It’s once again that time of year when I don’t know whether to say it’s pumpkin season or Jack-o-Lantern season.
It all has to do with this Christian dichotomy of how we regard Halloween. Is it a nationwide glorification of all things wicked, sinful, and abominable? Or is it merely a cultural ritual that celebrates the adrenaline rush of being scared, touts the fun of dressing up like something we’re not, and grants us permission to eat high-calorie sweets without guilt?
We can answer the question of what Halloween was by studying its origins. One of the world’s oldest holidays, it started with the Celtic festival Samhain (pronounced sow-in) that marked the end of summer. Believing the spirits of the dead would return, Celts lit bonfires, wore disguises and offered animal sacrifices to their deities to ward off ghosts. From that information, courtesy of the History Channel, we can imagine the evil celebrations that likely evolved as part of these practices.
But does that presumed celebration continue when we allow our kids to dress up and go door-to-door asking neighborly strangers for sweet treats? Are we acting as agents of the devil by donning our costumes for the various parties we’ll go to this weekend and Monday, likely with church worship services in between?
I would argue that the majority of people who plan to participate in the candy trade, costume parties, and perhaps mass readings of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark will not consider themselves celebrators of all things wicked.
Instead, it seems as if a sizable handful of Christians have created something else, devoid of any representation of questionable origins, for the sake of fellowship over bite-sized candy instead of bread. Quite honestly, the only evil I see in candy corn and other delectable features of the holiday, is the sugar content — and maybe the fact that isn’t sold in abundance year-round.
At the same time, I don’t deny the validity in the argument of those who vehemently denounce everything related to Halloween, including the motivation to make money. That’s likely what has made the holiday the hullabaloo it has become. Some interpretations of Halloween do, in fact, include Ouija boards, séances, and satanic rituals. I’m willing to bet, though, that people who practice that side of Halloween “fun” don’t need a holiday for that.
As an alternative to all that is demonic and unholy about Halloween, many churches opt to have a “Hallelujah Night,” where people still collect candy and play dress up — just in the form of biblical characters.
I attended several of those in my younger days. One year, it took me a while to figure out why one first lady came dressed like Barney. Turns out she was actually dressed as Lydia, the lady who sold — and apparently wore — purple. I was obviously less studied then, so she wasn’t the only one who threw me for a loop. The presumed Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz turned out to be the Lion of Judah. I never dressed up, but I often wondered whether my preferred costumes would’ve disqualified me from the festivities. After all, one kid wearing a sheet over his head and a cross around his neck had trouble at the door. The irony that the Holy Ghost almost couldn’t get into the church on Hallelujah Night wasn’t lost on me.
What if I had dressed as Saul’s buddy, the witch of Endor? That’s a biblical character. Or suppose I’d shown up with a platter fixed around my neck, serving up John the Baptist? (Yes, decapitation happened in The Omen and Friday the 13th movies, but it happened first in the Bible.)
The main thing that I didn’t understand then and struggle with now is telling the difference between Halloween as commonly practiced and its church-led alternatives. Candy? Check. Games and dressing up? Check. How do we know which is which, and is there a real difference beyond what we say it is?
I don’t have an answer and likely won’t anytime soon, but I guarantee you I’ll be having some candy corn in the meantime.
Kenya, in red, located in eastern Africa. Map courtesy of Creative Commons
NAIROBI, Kenya (RNS) — Some churches in Kenya have barred politicians from addressing their congregations, saying campaigning during services disrespects the sanctity of worship.
The national Anglican, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic churches have all issued bans, as many of the politicians begin early stumping for next year’s general elections. The Methodist Church, however, is keeping the church doors open for all.
The Rev. Joseph Ntombura, presiding bishop of the Methodist Church in Kenya, has said his church is not dissenting from the effort but is taking a different approach. The bishop said shutting the doors to politicians would mean discriminating against some of its members.
“The church is for all people,” Ntombura told Religion News Service in a telephone interview. “Human beings are political, so there is nothing wrong with inviting the politicians in church.”
According to the bishop, congregations need to hear the views of politicians on issues of national interest, such as the sharing of resources. In the past, Ntombura said, the church has invited other experts to speak to congregations on important matters, and politicians are no different.
“Some of the politicians are our pastors,” said Ntombura.
The Rev. Joseph Ntombura, with microphone, presiding Bishop of the Methodist Church in Kenya, prays over former Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero, left, in Nov. 2015. RNS photo by Fredrick Nzwili
Kenya is about 85% Christian. About 33% of that group are Protestants and 20.6% are Catholic. The rest belong to evangelical, Pentecostal and African denominations. Muslims make up 11% of the population.
In issuing the bans on politicking in church, denominations have said they feared that church services would become campaign rallies and that candidates would use language bordering on hate speech in an attempt to win votes or sway the views of congregations. In the past, politicians hijacked church services to sell their agendas or criticize their opponents. Some have appeared in the churches with huge sums of money as offerings or as funds for church projects.
The no-politicking effort gained momentum this month when Archbishop Jackson Ole Sapit, the Anglican primate of Kenya, announced his church’s ban.
“Everyone is welcome in the churches, but we have the pews and the pulpit,” said Ole Sapit on Sept. 12, during the ordination of Kenya’s first Anglican woman bishop. “The pulpit is for the clergy and the pews for everyone who comes to worship.”
On Sept. 15, the Roman Catholic bishops said their places of worship and liturgy were sacred and were not political arenas. They urged politicians to attend Mass just like any other worshippers.
Analysts say the churches are seeking to reclaim their position as “honest arbitrators” in a country where elections often generate violent conflicts.
The most deadly came in December 2007 and January 2008, when two months of ethnic fighting left at least 1,000 people dead and more than 600,000 displaced from their homes. Among them, 30 people, mainly ethnic Kikuyu, Kenya’s largest tribe, were burnt alive in an Assemblies of God church in Kiambaa Village in Eldoret.
Henry Njagi, program and information manager at the National Council of Churches of Kenya, said resistance to church guidelines on political speech risks a repeat of the events of 2008.
“When things went wrong, they turned around and accused the church of being silent and abandoning Kenyans,” said Njagi. “So right now is a call on political actors, aspirants and other stakeholders to listen to the church … and stop toxic politicking.”
Though the politicians have not been as present at mosques, Muslim leaders say they are supporting the ban on toxic politicking in the churches.
“I support the Christian leaders. Such a ban is long overdue,” said Sheikh Hassan Ole Naado, national chairman of the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims.
He added that Muslims were not facing the issue at the moment.
“When you go to a place of worship, you know what you are supposed to do. They are taking advantage of people who are gathered for worship. It should not happen in the first place,” said Ole Naado.
RIDING THE THIRD RAIL: Rev. Jesse Jackson says politics isn’t enough.
With one day left until the election, the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll has the presidential candidates “deadlocked.” But no matter who wins, Christians must stay engaged in the political process, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said last week at Columbia University. Our faith demands it.
Hearkening back to his own historic 1988 presidential run and to his work during the civil rights movement, Jackson said, “Change comes from the third rail. … We must discuss what was not discussed on the agenda, and that means we must not be so co-opted by politics … or so absorbed by it to lose the distinction.” In fact, President Obama was a student at Columbia when Jackson debated Water Mondale and Gary Hart, Jackson said, and Obama concluded from the debate that a black man could become president.
“Part of our movement has been to raise the issues not raised,” he said. “Those are issues of the inconvenient, issues of conscience.” Difficult questions have made past presidents better, Jackson explained, and if this president is reelected, as Jackson hopes, supporters must not “let him down” by failing to raise “the right questions of conscience so as to give him the right options from which to make choices.”
Asked what role spirituality can play in politics, Jackson said,“You can be spiritual but have no moral mandate and substance. … Those of us who are Christians have a leader who is spiritual with a concrete agenda.” That agenda is to love the Lord our God and treat our neighbors as ourselves, he said. ‘The Spirit gives a mandate to do something, … It means feed the hungry. It means care for those whose backs are against the wall. You can be spiritual and not do anything. You cannot be a Christian without doing that.”
Jesus was born under death warrant from a regime that was trying to stop the rise of leadership in an “occupied zone,” Jackson said. His mission was not about the middle class, but about preaching the good news to the poor and challenging religious complicity with Rome and its oppressive tendencies. “Our morality is measured by how we treat not the middle of these, but the least of these,” Jackson said. “I was hungry and you fed me, not I was not hungry and you gave me a vacation.”
Jackson complained that when the moderator of the vice presidential debate asked candidates Joe Biden and Paul Ryan how their shared Catholic faith informs their positions on abortion, both men gave political answers to a religious question. “They gave an American answer to a Christianity question and the moderator accepted it and didn’t delve deeper,” Jackson said.
Likewise, concern for Obama’s reelection has meant that some questions of conscience that could lead to his greatness are not being raised by his supporters, Jackson said. Questions must be disciplined, not hostile, though, if they are to be heard. “To me, that is the progressive tension,” he said. “How do we raise the right questions to our friends?”
What do you think?
If your candidate wins, will you keep riding the third rail?
Last summer, when UrbanFaith talked to New Orleans pastor Rev. Fred Luter, he had just been elected to the first vice presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention. No other African American has ever risen as high as Luter in SBC leadership. Now Luter tells NPR that if he is elected to the presidency this year (he announced his intention to run in January), it will send a message that the denomination is serious about its efforts to diversify. “It will say something to the country and to the world that the Southern Baptist Convention is not just talking this thing, we’re actually walking this thing,” said Luter.
SBC Wants to Hear From Black/Hispanic Churches
Luter’s rise coincides with other SBC diversity efforts. The denomination has also created a three-year African American Advisory Council “to communicate the perspectives of black churches and their leaders to Southern Baptist Convention entity leaders” and a Hispanic Advisory Council “held its inaugural meeting in early February in Fort Worth, Texas,” with other “ethnically-oriented advisory groups” possibly coming in the future, Baptist Press reported.
McKissic Says More Black Leaders Needed
The Rev. Dwight McKissic, pastor of Cornerstone Church in Arlington, Texas, first suggested Luter for the presidency in 2010, according to Associated Baptist Press. ABP quoted McKissic as saying on his blog that he didn’t believe “any serious additions of black churches joining the SBC” would be forthcoming until there are “at least two-to-three minority entity heads.” ABP also noted that “McKissic has spoken widely about his experience visiting the SBC headquarters in Nashville in 2007, when he asked to meet the highest ranking African American there and was informed it was the head custodian.”
Moody Publishers Increases Offerings for People of Color
As UrbanFaith previously reported, the SBC isn’t the only majority white denomination that is actively pursuing racial and ethnic diversity. Now, at least one Christian publisher is following this trend. Moody Publishers has announced that it “plans to develop products for urban communities by expanding its offerings for African-Americans, Latinos and urban influencers,” Christian Retailing reported. This effort is part of a restructuring that strengthens its collaborations with the radio and education ministries of Moody Bible Institute and its new “across the globe, cultures and generations” vision, according to CR.
“Brother White” Preaches Church Integration Message
Racial reconciliation seems to be a growing trend in Christian entertainment as well. Now comes “Brother White,” a television movie that tells the story of a white Southern California mega-church pastor’s awkward efforts to fit in at a small black church in inner-city Atlanta after he accepts a position there as senior pastor. “Evening Shade” alum David A.R. White stars in the film, “Sister, Sister” and “227” star Jackée Harry plays the church’s former first lady, and gospel music artist BeBe Winans guest stars as himself. Eurweb.com reports that Harry told a group of television critics her work in the film is some of the best she’s done “in a long time.” “Brother White” airs tonight at 9 p.m. EST on GMC.
What do you think?
Is pursuing ethnic and racial diversity a hot new trend or the only logical response to demographic realities?
FROM SPRING TO FALL: Egypt's Coptic Christians hold crosses during an October protest in Cairo following the destruction of a church in the southern province of Aswan. (Photo: Newscom)
As 2011 winds to a close, it’s clear that it has been a year of historic social upheaval around the globe. TIME magazine even chose “The Protester” as its annual “Person of the Year.” And the protests have sprung in diverse places — Great Britain, Russia, and even on Wall Street. But the most dramatic of all 2011 revolts took place in the Middle East and Northern Africa, as ordinary people who once submissively accepted their plights as second-class citizens rose up to confront the oppression of their governments, and in some cases to actually topple once seemingly indomitable regimes. As some have observed, it wasn’t a good year for dictators.
We now call those uprisings the “Arab Spring,” and marvel at how much change has transpired in such a short period of time. But despite the remarkable transformations, some say the revolutionary spring morphed into a bloody summer and now an uncertain winter.
To help put the year’s event’s into perspective, UrbanFaith asked Middle East scholar Kurt Werthmuller to break it down from his perspective. Werthmuller, who previously spoke to us back in March, is a research fellow in religion at the Hudson Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C. He was formerly a professor of history at Azusa Pacific University. Dr. Werthmuller responded to our questions via email.
URBAN FAITH: Please talk about the origins of the “Arab Spring” and where it is today. How do you view the evolution of the movement?
KURT WERTHMULLER: As commonplace as it is to discuss the Arab Spring as a single movement, it’s important to consider it first and foremost as a series of domestic movements, each one inspired by other uprisings in the region rather than directly connected to them. In other words, the main concerns of those involved in uprisings against their governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, etc. have really been about local concerns rather than regional ones.
Having said that, the euphoria of January and February has long since passed, and the big picture has become one of a series of socio-political — and in some places military — rebellions with very different trajectories. I’ll comment more on individual countries in a minute, but I will readily admit upfront that my optimism has steadily diminished over the months since I last talked to you. While citizens of Arab countries deserve the same political and personal freedoms that most people in the West enjoy, it is clear that the pursuit of those freedoms in the course of the Arab Spring has also brought along some harsh consequences and troubling implications.
What are some of the “troubling implications,” as you see them?
FALLOUT FROM THE REVOLUTION: An Egyptian Coptic priest recites a prayer next to the coffin of a victim of clashes between Egyptian Copts and military forces in October. (Photo: Moahmed Omar/Newscom)
The big story of the late fall was the emergence of Islamist movements as the primary political beneficiaries of the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. In Tunisia, the Nahda (Renaissance) Party took the lead in that country’s government following a free and open election in October; the party has been quick to assuage domestic and international fears as to whether it will seek to implement conservative forms of sharia (Islamic law), but the truth is that no one will really know what this will mean until the process of actual governance moves into full swing. In Libya, the head of the National Transitional Council that successfully overthrew Qadhafi’s rule announced in late October, within days of the dictator’s capture and death, that their country would be governed by principles of sharia as well. He then immediately proceeded to announce plans to restore legal polygamy, which was banned under Qadhafi’s rule, and to institute specifically Islamic principles in the national banking industry.
Suffice it to say, at this point, as democratic initiatives have brought participatory governance to the region, the results of these initiatives are clearly reflecting the reality that Islamist parties — of a broad spectrum, to be certain, but religious conservatives nonetheless — have amassed far more legitimacy and popularity on the ground than have any liberal, secular, or other groups.
Egypt, of course, was the big success story during the initial uprisings. That country placed its former president on trial in what some viewed as a very chaotic approach to justice. And, of course, the conflict between Christian protesters and the military made headlines back in the fall. Can there be a happy ending to this story?
The democratic process has certainly had its first victories in Tunisia and Egypt, but they have been disheartening ones. I’m writing these responses shortly after the results of the first of three rounds of Egyptian parliamentary elections were made official, and Islamists of various sorts have thundered into a majority. [Editor’s Note: Second-round results were reported in early December.] The Muslim Brotherhood’s new Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and its partners reached around 48 percent of the contested parliamentary seats, a result of their stellar campaign season over the last few months, and I readily admit that I deeply underestimated earlier in the year. They were working the streets, making friends, feeding poor families, and selling their political platform while most of the liberal groups failed to resonate with much of the Egyptian public at large. The Nour Party and its Salafi partners (the real hardcore fundamentalists of the bunch) won around 20 percent, while the main liberal coalition, the Egyptian Bloc, won 13 percent; this is just over half of the Salafi seats — a massive defeat for those who were optimistic regarding the chances of liberal parties to do well in this first round.
But isn’t this a good thing — the democratic process in action?
The truth is that we don’t know what an Islamist-dominated Egyptian parliament will mean, and we won’t truly know until, as in Tunisia, these parties actually begin to govern. But what we do know is less than promising, as even the “moderate” FJP’s electoral platform includes disturbing, highly illiberal items such as insisting on the role of the state in “consolidating the values of chastity and modesty in the media,” declaring the freedom of the press “as long as the publication … takes account of public morality,” and other potentially oppressive implications. In the same platform, it notes that that while Christians should have the right to worship and build churches, “it is essential to find a quick and just solution to the problems of unauthorized and unlicensed churches.” This ambiguous “problem” could easily apply to any non-Muslim events outside of an official property — for example, a prayer meeting in someone’s home, a Christian-led nongovernmental organization, etc. The Western press likes to discuss the Muslim Brotherhood as “moderate,” but this is really one in relative terms to the Salafis rather than by any international standard of political, social, or religious liberty.
What might this mean for the Christian churches in Egypt?
The situation for Coptic Christians has been in decline since the fall of Mubarak. Domestic security has broken down across the country, and one of the results of this has been that Salafis — puritanical Islamists who are strongly influenced by radical Wahhabi ideology — have carried out an alarming number of mob attacks on Copts, incited by their equivalent of local fire-and-brimstone preachers, and emboldened by their newfound public presence and a sense that their brand of political Islam is poised to dominate the country. Copts have felt increasingly under siege as a result, and along with the failure of the SCAF to protect them (one need only look to the army’s role in the massacre of Copts on October 9th) or to punish the perpetrators of such attacks, and of course the rise of Islamists to prominence, the future does look increasingly difficult for them.
The recent elections certainly and understandably solidified these concerns for many Copts. The concept of citizenship is the Copts’ best hope, but it is almost a meaningless term in Egypt: decades of authoritarianism crushed any sort of civic consciousness, and confessional politics (i.e., one’s religious affiliation) are instead far more powerful. The success of the Islamists will not mean a genocide of Christians as some have suggested; it is more likely that we will see gradual, more stringent restrictions placed on Copts, possibly creating more pressure on them to convert or leave. We will also likely see the stricter enforcement of apostasy and blasphemy laws that prevent Muslims from converting to Christianity, from expressing alternative Muslim viewpoints, or — in an ironic turn following the revolution — from expressing political dissent. Salafis have led a number of terrifying, localized attacks on Copts and their property in the last several months; this pattern may continue or even increase, especially if intolerant Salafi preachers and their mobs continue to be emboldened by their newfound clout and by the legal cultural of impunity for such violence throughout the country.
What can Coptic Christians do to overcome this?
As a result of these anxieties, many Copts are either actively seeking to emigrate or openly talking about the prospect. But this will not provide a long-term solution. There are 8 to 10 million Copts, after all, and the U.S., Europe, and Australia can absorb only so many of them. My colleague Samuel Tadros has called this a “Coptic Winter,” and it’s not hard to understand the appropriateness of this term.
AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE: Coptic Christians gathered for a candlelight vigil to mourn the people killed in clashes with soldiers in Cairo. (Photo: Mohamed Omar/Newscom)
This will amount to a difficult turn of events for Egypt’s Christians, and it will also mean a sad direction for Egyptians in general. After all, as we know from our own painful experience in American history, true democracy cannot flourish without the protection and inclusion of minorities as full and equal citizens. I understand on one level why average Egyptians have voted so widely for the Islamists, but I fear they are choosing a dangerous path into intolerance and socio-religious oppression.
Where are things going in the Syrian uprising?
Syria is quickly moving closer to a civil war than a protest movement, especially since the Assad regime is violently digging in its heels even as defectors from the military have formed their own armed rebellion (the Free Syrian Army, or FSA). It’s a brutal situation, quickly moving into a worse-scenario. Non-Muslims may suffer greatly if things continue to spiral down into more violent territory: for example, the Assad regime itself belongs to the Alawi minority (a heterodox offshoot of Shi’ism), and it relies on this community for its base of power. However, it has also traditionally fostered good relations with other non-Sunni communities to contribute to that power base, including the variety of Christian sects in the country (10 to 12 percent of the population).
The local Christian community, representing several different denominations, has been deeply fearful of relinquishing this alliance. If they support the opposition and the regime survives, they fear that their security will be devastated; if they support the opposition and the regime falls, they fear that the country will move into the Islamist camp (like Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya). Either way, fear is at the center of the equation for the Christian minority.
Can you comment on the potential long-term effect of the “Arab Spring” regime changes for Israel?
Islamist organizations universally argue for armed Palestinian resistance against Israel and tend to grumble when even the Palestinians themselves sit down at the negotiating table. So, the Islamists’ official ascendance in regional politics will certainly change the status quo with Israel. Again, we just don’t know how this will practically play out. The FJP includes a number of realists, and unlike the more strident rhetoric of most Salafis, they do not seem to be in any great rush to discontinue the check for $1.3 billion that the U.S. sends Egypt every year as part of the Camp David agreement.
But we should not use this tempered realism to underestimate or whitewash the extent to which all Islamist organizations, including the Muslim Brotherhood and their regional offshoots, are disinterested in pursuing peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Regardless of where one stands on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I find it quite impossible to see this as anything but dangerous.
Here in the West, we’ve been confronted lately with the weaknesses of democracy — the polarization, social disaffection, and legislative gridlock. Do you think the protesters in these Arab countries recognize democracy’s weaknesses as well as its strengths?
The concept that democracy won’t solve every problem is more of a problem for the Western media than it is for the populations directly affected by the Arab Spring. The focus of the media here in the U.S. has been on elections, elections, elections … But what are we missing as a result? Many people in Egypt, for example, more clearly understand elections as a means to an end, rather than the end itself. Almost every political party there includes a strong message of social justice and economic equality in its platform. Ideas such as “reform” and “renewal” have run throughout the Tunisian and Egyptian election seasons, evidence that people see the elections as the beginning of something new.
This is also key to understanding the success of Islamist parties, such as that of the Muslim Brotherhood. Secular ideologies and regimes have ruled most of the region for decades, and people have suffered from brutal authoritarianism, from widening economic disparity, and from crippling corruption. Islamists in Tunisia and Egypt have been brilliant in speaking precisely to these grievances, and it seems that many voters have seen them as the most likely to bring solutions, a 180-degree turn from the past. Liberal parties, most of which are led by socio-economic elites, have simply done a terrible job of convincing average people of the same. The real tragedy here is that as those same voters may have willingly exchanged one form of authoritarianism — corrupt military dictatorship — for another, in the shape of Islamist-dominated states in which women are relegated to the sidelines, free speech and free thought are restricted, and religious minorities are officially downgraded to second-class status or simply squeezed out altogether.
What do you think American Christians should keep an eye on the most? Are there particular things that should be at the top of our prayer lists when we think about the developments in the Middle East and Northern Africa?
Pray that Christians in the Middle East find the ways, means, and courage to stay, and that other countries swing their doors wide open if it comes to the point that staying is no longer an option. Iraqi Christians have fled the violence in their country literally by the hundreds of thousands over the last few years — many of them took refuge in Syria, which is now on the brink of a devastating civil war. Let’s pray that other believers in the region are not forced into similar, unbearable scenarios.
We should also pray beyond just our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, of course. In this respect we should pray earnestly that Muslim, Christian, and other citizens of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, and beyond, will come to more clearly see that following the path of the Islamists will not bring them economic prosperity, social justice, and political freedom. In my opinion, it will almost certainly lead them to greater subjugation, isolation, and misery.