Two Kinds of Religion

“How a Single Voice Threatened to Spark a Forest Fire”

Gordon C. Stewart, September 28, 2010

Minnesota Public Radio (MPR, 91.1 FM) published this commentary after a Florida pastor threatened to burn the Quran. The same Rev. Jones is part of the story of the toxic video that has inflamed the Muslim world today. Some things never change.

Everyone from time to time feels insignificant. As I did, while watching fires burn across the world, lit by the words of one pastor in Florida. I felt like a spectator in the stands watching the game I care about go terribly wrong, a hostage of verbal terrorism uttered in the name of Christ.

I would imagine that the Rev. Terry Jones and his small congregation also had felt insignificant before they announced the 9/11 Quran burning, and that they were stunned when their pastor’s voice, although terribly misguided, lit the forest on fire without ever burning a Quran.  One of their own, one who had felt insignificant, had raised his voice and now had the ear of a commanding general, the secretary of defense and the president of the United States.

The difference between the Rev. Jones and most people is that he has a pulpit.  On any given Sunday he speaks and a few people actually listen.  Most of us do our ranting and raving in the shower, at the water cooler or with like-minded people at the coffee shop, but we don’t much expect anyone to listen.

But as the Jones story developed, those of us with pulpits were feeling no less beside the point.  Then, as I prepared for worship, I was drawn by some old lines about spiritual arson. “Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue is a fire … a restless evil, full of deadly poison” and “the seeds of righteousness are sown in peace by those who make peace” (Letter of James 3).

The thought crossed my mind: We could invite a Muslim friend to join me in the pulpit, perhaps my neighbor Muhammad or Abdi or one of their children, whom I meet daily while walking the dogs.  I decided to invite Ghafar Lakanwal, a Pashtun Afghan-American cultural diversity trainer, a Muslim and naturalized U.S. citizen, to bring greetings of peace and share some passages about peacemaking from the Quran in our Sunday worship on 9/12.

Our little church in Chaska welcomed Ghafar, and his words about the spiritual “obligation to learn, not burn” still ring in our ears. Our service drew media attention, and Ghafar’s words were heard on the evening news  and noticed by a stranger in Australia, who sent a message through the church website. “I was touched,” he wrote, “when I read about your recent Sunday service in the news. …  I for one can testify that it has certainly comforted a far away Muslim to know that there are neighbors who will stand together in difficult times.  My salaam [to you].  May we all grow together to attain Allah’s pleasure.”

“Ah!” someone will say. How can any Christian rejoice when the author uses the name “Allah” for God?  But the reaction to the “name” is misbegotten.  It is not the name of God; it’s the Arabic word for what we in English call God.   The forest fire lit in defense of “God” in advance of the anniversary of 9/11 reminds us that two kinds of religion potentially exist everywhere people gather to practice their faith. One kind burns. The other kind learns.  One hates; the other loves.

As James, writing to those who would follow Jesus, put it: “With [the tongue] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so” (James 3:9-10).  We can set the forest ablaze with our small spark or we can use it to light a candle of hope and peace. But, after the events of this month, none of us can again think that what we say is insignificant.

Take Away our Numbness – A Memorial to Sydney Mahkuk

These words were spoken on the sidewalk where 12-year-old Sydney Mahkuk died. Community leaders and Sydney’s family asked me to bring some kind of meaning and hope to the sidewalk where Sydney had been dumped from a car by the side of the funeral home.

November 4, 2005

Gordon C. Stewart

Executive Director, Legal Rights Center, Inc.

Once upon a time a proud people lived on this land. They called themselves Ojibwe, Anishinabe, Dakota, Lakota, and Winnebago. Occasionally a Menominee would visit.  They lived close to the land.  They hunted. They fished. They gave thanks to the Great Spirit for every day.  They saw themselves as part of nature. They rose with the sun. When the sun went down, they gathered in a circle by the light of the campfire.  By the light of the campfire, they listened to the elders, whose stories broke the silence to told the children who they were.  The children went to bed in safety.

Shabbona, Potawatami Chief, c. 1775 – 1859

They were people of great dignity.  Their ways were good ways.  They respected the land. They respected each other.  They honored their elders.  They cared for the children.  They trained their youth to become adults.  They died with dignity.  They were buried with honor. Earth was their mother. Gitchi Manitu, Wakan Tonka, the Great Spirit, was the common Grandfather of them all.

Then something terrible happened.  A plague came across their land.  It took their land.  It stole their culture.  It laughed at their spiritual practices.  It called them names.  It tore down their tepees, their longhouses and their sweat lodges.  And in their places the plague built big buildings – tall buildings, arrogant buildings, skyscrapers, they called them, that invaded the sky, turning the land into something it is not.  The Ojibwe and Dakota who lived here no longer rose with the sun.  They no longer gathered around the campfire.  They no longer heard the stories of who they were.  They knew only what the white plague had taught them – that unless they joined the plague, they were nobody, and that if they challenged it, they would lose.  They would die.

And so they lived in grief.  A sorrow too hard to bear.  A loss too great to carry.  And the plague offered them relief to numb the pain – firewater that would make them happy in spite of their despair.  Drugs to drive away the memories of who they were.  Escapes to make them numb.  To numb the pain.  Opiates to freeze their tongues.

The elders no longer acted like elders.  The parents were numb with grief.  There were no aunts.  No uncles. No cousins.  No grandparents.  Nobody dared to be a neighbor.  The children were left with no campfire at night – no community to tell them the stories of who they were and who they were not – and so the children and the youth drifted out into the night in search of themselves.  Locked in lonely prisons of confusion, the youth no longer knew Mother Earth as their Mother; they no longer knew how to give thanks to the Great Spirit for the day.  They no longer went to bed with the sun.  They wandered the night in search of the community they had lost and never known.  And the gangs and the drugs and the alcohol offered them the promises of a better life that was the kiss of death.  Ecstasy was no longer a way of life – it was a pill that would make them higher than the skyscrapers that ruined the once humble landscape.  And sometimes the alcohol and the drugs and the gangs that had promised to numb their pain took their lives and they were found in the morning as the sun came up.  They were found by strangers.

Sydney Mahkuk, RIP

Then one day a girl named Sidney, a 12 year-old Menominee-Portawatami, was found beside a funeral home on Columbus Avenue. How she got there nobody knew.  How she died, nobody knew.  But everybody knew why.

The community had unravelled.  It had become dry bones in the valley.

But on that day that the people gathered on the sidewalk on Columbus Avenue to mourn her death, there was a sound from heaven – a rattling, the sound of dry bones coming together, a resurrection of the once proud community. And as a result Sidney Mahkuk’s tragic death the community came together as it had not come together since the plague had begun.

On the day they gathered on Columbus Avenue – a street named after the European explorer who had not discovered their land – on that day, the community woke from its sleep.  It came together – Ojibwe, Dakota, Menominee, Potawatami, Lakota, African-American, Somali, Hispanic, Hmong …and, yes, even the descendants of Columbus.  And on that day, because of a little girl’s unexplained death, they stood together arm in arm and said “Enough” to the plague.  “Enough” to numbness.  They said, “No more. No more. No more death on Columbus’s Avenue.”  And it was more than words.  They looked up at the sun again and really saw it…as if for the first time. They looked down at Mother Earth and saw it, as if for the first time.  And they gave thanks.  Then they looked at each other and they said, “We are a proud people.  We will take back this land.  We will be the people who honor our elders.  We will be the people who support the parents and care for the children.  We will be the people who guide the youth.  We will be a people of hope, not despair.  We will be a people of love, not hate.  We are all Menominee-Potawatami. We are all grandchildren of one Grandfather.  We are the people who care for each other.  We are the people who refuse to go numb.  We are the people who will teach the children of Columbus – starting right here, right now… on Columbus Avenue – how to live in a good way with Mother Earth, in a good way with Iraq, in a good way with the rivers and the sky, the ozone and the sun.  We are the people whose spirituality will help to cure the cancer of the spiritual and economic plague that has left our people in despair.

From that day on, November 4, 2005 at twelve noon, 12 year-old Sidney Mahkuk – our daughter, our granddaughter, our little sister, our friend, our neighbor – would be forever remembered as the one whose deadly silence on this sidewalk spoke so loudly that we could not stay numb.  And we took the city back and brought it back to life.

Merciful God – Wakon Tonka, Gitchi Manitu, God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Jehovah, Allah, Grandfather, Great Spirit who breathes life into all things and receives all life at the end – Your’s is the air we breath, the land on which we walk.  Assure us that your love is stronger than every power to divide or hurt us.  Receive your child Sidney into your eternal care.  Wrap your arms around Glenda, around Sidney’s brothers and sisters, around all the defenseless children of the night, around all of us who mourn their plight and mourn Sidney’s death.  Re-kindle the light of faith and hope. Take from our souls the plague of hate, self-hatred and despair.  Take away the numbness and the apathy.  Make us a people of healing.  A humble and quiet people, but a proud people of love and spiritual strength. A people who are not afraid to feel the pain, who really feel the loss, who feel our feelings and do not fear them.  A people who dare to believe that every tear that falls from our eyes flows into the common stream of human suffering that leads into the ocean of community restored.  A people secure in the knowledge of your love.  Amen.