Shane Claiborne and Omar Saif Ghobash
Called and Conflicted
Omar Saif Ghobash is now the assistant minister for cultural affairs in the Cabinet of the United Arab Emirates. He was formerly UAE ambassador to France and Russia. His book is Letters to a Young Muslim.
Krista Tippett, host: Spiritual border crossing and social creativity — these were some of the echoes in a conversation between Shane Claiborne and Omar Saif Ghobash. Though they are two humans with very different stories, they’ve both lived with some discomfort within the religious group to which they belong and have chosen and continued to love. Omar is a diplomat of the United Arab Emirates, and author of Letters to a Young Muslim. One of his responses to the politicization of Islam in the early century has been to bring a new art gallery culture, places for thought and beauty, to Dubai. Shane Claiborne is a singular figure in Evangelical Christianity as co-founder of The Simple Way, an intentional neighborhood-based community in North Philadelphia. One of the things he’s doing now is to adapt the biblical commandment to turn swords into plowshares for modern times.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]
Shane Claiborne: I just spent 40 days traveling around the country, melting guns into tools. But there’s something that happens at the forge that goes beyond words. It moves the heart to see folks from different faiths, from different backgrounds, that come and take the same hammer and beat a piece of metal that was designed to kill into a piece of metal that is designed to cultivate life.
Omar Saif Ghobash: Shane, an indelicate question — what is the time between receiving the guns and actually converting them into something artistic?
Mr. Claiborne: About ten seconds. There’s all these Christian pastors that keep telling their people to bring guns to church because we should have guns in church. We’re like, “This is insane.” So, we have BYOG Sundays — bring your own gun — but we lay them on the altar, and we melt them down. And we don’t let ten minutes go by without chopping one of those in half. So they come with a gun, they leave with a plow.
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. This conversation took place at the invitation of Interfaith Philadelphia. We met in a synagogue — Congregation Rodeph Shalom — in a month that had been preceded by violent global attacks on a synagogue, a mosque, and a church.
Ms. Tippett: Just before I came out here, I checked Twitter. I’m sorry to say that I do that a little obsessively, at times. And this is what came up: someone named Qasim Rashid, saying, “My faith and my duty as a neighbor command me, if any synagogue in Virginia needs help with security, I’ll stand guard. An attack on a synagogue is an attack on all houses of worship.” And then Rabbi Latz replied to him, saying, “And if your mosques need us to stand guard, I’m there, my brother. I’m there. Our love is stronger than their hate.”
So my point is, this too happens on Twitter, and this, too — this too is the story of our time.
Tonight, what I want us to engage on is less about what you stand over against than the generative story that you are both trying to write and make for the beyond of this moment, how the traditions and communities that you are distinctively part of shape the lives you lead and the lives you’re working to influence, and how you understand your traditions and the lives you live within them to distinctively contribute to the reality of this moment of great global tumult in which each of us is working out our lives of faith and theology and spirit as civic beings.
I want to start, Omar, with you. I have this question I always ask, whoever I’m speaking with, which is, if I ask you to think about the religious and spiritual background of your childhood, how would you begin to talk about that?
Mr. Ghobash: Very complicated, then, I’d say.
Ms. Tippett: It is complicated, with you.
Mr. Ghobash: If I could just say — on my way here and over the last few days, I’ve been thinking, I don’t necessarily have this very peaceful or at-peace message to come up with. For me, these questions are still very active, and with every single terrorist incident, I think again and again about the issues that we talk about, that we’re going to probably talk about tonight.
So my mother is Russian. She comes from a traditional Russian Orthodox background, even though she grew up in the Soviet Union. And my father was a Muslim who died in 1977, Arab Muslim from the Gulf, the Arabian Gulf. And since he died when we were very, very young, it was very difficult to get any kind of moral compass. It wasn’t as though we were integrated into a wider community. And so I spent a great deal of time trying to understand exactly where we fit into the world. My Muslim friends who were more traditionally brought up were brought up in a very homogenous community, both parents Arab, Muslim. They could trace their lineage back, maybe not 100 generations, but at least three.
We couldn’t do that, and so we were missing that kind of net of meaning. And so I looked for it in literature. I tried to find it in the school mosque, tried to find it with my foreign friends. Overall, I’d say it was a very, very difficult experience. And when I was about 12, I became incredibly devout, to the extent where I’d describe myself now as a fundamentalist; an extremist, actually. And I discovered, actually, that for that year of extremism, I got actually a bit depressed, because I had cut myself off from all of my friends, whether they were Christian, Lebanese, or Muslim-but-not-devout-enough. And it was a miserable year.
Ms. Tippett: Your book is A Letter to a Young Muslim, and it’s directed to your son, but it’s also very much about your father, who you lost when you were six. He was shot and killed in 1977 at the Abu Dhabi International Airport.
Mr. Ghobash: That’s correct.
Ms. Tippett: And I think the shooter was a young Palestinian, and actually, the intended target was a Syrian minister. It’s very moving, how you — I feel like in the act of writing to your young son, you also excavated part of yourself. And you have these ages, these numbers, these ages that were thresholds for you, coming out of that experience. And one of them was six; that when your son turned six, you could see how he was at six and that that’s how old you were when you lost your father.
Mr. Ghobash: Yes, absolutely.
Ms. Tippett: And then, 19.
Mr. Ghobash: Nineteen — 19 is the age of the young man who killed my father. And it was at that age that I said to myself — I’d looked forward to that age, to ask myself whether I could conceive of taking up a weapon and killing somebody. And I reached that age, and I was like, “I’m still a child. I have no idea what’s right and wrong in this world, but I do know that you can’t do that.” And so that was a big age, for me.
Ms. Tippett: There’s more to talk about. We’ll keep talking.
Shane, many years ago I asked you this question about how you’d start to describe the religious or spiritual background of your life. What I think is a little bit magic about that question is that it changes, depending on where you are in your life. So I’m curious how you would start to talk about that now.
Mr. Claiborne: Well, I grew up, as you know, down South. I’ve still retained a little of my Southern charm after 20 years in Philly.
But it was the Bible Belt. And we had Christian music, Christian bumper stickers. We even had Christian candy that was Testamints.
I kid you not. You can’t make — mints wrapped in a Bible verse.
And that was my world. And somehow, through all the clutter of that, I did fall in love with Jesus. My tradition growing up was the United Methodist Church. But then it felt a little lifeless, at times, so I levitated towards a Pentecostal church in the town. I got re-baptized, because they didn’t do the sprinkling thing; you had to go all the way underwater. So I had to do it again.
But I really, I just kept leaning in, falling deeper in love with Jesus and seeing the spirit moving in different traditions. And then I really began to find myself conflicted with a lot of the things that had come to characterize Evangelical Christianity. Ironically, we also had country music down South, so it was like, we had songs — “This house is protected by the good Lord and a gun, and if you come uninvited, you’ll meet ‘em both, son.”
I was like, wow, this is different. And people think of Evangelical Christians, and they think anti-gay, anti-women, pro-death penalty, pro-military, pro-guns. And those things — the deeper I fell in love with Jesus, the more I felt myself at odds with many of those political values. And I ended up coming up here to Philadelphia and continuing my quest towards my faith and learned a lot from Catholics, worked in India for a while with Mother Theresa.
So I’ve just kept learning what it means to be Christian. And I’ve found that a lot of Christians are good at defining what we believe but not translating that into a real way of living, and that’s why we worship Jesus, but we don’t always do the things he told us to do. So the last 20 years, we’ve been forming a little community here on the northside of Philly, which I invited Omar to, next time you’re in town. And we love it.
Ms. Tippett: And talk about the origin story of The Simple Way, started in 1995, with you — you and, I think, some other students — becoming aware of dozens of homeless families who’d moved into an abandoned church in North Philadelphia and were being told that they had to get out or be arrested.
Mr. Claiborne: Eastern University, where I went, is about a half-hour outside of the city, and we had read in the newspaper — I’ll never forget, one of my friends just came and threw down this newspaper and said, “You gotta look at this.” And what the newspaper talked about was the response of the Catholic Church, which was that they had 48 hours to get out, or they could be arrested for trespassing. [laughs] Something about that just didn’t quite feel right.
But these families hung a banner on the front of the cathedral, and it said, “How can we worship a homeless man on Sunday and ignore one on Monday?” And it was catalytic for us. Many of us organized a student movement, at our college and others, and really came to stand in solidarity with those families, who lived there for months and months, and many of them got housing. They’re incredible friends and heroes of mine, to this day.
And it was out of that that we — ironically, in the ruins of that abandoned Catholic church, our vision for what it really means to be church and to live out our faith was borne out of that. We said, “Let’s stop complaining about the church that we see and work on becoming the church that we dream of.”
[music: “The Forest in Bloom” by Drew Barefoot]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, a live conversation with Shane Claiborne and Amb. Omar Saif Ghobash.
Ms. Tippett: You two can speak to each other, so if you want to jump in and ask a question or respond to something that the other says, you don’t have to be dependent, go through me.
So I want to talk about something that I think is quite different. One impatience I have sometimes with simplistic ideas about what it means to have a civil conversation is that, somehow, we just celebrate what we have in common and don’t actually focus on our really beautiful and the particularities that in fact make us interesting to each other.
It seems to me that there’s a core dynamic in the trajectory the two of you have been on, which is quite different. So for you, Shane, you’ve said somewhere that the critical piece of formation in your path and for The Simple Way is the discovery of community. And yet, for you, Omar, there’s this tension between revelation and reason; for you, the countercultural move is actually asserting the importance of the individual.
Mr. Ghobash: Yes, exactly. Well, a few days ago somebody said to me — it was a political figure — he said, “You’re a rebel.” And I said, “No, I’m not a rebel. I just don’t like groupthink.” And he said, “Exactly. You’re a rebel.”
I get worried when everybody in a room agrees on something, because I think, “You’re hiding something, or there’s something you don’t see.” And it just doesn’t feel healthy. And so I need to push back.
But it’s also because I feel that, especially with the rise of the internet and all of these social technologies — even before social media — there was, in a sense, a discovery of the world around us. And as we were growing up in the Middle East, it was a very bleak kind of existence, very bleak outlook, very little color in it. And all of a sudden, you saw all of these different things that could entice you, that set off buttons that allowed you to begin to say, “Actually, I identify with these things and not with those.”
And we all wear the same clothes in the Gulf countries: all the men dressed in white — we all look the same; all the women dressed in black — they all look the same, no sign of any individuality. But as you observe people, you begin to see these tiny instances of individuality, and I think that’s a growing movement, and if it’s being displayed in our outer form, it’s certainly bubbling up underneath.
And I think that’s something, also, the political authorities are beginning to understand is taking place, but they have no idea how to really relate to it. As you see, you have the change in leadership in Algeria, the protests in Sudan recently. All of this is a sign of people wanting to live their lives, not the life the community insists that they lead.
Ms. Tippett: Right. Shane, talk about — because in this culture of extreme individualism, there’s someplace you described — that when you started The Simple Way, you talked for many, many, many hours, summing up the entire mission as: “Love God, love people, and follow Jesus.”
Mr. Claiborne: [laughs] It took us a long time to get back to that.
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] OK, but then, over the years now, you’ve had to put so much flesh on those bones; and the balance between orthodoxy and orthopraxis, what is believed and what is lived; but that the holder of all of that is community. The accountability is community. And it’s kind of un-American.
Mr. Claiborne: Well, I think of community, and I think of God; in my own faith journey, I’ve come to see God as an expression of community. And we would talk about that as creator, son, spirit — that there’s this dynamic of God that is communal, and we’re made in the image of God. And when the first human is made, and the breath is breathed into the dirt, it’s not pronounced really good until they’re helping one another. So that communal image is there from the beginning.
But I think, related to this, what I would say is that “oneness” doesn’t mean “sameness.” And unity doesn’t mean uniformity, but actually, the most powerful unity happens in the midst of diversity. So I like saying that we are about harmonizing but not homogenizing. We’re all singing in a symphony, and it’s beautiful because there is a diversity.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow from Philadelphia, a great teacher and hero in our city, he talks about sameness as the way of empires and corporations; everything is uniform. But the Creator made diversity, so all of us have a unique fingerprint and DNA. And there’s this beautiful diversity built into everything that God has made. So I love that. It’s also a part of why we have so much division, I think, is we can’t find that unity in the midst of it. So it’s a wild dichotomy, right?
Even in the Christian Church — we wrote this book of prayer called Common Prayer, and as we were trying to bring Christian traditions together, we found out that there are over 30,000 Christian denominations. [laughs] And Jesus’s longest prayer is that we would be one, as God is one. Wow.
We gotta get this thing together.
But yeah, so I think that’s part of the tension that we hold.
Ms. Tippett: Yes, and there’s something utterly natural about that too, even as it makes things very challenging.
Here’s some lines from Letters to a Young Muslim that I love. “Life is diverse. Living is to live with difference. Anyone telling you that different should be stamped out is stamping out life. Those people insisting that there are black and white answers to the difficult questions are stamping out the diversity that is inherent within us.”
Mr. Ghobash: Thank you. I liked it too. [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] I think we should collect questions. Just pass them down.
Mr. Ghobash: Can I just respond, also? I’m not against community. I just want community to expand its sense of who can belong.
Ms. Tippett: Oh, I know you’re not against community. [laughs] No, it’s just that the emphasis, for you, is different.
Mr. Ghobash: I had to justify my individuality, since I felt excluded from the community right from the start.
Mr. Claiborne: Wow.
Mr. Ghobash: So I had no choice but to accept that I was different. People can be very idealistic about their values, but when push comes to shove, I had a Russian mother. It mattered. And no matter how hard I tried, you’re not fully a member. And so I began to — rather than persecute and torment myself for being different, I realized I couldn’t be responsible for my parents’ choices, but I could redefine the value. And I could actually begin to say — actually, what I thought was, “There must be so many people who feel excluded in the same way that I do.” And I discovered that actually, the vast majority of people feel that they’re excluded and they have to bow down and submit to some leader-type mentality out there.
Ms. Tippett: And something that you also come back to again and again, in your letters to your sons, just gets at one of the — I would say, a very mysterious tension about being alive. And you’re a diplomat, which to me fits with this — that you were saying — and Shane, you do this in your own way, too — reality is complex. And the moral challenge is very often in areas of gray. It’s very often where the black-and-white answers — which we all actually long for and which our traditions sometimes provide — where that’s not enough; where we still have to develop moral conscience and make complicated decisions, to live with the world as it is and not as we wish it to be.
Mr. Ghobash: Well, I notice that amongst very extreme preachers in the Islamic world, they’ll often talk about the beauties of nature and how they want to withdraw into the mountains or into the countryside and live like that. And I think, “Well, that’s all great, but you’re not actually testing your faith in the city, where really, that’s where life is really complicated. And you should be helping people to actually achieve their faith in complex environments.”
I hope I persuaded you with that. [laughs]
Mr. Claiborne: Good; that’s good.
I was just thinking, there’s a lot of those same tendencies in the Christian tradition, too. There’s a lot of communities that pull themselves out of society to try to be this utopian kind of thing. And that was true even in Jesus’s day, these folks that would — the Essenes and other groups that kind of moved out of the world — and Jesus’s teaching is that we would be light in the darkness, is at the very heart of what community — and “community” is — for me, a part of that is, like, the way that you put a fire out is by scattering it out, and the way that you keep a fire alive is by stoking it. So community, for us, I think, is about keeping that fire alive. And it’s easy to blow out a candle, but hard to put out a fire. And I think the intersectional justice and all the stuff that we’re talking about is finding ways that we can sing the same song of love right now.
Ms. Tippett: I also think, as a journalist, that this narrative, this reality, the fire that you say, it’s bigger than we realize, and the story you’re telling about this quiet evolution that is happening, that’s not in The New York Times today —
Mr. Ghobash: No, it’s not.
Ms. Tippett: No. We also have to take as seriously the generative narrative, the things that are going right, and actually — in journalism, which is the official way we tell the story of our time, we absolutely privilege the catastrophic.
Mr. Claiborne: I heard someone say, “We don’t cover planes that land.”
And “If it bleeds, it leads.” I think, in the Christian church too, it’s very clear that some of the loudest voices haven’t been the most beautiful, and some of the beautiful voices haven’t been amplified like they should. I think that’s true in almost every tradition. We’ve had extremists for hatred that — no one kills with more passion than when they think God is on their side. So they’ve hijacked the headlines with hatred. And you can have one pastor in Florida that burns the Qur’an, and all of a sudden, that hijacks the narrative of what Christians believe —
Ms. Tippett: But that’s such a good example, because that pastor in Florida who burned the Qur’an, the Evangelical community of that city rallied against that. And that story didn’t get told. It was this one outlier, and he got all the investigation and all the coverage, as though that told the story of the whole, which it didn’t.
There’s so much of that.
Mr. Claiborne: That’s why we like On Being.
Ms. Tippett: One hour a week.
[music: “Balti” by Blue Dot Sessions]
Ms. Tippett: After a short break, more with Shane Claiborne and Omar Saif Ghobash. This conversation was the capstone event of Interfaith Philadelphia’s own year of social creativity — including partnerships, major public gatherings, and trainings. Their year of civil conversations was inspired by — and drew on — On Being’s Civil Conversations Project — especially our “Six Grounding Virtues” and “Better Conversations: A Starter Guide.” You can find these and learn more at civilconversationsproject.org.
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, spiritual border-crossing and social creativity with Evangelical Christian innovator Shane Claiborne and Ambassador Omar Saif Ghobash of the United Arab Emirates. He wrote the book Letters to a Young Muslim. Rev. Jesse Garner of the First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia took questions from a live audience at Congregation Rodeph Shalom.
Rev. Jesse Garner: “If you could go back to immediately after 9/11, what questions do you wish we had been asking each other then? And are they the same questions that we would ask today?”
Ms. Tippett: Such a good question.
Mr. Ghobash: After 9/11, immediately? Let you go first?
Ms. Tippett: Shane, you’ve thought about this a lot.
Mr. Claiborne: Well, I think after every tragedy, it exposes our character in the midst of the rawness of that. And I was just with some of the Amish community after — we’ve been melting guns into plows around the country. And one of those was, we melted a gun in Lancaster, in the area where there was the terrible school shooting in the Amish school over a decade ago.
And the response of the Amish was stunning. They lost a bunch of their kids, but then they went to be with the shooter’s family to accompany them in their grief. And they pooled their money together and began to create scholarships for the children of Charlie Roberts that killed their kids. And they went to the funerals together.
And out of all of that, there was immense healing that did not ignore the terrible thing that was done, but that did not mirror it, either. And I had the chance to meet the mother of Charlie Roberts, and she told the story of this Amish man holding her husband as they just wept together. And we reflected on that. And I think part of what we’ve got to do is have a chance to ask the questions of how do we live in a world where violence and hatred is real, without mirroring the same thing that we’re trying to heal the world of? So how do we, in fighting the beast, not become the beast?
And that’s certainly what happened right after 9/11, is, we became the very violence that we abhorred. So I think that’s what I would hope for, is that we would have a moment to pause and say, “What is really going to heal the wounds of what happened to us, and how do we respond, honoring the anger and fear and pain without it extending that trauma and exacerbating those wounds and creating a whole bunch of new victims that lose their kids in the same way we lost ours?”
Ms. Tippett: You’re on.
Mr. Ghobash: Wow. So I’ve been given a few minutes to think about it; I still haven’t made progress. I’d go back and I wasn’t saying, “What could we have done?” And I think, in the Arab world, we should’ve asked ourselves some serious questions and given ourselves honest answers. The issue was that we said, “It’s a question of our image in the West, and so we want to go and hire all these consultancies and all these lobbyists and start thinking about setting up TV channels.”
And the reality was that we had to look at the machine, the religious machine that we had set up and, to a large extent, what was being funded, either by governments or by private individuals. And it may have been just inertia or laziness or fear of — people like me, we didn’t have the opportunity to really speak to the right people about what was going on — so, again, access to power, and then the security in which you could speak to that power. Those were questions that may have hindered some of the progress that we tried to make.
So my personal reaction was: art gallery; then, spending two years trying to persuade New York University to open in the Emirates. And the reason for New York University — someone said, “Well, why don’t you go to Columbia?” And I said, “Well, because I want it to be downtown. I want downtown to understand us, where the pain took place.” And these were all indirect methods of repairing the damage and allowing us, also, to reflect on what had happened. In the Emirates, we’re not particularly responsible for anything, and yet, as Muslims and as people who, I suppose, had maybe turned a blind eye to radical thought and who had treated it either as a joke or as something that was to be taken seriously, but never conceived of actually taking place — I think that I’d go back and say, with hindsight, it was grossly negligent on our part.
Rev. Garner: How does art in the Middle East bring about change?
Mr. Ghobash: Well, my reason for opening an art gallery was because I wanted to access the minds of those around me. I felt that we were always wearing different kinds of masks, and we weren’t necessarily open to the idea of discussing things. But I wanted to see how people perceived the world around me. And so there’s — a lot of what came out initially in the art gallery was very political art, very violence-oriented art or reactions to violence. And I thought that was a little boring; it was a bit obvious.
And we managed to expand — we managed to find artists who were doing other things. And all of a sudden, what we realized was, actually, people started replicating this model of having a gallery that was a platform for artists, and now, in that area — we had a warehouse and we were opened illegally — that whole area has now been re-designated an art district. And kids are actually finding that they are able to express their anger, frustration, the turmoil — they’re able to express themselves through art and actually make a living as an artist.
And that was always something that was in my mind — that you couldn’t be an artist in the Arab world, or at least in our part of the Arab world, because it was inconceivable, just as you couldn’t be an economist, because there was no data. You had to beg the government for data. You couldn’t be a philosopher, because nobody was interested in listening to you or because you wouldn’t be able to put your ideas out there in the first place. There was no platform. So art was just one way in which we could tackle those issues. There are a whole bunch of other ways, as well.
Ms. Tippett: I was thinking, Shane, I looked at the mission statement, I think, of The Simple Way is “Together, cultivating a neighborhood we can be proud of.” And I actually thought, Omar, that this was a version of that.
Mr. Ghobash: [laughs] It wasn’t pride, it was a desire to influence the world around myself in a way that I could do, because I couldn’t change government policy. But I could, with a tiny pinprick, set off a little — the art gallery, I can’t believe has actually survived so long, but it has. And there was a snowball effect, so that was very exciting.
Ms. Tippett: We talk about social change; we need social creativity. We need social courage. And that’s the dimension of this that you are nourishing.
Mr. Ghobash: I think I’d agree with that.
Mr. Claiborne: I think that there’s a beautiful writer, Walter Brueggemann, that talks about the prophetic imagination. And he says, sometimes we misunderstand the biblical prophets, and we think that they were just trying to foretell the future. But they were actually trying to change the present. They were trying to lead us into a different future, to stir our imaginations to refuse to accept the status quo as normal and to build something new. And one of the things that the prophets Micah and Isaiah speak of is beating swords into plows and spears into pruning hooks. And that imagination is what stirred our work to invite people to donate guns, because …
Ms. Tippett: To get literal about that.
Mr. Claiborne: … we don’t have a ton of swords, but we have a lot of guns. And so we invited people to donate them. And I just spent 40 days traveling around the country, melting guns into tools.
But there’s something that happens at the forge that goes beyond words. It’s that imagination and creativity. And it moves the heart to see folks that may not — from different faiths, from different backgrounds, that come and take the same hammer and beat a piece of metal that was designed to kill into a piece of metal that is designed to cultivate life. And certainly, something that conservatives and liberals often have in common is that they’ve lost their imagination, and they’ve lost their joy. They’ve lost their hope. And we end up rehashing some of the same arguments, over and over again.
Mr. Ghobash: Shane, an indelicate question — what is the time between receiving the guns and actually converting them into something artistic?
Mr. Claiborne: About ten seconds. There’s all these Christian pastors that keep telling their people to bring guns to church because we should have guns in church. We’re like, “This is insane.” So, we have BYOG Sundays — bring your own gun — but we lay them on the altar, and we melt them down. And we don’t let ten minutes go by without chopping one of those in half. So they come with a gun, they leave with a plow.
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today with Shane Claiborne and Omar Saif Ghobash, who’s served as Ambassador for the United Arab Emirates to France and Russia.
Rev. Garner: “How have relationships with people of other faith traditions impacted your own prayer life?”
Mr. Ghobash: Well, in my life, I find that I seek them out. So when I was in Moscow — I was in Moscow for ten years — some of my closest friends were from the Lubavitcher community. We got on incredibly well. I loved the nuggets of wisdom that I was showered with, and it was wonderful to reach out to, essentially, the other side.
And I think, also, when I was at boarding school, my exposure to the sermons on — well, actually, we were in chapel almost every day, so there was a sermon every day — it showed me a different way in which you could communicate about faith. And I certainly think that in our part of the world, the traditional sermon on Friday used to be a very, very fiery, aggressive, and violent type of denunciation of everybody else. And I felt that I actually knew everybody else, and I thought that that was unfair. So I think some of that is now sinking into our own consciousness, that the other is not so horrible.
Mr. Claiborne: Boy, I learned so much being among Muslim communities as I was in Iraq, and especially just about the devotion. I’m thinking, my gosh, it was hard for me to spend ten minutes in quiet, and here, multiple times a day, this prayer life. And so I learned a lot from that about discipline and centering yourselves in prayer.
And the commonality — I’ve learned to read my own faith better by listening to others. And one of my rabbi friends, he says — we were talking about the death penalty. And he’s like, “We don’t agree on some things, you and I, but the death penalty, we totally agree on.” He said, “The Jewish community did away with the death penalty a long time ago.” He talks about how all that worked itself out, and he says, “The irony is, it’s Christians that are abusing Hebrew scripture to justify the death penalty. And you guys have the nagging problem of Jesus to deal with.”
I love it. I keep finding my own faith deepened as I talk with others and pray with others.
Ms. Tippett: I think that, in fact, is the paradox of meaningful interfaith or cross-religious relationship; that you — at one and the same time, actually, the soil beneath your own feet is richer. You know your own identity better, and the world is larger because of the existence of this.
Mr. Ghobash: Can I say, it just popped into my head, last Christmas I was actually in Moscow. It was Christmas evening, and I was at a synagogue — they have restaurants in the synagogues there. And I was with one of the chief rabbis — they have two — and it was a very, very strange evening, a Muslim, a Jewish rabbi, and we were celebrating Christmas …
… each in his own way, of course, but … [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Is that all the questions? OK. Oh, I want to thank you, Shane, for — you have this language — I feel like with words like “interfaith,” they don’t quite sum it up. And there a lot of — interfaith, “ecumenical” is another terrible word. I remember this Paulist priest saying, “Ecumenism is that which, if we had a better word for, we would have more of.” That’s his definition of ecumenism.
And I feel like it’s so important, when we are speaking of these experiences, which in fact are transformative, that we try to always keep a really fresh and vivid ecosystem of words and say what we’re saying, rather than let these labels — and you have this language, which I feel is a synonym for “interfaith,” Shane: “spiritual border-crossing.” I like that.
I’m just going to ask two more questions. I feel like we’ve been touching on this, but I want to go a little more deeply into it. It’s true that both Islam and Christianity have a self-understanding of themselves as “religions of peace.” And we’ve talked about some of the ways peace is not where we are. But I’d like to know — and you, Omar, you really go into this in the book; you really reflect on this — what would it mean, and what does it mean to you, that the empty phrase doesn’t do it, but it can be meaningful? So what does it mean, for you, and how does it manifest, that Islam is a religion of peace?
Mr. Ghobash: Well, I’m still discovering it. I do realize that it requires more than just individual conviction. It actually requires political conviction. It requires direction of financial resources, these choices that people can make. It requires, strangely, even regulation, bureaucracies, either taking apart bureaucracies or putting them together. And what I tried to do in my book, in a very short manner, is to almost poke fun at the idea that we’re a religion of peace, and yet we’re at war with ourselves and everybody else.
I also think a little about the patriarchal systems that we have in place. I spent a bit of time speaking to — well, I spent a bit of time in Jordan with very religious people, very, very devout. And you speak to the head of the family, and he was fine with the system; “Islam is a fantastic thing. We’re all about family values.” And you speak to the women, and they’re like, “I can’t wait to get out of here.” It’s emotional violence and psychological violence. And so, when you think about peace and you think about, say, extremism and terrorism, there’s also the micro-terrorism, the micro-extremism, the micro-violence that takes place within all of these homes. So that’s where I really think we need to make some changes, so that we’re not so used to the violence that happens in our everyday life that we can then take it out into the broader world.
I am very, very optimistic, though, given the changes in the political environment in the Gulf states in the Middle East today. But yeah, OK, in the next hundred years, we may make some progress.
Mr. Claiborne: One of my friends, Richard Rohr, Father Richard Rohr, he says the best critique of what’s wrong is the practice of something better. And there are lots of versions of Christianity that, to me, they don’t look a lot like Jesus. So I see that. And I think one of the questions becomes, whatever our faith is, as we’re worshipping God, is it making us more loving? Is it making us more lifegiving? Because I think we end up replicating the God that we worship, and so, sometimes, what’s so important is, what is the character of the God that we are adoring and loving and who is hopefully changing us? And so in community, sometimes you get a lot of donations, and you end up — before you drink milk, you want to smell it, have it pass the sniff test. And I think a lot of Christianity doesn’t pass the sniff test. It doesn’t smell like Jesus. It doesn’t feel like love.
And for a lot of our faiths, I think that’s the question, is, does it smell like love? Because no matter what our theology is, if, at the end of the day, it doesn’t help us love more deeply, then I wonder if we’re really leaning into the God who, in my faith tradition, says, “God is love.” No one has seen God, but if we love one another, we see God present among us. And so that’s really what faith should do to us, I think. And when we see distortions of our faith — that’s the power of Muslims that are speaking against ISIS and extremist forms and risking their lives doing that. And I feel the same duty to try to sing a better song than some of the toxic Christianity that has distorted my faith. And what we’ve seen are some of the deep roots of that that are so problematic and so unlike Jesus and the values.
But I’m hopeful, because I see a whole generation that’s rising up. And I think that water doesn’t boil one big bubble. It begins to steam, and it begins to bubble up, and I see that happening all over our country right now, and people of many different faiths, many different intersections of justice, joining hands and saying, “None of us are free until all of us are free.” And even though we may find ourselves at odds with some of the people of our own faith, we will find ourselves joining hands with people, folks of other faiths that share in common this vision of love and justice and freedom for everyone.
Mr. Ghobash: In response, I’ve got to be really brief. I despair at the state of the Arab world; I think the state of the Arab world has, obviously, a tremendous effect on global Islam. I am hopeful, because my sabbatical ends in September, so I’ll be back to work.
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] And you’ll take care of it.
Mr. Ghobash: Of course. [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: I don’t know why — why is this event taking me back to the early days of the show? But it is. There was this question, when I started talking about speaking about this subject, this aspect of the human enterprise. There was a question about whether that could be relevant to the world, and whether, if people did have religious lives, public radio listeners, if they didn’t just want to keep it private. We’re arguably in a more tumultuous moment now than we were then. And yet, I feel like this conversation — well, first of all, I feel like everything you’ve been doing in this city for the last year and have poised yourself to keep doing, and this conversation tonight is such a witness that while the institutions of religion, like all of our institutions, are in flux now — all of them are being remade — this voice from deep inside religious tradition, the insights of theology, the wisdom that comes from this relationship with text over millennia, with the conversation across generations that is at the heart of our traditions, is very, is profoundly — “relevant” is not a big enough word. So I’m really grateful for this demonstration of that and again, grateful to all of you for creating this space for us to have this vivid reminder.
Thank you for having On Being in Philadelphia, and thank you, Shane and Omar.
[music: “Lush” by Four Tet]
Ms. Tippett: Shane Claiborne is the founder of The Simple Way, an intentional community in North Philadelphia. He’s recently written a book, Beating Guns, about the movement he co-leads to transform America’s guns into garden tools. His other books include The Irresistible Revolution.
His Excellency Omar Saif Ghobash is now the Assistant Minister for Cultural Affairs in the Cabinet of the United Arab Emirates. He was formerly ambassador to France and Russia. His book is Letters to a Young Muslim.
Special thanks this week to Abby Stamelman Hocky, Amanda Scates-Preisinger and all of the wonderful people at Interfaith Philadelphia; and to Ray Stokes for his wonderful sound engineering support for this event. A grateful shout-out also to our long-time friends and partners at WHYY Philadelphia.
Staff: The On Being Project is Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Erinn Farrell, Laurén Dørdal, Tony Liu, Erin Colasacco, Kristin Lin, Profit Idowu, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Lucas Johnson, Damon Lee, Suzette Burley, Katie Gordon, Zack Rose, Serri Graslie, Nicole Finn, and Colleen Scheck.
Ms. Tippett: The On Being Project is located on Dakota Land. Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing at the end of our show is Cameron Kinghorn.
On Being is an independent production of The On Being Project. It is distributed to public radio stations by PRX. I created this show at American Public Media.
Our funding partners include:
The John Templeton Foundation. Harnessing the power of the sciences to explore the deepest and most perplexing questions facing human kind. Learn about cutting-edge research on the science of generosity, gratitude, and purpose at templeton.org/discoveries.
The Fetzer Institute, helping to build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Find them at fetzer.org.
Kalliopeia Foundation, working to create a future where universal spiritual values form the foundation of how we care for our common home.
Humanity United, advancing human dignity at home and around the world. Find out more at humanityunited.org, part of the Omidyar Group.
The George Family Foundation, in support of the Civil Conversations Project.
The Osprey Foundation — a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives.
And the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education.
Funding provided in part by the John Templeton Foundation. The Templeton Foundation supports research and civil dialogue on the deepest and most perplexing questions facing humankind: Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going? To learn more, please visit templeton.org.