Social Awareness Table Conversations … and beyond
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.