Interfaith Insight - 2020

Permanent link for "Seeking the Courageous Middle" by Doug Kindschi on October 20, 2020

How does a community navigate a controversial issue in our current environment of polarization?  It is an issue affecting not only our nation, but our religious communities, individual churches, and colleges. 

My alma mater, Houghton College in New York State, is currently in the midst of such a challenge. Houghton College is a part of the Wesleyan Church, a conservative evangelical tradition in which I was raised and where my father was a minister and national church administrator.  While in my growing up years, I remember it primarily for what was prohibited: movies, dancing, drinking, smoking, even playing cards. But in recent decades, more in this community have been reintroduced to its social justice history going back to the beginnings of the denomination, as it split with the Methodist Church in the mid-19th century over slavery and other justice issues. Its theology is still quite conservative as it seeks to maintain its understanding of biblical principles.

The issue was triggered by a homecoming alumni art exhibition where one of the works called attention to some of the alumni’s experiences of alienation and pain as members of the LGBTQ community. In this setting, others called for the work to be withdrawn because it challenged the college’s (and the church’s) position on sexual morality.  The college president, Dr. Shirley Mullen, supported leaving the art work in the exhibit “on the grounds of the historic role of art as cultural critique especially within a Christian liberal arts context.”  In her recent blog sent out to all alumni and friends of the college, she writes, “We are clear enough on who we are as a college to hear our own alumni’s stories.”

As the campus controversy heightened, some students painted the campus “spirit rock” with the rainbow flag, only to find a quick response from others who repainted it with the American flag, both very powerful symbols. President Mullen and others in the college community were invited by some of the LGBTQ students to repaint the rock “in a way that would represent our campus’s commitment to notice and stand with all those in our community who feel alone and marginalized.” So with the presidents help, the rock ended up with a message representing the diversity of the different members of the community, represented by different colors of hand prints.

In her blog, Mullen goes on to describe the not-so-surprising contentious response “from both sides of the political and theological spectrum.”

“It seemed impossible for many in our constituency to imagine that we could actually, in our time, embody our Lord’s pattern of seeking to bring together a commitment to both Truth and Grace in the same space,” she writes. “It seemed for some too much of a stretch to imagine that an institution could, out of its very confident commitment to a traditional biblical understanding of sexual morality, also provide a place of pastoral care to all of our students from both sides of the political spectrum as they seek a safe place to grapple with the challenges of becoming an adult amidst the noise of our current culture.”

Mullen describes this as the call to the “courageous middle.” It is not “splitting the difference – as if Truth were settled by statistical averaging,” nor is it sitting on the fence or “settling for a relativistic view of Truth.”  The courageous middle is the difficult task of listening and seeking to understand both sides while respecting the people as they express very different positions and strongly held conclusions.

In such polarized issues, she writes, there is a tendency for each side to assume that the truth is simple and “that anyone who has not come to the same conclusions is either morally or intellectually deficient.”  Mullen instead suggests that “the Truth is often complicated — that … even intelligent and good people might not have the complete picture. Time and time again, our Lord had to remind the most learned and devout people of his day that they were missing an important piece of the puzzle. They did not have the imagination to take him seriously when he said that he ‘had not come to destroy the law but to fulfill it.’ That was much too mysterious and troubling —and did not fit neatly into their categories.”

She continues: “At a time in our culture when even the churches, the universities, the media, and the government have all too often abandoned their historic commitment to careful analysis, dialogue, and debate, one of the most important gifts we can give to the church and to the culture is a ‘middle’ space where students and faculty truly listen to each other — where we learn from those who do not agree fully with us what part of the Truth they believe they see that we have not yet seen as fully. …  While we assert confidently that the Truth exists — that is, we are not relativists — we also know that we need to be appropriately humble about our own capacity to be in possession of the whole Truth.”

I was quite inspired by this bold and clear affirmation of the “courageous middle.”  As our nation and our religious communities are facing serious divisions that seem to prohibit even civil discourse, I found President Mullen’s words applicable to so many issues far beyond the campus of my alma mater. It is also at the core of our interfaith work at the Kaufman Institute, where we come together to listen and learn, but not to judge.

Let me also be clear that the Kaufman Interfaith Institute does not take a position on the issue described above. On such matters that continue to divide us into various religious and political camps, we will not take a position. Even our staff would not agree on many such issues. Our goal and mission is to bring people together to share and discuss in the effort to learn, understand, and be respectful to all persons.

We can learn much from those who have grown up in different cultures, seen the world through different eyes, were taught values and beliefs that might even seem strange, and express their faith in different ways. We do not seek agreement on all issues, nor do we assume that these differences are unimportant, but we do seek the understanding and acceptance of all peoples who seriously affirm their beliefs and values. It is a humility that does not assume that my understanding is total, complete, and has no opportunity to learn. It is simply the affirmation that “I am not God” but a child of God who can and should aspire to learn and grow in understanding.

Let us all seek that “courageous middle” between confidence in our convictions and humility and openness in seeking further truth.    

Repainted spirit rock at Houghton College

Posted on Permanent link for "Seeking the Courageous Middle" by Doug Kindschi on October 20, 2020.

Permanent link for "Templeton Prize Laureate seeking harmony" by Doug Kindschi on October 13, 2020

This year’s Templeton Prize winner is the geneticist, physician, and director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis Collins. He is perhaps best known for his directing the human genome project that discovered the genetic DNA code for humans. In religious circles he is also know for his efforts to relate science and religion.

In his book, “The Language of God,” he writes, “The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. … God’s creation is majestic, awesome, intricate, and beautiful – and it cannot be at war with itself.  Only we imperfect humans can start such battles. And only we can end them.” He also founded the organization BioLogos that seeks to relate our scientific understanding with religious beliefs, particularly a better understanding of the Christian understanding of creation.  

Last month’s ceremony was held online at the National Academy of Science building in Washington D.C.  It featured tributes from former presidents Bush and Obama, Oxford theologian and biblical scholar N.T. Wright, anthropologist Jane Goodall, and BioLogos President Deborah Haarsma from Grand Rapids.  There was also a performance from Collins’ friend and opera singer Renée Fleming, who then joined Collins for a duet of the Stephen Foster song “Hard Times Come Again No More,” to close the ceremony.

In 1972 the prize was created by Sir John Templeton, who was a very successful investor and philanthropist. His goal was to recognize new insights and progress about religion, especially through science. He set the award to be higher than the Nobel Prize, to recognize that progress in religion is just as important for recognition as the other awards given. Today the prize is valued at $1.4 million. I have been privileged over the years to have met and heard 16 of the previous Templeton Laurates, including Collins.  I would encourage you to watch the whole virtual ceremony and learn more at:

My favorite part was the talk given by Collins. In less than 30 minutes he put together his own science and faith journey as well as his concerns about the issues facing our country today. He put the issues before us so well that I have quoted generously from him here. 

Building on his love and experience with music, he spoke on the topic “In Praise of Harmony.” He introduced the theme: “I first learned about that term as it applies to music … the profound way in which the combination of musical tones chosen by a composer and rendered by a gifted professional like Renée Fleming can touch your very soul.  But harmony applies in other realms as well.  It is to be contrasted with dissonance.  In many areas of current experience, harmony seems to have lost out to dissonance and polarization.”

Collins continued by telling his personal story of studying physical chemistry and quantum mechanics, receiving his Ph.D., continuing on to complete an M.D., and then doing research in genetics and leading the human genome project. While treating one of his patients he was asked about his faith, and realized that in all of his science study he had not really dealt with the meaning of life or the issue of mortality. “I realized my atheism was dangerously thin … (and) began a journey to try to understand why intellectually sophisticated people could actually believe in God.” His journey led him to belief in God and acceptance of the life and claims of Jesus. What had been conflict between science and religion became for Collins a harmony between two truths.

His discussion of conflict and the need for harmony continued with the current global pandemic of COVID-19, which he describes as occupying his “every waking hour, seeking to accelerate the development of better diagnostic tests, therapeutics that will save the lives of those infected, and vaccines that will prevent future infections.” Collins had hoped that this dangerous enemy would draw us together, “But look at us now,” he laments. “The simple act of putting on a cloth mask is sufficient to inspire harsh disagreements amongst Americans, even though the public health value of that action to slow the spread of the disease is unquestionable. … What should have been harmony in the name of saving lives has become a conflict.”

Collins then addressed what he considers “the greatest long term threat to our planet – climate change.”  Here again, he deplores the polarization about whether this threat is real and warns, “As time passes with no coordinated plan of action, we grow closer and closer to a potentially devastating outcome.”

He next tackled another serious issue for our country -- namely, the racial divide -- and asserts the “consequences of 400 years of slavery and discrimination are still with us, and demand significant change.  But once again, not all agree, and the polarization of Americans is glaringly apparent.”

For Collins, these polarizing issues “create a vicious circle that infects our politics – polarized views drive politicians to adopt polarized positions, and those further polarize the people.  We devolve into tribes.  We stop trusting each other.  We infer all sorts of bad motivations to those not of our own tribe, even as we forgive our own glaring inconsistencies.”

But Collins’ address did not leave us in despair as he offered three commitments that can help us heal.

First is a “renewed commitment to truth and reason.” He expressed his concern for the growing disregard for truth in our society including social media and unfounded conspiracy theories. Second, he urges us to “address the growing spiritual void,” as evidenced in growing drug overdose and other acts of despair leading to death. In response he calls for renewal of the ancient spiritual truths, citing especially the Beatitudes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Third, and for Collins most important, is the return “to our calling to love one another.” 

He acknowledges that these may seem simple and even naïve, but for starters, “it would help if we chose leaders who embodied these principles. Leaders who were healers, promoters of truth, the rule of law, advocates of spiritual anchoring, and proponents of love, respect, justice, and compassion. Our democracy means we have the chance to do that.”

But he warns that we can’t just put the burden on the leaders. “It’s really up to all of us, through our individual actions, to define what kind of world we want to live in, and then seek to live that way.  That means refusing to accept polarization – in fact, working actively to reach across the gaps.”

Collins concluded his speech with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”

It may sound simple and naïve, but it behooves us all to take seriously these warnings from Dr. Collins as well as his recommended commitments. We must all do whatever we can to move away from disastrous polarization and seek the harmony toward which he challenges us.   

Dr. Francis Collins

Posted on Permanent link for "Templeton Prize Laureate seeking harmony" by Doug Kindschi on October 13, 2020.

Permanent link for "Spirituality: Indigenous Peoples Day" by Doug Kindschi, Founding Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute on October 6, 2020

In 2020, Mayor Rosalynn Bliss issued a proclamation declaring the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples Day in the City of Grand Rapids. She added that this proclamation, “brings forward the intentional acknowledgement and recognition of the original people of this place that we call Grand Rapids.” She encouraged all residents and friends to take time honor and celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day.

The second Monday in October has been a national holiday called Columbus Day since 1937 when it was soproclaimed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. As a young child I remember learning about Columbus and his three ships, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. Like other aspects of our taught history, it was often a sanitized and even false version.

Now more than 500 years after that famed date of “1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” we are finding many reasons to revise and even reject that early narrative. First, he didn’t “discover America;” indigenous peoples had already been here for thousands of years, some current archeological evidence suggests for over 20,000 years.  Furthermore, he wasn’t even the first European, since there is evidence of the Vikings having established a settlement in Newfoundland, Canada more than 500 years earlier. The archeological remains are now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Site.   

Historians have also exposed some of the terrible consequences of the so-called Columbus discovery. Columbus enslaved the native population he encountered and took some of them back to Europe to be sold as slaves. The diseases introduced to this new land led to the death of hundreds of thousands. As recent as 2005, Spanish historians have discovered documents from that era supporting much of this negative impact. 

It is no wonder that there have been recent and sustained efforts to revise our understanding and move to celebrate not the conqueror, but those conquered and treated so poorly.

It is not just locally that this movement has brought recognition. Many other cities and states have declared the second Tuesday of October Indigenous Peoples Day.

It is an official state holiday in Maine and New Mexico, while South Dakota celebrates the same day but calls it Native American Day. At least 10 other states have officially recognized the second Monday of October as Indigenous Peoples Day but do not observe it as a paid holiday. Other states and communities have made the fourth Friday of September Native American Day.

Religious freedom for Native Americans has also been a contentious issue for most of our nation’s history. It wasn’t until 1978, after decades of pressure, that Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA). This act sought to expand religious protections to the beliefs and practices of Native communities.   The Act reads, in part, “It shall be the policy of the U.S. to protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of freedom to believe, express, and exercise [their] traditional religions” including “access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites.”

In signing the act, President Jimmy Carter said, “In the past, Government agencies and departments have on occasion denied Native Americans access to particular sites and interfered with religious practices and customs where such use conflicted with Federal regulations. In many instances, the Federal officials responsible for the enforcement of these regulations were unaware of the nature of traditional native religious practices and, consequently, of the degree to which their agencies interfered with such practices. This legislation seeks to remedy this situation.”

In addition to government action which failed to respect the religious and spiritual practices of the Native Americans, our history also records both helpful and damaging actions on the part of Christian communities. Beginning with Columbus there have been frequent instances of forced conversion. Much missionary activity sought to bring hospitals and schools to the Native American people, but unfortunately many of these efforts were ignorant of the spiritual traditions and became insulting and led to further alienation. Often when mission efforts were accompanied by military or commercial interests, the results were received as acts of aggression and force, not as acts of love.

Just as our country needs to examine its history and make necessary corrections and actions to recognize and reverse acts of injustice, so our religious communities need a time of re-examination and repentance of past practices that were not consistent with our deep values.

In an article from a recent issue ofthe Christian Century, one of the leading religious magazines that I try to read regularly, there was an article about a Christian community in Denver that struggled with such a challenge. Land had been designated for the Arapaho people in a treaty in 1851. During the Rocky Mountains gold rush, the treaty was broken, and the Indian people were forced into a small area in southeast Colorado. In the late 1800s, a Lutheran church was built on that land. The church was closed in 1973 and the property passed on to the denomination.

In 1986 a group of the Four Winds American Indian Council were allowed to use it as a sacred space and community center to serve the nearly 40,000 Indians in the Denver area. By the 2010s the neighborhood was becoming gentrified, and the property was valued at over $1 million. Should the church put it on the market? Over the next three years of discussions with the Four Winds group they learned a lot about each other and their spiritual commitments and practices. In 2015 the property was transferred, not as a sale or donation but as “decolonized land … a liberated zone.”

Referring to the three years of discussion and learning, the Lutheran bishop said, “I think there was a ton that we, as the church, didn’t know. We didn’t know about the reality of Native American history in this country, about the continued marginalization of Ameri­can Indian folk in our own community, and about their spiritual life, which is so important.”

As I have sought to understand better the history and challenges of the Native American people in our own community, I have begun to learn about the Anishinaabek peoples of Michigan which include the Odawa (or Ottawa), Ojibway (or Chippewa), and the Bodewademi (or Potawatomi) of this area.  I have appreciated the help and guidance of persons from those tribes, including staff and former students at Grand Valley State University, as well as members of the Community Relations Council for the City of Grand Rapids. But there is “still a ton I don’t know.”  It will continue to challenge us all as we seek justice and pursue peace in our own communities.

[email protected]

Aanzhenii Ashquab Dandridge of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Pottawatomi Tribe.  Photo taken by Patti Caudill. Used with permission

Posted on Permanent link for "Spirituality: Indigenous Peoples Day" by Doug Kindschi, Founding Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute on October 6, 2020.

Permanent link for "Spirituality: Learning from the wisdom of other traditions" by Doug Kindschi on September 29, 2020

Does COVID-19, restrictions on our free movement, political polarization, or racial division make you depressed or even angry?  For some parts of the nation the threats include fires and hurricanes. During such challenging times many have turned to contemplation and spiritual practices that give perspective and help deal with the stress. Franciscan priest and author Richard Rohr, in his daily postings these past two weeks, has been discussing what he calls “interspirituality.” He introduces us to persons who have combined Christian teachings with Eastern contemplative practices in seeking a deeper understanding of an active commitment to the love ethic that can also help us in the healing process.

In a column titled “Wounded Healers,” Rohr introduced the work of Lama Rod Owens, an American-born, Black, raised Christian and now a Tibetan Buddhist monk, graduate of Harvard Divinity School, author, activist, and one of the leaders of a new generation of Buddhist teachers. Rohr is drawn to his teachings on “love, self-compassion, and justice, and … the needed work of healing our own wounds so that the healing can be passed on.”

Owens, also known as Lama Rod, his Tibetan honorific title (as in the Dalai Lama), invites us to “genuinely feel good about who you are, with all your flaws and foibles, you’re lovable.”  In his essay, “Remembering Love: An Informal Contemplation of Healing,” he writes, “Healing is being situated in love. Healing is not just the courage to love, but to be loved. It is the courage to want to be happy not just for others, but for ourselves as well.”

For Lama Rod, healing is not a state of being, but always a movement or process toward wholeness. Healing involves accepting our woundedness and letting it open our hearts to the hurt, frustration, loneliness and anger of others. He writes, “Opening our hearts to woundedness helps us to understand that everyone else around us carries around the same woundedness.”  It is his hope and prayer that “all beings be seen, held kindly, and loved. May we all one day surrender to the weight of being healed.” 

Lama Rod will present the Interfaith Leadership Lecture online at 4:30 pm on Oct. 7.  You can register for the zoom webinar at  

Rohr, in last week’s daily posts, introduced us to others who have gone beyond interfaith discussion to what the late Catholic monk Wayne Teasdale called “Interspiritual Mysticism.” They have explored what is at the heart of the world’s deepest spiritual traditions, namely the commitment to love. It is a love that is active and engaged in justice, but also a love that doesn’t judge. It requires a radical humility that seeks to serve the needs of the other rather than judging them. 

Rohr discusses the work of Bede Griffiths (1906–1993), an earlier Benedictine monk, who spent nearly 25 years in the Prinknash Abbey in Gloucester, England, before going to India in 1955. While most familiar with the mystical tradition of the West, he sought the kind of presence of God in nature that he found in the Eastern spirituality of India. He eventually was put in charge of the Shantivanam (Forest of Peace) Ashram that had been founded by two Benedictine monks in 1950.  It was there that he practiced the blending of Christian prayer with the Eastern mystical sense of the cosmos characteristic of Hinduism.  In preparation for each Christian prayer hour they would read Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh and Sufi texts.

True to his own deep Christian faith, Griffiths in his book, “A New Vision of Reality: Western Science, Eastern Mysticism, and Christian Faith” writes, “If you go deeply into any one tradition, you converge on a center, and there you see how we all come forth from a common root. And you find how we meet people on the deeper level of their faith, in the profound unity behind all our differences. ... The grace of Christ is present in some way to every human being from the beginning to the end.”

Rohr expressed a deep respect for this Catholic monk who in the pre-Vatican II era had the courage “to follow the calling of the Holy Spirit to live and worship in the East. He not only taught a nondual consciousness but embodied it in his life, remaining faithful to Christ while embracing the wisdom and practices of Hinduism.”

Another Christian contemplative cited by Rohr is Adam Bucko, an Episcopal priest and social justice advocate. Rohr describes him as a mentor to young people “who are discovering a spiritual life focused on service, compassion, and justice.”

Bucko writes, “For younger people, many of us, it’s very clear we see God as present in all of the traditions. ... Not only do they believe that there is one underlying reality at the foundation of all major world religions but they are also convinced that different traditions and their unique approaches to God complement each other.”  

He notes that many young people don’t identify with a particular tradition or institution. They are not necessarily rejecting God, but have become disillusioned with many religious organizations that seem to be more interested in money, political power, self-preservation, maintaining the status quo, and “having right beliefs.” This generation, Bucko notes, is pursuing some of the big questions dealing with justice and compassion, as well as how to live a life of integrity.

Rohr finds all of this consistent with his Christian belief and understanding of Jesus’ example. He describes it as “God’s great act of solidarity instead of judgment. This is how we are to imitate Jesus, the good Jewish man who saw and called forth the divine in Gentiles like the Syro-Phoenician woman and the Roman centurions who followed him; in Jewish tax collectors who collaborated with the Empire; in zealots who opposed it; in sinners of all stripes; in eunuchs, pagan astrologers, and all those ‘outside the law.’ Jesus had no trouble whatsoever with otherness. …

“Authentic God experience always expands your seeing and never constricts it. What else would be worthy of God? In God you do not include less and less; you always see and love more and more. And it is from this place that we lose any fear we have about entering into discussion, prayer, and friendship with people of other faith traditions.”

Join us online Oct. 7 with Lama Rod for a further exploration of ways in which the various faith traditions and practices can inform and enrich our own spiritual quest. 

Lama Rod Owens

Posted on Permanent link for "Spirituality: Learning from the wisdom of other traditions" by Doug Kindschi on September 29, 2020.

Permanent link for "Abraham Joshua Heschel, Jewish prophet for our time" by Doug Kindschi on September 22, 2020

“I felt my legs were praying.”  These are the words of the famed Jewish scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel, when he reflected on his participation with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Selma march for voter rights in 1965. This week, falling between the two High Holy Days in the Jewish tradition, is an appropriate time to recall Heschel’s influence in the civil rights movement over 50 years ago. Last Friday evening began Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and next Sunday evening is the beginning of Yom Kippur. These days for the Jewish community focus on introspection and repentance concluding with Yom Kippur.

Perhaps it is a time for all of us to reflect on the failure in our society to fully incorporate all members of our community regardless of race, religion, or national origin. Heschel, born in Poland and ordained as an Orthodox rabbi, received his Ph.D. from the University of Berlin, but was then expelled from Germany and eventually came to America. Sadly, however, his mother and two sisters did not survive the Nazi atrocities.   

Arriving in America in 1940, he served as a professor at Hebrew Union College and then at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. Heschel published 17 books and dozens of articles and is considered one of the leading Jewish theologians of the 20th century. Heschel was well known for his role in the civil rights movement and his relationship with Dr. King. He was featured along with King, John Lewis, and other faith leaders, in the front row of the famed Selma march to Montgomery on behalf of voter rights for African-American citizens.   

For Heschel and for King, civil rights was an interfaith endeavor.  King was also very influenced by the Hindu organizer Mahatma Gandhi and his commitment to nonviolence.  Heschel and King met in 1963, two years prior to the Selma march, at a Chicago conference on Religion and Race. Heschel gave the opening address and noted that the first conference on religion and race featured Pharaoh and Moses, but that the outcome of that summit had not come to an end. He continued, “Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.”

Heschel told the gathering that religion is to unite what divides and that humanity “as a whole is God’s beloved child.”  He called racism worse than idolatry, an unmitigated evil, “man’s gravest threat to man,” and “a deadly poison that inflames the eye.”

In today’s call for racial justice it is often noted that systemic racism is a problem for the white community to address. Only those with power can correct the inequities in the system.  Heschel, nearly 60 years earlier, addressed our collective responsibility in language relevant today. So here follows a number of important excerpts from his Chicago speech: 

One hundred years ago the emancipation was proclaimed. It is time for the white man to strive for self-emancipation, to set himself free of bigotry, to stop being a slave to wholesale contempt. 

What afflicts my conscience is that my face, whose skin happens not to be dark, instead of radiating the likeness of God, has come to be taken as an image of haughty assumption and overbearance. Whether justified or not, I, the white man, have become in the eyes of others a symbol of arrogance and pretension, giving offense to other human beings, hurting their pride, even without intending it. My very presence inflicting insult!

Daily we patronize institutions which are visible manifestations of arrogance toward those whose skin differs from ours. Daily we cooperate with people who are guilty of active discrimination.

Most of us are content to delegate the problem to the courts, as if justice were a matter for professionals or specialists. But to do justice is what God demands of every man: it is the supreme commandment, and one that cannot be fulfilled vicariously.

There is an evil which most of us condone and are even guilty of: indifference to evil. We remain neutral, impartial, and not easily moved by the wrongs done unto other people.

It is time for the white man to repent. We have failed to use the avenues open to us to educate the hearts and minds of men, to identify ourselves with those who are underprivileged. But repentance is more than contrition and remorse for sins, for harms done. Repentance means a new insight, a new spirit. It also means a course of action.

His attitude can be summed up in his oft-quoted statement that in a free society, “Some are guilty, but all are responsible.” As individuals we may not be guilty of our nation’s historical slavery, or Jim Crow laws, or specific overt acts of racism, but we are participants in a free society with the right to vote and act in ways to change the actions, policies, and practices of our institutions.   

King referred to Heschel as a modern-day prophet and they remained friends and colleagues in the civil rights efforts of that day.

Susannah Heschel tells of her father’s appointment as a visiting professor at the Protestant Union Theological Seminary. His inaugural lecture was titled “No Religion Is an Island.” Heschel may have differed in theology with others on that Selma march, but they all shared the religious and ethical demand for justice and the treatment of all persons as children of God. The civil rights movement of the ‘60s was an interfaith effort. Today we must join together from our various faith commitments to continue that religious imperative.  As Heschel relayed in his Chicago address, we must not “worry more about the purity of our dogma than about the integrity of our love.”

Heschel’s daughter, Susannah Heschel, is a professor of Judaic Studies at Dartmouth College and gave a lecture in 2017 on the relationship between King and her father. She tells of her own visit to Selma and visiting the home of Dr. and Mrs. Sullivan Jackson, where King and others including Heschel were staying prior to the march.  As Mrs. Jackson came into the living room that morning she saw many still sleeping, but noticed King in one part of the room praying while Heschel was in another part, also praying. For both of them and for most of the others, this was a religious issue. It was a justice issue motivated by their various religious beliefs.  Those early morning prayers of Heschel transferred later to what he described as feeling that his “legs were praying” as they marched together from Selma to Montgomery that morning. Susannah Heschel’s entire lecture is available at:

Heschel concluded his talk at the Chicago conference on Religion and Race, quoting, as King often did, the words of the prophet Amos:

Let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like a mighty stream. (Amos 5:24)

During our current challenges, let us join efforts across all religious traditions to seek such a justice for all of God’s children.

King (left) and Heschel (right) on Selma march to Montgomery in 1965

Posted on Permanent link for "Abraham Joshua Heschel, Jewish prophet for our time" by Doug Kindschi on September 22, 2020.

Permanent link for "Finding Resilience in Rhythm and Practice" by Kyle Kooyers on September 15, 2020

Reflecting upon the trauma, anxiety, and loss we are experiencing here in West Michigan and around the world, I’m reminded of the words of the legendary saxophonist, Cannonball Adderley, as he introduced a popular blues tune written by his piano player.

Standing in a Capitol recording studio in 1966, with the band softly grooving underneath his preacher-esque voice, Adderley proclaims, “Ya know, sometimes we’re not prepared for adversity. When it happens sometimes we’re caught short. We don’t know exactly how to handle it when it comes up. Sometimes we don’t know just what to do when adversity takes over.” 

He chuckles and pauses for a moment, then continues. “And, uh, I have advice for all of us. I got it from my pianist Joe Zawinul who wrote this tune, and it sounds like what you’re supposed to say when you have this type of problem… ‘Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.’”  

What follows is a groovy, laid-back piece that uses a relatively simple repeated riff, or musical phrase, to hold space for both tension and release. This bears similarity, in both title and function, to the Kyrie eleison, or repetition of “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy,” found within the Christian tradition.

People of many diverse worldview identities have these kinds of “sacred riffs:” our words, rhythms, and practices that bring us to a place of centering and strength – resilience – even as our adversity is ever-present. As Adderley observes, sometime adversity - trauma, grief, anxiety, injustice – is so great that there is no quick fix or simple solution. It brings with it such a dysphoria or disorientation that we are at a loss for how to respond. So we look to that which centers us.

In her book “Trauma and Grace,” Serene Jones writes about the power of ritual and liturgy to surprise and shape people who have experienced immense pain and loss. She proposes the idea of “body stories.” These are tactile or physical memories that reappear unexpectedly in the course of a movement or practice. She draws comparisons to yoga positions and acupuncture eliciting memory and pain in our muscles.

Jones notes, “[They bring] to awareness areas of tightness or pain that may have gone unnoticed or ignored for years. … To use the language of trauma theory, the body offers up visceral testimony.” 

The physical actions that we practice as people of diverse religious, spiritual, or secular identities - the routine passages, prayers, and ritual movements - are often what guide us as we elicit and confront our grief and trauma. For those of us navigating pain or loss, these repeated movements guide, re-form, and give words to the state of our entire being at a time when we are often incapable of doing it on our own. At the same time that these motions invite us to enter the tension, the pain, the loss, or the anxiety, they also remind us that we are supported and held, offering us release.   

“It is a strange, unprecedented form of embrace,” Jones observes “The support might be an acupuncturist’s hand, a yoga teacher’s voice, a wall you rest your legs against, or a supportive community that you learn to lean on; it might even be a routinized prayer chant or an internal memory of your former balance.”

For some this may look like prayer or meditation – concentrating on the power of repeated words, chants, or breaths. For others this may look like the tactile or embodied rhythms of passing beads through our fingers, moving our bodies as in yoga, or returning to a familiar text for contemplation and discernment. Often these practices can be very commonplace, like cooking food, sewing or knitting, spending time in nature, or going for a walk or run. All of these can welcome us into a place of bearing witness to our own experiences and reality.

Trauma theory suggests that this witness-bearing process leads to resilience. As Jones notes, “[B]y testifying and bearing witness, you intuitively learn to bear up under the weight of the trauma you are speaking.”

In the midst of this global pandemic, we may be feeling overwhelmed by the immense stress we’re under, the responsibilities of caring for our family, of homeschooling our kids, or the looming cloud of financial anxiety, having to navigate life now without work. We may be struggling to keep a business afloat or navigate new realities and rhythms around school and learning. We may feel powerless, disheartened as we miss our routines, our favorite places, those things we had so looked forward to, and our friends and loved ones who are now inaccessible to us or have passed away. We may be experiencing disparities in health care as members of communities disproportionately affected by COVID-19, one of many layers to the systems of injustice that already threaten the lives of BIPOC (black, indigenous and people of color).

Trauma, grief, anxiety, and injustice abound, and there is no quick fix or simple solution. We look to those places of centering, space for both tension and release, to ground ourselves that we might bear up and be resilient, ready for the next step of the healing journey, however that may look.  

For the past six years, local hospice care providers have combined efforts to create a service for this centering and healing to take place. We Remember: A Community Interfaith Memorial has been and continues to be a space where the words, rhythms, and practices of the interfaith community are offered for people to support and uphold each other in our adversity and loss.

Using the language of many traditions - prayers, songs, reflections, music, and readings from sacred texts – this service gives language to grief, mourning, and celebration of life. Certainly, as the Interfaith Memorials of years past have shown, resilience is found within every religious, secular, and spiritual identity.

This year’s Community Interfaith Memorial Service will be held virtually at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 15. Participants will have the opportunity to process the forms of loss experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic. The theme of this year’s service will be resilience.

The annual event will offer a 45-minute memorial service, streamed on Facebook and YouTube, followed by a 45-minute live discussion group via Zoom. The service will feature music, reflection, prayer and poetry from various traditions. The live discussion will offer large group and chat-room style spaces to virtually connect with others under the facilitation of bereavement counselors.

Whether grieving recent losses, honoring those who have long since passed, or simply curious as to how various traditions commemorate the passing of life, all are welcome to share in this family-friendly space.

May we continually enter the brave work, embodied by the Interfaith Memorial, of seeking healing through community with one another, even while virtual and socially distanced, for this unique season of adversity and loss. Through togetherness and solidarity, centered in hope by those “sacred riffs,” our collective song of resilience is born.   

Posted on Permanent link for "Finding Resilience in Rhythm and Practice" by Kyle Kooyers on September 15, 2020.

Permanent link for "Forgiveness in response to family conflict" by Doug Kindschi on September 8, 2020

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of Great Britain, discusses family conflict in his book “Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence.” From the book of Genesis, he relates four stories of brother conflicts, leading up to the lesson of forgiveness found in the story of Joseph and his brothers.  He begins with the story from the early chapters of Genesis where we read of the first recorded act of worship of different offerings by the two brothers Cain and Abel, which led to the first recorded murder in Scripture. Conflict led to death.

Last week we looked at Abraham’s two sons Ishmael and Isaac, whose birth from different mothers created conflict. While the brothers separated, both branches of the expanded family tree are acknowledged in Genesis and in the end, the brothers came together to bury their father.  This expanded family is also part of the Muslim story as recorded in the Qur’an where the Jewish patriarchs are recognized as prophets and a part of their story. The early conflict led to separation, but both brothers survived and the expanded family lines were acknowledged in both the Hebrew and Muslim scriptures.

Sibling conflict continues into the next generation as we read the story of Jacob and Esau, the twin sons of Isaac and Rebekah. Most of us remember how Esau sold his birthright to his younger brother in a most impetuous act for a mere bowl of homemade soup.  And then Jacob received the blessing as the eldest as well as the birthright by tricking his blind father. When Esau realizes what has happened he wants to kill Jacob. 

Understandably, Jacob flees the scene and goes far away to his mother’s brother Laban, where he works for Laban and falls in love with his younger daughter, Rachel. He agrees to work for Laban seven years in exchange for marrying Rachel.  As often happens to deceivers like Jacob, he is deceived by his uncle, who now says he must first marry the older daughter, Leah. Jacob must now work an additional seven years to finally marry his first love, Rachel.

In time, Jacob grows in wealth and desires to return home but is still fearful about his brother’s likely response. As they come together Jacob is frightened, offers gifts to his brother, and pleads for Esau’s kindness. Surprisingly, Esau runs to meet his brother, embraces him and weeps.  The conflict that began years earlier with a pledge to kill his brother is resolved with a restored relationship. Furthermore, Esau’s descendants the Edomites are considered part of the expanded family. Conflict is resolved through reconciliation.

The stories of family conflict and resolution continue to the next generation as Genesis recounts the story of Jacob’s sons and their conflict with Joseph, one of Rachel’s sons and Jacob’s favorite. While not the first-born, Joseph becomes the main actor in this story reflecting the tensions among the various tribes of Israel. Most are familiar with the story, at least the Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice version in the musical, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”

The story, in brief, tells of the jealousy of the brothers leading them to sell Joseph to a caravan of traders, who in turn sell him into slavery in Egypt.  Joseph through his efforts, as well as his ability to interpret dreams, is promoted to a position of trust and power in this new land. Years later when famine threatens the survival of Jacob and his family, the brothers travel to Egypt to buy grain where they encounter Joseph, who has been put in charge of the program for saving up supplies for the coming crisis and has plenty of grain. The brothers do not recognize Joseph as their brother but see him as the stranger who holds their future in his hands. As the story unfolds, older brother Judah plays the decisive role in recognizing the injustice that had occurred earlier when they had tried to dispose of Joseph.

Esau and Jacob made peace and were reconciled in the end. With Joseph and his brothers, Sacks points to the resolution of Joseph forgiving his brothers for what they had done when they sold him into slavery. He notes that this is the first place in the Bible where forgiveness is described in the act of conflict resolution. The brothers were fearful that Joseph would take revenge, but he assured them, saying: “Do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.” (Genesis 45:3-8)

Following the death of Jacob, their father, the brothers are again fearful that Joseph will now take his revenge.  The book of Genesis concludes with Joseph’s reaffirmation: “’Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God?  Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.  So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.’ In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.” (Genesis 50:19-20)

Sacks reflects, “This is a crucial moment in the history of faith.  It marks the birth of forgiveness, the first recorded moment at which one person forgives another for a wrong they have done.”  Conflict is resolved through forgiveness.

Forgiveness as a way to respond to family conflict is the theme of the Joseph story. Can this be a lesson for the extended human family? Let us refrain from revenge but instead follow Joseph as he “reassured them, speaking kindly to them.”  Can we apply these concepts and principles in our own day as we address conflicts in our families, communities and our nation?    

Joseph and his multi-colored coat

Posted on Permanent link for "Forgiveness in response to family conflict" by Doug Kindschi on September 8, 2020.

Permanent link for "Responding to family conflict" by Doug Kindschi on September 1, 2020

How do we deal with family conflict?  How do we deal with conflict in our larger family units, like nations or religious communities?  Our religious traditions and scriptures can be helpful.

One of last month’s columns discussed “How big is my family?” and the insights of Ted Hiebert, former professor of Old Testament at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. In his book, “The Beginning of Difference: Discovering Identity in God’s Diverse World,” he argues that we must go back to Noah as the patriarch from whom we are all descendants and, in so doing, see that from the perspective of Genesis we are all one big family. In a previous chapter he discussed the earlier Genesis story of the Tower of Babel. It is here that we find the Bible’s understanding of our desire to affirm our separate cultural identities, but that God’s plan is for diversity. 

So how do we resolve the conflicts between different individual identities as well as different groups and cultural identities?  It is a question of how to handle family conflict. Again, Hiebert suggests we can learn from our scriptures and in particular, from the formative stories in Genesis. His entire career has centered in understanding this book beginning with his doctorate from Harvard University, throughout his teaching and scholarly career, and his translation of Genesis for the Common English Bible. For Hiebert, studying Genesis is not just understanding an ancient text, but it provides important insights for our life together today.

The story of Hagar and her son Ishmael moved Hiebert emotionally. It is in contrast to much of the story dealing with Abraham, his wife Sarah and the birth of Isaac, which is quite straightforward. The narrative of Hagar, the Egyptian slave-girl to Sarah, and her banishment to the wilderness of Beer-sheba is filled with the emotions of running out of water to drink, Ishmael suffering from thirst, and Hagar’s plea not to have to look upon the death of her child.

The rest of the story Hebrew scripture tells of Abraham’s other son Isaac, who will receive the blessing and become the ancestor of the Jewish people. Yet this other son, Ishmael, is not rejected.  God hears the cry of Hagar and responds, “What’s wrong? Don’t be afraid. God has heard the boy’s cries over there.  18  Get up, pick up the boy, and take him by the hand because I will make of him a great nation.” (Genesis 21:17-18)

When Ishmael was born, Hagar had received the promise that he would be the father of multitudes, and when Abraham sent her into the wilderness God promised that Ishmael would be made a great nation. Hiebert was touched that such a story written by one of Israel’s authors “saw others with genuine humanity, that could enter their experience, that could feel their pain, and that could hope for their survival and their future.”

While Ishmael is the “other,” he is not rejected, but in fact blessed.  Genesis 25 tells of Isaac and Ishmael coming together to bury their father, Abraham. It then continues to identify the larger family tree by listing the 12 sons of Ishmael before going on to record Esau and Jacob as the sons of Isaac. The interest in this larger family tree is noted as well when we read that Esau married one of the daughters of Ishmael.   

While Genesis recognizes the conflict, especially between Sarah and Hagar, the mothers of Isaac and Ishmael, it does not keep their descendants separate or destroyed.  It describes a world where difference is real but recognition of family and kinship relationships continues and both parties thrive. By observing this expanded family tree we can see that acknowledgement and blessing from God is not exclusive but inclusive.  

It is of special interest to note that a similar recognition of this larger family tree is characteristic of the Quran as well.  Certainly Ishmael as well as Abraham are recognized as the important ancestors for Muhammad.  Islam also recognizes as prophets Adam and Noah prior to the appearance of Abraham. But the Jewish line following from Abraham is also affirmed.  The Quran clearly identifies Isaac as well as Jacob, whose name is changed to Israel, as prophets.

The prophet status of other major figures in Hebrew history is also affirmed including Jacob’s son Joseph, as well as Moses and Aaron, Kings of Israel David and Solomon are in the Quran as prophets, as are other major figures such as Job, Jonah, and Elijah. Important figures from the Christian Testament including Zachariah, John the Baptist, and Jesus are also identified in the Quran as prophets and messengers from God. Throughout the Quran there is frequent mention of the Children of Israel as having received God’s message.

So both the Bible and the Quran seek to be inclusive in identifying a much larger family tree of those whom God has recognized. Identity of person as well as cultural identity is natural, important, and recognized, but in our various scriptures we see that God has chosen diversity. He has special relationships with certain individuals and peoples, but this does not limit him in terms of whom he chooses to accept and bless.

In the Genesis stories, Hiebert encourages a new and generous way to see difference. He uses the concepts of kinship and family for a framework of relatedness.  He writes that it “does not begin with the idea of outsiders and insiders or of exclusion and inclusion. … The biblical imagination provides a foundation for thinking of others as part of our family, as belonging to our network of relatives, as sharing our common humanity.”

Can we in the challenges of our divisions seek to see our larger family tree and seek to find ways to affirm and relate to those who seem different?  We experience God’s love for ourselves and those like us. Can we hope for a God’s-eye view of an enlarged affirming love?  It is a challenge for our day. 

Hagar & Ishmael

Posted on Permanent link for "Responding to family conflict" by Doug Kindschi on September 1, 2020.

Permanent link for "Soulmates: Nuns & Nones" by Katie Gordon on August 25, 2020

Introduction by Douglas Kindschi:  We are most pleased to bring back to the Interfaith Insight weekly column Katie Gordon who served as the Kaufman Institute program manager from 2013 to 2017.  She joined us right after graduating from Alma College and then left to pursue a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School. Since her graduation from Harvard, Katie has been a national organizer with Nuns & Nones, an alliance of spiritually diverse millennials and women religious. She finds her spiritual home with the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, working with an “online monastery” translating monastic wisdom for contemporary seekers. 

  “Surprise! We’re soulmates.”

This proclamation comes from Sister Janet Rozzano, a Sister of Mercy in Burlingame, California. Who are the soulmates she is referencing? Non-religious young seekers and activists. These three words come from a reflection on her experience with a gathering of Catholic sisters and spiritually diverse millennials, a group called “Nuns & Nones.”

Most people would not think that Catholic sisters, nuns, and the spiritually diverse young folks called “nones” – who don’t identify with any specific religion -- would be soulmates. Indeed, it is a surprise to us as much as anyone! But nearly four years into building these friendships across our religious and spiritual traditions, every conversation and gathering around the country has confirmed it.

There is a unique and powerful connection that exists not despite of, but because of our differences. We see from different perspectives, and that enriches the deep exchange that becomes possible. And yet, we are also two groups grounded in a shared worldview and ethic. Both the sisters and seekers are curious, committed, and courageous in spiritual growth, communal searching, and prophetic action.

I can confirm this spark – the “Surprise! We’re soulmates” feeling – because I experienced it firsthand when my journey with this constellation called Nuns & Nones began in Grand Rapids. Over the years I was involved with interfaith organizing, my encounters and conversations with the Dominican Sisters of Grand Rapids always stood out. The sisters provided a different type of presence in any space where they showed up.

Once I started to investigate who these sisters were, I realized that the Dominicans showed up everywhere across the city. They started neighborhood centers, they worked with local environmental efforts, they were artists and theologians, and they even founded Aquinas College. The more I saw these women, the more I realized how they were quietly building up the foundation of this city, and the more I wanted to learn.

As I got to know these sisters, I felt like I was getting to know myself in new ways through these relationships. I knew there were more seekers like me – young people in the city who were spiritually curious, hungry for community, and desiring a place that would challenge us to grow, question, and examine the purpose of our lives.

Feeling a hunch that we might provide a fruitful space to hold one another’s questions, I got excited thinking about getting these two groups together. Over a fateful coffee date, I planned with Sister Barbara Hansen to gather these sisters and seekers together. We sent out the invites, we gathered in a circle in the living room of their retreat center, and the rest is history.

We were not alone in exploring this curiosity in community. Actually, there were national gatherings planned for groups of Nuns & Nones in cities across the United States at around the same time our Grand Rapids group formed.

The timing was auspicious; a few of us from Grand Rapids joined a gathering in Kalamazoo hosted by the Sisters of St. Joseph, and when I moved to Boston later that summer of 2017 to attend Harvard Divinity School, my path seemed to have been laid out before me. I continued to help organize these gatherings, I met with sisters in communities across the country, and in my two-year program at HDS my “ministry” was Nuns & Nones. Each person I spoke to about our experimental gatherings told me the same thing: We were on to something special.

Fast forward three years to now, and Nuns & Nones went from an idea to an organization. The heartbeat of our collaboration is sacred relationship, by which we mean a mutuality that inspires loving transformation. This heartbeat gives life to our mission: to create committed communities of care and contemplation that incite courageous action.

Somewhere in the last few years of building this collaboration between unlikely allies, we realized that what started as bridging two distinct groups evolved into a unique community in and of itself.

Our mission statement embodies what has emerged for our collective: committed community means we are in it for the long haul; care and contemplation is the presence to self, spirit, and to one another; courageous action is the call of responding to our times. It is the combination of these three elements -- committed community, care and contemplation, and courageous action -- that feeds one another and makes the other possible. It is only through the container of committed community that we can practice and enact care, contemplation, and courageous action.

Our world, our nation, our communities are no doubt in need of care, contemplation, and courageous action. These times of pandemic and protests, threats to democracy and human life, have worn deeply on all of us. The issues we face are so entangled and complex that it can feel challenging to imagine what we as individuals might do to make a difference. We do not have the answers. But as a community, we do have a question that guides our discernment in how we practice care, contemplation and courageous action in our times. That question is: What is the next right loving action?

Catholic sisters have been living this question since the beginning of religious life. Responding to the signs of the times and the needs in the community around them, they have individually and collectively exercised this muscle of responsive listening. The millennial seekers in our collaboration have the fire and passion to keep asking this question in new ways, pushing the boundaries of what feels possible. This is what makes us soulmates: Meeting at a crossroads between our traditions and generations, rooted in our shared ways of being, we connect our unique ways of seeing to imagine more beautiful futures.

I encourage you to seek out your own unlikely soulmates: Whom might you find as imaginative co-creators? Which sacred relationships might enable you to live into the deeper visions of our times? For a world in desperate need, how might you answer the question: What is your next right loving action?

Katie Gordon

Nuns & Nones in Grand Rapids

Posted on Permanent link for "Soulmates: Nuns & Nones" by Katie Gordon on August 25, 2020.

Permanent link for "How big is my family?" by Doug Kindschi on August 18, 2020

“I was born into a community of radical love,” writes Linda Sarsour, co-chair of the 2017 Women’s March and former executive director of the Arab-American Association of New York.  She continues, “It echoed through my home and the streets of my neighborhood. Sunset Park was a noisy, happy place, filled with Palestinian, Dominican, Mexican, Ecuadoran, and Honduran families.  A place where families and neighbors were one in the same. You did for your neighbor just as you would do for an immediate family member. … If I hadn’t grown up believing that my neighbors are my family, I may not have cared, but it was in my nature to care about all these groups of people.”

Healthy families do not always agree, but they do care for one another. How big can our family sense be?  Is it possible to consider all of humanity as a human family? 

Ted Hiebert, former professor of Old Testament at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, writes about how the biblical writers in the book of Genesis claim a breadth of family understanding that extends to all people. Last month I wrote about his recently published book, “The Beginning of Difference: Discovering Identity in God’s Diverse World.”  

Our understanding of difference is critical in these days of racial discrimination, fear of immigrants and refugees, political polarization, and even hate. Religious differences as well contribute to anti-Semitic and Islamophobic attitudes and actions. 

In the first chapter of Hiebert’s book he writes that the understanding of difference begins with the Genesis story of the Tower of Babel. He understands this short, nine-verse story as one of an early people seeking to create and preserve their own cultural identity. It is, he writes, “an important human experience — the need for meaning, belonging, and identity that can only come from being a member of a common cultural tradition.” But then the story continues by noting that while people sought to construct a single culture, God responds by introducing difference through multiple languages and multiple cultures. Thus different cultures and identities are a part of God’s plan for diversity. Hiebert concludes, “Difference is God’s idea.”

Hiebert begins his second chapter with the quotation from Sarsour about neighbors as family, and then addresses how the biblical writers understand family. The Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths each refer to Abraham as they trace the beginning of their spiritual families. Hiebert writes that we should rather look to Noah to understand the different cultures and identities as a part of a single-family story. It is the language of family, kinship, and relationships that the Genesis authors use to describe how we are to understand our own identity along with the diversity of other identities and cultures. He refers to the Genesis passages as constructing “Israel’s great family tree.” 

If we only trace back to Abraham, we miss much of the larger family tree that goes back to the new beginning with Noah following the flood.  The Genesis authors chose Noah as the founding ancestor, providing them and us a broader and constructive way to view the whole world in familial terms.

With Noah and the flood everything begins anew as is the case with other ancient flood traditions. Following the flood, the biblical writers describe the various family branches as they report the genealogies, not just the single line from father to eldest son.  In this way recognizing the relationship to other branches and affirming the coherence of the whole human family.

In the flood story the world has become thoroughly evil, but Noah is described as obedient and righteous and as one who finds favor in God’s eyes.  He builds an altar, establishes religious rituals, and is portrayed as the moral turning point in the Genesis story. God provides commandments for Noah prohibiting violence, the consuming of blood, and murder.  Jewish tradition refers to seven Noahide laws or commandments required of all persons, not just Jews.

Noah is also the beginning of specific blessings from God. Following the flood God reverses the earlier curse on the soil and guarantees stable agricultural seasons, saying, “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” (Genesis 8:22)  The biblical story continues with God’s blessing that they should be fruitful and multiply, and establishes a covenant with Noah saying, “I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals and every animal of the earth with you … never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood.” (Genesis 9:9-11)

This blessing for all of Noah’s descendants is inclusive including all people of the world, placing all ethnic identities within the human family. Hiebert summarizes, “Noah is thus a powerful image for understanding the relationship between identity and difference, between a single ethnicity … and all the other distinctive cultures.” It is accomplished by the image and language of family.  He continues, “So the fundamental structure in the world underlying all its differences is the structure of relatedness …. Difference is real but always related in some way to one’s own identity.”

From our Muslim neighbors and friends, we learn of a similar affirmation of inclusiveness in the diversity of humankind. The Quran states, “O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you.” (49:13) We are different, but related, and with the call to do what is right.

May the words from our Scriptures, including the Noah story, be our guide as we both affirm our various cultural identities, while always being sensitive to and inclusive of our relatedness to all in the human family.


Posted on Permanent link for "How big is my family?" by Doug Kindschi on August 18, 2020.

Page last modified October 20, 2020