Sunday, September 30, 2012

The innocence of Islam

I just wasted 14 minutes watching the very poorly produced film, “The Innocence of Muslims”.  Normally, I would post a link to a YouTube video I mention, but not this time. Most teens with an iPhone can make better movies.  Yet, this is the film that has outraged Muslims and sparked protests, first in Arab countries and now in North America and Europe. 

Undeserving of attention but difficult to ignore
If the reaction to this film, created by an Egyptian Coptic Christian living in the United States, had not resulted in deaths and social unrest, I would dismiss the film as ridiculously stupid (which it is).  “The Innocence of Muslims” is simply not worth the trouble it has caused. It deserves no attention.

However, the film’s notoriety makes it difficult to ignore. This film is neither art nor documentary. It is a pathetic attempt at propaganda intended to discredit Islam through the crude portrayal of the Prophet Mohammed.  As others have stated, it portrays the prophet as a fraud, a womanizer, and a child molester. To these insulting representations, I would add that the film also portrays the prophet as a buffoon, and his followers as brainless minions.

While I am not surprised at the reaction to this film, I am surprised that this shoddy video has garnered so much attention.  There are likely hundreds of poorly produced propaganda videos posted on YouTube. Most of them remain obscure. Someone, or a group of individuals, disseminated this particular YouTube video for malicious reasons.

Protests have little to do with faith
The majority of protestors in Arab nations cannot have seen the video. Goggle restricted its access in some Arab countries to comply with the laws of those countries. Other countries blocked access to the film. There is a strong sense that Muslim extremists, using social media, orchestrated the protests. 

Maybe the protestors truly believe that they are defending their prophet’s honor. It is more likely, though, that these protests have little to do with Islamic faith, and a whole lot to do with power and ideology.

There is a consensus in the international media that the protests express political and social frustration. Analysts give three main reasons for the protests. There is a struggle within Islam between extremists and moderates. There is frustration with the economy and the slow pace of rebuilding a society following the Arab Spring.  There is also the ever simmering anti-American sentiment and general suspicion of western culture.

Religion is the scapegoat in a complex web of realities
These protests reflect a complex web of realities; religion is the scapegoat. This is nothing new. Historically, those in positions of power and religious authority have misused religion to rationalize intolerance, to legitimize violence, and to further political agendas.  When this happens, religion is more about ideology and power than faith.

Most of the world’s religions are based on an ethic of compassion and non-violence. Islam is no exception.  Violence, ostensibly in the defense of religion, is a poor way for believers to exercise their faithfulness. So is the making of a film that attacks and denigrates another religion.

This small-minded film, "The Innocence of Muslims",  has been thrust into a spotlight on the international stage. It has no business being there. The poorly made film is not responsible for the madness that has ensued anymore than Islam is to blame. Culpability lies elsewhere, in the complexities that shape human societies. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The monastic oasis of France's Le Reposoir

The view from a chalet in Le Reposoir
Photo by C. McEwan
There was no sleeping in late on our recent vacation. The day following our arrival in the little village of Le Reposoir, nestled in the French Alps, we were up early to attend 8:3o a.m. Mass. It was Wednesday, August 15, the Feast of the Assumption, and a national holiday in France. Celebrating the feast day is part of the nation’s patrimony, and we were happy to experience this aspect of life in a village where religious tradition remains important.

Ancient roots for a modern holiday
The roots of this holiday go back to 1638 when King Louis XIII consecrated his kingdom to the Virgin Mary, and decreed that churches commemorate the feast day with Mass and celebrations. In a country that is recognized for its secularity, August 15 remains an important day for many of its inhabitants.

Our French hosts told us that some years ago the government had proposed abolishing the holiday, but encountered fierce opposition from the citizens. Our hosts explained that while the nation is no longer overtly religious, the people remain attached to this holiday. It is part of the historical and cultural fabric of their country.

In Le Reposoir, a village of about 400 inhabitants, there were two Masses that morning.  The Masses were well attended, with people  from the village and the surrounding areas. After the early Mass, we sipped our coffees on the terrace of the local bar to the accompaniment of pealing church bells, and watched as family after family filed into the village church. 

The Le Reposoir monastery

The early Mass was celebrated at the ancient Carthusian monastery situated outside of the village.  The simplicity of its Gothic chapel spoke more to my religious sensibility of the presence of God than did the ornate cathedrals thronging with tourists that we visited elsewhere on our travels.

This is sacred space
The monastery of Le Reposoir is the oldest monastery in France, and dates to 1151. It sits on an expansive property, fronted with a small lake. The mountains rise up on all sides. While the grandeur of the landscape could make a person feel small and insignificant, I felt cradled in the heart of God here. This is sacred space, infused with an atmosphere of calm that contrasts sharply to the cluttered noise that characterizes most of modern day life.

A small group of Carmelite nuns, the majority of whom are cloistered, inhabit the monastery, and are committed to maintaining the quiet that is conducive to an encounter with God. In an amusing anecdote, our hosts told us that every time the mayor embarks on a development idea, the nuns redouble their prayers for the village to remain a place of repose. So far, no development project has succeeded. While the mayor may wish that the nuns prayed less fervently, and stopped thwarting his good ideas, the monastery and the contemplative life it espouses are clearly dear to the people. Here in this monastic oasis, religious tradition continues to ignite the sparks of faith.

Liturgical celebrations mediate the presence of God
Liturgical celebrations at the monastery provided the bookends for our day.  That evening,  we returned to the monastery for the annual candlelight procession, and prayer vigil. The  procession begins at the monastery and winds its way up the hill to the statue of Mary. The celebration ends with the lighting of a massive bonfire. 

Vigil bonfire

The bonfire is clearly the highlight for the children present.  As they sat before the fire, I recognized in their expressions of wonder and awe the uncomplicated faith of childhood that readily accepts the presence of God.

As the sparks flew heavenwards into the night sky, we cautiously made our way back back to our accommodations with the help of a small flashlight.  The night was black, the stars were brilliant, and the presence of God was everywhere.

Photo credits:
The Le Reposoir Monastery, Source: Le Carmel en France
Vigil Bonfire, Source:

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Shaping a more just society through our work

From an early age, I learned the value of work. My father owned a dry cleaning and laundry business. In its heyday, the business employed about a dozen people, and did the laundry for a number of local hotels and motels.  At around age 12, my sisters and I began helping on the laundry side. We fed sheets through the flat iron, and folded them. We loaded washing machines and dryers with towels, and folded them when they were dry. We counted out both the sheets and the towels, stacked them, and wrapped them for delivery.

As we got older, we assumed more responsibilities, and worked more hours. We learned how to press shirts with a really cool pressing machine that also folded them. We learned some basic office skills, and served the customers.  The time required to complete the work determined the length of the workday, after which we went home to enjoy the summer afternoons.

That early experience of work helped me to develop a strong work ethic. There was nothing glamorous about working in a hot, humid laundry, but we did our job well, and with pride.  While I do not remember my parents saying it, somehow I learned that every job is worth doing well. I told myself this repeatedly when I was a university student cleaning toilets in a hospital. It was not a glamorous job, but I did it well, and with pride.

I remember feeling proud to have a job because I was making a contribution. I was making a contribution to my family; my parents did not have to work quite so many hours while employees were on vacation if we helped out. With my earnings, I was able to contribute to my education and my future.  I also liked to think that I was making a contribution to others. Perfectly laundered sheets and towels might make guests feel more comfortable while away from home. A clean bathroom might help to lift a sick person’s spirit, and help them feel cared for.

Work is relational, and involves us with others
While I no longer have a job per se, I still find value in the work that I do.  Whether it’s washing the floor, doing laundry, working on a volunteer project, or writing a column, work provides my daily life with structure and purpose.  In my experience of work, whether it is paid, unpaid, or volunteer work, work is relational. It involves us with others, and affects others.  

Something as simple as providing an orderly home environment gives all family members a sense of consistency and security.  Consistently executing a job properly, and with attention to detail demonstrates a sense of responsibility to the common good.  A worker who pulls their weight shows respect for co-workers. Employers who treat employees as members of a team, not as wheels in a cog for corporate profit, honor the dignity of each individual. 

We can imbue the workplace with elements of the sacred
While the workplace is a secular environment, we can imbue it with elements of the sacred through the manner in which we conduct our selves. Our approach to our work, and our interactions with co-workers reflect our character.

We do not need to be Bible thumping fanatics at work in order to express faith. By expressing our faith in unobtrusive ways, we can make a difference to the culture of the workplace. The workplace can become a community of caring individuals, who respond to the needs of one another, and to the needs of the community beyond the workplace.


We are our brothers' and sisters' keepers
From time to time, we read stories of groups of workers reaching out to others. These groups fund-raise, donate the money to charity, or to a family that is struggling with an unexpected disaster, or a debilitating illness. This workplace outreach begins with individuals who are motivated to help someone who is suffering.  While their actions  may not be religiously motivated, these groups of individuals are practicing a dimension of their spirituality. Through their compassionate response to the needs of others, they  remind us that we have a responsibility for one another. We are our brothers' and sisters' keepers.

Our culture of consumerism has conditioned us to base the value of our work on dollar amounts.  We tend to think of our work in terms of what our earnings enable us to purchase. When we begin to view our work as something more than a paycheck, we begin to see new possibilities for creating and shaping a more just society.

Photo credits: