Interfaith Lecture Recaps

Fr. Richard Rohr Opens Lecture Series on ‘Falling Upward’ Through Stages of Life



Throughout the first half of people’s lives, they are confronted with problems that they realize — in the second half of their lives — are unsolvable, according to Carl Jung, one of Fr. Richard Rohr’s top five favorite teachers.

“Your heart just drops because we Americans are problem solvers,” Rohr said. “But that’s one of the things you go and … learn by the second half of life. A lot of the so-called ‘problems’ you thought were yours to solve are yours to hold.”

This week, Rohr, Franciscan priest of the New Mexico Province and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, began his lecture series in the Hall of Philosophy as part of Week Four’s interfaith theme, “Falling Upward: A Week with Richard Rohr.” His first lecture, presented on Monday, was titled “The First Half of Life.”

During his lecture, Rohr discussed the stages within the first half of life and the growth one experiences during that time.

Rohr began by quoting Julian of Norwich: “First, there is the fall. Then, there is the recovery from the fall, and both are the mercy of God.”

Despite his education, in which Rohr was taught to behave as flawlessly as possible, he said the trials one faces are what help transform them; what help  them grow. Rohr even went as far as to question the worth of the New Testament if it is not “transformational.”

“If the stories of the New Testament are not transformational — I’m going to say it — what good are they?” Rohr said. “Jesus came to make us aware, teach us how to love, teach us how a new form of consciousness that I call ‘nondual’ or ‘contemplative consciousness.’ But, we just made the Gospel largely a set of things to believe; (it) became more a matter of willpower.”

But willpower will not allow someone to transform, according to Rohr. He said willpower “represses most of your feeling world — most of your spiritual intelligence.”

Rohr said the first stage of the first half of life is developing an ego. One must be able to create an identity, or a sense of self, to continue in life. While creating that identity, Rohr also said that one cannot look to another and compare in a way that demeans the other, or puts them in the wrong.

“You have to know who you are and know who you aren’t,” Rohr said. “Now, if you stay right there in the first half of life, just defining who you are against who you aren’t, you have the politics we have today; defining precisely why the other group is wrong. … They’ll define identity and boundary, but not oppositional boundary, not oppositional identity. And that, we call growing up.”

Rohr, referring to Ken Wilber, said the second stage of the first half of life is “growing up.” In this stage, one learns about relationships, Rohr said. One learns how relationships work and how they don’t; how to communicate and how not to; and about power differentials.

“It’s brought a great deal of — in my opinion — smarts to our time, but as we know, a great deal of conflict and confusion,” Rohr said. “We all don’t agree on the power differentials, the communication styles or whatever else it might be.”

When it comes to  conflict, Rohr said that one must also be careful of people who say, “That’s just psychology.” Rohr said that people who say things like this aren’t to be trusted, because there is no wisdom in that type of thinking. Those who say that “it’s only Scripture” cannot offer reliable information because this way of thinking does not align with what is truly wise.

“That gets back to my basic principle; if it’s true (in one place), it’s true everywhere,” Rohr said. “Wisdom is when different sciences and arts validate, confirm, regulate and challenge one another. And when you see them all challenge or affirm one another, that’s what I mean by the perennial tradition. Truths that just keep recurring religion after religion, century after century. That has to come from the collective unconscious, or (what) we who are Christian would call the Holy Spirit.”

Rohr again quoted Wilber, referring to the third stage, which is called “waking up.” Waking up is “radically overcoming your sense of separation.” People separate themselves from God, their neighbors, their enemies — this is something that must be acknowledged and overcome.

One must not see themselves as separate from these other beings. Everyone is connected.

Without understanding this, Rohr said people are stuck in the second stage of growing up.

Rohr said that the last two stages, “waking up” and “showing up,” are about deconstructing the first two stages because those stages, though important, “do not lead one to love.”

“God just led you to love yourself and be judgmental of everybody else, but those are only painful bits of self knowledge that you can’t bear before your 50s,” Rohr said.

Rohr said this is where the final stage of “showing up” plays a major role. To deconstruct what one has worked on in the first two stages, one must also give back. He said that there are many who simply show up without genuinely, generously giving back to others.

The problem, Rohr said, is that many struggle with these last two steps because people do not want to let go of the identity they have worked to create.

“We were trained to attend (and) we all turn it into various forms of transaction so we don’t have to transform our consciousness, our heart, our mind; all the things that matter,” Rohr said.

Rohr said that a profession and a persona are things that must be let go of at this stage to completely give back, like the disciples whom Jesus challenged to leave their “fathers and their nets.” This isn’t a bad thing, Rohr said, but it is difficult.

“The two things that most keep you back from, what I call in Falling Upward, ‘the further journey,’ is you’ve spent so much time investing in the first journey, you’re not about to let go of it — our occupation, our persona, our self-image,” Rohr said. “The better it is (and) the more admired it is, the harder it is to let go of.”

Rohr said that in the first two stages, one learns how to be so successful; that life becomes a game of win-lose where one wins at the cost of another’s loss.

This has almost developed into a culture of the first half of life, according to Rohr. After age 30, though, Rohr claimed that one doesn’t learn to succeed without failure.

This success can make an ego grow so big that it solidifies itself, unwilling to be deconstructed for one to “wake up” and “show up.” Rohr said that the ego can grow so large that the Gospel becomes something that it is not.

“The Gospel itself became the Gospel of being right,” Rohr said. “Jesus did not say, ‘thou shall be right,’ ” Rohr said. “He praised faith, which is the balancing of knowing with not knowing, and not needing to know. When you can be happy, even being wrong, that’s when you’re free. Because then frankly, you can be honest.”

All of this work from constructing to deconstructing, Rohr said, is called “building your tower, and then climbing your tower and planting your flag on the top.” This does not save the world, though, Rohr said.

“This cannot be sustained, this success for very few as we defined success,” Rohr said. “But I was lucky enough for many years to give retreats in so many developing countries, where I see success defined in such different, almost shocking ways that weren’t our way, but they worked,” Rohr said. “In fact, it appeared to create even happier people.”

Rohr said he would continue with these themes during Tuesday’s lecture, “The Transition.”

Roy Speckhardt Discusses Concepts, Beliefs, Understandings of Humanism


To continue the Interfaith Friday Series in the Hall of Philosophy, the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, vice president of religion and senior pastor, posed a series of questions to Roy Speckhardt, who spoke on behalf of humanism.

Speckhardt is an author and executive director of the AHA. He has appeared on “Good Morning America,” CNN and Fox News as a commentator and regularly writes for The Huffington Post. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Mary Washington College and his master’s degree from George Mason University.

As an executive director of the American Humanist Association, Speckhardt promotes progressive political issues through the lens of humanist beliefs. He has also written a book called Creating Change Through Humanism.

What follows is an abridged version of Speckhardt’s conversation with Robinson. Speckhardt and Robinson’s remarks have been condensed for clarity.

Robinson: Are we wrong to say that we have nine faith traditions speaking on our interfaith program, or do we have eight, plus something else?

No, that’s a fair point. When I see a lot of my colleagues and other humanists embrace words like faith, they say, “We have faith in humanity, we have faith in science conclusions,” and so forth. But, I’m a little more of a stickler on that personally because I don’t want to be unclear in what I’m saying. I don’t want people to think I mean something other than what I say. So, I try to use language that speaks directly to the heart of where I get my thinking. And so, I do avoid that type of religious language, but certainly other humanists do use such religious language and it’s not necessarily a problem. They just define them a little differently.

So, is a humanist a friendlier kind of atheist?

I think that is not a bad statement. Most humanists do identify as atheist or, if they don’t use that word, they use the definition. They don’t happen to have a belief system that includes gods, but humanists really do have a grounding, not just in reason and science as our epistemology for where we get our answers — the best place of modern knowledge — but also this grounding in compassion and egalitarianism that I think are both drawn from empathy. And, those are critical parts of what makes humanism, humanism. You know, the compassion, egalitarianism and reason together make the humanism.

So when you say, “Some humanists might say they have faith in humanity,” isn’t there an awful lot of evidence to suggest that humanity’s not doing a good job, and therefore that’s not a very hopeful thing to put your faith in?

It’s true. I wonder whether my optimistic “faith,” if you want to use that word, came first or some of the evidence that I found came first in my thinking, but there is actually a lot of evidence about (Steven) Pinker’s work. Cognitive scientist; Harvard professor; 2006 humanist of the year, Steven Pinker explains how we’re progressing to a better, less violent world community. He highlights cosmopolitanism as a key force in this shift; a cosmopolitanism that he defines as something that can prompt people to take the perspectives of people unlike themselves, and expand their circle of sympathy to embrace them — essentially an expression of empathy. But, others have done this work as well. If you look at the arc of history — not just the last 10 years, not just the last 50 years, but the last hundreds of years — you can see the progress that’s happening, and it’s not a direct line, and we have a lot of setbacks and backlashes, but we are moving ahead.

You mentioned that something has to be provable or replicable or verifiable to exist. I just wrote down two or three things here that I’m not sure are provable, but I believe they exist. One is love; one is a dignity or human dignity; and you mentioned human nature. I don’t think any of those things are provable, and yet most of us believe in those concepts, right?

I think concepts can certainly exist outside of the realm of material activity, but those are concepts, not a being that presumably has the ability to act. That’s where I think the change happens. But, we do believe in love; we do believe in human dignity to some degree. When it comes to philosophers having looked at what makes us happy in this world, when you go back and look at ancient philosophy, a lot of them point to the ability to help others — that brings true happiness, the deep lasting happiness that we feel. And, that helping others helps with empathy, helps with love, helps all these things together. I think that’s perfectly consistent with humanism.

We know that Unitarians and Humanists are unbelievably good at supporting justice movements, putting their bodies out in the street to agitate for good and right actions. Why are Unitarians and Humanists known for this good social action work, and the mainline denominations aren’t?

Well, I think it might have a little to do with the updating process. So as I talked about, science updates itself. When new evidence comes along, so does humanism. When we realize that we have white supremacy within us, we try to find ways to overcome it right away. Whenever we see these failings, we try to find ways to overcome them. I think that’s one thing that helps us move a little faster. We’re not tied to ancient texts or divine revelations from our ancestors. We simply say, “OK, the best of information says that this no longer makes sense; there’s no reason to treat people who are gay and lesbian any different, because the science shows us that they could be happy, loving people just like everyone else.” There’s nothing in science to say otherwise. And you almost have to have a grounding in some kind of older … faith or ideology that would suggest that there’s a problem with that in order to have that prejudice.

It’s also something that I try to communicate back to my members and my atheist colleagues and others, because I think one thing that atheists tend to have a little bit of a prejudice about is, we think all religious people are monolithic. Sometimes, we make that mistake, and we don’t realize that there are a lot of religious groups, especially well represented here at Chautauqua, who have faiths that do evolve very steadily and rapidly, even in modern times. And I think that’s something that’s hard for some folks to wrap their heads around, but it’s part of the world we live in.

I have argued with some atheists, and it seems to me that they are arguing against a church that was maybe more common in the 1950s, right? Or at some former time. It seems to me that to look at the most conservative examples of Christianity is an easy target and maybe those that are going about their religion in a more thoughtful, humanity oriented way might be a tougher target, right?

That’s very true. I think that, too often, it’s the way things are looked at. However, there are definitely a lot of Americans who do follow a much more conservative faith these days … and I think the progressive religious folks aren’t what we see in the news when we see religion, right? The reporters, I think, try to polarize us and say, “OK, here’s this far-right religious person talking to this liberal person that we’re going to put next to them on some talk show,” and it gives the American public, I think, the wrong sense of what religion is in this country. So, it’s not just atheists, but I think it’s our whole country that disregards too much progressive religion.

I have two children and two grandchildren, and sometimes I let them find out for themselves the negative consequences of their actions when I could probably save them from it. So, you were saying that if God could stop it, why doesn’t God? It seems to me, as a parent, one of the ways that I love my kids is to let them learn on their own.

Sure. We definitely learn from our mistakes. Some tragedies that befall us give us an opportunity to learn if we’re not crushed by them. I asked my priest back when I was 10 years old, “Why is it that God is allowing these horrible things to happen?” and he said something similar about the need for choice; that this is a great gift that humanity has and that allows us to live lives where we can choose our own options. But I thought to myself then, and I still think today, “OK, instead of having it be a choice between good and evil, why not a choice between good and really good? Why do we have to have these horrible choices as part of the options?” I think, if truly we have an all-powerful, all-loving God, why not just eliminate those bottom-rung negative options? I would think that would be at least a good starting place.

Eric Meyers Makes Case for Strong Jewish Presence in Galilee

Archaeologist Eric M. Meyers gives a lecture on his findings about Jesus in biblical times at the Hall of Philosophy July 11, 2019. Meyers mentions that Jesus was rejected from his home town of Nazareth and encouraged the audience to ask why. SARAH YENESEL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

In the first century, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai asked, “Oh Galilee, oh Galilee, why do you hate the Torah?”

But Galilee didn’t hate the Torah, even though as recently as 20 years ago, scholars believed the region to be a place of religious ignorance. Eric Meyers, archaeologist and Bernice and Morton Lerner Professor Emeritus of Judaic Studies at Duke University, spent his interfaith lecture explaining why this wasn’t the case.

In studies of Galilee, a common impression of Jesus’ life was that he came from a “backwater” area. Due to findings from 15 to 20 years ago, however, this impression of Galilee and Jesus’ early life has changed for the better.

Meyers presented his talk, “Jesus in Galilee, A Jewish Perspective,” on Thursday as part of Week Three’s interfaith theme, “What Archaeology Tells Us About Biblical Times.”

Meyers said that before any true research had been done, Galilee had a bad reputation and many scholars had written about Galilee inaccurately. John Dominic Crossan, for example, had written about Jesus 20 years ago, and described him as a Mediterranean peasant who spoke Greek, Meyers said. Another scholar, the late Sean Freyne, a popular Irish theologian, had written a book about Galilee solely based on texts he read — never based on expeditions to Galilee.

Despite the inaccuracies published in the past, the truth of Galilee’s history, as well as Jesus’, is now known and Meyers said his goal was to explain the depth of Jesus’ involvement in Jewish life in Galilee.

Starting with Nazareth, Jesus’ home village, Meyers referred to Mark 6 in the Bible, where Jesus is rejected by the people of Nazareth when he preached in the synagogue there.

“ ‘Where did this man get these things that he’s saying? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands?’ ” Meyers said, quoting the Bible. “ ‘Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joseph and Judas and Simon?’ And they took offense at him and Jesus said to them, ‘a prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and among his relatives and his own household.’ ”

Why is Jesus rejected in Nazareth? Meyers said the royal family in nearby Sephorris was negatively influencing the village.

“Who’s living in Sephorris at this time is Herod Antipas,” Meyers said. “The royal family is not known for its modesty. … Jesus was not happy, in my opinion, that the residents of Nazareth, in the time of his ministry, were so enthusiastic about what was going on down the street, as it were: castles being built, the royal family partying and drinking, all sorts of things to excess.”

Jesus, Meyers said, was focused on the humble and poor in the villages of Galilee, where his words were heard and taken to heart. These two very different approaches clashed, and that is why, according to Meyers, Sepphoris isn’t mentioned in the New Testament — Jesus didn’t feel welcome there at all.

Meyers said the life of a Jewish person was quite simple. Meyers first discussed ritual purity, which involved preparing food in a pure way.

“We know from Josephus, the historian of the first era, even (using) olive oil … had to be done by Jews who were ritually fit and ritually pure,” Meyers said.

To be “ritually pure,” Jews had to bathe in mikvah after intercourse, nocturnal emission, getting close to a human body at a funeral and, for women, a menstrual cycle. A woman who did not go to a mikvah after her period was seen as “unacceptable” for intimacy with her spouse, or for cooking food.

Over 1,000 mikvahs have been discovered, which indicate that there were “Torah-observant people” in Galilee at the time, according to Meyers.

In addition to mikvahs, the Bible states that there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each capable of holding 20 to 30 gallons.

Archaeologist Eric M. Meyers gives a lecture on his findings about Jesus in biblical times at the Hall of Philosophy July 11, 2019. Meyers describes the Sea of Galilee and it’s relation to Jesus. SARAH YENESEL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

“These stone vessels are associated with the purity practices of Jewish people in the first century,” Meyers said. “They’re called chalk stone vessels and are impermeable to impurity. So I also associate them with table fellowship or the Jewish practice of washing your hands ritually before partaking in a meal.”

Most Jewish people also ritually wash their hands at Passover — the idea is to eat food in a pure fashion.

Meyers then addressed what he called “one of the most important elements running through all of the land of Israel in the first century”: quietism. In the year 67 C.E., Sepphoris was at war with the support of Josephus, who then gave up his generalship of the northern forces in 68 C.E. and chose to make a deal for peace.

“Somehow the wicked Roman emperor thought it was so good, he allowed the Jews to mint their coins and name the city, ‘City of Peace,’ ” Meyers said. “How beautiful is that? This quietest extreme in first century Judaism and the followers of Jesus’ movement … did not want to fight the greatest power on Earth: Rome.”

The last part of Jewish daily life that Meyers discussed was the synagogue. Meyers has been fighting a belief of some scholars that the synagogue “was not a purpose-built physical structure until after Constantine the Great in the fourth century of the common era.”

In fact, these scholars believed it was unlikely that a synagogue could be found before the fourth century that was erected in response to imperial Christianity, because Constantine was the one to make Christianity the official religion.

“But, the mission was codified at Sepphoris in 200 (C.E.),” Meyers said. “The Jerusalem Talmud, the Talmud of the land of Israel, is finished in 400.”

A liturgy and an enormous amount of Jewish literature was written, too. All of this, Meyers said, occurred between 100 and 400 C.E. There was even an inscription found in the Jerusalem theotokos detailing roles of the synagogue: “to read scripture and study its commandments and to provide a place of lodging and hospitality for those who visited it.”

The idea that there were no synagogues, no places for public gatherings, Meyers said, “is a very dangerous hypothesis.”

In all, there were half a dozen synagogues in the Galilee, including Magdala, Capernaum and Cane of Galilee. Not only were there synagogues, but it is clear that people were reading and studying the Torah. The Bible was also emerging as a major authoritative text. These findings prove Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai wrong in having believed that the people of Galilee hated the Torah, according to Meyers.

Additionally, church ruins prove Christians were there as well. The earliest remains come from the third century, like the Grotto of Annunciation in Nazareth and the churches that are part of the Domus Ecclesiae in Capernaum on the Northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee.

Meyers said that, despite the truth in these findings, there are some discoveries people should approach with caution, such as the James Ossuary controversy over the lost tomb of Jesus.

National Geographic, on the other hand, has done phenomenal work restoring the tomb of Christ at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Meyers said.

“So let me conclude my points to all of these commonalities, commonalities of everyday life,” Meyers said. “In Matthew 21:37-39, it says ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul.’ That is the basis of Jewish and Christian faith. The second half says, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ … That’s the only thing that matters, that we love our neighbor as we love ourselves.”

Carol Meyers Explores Evidence Proving Multiple Cultures in Sepphoris

Mary Grace Wilson Professor Emerita of Religion at Duke University, Carol Meyers, speaks during her lecture “Jews, Christians, and Romans: Multiculturalism at Ancient Sepphoris,” about evidence of multiple cultures Sepphoris on Wednesday, July 10, 2019 in the Hall of Philosophy.

Archaeologists are impacted by the time in which they live, and in that time, they do two important things.

“One, decide where we want to excavate,” said Carol Meyers, a field archaeologist and the Mary Grace Wilson Professor Emerita of Religious Studies at Duke University. “And two, how we focus on the things that we found, what things we think are most important.”

Wednesday afternoon in the Hall of Philosophy, as a continuation of Week Three’s interfaith theme, “What Archaeology Tells Us About Biblical Times,” Meyers discussed the city of Sepphoris, in which three cultures managed to live among each other in relative harmony. Her talk was titled “Jews, Christians, and Romans: Multiculturalism at Ancient Sepphoris.”

Meyers first questioned how archaeologists could know of three specific cultures living together so long ago in the same place. She described three texts that answer the question.

The first text derives from a Jewish historian from the first century C.E. named Josephus. In his writings, Meyers said, this historian repeatedly mentioned a Roman presence at Sepphoris and called the city “the ornament of all Galilee.” Meyers also said she thought the city could have been termed an “ornament” because of the stunning mosaics that covered the floors of many of the city’s buildings.

Josephus also called it the “capital of Galilee” under Roman Procurator Felix, which gives archaeologists a clear message that Romans were in Sepphoris.

The second text is the Talmud, the record of ancient rabbinic writing, that refers to a man named Jacob who talked about Jesus with Jews in Sepphoris. Despite the criticism Jacob received for the conversations, the general story provides archaeologists evidence that Jewish people were in Sepphoris.

“And sometimes these are called Jewish Christians, or the first Christians,” Meyers said.

The last text, or texts, are Christian sources. Meyers said that, by the Byzantine period, there are references to a bishopric in Sepphoris, and there wouldn’t have been a bishopric present  without a large group of Christians.

Another Christian text tells the story of an unnamed traveler who said Sepphoris was the home of Ana and Joachim, Mary’s parents.

“So Christian tradition certainly weighs in on the importance of (Sepphoris) as a Christian site,” Meyers said.

After providing proof of the existence of the three cultures, Meyers described the location of the site.

“It lies in Galilee, about halfway between the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean Sea, between Akko on the coast and Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee,” Meyers said.

Meyers said, through architecture, artifacts and mosaics from the site, there is strong evidence to support the existence of “these possible multiple cultures, multiple religious groups or ethnic groups that are related to the site.”

Beginning with architecture, Meyers discussed a Roman theater in Sepphoris. Most likely built in the late first or early second century C.E. , it would have seated 4,000 to 5,000 people, and it was a vital part of the culture in Sepphoris. This was the only theater, and it entertained its audience with comics, mimes and juggling acts — circus acts.

Another piece of architecture in Sepphoris is a mikvah or a narrow, stepped pool. The mikvah, in Jewish tradition, was known as a small “bathing installation for establishing ritual purity.” Women would use it after a menstrual cycle, for example. Others would use it before particular holidays.

“There were dozens of them; almost one on the basement level of every domestic structure,” Meyers said. “And as a result, if these are firmly — as I think they are — identified as a Jewish structure, there are so many of them under the homes (that make up) the upper city, what does that tell you about who lives in this part of the city? This is, as some people have called it, the ‘Jewish quarter.’ ”

The last architectural structure is a church from the Crusades, “one of the earliest Gothic structures,” dating back to the 12th century. It was built by the Knights Templar, Meyers said, and was destroyed in the 13th century. What is interesting about this church is that there is a remaining architectural fragment with an inscription of an early Christian symbol on it.

“It’s a Chi Rho which, as most of you probably know, is one of the earliest symbols of Christianity,” Meyers said.

This gives archaeologists like Meyers reason to suspect the church was used by Jewish Christians.

There are also numerous artifacts — made of ceramic, metal, stone and bone — found in Sepphoris that serve as evidence for the cultures that resided in the city. Meyers began by discussing pottery.

“Pottery is ubiquitous,” Meyers said. “It’s the most often found object at an excavation … and very few of them are found whole.”

As most people used the same pottery, the artifacts cannot always be placed with one ethnic group or another. However, shards of pottery are sometimes found with inscriptions on them, which gives archaeologists more to work with.

Meyers said one shard of pottery, also termed an astrakhan, had one word on it. The word was Greek with Hebrew script, which strengthens the evidence for the presence of Jewish people in Sepphoris.

Another astrakhan that Meyers discussed was black with two lines of text.

“It’s so broken that we can’t be sure, but a plausible reading is ‘Hail Mary,’ and you know what group to which we would assign that,” Meyers said.

The last astrakhan was a surprise, Meyers said. It was a wine jar handle with a Greek inscription, Greek being the lingua franca of the Roman empire.

Despite the information that can be taken from artifacts, Meyers said mosaics were the most beautiful part, and they covered many buildings in Sepphoris. One of the buildings, the Dionysus Villa, located in the upper city, had a mosaic floor decorated with many of the Greek gods, such as Dionysus and Heracles. There were also Greek words to explain some of the mosaics. Other scenes depicted on the floor include the Nile River and, the most popular piece of the mosaics, a portrait of a woman.

Mary Grace Wilson Professor Emerita of Religion at Duke University, Carol Meyers, speaks during her lecture “Jews, Christians, and Romans: Multiculturalism at Ancient Sepphoris,” about evidence of multiple cultures Sepphoris on Wednesday, July 10, 2019 in the Hall of Philosophy.

“We don’t know who she may have been,” Meyers said. “(Is she) the Lady of the Villa Aphrodite, the goddess of love, because there’s a little kind of cupid figure over her shoulder? Or is she Ariadne, who’s the wife of Dionysus? These are only questions for which we — so far — have no answers and probably never will.”

The real question, though, is who does such a villa belong to? Was it a Christian, Jew or Roman?

Despite the Greco-Roman mythological theme, Meyers said many believe the villa to have been owned by a Jewish person because the villa is located on the edge of the “Jewish quarter.” Though a firm answer cannot be given, Meyers said one of her colleagues believes the villa to be Jewish.

“I have to say that one of our orthodox, Jewish colleagues, who’s also an archaeologist, quite firmly believes that it was a Jewish villa with a Greco-Roman mythological floor,” Meyers said.

She then described a second building, the Nile Festival Building, which has a mosaic of the festival; the Nile is depicted as a woman. Meyers’ favorite part features two boys working on a long pole with numbers on it. The pole measured cubits, so the boys are measuring how high the Nile River flooded. Another mosaic depicts Amazons, and, as stated in a Greek inscription on a mosaic in the building, it is understood that a bishop commissioned the construction of the artwork.

The last building is a synagogue, located on the northern edge of the lower city, and it has unusual mosaic floors, Meyers said. First, it is basilical but there is only one aisle — traditionally, there are two aisles separated by a nave. Second, the centerpiece of the floor mosaic is a Zodiac, which derives from the Greco-Roman culture.

Through the buildings and mosaics and artifacts, Meyers said there was enough archaeological evidence to prove that the Romans, Jews and Christians lived in Sepphoris. The next big question was: How did they all get along?

“Well, archaeology can’t really directly tell us that, but I can give you two pieces of evidence that (suggest) they did get along,” Meyers said. “One is that the ancient written sources do not mention any kind of strife among them.”

The second piece of evidence is an ethnographic piece from the 19th century. An English man named Laurence Oliphant, who lived in Haifa for many years, decided to visit a small village on Mount Carmel that had a mixed population of Jews, Christians and Druze, Meyers said. Oliphant wrote that he was struck by “the apparent tolerance and amiability with which all the members of these different religions regarded each other.”

“My hope is that we can look at (Sepphoris) as an ornament in terms of its people, of people who can live together, dwell together in some kind of harmony,” Meyers said. “We can all only hope that this kind of past of peoples living together is really not dead, and can be seen as a lesson for the present.”

John Dominic Crossan Cross-Examines Eastern and Western Depictions of Resurrection

Historian John Dominic Crossan returns to Chautauqua to give a lecture about his studies of Jesus as major part of the Bible in the Hall of Philosophy July 9, 2019. SARAH YENESEL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Despite the importance of the Resurrection, it is one of the least described events in the Bible, according to John Dominic Crossan, and this lack of detail has caused many artists to interpret the event in many different ways.

Crossan, co-author of Resurrecting Easter: How the West Lost and the East Kept the Original Easter Vision, spoke Tuesday in the Hall of Philosophy for the Week Three Interfaith Lecture Series, “What Archaeology Tells Us About Biblical Times.” His talk was titled, “Jesus: From Archaeology to Text.”

I’m convinced that the Eastern, not surprisingly, is in closer continuity and conformity to what is in the New Testament vision and in pre-Christian Judaism,” Crossan said.

The first example of “visual theology” that Crossan described was in the city of Arelate, now known as Arles, located in the Roman province of Gallia Narbonensis around 350 C.E. In the city was what would soon be the largest Christian acropolis in the world. Of course, those who wanted to be buried in the acropolis wanted to be buried in sarcophagi and also wanted, on the center front panel of their sarcophagus, a depiction of the Resurrection.

Crossan said  the “poor artist” assigned the job of carving the depiction was in a bind because the Resurrection was not very well described in the New Testament.

“So, I have to imagine one of those moments of absolute sparks of creativity,” Crossan said. “They’re like the dark matter of the human imagination. We don’t know how it was done, but we know the results. So something like this must have happened.”

The artist must have worked with what was in the New Testament, specifically the story of the two guards put on watch at Jesus’ tomb. They then combined that story with an image on the back of Constantinian coins, depicting two soldiers standing guard, but at rest, as their spears are upside down. In the center is Constantine’s battle standard, also known as the labarum in Greek.

Crossan said that while it is an exciting first attempt at trying to artistically depict the Resurrection, there is no physical body for Jesus; he is replaced by a symbol, the labarum.

It’ll take 500 years before you ever get the Resurrection moment with the physical body, and there’s two of them,” Crossan said.

The first of the two depictions is on a Carolingian Psalter. Jesus is shown sitting up in the tomb with large eyes. The second depiction, the more interesting one, according to Crossan, shows the two guards sitting on the slab of the tomb. Below them, within the tomb, the viewer can see “the Holy Spirit’s dove” breathing life into Jesus’ body.

So, Crossan concludes that the first depiction had a symbol that represented Jesus. Five hundred years later, Jesus’ body was physically shown. It would take another 500 years, around 1350, for the “Individual Resurrection,” as Crossan called it, to appear, in which Jesus is positioned hovering above the tomb while the guards are either looking up at him in fear and surprise, or fast asleep against the tomb.

“By ‘individual,’ I mean it shows Jesus rising alone,” Crossan said. “There’s nobody else with him. He’s glorious; he’s triumphant; he’s magnificent. He is also very much alone. I call this the Individual Resurrection, and as we know, it becomes eventually the dominant, normative, official image in Western Christianity for Easter.”

Crossan then transitioned to a new site, the Roman Forum between 550 and 750 C.E. This was a time in which the Byzantine Empire held control over Rome and Roman Catholicism, including the papacy. The emperor in Constantinople controlled the election, the life and, if necessary, the martyrdom of the pope in Rome. In other words, during this time period, it was a Byzantine Rome.

Not only was the area under Byzantine control but the pope, Pope John VII, was a pure Byzantine as well. He, as a part of Christianizing the Forum, wanted to turn the Roman edifices into Christian edifices, replacing Roman heroes with Christian heroes. The pope saw an opportunity to reinvent such images throughout the Forum, but also on the ramp that Emperor Domitian used to go from the Forum, up the Palatine hills to his palace. So, beginning with the Forum, the pope made a small shrine to 40 martyrs within the Santa Maria Antiqua, a Roman Catholic Marian church.

When creating the images for the Forum and the churches within, Pope John VII wanted something special for the depiction of the Resurrection.

He wanted it at a certain site — when he’s going into the church or out of the church, and going onto the ramp or off the ramp,” Crossan said. “It’s like a portal image, … the great entrance and exit, the Resurrection itself. When he entered and exited, he would be reminded of this all the time.”
Historian John Dominic Crossan returns to Chautauqua to give a lecture about his studies of Jesus as major part of the Bible in the Hall of Philosophy July 9, 2019. SARAH YENESEL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

The depiction of the Resurrection developed based on information from the New Testament and coinage, as was done on the sarcophagi at the Christian acropolis. The artist would have a few specific ideas in mind from both sources. From the New Testament, they would be thinking of the line from the Gospel of Matthew in which it is stated that other people rose with Jesus.

Two images of victory are also found on the back of coins in the 500s and 600s, and both are accurate. The first image is extremely brutal.

“You have the emperor with his right foot on the poor captive’s head, which is bowed to the ground; his neck is down, and his boot is on his neck,” Crossan said.

The second image shows the emperor not trampling on the captive, but bending over him and raising him up. What is even more fascinating, Crossan said, is that the emperor is not just raising this captive, but the captive symbolizes a people or a city — it represents more than one individual. The same can be said for the image of the Resurrection commissioned by Pope John VII.

The depiction is on a wall that lines the ramp, and it shows Jesus dressed magnificently. In his left hand, Jesus holds a scroll, which Crossan said symbolized thinking and philosophy. In the other hand, Jesus holds the limp wrist of Adam. Next to Adam, Eve stands “ambiguously.” In addition to these two, Hades is below the feet of Jesus.

“Now let me be very clear,” Crossan said. “Adam and Eve are the human race. They’re not two people, they are in the Biblical tradition, the progenitors, the personification of the human race. Hades’ place is not hell; he is the gatekeeper of death. He’s not an evil figure. He just has a job.

Despite the two archaeological sites Crossan mentioned — one being the “Individual Resurrection” and the other being the “Universal Resurrection” —   it would take yet another 500 years of development before Jesus reaches for both Adam and Eve. Eventually, Crossan said, the most glorious Resurrection depiction of all would be created in the Church of the Holy Savior in Chora, now the Chora Museum in Istanbul.

“Jesus, equal hands out there, one for Adam, one for Eve, is taking the whole human race with him,” Crossan said.

With detailed examples of both the “Individual Resurrection” and the “Universal Resurrection,” Crossan said that, in the first millennium, the former or the latter could have become the official image of the Resurrection for all of Christianity.

With the split in Christianity in 1054, the East chose to use the “Universal Resurrection” depiction, while the West stuck with the “Individual Resurrection.”

“Paul says, ‘Jesus is the first fruit of those who have slept,’ and Matthew uses the same Greek words for those who have slept, who rise with Jesus,” Crossan said. “Where are they in any Western image? The only sleepers I see there are the guards, so I think (the ‘Universal Resurrection’) is in greater continuity.”

Crossan then questioned the meaning of resurrection. He said that it has the same roots as “insurrection.” The Greek word is anastasis, which consists of two words: “ana” and “stasis.”

“Stasis is revolution,” Crossan said. “Now it can be either violent or nonviolent revolution. … Only nonviolent revolution can save the human species from escalatory violence that will destroy it. That’s the message. That’s the challenge I get from the ‘Universal Resurrection’ image. It has to do with our species.”

Journalist Kristin Romey Details Archaeological Evidence Found of Jesus’ Tomb

Kristin Romey, archaeology editor and writer at National Geographic, talks Monday, July 8, 2019 in the Hall of Philosophy, about her quest as a journalist into the origins of Christianity, opening the third week of Interfaith Lecture Series, designed around the theme of ‘What Archaeology Tells Us ABout Biblical Times’. VISHAKHA GUPTA/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Growing up in the 1980s, Kristin Romey, an archaeology editor and writer for National Geographic, left the church with no thought of looking back. After she began her career in archaeology writing, though, Romey was forced to “dust off” her Bible.

I tended to see the Bible as a tool that was wielded for political purposes,” Romey said. “It was not a source of inspiration for me, much less a source of information.”

Romey, who spoke on the Amphitheater stage last summer, returned to the Institution Monday in the Hall of Philosophy, for the Week Three Interfaith Lecture Series, “What Archaeology Tells Us About Biblical Times.” Her talk was titled, “In the Footsteps of Jesus: A journalist’s quest into the origins of Christianity.”

Romey first became familiar with the historical Jesus after National Geographic assigned her to write about the restoration of the tomb of Jesus Christ, which was at first difficult since she had left the church many years prior. But Romey began to use the Bible as a tool to ask specific questions.

“What can archaeology possibly tell us about Jesus Christ?” Romey asked. “What’s even the value of archaeology to people who have faith in the man declared to be the son of God? How will building foundations or a couple inscribed stones make a difference to those who already believe?”

Romey said Biblical archaeology began in the 1800s. Archaeology was in its early development because people were in need of the context that helped them piece together what history looked like. The men who began this type of archaeology were American and European, who were eager to find some of the most intriguing places in the Bible. Christian pilgrims and curious people were just as interested, many wanting to see the Holy Land.

The words of the Archbishop of York, who was a huge supporter of Biblical archaeology, early on … still ring true 160 years later,” Romey said. “He wrote, ‘If you really want to understand the Bible, you must also understand the country in which the Bible was first written.’ ”

With the archbishop’s words in mind, Romey began her “eye-opening” work on the tomb of Jesus Christ. When she first saw the tomb, though, Romey was not impressed nor touched by it.

“It felt like a circus,” Romey said. “It didn’t feel like reverence.”

Within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, there is a little house, called aedicula in Latin, that holds the tomb. The house was built in 1500, and had been restored in 1800. However, the house fell apart again by 2016. The condition of the house was so bad that the Israeli government threatened to shut down access to the tomb, Romey said. All of the churches that “laid claim to the Holy Sepulchre” came together and began planning the restoration of the house.

“I spent nearly a year traveling back and forth to Jerusalem to document the restoration,” Romey said. “And as I dove deeper into this project, I realized that I had to get a better handle on the archaeology of the site. The obvious question was: Can we prove Jesus was buried here? Step back and ask an even bigger question: Do archaeologists even believe that Jesus existed as a historical figure?”

Despite the many people who dismiss the existence of Jesus as an authentic historical figure, Romey knew that it made sense for Jesus to have existed.

I have asked every archaeologist that I know who works in the Middle East, whether he or she is Christian, Jewish, Muslim, agnostic, atheist, what have you, and they … don’t doubt it one bit,” Romey said. “(Jesus) fits too neatly into the narrative of the New Testament, but outside of that, what archaeologists understand about first century Roman Palestine.”

Romey said archaeologists tend to agree on the legitimacy of the tomb of Christ.

The trick was finding the evidence to support what is already known or suspected about history. Most people in history had not left a stamp behind for archaeologists to find. And, within archaeology, everything that has been discovered is accompanied by physical evidence in archaeological records.

With that assurance of other archaeologists that Jesus did exist, though, Romey’s goal evolved — she wanted to figure out why the tomb is likely located at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Kristin Romey, archaeology editor and writer at National Geographic, talks Monday, July 8, 2019 in the Hall of Philosophy, about her quest as a journalist into the origins of Christianity, opening the third week of Interfaith Lecture Series, designed around the theme of ‘What Archaeology Tells Us ABout Biblical Times’. VISHAKHA GUPTA/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Romey said, was outside the walls of Jerusalem, on a main road that led to the port. The Romans liked to crucify criminals outside the walls of Jerusalem because that was where the most heavily trafficked roads were, and these crucifixions, by being placed on main roads, served as warnings. 

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built on an “ancient limestone quarry.” At that time in Jerusalem, during what is known as the Second Temple period, rich people could be buried in a natural cave or one carved out by hand, which would come with “niches and maybe a little bench or a rock bed.”

When someone passed away, their body was laid on the stone bed in this cave, or tomb. After a year, family members would return to clean up the bones from the table, place them in a box and store them in one of the niches in the wall of the tomb.

Sure enough, Holy Sepulchre is built on a limestone quarry that got turned into a high-end, Jewish cemetery that was active in the time of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ,” Romey said. “And you have in the New Testament, Joseph of Arimathea (saying), ‘Hey, he could use my tomb. He’s got to get down before sundown.’”

Romey looked to an event after Jesus’ crucifixion: a revolt in Jerusalem in which the city was deserted in 70 A.D. It was not inhabited until 65 years later, when the Romans returned and established a colony. Romey said the people in this colony became irritated with the “pesky men” hanging around the burial grounds of “the weird, Jewish magician who was crucified.” So, the people decide to build a temple to the goddess of love over the tomb.

“Later, in the 330s, Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor and his mom, Helena, start locating all of the sites associated with the life of Jesus Christ in the Holy Land, so that they could be consecrated and honored,” Romey said.

In Jerusalem, Helena tore down the Roman temple, removed the top portion of the cave and created a shrine around the tomb. These were the stories Romey knew going into one night in October 2016, when it was time to lift the marble inside of the tomb where Jesus was allegedly buried.

“Underneath this little couch, they lift off the marble and there is another stone slab,” Romey said. “It’s a big slab of rock, it’s got a big cross carved in it, and it’s been shattered straight down the middle. Underneath that is a limestone burial bench of a Second Temple period Jewish tomb.”

Admittedly, archaeologists cannot determine who the cave belonged to, but it was determined that the tomb they lifted the marble from was the same tomb that Helena built a shrine around.

We can say for certain that this site has been continuously venerated as the burial site of Jesus Christ for nearly 1,700 years,” Romey said.

With such an exciting discovery, Romey’s mind filled with other places in the Bible to explore: Via Dolorosa, Bethlehem, Nazareth and Zephyrus. One place that stood out the most to Romey, though, was northern Galilee, where Jesus met with his first apostles. Romey talked of a brutalist, modern church that was built there on ruins by the Franciscans in the 1960s.

Through a hole in the church, there are a series of basalt houses visible. In one of those houses, after Jesus died, Christians turned it into a place of worship. Additionally, a boat, found in the 1980s, rests on the bank. It was a Roman fishing vessel from the first century that gives insight into the economic situation of a Jewish fisherman at the time.

Romey returned to Jerusalem just two weeks ago because she had heard that restoration work was being done on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. There, she visited with some friends and spoke with some Franciscans and Armenians who had done the initial restoration of the tomb in which they used ground penetrating radar.

Using the radar, it was determined that the church is in danger of collapsing, so the next project is to pull up the church floor and restore it. While doing that, Romey said Roman ruins underneath the church will be exposed, presenting an opportunity archaeologists have never had before.

So, here we go,” Romey said. “We are just at the tip of exploring sites that are going to give us more information about understanding the first century Roman Palestine.”

Chuck Yarborough and MSMS Alumni Bring History Alive in Research Scenes

  • Right, student Erin Williams, presents her dramatic history performance while her professor Chuck Yarborough, center, watches on at the Hall of Philosophy July 3, 2019. SARAH YENESEL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

The word “history” holds more meaning than just being a record of events.

“I don’t want to just talk about our history; I want us to talk about our story, and it is our story,” said Chuck Yarborough, who in April was named the Organization of American Historians Tachau Teacher of the Year. “Black history, white history, Jewish history, Christian, rich, poor male, female — all of it is our story.”

As a continuation of the Week Two interfaith theme, “Common Good Change Agents,” Yarborough, a history teacher at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, and two of his students addressed the role of history in their lecture, titled “Burial Ground is Common Ground,” in conversation with The Atlantic’s James Fallows.

Yarborough incorporated two projects into his curriculum for students to help them connect with the history and community of Columbus, Mississippi.

“The reason the projects that we’ll talk about today resonate is because so many of us understand that we’ve not been allowed to understand and engage that complete, complex story,” Yarborough said. “We’ve been tackling tough issues together by exploring our communities, our states and our nation’s story on the common ground of the burial ground, our cemeteries.”

Yarborough literally means exploring cemeteries. Every year, he presents a list of people to his students: people who died before 1930, lived in Columbus, Mississippi, and contributed to the history of the town. Some of the names on the list are from Yarborough wandering around the local cemetery. His students then pick an individual to research in Columbus’ local library archives and the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in Jackson, Mississippi. This research is a part of the first project titled “Tales from the Crypt,” that students work on in Yarborough’s class.

I challenge them to think about looking through the life of somebody and thinking of that as a window,” Yarborough said.

After conducting primary research from August to November, the students write research papers and create a performance, based on the person they researched, to present to the community — staged in the local cemetery.

“Between 40 and 50 students audition. … The final performance, by candlelight in costume, is in the cemetery before about 2,000 guests,” Yarborough said. “At that moment you see an example of the power of performance, students finding meaning in historical research, conveying it to the public and challenging that public to think.”

Through the performances and by connecting the history of Columbus with the community, Yarborough said that students are creating a space where the community is free to think, creating that common ground.

Erin Williams, one of Yarborough’s students and a recent graduate of MSMS, was invited to the Hall of Philosophy podium to perform. She was dressed in a late-19th-century costume and told the story of Susan Casement Maer, the editress of the Columbus Commercial, a local newspaper.

“In 1881, I heard that the Columbus Commercial was for sale, so I went out on a limb and decided to buy it, Williams said, as Maer. “I even told a couple of my friends, because I was so excited about buying the business. But they all said things like, ‘Women do the chores,’ and ‘Jobs like those are for men,’ and ‘Women take care of the children, not business.’ I took their opinions with a grain of salt. I love to write and I knew I commanded that newspaper.”

Yarborough said performances like Williams’ were beneficial for the community because they took people from history and connected them with important issues that continue to be addressed today, including gender roles, race, war, loss and even slavery.

This is not a kinder, gentler, happier kind of thing all the time,” Yarborough said. “You know, sometimes there’s great humor in the performances but they are also honest. And I do expect that, as we walk into that burial ground, people are open to receive what the students have drawn from their research.”

The second project Yarborough has assigned to his students is the Eighth of May Emancipation Celebration performance, a project which allows students to portray some of Columbus’ late-19th- and early-20th-century African American leaders.

Union troops arrived in Columbus on May 8, 1865, and although it didn’t end slavery, Yarborough said that the troops’ arrival brought hope that an end to slavery and white supremacy was indeed in sight. The project itself is completed in small groups of students within Yarborough’s African American history classes.

“Groups of students do research on individuals that are associated in some way, and they also write scripts, and then they ask students that are dramatic performers to perform them rather than perform them themselves,” Yarborough said. “We do that performance … on a stage that the city has put in the cemetery forests. It happens in the historic Sandfield Cemetery, a historic African American burial ground established in the 1840s.”

On this stage, students perform passionately; there is even a student-directed, student-led gospel choir that performs music between the scenes.

(The show) culminates after the final dramatic performance with the students inviting the audience to sing together,” Yarborough said. “And there’s not a more powerful moment for me on an annual basis than that moment.

Dairian Bowles, Yarborough’s student and another recent graduate of MSMS, was then invited to the stage to perform his skit on Senator Robert Gleed, the only African American to represent all of Lowndes County in the state legislature. Bowles was also dressed in a costume that reflected the style of the late 19th century.

“At the age of 17, I was living in the grips of slavery in Virginia … and I escaped, but unfortunately, I was captured outside of Columbus,” Bowles said, as Gleed. “Once I was free, I immediately set to work on starting my own businesses and helping throughout my community. In 1867, the military governor appointed me to the Columbus city council. … In 1870, I was elected to the Mississippi State Senate.”

Yarborough said the true importance of the performances was that the research students conduct gives the public a more complete, well-rounded history of Columbus, and stimulates conversation.

“Again, most importantly, (these projects) spur conversation,” Yarborough said. “I invite people, and I see people beginning to look at each other differently. You know, we can’t be in relationship with one another unless we know something about each other’s story. And this is where these projects begin to get at that.”

After Yarborough’s close, Fallows posed a few questions to the MSMS group. The first question was directed to Williams and Bowles, about how they transitioned to MSMS from their prior school districts.

MSMS is a public school district that students must apply to in order to be considered for enrollment. Both Williams and Bowles said there was some difficulty adjusting to the school’s expectations but found the experience overwhelmingly positive.

I went to not the greatest high school,” Bowles said. “While I was there, I was like the smart kid, but when I got to MSMS, it was just nothing but smart kids. So … it made me develop as a person because I couldn’t just depend on, ‘Oh, I’m that smart guy,’ because nobody cared.

Fallows then asked about Columbus’ — and all of Mississippi’s — reception to the students’ projects and performances.

“Well, you know, I think Mississippians — and by the way, I think this applies everywhere — all know that the history we learned, whatever age you are, is incomplete,” Yarborough said. “And, I have found audiences to be receptive to anything new and more expansive in Columbus. … And in the past three years, we’ve averaged about 250 people in attendance … and we do have, in that audience, new people with exposure in our local paper and television that are coming. And again, that conversation is beginning afterwards as people turn to one another and say, ‘I didn’t know that.’ ”

The last question Fallows posed was to Bowles and Williams. He asked them what they had learned from being a part of such impactful projects for the community and for Mississippi as a whole.

“It’s not all black and white,” Bowles said. “There’s always a portrayal of heroes and villains, but I think that the biggest thing I learned is that, when I look at a history book or I look into these things, (I realize that) they were people. They were people in the community … that had their own lives, their own beliefs and they were influenced by what they saw.”

Williams said people do not always hear all sides to a story, and understanding the story as a whole is something important to work toward.

I just think, when I’m seeing something like history, I need to try to see it from everybody’s perspective or try to research to see if I could see it from everybody’s perspective,” Williams said.

Judy Shepard and James Fallows Discuss Matthew Shepard’s Legacy and LGBTQ Visibility

James Fallows (left) in conversation with the founding president of Matthew Shepard Foundation, Judy Shepard, about the legacy of her son, Matthew Shepard, as part of the Interfaith Lecture Series. Tuesday, July 2, 2019, in the Hall of Philosophy. VISHAKHA GUPTA/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

On Tuesday in the Hall of Philosophy, Judy Shepard joined James Fallows to discuss the life of Shepard’s late son, Matthew Shepard, and the importance of embracing the LGBTQ community.

Shepard, advocate for LGBTQ rights and co-founder (with her husband, Dennis) of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, suffered the loss of her son, Matthew, in October 1998, when he was robbed, beaten and tied to a fence in a hate crime commited by two anti-gay men. In her New York Times bestseller, The Meaning of Matthew, Shepard addresses Matthew’s youth, his tragic murder and his legacy.

Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic and co-founder of the publication’s American Futures project, facilitated the conversation as part of Week Two’s Interfaith Lecture Series, “Common Good Change Agents.” 

What follows is an abridged version of the conversation between Fallows and Shepard. Their remarks have been condensed for clarity.

Fallows: Tell us what you think would be surprising to people who have only heard of (Matthew Shepard) as a public figure, about his life as a little boy.

Shepard: Well, I don’t know if there would be anything surprising. He was like any child you’ve seen or know. He was deeply involved in politics at the age of 7. He participated in his first campaign hanging those really annoying pamphlets on people’s doorknobs. He knew all about the candidates, who you should vote for and why. He knew who should win and who was going to win. He was pretty much right all of the time. He was acutely aware of how important elections are, for a 7-year-old. I was an election judge in our town in Wyoming, so maybe that’s where he figured that out. I don’t know. However, politics were his obsession in his short life.

He also loved the theater. He joined our local community theater at the age of 10. I think they were a little weary of having a 10-year-old be a part of their company, but everybody loved him. He took it very, very seriously and was the lead in many plays. He did a lot of college productions. He thought he could sing and dance, but he couldn’t. But, he was very good at interpreting drama and comedy.

He was empathetic. My mother told me, when he was 4, he was the most empathetic person she had ever met. He just knew by being around you if you were having a good day or a bad day. He would ask you about it, and he would listen. And he didn’t feel ever, at any age, that he needed to give advice. So, throughout his life, he was always selected by the student body to be a peer counselor — elementary, junior high and high school. Students really trusted him and looked up to him.

Fallows: Could you describe the process of his coming out, and how, now looking back on it, you think about it?

Shepard: So, I began to wonder if Matt was gay when he was 8. I had many gay friends in college and this wasn’t a new world to me. I never brought it up to him, though, because if I did, I knew he would retreat. So, I waited until he was ready to come out to himself and then when he was ready to come out to anybody else. When he was 18, a freshman in college in North Carolina, we were in Saudi Arabia because Dennis had work there, and Matt called me in the middle of the night and said, “Mom, there’s something I need to tell you.” It was about five in the morning, and he said, “I’m gay.”

There was never a question for me that, if this was him, I understood my role, that I should be educated and ready to help. I agreed to Matt that I would not tell Dennis that he was gay, but I told him anyway. And the reason I did was that Dennis is a lovely individual who sometimes says things without really thinking about them, and I didn’t want him to say something that would hurt Matt — not out of rejection but out of ignorance —  that he wouldn’t have been able to take back in such an important moment. So, I told Dennis and he said, “No, Matt just hasn’t found the right girl yet.” That’s when I said, “No, this is about Matt finding the right man.” He knew it would take him a moment to adjust because, as parents, you map out your children’s future without really knowing it because you expect it to be like yours … and now you’re in a fork in the road. You have no idea what that other road is going to look like, and we had to rely on Matt to be that guide. We were so intent on making him feel welcome and not at all like there was a question of rejection.

Fallows: From your experience, when parents who think one of their children may be gay come to you, what do you tell them?

Shepard: There’s really no blueprint because every family has their own cultural background, religion, environment. I have had kids come to me and say they leave gay publications all over the house, but their mom just keeps putting them back in their room, and they really want their mom to ask them a question. If I had done that with Matt, he would’ve just ran. They’re waiting for mom or dad to start the conversation so you really have to know the individual, child, friend or loved one. You just have to know what works best for them. And, we usually know if someone is gay, we’re just reluctant to bring it forward because we don’t know what to do when we bring it forward. The most important thing to do is make sure they know that you are accepting of them no matter what — you may not understand, but you love them no matter what.

Fallows: For teenagers now, is there a sense that the weight, pressure and trauma both on parent and child is any less than when Matt was a boy?

Shepard: It is absolutely less because it is part of public discourse now. We see the gay community pictured in positive ways in theater, in literature and on television. “Will & Grace” — I wouldn’t exactly call that ordinary, but they’re there and they are in your home. You’re inviting them into your home. So many people of influence are coming out now. The pressure is less, but that also depends on where you live and, again, your cultural environment, religious environment. So many schools now have gay-straight alliances, but some schools don’t have that. Teachers can still get fired for being gay, but the pressure, as a whole, is much less now than it was.

Fallows: Matt’s killing happened in Laramie, Wyoming. Tell us the proper way to think about Wyoming, about Laramie, as the scene of this horrific tragedy.

Shepard: Wyoming is the eighth largest in the union but the least populated with just over 500,000 people. We are 96% white, and the opportunity to see anything but straight, white, Christian, or to express something different than that is difficult. If you go to Laramie, you’ll get three answers (about Matthew Shepard’s murder). They’ll either want to talk to you about it and tell you that the town has changed; they will not want to talk about it at all; or, lastly, you’ll get the person who believes that the story is a lie and say that the rumor ruined the town’s reputation. But that’s their fault. We are one of five remaining states without hate crime laws. With this shady reputation, it is underserved because most people in Wyoming are loving and kind, but they don’t know that they know gay people. What they do know — or think they know — is the mythology, which is a lie. And it’s hard to break through that. The only way for people to do that is to come out and tell their story. … That’s when change happens, when folks have the courage to come out and tell their stories, knowing what the consequences might be, and most of the time, they end up finding acceptance, love and are embraced. That’s the only time things get better.

Fallows: Has the fact that Wyoming was the scene of this horror made them more willing or less willing to face these issues?

Shepard: I feel like they are very defensive. I think it makes them angrier, and they blame Matt for the situation. We go out of our way to talk about how great Wyoming is … but it’s very challenging if you are not a straight, white, Christian man. The wage gap for women is the largest in Wyoming than in any of the other states, but it’s a beautiful state. But, they have their back up and say that isn’t what they’re like. Then make it better. Don’t just fight it, make it better.

Fallows: Tell us how  Wyoming responded to this crime institutionally.

Shepard: We were, in retrospect, extremely fortunate. There were so many moving parts to finding Matt and finding the killers, and it happened in a small amount of time. I was included in much of the trial preparation, the investigation, and they told me as much as they could. They didn’t want me to be surprised. They were just so kind and very intent on making Dennis and I feel like we were a part of their family. They actually had to furlough many employees because it was not in their budget to work with us. And some of them underwent transformations from being your typical, homophobic Wyoming cowboys to strict, strong advocates for the gay community. The prosecutor couldn’t have been more kind and understanding. We felt like the people called on to do the right thing, did the right thing. Since then, we have found out some were not in favor of us, but at the time, they took very good care of us. They were professional and extremely careful in their words.

Fallows: Tell us how your thoughts on the death penalty have evolved over the last 20 years.

Shepard: James Byrd Jr. was murdered in June 1998. We spent time with Matt that summer, and we talked about how these white supremicists did something so deplorable. They tricked him into believing they were all friends and then dragged him to his death by a truck. In Texas, where the trials took place, they carry out the death penalty. We had a conversation that, sometimes, when there is no question of guilt, in certain human beings, this is what they are inviting. We felt that about the three men involved in the murder of James Byrd.

The first person in (Matthew’s) trial changed his plea from not guilty to guilty; he had a hearing, and the judge sentenced him to two consecutive life sentences. When the second individual came to trial — he had an actual trial — he was found guilty and made eligible for the death penalty by Wyoming statute, and it was up to the jury to make this recommendation. We had a conversation with the prosecuting attorney about how we felt about the death penalty because in the statutes this is what is required.

When the verdict came back guilty and the second young man was made eligible for the death penalty … Dennis and I said we will accept the same sentencing as the other young man with no appeal. I was pretty much, in the beginning, the only one who wanted to do that, and I wanted to do it because I wanted it to be over. I knew that if we went ahead with the death penalty sentencing there would be endless appeals — mandatory appeals — and we would be running into him all the time. … I just wanted it to be over. We talked about it. I won, reluctantly, and the rest of them agreed because, while they felt that this one young man totally deserved what would happen to him, we all understood this is what had to happen. Taking another life wasn’t going to solve anything.

Any notion that this was about mercy is misplaced because (the second man on trial) was 21. I mean, he’s going to spend the next 40 to 50 years in prison. In prison. They’re just gone, they’re just gone. Which is fine with us. This is not the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s of Nazi Germany. My son died because of your ignorance and intolerance. I can’t bring him back, but I can do my best to see that this never ever happens to another person or another family again.

Fallows: Tell us how you and Dennis are doing that through your foundation.

Shepard: Well, we started the foundation six weeks after Matt passed, on his birthday, Dec. 1, 1998. We had received so much correspondence while Matt was in the hospital and afterwards of people sending us money. … We wanted to make the money make a difference. So, we started this nonprofit, the Matthew Shepard Foundation. We had no idea what we were going to do with it because we only thought we’d be in existence a couple of years. People have a tendency to move from one tragedy to another. So we created this foundation. It’s morphed into many things over the last 20 years based on what my very small staff thinks we need.

Because of the current political climate … we have started conducting hate crime conferences trying to explain the federal hate crime law named after Matt and James Byrd Jr, what it does and doesn’t do and how important it is for victims of hate crimes to report it so that people who can do something about it know where it’s happening and why. We find there’s a deep-seated mistrust of law enforcement nationwide in that regard. We read about it in social media and in the press all the time, but that’s because that’s what makes the press. There are great cops, and they want to do the right thing, but they need help. They need the community’s help.

Fallows: What is the landscape of organized religion when it comes to the causes of your foundation?

Shepard: In the 20 years since we’ve been doing this, we’ve seen such a magnificent change. However, we do not work with interfaith agencies directly. Many of our conferences include interfaith because we feel it’s important; we feel all of these pillars are important in the work that we do to educate on a broad scale. So, we try to include them in everything we do, but we don’t work with them directly.

Fallows: I work for The Atlantic magazine. We had an article last week by a gay male writer in his mid-30s who was looking back on Stonewall and essentially saying, “Boy, for people of my generation, there’s no problem anymore. You know the discrimination is all melted away.”

Shepard: Oh, you’re just so wrong. What bubble do you live in? All you have to do is go to middle America and you will find that is not what it is like. Come to Wyoming. It is not all OK. Go to Western California. It is not OK. There is so much left to do, and so much of that relies on changing hearts and minds — people coming out and telling their stories so everybody knows who they are and where they are. That is just critical. … In this country, the work is definitely not over.

James Fallows Highlights ‘Common Good’ Work in Cities Across Country

James Fallows, co-author of, ”Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America,” speaks about the revitalization and equality efforts happening in traditionally discriminatory or impoverished cities such as Pensacola, Florida and Houston, Texas during the 2 p.m. lecture in The Hall of Philosophy. ALEXANDER WADLEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

On Monday in the Hall of Philosophy, James Fallows, a national correspondent for The Atlantic and co-founder of the publication’s American Futures project, shared his experiences from traveling around the country in the past year and witnessing the accomplishments of small communities overlooked by national media.

Before beginning his lecture, Fallows previewed the interfaith lectures for the week. Judy Shepard, whose son was murdered out of anti-gay hate in 1998, spoke with Fallows Tuesday in the Hall of Philosophy. The remaining interfaith lectures this week include a presentation with high school teacher Chuck Yarborough, and two students from the Mississippi School of Mathematics and Sciences in Columbus, Mississippi, on Wednesday; and with Emily and Stuart Siegel on Thursday.

“The (MSMS) is a phenomenal place,” Fallows said. “It is a public, residential high school in Mississippi for students who are from all around the state and gather there. While their stated specialty is math and science … (they use) the arts and humanities to deal with what is Mississippi’s legacy and America’s legacy — slavery and its aftermath.”

Fallows will join the Siegels and their son, who work in Ajo, Arizona, a town being revitalized “in an act of will, creativity, artistic imagination and generosity” by the Siegels and other residents there.

In his lecture, “Is Common Good a Lost Cause? Sources of Strain, and Re-Connection, in Modern America,” which began Week Two of Chautauqua’s Interfaith Lecture Series,  “Common Good Change Agents,” Fallows discussed some of the positive changes communities have made and how this type of action needs to percolate up to more influential levels.

The two main messages we were trying to convey when we spoke here last year was, number one, the sharp contrast between how the United States of this moment looks at the national level, where most people — regardless of their political affiliation — are concerned, unhappy or downcast about the state of the nation as a whole, and the way it looks city by city,” Fallows said.

After speaking at Chautauqua last year, Fallows and his wife, Deborah,  spent the next 11 months on the road visiting small towns and cities, partly because they are making a film with HBO, based on their book, Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America. The Fallows also traveled across the country to learn and to find patterns that “augment what we’ve seen before,” Fallows said.

Fallows then went through a list of 10 cities that he and his wife not only visited, but learned from and were positively impacted by.

The first city was Charlotte, North Carolina, where citizens prided themselves on the city’s thriving industry. One academic study, Fallows said, compared Charlotte to some 100 cities across the United States for “trust across racial lines … and other indications of wholesome civic fabric.”

Of all the cities on the list, Charlotte came in last, which was shocking to people there,” Fallows said. “The reaction locally was not denialism, defensiveness, challenging the report … but rather saying, ‘This is something we need to take seriously.’ ”

Now, there are a group of foundations, lecture series and libraries that engage more citizens and allow Charlotte to be more inclusive, he said.

The next place was Danville, Virginia, which is known for being the last capital of the Confederacy, and was also known as a mill town. If one didn’t work in the mills, the only other option was to work in tobacco warehouses. With that said, Danville suffered a major economic blow when the mills and tobacco industry left town.

So, Danville sat with no industrialization, a ruined economic foundation and a history of racism and slavery. Despite what sounds like dark times, citizens of Danville have found opportunities to worktogether and across racial lines toward a better future for the town, Fallows said.

“They received a settlement from the tobacco case. … Danville used its money to build the equivalent of a research university, a sort of high-tech center to create new economic opportunities,” Fallows said. “What has been impressive in Danville has been the effort across the lines of the traditional racial divide to make a new future. The downtown historical buildings have been reconverted to lofts, restaurants and markets that draw people back in.”

Third, Fallows discussed Muncie, Indiana, the home of the Ball brothers’ glass canning empire, Ball Corporation, and home to a troubled public school system. As of three years ago, Indiana had to put two public school systems in state receivership — one in Gary, and the other in Muncie, where draining of students from school systems had become a challenge.

Muncie’s step toward “public good” was through Ball State University. For the first time in known American history, this major public university took over responsibility for the City of Muncie public schools.

The president of Ball State has made this part of his mission to be community involved and to recognize that to create this new school system, it needed to be inclusive and common good-guided in every way it could be,” Fallows said. “For a town with long-standing racial divides, they did everything they could to include people of different racial categories and income categories.”

The fourth location was Fort Wayne, Indiana. Fort Wayne had relied on a General Electric plant, before the company abandoned the town. Groups of young people, older people, public institutions and private institutions decided to turn “the shame of the community into the center of the community,” Fallows said.

“They are using (the plant) as a new hospital space and startup space and living space,” he said. “If you go to Fort Wayne, I encourage you to see this old building, a kind of Stonehenge of one industrial era of America, fostering space for another.”

Next on Fallows’ list was Pensacola, Florida, a town trying to make itself “the laboratory for democracy in the United States.”

There, a man by the name of Quint Studer believes it is his lifelong mission to develop techniques of civic engagement, collaborative reasoning and the common good for his town and then allow the techniques to spread throughout the country.

If you go to Pensacola, you will see a series they have called CivicCon where they try to enlist people who are working with a newspaper or working with everybody else to express that this is a connected community,” Fallows said.

The Latino-populated and largely impoverished Brownsville, Texas, became the focus of a June tragedy, after a Salvadoran father and daughter both drowned while attempting to cross into Texas via the Rio Grande River. Despite Brownsville’s poverty rate, Fallows said there are minimal drug problems. Fallows attributes this partly to familial ties.

“The family structure of the overwhelmingly Latino families is strong enough that young people have, in particular, a mother and a grandmother who are watching what they’re doing,” Fallows said. “So, Brownsville has a kind of civic fiber despite economic poverty.”

The residents of Brownsville are also working to bring more people to the town. The downtown area is old but has the potential to be made into “a new downtown.”

The seventh city is San Bernardino, California. It’s the most troubled city in California, and one of the most troubled in the United States. But now, Fallows said, the city has arguably “the most impressive public high schools in the state.”

Fallows said a business person, who felt a religious calling to be involved in the schools, worked to develop opportunities for students of all backgrounds to prepare for skilled, technical jobs and higher education.

Fallows then discussed Kenosha and Racine, Wisconsin, which have well-known racial and deindustrialization problems. There, a local college has taken on the responsibility of the city and the community. Additionally, a company called Snap-On, decided that “(its) well-being depends on the well-being of the community.”

Houston, one of the largest U.S. cities, was the ninth location; that city has developed a program called Report for America, whose purpose is to send young reporters to small newspapers throughout the country to do local reporting.

If you’re looking for somewhere to put your money, I would look at Report for America,” Fallows said. “Their entire goal is to advance the common good.”

Lastly, Fallows talked about the largest city in the United States: New York City. Specifically, in the New York City public libraries, Deborah Fallows reported on an innovation that made books available to the blind.

“These are things Deb and I didn’t know when we saw you all a year ago,” Fallows said, “of how widespread is this sense of innovation to try to address the problems of us in the broadest sense.”

With those cities and towns in mind, Fallows presented an action plan for improving the state of American cities. First, one must keep their eyes open and “simply notice” how much is happening in the country. Then, it is crucial to “see the patterns.”

“The third stage is where we ask, ‘what can people involved in the flotilla of renewed efforts do to magnify their efforts (and) give more leverage to what they’re all doing?’ ” Fallows said.

Fallows said a significant number of faith organizations are involved in efforts like refugee and immigrant resettlement. Many organizations also work with the homeless and try to address drug problems, among other things. There are rural revival centers scattered throughout the country and community foundations and universities. Even libraries are considered to be the new “civic convenors.”

“Deb and I are now thinking of what we can do to better connect, and tell the stories of and increase the power of the local-level groups who have locally based solutions for improvement,” Fallows said. “Then, the good that is happening at the local level can percolate up and offset the bad that is, in many places, seeping down from the national level.”

Fallows posed a series of questions about the actual power of the local level and its influence on the national level.

What if the power of example, locally, doesn’t work?” Fallows asked. “What if the strains on the national government finally are at a point where they don’t really recover from them? What do we think is the best way forward if that is the case?”

These are the “eternal questions of American life,” Fallows said. The question is one of balance between the central and the local, the federal and the state, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.

“We have been here before,” Fallows said. “Deb and I think that all of us here are part of answering that question of whether we can establish a common good. … It’s something that depends on people’s actions locally; it depends on their imagination springing beyond the community and the local, and it depends on the ever-expanding sense of what the common good is, and that is what we hope to explore through the conversations this next week.”

Evangelical Amy Brown Hughes and Rev. V. Gene Robinson Discuss Prayer and God’s Purpose

  • Assistant professor of theology at Gordon College, Amy Brown Hughes speaks about Evangelical Christianity, and attempts to answer the infamous question "why do bad things happen to good people?" on Friday, June 28, 2019 in the Hall of Philosophy. MHARI SHAW/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

To start off the Interfaith Friday Series in the Hall of Philosophy, the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, vice president of religion and senior pastor, posed a series of questions to Amy Brown Hughes, who spoke on behalf of Evangelicalism.

Hughes is an assistant professor of theology at Gordon College. She earned her  bachelor’s degree in theology and historical studies from Oral Roberts University in 2001; her master’s degree in historical theology from Wheaton College; and her Ph.D. in historical theology with a focus on early Christianity from Wheaton College.

She is the co-author of Christian Women in the Patrisitic World: Their Influence, Authority and Legacy in the Second through Fifth Centuries, regularly presents papers at the annual meeting of the North American Patristics Society and is a co-host for the theology stream of the biblical studies and theology podcast, “OnScript.”

What follows is an abridged version of Hughes’ conversation. Hughes and Robinson’s remarks have been condensed for clarity.

Robinson: Will God intervene if we ask? Or, should we be asking for something different?

Hughes: God does engage with us and wants to interact with us. A Jewish friend once told me that if you’re not arguing with God, you’re not doing it right. That same friend told me she didn’t like Noah because he never said anything back to God after killing all those people. And, I think God is inviting us to engage and wants to intervene, and we choose into it. The key is that we have to see it, to recognize it. Once we recognize it, that then becomes an opportunity to work with God.

What are we asking for when we say, “God bless America”?

It depends on who you talk to. I do think that there is an assumption that God is on our side based upon the narrative we have about our country, and that can be really problematic. But there is also the idea that people make up America and we want God to engage with us. We want God to help us flourish as a people who live in this particular land at this particular time. If that is what we are praying for when we say, “God bless America,” that makes a little more sense. However, with the assumption underneath that’s saying bless us over other people, that’s a problem.

How do you understand prayer?

With prayer, there’s an assumption underneath prayer. First, we have to ask ourselves this question about determinism: What kind of universe do I think I live in? If we live in a universe where we think God has planned everything and we are just along for the ride, then why pray at all? But in Scripture, people pray over and over again, expecting God to do something, expecting something to happen. So, there is also that kind of universe. Ultimately, God is perfectly free. He doesn’t have to do what we pray. God can choose not to do that, and I am so grateful that God didn’t answer my prayers in college because, if he had, I would be married to somebody else, and it would not have been good. We pray things all of the time that aren’t good for us, but we’re learning. It’s conversation. We don’t know, and we have to grow and grow into maturity. God is gracious to us: “Well, let’s talk about why you want that.” That’s the kind of grace we should extend to others, so when we are praying for others, we do have to be mindful of their agency. God does act, but he is not going to intervene in someone else’s life in a way that is going to destroy them because you asked him to.

What is an ask that would honor who God is and what God is willing or not willing to do when praying?

I would pray for people to come to know who they are and pray for their own flourishing because I do not know their personal path, so I want to ask for God to be near them, for God to be with them — that’s a beautiful prayer. If you know nothing else to pray, pray that God will be with someone because presence isn’t coercion. It can be transformative. Think about when you’ve gone through something awful and your friend came and sat next to you and didn’t say anything. It doesn’t solve any problems, but it sure helped in that moment. The Scripture talks about how, when we don’t know what to pray, we ask for help because the Holy Spirit is always with us, always ready to help us.

Many ordained people would describe part of their life as feeling a call from God, which is why ordained ministry can be known as a “calling.” Would that be considered God meddling in their business?

No, I think that we are all individually on a journey of coming to know who we are, and I think God is working with us to help us try to understand who we are. Origen talks about this fundamental dictum that has been around forever: scito te ipsum. This means, “Know thyself.” And, you kind of have to start any theological process with “know thyself.” So, when the Psalmist talks about “search me and know me,” that’s an invitation to God to work with us to help us to know who we are, and I think that’s what calling is. Calling is the middle or end of a conversation where you have sort of been in the process of the “search me and know me,” and you’ve sort of come to some understanding of who you are.

So, let’s say that you say to someone who has Hodgkin’s (lymphoma), thinking that it will somehow bring them comfort, “God is trying to teach you something.” So, with that being said, what are some of the bad theologies around us?

Oh God, how many hours do we have? What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. God’s got a plan. God must be teaching you something through this. There are just tons of them. I mentioned earlier, the idea of “God must have planned this,” for a person to say that and think it’s comforting, it’s because the idea of something being out of God’s control scares them. Pentecostalism, for example, does a “God will heal you” kind of thing. “If you just believe, God will heal you,” and I have watched that literally destroy people’s lives. These people who believe in these preachers look so desperately for something, and these “ministers” sort of poke at this place of deep grief and pain, monopolize it, monetize it and sensationalize it. That sort of reputation of some ends of Pentecostalism is to our great shame, and we need to repent for that and change. Also, the idea of “it’s your fault” is problematic. I remember when there was all kinds of conversation around New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina, that it was because they were so supportive of the LGBTQ community they got a hurricane. Oh my gosh, no. Either assuming that authority individually in one’s life or assigning an assumption of what God’s judgement looks like in that way, are two really disruptive ends of theology.

If God isn’t going to control all of that, and it seems to me that all of the bad things we say are in an effort to not take responsibility for them ourselves, what is he in control of?

I tend to not use the phrase, “God is in control,” because that does tend to undercut the other things we know about God being noncoercive and a God who holds all things together on our behalf so that we can choose. So, if there is a sense of God’s power, God’s power is allowing us to have our own power, and he has created a space for us to choose, to live and continue to grow or continue to say no to that.

Ori Z. Soltes Reviews Dynamic Moments in Judaism, Connects Past and Present

Ori Z. Soltes speaks about “Obvious and Obscure: Moments that Have Transformed Judaism” during the afternoon lecture on Tuesday, June 25, 2019 in the Hall of Philosophy. MHARI SHAW/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Over the last 250 years or so, the definition of Judaism has grown “more and more complicated,” said Ori Z. Soltes, Goldman Professorial Lecturer in theology and fine arts at Georgetown University.

Soltes presented his lecture, “Obvious and Obscure: Moments that Have Transformed Judaism,” as part of Week One’s interfaith theme, “Religious Moments That Changed the World,” Tuesday, June 25 in the Hall of Philosophy.

“Is (Judaism) a religion?” Soltes asked. “Is it a body of customs and traditions? Is it a culture? Is it an ethnicity? Is it a nationality? Is it a civilization?”

Soltes said all of these questions apply to the definition of what Judaism is, leading to the logical thought that it would be unfair to strictly define Judaism as a religion, as that would construct boundaries and limitations.

This was the first complication that came with defining Judaism. The second complication was time — when does Judaism begin?

“If I talk about Abraham, most Jews would say that he is the beginning, but then of course Muslims and Christians would say the same for their respective faiths,” Soltes said. “And they’d all be right, and they’d all be wrong because, in fact, he’s not called any of the above in Genesis. He’s called a Hebrew.”

Soltes said the term “Hebrew” has no religious or ethnic connotation, but rather, a socioeconomic one. To be a Hebrew was to be someone who moved from place to place. Soltes moved forward through history and came to Moses, who was also not referred to as a Jew nor a Hebrew, but an Israelite. And when he came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments, they were to be followed by the Israelites, who would later establish the Kingdom of Israel. Despite the lack of the actual term “Jew,” Soltes began tracing the history of Judaism from this moment.

After the death of King Solomon, that kingdom dissolved, and the northern part continued to be known as Israel, and the southern part was called Judah, named for the larger of the two tribes, Judah and Benjamin, Soltes said. After the Assyrians took over Israel, Judah and Benjamin were the only two tribes left of what had been the Kingdom of Israel. Judah specifically became important, too, in 586 B.C.E., when the Babylonians took control of Jerusalem, because they carried the Judeans “into exile.”

“When one is defeated by someone else, when one’s temple or temples is or are destroyed by someone else, the conclusion one arrives at inevitably is that their god or gods must be stronger than yours,” Soltes said. “So, you don’t continue to worship your god, you worship theirs. But (the Judeans) don’t.”

Rather than subjecting to the authoritative power, the Judeans reasoned that their god, the God of Israel, the Judean God, caused the destruction because he was punishing them for not paying attention to the prophetic voices of which, at that time, the most recent was Jeremiah.

Other important lessons the Judeans learned in exile were that they could still address God by reading, praying and discussing God’s word, and if they turned back to God, God would eventually turn back to them, Soltes said. These were particularly important lessons learned when, in 50 years, Cyrus the Great overwhelmed the Babylonians, expanding his empire to an unbelievable size, and allowed the Judeans to rebuild their temple.

“This is also the first time that the term ‘messiah’ is used to refer to Cyrus, anointed by the hand of God so that he could assist the Judeans to go back and rebuild their temple,” Soltes said.

A century after the Judeans returned from exile, in 444 B.C.E., Ezra, a high priest, organized the text of God’s word. With this organization of the text, the Judean community changed from a theocracy — which means power by prophets, by priests, by those who are assumed by their constituents to have the ear of God — to a nomocracy, which is power by law. This change proved important in the future.

“If we fast forward half a millennium, we find the Judean world struggling to assert its political independence from the Romans because the Romans are embracers of any and all faiths, provided you are not politically subversive,” Soltes said.

Because of the Roman dominance, some Judeans believed that Judea needed to regain the political independence that it lost, and the revolt of 65 C.E. resulted in the destruction of the temple in the year 70 C.E. A second revolt would ensue 65 years later, known as the Bar Kokhba revolt, which took the Romans three years to suppress.

“The outcome of this was, for the first time in Roman-Pagan history, Judeanism began to be treated as a subversion,” Soltes said.

This was a brief phase because, after the death of the Roman ruler who put the status in place, his successor revoked the status. In addition to this temporary status, another important development had taken place between the destruction of the temple and the Bar Kokhba revolt.

“The Judean community started to more substantially split between Judeans who believed Jesus was something special, called Judeans for Jesus, and Judeans who did not,” Soltes said.

This idea of Judeanism, though, began to transition into Judaism coming into the second and third centuries, specifically with the canonization of the Hebrew bible in the year 140 C.E. and the organization of the Mishnah in 212 C.E. Meanwhile, the Roman empire moved toward becoming Christian — a religious transition that became problematic for the followers of Judeanism.

“As the centuries move forward, distinguishing infidels, nonbelievers, from heretics, mis-believers, from Jews who are neither this or that will continue to be problematic,” Soltes said. “In 381, Theodosius makes Christianity the official religion of the empire. … Judaism now begins to be thought of as subversive.”

The Jewish people were viewed as a threat to the community, and things grew even worse at the fourth Lateran Council in 1215 C.E. because, during this council, much time was spent discussing what should be done with the Jews. For those in the council, Soltes said, the Jews were not completely heretics and they did not fall under the category of schismatic, and they were not infidels. But they were also not Christian.

As a result of the council, it was decided that Jewish people needed to be identified. The council agreed that Jews needed to wear upon their clothing some kind of symbol that allowed people to know who they were. One symbol was a hat with a horn, and the other was a yellow circle or square, Soltes said.

Then, in the early part of the 15th century, Jewish massacres took place in Spain. To make the situation worse, in August 1492, King Ferdinand II of Aragon had enforced an edict of expulsion, leading many Jews to join the staff of Christopher Columbus before he set sail on Aug. 2.

“It would seem that any number of those individuals were thinking, ‘Can we find someplace else to go to, besides back to some other part of Europe, back into the Muslim world?’ ” Soltes said. “Ultimately, of course, Jews for the first time would be thinking about America with Columbus in 1492.”

However, Soltes said that by the end of the 18th century, Jews were welcomed into mainstream cultures, society and economics thanks to political revolutions like America’s own revolution in 1776. In 1790, George Washington visited and communicated with a Jewish community in Newport, Rhode Island, where he left a letter at their synagogue. Soltes quoted the letter: “Ours is a government that happily gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

With the 19th century and its surges of romanticism and nationalism all over the world, there was a call from a book written by Moses Hess, who declared the Jewish people could become great once more. By the end of the 19th century, the first Zionist Congress was held in Switzerland. European Jews were insulted, however, when Wilhelm Marr, a German publicist, wrote that the Jews could never be German and could never be European because they were Semites.

Soltes then went through additional events from World War I to present day — including World War II,  the Holocaust, John F. Kennedy’s election, the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy; the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, prime minister of Israel, in 1995; the election of Barack Obama in 2008; and the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Soltes said these events have been important to the development of Judaism and the Jewish people, and concluded that the world today is in crisis.

“Jews, like everyone else around us, find themselves at a kind of crossroads right now,” Soltes said. “In America, we are wrestling with whether we will follow the want-to-be path carved out in the mid-19th century by those who want to limit those who can come here, or whether we will follow the path that is signified by Washington’s letter about what we find in the Constitution and Declaration

First Interfaith Lecture: Laurie Patton Takes a Deep Look at the Bhagavad Gita

  • President of the Middlebury College and a leading authority on South Asian history and culture, Laurie L. Patton speaks about the ancient Hindu text, Bhagvad Gita, and how it has shaped our world Monday, June 24, 2019, at the Hall of Philosophy. VISHAKHA GUPTA/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

To Laurie Patton, the Bhagavad Gita — also known as “the song of God” — represents an antidote to indecision and despair.

At 2 p.m. Monday, June 24 in the Hall of Philosophy, Patton, president of Middlebury College and Hindu scholar, kicked off Chautauqua’s Interfaith Lecture Series with “That Driver Must be God: How the Bhagavad Gita Changed the World.” The lecture was the first of Week One’s interfaith theme, “Religious Moments That Changed the World.”

The Bhagavad Gita is a 2,500-year-old sacred Hindu text, written originally in Sanskrit, that delves into the conversations between a prince named Arjuna, and Krishna, Arjuna’s driver and confidant.

Patton said readers will never fully know the identity of the Gita’s author, but that their decision to tell the story of Arjuna and Krishna would ultimately change the world.

“Somewhere near the Ganges, in a wooden hut … someone whose job it was to tell stories decided to tell a story about despair,” Patton said.

The primary source of conflict in the Gita, according to Patton, is the tension between Arjuna’s desire to fulfill his duties as a warrior and his commitment to protecting his relatives.

“Arjuna must grasp the heartbreaking fact that his enemies are his uncles and teachers and cousins,” Patton said. “He’s rendered speechless at this.”

The friction between two difficult choices represented in the Gita is a conflict shared by many other pieces of classic literature, according to Patton, such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the ancient Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh.

“A decision in great literature can be a prism through which a culture is refracted into different modes of expression,” she said. “So, too, with the Bhagavad Gita. Its contents include simple and moving poetry, dense philosophy, moral musing and an explosive description of God.”

Patton, who authored a translation of the Gita for Penguin Classics, admits she is certainly not the first to interpret the sacred text in a different language.

“It has become a world classic, spawning over 250 translations, commentaries, renderings, paraphrases and synopses,” she said. “When I was asked to do the 251st translation of the Gita into English, I said, ‘There are no good reasons to do the 251st translation into English.’ ”

But Patton finds solace in her unique perspective as a woman translating the text, as well as the perspectives of the adult students she instructs in the lessons of the Gita.

She told a story about a student of hers, a Gulf War veteran, who experienced a moment of clarity upon realizing the similarities between the Gita and his own experiences in war. The student was completing a munitions transfer from Kuwait to Iraq, in a car with an unknown soldier as his driver. He said that the Gita would be “as if he stops the Humvee in the middle of our driving in this weird territory, and he idles the engine and he turns to me and says, ‘By the way, I’m God.’ ”

Beyond the fact that her students can make personal connections to the Gita, Patton believes in the Gita at its core.

“The central message — why the Gita is a text that changed the world — is it gives us the secret of how to act with discipline,” she said, “with hearts joined to God.”

“Krishna criticizes those who sacrifice with a view only to their own reward,” Patton said.

Yet Krishna also criticizes those who renounce the world entirely and desire a reward for that renunciation, according to Patton.

“It’s known in the West as ‘spiritual pride,’ ” she said. “The Gita teaches that clinging to your spiritual path is just as much a problem as not having one at all.”

The moral dilemma posed by the Gita initially reverberated throughout the Indian world, according to Patton.

“Up until the 18th century, we could say it was a text that changed the Indian world,” she said. “And then the British colonial environment and the rise of the East India Company provided a new stage for the emergence of the Gita, which changed the entire globe.”

The Gita was first translated into English by East India Company merchant Charles Wilkins, commissioned by Governor-General of India Warren Hastings in 1785.

Since then, Patton says the Gita has deeply influenced a variety of Western historical figures, from Henry David Thoreau, to J. Robert Oppenheimer to Martin Luther King Jr.

“There was someone else who took the key teaching of the Gita in a different direction,” she said. “He was a man who was fascinated by military strategy and how it could be turned into a moral force. His name was Gandhi.”

Patton said Mahatma Gandhi referred to the Gita as his “spiritual dictionary,” a text that would play a central role in his entire nonviolent philosophy.

“There are many political and strategic reasons that Gandhi pursued a nonviolent campaign,” she said. “But for him, the Gita was at the center of all of it.”

Indeed, Gandhi said: “Whenever doubts haunt me and disappointments stare me in the face, and I see not one ray of hope on the horizon, I turn to the Bhagavad Gita and find a verse to comfort me. I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming sorrow.”

And Patton said the Gita’s influence is detectable even now in the 21st century.

“Today, the Gita is a text in independent India,” she said. “It lives between East and West, between low caste and (high caste), rich and poor, secular and sacred.”

Patton said the Gita is a “meditation about action in war.”

“(The Gita) becomes a guidebook for a deeper, more transformative action of peace, of the nonviolent and of overcoming a paralysis against all odds,” Patton said.

Back in that wooden hut on the Ganges, Patton said, the story of despair and movement into action would eventually ring out across the ages.

“Two thousand five hundered years ago, a song in the forest shook the world,” she said. “A song in the forest can heal it too.”

Daniel Karslake speaks on Chautauqua’s influence on his films


According to Daniel Karslake, he won “the birth lottery.”

Karslake is part of the sixth generation of an eight-generation Chautauqua family. He spent his summers on Merrill, just down the hill from the Hall of Philosophy. For the first 10 years of his life, he walked up the Hall of Philosophy steps and climbed onto the white benches that led him to the “red brick road.”

His parents told him that road would lead him to the Chautauqua Bookstore, where he could get his daily dose of bubblegum. He made that trip a thousand times, walking the same route as the “parade of thinkers” who spoke while he was growing up. Those people shaped him as a person and inspired him to do what he does now: make films.

At 2 p.m. Monday in the Hall of Philosophy, Karslake opened Week Nine’s interfaith theme, “The Intersection of Cinema and Religious Values.” He spoke from the podium, where so many of the people who inspired him stood, about how his time as a Chautauquan influenced the documentary films he has made, including “For The Bible Tells Me So” and “Every Three Seconds.”

Karslake said there are two fundamental beliefs he got from Chautauqua. One is that anything is possible, and the other is from Luke 12:48: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded.”

With those two principles in mind, Karslake has been drawn to make films about religion. He just finished a documentary about the Middle East, which he said heavily features religion.

“(Religion’s) power in our society,” Karslake said, “its ability to elevate us and make us the best people we can be, but also its propensity to separate and dominate, is also very, very interesting to me.”

Karslake’s films deal with different aspects of social justice. “For The Bible Tells Me So” is a film about five religious families whose children are gay, and “Every Three Seconds” highlights poverty and hunger around the world.

“I was born in an amazing country. I am a white male, (and) much comes with that is extremely positive. And I was created gay, which is one of the great gifts of my life because if I were just a Caucasian male, I would not understand, like I understand, what it’s like to be a minority — at least to a certain extent,” said Karslake, who lives in Berlin with his husband, his partner of 26 years. “That is a huge gift. I understand what it’s like to be tolerated, or looked down on and judged.”

Karslake came up with the idea for “For The Bible Tells Me So” after working on the PBS series “In the Life,” in which LGBTQ individuals talk about their experiences. On the show, Karslake explored the intersection of religion and homosexuality for the first time.

For his episode of “In the Life,” Karslake talked to the Rev. Irene Monroe, who was the Week Eight chaplain-in-residence at Chautauqua. At the time, she was studying at Harvard Divinity School. Monroe describes herself as an African-American, “street theologian lesbian.”

“I loved that message because as someone who grew up Christian who was also gay, I was very conscious of what I felt Christians thought of who I was, and that they thought it was based in the Bible,” Karslake said. “But here was this woman at Harvard, who was in the streets talking both about her faith and the fact that she was a lesbian.”

Karslake shaped that episode to be a profile on Monroe, but he added commentary from her professor, the Rev. Peter Gomes, author of The Good Book, about his interpretation of homosexuality in the Bible.

The day after that episode of “In the Life” aired, Karslake had about 70 emails from people all over the world waiting in his inbox. One was from a 13-year-old boy from Iowa. The message was only a few lines, and read: “Last week I bought the gun. Yesterday I wrote the note. Last night I happened to see your show on PBS, and just knowing that someday, somewhere I might be able to go back into a church with my head held high, I dropped the gun in the river. My mom never has to know.”

“Getting that email really seared into my soul,” Karslake said.

In 2003, Karslake bought a movie ticket to see “Bowling For Columbine.” While watching the film, he found himself enthralled in the format of the documentary. “In the Life” was only reaching about 1 million people a month, and Karslake wanted to grow his audience. At that point, “Bowling for Columbine” reached more than 10 million in its opening weekend, Karslake said.

It was during that screening he decided to make a documentary about parents of faith who find out they have a gay or lesbian child. The documentary follows the families and captures the moments following the revelation.

“(The subject matter would be) families who are able to hold onto their faith and embrace their child, because in the late ’90s, early 2000s, that was thought to be as completely mutually exclusive,” Karslake said. “You could either stay in your Baptist church or embrace your child, but you couldn’t do both. And I, in my core, do not believe that is true.”

At the time he started making his movie, the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, now the vice president of religion and Chautauqua’s senior pastor, was elected as the first openly gay bishop in Christendom.

Karslake wanted Robinson to be in his documentary, but the security surrounding Robinson was tight. At the time, Robinson was getting more death threats than the president of the United States, but Robinson agreed to be in the movie, which opened lines of communication with other potential subjects.

“It’s really because of Gene that the film got made,” Karslake said.

It took Karslake four years to raise funding and make “For the Bible Tells Me So,” and it finally premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2007. It has since beentranslated into more than 20 languages, premiered in Tokyo in December 2017, has been shown in more than 4,000 churches and is the focus of two Bible studies.

“I grew up relatively convinced that Christians hated me,” Karslake said. “That is the word I always came to. But boy, did I find out I am wrong.”

Karslake’s second film was inspired by a 2005 lecture he heard in the Amphitheater. Karslake was visiting his family when the Rev. Jim Wallis came to Chautauqua and gave a sermon titled “We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For.”

“These are the opening lines: ‘Every three seconds, somebody dies somewhere in the world from hunger or extreme poverty. Usually it’s a child, and usually it’s from a preventable disease,’ ” Karslake said. “That blew my mind. That meant 30,000 people were dying, and usually children, from things we’ve solved, in the developing world.”

Karslake left the Amp that day “on fire,” he said. He knew someone needed to do something about it. After “For The Bible Tells Me So” opened, Karslake spent time researching the poverty and hunger, and he wanted to be part of the solution.

Up until that point, there was a hopelessness surrounding world hunger, Karslake said. The UNICEF commercials persuaded people into contributing, but made it seem like world hunger would never be solved.

During a residency at Stanford University, Karslake was able to find a quiet place to map out “Every Three Seconds,” which took six years to make.

Before making “Every Three Seconds,” Karslake thought he knew what hunger was. He always thought hunger was a problem that existed outside the United States.

When Karslake started filming in Malawi, Kenya and the Congo, he thought seeing people who were hungry and impoverished would be devastating because he is an empathetic and emotional person. The opposite was true.

Every house Karslake went to, the people would offer him food out of their week’s rations. He would try to say no, but the residents always insisted. That’s when he realized there were two types of hunger.

“I came back understanding that world hunger really does cover the globe. There are two kinds of hunger: there’s hunger … where’s there’s not enough food or basic medical care, but there’s this other hunger, where ‘I live for bigger, better, newer, faster,’ that’s killing the planet,” Karslake said. “It’s killing our oceans. It’s taking our natural resources, and that is the much more dangerous hunger. So what a gift that has been to know that and to learn that.”

Karslake is currently working on a follow-up to “For The Bible Tells Me So.” He never anticipated revisiting the crossover of religion and LGBTQ issues, but when he started getting death threats again a few years ago, he gave it a second thought.

Karslake and his husband had been living in Berlin for a couple of years and were out of touch with what was happening in the United States. After receiving threats, they heard a contentious election was taking place, and decided to tune into a Republican debate.

“During that debate, I heard out of eight or nine of them things I had not heard publicly said by a politician in years,” Karslake said.

The topics of conversation were re-implementing “don’t ask, don’t tell” and overturning marriage equality.

During Salt Lake City screenings of “For the Bible Tells Me So,” Mormon men would stand up and say how moved they were by the movie, but were curious as to why no one of their faith was featured in the film. Karslake has always remembered those men, and that, coupled with the political climate, made him certain he wanted to make a documentary similar to his first.

This upcoming film will feature two people who are transgender, one Mormon story, a Catholic story and a deeply devout evangelical couple who put their child in conversion therapy for six years.

Through it all, Karslake’s journey traces back to the time he has spent at Chautauqua.

“I truly believe that I am the luckiest person I have ever met, mostly because of my base here at Chautauqua,” Karslake said. “And the thing that I’ve really come to know, and I learned it here, is that it’s not so much my duty to want to make a world that works. It’s not our responsibility. That’s not what’s it’s about. It’s my great privilege to do that. It’s my great blessing and what gives my life incredible meaning, separate from my family and my friends. It’s trying to find a way to that world that works for everyone.”

Joel Hunter expands on evangelical Christianity in eighth Interfaith Friday


In the eighth edition of the Interfaith Friday Series, the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, vice president of religion, moderated a number of questions with interfaith advocate Joel Hunter, who represented evangelical Christianity.

Hunter served as a spiritual adviser to President Barack Obama from 2008 to 2017. He served on the boards of the National Association of Evangelicals from 2004 to 2017 and the World Evangelical Alliance from 2006 to 2017. He participated in the Global Christian Forum in Bangkok, Thailand; the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne, Australia; the U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha, Qatar; and the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations in Madrid, Spain. Hunter was senior pastor of Northland Church in Longwood, Florida, for 32 years.

Now, Hunter serves as the chairman of the Community Resource Network, a nonprofit organization he founded that focuses on helping marginalized and homeless families.

What follows is an abridged version of Hunter’s conversation Friday in the Hall of Philosophy. Hunter and Robinson’s remarks have been condensed for clarity.

From where you sit in your tradition, why should we be moving in an interfaith direction either here at Chautauqua or in the world?

Just from a utilitarian perspective, we have problems in this world that are way too big — not only to solve with any one group, but even to move the needle with any one group. So if you are serious about any world problem — poverty, climate change, the marginalization of people, the persecution (of people) and so forth — we have to do that together. When I say together, I am not just talking about interfaith; I am talking about people of good faith and good will, people who have a basic humanitarian inclination that says, “I want everyone to be treated with respect, to be treated fairly.”

The second answer I would give to that is that the universe has been created in a complementary fashion. We see this in Scripture when God said, “It is not good for you to be alone.” We see this in the very nature and in the very ontology of God. But then he said, “I will make you a helper suitable.” In Hebrew, the word helper is “one who answers back.” Now, why did God do that? Not only because we are made in his image and were made for relationships, but there is a sense in which we only best operate in the midst of differences that can complement our deficiencies.

We see that all the way from quantum mechanics to the principle of entanglement. When two photons become somehow linked in a spooky universe, if you affect one, the other one eight miles away shows a reaction. So there is a principle built into our very creation of us being entangled together. In our faith tradition, there is a sense in which the church is made up of differences that fit together. We need each other, and that same principle is true in the world. Personally, we will not grow without befriending and advocating for people who are different than we are.

There is something that happens when you know someone who is different and you now have a friendship. When people talk to me about Muslims, they are not talking about Muslims in general, they are talking about my friend, Muhammad Muslih. Whatever they are saying better come out pretty well in that shape because this guy is my friend. There is something about this connection of differences that is really beneficial and we need personally.

When you come to the metaphorical interfaith table, what gifts do you bring as an evangelical Christian to that table? 

Just Jesus. Jesus or God. I was walking with a monsignor and I said, “I will tell you, evangelicals are so thankful for the 200 years of Catholic social, theological development. We are leaning heavily into what you guys have already studied, we are with you, thank you.” He said, “I will tell you what, we could use your passion. We need your passion because we tend to live in our heads and in our rituals. We need to be fired up, and that’s what evangelicals can bring us.” So maybe we can bring some fire.

What gifts do other religions bring to the table that you might benefit from? 

This is so fun for me because I go down my list of friends and I just see what they add to my life. So, Judaism is our mother religion, and you’re always nice to your mama. There is a sense of identity. There are observant Jews and non-observant Jews, there are believer Jews and non-believing Jews, but there is a sense of cultural belonging that they have, and there is a sense in which there is a kinship there. That is such a healthy thing. There are always a dozen (religions) that point out that the world is the enemy, but there is a resilience there that all of us would benefit from knowing, because a lot of us tend to get panicked when we just get poked a couple of times.

With the Muslims, there is an obedience there, a simple obedience and observance that is quite admirable.

With the Hindus, I love the inclusiveness of the Hindus. Hindus have never met a belief they couldn’t go, “Alright, I kind of like this.” There is this warmth and this friendship. If you hear an evangelical say, “Tell me what you believe,” it’s like we are already on alert, but a Hindu goes, “No, really, tell me about what you believe. I would be interested and maybe I could believe some of that, too.”

For Buddhists, there is this sense of, “Don’t throw all of your eggs in the basket of this world. Don’t think that just because something has happened in this world, it is the end of the world or the end of your life.” When Buddhists practice right, there is this healthy detachment. There are a lot of great qualities that all of us can learn from.

Do you have any sacred texts or holy teachings that are telling you that yours is the one true religion? 

Yes. In John 14:6 (Jesus said), “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Don’t get all offended, or be offended, I don’t care. Yes, Jesus is the center of our universe. He is the creator of the universe. In the beginning was the word, the word was with God, the word was God, nothing was made if not made through him, and the word became flesh and dwelt among us. So he is the organizing principle of the universe.

There are two ways to interpret that Scripture. One is exclusively. If you’re not an active, believing, follower of Jesus Christ and have given your whole life to him, then you are going to hell. That is the exclusive way. If you can’t get to the Father, give it up, you’re going to hell.

There is another (interpretation), though. There are several Scriptures I could point you to that would be more inclusive in its interpretation and it gives room for “I haven’t had the opportunity to hear who Jesus is,” or they have lived in a world where that option was not a viable option for them. That is not to say that his death on the cross hasn’t also paid for those. Because remember what he said on the cross? “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.” Ignorance is a line of defense, and he was dying for those who were ignorant and pleading for their forgiveness at the same time.

So, yes. On one hand, I believe that all that is goes through Jesus Christ, but that does not necessarily mean that I think that everybody who doesn’t carry around the label of Jesus Christ is doomed.

Do you have extremist practitioners of evangelical Christianity? 

I used to, and still do, defend my Islamic brothers and sisters when people accused Islam as a religion of terrorism. That can’t be any more possible than Christianity as a religion of KKK people. There is a great propensity for all of us to try to justify what we do through the use of Scripture and to somehow contort the natural meaning of Scripture into something that is not at all like Jesus. So we do have lots of folks now who are claiming to have Biblical backing, but remember, the devil knew Scripture. Those of you who are Christian, remember the desert temptation — it talked about the devil coming and quoting Scripture to Jesus in order to tempt him. Well, he still does. Those who are anti-God still use Scripture to justify what they are doing to make it seem like that is what God would want.

Clara Ester reflects on memories with Martin Luther King Jr. in interfaith lecture


Clara Ester will never forget the look on Martin Luther King Jr.’s face as he lay beside her on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. However, even 50 years later, she still can’t manage to describe it without nearly falling apart.

At 2 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 15,  in the Hall of Philosophy, Ester gave her lecture, “Spirituality, Advocacy and Activism: an MLK-Inspired Life,” presented in conversation with the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, Chautauqua’s vice president of religion.

Ester, a retired deaconess of the United Methodist Church, is also the founder of People United to Advance the Dream. Her lecture was a part of Week Eight’s interfaith theme, “Not to be Forgotten: A Rememberance on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”

Ester has dealt with the effects of racism her entire life, but it wasn’t always clear to her that was what she was facing.

She grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, in an all-black neighborhood and attended all-black schools and churches.

“I could ride anywhere I wanted on the bus because the bus came to our neighborhoods to take us downtown,” she said.

Once she arrived downtown, she was always dropped off at the back door of her destination.

“We would enter and go down into the basement, never understanding that they had seven to eight floors in that store that we were not allowed to shop in,” she said.

When she was 5 years old, her mom took her and her brother to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to see Lookout Mountain. Because of her Native American ancestry, Ester’s mother could often pass as Caucasian, so when they arrived at Lookout Mountain, the employees said nothing to her. Ester believes this is only because they could not see her and brother at the time.

Once the family was inside the park, Ester and her brother went into the bathroom.

“It looked like a mansion,” she said. “It was spotless, clean, they had tables to change the baby, they had mints on the counter.”

But then the two of them were spotted, and Ester said the entire day changed.

“A gentleman came over to my mom with his nger in her face and said, ‘You know better,’” she said.

Therefore, Ester’s family left the park and went across the street to eat breakfast at a cafe, but Ester’s brother was forced to wait outside.

“My mother would not allow my brother to go into the cafe,” she said. “It was not the thing, in those days, for a young, black male, 7 years old, to look at a white woman.”

Ester said she remembers asking her mom what happened that first day in the park. But all her mother would say was “one day,” she would tell Ester.

Ester’s church pastor was James Morris Lawson Jr., a leader in the civil rights movement who advocated for the use of nonviolent tactics.

“Jim was into everything civil rights,” she said. “He even came back from India and shared with the staff and Dr. King the nonviolent concept.”

Ester said in the wake of the Freedom Rides, her church became a “holding ground” for travelers so they did not have to sleep on the highway at night. Many of them were white, and Ester and many others helped make food for them and their families.

“It allowed you to understand the urgency that some white people had for things that are not correct, for injustices,” Ester said. “There were young couples that wanted to stand up and say this was wrong.”

During her junior year of college, the sanitation strike began. It all started on Feb. 1, 1968.

There was a thunderstorm, but in Memphis, the Public Works Department required all of their black sanitation workers to continue working. That day, two sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, took shelter from the rain in the back of their garbage truck. As Cole and Walker rode in the back of the truck, an electrical switch malfunctioned, the compactor turned on, and they were crushed. The Public Works Department refused to compensate their families.

“What happened from that, from their death, was 1,300 sanitation workers stood up a week later and refused to go to work,” Ester said. “The strike took a very active role in the city. Can you imagine garbage not being picked up around here for a couple months?”

Lawson contacted King about the strike, and King came to speak with the sanitation workers. When he left, he promised he would return soon.

When King returned to Memphis on April 3, 1968, the first thing he was told was that there were threats against his and his wife’s lives. Ester said King declared those threats were meaningless to him.

“He talked about seeing the mountaintop and that we as a people will get there one day,” she said. “He said he was not afraid of anything because his eyes had seen the glory.”

As a way to get involved in the movement, Ester would leave school to prepare food for sanitation workers to take home. On April 4, 1968, a member of the church staff came into the room to invite everyone to get catfish that night.

Ester arrived at the Lorraine Motel grill for catfish, and King was exiting his room.

“He was laughing and talking to everybody and telling Ben Branch to play his favorite song, ‘Precious Lord,’ ” she said.

Then she heard the gunshot.

“I remember seeing people ducking and somebody hollering, ‘Get down, get down,’ ” she said. “The whole time, I was looking up.”

Ester said she doesn’t remember how she got there, but she arrived at the top of the balcony, stepped over King’s body and began to feel for a pulse.

“There was maybe something moving, but it didn’t appear that his stomach was even moving,” she said.

To aid his breathing, Ester unbuckled his belt and pants. She then asked for a towel to press against the wound on the right side of his neck.

The thing Ester said that has stuck with her all of these years later is the expression on King’s face as he lay beside her.

“He talked about the mountaintop and his eyes were open, and he had the most pleasant expression on his face because he was talking and laughing,” Ester said. “So his eyes are open, with a smile on his face. ‘I may not get there with you, but we as a people will get to the mountaintop.’ I will never forget his face.”

Ester said the church staff went to the hospital with King, but before they returned, she knew he was no longer with them.

Ester still does not believe it was solely James Earl Ray who assassinated King.

“I am not making a public statement saying this was a set up, but deep in my heart, how does a man who is in prison escape from prison and have enough money to stalk Dr. King in Atlanta, and then make his way to Memphis without some kind of support?” she said.

Ester said there are still many details that do not add up, and even five decades later, more details are still surfacing.

According to Ester, Lawson met with Ray on many occasions and even performed his jail cell marriage and, later, his funeral service.

At one point, Lawson told Ester that Ray did not do it.

“Will that ever change?” she said. “Who knows. Fifty years later, we are getting information. We are seeing the information the government holds on to.”

Ester said she struggled with hating white people after King’s death, but the lessons he left behind helped her heal.

“That hate started building up in me,” Ester said. “He changed my life because I could see those eyes; I could see them looking toward those pearly gates and saying we are going to get there and realizing we couldn’t get there through hate. How can I hate people and make this world any better?”

Apologizing for her previous animosity toward white people, Ester told the audience that she wants to work on creating a better world together, regardless of differences.

“We have to get busy building relationships, quicker and faster,” she said. “I have to love everybody in this room before I leave Saturday morning to start making a difference in this world. It has to be personal. Together, if we work together, we can change and make this world better.”

Peniel Joseph outlines moments in ‘heroic’ civil rights movement


Peniel Joseph refers to his mother as his first historian.

As an immigrant from Haiti, Joseph’s mother raised him in New York City during the race riots of the 1960s. The city was afire with protests against racism and de facto segregation, but she refused to shield him from the flames. Standing with him on his first picket line at 9 years old, it was his mother, a black feminist, trade unionist and activist, who inspired him to create change.

At 2 p.m. Tues., Aug. 14, in the Hall of Philosophy, Joseph, the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the University of Texas at Austin, gave his lecture, “The Passion of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: How the King Assassination Continues to Shape American Democracy,” as part of Week Eight’s interfaith theme, “Not to be Forgotten: A Rememberance on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”

“My mother believed in human rights and social justice with every fiber of her being, and she really tried to transplant that feeling and that belief in both of her sons,” Joseph said.

According to Joseph, the “heroic” civil rights movement took place from May 17, 1954, to Martin Luther King’s assassination on April 4, 1968.

“When we think about that heroic period of the civil rights movement, in a way — as Americans and even globally — that period unspools cinematically for all of us,” he said.

In 1954, the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case decision declared separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional.

In 1955, Emmett Till was murdered in Money, Mississippi.

In the same year, Rosa Parks and King, who served as a spokesperson for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, fought for the end of racial segregation on buses in Montgomery, Alabama, which they achieved in 1956.

In 1957, the Little Rock Nine, a group of nine African-American students, enrolled in Little Rock Central High School. Their enrollment was followed by the Little Rock Crisis, in which Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus called in the state National Guard to prevent the black students from entering the high school. However, later that month, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent in federal troops to escort the Little Rock Nine into the school.

The start of the direct action movement took place in February 1960. As a result of that, four black students from North Carolina A&T College sat down at a Woolworth lunch counter in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina. That sit-in movement expanded from four students to tens of thousands of people by spring.

Joseph said the most important part of the sit-in movement was that it became the “seed bed” for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

“SNCC is going to be the group that are the designated shock troops of American democracy,” he said. “It is SNCC that is thinking about interracial democracy. It is SNCC that is talking about environmental justice and anti-war activism.”

In 1961, Freedom Riders rode interstate buses into the segregated South to fight for the enforcement of the Supreme Court decision in Boynton v. Virginia, which declared segregation of interstate transportation facilities, including bus terminals, unconstitutional.

“They are going to be violently repulsed by white supremacists and Klan violence,” Joseph said.

In May of 1961, President John F. Kennedy’s Justice Department, led by Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, is “forced” to work to protect civil rights activists, Joseph said.

“Really the Kennedy administration, for the next two years, are grudging allies for the civil rights movement,” he said.

Kennedy started civil rights reform in 1963, nearly a decade after the beginning of the movement.

“Before, the Kennedys are really only begrudging allies because they feel that the civil rights movement is going to hijack the president’s domestic agenda and his international agenda,” Joseph said. “By 1963, the president realizes his agenda should be the civil rights movement.”

The year 1963 is also the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Birmingham campaign.

“Birmingham, Alabama, is literally and figuratively on fire in 1963 at the prospect of not just racial segregation, but at the prospect of a movement for black citizenship that is not just led by Martin Luther King Jr., but by Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth,” Joseph said.

As a result of the Birmingham campaign protests, King was arrested and wrote the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

“King talks about the consequences of white liberals and white moderation,” Joseph said. “He talks about his disappointment with white moderates and would-be allies who are more satisfied with peace at the expense of justice.”

Joseph said the greatest outcome of King’s letter is the connection he made between the civil rights movement and the founding principles of American democracy.

“(King) makes an argument that the core of American democracy should be racial justice and black citizenship,” he said.

Also in 1963 was the March on Washington, where King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Joseph said the speech is only remembered by its last stanza, even though that was not King’s main point.

“That is a 17-minute speech where we have remembered to forget the most radical components of that speech,” Joseph said.

According to Joseph, the most radical component of King’s speech was the beginning.

“He starts by saying, ‘Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy,’ ” he said. “King is constantly talking about small-D democracy and connecting that to the ideas of racial justice, economic justice and peace.”

Joseph said it is important to remember that the events in 1963 not only affected black people, but their white allies as well.

“The racial terror that engulfed the United States transcends race, even as it focuses on black and brown people primarily,” Joseph said.

In 1964, the Civil Rights Act passed and outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

In 1965, the Watts Riots took place in Los Angeles, California, when Marquette Frye, a young African-American motorist, was pulled over and arrested by a white Highway Patrolman for suspicion of driving while intoxicated.

Joseph said King’s work in Los Angeles following the riots mirrored the work of Black Lives Matter activists in present day.

“(King) confronts groups and neighborhoods who are being assaulted by a criminal justice system that is a gateway to multiple systems of oppression,” he said.

Even though King was celebrated in previous years with honors such as the Nobel Peace Prize and Time magazine’s Man of the Year, Joseph said he started to be vilified in 1967.

“He is vilified as a troublemaker, as somebody who is fomenting violence, as somebody who is un-American and not a patriot because he is saying the triple threats facing the world are materialism, racism and militarism,” Joseph said. “King is talking about perpetual warfare in 1967 and guess what? Fifty years later, we are a country that is in a perpetual state of war.”

Additionally, King spoke out against the Vietnam War in 1967 in a speech titled “Beyond Vietnam” in front of 3,000 people at Riverside Church in New York City.

“(King) says that it is going to be a ‘bitter (but) beautiful struggle,’ but the only way to achieve racial and economic justice domestically is to stop exporting violence overseas in the name of freedom,” Joseph said.

In 1968, King was trying to organize 1,000 sanitation workers who were on strike in Memphis, Tennessee, when he was assassinated.

Joseph said when looking back on the 50 years following King’s death, one must pay attention to how the “juxtapositions have grown.”

“We live in a country that elected the first black president in 2008, yet at the same time, Barack Obama presided over a criminal justice system where you had a disproportionate amount of black and brown women and men engulfed in the belly of the beast of that system,” he said.

Another example of a juxtaposition under and since Obama’s leadership is the resurgence of hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. According to Joseph, the most prominent example was the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, organized and comprised of white supremacists.

“We should not immortalize white supremacy,” he said. “We should not say these are just regular people who are misunderstood. It is the opposite of citizenship, the opposite of democracy, the opposite of not just Dr. King’s dream, but the opposite of what we think of as our core values as Americans. It is the opposite of equality, the opposite of justice, the opposite of fairness and certainly it is the opposite of nonviolence.”

In the midst of those modern-day juxtapositions, Joseph believes America is still democracy’s best hope.

“We are still the last, best hope on earth for social and political transformation, for racial and economic and gender and LGBTQ justice, for human rights,” he said. “King imagines a democracy capacious enough to include and to place at the center the most marginalized, dispossessed, humiliated and disparaged among us.”

Joseph said it is King’s example of optimism that encourages him to keep his faith.

“What is so important for us is that we remain hopeful and are committed to doing the work that King was unable to finish,” Joseph said. “He provides us so much optimism in expanding our vision of what is possible. There is an alternative that is possible.”

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