Andrew Garfield finds Jesus in SILENCE

25 04 2017

     I write a lot about loving your neighbor, or even loving your enemy, in the context of Christian-Muslim relations, where everything from prejudice to outright violent persecution is a daily reality for millions of people of faith. This crucible of the human experience is not lost on Hollywood either.

But rather than make a politically controversial film about Muslims persecuting Christians or vice-versa, Director Martin Scorsese brought to life the horrifying persecution of Christians at the hands of the Japanese shogunate 500 years ago in his film entitled SILENCE.

In the film, Andrew Garfield plays the role of a Jesuit priest tasked with searching for his mentor (Liam Neeson) who is rumored to have abandoned the Christian faith. To prepare for the role, Andrew studied diligently with a Jesuit father, James Martin. In a fascinating interview, Andrew shares that those studies became more important to him than the film, and what transpired through the studies surprised him.

“What was really easy was falling in love with this person, was falling in love with Jesus Christ. That was the most surprising thing,” Andrew says.

Andrew wasn’t a Christian when he started the film. But he recognized a certain pain in his heart. “The main thing that I wanted to heal, that I brought to Jesus, that I brought to the Exercises [the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola], was this feeling of not-enough-ness,” he said. But in meditating on Jesus’ life and words he found himself being transformed.

“I feel like this is what God is showing me,” he said. “I’m praying that I’m freer to offer myself vulnerably…and that these other voices, whether they’re internal or external, don’t have the same power over that flame, over the ability to offer that purest, vulnerable, cracked open heart…in service of God, in service of the greater good, in service of love, in service of the divine….If I can make storytelling a service, if I can be of service, and be as humble as I possibly can while doing it…”

He concludes, “There were so many things in the Exercises that changed me and transformed me, that showed me who I was…and where I believe God wants me to be.”

Meeting Jesus does tend to have that effect on people…

Back to the film…I absolutely loved it! The story presented two levels of religious conundrums. At the first level, Garfield’s character is challenged to deny his faith in Christ or die. He chooses his faith over his own life.

But then a more difficult choice is presented—to deny his faith in Christ, or others will die. This young Jesuit priest has to wrestle with whether it’s more Christlike to publicly bear witness to your faith though it will cost others their lives, or to sacrifice what is most precious to you (your public faith) in order to save others.

I won’t spoil the movie with what choice Garfield’s character makes. But I’m curious which choice YOU think is better—if you’re told to deny your faith or ten people will be executed, what do you think Jesus would want you to do? Post your comments below.

And then, check out the movie SILENCE.





Refugees—Fresh Starts Require New Friends

16 04 2017

(an interview with Nick Armstrong of Glocal Community Partners)

For the past 3 years Nick and Laura Armstrong have been working with refugees in Boise, ID. Over 50% of the refugees coming to Boise are Muslim, and not everyone in the community is ready to welcome them. So Nick and Laura built relationships with 45 local churches to train and mobilize Christian families to start a friendship with a refugee family. I asked Nick to share about the refugees’ rocky path to starting a new life in America.

JB: How does a refugee end up in Boise, ID?

NA: It’s actually quite difficult to come to America as a refugee. About 1% of the over 21 million refugees in the world get resettled to a “third country” such as the US (for example, a Syrian flees to Jordan and gets refugee status there and then applies for a third country resettlement) and about half of those actually get approved to come to the US. Those refugees who get approved to come to the US go through a vetting process that is, by far, the most stringent of any entrant classification (e.g. tourist, student, business visa), and it takes a minimum of 18 months to go through the US vetting process which includes the involvement of the National Counter-terrorist Center, the FBI, the State Department, Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense) with an average time of 3 years to pass through a stringent vetting process before they can come to the US. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in cooperation with “3rd country” resettlement governments determine where a refugee will go, which means they could end up in Finland as easily as in Boise, ID. The family ties a refugee has in a “3rd country” can influence that decision, but there are no guarantees.

JB: Who takes care of them once they arrive in Boise?

NA: The Organization for Refugee Resettlement (ORR) in Washington D.C. coordinates with resettlement agencies such as World Relief, to determine the allocation of refugees to the various resettlement cities and agencies throughout the US. In the case of Idaho, once the refugees arrive, they receive an 8-month Transitional Refugee Assistance (TRA) from the resettlement agency which receives federal government funding. There is additional financial support from state and local governments. This helps them to rent a home, look for a job, get kids signed up in school, get medical coverage, join English language classes, etc.

Our role in this process is to help the newcomers to find local friends. They’ve lost their friends and community, and we want them to find new friends and a new sense of community in Boise. These new friends can also offer much needed social capital to people who need as many positive connection points to the community as they can get.

JB: What are some of the challenges resettled refugees face?

NA: These refugees have spent their most recent years in camps, etc., with a service-oriented mindset. They fled their homes with nothing, so everything had to be provided for them. They arrive in a similar place of need and similar mindset. They need integration and independence skills, especially language, and this takes time and a lot of help.

Many refugees come with various degrees of mental stress and traumas from the past, some come with PTSD. Most come with feelings of isolation and grieving tremendous loss. They need healing for their hearts. Some are finding healing and a new sense of community. But a few, like one woman we know whose PTSD is so overwhelming she continues to hide in her home after 2 years, need more help than the 8-month government program. They need a loving community who will reach out and walk with them through this tough transition.

JB: How have the citizens of Boise responded to the refugees?

NA: Well, I think that overall Boise has been a very open city with a mayor who has led the way in reaching out to refugees, recognizing the many benefits they can bring to the community. Having said that, there are still instances of hate crimes and bullying. The recent political climate has stirred up fear of refugees being potential terrorists, although the data doesn’t support such fear. Since 1975 over 3 million refugees have entered the US, and not one single terrorist attack on US soil has been perpetrated by a refugee! Our refugee crime rates are lower than the general populace. So that’s one of the challenges for us, to educate people and especially the churches that we work with to cast aside their fears and offer true friendship.

In our program, we require each Christian family to commit to weekly visits for 3 months with a refugee family, after that their level of involvement is up to them. I’m happy to share that 44 of the 45 Christian families in the friendship program have continued long past the original deadline and are delighted by the two-way friendships they’ve developed with the refugee families.

JB: Nick, I want to thank you for the wonderful work you’re doing! I love showcasing people on my blog who really live out “love your neighbor as yourself.” God bless you and your work!





A Muslim Reformer

6 04 2017

In my last post I urged for Muslim voices to speak out for reformation and justice. Today I want to give you an example of one such reformer.

Mustafa Akyol is currently a senior fellow at the Freedom Project at Wellesley College. His new book The Islamic Jesus: How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims follows some of the traditional Muslim views of Jesus, but shows a refreshing open-mindedness to learn from the Messiah.

(As a side note, this has been one of my biggest frustrations with Muslim teachers–most of them are so busy talking about what Jesus isn’t that they have no room in their hearts for acknowledging what he is. Akyol takes a more generous approach.)

I’m not endorsing Akyol’s beliefs as my own. But I’m thrilled to see a Muslim scholar trying to honestly interact with Jesus and see what he has to contribute to Muslims. Efforts like this reflect Akyol’s rejection of Qur’anic literalistic interpretations, Salafi extremist interpretations, and all forms of intolerance and violence within Islam; rather, he calls his own religion to embrace that the “Caliphate” is within them, much as Jesus argued the Kingdom of God is within us.  He both argues and backs it up with his life, that “A renaissance of Islam will take place only when we become more open-minded.”

I’ve often argued that instead of criticizing extremist Muslims, we’ll make more progress by befriending and supporting moderate, open-minded Muslims who can be a voice to their own people. And let us not forget to learn from them too, and be a voice to the extremists within our own religion as well.

I’d love for you to read this fascinating interview with Akyol and tell me what you think!





Are Christians Persecuted more than Muslims?

1 04 2017

Indonesian church burned by angry extremists (www.newson6.com)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel thinks so, calling Christianity “the most persecuted religion in the world.” Other Western leaders have made similar statements. But I began to wonder, is it true? So the research began…

The first thing I discovered is that in terms of how many nations persecute those of another religion, Christianity and Islam are neck-and-neck. In measuring both government harassment and social harassment over the last ten years, Christianity and Islam are ranked #1 and #2 every year, frequently changing places, but averaging persecution in about 80 nations of the world. In terms of where they are persecuted, it seems to be a tie.

The major difference I found is in how, or to what extent, they are persecuted. While it may be difficult to get mosque permits in the US just as it is difficult to get church permits in Indonesia, there are other more severe forms of persecution studied that show clearly Christians are suffering more greatly overall than Muslims. These variances are catalogued as “Low, High, Very High” or sometimes “Extreme.” Muslim majority nations have numerous cases of long prison sentences or angry mobs beating someone to death because they questioned a religious teacher, shared any thoughts deemed “anti-Islamic,” or converted from Islam to Christianity, whereas it’s very rare to hear of such cases in Christian majority nations.

For example, in Brian Grim’s insightful TED talk, he notes that the disparity between High or Very High Government Favoritism in the Middle East and N. Africa is 95%, while the rest of the world is only 12 %. Similarly, Sectarian or Communal Violence in the Middle East and N. Africa is 50%, while the rest of the world is only 11%. These regions of High or Very High persecution are almost all Muslim majority nations persecuting their minorities, including smaller Muslim groups but especially Christians. And when the government favors one religion to the detriment of other religions, it tends to result in a higher rate of social hostilities. In many cases, heinous crimes against minorities even go unpunished.

In every list I found of the worst offenders of religious persecution, Muslim-majority nations dominated the list.

  • US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in their 2016 report listed 17 nations of highest concern and 11 of those are Muslim majority, with a 12th nation, Nigeria, devastated by the Islamic extremists Boko Haram. The only Christian majority nation on the list, Central African Republic, has been torn apart by civil war. Of the 10 nations of high concern, 6 are Muslim majority, none are Christian majority.
  • The Pew Forum’s 2014 report showed that the Middle East and North Africa are roughly three times more religiously restricted by governments, and experience roughly five times more social hostility than the Christian majority nations. Combining these two features of persecution and applying it just to the world’s twenty-five largest nations, Pew Forum ranks the large nations with greatest religious persecution as follows: Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, Russia and Turkey—again, 4 of 5 are Muslim majority.
  • Open Doors 2017 World Watch List claims that persecution of Christians has, for the third straight year, reached a record high. They count 215 million Christians that suffered high, very high or extreme persecution last year. Of the Top Ten nations with Extreme persecution, all except North Korea are Muslim majority nations.

This is a difficult subject to talk about with my Muslim friends, mainly because much of the media in the West, and many Christians, have concluded that the problem is Islam, that religious persecution and violence is an essential part of the Islamic faith. Most of my Muslim friends do not actively persecute those of other religions, and they would claim persecution and violence are not a part of their faith. So who is right?

I would like to make an appeal to both sides—

  • To my CHRISTIAN friends: Unless you want to claim as part of the Christian faith the KKK, the Serbian Christian genocide of Bosnian Muslims, the Christian-majority Central African Republic’s slaughter of minority Muslim groups, and a host of other historic examples when evil men used religion as an excuse for violence, please don’t assume that your Muslim co-workers and neighbors will support violence in the name of Islam either. Ask about their feelings—they may be more horrified than you are. In fact, they may personally know victims of Islamic extremist violence. Please remember that Muslims are also victims of horrific persecution at times, such as the massacre of the Rohingya in Myanmar. And please speak up for justice for the minorities around you.
  • To my MUSLIM friends: If you live in a Muslim majority nation, it’s time to stand up and demand justice for your minorities. Keeping silent or claiming ignorance of what others do in the name of Islam does not reflect the character of the Most Merciful, Most Compassionate. One of the reasons that extremist groups thrive is that they’re freely allowed to preach their poisonous ideologies. Meanwhile, governments show favoritism to one religion over others. And the majority of peace-loving Muslims turn a blind eye. If you don’t want your religion criticized by others, do something to change this situation.

Let’s work together to stop all types of persecution against all types of people, and work towards a just and true peace.