Is It Time For Faith-Based Diplomacy?

In Madeleine Albright's latest book, The Mighty and the Almighty, the former Secretary of State and former U.N ambassador in the Clinton administration explores the uses and abuses of faith in international affairs and calls for world leaders to develop a greater understanding of how religious perspectives can contribute to resolving global conflicts.

Alice Chasan: You've devoted much of this book to chronicling the ways in which diplomats and world leaders are tone deaf to the power of religion. Why is that the case?

Madeleine Albright: It's not a matter of not understanding or having their own personal faith. But, what had happened is that I think there was a sense that certain conflicts were so complicated, that to bring God and religion into them was an additional complicating factor, because there were so many diverse ideas. And if there's one thing that always gets people excited, it's their different interpretations of religion. So, the best thing people thought was, you know, this is hard enough. Let's not bring God and religion into it.

And I feel especially now that the opposite needs to be true--is that in order to try to resolve conflicts we need to find the common aspects of the three great Abrahamic religions.

AC: What is the downside of world leaders failing to understand religion's power?

MA: Let me say this flat out: I am not a theologian. And I am not a minister of the faith. I am a problem-solver. So, from the problem-solving aspect, it means that you are actually leaving out a potential way for trying to get religious leaders more specifically involved in trying to break down the problem and bring people together.

The downside is you're leaving out a very important potential solution.

AC: Was 9/11 the cause for your writing this book?

MA: Certainly the most proximate cause, but I have to say that as Secretary of State, it was very evident to me that we had to learn more about Islam specifically. And also, that it was clear that certain issues began to be viewed very much through a religious prism, for instance, the North/South issue in Sudan. Or that we needed to be much more aware of the fact that as far as [the Israeli and Palestinian claims on] Jerusalem was concerned, that it certainly wasn't just a real estate problem. It was an issue of both sides believing that that land was given to them by God.

So, President Clinton did a lot of reading of the holy books during Camp David. And there was a sense more and more that we needed to understand better the force of religion. But 9/11 was the proximate cause.

AC: You point out that President Bush is only the latest in the long line of presidents, virtually all of them, in fact, who have brought religious perspectives into their governance of this country. What is it about President Bush's religious views that worries you so much?

MA: Frankly, when I started out writing, I thought that President Bush was an anomaly in American history, but he's not. Every American president has invoked God. I think the thing about President Bush that really distinguishes him is his certainty about what he believes that God wants, to the point where, in the book, I have a quote where he says, "God wants me to be President." And then, the sense that God is on our side versus the way that President Lincoln said it is we have to be on God's side. What makes President Bush different is I think he has made his own religion policy, rather than just in forming his faith.

AC: In the book, you say, "The challenge for policymakers is to harness the unifying potential of faith while containing the capacity to divide." Can you give an example of a leader who has succeeded in harnessing the unifying power of faith?

MA: Somebody like Bishop Tutu in South Africa, who found common threads and then was the person behind the Reconciliation Commission in South Africa that helped to move the country forward. And in many ways, the activities of Pope John Paul II, who was looking for common aspects of faith. Frankly, there have not been enough secular leaders who have, in fact, looked for the unifying factors.

AC: If you were Secretary of State today, would your perspective on the relationship between religion and international affairs affect how you would deal with the post-9/11 world, as opposed to Condoleezza Rice's handling of that office?

MA: Well, for--for starters, a lot of this is process. But, I would make sure that I had religious advisers, because the Secretary of State can't do everything or be an expert on everything. And so I had arms-control advisers and economic advisers, and environmental advisers. And I had one religious adviser, in Bob Seiple.

But, I would have more of those kinds of people. I would make sure that our diplomats were trained to understand the religious backgrounds of the countries where they were going, in addition, obviously, to understanding the culture and language. And I would try to figure out how to use religious leaders in some aspect of conflict resolution--before the diplomats actually sat down at the table. I'm not saying that there should be a substitute for traditional diplomacy. There needs to be some complementarity. And then, I'd use religious leaders as resources, and then, ultimately, as validators.

So, I would be doing that, and I think it would be something even more important as we're dealing with Iraq, we are dealing with some issues that are cultural and ethnic, but some of them are religious. And I think we did not have a full understanding of the various divisions within--among the Shiites or among the Sunnis or the relationship or lack of between them. I can't testify to how much the administration studied this. But, you get the sense that not a great deal of attention was paid to this as various battles are launched on the eve of days that are sacred to Muslim religion, or that there was not initially enough of an understanding in the role of Ayatollah Sistani.

AC: You say that growing up in the United States as an immigrant transformed you into what you call a "confirmed optimist." Can you explain that remark?

MA: I think that this country is so filled with hope and looking forward, or has been. When we brought the Czech Republic into NATO and I was there to give the speech, and I talked about all the hope that would come from it and the new relationships, and generally about what a great moment it was, one of the Czech leaders came up to me and said, "That's such an American speech. You are so optimistic. There's nothing cynical about what you're saying."

And I think America is not cynical. This has been the American attitude. I'm a little troubled it's less so now. But, I grew up in an era where I thought everything was getting better and it was because I got to live in America.

AC: So your attitude about the future of human relations is optimistic. But in your book you described yourself as "an inadequate Christian with doubts." How do you reconcile those two statements about yourself?

MA: Well, I have said that I'm a congenital optimist. But, I'm saying that I'm an optimist who worries a lot. I also am really gratified when I read statements by theologians, such as Paul Tillich or Reinhold Niebuhr, that really indicate that doubt can be a part of faith, that you don't have to have the feeling that you know all the truth while you're on Earth.

And so, the Apostle Paul in Corinthians when he talks about seeing through a glass darkly, is [saying] something that I think allows you to understand that as a human being, as a mortal, you don't need to, nor can you, know the whole truth. That only comes when God reveals it.

AC: You also say that when you arrived in America you were desperate to fit in, while your parents retained their European ways. But now, immigrants' children tend to be more militant about rejecting Western ways. How do you explain the 21st-century twist on this immigrant story?

MA: I was talking more about what happens to this generation in Europe than in America. I came to the United States in 1948, and the '50s were really a melting-pot time. There was this sense that people were proud of their roots, but there was not the whole aspect of thinking about your ethnicity.

And I think people need to be proud of that. Americans, actually, have been pretty good about integrating different groups. The Europeans have not. And therefore, that next generation of people are the ones that feel that they have not had their chance. Like the French rioters, and people who then began to identify with various other parts of their religious or cultural background.

AC: So it's not attributable to religion per se?

MA: I don't think it's attributable to religion. They feel alienated. I think it's a very interesting question, generally, about what makes people turn to religion. And I think one of the reasons is that people need to find some sense of belonging and having some answers, and looking to a higher being. Some of it I think comes from despair; some of it comes from hope.

AC: Has your discovery of your family's Jewish roots affected your perspective on any of these particular conflicts? Certainly, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict comes to mind. But, for that matter, any other facet of international affairs?

MA: No. The truth is that it has not. It clearly is a very personal matter. And my background was always very interesting. Finding out about being Jewish I think just adds to the richness. And I'm very pleased to know that. Finding out that my grandparents died in the Holocaust is something totally different and horrible. I did, obviously, know everything about the Holocaust. I just didn't know it applied to me personally.

But, it has not changed my views because, one, I always thought it was correct for the United States to be supporting Israel as an independent country. I came to the United States when Harry Truman was president and he was the one who recognized Israel. So, it's a very basic part of American foreign policy.

Even before I found all of this out, had a sense that what was happening in the Balkans was wrong and should never happen again. And I certainly understood that genocide was unacceptable. So, it did not affect any of my policy views. It clearly affected a great deal about my personal life and my sense of gratitude to my parents for the fact that they gave me life twice because they took me away from all of that. But also, to understand how much they had suffered in terms of the decisions that they had to make themselves. So, it didn't affect my policy. No.

AC: You made a very intriguing comment about the revelation of your family's background--that it taught you that "our differences should not matter so much." Could you explain?

MA: I think that the final point in my book is basically that we should respect each other as individuals. I use my own life as an example that [labels] don't work, that I was raised as a Catholic, married an Episcopalian, and found out I was Jewish. So, because of choices that were made, I might have been going to a synagogue instead of a church.

Because when the Communists took over Czechoslovakia, my father decided that he couldn't work for them, came to the United States, asked for political asylum, and I grew up as a free American. Had they not decided that, I might be a professor of history in the Czech Republic.

So, one's group identity is determined by accidents or choices. But, ultimately, it's the individual that counts, and every one of the religions and major philosophies have a concept about the importance of the individual.

AC: You cite Abraham Lincoln as the leader you admire greatly. What was it about his understanding about the relationship between God and country that you admire so?

MA: Well, I think that what is so interesting is the number of statements that he made--obviously, primarily during the Civil War. But, kind of the sense that we had to be--that God was not necessarily "on one side." That we had to be on God's side. And kind of a sense more about that element of doubt in faith, not that certainty.

I mean, you know, you can spend your entire life finding germane quotes from Lincoln, but there's no question that he understood the importance of the individual. He believed not that there is an absolute good, but that we do the best we can. I mean, I think there was just such an innate wisdom and a sense of relation to one's faith that he had that I find very inspiring.

AC: Do you think that the United States has a special relationship with God?

MA: I think that the United States is very blessed. But, I don't think that we have an innate right to blithely assume that God blesses America. That we have to try to figure out how to be on God's side and do God's work, but not that God has--that God is on our side.

AC: A final question for you, Madam Secretary: Do you have a favorite prayer?

MA: It's interesting, because this is where my background gets totally confused. I think this fact about how a child is raised, ultimately, has a great effect. And I certainly like The Lord's Prayer, but I love the Hail Mary.

AC: Would you be willing to recite it?

MA: Sure. Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us now and at the time of our death.

This article appeared originally on Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Why Religion Must End

Sam Harris is not your grandfather's atheist. The award-winning writer practices Zen meditation and believes in the value of mystical experiences. But he's adamant in his belief that religion does more harm than good in the world, and has sparked controversy by suggesting that when it comes to faith-based violence, religious moderates are part of the problem, not the solution. 

Laura Sheahen spoke with him about his provocative book "The End of Faith" and his comments at the World Congress of Secular Humanism, where this interview was conducted.

Laura Sheahen: You've said that nonbelievers must try to convince religious people "of the illegitimacy of their core beliefs." Why are these beliefs dangerous?

Sam Harris: On the subject of religious belief, we relax standards of reasonableness and evidence that we rely on in every other area of our lives. We relax so totally that people believe the most ludicrous propositions, and are willing to organize their lives around them. Propositions like "Jesus is going to come back in the next fifty years and rectify every problem that human beings create"--or, in the Muslim world, "death in the right circumstances leads directly to Paradise." These beliefs are not very contaminated with good evidence.

LS: There are beliefs--like kids believing in the tooth fairy--that I wouldn't say are dangerous.

SH: Right. Those are not as consequential. But this whole style of believing and talking about beliefs leaves us powerless to overcome our differences from one another. We have Christians against Muslims against Jews, and no matter how liberal your theology, merely identifying yourself as a Christian or a Jew lends tacit validity to this status quo. People have morally identified with a subset of humanity rather than with humanity as a whole.

LS: You're saying we should be part of the human race, not part of any particular religious or national group?

SH: Yeah. It is still fashionable to believe that how you organize yourself religiously in this life may matter for eternity. Unless we can erode the prestige of that kind of thinking, we're not going to be able to undermine these divisions in our world.

To speak specifically of our problem with the Muslim world, we are meandering into a genuine clash of civilizations, and we're deluding ourselves with euphemisms. We're talking about Islam being a religion of peace that's been hijacked by extremists. If ever there were a religion that's not a religion of peace, it is Islam.

LS: If 9/11 hadn't happened, what would be the example atheists would point to--another egregious, contemporary misuse of religion?

SH:There are so many. Let's take the extreme case, honor killing in the Muslim world. Imagine the psychology of a man who, upon hearing that his daughter was raped, is inspired not to console her, not to seek immediate medical and psychological treatment for her, but to kill her. This is an honor-based, shame-based psychology. You cannot name a Muslim country to my knowledge where it doesn't happen. It even happens in the suburbs of Paris. It falls right out of the theology of Islam.

LS: What are some problems with Judaism and Christianity?

SH: There is no text more barbaric than the Old Testament of the Bible--books like Deuteronomy and Leviticus and Exodus. The Qur'an pales in comparison.

LS: Richard Dawkins, a vocal atheist, has said the Old Testament God is a "psychotic monster."

SH: Not only is the character of God diabolical in those books, but there are explicit prescriptions for how to live that are not metaphors; they are not open to theological judo. God just comes right out and says "stone people" for a list of offenses so preposterous and all-encompassing that the killing never stops. You have to kill people for working on the Sabbath. You kill people for fornication.

LS: Doesn't the evidence show that people take their sacred texts with a grain of salt?

SH: That's the point: in the West, we have delivered the salt. Obviously, people are no longer burning heretics alive in our public squares and that's a good thing. We in the West have suffered a sufficient confrontation with modernity, secular politics, and scientific culture so that even fundamentalist Christians and Orthodox Jews can't really live by the letter of their religious texts.

We now cherry-pick the good parts. That's easier to do with the Bible because the Bible is such a big book and it's so self-contradictory; you can use parts of it to repudiate other parts of it. Unfortunately, the Qur'an is a much shorter and more unified message.

But you ask me what the scariest things are in Christianity: this infatuation with biblical prophecy and this notion that Jesus is going to come back as an avenging savior to kill all the bad people.

LS: Wouldn't it be more accurate to say that Christians believe that Jesus is going to come back, period? They don't necessarily believe that he's going to come back as an avenging person to kill people.

SH: One of the things that is overlooked by many Christians is that there is a wrathful Jesus in the New Testament. Jesus comes out and condemns whole towns to fates worse than Sodom and Gomorrah for not liking his preaching. You can find Jesus in some very foul moods.

Look at the theology of the "Left Behind" series of novels and all the religious extremists in our culture who describe a Jesus coming back with a sword and punishing those who haven't lived in his name.

Cherry-picking is a good thing and it's to be hoped that Muslims will eventually cherry-pick as well. But the Qur'an, virtually on every page, is a manifesto for religious intolerance. I invite readers of your website who haven't read the Qur'an to simply read the book. Take out a highlighter and highlight those lines that counsel the believer to despise infidels, and you will find a book that is just covered with highlighter.

LS: Let's return to your idea that people must be convinced of the "danger and illegitimacy" of their core beliefs. How can they be convinced?

SH: It's a difficult problem because people are highly indisposed to having their core beliefs challenged. But we need to lift the taboos that currently prevent us from criticizing religious irrationality.

LS: How do you bring it up, and in what context? At a party?

SH: I'm not advocating that people challenge everyone's religious beliefs wherever they appear. In a crowded elevator, if someone mentions Jesus and you start barking at them, that's not really the front line of discourse.

Whenever you're standing at a podium or publishing a book or article or an op-ed, that's when it's time to be really rigorous about the standards of evidence.
Interpersonally, we don't challenge everyone's crazy beliefs about medical therapies or alien abduction or astrology or anything else. Yet if the president of the U.S. started talking about how Saturn was coming into the wrong quadrant and is therefore not a good time to launch a war, one would hope that the whole White House press corps would descend on him with a straitjacket. This would be terrifying--to hear somebody with so much power basing any part of his decision-making process on something as disreputable as astrology. Yet we don't have the same response when he's clearly basing some part of his deliberation on faith.

LS: Many people consider America to have been founded as a Christian nation. They think many of the Founding Fathers were specifically Christian and very religious, whereas many secularists argue they weren't. You've said the issue is a dead end.

SH: I just think that it's the wrong battle to fight. Even if the [Founding Fathers] were as religious or deranged by their religiosity as the Taliban, their beliefs now are illegitimate. Secularists are on the right side of the debate and fundamentalists in our culture are distorting history. The Founding Fathers--many believed that slavery was a justifiable practice; we now agree that it's an abomination. Anyone trying to resurrect slavery because Thomas Jefferson, that brilliant man, didn't free the slaves--that's an argument that would be so appalling to us now, in terms of 20th century morality.

LS: You've said the First Amendment is insufficient to protect against encroachments of religion. What would you do  to supplement what the First Amendment does?

SH: I'm not eager to monkey with the Constitution. It has to happen at the level of popular, grassroots expectations of what it means to be a rational, well-educated human being.

LS: You've said that people perceive the word "atheist" as along the lines of "child molester." How should atheists present themselves?

SH: I'm very distrustful of finding the right label because labels are ultimately sloganeering. You had the label the "brights," which is stillborn. I think atheism and secularism are also names that ultimately we don't need. We don't need a name for disbelief in astrology. I don't think we need anything other that rationality and reason and intellectual honesty.

In our society, people are rewarded for pretending to be certain about things they're clearly not certain about. You cannot have presidential aspirations without being willing to pretend to be certain that God exists. You have to pander to the similar convictions of 90% of the American population. 70% of Americans claim to feel that it is important that their president be strongly religious. No aspiring politician can fly in the face of those numbers now, so we are rewarding people for false certainty, false conviction.

Clearly, anyone who claims to be certain that Jesus was literally born of a virgin is lying. He's either lying to himself or he's lying to others. There's no experience you have praying in church that can deliver certainty on that specific point.

LS: You're saying it's not verifiable.

SH: It's just not the kind of thing that spiritual experience validates. You can pray in a room to Jesus and even have an experience of Jesus being bodily present. Jesus shows up with a whole halo and the beard and the robes and it's the best experience of your life. What does that prove? You wouldn't even be in the position to know whether the historical Jesus actually had a beard on the basis of that experience.

Yet one thing I argue in my book is that experiences like that are very interesting and worth exploring. There's no doubt that people have visionary experiences.

There's no doubt that praying to Jesus for 18 hours a day will transform your psychology--and in many ways, transform it for the better. I just think that we don't have to believe anything preposterous in order to understand that. [We can] value the example of Jesus, at least in half his moods, and we should want to discover if there's a way to love your neighbor as yourself and generate the kind of moral psychology that Jesus was talking about.

LS: What is your response to people who like science, who agree with it, but who say "It's not enough, it doesn't satisfy me, I need more?"

SH: With religious moderates, you have people talking about just wanting meaning in their lives, which I argue is a total non-sequitur when it comes down to justifying your belief in God.

If I told you that I thought there was a diamond the size of a refrigerator buried in my backyard, and you asked me, why do you think that? I say, this belief gives my life meaning, or my family draws a lot of joy from this belief, and we dig for this diamond every Sunday and we have this gigantic pit in our lawn. I would start to sound like a lunatic to you. You can't believe there really is a diamond in your backyard because it gives your life meaning. If that's possible, that's self-deception that nobody wants.

LS: What if people prefer self-deception to despair and chaos?

SH: I would argue that is really not the alternative.

LS: What is the alternative? If there's no God who orders things, some people would say there's chaos, it's all random, their life is meaningless. There really is despair out there--especially about evolution.

SH: You don't have to believe in God to have the most extraordinary, mystical experience. Personally, I've spent two years on meditation retreats just meditating in silence for 12-18 hours a day. 

You can try to be a mystic, like Meister Eckhart in the Christian tradition, without believing Jesus was born of a virgin. You can realize the value of community and compassion and love of your neighbor without ever presupposing anything on insufficient evidence.

There are many ironies here. The [sacred texts] themselves are very poor guides to morality. The only way you find goodness in good books is because you recognize it. They're based on your own ethical intuitions. In the New Testament, Jesus is talking about the Golden Rule--a great, wise, compassionate distillation of ethics. You're doing that based on your intuition.

Hopefully, also, you recognize that stoning someone to death for not being a virgin on her wedding night, or beating your child with a rod, as it recommends in Proverbs, and which millions of Christians do in our country, that's not a good thing. You know that based on your own intuitions and the evolving human conversation about what is ethical and most conducive to human happiness.

LS: You're saying that we can figure out moral, ethical behavior on our own, without benefit of religious concepts.

SH: All we have is human conversation to do this with. Either you can be held hostage by the human conversation that occurred 2,000 years ago and has been enshrined in these books, or you can be open to the human conversation of the 21st century. And if there's something good in those books, then it is admissible in the 21st century conversation on morality.

LS: Some people say the good that religion does outweighs the bad things they get away with because they're religions. 

SH: We can do all that good--and we are doing all that good--without any affiliation with religion. It's true there are Christian missionaries doing very fine work in Africa. There are secular groups like Doctors Without Borders doing the same work. They don't need to believe in Jesus coming out of the clouds in order to do that work.

It's not that people don't do good and heroic things on the basis of their dogma, it's just those things aren't best done on the basis of religious dogma. We can agree that famine in Africa is intolerable to us for perfectly compassionate and rational and modern reasons that have nothing to do with beliefs. We just have to believe that it is unethical that people are starving to death while we are throwing out half of our meals.

This article appeared originally on Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Nobody Is a Stranger

Best known as the star of movies like "Bull Durham" and "Thelma and Louise," Susan Sarandon also plays a major role as an activist. From her 1993 Oscar-night plea to help AIDS sufferers in Haiti to her current advocacy for the homeless, Sarandon has kept humanitarian causes in the spotlight. She spoke with Beliefnet recently about her spiritual path, her work with Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen, and what she hopes for her children.

How would you describe your spiritual path? Do you identify with a particular one, or it is mainly the activism you're involved in that fulfills you?

I try to live my life every day in the present, and try not to turn a blind eye to injustice and need. I wish I did more. I feel my family's needs are a priority. I'm not comfortable with the idea of serving the many and ignoring my family. In the bigger picture, I see myself getting more and more involved as they leave the nest and don't need the daily attention.

Which ethical and spiritual lessons do you most want your children to learn?

I want them to respect the divine in everyone. And understand that with privilege comes responsibility. Everyone has a responsibility towards this larger family of man, but especially if you're privileged, that increases your responsibility. I want them to understand the joy of empowerment, of service. I want them to understand that doing the right thing is a joyful experience, that it isn't a grind.

So volunteering -- like your work in soup kitchens -- has never been a grind for you?

Not at all. We have a tradition in our house. I was always envious of bar mitzvahs and people having really defined rites of passage and being able to mark that with some kind of community service. My kids were not particularly ready at thirteen, so we do it at sixteen. My daughter wanted to do something with kids, and she found a shelter and she and her friends and myself and our friends spent a few days and did over a huge room at a shelter.

To celebrate her coming of age?

Yes, and to have something to mark her passage into womanhood that was positive and creative and that she figured out herself.

[A] group I work with that's really fabulous is Habitat for Humanity. This year my son Jack was turning sixteen. We had about 22 people, half were kids and half of them adults, friends of mine who have known him forever. Everybody showed up at 8:30 in the morning and we put in all the drywall of a four-story brownstone in Harlem, working with people that knew what they were doing more than we did, obviously.

Just being there at 8:30 was tough for some of these boys. They were filthy; they worked so hard all day long. And they had something to show for it. They laughed, they carried on. I think it really was special for them, because it was very dramatic -- because sometimes you end up just painting or doing little things -- in this case, you actually took a skeleton of rooms and tuned them into [ones] with walls. Everyone was filthy and weary by the end of the day, but it was great.

It's so rewarding to know you're capable of doing that. I want my kids to understand the joy of that. Not the self-congratulatory "I'm such a good person" kind of thing, but just the sense of accomplishment. You're working with people who are going to live there. So I would hope they would develop some kind of habit that involves understanding that their life is so full they can afford to give in all kinds of ways to other people. I consider that to be baseline spirituality. The heart is a muscle like every other muscle. The more you use it... I think I'm an actor because I have very strong imagination and empathy. I never studied acting, but those two qualities are exactly the qualities that make for an activist.

When you start to develop your powers of empathy and imagination, the whole world opens up to you. As my little guy said when he first learned about the origins of man, he said, "So Mom, I guess there really isn't such a thing as a stranger, is there?"

It's a spirituality that's empowering and inclusive and gives you a world that's so large and full of possibilities and so full of rewards. That's joyful. The people you meet -- when I was down after [September] 11th at Ground Zero, I was running into people that I knew from the soup kitchens, from Habitat, that I remembered. They're just everywhere. It's great to see people who find joy in service and don't close their eyes and aren't afraid.

If you walk down the street and see someone in a box, you have a choice. That person is either the other and you're fearful of them, or that person is an extension of your family. And that makes you at home in that world and not fearful. So really it's very self-serving.

You've worked with a lot of hunger-relief organizations in New York City. What prompted you to start working with Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen?

My relationship with Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen started years and years ago. They were one of the few safe havens for people living with AIDS way back when there was such a stigma with AIDS. They stepped into the breach with counseling. I think there were even times when doctors could approach people with drug trials -- well, not drug trials, but counseling them about other choices. No one was really up-front about anything to do with AIDS at that time. I had a lot of friends who were fighting not only the disease but, at that time, the humiliation and the secret of having the disease.

I'm a native New Yorker. Everything to do with New York feels like my family. Home means so much to me. Even before I had children, I was one of those people that always had an extended family of friends. You'd make big Thanksgiving Day dinners and big events on Christmas. I tended to love gatherings -- not parties necessarily, but celebrations of different kinds.

The dilemma of homelessness -- seeing people without a home, without their basic needs fulfilled -- things that people are entitled to -- shelter, safety, food -- always really affected me. It's always been very difficult for me to see people on the street. So I initially gravitated towards solving those problems in what I considered to be my extended family, which is my city.

People often burn out on soup kitchen work or humanitarian work like helping the homeless. What keeps you going given the magnitude of the problem?v

It can be discouraging whenever you're dealing with an ongoing problem. But as opposed to something like politics, where it's frustrating because there are so many lies involved and so much bureaucracy, when you're dealing one on one with people, you meet the most inspiring people. Other people who've been working in a much less dilettantish way than I do. People who've actually committed themselves -- retired schoolteachers, young people who form a community that goes fairly unnoticed until you dive into that pond.

You meet the most extraordinary people who are doing something that's very empowering. Not only that can make a difference in another's life, it makes a difference in your life to know the power of one. To know that once you decide to look at life outside of the narrow limits of just your world and start to understand that you can make a difference in very simple ways -- in volunteering and all the way up to bigger world problems.

At a time when everything seems so out of control and the people you've elected are bogus and there's so much random violence and hatred, it fills you with such hope and admiration to even be part for a short time in a community where people have connected to strangers to try to put out a hand. The last time I served down at Holy Apostles, what was really striking to me was how different the group of people were who were coming for food from even a year ago...

How so?

In that you have so many people out of work who've had jobs all their lives. You have so many young couples that cannot find a way to pay their rent, or there's been illness or whatever. It's so much easier these days to find yourself in a situation where you end up on the street or end up with not enough money to buy your food on a regular basis.

You've said how much you admire the people working for these causes. It sounds like what you've said about Sister Helen Prejean, the nun who wrote "Dead Man Walking" -- that she had a kind of "practical spirituality."

Yes. My problem with the [Catholic] Church-I was brought up Catholic -- was that Jesus' life was a very hands-on spirituality. It wasn't about excluding people. It was exactly the opposite. He was a shepherd to those people who had been excluded already from the mainstream and who were needy. I always envisioned the Church more as they do in some Latin American countries, where they're involved in the plight of the poor and in justice -- all those things that politicize you once you start to open your eyes. You can't tend to somebody's soul and ignore their body. You can't talk in abstract terms.

Is that a problem you see with organized religion in general?

Any religion that is so black and white -- to me, that's like fanaticism. Religion is not black and white. It's much more complicated. Spirituality is much bigger than that. God is much bigger than that. I don't believe in a wrathful God. I believe he's much more forgiving and inclusive than some religions. The things that are done in her name or his name are horrible.

What would the world look like if Susan Sarandon were in charge -- if you were the head of the United Nations, say? What would a Susan Sarandon utopia look like?

First of all, there'd be much more peace because the whole underlying problem in the world now is this huge gap between rich and poor. Jimmy Carter's completely all over this and moving in the right direction.

We give so little in terms of aid compared to other nations, compared to our military budget, compared to everything else. Having gone to Africa and India for the U.N. as an ambassador, it takes so little effort and money to get rid of malaria, to bring in clean water, to give people a chance at an education. When you don't have hope, that's when people start to do weird, horrible, violent things. That's at the bottom of it. It's just a question of prioritizing. The funds are there. When you look at what other countries do, I was stunned by how little we contribute as the wealthiest nation.

Within this country, there shouldn't be hunger within the United States. People should have a chance or an education and decent housing and medical care. Those are just basic rights. A woman shouldn't have to fear for raising a child in this country, shouldn't have to be fearful that they can't pay simple medical expenses. That's obscene.

I would try to make it possible for kids of the United States to travel to other countries. They would be less afraid and more empowered. When kids start to meet other kids in places that seem so scary and different, they start to understand how much alike everyone is, and that our needs are so similar. Kids are kids no matter where you go.

I'd try to encourage more trips for student leaders from every high school around the U.S. It would make it so much more difficult to drop bombs and be known as this violent [nation] all over the world. We should start exporting some of the generosity that exists with the good people of the United States, who just need a chance to understand what can be done and what a wonderful experience that is.

The Psyche of Suicide Bombers

"Paradise Now" -- a film by Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad, and shot on location in the West Bank and Israel -- aims to do what many viewers will certainly see as unimaginable: delve into the motivations and psyches of suicide bombers, attempting to humanize these young men and women who make the decision to kill and be killed.

In setting out to make a film that would explore the motivations of suicide bombers, Abu-Assad made a surprising discovery, he said during a recent round-table discussion with reporters: that anybody, in his eyes, could become a suicide bomber when placed in the same situation as the Palestinians.

"I was first of all surprised during the research that I found a lot of stories that are human stories. That I couldn't believe," he said in his rough English. "How stupid I was to think that they are not human beings, or they are different than me and you."

Following the lives of Khaled and Said, two young Palestinian mechanics who have been friends since childhood, "Paradise Now" focuses on what is to be their final days alive as they prepare for their long-anticipated suicide mission in Tel Aviv. The film also explores the role of Suha, a young woman educated in the West -- and Said's love interest -- in causing the friends to reconsider their plans.

The common belief is that suicide bombers are motivated purely by religious zeal, but Abu-Assad said he realized how different the suicide bombers are from one another and how complex their range of motivations is. His research included studying interrogation transcripts of failed suicide bombers and official Israeli reports, as well as talking to suicide bombers' friends and families. In doing so, Abu-Assad, a native Palestinian now living in the Netherlands, said he found that there is no typical suicide bomber; each has his or her own motivation, religious or not.

For Khaled and Said, signing on to a suicide mission is an automatic decision, something they'd each thought about for years. But they each have a different motivation. Khaled believes that attacking Israel would be a step toward liberating Palestine and releasing Palestinians like himself from crippling oppression. "If we can't live as equals, at least we can die as equals. In this life we're all dead," Khaled screams in a desperate debate with Suha.

Said's motivation is more personal: his father was executed by Palestinians for being an Israeli "collaborator." Israel does not just make his daily life miserable, as it does for Khaled; it killed his father, and with it his life. With the burden of his father's transgression on his shoulders, retaliation is the only answer, in his eyes. But if signing up for a suicide mission was easy for them, going through with it is another matter, and they spend the bulk of the movie debating whether to do it, each reversing his decision at least once. At one point, Said is about to board a bus when he sees a little Israeli girl and reconsiders. The audience remains in suspense until the very end of the film, unsure whether either of them will take that final step.

For Abu-Assad personally, retaliation in the form of suicide bombing does not solve the problem. The little Israeli girl on that bus never loses her status as a human. And, he said, civilian bus riders, who often are themselves poor, should not be the target of suicide missions, since they have no power to change Israeli policy. "You [the would-be bombers] are the poor people from the Palestinian society killing yourself for the poor people in the other society. You are not killing the people who are responsible for the policies," Abu-Assad said.

Shot in Nablus, Nazareth, and Tel Aviv in Arabic with English subtitles, the film's crew and cast members lived as vulnerably as the characters of the film. "In general the place was under siege, like people can't go in and out without permission of the Israeli army," Abu-Assad said. "And this made the place a bit unhealthy. People became paranoid. I became paranoid after some time."

Filming amidst rivaling factions -- one representing Palestinian Copts and the other calling itself the Freedom Fighters -- the cast and crew wondered how these two groups would react to the film. The Freedom Fighters, which Abu-Assad said, "want to fight for democracy and peace," provided the cast and crew with protection and minor suggestions on how to accurately portray them. But the fear escalated when the Palestinian Copts kidnapped a crewmember, whom they later released. Some crew members abandoned the shoot.

The Freedom Fighters were present during the filming of Khaled's and Said's martyr videos. Abu-Assad was worried they would interfere, fearing the videos were "not in their taste." However, their only interference was a suggestion on how actor Ali Sulaiman (Khaled) should hold his gun, which the Freedom Fighters actually loaned to the cast for that scene. Rather than rattling his nerves, the event revealed two signs, he said: "The first sign was that the content of the film is very close to reality. And secondly, I can be sure that every detail was done in an authentic way."

In these scenes of filming the martyr videos, Khaled struggles to recite his message as the camera repeatedly fails and the other men involved in the attack casually snack on some pita sandwiches. The lightness of the surrounding men's demeanor and behavior is incongruous to the intensity of the moment. Abu-Assad explained that downplaying the situation is "what they do in real (life)." By turning the moment into the simple act of signing a contract, "they make it as it's usual, it's not a big deal. They make from it, ok, this is a soldier who wants to commit an action he believes in," said Abu-Assad.

Abu-Assad's primary goal is creating a story, since a people's survival depends on the preservation of its story, he said. "The Jews survived because they kept their story. Two thousand years they kept their story," he said. In that story, Jews were the underdogs, but now their role in the narrative has flipped, he said. "They came back to tell their story, but from the oppression point of view. And with this they are losing their story."

Abu-Assad believes that Palestinians now have the opportunity and ability to harness the power of their own stories. The roles are reversed, "the underdog who refused to be a slave has become us now. We lost the land, we lost the military struggle, we lost everything," Abu-Assad said. And with nothing left, the Palestinians are forced to assert themselves through stories "We are not giving up. In contradiction, we are becoming more aware of ourselves and aware of our story.... We become part of history, of this story of humanity," said Abu-Assad.

In capturing the story of the Palestinians, Abu-Assad refers to Da Vinci's painting The Last Supper. With film as his medium, the scene is literally recreated in "Paradise Now" with the two suicide bombers and 11 others involved in the mission lined up at the table for the bombers' final feast. It was Abu-Assad's way of connecting suicide bombing to its roots in religious tradition. "To kill yourself with your enemy is a mythical story in the Bible," he said.

But while suicide bombing may trace its roots to religion, Abu-Assad said, today there is more to it than just the religious perspective. "I am retelling the story, but not anymore from the God point of view," he said. "I am repainting the painting, but from the now point of view."

That point of view is nothing if not upsetting. The film sets it up so that viewers spend much of its 90 minutes hoping that the young men find a way not to take that final step to supposed Paradise. But there's little redemption here, little sense that the violence of this bloody conflict is likely to abate anytime soon. To many, the mere act of humanizing suicide bombers is immoral, a form of justification. Abu-Assad, though, manages to pull it off by showing a point of view rarely aired in the West and depicting the situation as what it is: a tragedy.

Soul of the Lost City

I just talked to a friend, a filmmaker, who lives in New Orleans' French Quarter. She stayed in her house through Hurricane Katrina and got out last Tuesday with a gun, and her car, in dire straits. Injured from battling the storm, and with only the clothes on her back, she got a first-class plane ticket, all that was available, from Baton Rouge, to stay with friends in New York.

When she walked to her seat, she was asked repeatedly to show her ticket: Apparently, airline personnel couldn't believe a woman in black jeans with bruises on her arms was one of their elite passengers. "I know I looked like a heroin addict," she said. "But still."

My husband and I, who are also refugees from New Orleans, just called a woman who had posted a six-week sublet apartment on Craig's List. Since we have no home we can return to, we thought we'd stay in New York, where we were when the storm hit. "We are from New Orleans," my husband explained to the woman. "We need a place to stay--could we look at yours?"

"Well, I hope you don't expect a discount," was her rapid-fire response. "And how come you have a New York area code?"

"We were expecting to pay. There isn't any 504 area code," my husband replied. "We had to get a new number."

I decided I would rather be homeless than have her for a landlady. Refugees are sensitive. I know. I am one. And they swing quickly from one mood to another. I know. I do. Sometimes they are thinking: how can I ever make another decision in this world, when all those I have made up until this point have led me to this circumstance? At the same time, they have to make thousands of decisions, constant decisions: where to go, how to get what we need, how to stay alive.

All day, every day, here in the third place I've lived in a week, we get dispatches: a librarian and a poet we know, sweet people, got out of town after the flood by stealing a car and a boat. They'd become petty criminals, desperate to survive.

"It was like the War of the Worlds, getting out," our friend Donna said. She had left in a convoy with friends, going north. "The gas stations were closed down, no rest stops: people were wandering in the bushes, filth and excrement everywhere. Where we could stop, people were very silent, sitting on top of their cars in north Mississippi in the middle of the night. Hundreds, staring out, realizing they'd evacuated, but had no place to go. They were the ones who left. Their lives, even their relatives, perhaps, abandoned, things getting worse."

Her husband had been away, hiking in the Cascades. When he returned on Wednesday, and found his wife, he was full of plans for the new life they'd have to forge--the bank where he works would take him on in Little Rock, they could live in Arkansas. He was ready to act. "He didn't get it," she said. "He didn't get what we'd been through. I burst into tears. I have to weep. I can't move on."

I had a dream the night that I realized New Orleans, the city where I live, was being destroyed. The night the levees broke. I saw myself on the white bed in the hotel room I was living in in Manhattan. I saw, beside me, on the floor, against the wall, a woman holding a man who was stretched and broken, bluish, I thought, dying.

"You are the broken person," my friend said. "You are the one who is stretched, and a little torn."

I was having a hard time believing that. Or I didn't want to admit it. But it is something I have to understand: That to be lucky is never only that. And also: I am not so lucky. None of us are. For some of our neighbors are suffering, and they are us. We don't like to believe that; we spend much of our lives erecting barriers to that fact, too many, but they are us.

A week ago, when I was shopping with my daughter, buying supplies for her first week at college, if someone had told me what would be true in one week, I would have thought them mad: In seven days, you will have no home you can return to, and potentially, no possessions. In seven days, your city, your friends, your neighbors, will report they had to take up arms to steal to survive. Or beg. Your daughter's crowd from high school--lovely New Orleans girls in a photo on my daughter's new dorm dresser at a New England college--will be among the dispossessed, the missing, the rumored dead.

There are so many things to say, but this is the small thing that comes through right now, and is a kind of news to me, the kind of news you always knew, but usually didn't have to face: There are two impulses in every life and in mine: The instinct to save myself and the instinct to help my brother.

If I had stayed through the storm, as many in my neighborhood did, if I had been faced with the things they were faced with, would I have made sure we had a gun, would I have stolen, or looted to keep myself alive? That answer is yes. Would I have stopped for stranded people I didn't know, begging for their families, on my way out of town? To that, I do not know how I would have answered before the storm. Probably not. The answer now is yes, if my own life was not in jeopardy.

When I lived in New Orleans, the now-lost city, in my house with the handsome double-galleried porch, poor people came to the door trying to sell something I didn't need or to beg. Sometimes I was compassionate, and sometimes I was scared and wary, and without generosity.

And now, in the third place I have lived in a week, dependent as I have become upon the kindness of strangers, or prey to the suspicions of strangers, I feel the same two impulses: To return to the region I lived in and truly loved, and do whatever I can, which is risky and would be very, very hard, as there is very little room at any inn or home; and to stay in the North where I have many friends, perhaps to go to the countryside where I've been offered places to stay, which would be soothing, and a place to recoup. And an act of self-preservation, self-nurturing. I will probably do both, in time. I know I will.

During the German occupation of Paris, the great memoirist Anais Nin took a houseboat and stayed on the river, aloof from the fray. During the American Civil War, Walt Whitman went into the hospitals and nursed the wounded. "It's too much for me to volunteer. I am in no shape to volunteer. I've been through trauma myself. " So said my friend who stayed through the storm and watched her beloved streets collapse into anarchy. Policemen whom she knew well collapsed from such chaos and so much loss. So said my friend who was almost ordered off a plane because she looked a little scruffy.

I am frayed and torn, and there are certain things I find unbearable: The self-preservation and wariness of some native New Yorkers, the coldness of some Yankees toward the plight of my city. "What did you expect?" they say, "The city was below sea level. Aren't you people down there realistic?"

To them I feel like saying, so is Venice below sea level, so are many of the cities of the Netherlands. And would you say the same to the people who are dispossessed when the catastrophic earthquake on the Pacific Coast that everyone has predicted for the past 50 years finally happens? Or would you have said it to those who survived the Great Chicago fire? "It's your own fault? I hope you don't expect a discount!"

And also, I would ask: Was it unrealistic to build a city when a new country needed a great port at the mouth of its greatest river? Was it absurd for New Orleans and its region to provide the rest of the nation with so much of what it needed to survive--oil, gas, transportation, seafood, and sugar, and give Americans their only, and great, native art? Should we have kept it all for ourselves?

To the kind New Yorkers who have offered me everything in the world, who have been through many hardships in the last few years themselves, I would say: Your recent tragedies have opened your hearts and keep them open. There is really no point in living without an open heart. But I understand the struggle to keep the heart open. Especially in hard times. Survival is a wall. Compassion is a door.

So for right now, I am all the figures in my dream, at once: the woman on the raft, on the white bed, safe, and the one against the wall, doing the soothing, wanting to do it, and also the broken man in her arms, torn between two needs: to help and to help myself, and needing to be full of grief.

The Russian poet Marina Tsvetayeva said that the soul is the capacity to feel. That means it is the capacity to feel pain.

So I say to the nation: Keep the door open. New Orleans has given you another gift--the invitation, the insistence, that you don't close it again. She was your soul. You would do well to keep it. A sage said, "If I am not for myself, who am I?" this is true. "If I am for myself only, what am I?" This is also true. "If not now, when?"

Did God Send the Hurricane?

What caused Hurricane Katrina to slam the U.S. Gulf Coast? Was it a typical late-summer tropical storm caused by wind, water, and heat? Mother Nature crying out on behalf of the earth's pain? An angry God?

Depends whom you ask. All along the theological and political spectrum, Katrina has crystallized people's fears into a now-familiar brew of apocalyptic theories similar to what we saw after September 11 and after the Asian tsunami several months ago.

At least one New Orleans-area resident believes God created the storm as punishment because of the recent role the United States played in expelling Jews from Gaza. On Sunday evening, Bridgett Magee of Slidell, La., told the Christian website Jerusalem Newswire that she saw the hurricane "as a direct 'coming back on us' [for] what we did to Israel: a home for a home." Stan Goodenough, a website columnist, described Katrina as "the fist of God" in a Monday column. "What America is about to experience is the lifting of God's hand of protection; the implementation of His judgment on the nation most responsible for endangering the land and people of Israel," Goodenough writes. "The Bible talks about Him shaking His fist over bodies of water, and striking them."

Meanwhile, spiritual and political environmentalists say that massive hurricanes such as Katrina, along with the Asian tsunami, are messages from the earth, letting humanity know of the earth's pain. These hurricanes are caused by global warming, environmentalists say, which are the result of using too much fossil fuel. They see the catastrophic consequences as a kind of comeuppance.

Katrina forced oil workers to evacuate rigs in the Gulf of Mexico; meanwhile, seven oil refineries and a major oil import terminal have been closed. The Gulf Coast region is home to a quarter of U.S. oil refining. As a result, Common Dreams wrote Monday: "Oil may be achieving a new impact on daily news, people's pocketbooks and world history--perhaps even the end of history and the world."

James Howard Kunstler, author of "The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century," predicted in his Monday blog: "It seems possible to me that we will be seeing gas station lines all over America within the week." In another area of his website, Kunstler writes: "We are entering a period of economic hardship and declining incomes...The suburbs as are going to tank spectacularly. We are going to see an unprecedented loss of equity value and, of course, basic usefulness. We are going to see an amazing distress sale of properties, with few buyers. We're going to see a fight over the table scraps of the 20th century."

Stephen O'Leary, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California and an expert on the media and apocalypticism, says, "God's got a two-fer here. Both sides are eager to see America punished for her sins; on one side it's sexual immorality and porn and Hollywood, and on the other side it's conspicuous consumption and Hummers."

In some ways, these are mainstream feelings: In a recent CNN poll, 55% of those responding believe that global warming is causing the severe weather we've experienced recently, which is a kind of admission that a huge hurricane is part of the wages of (environmental) sin. Meanwhile, most polls show that 40% of all U.S. adults believe the physical world will eventually end as a result of a supernatural intervention, perhaps with a literal Rapture, Tribulation, Antichrist, and Battle of Armageddon described in the Book of Revelation. Nearly half of all Americans believe the Middle East will be "heavily involved" in the events surrounding the end of the world. And 40% believe the end of the world will come in their lifetime.

The rush to doomsday thinking, O'Leary says, is related to our need to process emotion in the face of suffering. "The mass media confront us with emotion that is almost impossible to process, and the only way we have to deal with that is to put it in terms of the drama of apocalypse and redemption--you transform suffering into a story of God's plan. If you don't have that, then what you do is turn off the TV and have despair."

It's not just conservative Christians who tune in to this cycle of apocalypse and redemption, however. New Agers and some environmentalists subscribe to a theory that the world is undergoing what they call Earth Changes--a time when, because of humanity's degradation, the climate severely reacts. Many of these believers say the United States will be almost completely submerged in seawater when the Earth Changes are complete.

"When people leave behind the Christian version of the apocalypse, they don't quit being apocalyptic," O'Leary says. "They switch brands."

Even the media, perhaps reacting to their own cycle of hype and emotion of this moment, have been priming the doomsday pump. The normally bloodless Associated Press wrote this description: "When Hurricane Katrina hits New Orleans on Monday, it could turn one of America's most charming cities into a vast cesspool tainted with toxic chemicals, human waste and even coffins released by floodwaters from the city's legendary cemeteries."

Interestingly, last year's string of Florida hurricanes didn't seem to cause much doomsday rhetoric. But Katrina is different for a few important reasons: It's much larger than usual storms; it hit a region that is home to one-fourth of U.S. oil production at a time when Americans are feeling tremendous anxiety over rising fuel costs; it happened a couple weeks after Israel pulled out of Gaza; and it conjures horrific images of fetid water contaminating a city with a Sodom and Gomorrah reputation.

The thought of this region, or even the nation, being somehow punished for its sins, conjures twin feelings of excitement and dread among apocalyptic thinkers. On one hand, they seem delighted that a divine plan appears to be unfolding. With horrific events such as this, they believe, God (or Mother Nature) has shown them the world is so evil that it is closer than ever to the end of human history--which means they will spend eternity in a happier place. Yet they also believe God (or Mother Nature) is punishing Americans. That gives rise to their urgent need to stave off destruction through prayer, scolding, and trying to convert people to their way of thinking.

It's worth noting that end-times fever also broke out during the Persian Gulf War, around the turn of the millennium five years ago, and then around September 11, as it has many times in history. Each time it happens, Americans (and humanity for millennia before) become convinced the End is upon them because they've sinned and that God or Mother Nature is angry.

Yet if people actually read the Bible, they can just as easily find an alternate view of the divine, a view that is diametrically opposite the wrathful avenger. The Book of I Kings reads: "Behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind and earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice."

This article appeared originally on, the multifaith website for religion, spirituality, inspiration & more. Used with permission. All rights reserved.


Happy Holidays!