engaged in savage acts.” But the American Freedom Defense Initiative refused, saying it had a First Amendment right to run the advertisement as it submitted it. The First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston decided that the First Amendment had not been violated because the advertisement would effectively disparaged and libeled all Muslims. The participants in the table conversation were unanimous in agreeing that MBTA should be allowed to reject the advertisement.
Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ”
In the 1980s artist and photographer Andres Serrano generated controversy with “Piss Christ,” a photograph that depicts a small plastic crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist’s urine. Although it was favorably received by critics when it was first exhibited, later exhibits provoked outrage because it offended the beliefs of Christians (and others, including Muslims who revere Jesus as a Prophet). Should Serrano’s work have been deemed illegal and banned?
Opinion at the table was nearly unanimous that it should not have been banned. Again, the context matters. The work was displayed in a non-government museum, chances are anyone who paid to go into the museum was not going to be caught off guard by such a celebrated and controversial piece of art.
(An aspect of the controversy that wasn’t discussed much at the table conversation had to do with the funding for “Piss Christ,” in part a grant from the taxpayer-funded National Endowment for the Arts.)
September 19 — Ride for the Mounds
Join Hoosier Environmental Council for a ride starting and ending at Canoe Country in Daleville — ride along scenic country roads roughly following the course of the free flowing West Fork White River nearby the proposed route of the Mounds Greenway. After the ride join us for refreshments and a campout (optional) along the river hosted by Canoe Country.
September 26 — How to Green Your Congregation: A Multi-faith Conference
9:00 am @ Grace Church. See how congregations are protecting God’s Creation. Save your congregation money. Network with experienced leaders.
November 14 — HEC’s 8th Annual Greening the Statehouse
10:00 am @ University of Indianapolis. Indiana’s largest annual gathering of environmentally-minded people. Great opportunity to network, learn from policy experts and lawmakers, and get inspired. Excellent way to learn about how decisions made by Indiana’s elected officials affect your energy, food, & transportation choices, and your overall quality of life.
Diversity in Religious Institutions
Matthew Boulton — Christian Theological Seminary
Imam Michael Saahir — Nur-Allah Islamic Center
The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., once said “it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” Is this really a problem? Why? And what can be done about it?
Participants in the conversation shared reasons why people might self-segregate, to choose to worship with those people who share their beliefs and backgrounds. For one thing, it’s natural to choose to be in a congregation with those who believe the same, it might seem unnatural to worship differently.
Add to this that we think of places of worship and congregations as “safe spaces,” places where we can step outside the mundane world and where we might have difficult conversations. If there are too many different perspectives and opinions in the congregation, we might lose this safe space. Safe spaces can be fragile.
So why would it be important to seek more diversity in religious institutions? In general, diversity is thought to bring many benefits:
- By exposing a person to many different beliefs and faiths, it can inspire greater humility
- Learning more and having your ideas challenged can strengthen the quality of ideas
- Explaining your religious views to someone who does not share them can help strengthen your faith
- It helps one deal with the pluralism that exists outside the congregation, in society
Religious institutions have even more of a reason to seek greater diversity. They ought to be respectful and supportive of the neighborhoods in which they are located, and that might mean inviting in neighbors who don’t share the faith.
Diversity can shape internal processes for a congregation as well: unless members are encouraged to be themselves and to express views that might differ from those of other members, they might not develop fully as believers. A members of a congregation ought to feel comfortable opening her mouth and saying “This is who I am.”
Some participants in the conversations expressed concern about who defines diversity for congregations. Who is to say that an apparent lack of diversity is artificial and should be changed? The courts might define diversity needed for public institutions, but for places of worship?
Participants discussed how their own congregations are addressing diversity. The types of diversity mentioned included gender, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, and age. Imam Saahir says mosques are working to be more women-friendly … after all, without women doing projects, nothing wold be done. Another participants reports that Baptists are becoming more supportive of women in the ministry. On the other hand, a young African-American woman says that for Seventh Day Adventists both race and age diversity are still problematic and a source of tension.
Most discussants agree that diversity is great: as one said, heaven is not going to be divided, so we need to get along with each other here. But there will still be a challenge of embracing diversity without losing one’s identity.
Community Violence and Racial Tensions
Kizito Kalima – Peace Center for Forgiveness and Reconciliation
Martha Lamkin – Your Life Matters Taskforce
Each session began discussing why violence in neighborhoods and racial tensions are such grave concerns. Violence hurts the reputation of the city. It also hurts people even if they are not the direct victims of violence. Violence causes people to be anxious. It contributes to worsening poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, and increased numbers of guns on the streets as people feel they must be able to protect themselves. One said that people who feel like exiles in their own country could become frustrated and “act out.” And even apart from guns in the street, many people aren’t safe in their own homes because of domestic violence.
The conversations spent time discussing the root causes of violence and of racial tensions. Some hypotheses:
- A hyper-masculine culture that glorifies violence, plus technology and games that encourage violence
- Lack of personal skills to resolve conflicts
- An inability or unwillingness to accept the value and dignity of “the other.” This can mean not understanding other points of view
- Inequalities in the justice system, which can lead to a loss of hope
- Repeatedly, a shortage of jobs and lack of opportunities was mentioned as a source of racial tensions and violence
There was no shortage of solutions suggested. Some solutions to violence were personal: call 911 quickly, and carry a stick when you go out walking. Some solutions were personal, but more ambitious. Learn more about other cultures to avoid misunderstandings and to encourage reciprocity. Try to have real conversations about race and the underlying causes of racial tensions. Start with your friends for these conversations, then reach out to people who possess more diverse views. These conversations can take place in churches, schools, and neighborhoods. Everyone should be an activist, an advocate for justice, an ally of fairness.
Some solutions addressed institutions that should change. The school system, some argued, should increase opportunities and better connect kids to jobs. Many suggestions were made of the criminal justice system. Right now, it was said, in some communities there’s an ingrained fear of police, even among women and seniors. There needs to be better relations between police and the community (e.g. through a revival of community policing). The high rates of incarceration were identified as problems: even before constructing a new justice center, we should first address problems such as unrealistic bail and unequal penalties.
The news media were identified as needing changes. Too often, it was said, the news looks only at crime and violence without showing positive things in communities such as high school graduations. The focus on violence turns more toward black perpetrators, reinforcing stereotypes. This means some blacks don’t feel they have to live up to higher standards.
Many people identified attitudes as the main cause, and conversation as the best way to change attitudes. One person identified indifference as the real enemy; it’s hard to feel indifferent to someone with whom you have had meaningful conversations. Be active in your neighborhood, it was said, get to know people, help others. Start with your own block, then broaden your connections.
The Threat of Terrorism
David Shaheed – Marion County Superior Court
Douglas Hairston – Mayor Ballard’s Front Porch Coalition
Some recurring themes form the four discussions of terrorism included:
Perceptions. Many thought the news media are not being objective: for example rather than using religion as a personal identifier of someone who commits a terrorist act, they equate the religion with terrorism in general. News outlets focus on sensational stories, on negatives rather than highlighting positives. The way terrorism is defined in the news, they treat very differently Muammar Gaddafi and Benjamin Netanyahu. Some noted that the news media pay little attention to right-wing terrorism.
Religion. Terrorism’s goal is to strike fear rather than to encourage us to love one another; thus its goal is to blunt the basic commandment of many religions. This led some to say that the way to combat terrorism is to hold onto our faith, not to fight faith vs faith. But that can be hard, especially when Muslims and others believe that in the news media and consequently in popular opinion the equation is made: Terrorism = Islam. It’s a distortion of Islam, although it was countered that some Muslims seem reluctant to discuss aspects of the problem. It was pointed out that Muslims are actually far more likely to be the victims of terrorism than they are to be the perpetrators, which led to the reply that Christians are being targeted explicitly by ISIS … which led to the observation that ISIS is still killing far more Muslims.
History. Many participants said we all need a better, more accurate understanding of history, both in the US and in other countries such as the Middle East. Actions by the US in the Middle East, it was said, can help explain the hostile feelings some people have, both for the US and for its allies. A participant thought we need to have much better textbooks that “tell it the way it is, not the way it is being told.”
Discrimination. Several thought that the way terrorism being addressed today is discriminatory, perhaps to take resources away from people of color. Fear is driving public policy, but it hurts different groups in different ways. Several mentioned how travel restrictions and the inconvenience of airport security unfairly target minorities. “I shouldn’t have to prove myself not to be a terrorist just because of what I wear or where I come from.”
Solutions. As expected from the diagnosis of the problems of how terrorism is being perceived and fought, many thought there have to be changes in the way terrorism is covered in the news: less broad-brush blaming of particular religions like Islam, more coverage of positive developments. Someone said that one percent of the defense budget could solve serious social problems that contribute to terrorism … so why don’t we do that? Several thought that a step in the right direction is for more people of different religious and political views to talk openly with each other.
The Future of Indiana
September 15 — Indiana’s 200: The People Who Shaped the Hoosier State
Noon @ the Indiana History Center. Written by 136 historians, scholars, biographers and independent researchers, the biographical essays in this book written for the state’s bicentennial is intended to enhance the public’s knowledge and appreciation of those who made a difference in the lives of Hoosiers, the country and even the world.
September 21 — Electing our future: How does Indianapolis work?
6:00 @ the Central Library. In November, voters in Marion County will go to the polls to elect a Mayor and City-Council. Turnout in the last two municipal elections has been embarrassingly low: 26% in 2007 and just under 30% in 2011. This discussion will help increase informed engagement in the civic life of our city. We want more citizens voting in November and participating and volunteering between elections.
October 6 — What are the Issues We Face?
6:00 pm @ the Central Library. How does the City deal with change? What do citizens need to know to make informed decisions on quality of life issues: environmental, public health, education, transportation, arts and culture, civic life. How do we identify and allocate dwindling resources—with resources broadly defined to include civic, corporate and religious organizations and nonprofits, sources of expertise, & civic energy. Why is low civic knowledge a barrier to a more robust civic life?
October 20 — What do we want Indianapolis to look like?
What do we want Indianapolis to look like 5, 10, 15 years from now? If we want a city that is healthy, wealthy & wise, how do we get there? The Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee will share insights from Indy 2020 project.