Hinduism

Praying to plants: Twitter explodes when Union Seminary holds one of its interfaith rites

Praying to plants: Twitter explodes when Union Seminary holds one of its interfaith rites

Yes, this was click-bait heaven.

Yes, this was an oh-so-typical Twitter storm.

Yes, this was a perfect example of a “conservative story,” in a niche-news era in which social-media choirs — conservative in this case — send up clouds of laughs, jeers and gasps of alleged shock in response to some online signal.

I am referring, of course, to that climate-change confession service that happened at Union Theological Seminary, which has long been a Manhattan Maypole for the doctrinal dances that incarnate liberal Protestant trends in America.

It’s important to note that the spark for this theological fire was an official tweet from seminary leaders. Here is the top of a Washington Examiner story about the result:

Students at Union Theological Seminary prayed to a display of plants set up in the chapel of the school, prompting the institution to issue a statement explaining the practice as many on social media mocked them.

"Today in chapel, we confessed to plants," the nation's oldest independent seminary declared Tuesday on Twitter. "Together, we held our grief, joy, regret, hope, guilt and sorrow in prayer; offering them to the beings who sustain us but whose gift we too often fail to honor. What do you confess to the plants in your life?"

The ceremony, which is part of professor Claudio Carvalhaes’ class “Extractivism: A Ritual/Liturgical Response,” drew ridicule from many on Twitter, some of whom accused the seminary and students of having lost their minds.

OK, let’s pause for a moment to ask a journalism question: Would there have been a different response if this event have inspired a front page, or Sunday magazine, feature at The New York Times?

What kind of story? A serious news piece could have focused on (a) worship trends on the revived religious left, (b) this seminary’s attempt to find financial stability through interfaith theological education, (c) the history of Neo-pantheistic Gaia liturgies in New York (personal 1993 flashback here) linked to environmental theology and/or (d) all of the above.

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Kosher sort-of shrimp and cheeseburgers: Do plant-based foods violate spirit of biblical law?

Kosher sort-of shrimp and cheeseburgers: Do plant-based foods violate spirit of biblical law?

Back in my Rocky Mountain days, in the 1980s, I heard an Orthodox rabbi give a fascinating talk with a title that went something like this: “The quest for the kosher cheeseburger.”

His thesis: If the result of this quest is a cheeseburger — mixing meat with a milk product — then it’s not kosher. If you end up with something that is kosher, then it isn’t a real cheeseburger. So what’s the point?

The Orthodox rabbi was using the “kosher cheeseburger” as a symbol of the efforts that many Jews make to blur the line between assimilating into what can, at times, be a hostile culture and following the traditions of their ancient faith. Can modern Jewish believers create a golden cheeseburger and eat it, too?

This is an essentially spiritual question, but it’s a question that takes on a whole new meaning with the explosion of attention now being given to plant-based meat substitutes (note the blitz of ads for Burger King’s new Impossible Whooper).

The Washington Post business team recently covered this trend and did a fine job of digging into these religious questions, starting with the headline: “Shalt thou eat an Impossible Burger? Religious doctrine scrambles to catch up to new food technology.” It’s rare to see scripture in a business lede, but this one was right on point — focusing on on a symbolic food that is totally out of bounds in Jewish tradition.

You think a kosher cheeseburger is a wild idea? How about kosher shrimp?

Leviticus 11 contains a zoo’s worth of animals. The hyrax and the monitor lizard. The katydid is there, as is the gecko. And it ends: “You must distinguish between the unclean and the clean, between living creatures that may be eaten and those that may not be eaten.”

Dietary restrictions are woven into religious texts, the Old Testament and the New, the Koran, the Vedas and the Upanishads. Some are mercifully practical, as in the law of necessity in Islamic jurisprudence: “That which is necessary makes the forbidden permissible.”

Now, Tyson executives are seeking certification from various agencies declaring their plant-based shrimp both kosher and halal. The team at the Post business desk identified the religion ghost in that equation and produced this solid thesis statement:

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Covering Rep. Gabbard’s American path to Hinduism, including some complex, tricky details

Covering Rep. Gabbard’s American path to Hinduism, including some complex, tricky details

Most clickbait is so flatly manipulative that I find it easy to resist, but there is the occasional instance when a headline like “Tulsi Gabbard Had a Very Strange Childhood” when I think, “OK, convince me.” 

Kerry Howley does a lot of convincing in her nearly 7,000-word essay, published in the recent edition of The American Prospect. My impressions of Rep. Gabbard, who represents the Second Congressional District of Hawaii, are from the headlines: She’s of Samoan heritage, she’s a Hindu and she stood against Sen. Kamala Harris’ efforts to depict a nominee’s involvement in the Knights of Columbus as a theocratic threat to the American judicial system. 

As Howley shows in her reporting, Gabbard self-identifies as Hindu although the group in which she grew up — the Science of Identity — does not claim a Hindu identity. Like many other movements that repackage Hinduism for Americans, Science of Identity offers Eastern theology (teachings from the Bhagavad Gita), a passionate leader with an exotic adopted name (Chris Butler becomes Jagad Guru Siddhaswarupananda Paramahamsa) and homemade variations on the life of faith (Howley quotes an aunt of Gabbard’s who calls Butler’s group the ‘alt-right of the Hare Krishna movement’ ”).

In this respect, Gabbard is Hindu in the same way that Arlo Guthrie was Hindu when he became a disciple of Guru Ma (Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati).

Gabbard’s father led his family into the movement before she was born, and she has stayed in relationship with it throughout her life.

Gabbard moved leftward in her perspectives on abortion and same-sex couples after she volunteered for military service and worked with a medical unit north of Baghdad. As Howley describes it:

When she returned, her positions on social issues eventually fell a bit more in line with the party; she said that living in a theocracy had changed her, and she no longer believed the state should dictate the romantic or reproductive lives of its citizens.

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Seattle Times story on 'Undoing Whiteness' yoga class is tone deaf on what yoga is all about

Seattle Times story on 'Undoing Whiteness' yoga class is tone deaf on what yoga is all about

Just when you think it can’t get any more ‘woke’ here in the great Pacific Northwest, a Seattle Times piece created lots of outrage last week by profiling a yoga teacher offering a class on “undoing whiteness.”

What was problematic wasn’t just the topic of the class, but also the reporter’s brazen use of his platform to lecture white readers on their racist backgrounds.

Naturally this got some online reaction. You know things are heating up when the Times cuts off comments at 89, saying it was due to the “sensitive nature of this topic.”

Is there a religion angle here? That’s a controversial topic, as well. Tmatt reminded us here that while yoga is rooted in a spiritual practice based on Hindu tenets, the media keeps on stripping it of religious content.

That definitely happened here.

Laura Humpf braced herself for fresh salvos of death threats, rage-soaked slurs and indictments of “reverse racism” from media provocateurs.

The Seattle yoga instructor had endured it before, four years ago, after putting out word about a class for people of color only, at her studio.

She was slammed by critics for being exclusionary and promoting likely illegal segregation, but was doing neither, says Humpf. This is racial caucusing, and she sees the time-honored technique of voluntarily congregating by race to oppose racism as a way to dismantle a white-supremacist pathology found in everyday society.

This spring, Humpf publicized an “Undoing Whiteness” yoga class at Rainier Beach Yoga, geared toward white people wishing to “unpack the harmful ways white supremacy is embedded” in their “body, mind and heart.” Along with providing a contemplative space, the class would dissect the “pathology of whiteness” — an obliviousness to the batch of privileges society grants white skin — and how it operates in daily life.

Were there any editors looking over this story before it went to print? The reporter spouts off about “a white-supremacist pathology found in everyday society” as though it’s fact. Why not throw an “alleged” in there?

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Los Angeles Times only cites one side when reporting on the mayor's Jerusalem stance

Los Angeles Times only cites one side when reporting on the mayor's Jerusalem stance

As some of us know, the editors of The Los Angeles Times lack a religion reporter, although it seems like they have other beats covered pretty well.

So when I see a piece on religion, I’m often curious to know what inexperienced staff writer they’ve assigned to the job this time.

This piece — “Garcetti said he backs U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. Now religious groups want an apology” — focuses on the mayor’s visit to Jerusalem, along with his support of President Donald Trump’s move of the U.S. embassy to the Israeli capital. The emphasis, obviously, is on all the flak he got.

Oddly, only Jews who disagreed with him where interviewed for this news story. That’s a journalism problem, right there.

A year after the Trump administration moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti waded into the still simmering political controversy, drawing criticism from L.A. religious groups.

“I support the embassy being here,” Garcetti told The Times during his trip to Israel last week with the U.S. Conference of Mayors. “Israel shouldn’t be the only country in the world that can’t determine where its capital will be, but there is usually a process to these things rather than what seems like an overnight, one-sided, partisan move.”

The “one-sided partisan move” was a referral to Trump’s June 1, 2017, embassy decision.

In response, local offices of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Jewish Voice for Peace and the Episcopal Peace Fellowship’s Palestine Israel Network, among others on the political left on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, called on Garcetti to retract his statement of support. The groups also sent the mayor a letter on Sunday.

Political left is correct. The reporter couldn’t have picked a more predictable and partisan crowd. And how much of their respective faith communities do they represent?

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NPR offers a series on what a radically Hindu-ized India will look and feel like

NPR offers a series on what a radically Hindu-ized India will look and feel like

Imagine if the state of Texas decided it didn’t like any reminder of its once proud independent past (it was its own nation from 1836-1845) and decided to rename Houston. Henceforth, the title, which had reflected General Sam Houston, president of the short-lived Texas republic, would become known as Bushville, after the last names of the 41st and 43rd American presidents.

The scenario may sound ridiculous, but this is close to what happened in India recently. Residents of Allahabad, a city in the northeastern part of the country that has roughly the same population as Houston, woke up one day to find out they were living in a place with another name.

NPR, which is running a series this week on how India is redefining itself through the Hindu faith, told how this happened.

Tens of millions of Hindus took a ritual dip in the Ganges River this winter as part of the largest religious festival in the world — the Kumbh Mela. For centuries, the festival has been held in various cities in northern India, including Allahabad.

But when pilgrims arrived this year for the Kumbh Mela, Allahabad had a different name.

Last year, officials from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party changed the name of Allahabad to Prayagraj — a word that references the Hindu pilgrimage site there. The name Allahabad dated to the 16th century, a legacy of a Muslim ruler, the Mughal Emperor Akbar. "Today, the BJP government has rectified the mistake made by Akbar," a BJP official was quoted as saying when the name was altered.

Name changes for cities aren’t entirely unknown. After all, in 2016, Barrow, Alaska, residents voted to change the name of their municipality back to Utqiagvik, its original Inupiaq name.

But the folks in India are onto something much deeper. This isn’t simply the renaming of Indian cities to reflect pre-British colonial heritage. This is erasing the region’s Islamic history.

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The Easter Sunday massacre: Sri Lanka's complex religious landscape is a challenge

The Easter Sunday massacre: Sri Lanka's complex religious landscape is a challenge

When I first heard news of the bombings of churches and hotels in Sri Lanka, I wondered which group was to blame this time. At first, the government was calling it a terrorist attack by “religious extremists.”

That’s it? Think of it: 290 people dead. That’s five times the amount of Muslims shot by in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 15. And everyone tried to sidestep the identity of the perpetrators?

Sri Lanka is a majority Buddhist country and hardline Buddhist groups have consistently harassed the minority Christians there. This is a complex situation, as former GetReligionista Ira Rifkin noted in this post last year.

Writing in the Guardian, a Muslim writer points out here that religious Muslim and Christian minorities in Sri Lanka have been sitting ducks for militant Buddhists for a long time. Even after a Methodist church was attacked by Buddhists on Palm Sunday in the northern part of the country, no precautions were taken for Easter celebrations.

But when I heard the attacks were set off by suicide bombers, that brought to mind radicalized Muslims, not Buddhists. The former is known worldwide for its use of suicide bombers. (However, Sri Lanka is the birthplace of the mainly Hindu Tamil Tigers, who pioneered suicide bombings in the 1980s. More on that in a moment.)

As I wrote this Sunday night, no one was saying a word as to which religious group did this. Now, government officials say they believe an “Islamist militant group” is to blame. No group has taken credit for the attacks.

So far, the U.K. press has been more on top of this story than was American media, with the exception of the New York Times, which has turned out some very good pieces in the past 24 hours. First, so I turned to the Guardian:

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Fish sandwiches equal Lent: Maybe there's a religion hook in this meatless burger trend?

Fish sandwiches equal Lent: Maybe there's a religion hook in this meatless burger trend?

First, a confession: Which is a good thing during Great Lent.

I totally admit that the following headline caught my eye because, as Eastern Orthodox folks, my family is currently in the middle of the great pre-Pascha (Easter in the West) in which we strive to fast from meat and dairy. It’s a season in which the Orthodox have been known to debate the merits of various tofu brands and ponder the miracle that is apple butter.

Every now and then, people like me end up traveling — which means looking for Lenten options in the rushed, fallen world of fast food. Thus, you can understand why I noticed this headline in the business section of The New York Times: “Behold the Beefless ‘Impossible Whopper’.” Here’s the overture:

OAKLAND, Calif. — Would you like that Whopper with or without beef?

This week, Burger King is introducing a version of its iconic Whopper sandwich filled with a vegetarian patty from the start-up Impossible Foods. The Impossible Whopper, as it will be known, is the biggest validation — and expansion opportunity — for a young industry that is looking to mimic and replace meat with plant-based alternatives.

Impossible Foods and its competitors in Silicon Valley have already had some mainstream success. The vegetarian burger made by Beyond Meat has been available at over a thousand Carl’s Jr. restaurants since January and the company is now moving toward an initial public offering.

As I dug into this story, I had this thought: I realize that there is a religion angle here for strange people like me. But would the Times team include any kind of reference to the other religion angles linked to lots of other people who avoid beef?

Obviously, there are millions of Hindus in America and many of them avoid beef, for religious reasons. Then there are Buddhists who are vegetarians or vegans. Among Christian flocks, many Seventh-day Adventists strive to be vegetarians.

Then there is the Lent thing. Is there a religion angle to several fast-food empires — even Chick-fil-A, for heaven’s sake — emphasizing fish sandwiches during this Christian penitential season? #DUH

So I wasn’t looking for lots of religion-beat style content in this story. But maybe a paragraph noting the increasingly complex religious landscape in the American food marketplace?

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CNN on Tulsi Gabbard: Some candidates' LGBTQ policy ghosts are more relevant than others

CNN on Tulsi Gabbard: Some candidates' LGBTQ policy ghosts are more relevant than others

It’s pretty easy to see where the Rep. Tulsi Gabbard story is going for the new CNN.

I think the heart of the story can be expressed this way: Are you now, or have you ever been a … conservative Democrat (or related, by blood, to one)?

Gabbard recently declared that she is one of the legions of Democrats who plan to seek the party’s presidential nomination. She is the first Hindu (a somewhat controversial convert, no less) to take that step.

However, she also created a mini-media storm with an op-ed in The Hill in which (trigger warning) she took an old-school liberal stand on a key religious liberty issue, affirming Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution, which bans any form of “religious test” for those seeking public office.

Yes, we’re talking about the Knights of Columbus wars. Gabbard wrote:

While I oppose the nomination of Brian Buescher to the U.S. District Court in Nebraska, I stand strongly against those who are fomenting religious bigotry, citing as disqualifiers Buescher’s Catholicism and his affiliation with the Knights of Columbus. If Buescher is “unqualified” because of his Catholicism and affiliation with the Knights of Columbus, then President John F. Kennedy, and the 'liberal lion of the Senate' Ted Kennedy would have been “unqualified” for the same reasons.

Wait for it. Here is the language that probably put a millstone around her neck.

No American should be told that his or her public service is unwelcome because “the dogma lives loudly within you” as Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said to Amy Coney Barrett during her confirmation hearings in 2017 to serve as U.S. Circuit Court judge in the 7th Circuit. …

The party that worked so hard to convince people that Catholics and Knights of Columbus like Al Smith and John F. Kennedy could be both good Catholics and good public servants shows an alarming disregard of its own history in making such attacks today.

We must call this out for what it is – religious bigotry.

The reactions were fierce, to say the least.

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