Songs of Worship – Why We Sing To The Lord

By David W. Stowe
Michigan State University
February 11, 2017

This Saturday, Feb. 11, many Jews will celebrate Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Singing, which commemorates one of the most vivid musical performances in the Hebrew Bible: the songs sung by Moses and his sister Miriam to celebrate the Israelite crossing of the Sea of Reeds (Red Sea) in their dramatic escape from bondage in Egypt.

This Song of Miriam exemplifies one dominant motivation for sacred music: collective celebration.

“Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women followed her, with timbrels and dancing. Miriam sang to them:
‘Sing to the Lord,
for he is highly exalted.
Both horse and driver
he has hurled into the sea.’”

As a cultural historian, I have been studying the relationship between music and religious experience for two decades. Music has been crucial to religious experience across history and region.

Sacred music has a unique ability to engage both body and mind. It brings people together in expressing gratitude, praise, sorrow and even protest against injustice.

Why religion needs sacred song

More than three millennia after Miriam, singing continues to be a widely observed expression of thanksgiving and gratitude, whether or not couched in religious language or occurring in a sacred space.

Singing bhajans.
Vrindavan Lila, CC BY-ND

Jews and Christian sing psalms that celebrate the glory of creation and the god who created it; Muslims offer “na’t” in honor of the Prophet Muhammad; and Hindus chant “bhajans” to express their devotion to Shiva or Krishna. In many American evangelical churches, pop-influenced congregational singing, generally referred to as “praise music,” has replaced old-school hymns.

At the other end of the emotional spectrum, sacred music is the preferred medium for expressing mourning and lament. African-American churches commonly referred to such songs of trouble and grief as “sorrow songs,” in contrast to the more upbeat celebratory “jubilee songs.”

Indeed, the climactic final chapter of historian and civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois’ classic collection, The Souls of Black Folk, is titled “Of the Sorrow Songs.” He offers an eloquent tribute to the power of the spiritual, when he says,

“And so by fateful chance the Negro folk-song – the rhythmic cry of the slave – stands to-day not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas.”

Many Hebrew psalms are classified as laments and have been sung by monastics and lay worshipers, Jewish and Christian, for 2,000 years. Islam has its own tradition of lamentation dirges, called “nauha,” typically sung by Shiite Muslims in mourning for the martyrs of the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD, which initiated a bitter succession struggle that still resounds through the Muslim world.

The blues, which have so profoundly shaped American popular music – from jazz and rhythm & blues to soul – are regarded as a secular counterpart to the songs that arose out of conditions of chattel slavery, as the theologian James Cone memorably explores in his seminal study, “The Spiritual and the Blues.”

Just as the experiences of ecstasy and gratitude are heightened by giving vocal expression in collective singing, so the pain of injustice and uncertainty are relieved by vocal release through music.

Former President Barack Obama too broke into what seemed like a spontaneous rendition of “Amazing Grace” at the eulogy he delivered at the historic church in Charleston, South Carolina, following the mass murder of nine church members by a white supremacist in 2015.

Why should this be?

Sacred song is one of the most social aspects of religious practice. But it is also an intimate embodied experience. The singer draws meaning from her or his core being: She feels the sound being produced as she hears it.

Creating musical tone in one’s chest and throat provides sensuous pleasure, amplified by what sociologist Emile Durkheim referred to as “collective effervescence” – the collective energy generated when groups come together in a shared purpose. This concept has been explored extensively by sociologist Randall Collins in his work on interaction ritual chains.

Personally, I have experienced this most intensely while singing shape-note music, which might be described as the heavy metal of American roots music (with a Calvinist twist).

Why communal singing is joyous

Worth noting in the Miriam singing we began with is the way in which singing and dancing are conjoined.

Disembodied music of the sort we take for granted through MP3s and earbuds, or even sitting passively in a concert hall, is a recent historical development. The most intense experience of unity between body and music is called trance. “[Trancing]
is a profound mystery,” writes ethnomusicologist Judith Becker.

“You lose your strong sense of self, you lose the sense of time passing, and may feel transported out of quotidian space.”

Communal singing is more joyous.
cristian, CC BY-NC-ND

Ordinary worshipers often get at least a taste of this when they sing in community. Communal singing plays a role in the release of oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone” instrumental in the pleasures of social bonding.

Music, religion and political protest

The Abrahamic faiths that trace their origins to the Hebrew Bible have a long history of linking sacred song to the struggle against injustice and oppression. This tradition comes out of the Hebrew prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Amos. Social protest is a strong thread in the psalms, which provided the central worship songs for Jews and Christians.

My most recent book studies just one text, Psalm 137, which includes the famous line,

“How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

This is a psalm that mourns the plight of Judeans held captive in Babylon after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 587 B.C. This has been used as a rallying cry for religious and political movements for many centuries.

And indeed it seems that music may play a part in the mass protests of the Trump era. Secular spirituals like “We Shall Overcome,” with its roots in the black church, are always ready to be dusted off. But this time, Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” has already been promoted by the political resistance as a reminder of the earlier, more inclusive vision of American nationhood. Lady Gaga even managed to take it into her Super Bowl halftime show without raising alarms. New versions of the Song of Miriam continue to be rewritten and sung, as songs that celebrate triumph over oppression or injustice.

As Becker says,

“You cannot argue with a song sung in soaring phrases, with drum rhythms you are feeling in your bones, surrounded by friends and family who are all, like you, structurally coupled, rhythmically entrained.”

Editor’s note: the original version of this story inadvertently identified the Battle of Karbala as having taken place in 680 BC instead of 680 AD.

The Conversation

David W. Stowe, Professor of English and Religious Studies, Michigan State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

FDA Approves Drug to Treat Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy

February 9, 2017

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration today approved Emflaza (deflazacort) tablets and oral suspension to treat patients age 5 years and older with Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), a rare genetic disorder that causes progressive muscle deterioration and weakness. Emflaza is a corticosteroid that works by decreasing inflammation and reducing the activity of the immune system.

Corticosteroids are commonly used to treat DMD across the world. This is the first FDA approval of any corticosteroid to treat DMD and the first approval of deflazacort for any use in the United States.

“This is the first treatment approved for a wide range of patients with Duchenne muscular dystrophy,” said Billy Dunn, M.D., director of the Division of Neurology Products in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “We hope that this treatment option will benefit many patients with DMD.”

DMD is the most common type of muscular dystrophy. DMD is caused by an absence of dystrophin, a protein that helps keep muscle cells intact. The first symptoms are usually seen between 3 and 5 years of age and worsen over time. The disease often occurs in people without a known family history of the condition and primarily affects boys, but in rare cases it can affect girls. DMD occurs in about one of every 3,600 male infants worldwide.

People with DMD progressively lose the ability to perform activities independently and often require use of a wheelchair by their early teens. As the disease progresses, life-threatening heart and respiratory conditions can occur. Patients typically succumb to the disease in their 20s or 30s; however, disease severity and life expectancy vary.

The effectiveness of deflazacort was shown in a clinical study of 196 male patients who were 5 to 15 years old at the beginning of the trial with documented mutation of the dystrophin gene and onset of weakness before age 5. At week 12, patients taking deflazacort had improvements in a clinical assessment of muscle strength across a number of muscles compared to those taking a placebo. An overall stability in average muscle strength was maintained through the end of study at week 52 in the deflazacort-treated patients. In another trial with 29 male patients that lasted 104 weeks, deflazacort demonstrated a numerical advantage over placebo on an assessment of average muscle strength. In addition, although not statistically controlled for multiple comparisons, patients on deflazacort appeared to lose the ability to walk later than those treated with placebo.

The side effects caused by Emflaza are similar to those experienced with other corticosteroids. The most common side effects include facial puffiness (Cushingoid appearance), weight gain, increased appetite, upper respiratory tract infection, cough, extraordinary daytime urinary frequency (pollakiuria), unwanted hair growth (hirsutism) and excessive fat around the stomach (central obesity).

Other side effects that are less common include problems with endocrine function, increased susceptibility to infection, elevation in blood pressure, risk of gastrointestinal perforation, serious skin rashes, behavioral and mood changes, decrease in the density of the bones and vision problems such as cataracts. Patients receiving immunosuppressive doses of corticosteroids should not be given live or live attenuated vaccines.

The FDA granted this application fast track designation and priority review. The drug also received orphan drug designation, which provides incentives to assist and encourage the development of drugs for rare diseases.

The sponsor is receiving a rare pediatric disease priority review voucher under a program intended to encourage development of new drugs and biologics for the prevention and treatment of rare pediatric diseases. A voucher can be redeemed by a sponsor at a later date to receive priority review of a subsequent marketing application for a different product. This is the ninth rare pediatric disease priority review voucher issued by the FDA since the program began.

Emflaza is marketed by Marathon Pharmaceuticals of Northbrook, Illinois.

Can a Chilean Outsider Revive Latin America’s Ailing Left?

By Cristóbal Bellolio
Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez
February 10, 2017

According to popular wisdom, if a government’s approval ratings are in the low 20s with an election around the corner, odds are that the ruling party will not retain power; people will vote for change.

But popular wisdom is not always right. And this is the hope of the Chilean left.

Just 18 months after winning the 2013 presidential election with 62% of votes, President Michelle Bachelet suffered an unprecedented political breakdown. Public support for both her and her Nueva Mayoría administration – a coalition of the Socialist, Christian Democrat and Communist parties, among others – fell to the low 20s by mid-2015, where it has remained since.

For the November 2017 election, this centre-left coalition had originally set its sights on Ricardo Lagos, a former president who built his political career in the 1980s on courageous, repeated opposition to Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. And Lagos is willing to run.

But younger progressives are critical of Lagos’ 2000-2006 administration, arguing that was more market-oriented than socialist. Despite the 79-year-old’s commendable energy, he is polling at 5%.

This situation should favour the prominent conservative ex-president Sebastián Piñera (2010-2014), who is often portrayed as a successful businessman with a Berlusconian twist, to win Chile’s 2017 election.

A new hope for the left

But from this unexciting scenario – two former presidents running for president, neither particularly popular – a new name has emerged: journalist and former television news anchorman Alejandro Guillier.

Guiller made his political debut three years ago, winning a senate seat as an independent. He was supported by the Partido Radical, a traditional party that, though its best days are long past, has been a loyal – if almost voiceless – member of the centre-left coalition that has ruled Chile for 23 of the past 27 years.

Now, with Guillier, the Partido Radical has discovered a political goldmine. The newcomer has authoritatively surpassed Lagos in the polls, with support increasing from 1% to 14% in the past six months.

This has made Guillier into an instant cause celebre, and some Socialist congressmen who would be expected to support Lagos have already shifted their attentions his way. So, too, have many government officials who, among other interests, suddenly believe it’s possible to keep their posts.

Guillier, the candidate from nowhere, now seems like the only serious competition for Piñera. With recent predictions anticipating a dead heat between the two, he is likely to secure the ruling coalition’s nomination to run in November.

The fall

Understanding Guillier’s rise means understanding Bachelet’s fall.

There are two theories to account for her loss of support. Moderate intellectuals have suggested that the Chilean people are simply less socialist than Bachelet and her team thought.

Bachelet’s progressive 2013 campaign platform, which absorbed the ambitious demands of a 2011 left-wing students’ movement then gaining widespread support, proposed rewriting Chile’s constitution and establishing free university tuition, among other goals.

But it’s possible that Chileans were, in fact, not quite done with neoliberalism, which the country has largely embraced since the Pinochet years. In this hypothesis, the Bachelet government’s plight can be explained away as an inaccurate political diagnosis.

A second theory faults Michelle Bachelet’s own thundering loss of political capital for her government’s demise. To these commentators, the president’s personal popularity – not her reform agenda – was the one and only reason she won the 2013 election.

If, as this argument goes, most people respond more to a candidate than to their platform, then the Nueva Mayoría coalition’s political failure correlates to Bachelet’s fall from grace, which began when her eldest son and his wife were implicated in suspicious real estate dealings in early 2015.

The perception that a Bachelet family member used his relationships for profit was hard to square with the president’s discourse countering abuse and inequality.

Bachelet herself is accused of no wrongdoing. But, in Latin America today, the mere hint of corruption is damning because it resonates with other scandals across the region.

Placing blame on the shoulders of leaders allows progressives in Chile to avoid facing the awkward hypothesis that Chileans may endorse crucial aspects of a market economy.

This hypothesis also comforts progressives struggling to account for the sorry end of the 2000s-era “pink tide” – the rise of leftist leaders across the continent, from Lula in Brazil to Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. The Latin American left once seemed unstoppable, but recently corruption and discontent in many countries has fuelled a backlash.

In Brazil in 2016, a conservative wing of congress impeached the left-wing president Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s chosen successor. The ouster was pursued on constitutionally shaky grounds, but leveraging a simmering Brazilian case of corruption gave the opposition the power that neither ideological debate nor electoral process could.

Moral suspicions also led Argentina to vote out Kirchner in 2016, and deepened the profound crisis gripping Venezuela after two decades of Hugo Chávez’s “updated” socialism (though corruption is far from the only reason Venezuela is failing).

And the left will rise again?

Back in Chile, Guillier has said he will stand for many of the same ideals as Bachelet, adding that, political resistance aside, her reforms are much needed. He has also promoted a state-run economic growth strategy.

Guillier’s narrative aims to preserve the social-democratic spirit, but with a bright new face – uncontaminated by corruption, almost without a past.

Accordingly, Guillier sells himself not as a politician but as a grassroots guy. Besides, it’s hard to be more credible than the man who delivers the nation’s news every night.

Critics highlight Guillier’s populist traits (attacking politicians in bulk, endorsing any claim that happens to be fashionable) and his lack of an inner-circle of intellectuals and policy advisers.

But for now, Guillier’s autonomy and somewhat ambiguous opinions are working for him. And, of course, being anti-establishment has been winning voters across the world.

If Guillier wins, political thinking in Chile won’t change much, but the interpreter will be new. And, for the ailing Latin American left, that might be good enough.The Conversation

Cristóbal Bellolio, Adjunct professor, Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez

This article was originally published on The Conversation. 

Sigmund Freud Collection Now Online

Oil portrait of Sigmund Freud by Wilhelm Victor Krausz 1936.

February 1, 2017

The Sigmund Freud Collection at the Library of Congress has been digitized and is now online at

The online collection, with more than 20,000 items, contains the personal papers of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis whose ideas of the unconscious and theories on sex, repression, transference and religion profoundly influenced 20th-century Western thought. His theories still generate controversy.

The digitization of Freud’s papers has been made possible by a generous grant from The Polonsky Foundation, a UK-registered charity, which primarily supports cultural heritage, scholarship in the humanities and social sciences, and innovation in higher education and the arts. Its principal activities include the digitization of significant collections at leading libraries (British Library; Bibliothèque nationale de France; Bodleian Library, Oxford; Cambridge University Library; New York Public Library; and Vatican Apostolic Library).

“We are delighted to support the Library of Congress in the important project of making Freud’s legacy more widely available, both to researchers and the broader public,” said Dr. Leonard Polonsky CBE (Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire).

Seventy-eight years after his death, Freud, who escaped to London after the Nazi takeover of Austria prior to World War II, remains a primary figure in modern cultural and intellectual history. The collection documents the formulation of Freud’s thinking, including the birth and maturation of psychoanalytic theory, the refinement of its clinical technique and the proliferation of its adherents and critics.

Freud’s papers at the Library are part of a larger body of materials relating to psychoanalysis and the Freudian movement donated, beginning in 1952, by the Sigmund Freud Archives. A private organization of analysts in New York, the Sigmund Freud Archives was created to collect and preserve for scholarship the work of Freud and others in the field of psychoanalysis. Additional items were obtained through purchase, transfer, and gift or bequest of others, including Freud’s daughter, Anna Freud.

The collection reveals Freud’s life and work, including his early medical and clinical training; his relationship with family, friends, colleagues, students, and patients; his association with early psychoanalytic societies; his perspectives on analytical training; and his numerous writings. It contains family papers, correspondence, writings, legal documents and certificates, notebooks, and other materials of a personal nature encompassing his life and career. People of great prominence in 20th-century history are among the correspondents: Franz Werfel, Theodor Hertzl, Stefan Zweig, C.G. Jung, Thomas Mann, Albert Einstein, Havelock Ellis and Romain Rolland.

Most of the handwriting is in the so-called Gothic or Sütterlin script used by writers of German at the time. Interspersed with mostly original items are photocopies, facsimiles, transcripts, and English translations of some of the material. Also included are more than 300 interviews with Freud associates, patients and family members after his death conducted by K.R. Eissler, a director and founder of the Sigmund Freud Archives.

The Library of Congress is the premier research center for the study of Freud and his circle and some of its critics. Among the more than 100 related collections are the papers of Anna Freud and other Freud family members. Other collections include those of Karl Abraham, Siegfried Bernfeld, Marie Bonaparte, A.A. Brill, Wilhelm Fliess and Sergius Pankejeff, one of Freud’s best-known patients, identified in Freud’s writings as the “Wolf-Man.” Also available in the Library are the papers of therapists who differed or broke from Freud: C.G. Jung, Alfred Adler, Wilhelm Reich, Theodore Reik and Francis G. Wickes.

The Library’s Manuscript Division holds nearly 70 million items, including the papers of 23 U.S. presidents, from George Washington to Calvin Coolidge. For more information about the collections and holdings of the Manuscript Division, visit

The Library of Congress is the world’s largest library, offering access to the creative record of the United States—and extensive materials from around the world—both on site and online. It is the main research arm of the U.S. Congress and the home of the U.S. Copyright Office. Explore collections, reference services and other programs and plan a visit at, access the official site for U.S. federal legislative information at, and register creative works of authorship at

Stephen King Joins Library of Congress In Announcing Applications for the 2017 Literacy Awards

January 31, 2017

Washington, DC – Award-winning author and literacy advocate Stephen King helped the Library of Congress today launch its call for nominations for the 2017 Library of Congress Literacy Awards. The annual awards support organizations working to promote literacy, both in the United States and worldwide, and are made possible through the generosity of David M. Rubenstein, co-founder and co-CEO of The Carlyle Group.

No one person or group is going to move the needle alone,” King said in a video released through the Library’s social media channels. “But together, we can make a difference.  That is why I am joining the Library of Congress in supporting the thousands of organizations around the world that are working to promote literacy.”

According to UNESCO, 757 million adults around the world cannot read or write a simple sentence, and 61 million elementary-age children are not in school.

These awards, which were created and initiated by Rubenstein, encourage the continuing development of innovative methods for promoting literacy and the wide dissemination of the most effective practices. They are intended to draw public attention to the importance of literacy and the need to promote literacy and encourage reading.

The Library of Congress Literacy Awards program is administered by the Library’s Center for the Book. The Librarian of Congress will make final selection of the prizewinners with recommendations from literacy experts on an advisory board.

Three prizes will be awarded in 2017:

  • The David M. Rubenstein Prize ($150,000) is awarded for an outstanding and measurable contribution to increasing literacy levels, to an organization based either inside or outside the United States that has demonstrated exceptional and sustained depth in its commitment to the advancement of literacy.
    Last year’s Rubenstein prizewinner: WETA Reading Rockets
  • The American Prize ($50,000) is awarded for a significant and measurable contribution to increasing literacy levels, or the national awareness of the importance of literacy, to an organization that is based in the United States.
    Last year’s American prizewinner: Parent-Child Home Program
  • The International Prize ($50,000) is awarded for a significant and measurable contribution to increasing literacy levels, to an organization that is based outside the United States.
    Last year’s International prizewinner: Libraries Without Borders

The application rules and a downloadable application form may be accessed at

Applications must be received no later than midnight on March 31, 2017, Eastern Time.


There is More Than One Story To Be Told About Muslims in Trump’s America

By January 31, 2017

Let me tell you two stories that happened to two different people. Both concern religion in North America.

Register how you feel about each of them.

Story one: “Why are you not Christian?” a man asks you.

Story two: You wake up to find someone has left a Bible on your doorstep.

Which of these sounds more violent, more threatening to you? Or neither?

Now, imagine yourself a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf in a Western country and repeat the two stories to yourself again. How would you feel?

Now let me complete each story and give you some context.

Story one

“Why are you not Christian?” the man asked, kindly, in broken English.

“We believe in Jesus and the Bible,” I said, wanting to comfort him, “and we have a lot of Christians in Egypt where I come from.”

This happened to me in Houston, Texas around 2007 or 2008. The man was a plumber coming in to fix my sink. He found it difficult to express himself in English but seemed to care about saving my soul, however misguided that was.

It didn’t occur to me to be offended or afraid. This was a time when America was on the cusp of electing either a black president, a female president or at least a female vice president. Houston, despite what all my American friends had told me before I left Egypt, was not a generally racist place to live.

Half of the surgery fellows working with my husband at the Texas Heart Institute were Muslim. Some strangers said “Assalamu Alaikum” (peace be upon you) to me on the streets, or stopped me and my friends to comment on the beauty of our colourful headscarves.

Story two

You wake up to find someone has left a Bible on your doorstep. This happened to a friend in North America, soon after Donald Trump was elected president. She felt it was a threat or a subtle act of violence. She wondered how her neighbours would feel if she placed a Qur’an on their doorsteps.

When I heard my friend’s story, it got me thinking about the possible intentions of the person who placed that Bible on her doorstep.

I trust that my friend’s feeling of being threatened was real in that context. But I wondered if the story might have been different. What if the story had included a note inside the Bible, showing who had left it, or giving an invitation to exchange holy books?

What if the Bible on the doorstep had been the beginning of a dialogue rather than a way to scare someone away? And if the person who left the Bible on my friend’s doorstep didn’t have bad intentions, why didn’t they do it in person and look her in the eye?

What does a Bible on a doorstep mean?

Context and power

There are differences between story one and two, chief among them are context and power. The political context and who the actors are make a difference to the story. An elderly, Hispanic plumber fixing my sink? Not a threat to my 20-something self in Houston, accompanying my surgeon husband doing a fellowship at a prestigious nearby hospital.

Had I been asked the same question by a white man, in an angry voice, in another context, my reaction would probably have been very different.

I am telling this story in the era where we are lamenting the rise of fake news and exploring our roles as educators to respond to it, as if a technical solution to figuring out if something is a lie will fix our problems. It won’t. Because it’s not a technical problem.

Education and understanding

Donald Trump’s executive order banning people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US is not fake news. It’s real news. And as a community, we have to deal with it.

Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has said:

“Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, ‘secondly’. Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story”.

The media does this all the time. So do politicians – we see Donald Trump right now, talking about banning Iraqi refugees and immigrants from entering the US, without mentioning the role of his country in causing the instability that motivated the immigration in the first place.

Adichie also says:

“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story”.

In my view, the best way to ensure that we and our children see more than the stereotypical story about people who are different from us is to expose them and ourselves to multiple stories. The bare minimum is to expose ourselves to other cultures on their own terms.

So, for example, we don’t learn about Native Americans from Pocahontas or from Western films. We learn from Native Americans themselves. If we don’t have direct access to them (I live a long way away in Egypt), find them online. Read or listen or even, if you’re lucky, converse.

I know what you’re thinking. I’m Muslim, talking about Muslims in America. What brought this on? But in the midst of my concern over Muslims in America, I also noticed Trump’s presidential memo to advance approval of the Dakota Access Pipeline, I can see the injustice in this, and the irony: on the one hand, a “nation of immigrants” that is neither honouring immigrants, nor honouring the original residents of this land.

We will always have blind spots towards cultures that are unfamiliar to us. But the more deeply we establish understanding of the “other”, the more we try to empathise, with social justice as our underlying value, the more likely we are to become empathetic, critical, global citizens. As educators, we must expand and diversify the people in our in-groups, and help students do this too.

Education expert Sean Michael Morris, on the day of Trump’s inauguration, urged us to change the way we teach. He wrote:

“An education that convinces us of what needs to be known, what is important versus what is frivolous, is not an education. It’s training at best, conscription at worst. And all it prepares us to do is to believe what we’re told”.

This goes for parents and mentors as well as those of us in more formal teaching roles.

Building empathy

The best way not to believe what we’re told is not to go fact-checking each and every thing we hear. Instead, I propose we start building our ability to understand people who are different from us, in context, rather than relying on harmful stereotypes. To know them as individuals, as they would like to be known, not as some dominant power (or US president) has decided we shall know them.

This is not quick or simple. But it can allow us to form a view of the world that rises above deception and to see what’s important in our humanity. And it will change the way we vote. When we empathise with others, we imagine how our decisions can impact them.

Remember those two stories I mentioned earlier? Back in 2007 and 2008, I felt comfortable and safe praying in a mosque in Houston. Now, I would not, given the latest news of Islamophobic violence in mosques coming from North America, most recently the terrorist attack on a mosque in Quebec City that left six people dead.

My friend with the Bible on her doorstep, a dual citizen, was unable to attend a conference in the US a few days ago.

But that isn’t the biggest tragedy. The tragic stories are those of families torn apart by this executive order. Parents who cannot reach their children. What we need now, more than ever, is empathy.

The Conversation

Maha Bali, Associate Professor of Practice, Center for Learning and Teaching, American University in Cairo

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article

Major “People’s Climate March” Being Organized For April 29, 2017 In Washington D.C

January 25, 2017

WASHINGTON, DC In the wake of last weekend’s Women’s Marches, activists have announced a major “People’s Climate March” on April 29th, 2017  in Washington, D.C. and across the country. The effort is being organized by the coalition formed out of 2014’s People’s Climate March, which brought over 400,000 people to the streets of New York City and many more around the world.

The April 29th march comes in response to widespread outrage against President Trump’s disastrous anti-climate agenda – including his executive orders yesterday advancing the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines – as well as his attacks on healthcare, immigrants, and programs and policies that improve the lives of all Americans. The event will cap off 100 days of action to fight Trump’s proposals to reverse climate action, dismantle our government and hand power over to the one percent.

Mike Tidwell, Director, Chesapeake Climate Action Network: ” Trump made clear that he is putting pipelines over people. We want to make clear: We will never stop fighting. In Trump’s first 100 days of office, we will continue mobilizing a historic movement to protect our water, our climate, and our communities.”

Over 145 protests in local communities took place across the country in the first 100 hours of the Trump presidency, demonstrating widespread opposition to the administration’s anti-environment and corporate agenda as part of an ongoing campaign organized by the People’s Climate Movement.

The People’s Climate Movement grew out of the largest climate march in U.S. history in New York in September of 2014, creating a groundbreaking coalition of green and environmental justice groups, labor unions, faith, students, indigenous peoples and civil rights groups working to advance a climate agenda rooted in economic and racial justice.

With the 100 days of action and April march, this coalition will leverage their power once again, to resist the Trump administration and corporate leaders’ efforts to thwart or reverse progress towards a more just America.

Now more than ever, it will take everyone to change everything. So, the People’s Climate Movement is calling on everyone to join in resisting Trump, his crooked administration and the one percent who are running our country.

Learn more at: People’s Climate Change

What Shaped Martin Luther King Jr’s Prophetic Vision?

Kenyatta R. Gilbert, Howard University

The name Martin Luther King Jr. is iconic in the United States. The outgoing 44th president, Barack Obama, spoke of King in both his Democratic National Convention nomination acceptance and victory speeches in 2008:

“[King] brought Americans from every corner of this land to stand together on a Mall in Washington, before Lincoln’s Memorial…to speak of his dream.”

Indeed, much of King’s legacy lives on in such arresting oral performances. They made him a global figure.

King’s preaching used the power of language to interpret the gospel in the context of black misery and Christian hope. He directed people to life-giving resources and spoke provocatively of a present and active divine interventionist who summons preachers to name reality in places where pain, oppression and neglect abound.

In other words, King used a prophetic voice in his preaching – the hopeful voice that begins in prayer and attends to human tragedy. Indeed, the best of African-American preaching is three-dimensional – it is priestly, it is sage, it is prophetic.

So what led to the rise of the black preacher and shaped King’s prophetic voice?

In my book, “The Journey and Promise of African American Preaching,” I discuss the historical formation of the black preacher. My work on African-American prophetic preaching shows that King’s clarion calls for justice were offspring of earlier prophetic preaching that flowered as a consequence of the racism in the U.S.

From slavery to the Great Migration

First, let’s look at some of the social, cultural and political challenges that gave birth to the black religious leader, specifically those who assumed political roles with the community’s blessing and beyond the church proper.

In slave society, black preachers played an important role in the community: they acted as seers interpreting the significance of events; as pastors calling for unity and solidarity; and as messianic figures provoking the first stirrings of resentment against oppressors.

The religious revivalism or the Great Awakening of the 18th century brought to America a Bible-centered brand of Christianity – evangelicalism – that dominated the religious landscape by the early 19th century. Evangelicals emphasized a “personal relationship” with God through Jesus Christ.

This new movement made Christianity more accessible, livelier, without overtaxing educational demands. Africans converted to Christianity in large numbers during the revivals and most became Baptists and Methodists. With fewer educational restrictions placed on them, black preachers emerged in the period as preachers and teachers, despite their slave status.

Africans viewed the revivals as a way to reclaim some of the remnants of African culture in a strange new world. They incorporated and adopted religious symbols into a new cultural system with relative ease.

Rise of the black cleric-politician

Despite the development of black preachers and the significant social and religious advancements of blacks during this period of revival, Reconstruction – the process of rebuilding the South soon after the Civil War – posed numerous challenges for white slaveholders who resented the political advancement of newly freed Africans.

As independent black churches proliferated in Reconstruction America, black ministers preached to their own. Some became bivocational. It was not out of the norm to find pastors who led congregations on Sunday and held jobs as school teachers and administrators during the work week.

Others held important political positions. Altogether, 16 African-Americans served in the U.S. Congress during Reconstruction. For example, South Carolina’s House of Representatives’ Richard Harvey Cain, who attended Wilberforce University, the first private black American university, served in the 43rd and 45th Congresses and as pastor of a series of African Methodist churches.

Others, such as former slave and Methodist minister and educator Hiram Rhoades Revels and Henry McNeal Turner, shared similar profiles. Revels was a preacher who became America’s first African-American senator. Turner was appointed chaplain in the Union Army by President Abraham Lincoln.

To address the myriad problems and concerns of blacks in this era, black preachers discovered that congregations expected them not only to guide worship but also to be the community’s lead informant in the public square.

The cradle of King’s political and spiritual heritage

Many other events converged as well impacting black life that would later influence King’s prophetic vision: President Woodrow Wilson declared entrance into World War I in 1914; as “boll weevils” ravaged crops in 1916 there was widespread agricultural depression ; and then there was the rise of Jim Crow laws that were to legally enforce racial segregation until 1965.

Such tide-swelling events, in multiplier effect, ushered in the largest internal movement of people on American soil, the Great “Black” Migration. Between 1916 and 1918, an average of 500 southern migrants a day departed the South. More than 1.5 million relocated to northern communities between 1916 and 1940.

The immense suffering brought on by the Great Migration and the racial hatred they had escaped drove many clergy to reflect more deeply on the meaning of freedom and oppression. Black preachers refused to believe that the Christian gospel and discrimination were compatible.A watershed, the Great Migration brought about contrasting expectations concerning the mission and identity of the African-American church. The infrastructure of Northern black churches were unprepared to deal with the migration’s distressing effects. Its suddenness and size overwhelmed preexisting operations.

However, black preachers seldom modified their preaching strategies. Rather than establishing centers for black self-improvement (e.g., job training, home economics classes and libraries), nearly all southern preachers who came North continued to offer priestly sermons that exalted the virtues of humility, good will and patience, as they had in the South.

Setting the prophetic tradition

Three clergy outliers – one a woman – initiated change. These three pastors were particularly inventive in the way they approached their preaching task.

Baptist pastor Adam C. Powell Sr., the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AMEZ) pastor Florence S. Randolph and the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) bishop Reverdy C. Ransom spoke to human tragedy, both in and out of the black church. They brought a distinctive form of prophetic preaching that united spiritual transformation with social reform and confronted black dehumanization.

Bishop Ransom’s discontentment arose while preaching to Chicago’s “silk-stocking church” Bethel A.M.E. – the elite church – which had no desire to welcome the poor and jobless masses that came to the North. He left and began the Institutional Church and Social Settlement, which combined worship and social services.

Randolph and Powell synthesized their roles as preachers and social reformers. Randolph brought into her prophetic vision her tasks as preacher, missionary, organizer, suffragist and pastor. Powell became pastor at the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. In that role, he led the congregation to establish a community house and nursing home to meet the political, religious and social needs of blacks.

A March 9, 1965 file photo of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama. King learned from these progressive black preachers who came before him.
AP Photo, File

Shaping of King’s vision

The preaching tradition that these early clergy fashioned would have profound impact on King’s moral and ethical vision. They linked the vision of Jesus Christ as stated in the Bible of bringing good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind and proclaiming liberty to the captives, with the Hebrew prophet’s mandate of speaking truth to power.

Similar to how they responded to the complex challenges brought on by the Great Migration of the early 20th century, King brought prophetic interpretation to brutal racism, Jim Crow segregation and poverty in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Indeed, King’s prophetic vision ultimately invited his martyrdom. But through the prophetic preaching tradition already well established by his time, King brought people of every tribe, class and creed closer toward forming “God’s beloved community” – an anchor of love and hope for humankind.

The Conversation

Kenyatta R. Gilbert, Associate Professor of Homiletics, Howard University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Plight of Christians in Pakistan

Breathing Without living: the plight of Christians in Pakistan

The nativity scene, organised and prepared by Christians in Peshawar just before Christmas. Photo: A. Khan


Altaf Khan, University of Peshawar

“The year 2017 will be one of peace and love,” Naheed Naz told me. “There is nothing in the scriptures about it, but Jesus puts feelings in your heart about what is going to happen. It is a matter of faith and we believe in it.”

I met Naz, in her 40s, and a nursing teacher with a Masters degree in Public Health, at the All Saints Church in the heart of Peshawar’s old city. She sounded optimistic despite the last days of 2016 bringing more turmoil in Pakistan for Christians.

Christmas messages were received with death threats and a Christian man was arrested on December 30 for allegedly desecrating the Koran. He currently faces the death penalty.

I could feel this tense atmosphere as I approached the All Saints Church on Christmas Day. The 19th-century building of Islamic Saracenic style reflecting in the brilliantly sunny day outside.

As I entered the church’s hall, the faithful were taking seats in anticipation of the Christmas mass. I had to come in through heavy security. The street where the church stands was blocked at both ends by sand barriers and guarded by security personal. On 22 September 2013, a twin suicide bomb attack during a Sunday mass at the church killed 127 people.

I asked Naz how the Christmas of her childhood differed from now. She recounted memories of her childhood and her sister’s: the letter to Santa, her mother and father who used to make their life loving and rich, and the moral values of love and peace Christmas used to bring. Naz lost her mother in the 2013 bombing.

A little later, as I sat in the church, I met Shafi Maseeh, 75, who also lost his son in the same terror attack. He had little to say. Shafi is the real prototype of a Christian in Pakistan. A janitor by trade, he had no good memories to share of anything.

Most Christians I talked to felt a loss of identity, isolation and a deep sense of alienation. There was no nostalgia for the past, nor any enthusiasm for the present.

In the All Saints Church, I was not alone at the Christmas ceremony. The local media had come too. Father Patrick Naeem was happy to see them and thanked the government, the media and the chief of the Pakistani army, while also asking journalists to respect the parishioners as they took photos of the ceremony.

One reporter asked me what I was doing there. When I told her I was going to do a story on Christmas and would like to interview her too she angrily replied, “I am not a Christian, do I look like one?” I was shocked for a moment. “There is nothing wrong with being a Christian,” I said.

Another reporter warned me as I was leaving the place: “Be careful, liberals are on the hitlist.” I just kept quiet.

Pakistan’s Christian minority

There is no definitive figure, but Christians make up roughly 1.6% of the population of Pakistan, as many as Hindus, according to the latest official statistics.

Christians mostly converted from Hinduism to escape the caste-dominated Indian society before the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. But changing religion didn’t help: the roots of discrimination based on caste run deep in both Indian and Pakistani society.

The Christmas ceremony is an event on its own as media gathered to film.
A. Khan

The plight of Christians has persisted for decades, but there has also been a rise of hatred against Christians since the late 1980s, when the dictator Zia ul Haq introduced Pakistan’s blasphemy law, particularly used to persecute Christians.

A double oppression

Pakistani society is still marred by racism and questions of caste, even among Muslims, despite the Qur’an setting out radical equality for all.

Across South Asia, Muslims remain divided up by various hierarchical systems. This long trail of caste-related injustice goes back to the beginnings of subcontinental societies and seems impervious to the intrusion of other sources of identity such as the nation state or religion.

So the Christian community reels under a double oppression of racism, based on the low castes many Christians come from, and religious intolerance towards their belief system.

But even among minorities, Christians are particularly singled out, for a number of reasons. They are visible: they live mostly in urban areas and are often employed in low-wage jobs. They are also the poorest of the community.

In December 2015, the Capital Development Authority of Islamabad submitted a report suggesting that the Christian “ugly slums” of the capital be destroyed to keep the city clean. The CDA, in this unprecedentedly stupid move (“their Trump Moment” as the English daily Dawn put it), argued that the campaign of destruction would preserve Islamabad’s aesthetics and maintain its Muslim-majority demographic balance.

The proposal was rightly contested by political parties, activists, and NGOs and thwarted by the Supreme Court, but it was a worrying sign of just how poorly Christians are thought of by the Pakistani elite.

Adding insult to injury, Christians in Pakistan are also seen as representatives of the US and other Western powers who are often held to be responsible for the plight of Muslims around the globe.

Christianity in politics

The plight of Christians is linked to the political foundation of Pakistan and the much criticised Two Nation Theory which became the basis of Partition in 1947. Partition aimed to create a state for Hindus (India) and one for Muslims (Pakistan).

Christians are historically considered to have positively contributed to Pakistani statehood, thus helping the development of the Pakistani society, but today they, along with other non-Muslims, are forbidden from holding high office.

The Christian vote in Pakistan is around 1.3 million, second to the Hindu vote, which is around 1.5 million. While the Hindu vote is mostly concentrated in the Sindh and Punjab regions, Christian voters are more scattered. Since the minority vote is restricted to a few electorates, political parties are not generally interested in serving them, though there is a lot of lip service to minority issues.

Minority representatives protest the problem of segregation from mainstream politics. There is no doubt that the electoral system adds to the problems of already frustrated minority communities in Pakistan. Minorities don’t have the right to place their own candidates in elections. They can vote for any Muslim candidate in their constituency from within the general seats, and they also have the right to vote for a minority candidate, but they don’t have the right to choose these. They are instead given minority seats for which tickets are allotted by mainstream political parties.

Fractured communities

While talking to various Christians, I observed very little sense of community. All identity revolves around the personal and in Pakistan, that is steeped into the psychology of status.

Christians in Pakistan are faced with both victim-blaming from without and the self-loathing it generates within the individual.

Continuous repression as a community within social and political life in Pakistan has led some to blame themselves for their problems. Self-incrimination, a shallow sense of belonging to the mainstream and the loss of the social self were often apparent in my conversations for this article.

“Our people are not serious about their studies; they don’t save money,” a priest who works as a waiter at my university’s student accommodation told me. “I do save, though I am usually in debt, while keeping my needs to the minimum.” When I asked if it is because of the loss of hope that some Christians struggle in school and work, he replied, “No, I have made it from a janitor to a waiter. My boys are going to school. Isn’t it an environment conducive to success?”

Living with contradiction

Christians are often the recipient of local charities. “Yes, we like them, because they grew up with us,” a high-level political activist in Peshawar told me. “They clean our homes and we give them our used clothes, and also food. They are good people. We also offer them gifts on Christmas. We just did this year, too.” The activist was also a trader in the market in front of the All Saints Church.

Christians often feel the same way. “The political parties don’t care for us,” the priest at Peshawar University said. “Some politicians do, though. They offer us gifts on Christmas. I also got my package. They change the carpets of our church every now and then. This is good.”

In the present environment of hopelessness and fear, the only option left for Christians is to learn to live with Pakistan’s deep contradictions – discrimination from the state, but charity from politicians.

Centuries of continuous repression have left many without any sense of identity within their home country. Many Christians here just want to breathe – being able to truly live is a distant dream.

The Conversation

Altaf Khan, Professor, University of Peshawar

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

What’s Missing in The Teaching of Islam


Kishwar Rizvi, Yale University

There has been much misinformation about Islam. Reports in Western media tend to perpetuate stereotypes that Islam is a violent religion and Muslim women are oppressed. Popular films like “American Sniper” reduce places like Iraq to dusty war zones, devoid of any culture or history. Fears and anxiety manifest themselves in Islamophobic actions such as burning mosques or even attacking people physically.

At the heart of such fear is ignorance. A December 2015 poll found that a majority of Americans (52 percent) do not understand Islam. In this same poll, 36 percent also said that they wanted to know more about the religion. Interestingly, those under 30 years were 46 percent more likely to have a favorable view of Islam.

These statistics highlight an opportunity for educators. As a scholar of Islamic art and architecture, I am aware that for the past 20 years, educators have been trying to improve the teaching of Islam – both in high school and college history courses.

The problem, however, is that the teaching of Islam has been limited to its religious practice. Its impact on the arts and culture, particularly in the United States, is seldom discussed.

What teaching of Islam misses

In high school history books, there is little mention of the intertwined histories of Europe, Asia and Africa in the middle ages and the Renaissance. There is even less mention of the flowering of art, literature and architecture during this time.

In a world history textbook for New York public high schools, for example, the “Muslim World,” appears in the 10th chapter. In condensing a thousand years of history – from the seventh to the 17th century – it focuses only on “Arab armies” and the rise of early modern Muslim empires.

Palatine Chapel borrowed from the art of the Fatimids.
Al-dabra, CC BY-NC-ND

Such narrow focus misses out on the cultural exchanges during this period. For example, in medieval Spain, the Troubadour poets borrowed their lyrical beauty from Arabic. Arabic was the courtly language of southern Spain until the 15th century. Similarly, the 12th-century Palatine Chapel in Sicily was painted and gilded in the imperial style of the Fatimids, the rulers of Egypt between the 10th and 12th centuries.

Such exchanges were common, thanks to the mobility of people as well as ideas.

The point is that the story of Islam cannot be told without a deeper understanding of its cultural history: Even for early Muslim rulers, it was the Byzantine empire, the Roman empire and the Sassanian empire (the pre-Islamic Persian empire) that provided models. Such overlaps continued over the centuries, resulting in heterodox and cosmopolitan societies.

The term “Middle East” – coined in the 19th century – fails to describe the complex social and cultural mosaic or religions that have existed in the region most closely associated with Islam – and continue to do so today.

How the arts can explain important connections

So, what should educators do to improve this literacy?

From my perspective, a fuller picture could be painted if identities were not to be solely defined through religion. That is, educators could focus on the cross-cultural exchanges that occurred across boundaries through poets and artists, musicians and architects. Both in high school and university, the arts – visual, musical and literary – could illustrate the important connections between Islam and other world histories.

For example, a class on the Renaissance could explain how the 15th-century Italian painter Gentile Bellini gained famed at the court of Mehmet II, the conqueror of Istanbul. Mehmet II commissioned Bellini to design an imperial portrait that was sent to rulers throughout Europe. His art presents a wonderful example of the artistic exchanges that took place between early modern cities such as Delhi, Istanbul, Venice and Amsterdam.

It might also help students to know that the Dutch painter Rembrandt collected Mughal miniature paintings. Silks from the Safavid empire (the Iranian dynasty from the 16th to 18th century) were so popular that Polish kings had their coat of arms woven in Isfahan.

This exchange of art continued into the Age of Enlightenment, a time when ideas around politics, philosophy, science and communications were rapidly being reoriented in Europe. A class on the Enlightenment may highlight the fact that writers like Montesquieu turned to the Middle East to structure a critique of their own religious institutions.

Goethe found inspiration in Persian poetry.
kaythaney, CC BY-NC

A poetry class could similarly show connections between the German author Wolfgang von Goethe’s writings and Islam, as exemplified in his “West-Eastern Diwaan,” a collection of poems. This epitome of world literature was modeled after classical Persian poetry in its style, and inspired by Sufism, the mystical tradition in Islam.

Most students are open to seeing these connections, even if it might require overcoming their own preconceptions about Islam. For example, when I teach my class on medieval architecture, students are surprised to learn that the two oldest continuously run universities in the world are in North Africa (in Fez – a city in Morocco – and Cairo).

Indeed, it is not easy to disentangle contemporary politics from historical fact, to teach more fully the culture and diversity of a religion that is almost 2,000 years old.

Perhaps educators could learn from a recent exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York titled “Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven.” The show illustrates how Abrahamic religions – that is, Christianity, Judaism and Islam – borrowed freely from each other in the realm of art, music and literature. Jerusalem was home to diverse populations and the arts played an important role within its religious and political life.

Muslims in America

It’s not in the past alone. We see these connections continue today – here in America, where Islam is an intrinsic part of the culture and has been for centuries.

From the Mississippi delta to the Chicago skyline, Muslims have made contributions, which might not be so obvious: West African slaves in the South were central to the development of the blues. Its complex vocalization and rhythms incorporated the rituals of Islamic devotion many of them had to leave behind.

The same is true of architecture. A quintessential example of modern American architecture is the Sears Tower in Chicago, which was designed by the Bangladeshi-American structural engineer Fazlur Rahman Khan.

Muslim contributions to art and architecture don’t just reflect the diversity of America, but the diversity of Islam in this country. Muslims in America comprise a rich tapestry of ethnicities, languages and cultures. This knowledge is particularly meaningful for young Muslim Americans, who struggle to claim their place in a country in which they are sometimes made to feel like outsiders.

Educators, especially within the arts and humanities, have an important role to play in this religious literacy, that helps students understand the unity in the diversity. After all, as the most popular poet in America, the 13th-century Muslim mystic Rumi wrote:

All religions, all this singing, one song.
The differences are just illusion and vanity.

The Conversation

Kishwar Rizvi, Associate Professor in the History of Art Islamic Art and Architecture, Yale University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original articl