Crisis and Opportunity in the Muslim World

I am currently in Morocco for the Marrakesh Declaration and Call to Action, a three-day gathering of prominent Sunni and Shia scholars (though primarily Sunni) from around the world who have come together to affirm the rights of minorities within Muslim-majority contexts and mobilize action to protect them. Drawing from historic Islamic sources, particularly the Charter of Medina, a contract established by the Prophet (peace be upon him) with the Jewish community in Medina ensuring freedom of religious practice and vows of protection, the summit will issue a declaration at its conclusion. In workshop sessions, participants are developing the substance of this declaration and plans for its implementation. Clergy of other faiths and interfaith activists are attending as observers, supporters, and contributors to the discussion.


The gathering has been in the works for four years, led by the prominent Mauritanian Sunni scholar Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah under the auspices of his Forum for Muslims Promoting Peace, with the Moroccan king serving as co-sponsor and host. Sheikh bin Bayyah, an Islamic legal expert, developed the framework for the summit and its declaration, seeking to bring tradition and modernity into conversation. His efforts came in response to the rise of extremist groups in the Muslim world that target minority groups (among others) with violence, rape and sexual enslavement, forced conversion, and destruction of holy sites. These “uneducated” and “arrogant fools,” as Sheikh bin Bayyah described them on the first day of the meeting, distort Islam, and so these prominent ulema (Islamic scholars) have an important role to play in discrediting extremists’ arguments and advancing protection of minorities and their cultural and religious traditions as an essential Islamic duty.


Sheikh Bin Bayyah addresses those gathered

There is no doubt that the current moment is one of exceptional crisis for the world generally, and for the Muslim world in particular. But this moment of crisis is also one of opportunity, creating motivation as never before for those involved in peacebuilding in the Muslim world to come together across sectarian, ethnic, and national lines to affirm, renew, and strengthen positive teachings and relationships within the tradition, address historical points of disagreement that have divided the greater Muslim community, and draw from the many Islamic sources available to transform the drivers of violence in the Muslim world and beyond.

There have been many attempts to organize the greater ummah, or world community of Muslims, to find points of consensus among the religion’s diverse followers in order to advance peace and reduce sectarianism. For example, the Amman Message, drafted in 2004 and signed by hundreds of Muslim leaders, called for tolerance and unity within the ummah. The 2010 Mardin Conference convened over a dozen Sunni scholars to methodically denounce and invalidate a fatwa that is often cited by militant jihadists. Gatherings and statements such as these have been and continue to be significant markers in considering Islam in the current global context. However, these platforms and declarations have sometimes been criticized for failing to organize and mobilize action yielding tangible impact in ending violence and transforming its underlying drivers. It is the hope of many convened here in Marrakesh, including the conference organizers, but especially the minority representatives from Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, that this meeting and declaration will yield such action. At the very least, the presence of numerous government representatives and prominent scholars is acknowledgement of the existence of a serious problem that needs addressing. As noted by Shahed Amanullah in a tweet, it’s an important step.

SA tweet


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Fruit of Labor

Cover WRP

At long last, our book was released officially on September 15th! Can’t tell you what a relief this is, after such a long incubation period. The  project that led to this book was launched in 2010, a joint effort by USIP, the Berkley Center of Religion and World Affairs at Georgetown, and the World Faiths Development Dialogue. Katherine Marshall and I have shepherded the process along in the years since. Holding the book makes more real and evident the larger project and its impact on me and my work: all those conversations, those incredible women I’ve met and learned about.

The common assumption out there is that religious women are quiet, submissive, oppressed. When it comes to thinking about their response to violent conflict, there is little known about how they work, and so a conclusion that they do little. When it comes to their role in shaping gender dynamics in society, it is often assumed they reaffirm normative practices and attitudes privileging men and their authority. Look closer, and these easy assumptions fall apart. This book tells the stories of women you may never have heard of — women who have been unrecognized by either the religious peacebuilding field (which privileges male clerics) or the women’s peacebuilding field (which privileges secular women). It tells the story of Pastor Adelina Zuniga and Catholic Sister Maritze in Colombia who confront corporate powers and armed actors in their efforts to protect their communities and demand justice, drawing from Biblical stories affirming the leadership of women to defend their agency against religious or secular gatekeepers who makes claims about how religious women should act. It speaks of Tawakkol Karman, Dekha Ibrahim, Bilkisu Yusuf — Muslim women from across Africa and the Middle East who have led nonviolent resistance movements to topple dictators, forged relationships across fraught lines of violence, advocated for women’s rights within religious frames, and put themselves in the most dangerous, violent places to mediate between factions, drawing courage and conviction from their faith. Or Mae Chee Samanasee in Thailand, who quietly brings together Buddhist and Muslim women from the south to offer healing to those worn down by the unending cycles of suffering wrought from decades of violence. Thank God for these women, these stories, and for the opportunity given us to sing their songs.

In the course of this project two women just mentioned, Dekha and Bilkisu, died. Dekha died in 2011 in a car accident, and Bilkisu died just recently in the stampede at hajj in Mecca. Together those involved in the project mourned their deaths, even as we acknowledged their spirit and inspiration live on, encouraging other Muslim women in Africa and religious women across the globe. At our 2010 symposium, Dekha spoke quietly but with a wisdom that granted her authority. She spoke of how delicate peace is — like an egg. Bilkisu, meanwhile, demanded your attention — her towering presence, her deep voice. She didn’t speak much but when she spoke her words were careful and influential. She came across as powerful but never domineering. She co-authored one of the chapters in our book … perhaps her last published piece, her last written word, before succumbing to the glory in the most holy Islamic place on earth. Rest in peace, sisters. We’ll keep singing your song and your praises.

bilkisu    dekha

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This sermon was preached by Rev. Dr. Stephanie Paulsell, one of my former seminary professors and an inspiration in the art of making scholarship a ministry to others and an act of devotion. She offered this reflection at a Seven Last Words of Christ service on Good Friday at The Paulist Center in downtown Boston, where I served as a graduate student intern. She preached it over ten years ago, and it has remained with me ever since. Every year, on Good Friday, I pull it up and read it. And it never gets old. That’s how you know you’re hearing the Word of God in it. Many thanks to Stephanie for granting me permission to post her sermon on this blog! 


Luke 23: 39-43

Rev. Dr. Stephanie Paulsell
The Paulist Center
Boston, MA
April 9, 2004

In one of his many anxious meditations on the inadequacy of human words, St. Augustine maintains that words are reminders of our distance from God because they are temporal and will not last.  No matter how eloquent we are, Augustine writes, we cannot capture the eternal mystery of God in language.  Even our best words–God, life, love–even our best words only strike the air for a moment, and then they are gone.

On Good Friday, imperfect, fallible, very human words are all we have.   We can join the women at the foot of the cross, but like them, we cannot make this horrible dying stop.  We cannot rescue Jesus; we cannot take him down from the cross, bathe his wounds, feed him back to health.  All we can do is listen for his last words and try to hear them–really hear them–before they disappear into silence.

Like most words that are forged in suffering, Jesus’ last words are hard to hear: forsaken, thirst, finished.  These are words exhaled on a last breath, words that will be swallowed up by a silence that is empty and complete.

And yet, even with that terrible silence spreading out across the afternoon, Jesus breathes out a word that shines out of Good Friday like a jewel.  A beautiful word: Paradise.  A word that evokes images of pleasure and loveliness: a quiet stretch of beach; streets paved with gold; angels, their  wings arched and trembling.  Paradise: a word that says this day of suffering will end.  A word that promises that forsaken, thirst, finished are not the last words to be said about us.  “Truly I tell you,” Jesus says to the man suffering next to him, “today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Perhaps you read the interview with religion scholar Karen Armstrong in the New York Times magazine last Sunday.  When asked if she believed in the afterlife, she said it didn’t interest her in the least.  “Religion is supposed to be about losing the ego,” she said, “not preserving it eternally in optimum conditions.”

Armstrong objects to our lack of imagination about Paradise,  the way we tend to imagine it as the ultimate in personal fulfillment, or an excuse not to respond to world’s pain, an excuse to focus our attention on the end of the story rather than the life that is before us, right here, right now.   We all know what our misuses of the idea of Paradise have wrought: passivity, exclusion, violence.  It is when our ideas about Paradise harden into certainties that Paradise becomes dangerous.

For who can say what Paradise is?  The best attempts to describe it are marked by glorious failure. I know a person who was caught up into Paradise, the apostle Paul writes, but all he can say is that he heard things that are not to be told. Even that great cartographer of Paradise, the poet Dante, fails in the end to describe it. “How incomplete is speech, how weak!” he cries at the threshold of the presence of God. His critics have grumbled in frustration ever since.

Dante cannot give us a vision of God in words. He is writing with light, Peter Hawkins says, and its splendor hides the very face we long to see. But although the poet cannot show us what he sees in Paradise, he can describe what happens to him there. And what happens is that he begins to turn, to move, to be moved, as he says, by the Love that moves the sun and the other stars. For the first time, he feels his inner life and the life of the world match.  Everything inside of him–his desire, his will–begins to turn in harmony with creation itself.

It is this turning, this deep joining of the world that we hear in the second word of Good Friday.  Two crucified men, their bodies spread out in an awful parody of openness and welcome, turn to one another in the only way they can: with words.  Like all human words, these words do strike the air and pass away, but they also hold open a place in time in which the eternal can break in.  One man says, “remember me.”  The other replies, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

This moment of turning mirrors God’s never-ending turning towards us, God’s joining us in birth and death, hunger and thirst, joy and pain.  The wheel of God’s compassion turns and turns, gathering up everything in its path: Jesus, the crucified thieves, the executioners, the women weeping at the foot of the cross, the jeering crowds.  And we ourselves, one Good Friday congregation among many, straining with other faithful people around the world to hear the last words of our beloved as he struggles through his last hours of life.

Paradise.  This is not a disappearance behind the garden hedge of Eden, a turning away from the world of time.  It is a radical turning towards the world, a joining of our life to God’s life, our life to all of life.  It is a refusal to say–ever–that things may one day get so bad that we will have to turn away from others to focus on ourselves, or our homeland, alone.  We’ve come here today to try again to set our lives turning against that grain and turning toward the world God made and called good.  We’ve come here to put ourselves in the path of God’s own turning, to be swept up and quickened in God’s clasp.  Paradise.

There are other words coming in this hour.  Harsher, colder words: forsaken, thirst, finished.  When those words have struck the air, Jesus will fall silent, and there will be no more words today.

Before that silence overtakes us, let us allow this second word to set us turning, turning on the wheel of God’s compassion, turning toward the world with our hearts wide open, turning in time with the God who never tires of turning toward us.

Paradise.  Paradise.  We need this word of generosity to help us stay turned towards one another, even as powers and principalities encourage us to turn us away from each other in order to seek our satisfaction alone.  We need this word of resistance to help us stay turned towards the earth, even as our 24-hour economy tries to detach our body’s rhythms from the rhythms of creation.  We need this word of love to help us stay turned towards God, even as we suffer, even as we weep.

One forsaken, dying man says to another: Paradise.  And even the stars begin to turn.


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“I no longer love blue skies”

This is adapted from a talk I gave on January 24th at an interfaith conference on drone warfare held at Princeton Theological Seminary. I was invited to speak from a faith perspective about the use of weaponized drones as a tactic of modern warfare. 


I’m sure many of you know a certain poem written by the poet e.e. cummings. It’s one of my favorite apocryphal psalms of gratitude. It begins like this:

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

I often murmur this verse to myself when standing under a blue true dream of sky so wide and open that it makes my soul expand into the infinite that is yes, that is God. Or I murmur this verse over an evening meal, in gratitude for being carried through a day under that blue dream.

And it’s this poem I think of when I heard the thirteen-year-old boy from Pakistan offer his statement to American policymakers at a congressional hearing in 2013. Zubair Rehman, who survived the drone strike that killed his grandmother, spoke in his native Urdu, explaining to them: “I no longer love blue skies. In fact, I now prefer gray skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are gray, and so for a short period of time the mental tension and the fear lessens. But when the sky brightens, the drones return, and so does the fear.”

This is where I begin, the perspective of Zubair Rehman looking up from his slice of earth in Pakistan to the heavens, and fearing a blue true dream of sky that should send his soul soaring because of everything which is natural, which is infinite, which is yes, but that instead makes him cower. Zubair is afraid of the blue sky he no longer loves, because, as Congressman Rush Holt offered last night as explanation for why drone strikes are so terrifying: they come out of the blue.

Augustine described sin as a curving inward. For him and, later, for Martin Luther, sin is best understood as a turning toward the self and its will, its needs, away from others and the Great Other that is God. It’s a cowering inward, instead of an expanding outward in response to God’s call from heaven. There is something in Zubair Rehman’s recoil under the blue heavens that makes me think of Augustine’s description of sin. What does it mean when our government’s actions (read: our own actions, since our democratic government ostensibly reflects our collective will) force others to curve inward, stifling their souls, preventing them from soaring gratefully into the blue true infinite yes?

And, of course, what does it mean when our own national security concerns, our love for self and nation, turn us inward, leading us to put nation and self before God and other?When asked what was the most important commandment, Jesus replied that the commandment on which everything hangs is this: love God with all your heart and mind and strength. Once you get that right, once you orient your everything toward the Infinite Yes, then everything else falls into place: love of neighbor and all creation, the law and the prophets, and ultimately the peaceable kingdom. That’s where adherence to the great commandment leads, we’re promised: Peace on earth.

Now this is what’s a little absurd about all that: Christianity, rooted in Judaism, directs faith toward the possibility of eradicating sin and violence and creating a world in which all human beings flourish, living into fullness. The world, meanwhile, this same world in which drones are manufactured, sold, weaponized, and sent flying, tells us that very same idea is a naive, impossible pipe dream. To which belief do your thoughts and actions adhere? I’d like to say that’s an easy answer for me, but it’s not always when I read the news and hear about the extreme suffering being wrought around the world by both governments and non-state forces. Still, most days I do my work as a builder of just peace trusting the rather absurd notion that a world without war is possible – that we have already the resources, knowledge, and institutions to create sustainable peace. What we lack is faith. I don’t mean religious faith, necessarily, but rather the trust, generally, in our ideals as a solid and legitimate foundation for making life and death decisions, policy decisions, and military ones too.

So often in DC I hear the argument that if we do not respond militarily in the face of the suffering of others, it’s the equivalent of doing nothing. This was the argument made last year by Secretary Kerry as he advocated for a military campaign into Syria. The faulty logic here is assuming that to respond to suffering in ways other than militarily, to respond in nonviolent actions that build peace, is the equivalent of doing nothing. In reality, military interventions (of whatever sort – ground troops to bombing campaigns to drones) hardly have a solid track record in creating sustainable peace. We can look backwards in history and see the story of violence unfold and the reality of what bombs and violence do – they create shock waves across space and then across time, creating new forms of violence in their wake.  We give arms to groups that end up turning those arms against us later on. We fight one front only to entrench resentments that arise in another place  — an endless game of whack-a-mole. The Cold War ends, its proxy wars continue through the 90s, up to the war on terror – you can dot a line between these episodes from the God’s eye view. What this tells me is that not only is the use of military force not the only viable response to injustice or violence, but perhaps more persuasively, it is arguably not the most effective response, ultimately.

In fact, there is, ultimately, only one way to end violence. That is what is affirmed in our scriptures, and that is what is affirmed in much of the scholarship and statistics that inform the field in which I work, international conflict management: it’s the creation of sustainable peace — an environment in which people have collaborative and supportive relationships, and in which there is a lack of structural and cultural violence: the suffering caused by economic and political structures of exploitation and repression, and the aspects of culture, including religion and ideology, used to dehumanize others and legitimate violence.

To put it in more Jesusy-speak, this is the creation of shalom, or salaam, a context marked by the conditions conducive to human flourishing, in which all people live with dignity, fully, their soul expanding into the infinite blue true dream of yes.

My denomination, the United Church of Christ (or UCC), declared itself a Just Peace church in 1985. And we have a resolution that will be presented at our upcoming national gathering to reconfirm our Just Peace commitment on its thirtieth anniversary, calling on our churches to do so in light of the state of near constant warfare in the world today, warfare that’s been extended through the use of weaponized drones, as well as the growing inequality, environmental degradation, cultural prejudice, and poverty that feed incessant violence.

Just peace principles are rooted in the vision and values to which Maryann Cusimano Love spoke yesterday: the creation of right relationships between people, the eradication of human exploitation, the commitment to a positive peace free of overt and structural violence, the restoration of ties that bind people together, and care for the psyche and spirit.

Do drones help to create just peace? That’s the question I’ve been asked to answer today. Well, no. As has been noted by others, the use of drones has harmed our relationship with others around the world. The feeling of mental anxiety experienced by those living in places where drones operate, where attacks that are not constrained by rules of law come out of the blue, terrorize them and create resentments toward the U.S. that feed violent reactionary movements. The secrecy of the drone program and its use runs counter to democratic, participatory processes and undermines international cooperation as a value and as the foundation necessary for international organizations to function. Our use of drones has expanded violent military campaigns into areas in which we are not at formal war, lowering the bar for military interventions and dragging our country into a state of seemingly incessant, unmitigated military campaigns. For me, this undermines the argument that drones limit destruction caused by full-flung military campaigns. That argument might fly if we used drones only in places where we have declared war, but in reality they’ve expanded the battleground. Drones, certainly used in isolation, and arguably used at all, do not help build sustainable peace. They are merely a short-term, easy, almost whimsical (a word used by one of the other conference presenters) answer to complex problems. And they make kids fear blue skies.

This is what the Christian scriptures teach us: our security will not ultimately come from more advanced weapons. Those who live by the sword, die by it. The more we seek to refine and rebuild our machinery of death, the more insecure we become, at least from the perspective of the ultimate. It’s love, finally, and only, that squelches out fear. It’s love as lived out in the public square as justice, right relationships, human flourishing. It’s love that’s reflected in the infinite yes of a true blue dream of sky in which souls can soar toward heaven in gratitude. Pretty absurd an idea, but maybe one deserving of our faith.


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Praying the Hours

The ice slabs on the river groan when the terce sun strikes them, cracking
as the cold night lifts and exposes them to something new.

I listen to their shifting from here, above the sound of wood
stirring, crumbling as the stove’s heat grows and undoes everything.

Tonight at vespers the incense was so thick it filled my lungs, wove
into my hair, my clothes, my soul. It enfolded me as he prayed:
let your love be like incense.

So much that I am overwhelmed by it? Almost wishing it to end, almost wishing to rush
outside into the January air so cold, so fresh, it makes me gasp, stars fierce
above the waning vesper light.

Antony went into the Egyptian desert seeking something, says the monk. He didn’t run
from anything. He ran toward something.

Like you are doing, he adds.

I did not know I was seeking something when I walked into that arid place.
Except to love. To be loved.

I stand now at the mouth of the tomb, wrapped in my grave-clothes and
waiting. The sound of shifting is unmistakable

in the time between compline and the beginning again of matin.

Emery House
West Newbury, MA

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First Love

It was most of all the way you’d proclaim your self-importance in morning granola
served mixed together with organic yogurt and my fruit, frozen hard.
I always came second to your child which was the way it should be. But

at bedtime he and I would peer at each other over your head as it nodded
time to the words of the story and sometimes the look wasn’t lovely at all
but full of regret for the other’s existence.

What I remember most is the afternoons in summer spent lying in bed
with the hot sun shining in on us and my gut wrenching to be doing
something or even anything besides this nothing we’d managed to wrap
ourselves in to, and the heat.  I’m not so sure my best moments were with you.
Certainly there was an awful lot of hating boredom and doing for the sake of not doing
and perfectly good hours wasted along the face of my clock you’d hung
in the beams of my light shining a lavender white.   Oh,

but then there were your hands. They were cold on my thighs that ached
under the weight of days spent on the far side of the bed we shared
though you’d never know it from looking.  The blanket barely stretched
across the length of the flat mattress and I was always stealing it in the slumbering hope that you’d come closer for refuge from the moon winds gasping in on us, closer

from the street lights that cast our night room orange, closer
from the hum of the refrigerator sleeping, nearly empty now of meat or sweets,
small bulb revealing only an apple or condiment and then large empty spaces of shelf.

When I came back to pick up the last of my things you’d found buried
in the closet, stored for the years, I took your son out for ice cream. He told me
that I didn’t live there anymore and he missed me and he was only three years old.

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An Advent Awakening in Ferguson

“For the third time he spoke to them: ‘Why, what wrong has he done? I have not found him guilty of any capital offense. I will therefore flog him and let him go.’ But they persisted with their demand, shouting that Jesus should be crucified. Their shouts prevailed.” Luke 23:22-23


This morning I went to church to worship a God who knows what it’s like to have a child deemed a criminal, seen as a threat to the state and public order, subjected to a shoddy trial resulting in an unjust verdict, and then killed by the state. Two thousand years ago this was done to Jesus with the tacit acceptance and even support of the socially privileged, some of whom cried fervently for his crucifixion.

We are now in the season of Advent in the Christian liturgical year. This time of year we acknowledge darkness in the world. As the days grow shorter and colder in the Northern hemisphere, our slice of earth tilting away from the heat and light of the sun, we call out for the heat and light of God. We see the shadowy places in the world: the wounds, the injustices, the disease and violence and indifference, and we cry out for hope, love, peace, and joy. With each cry, we are told that God responds, Jesus growing and turning and dropping in Mary’s large belly, preparing to break into this dark world as an answer, reminding us to love our way into solutions to the world’s suffering.

In Ferguson last August, an unarmed son was killed by the state. That morning 18 year old Mike Brown had done something criminal: he had shoplifted. Walking home, he and his friend were stopped by an officer. What happened next is not fully known. There’s disagreement about that, but no disagreement about how it ended. Officer Wilson shot Mike Brown multiple times, and then Ferguson exploded. When the officer was not indicted, the country exploded.

The fuel to the flame grew with the non-indictment in the Eric Garner case weeks later. Garner who was himself deemed criminal for selling loose cigarettes, who was confronted by police and responded angrily, saying “I’m tired of it. This stops today.” Have you watched the video? You can’t unsee it once you’ve seen it. The exhaustion in his voice is like a weight on your soul. He was weary, pleading for an end to the suffocating oppression, suspicion. The cops circled him, descended on him, compressed his chest and put him in a chokehold as he said eleven times, “I can’t breathe,” his arm outstretched, his hand reaching. He died. The cop was not indicted. And the country exploded again, the protests growing. “We can’t breathe,” chanted these crowds.

Something is arriving among us in this country. Something redemptive.

On Twitter and Facebook I have encountered countless voices saying that these dead men and boys deserved what they had coming. He was a criminal, they say to those arguing that black lives matter. Mike Brown was a threat to public order. He attacked like a demon. Crucify him, tweet the crowds fervently, crucify these criminals. It’s an old story. But remember how it ends.

Today I needed to see the Advent candles of hope and comfort blazing, to put my faith in the belief that even as the crowds cry for crucifixion, God is arriving to bring new life and light to this darkness, an answer to outstretched arms and hands up toward heaven. You can see the light building as the crowd of protesters grow across the nation, as their tweets calling us to awake and to love grow louder, overcoming the darkness, ensuring the voice of the oppressed is louder than the crucifixion cries. May the world be changed forever.

__________________  lightindarkness

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