Christian self-understanding in the context of Buddhism — Current Dialogue

The latest issue of the World Council of Churches’ journal on interreligious dialogue and cooperation Current Dialogue was issued last week. In this issue are the papers presented by Christian theologians who are also scholars of Buddhism. I organized this conference on Christian self understanding in the context of Buddhism in Sri Lanka in December 2009.

Among the presentations were eminent scholars such as Fr. Aloysius Pieris, SJ (Tulana Research Center, Sri Lanka) Prof. Perry Schmidt-Leukel (University of Munster, Germany) Prof. Elizabeth Harris (Liverpool Hope University, Liverpool), Prof. David Eckel (Boston University). The consultation featured several Sri Lankan theologians as well as a Sri Lankan Buddhist monk.

The findings of this consultation will become resource for a broader document on Christian self-understanding in the context of many religions, which will be produced in preparation for the WCC General Assembly in Busan, South Korea in 2013.

Click here to download and read the journal. I will appreciate hearing your responses to the presentations.

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Christmas Greetings from SCUPE

Light One Candle!

Dear Friends,

At SCUPE’s Christmas Open House this past Saturday, we sang the old Peter, Paul and Mary song “Light one candle for the Maccabee children” right after we sang, “Feliz Navidad!

“Don’t let the light go out, it’s lasted for so many years!                                             Don’t let the light go out, let it shine through our love and our tears.

This year, Christians and Jews are lighting candles at the same time. Chanukkah is celebrated from December 20-28, reminding us of our common heritage and the possibilities we have of working together for justice, equity and peace in our urban neighborhoods and around the world.

The backstory of Chanukkah is the revolt that Judah Maccabee and his brothers started in order that the Jewish people might be able to worship God in freedom, when the Seleucid Emperor demanded their ultimate allegiance. (The story is in the apocryphal books of the Maccabees). The backstory of God’s incarnation as a baby in a manger is also the story of an Empire, this time Rome, which also demanded ultimate allegiance.

Empire still demands our ultimate allegiance. Today, it’s more subtle. In fact, it’s not so much a demand as an enticement or a lure to bow to the god of Mammon. In fact, the effects of our collective allegiance to Mammon, the god of greed and wealth — the unemployment, the home foreclosures, the constant threats to the safety nets that we have always offered to those who are poor, elderly and the most vulnerable among us — are felt most significantly in our city neighborhoods.

The baby in the manger is the one to whom we must give ultimate allegiance. The one who grew up to stand up to Mammon (Matthew 6:24) and preach “good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18) is the same one that inspires SCUPE to equip students to revitalize congregations and transform communities.

This year we had 258 students take classes at SCUPE. This is the highest number we’ve had in many years. In the next few years we are going to take SCUPE to scale. We will take our courses to other cities (starting with Minneapolis/St. Paul), offer courses on-line, expand our competencies to include interfaith relations, and explore global partnerships.

Many of our students go on to be dynamic pastors and leaders in urban churches. The testimonies we hear from our past students about the transformation that is going on in their communities continue to amaze us.

So, do light a candle:

  • for the justice-seekers and peacemakers: the bringers of good news to the poor
  • for urban churches: who are like the leaves of the tree of life offering healing to the nations (Revelation 22:2)
  • for students: who are, or prepare to be pastors and leaders of urban churches, living out the Gospel in our cities
  • for SCUPE’s consortium members: its eleven member seminaries and other partner institutions who prepare ministers of the Gospel for our time
  • for SCUPE’s faculty, boards and staff: who believe in this ministry and give selflessly, well over and above their call of duty, and
  • for SCUPE’s many partners: who believing in the critical role cities play in the work of the Gospel, support it in numerous ways including through their financial contributions

I invite you to partner with us.

             Your gift, in combination with others, will enable us to offer scholarships to students who may not be able to meet the cost of the courses. I can assure you that the return on your investment will be many-fold.

As you know, donating before the end of the year may qualify you for a tax deduction. Please click the Pay Pal button for a secure donation with a credit card or you may mail a check to the address below.

On behalf of all of us at SCUPE, I wish you a

Joyous Christmas and a Blessed New Year!

Shanta Premawardhana

President, SCUPE


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Open House for ALTE Program

ALTE Open House

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Open House for CAATS and NtC

CAATS and NtC Open House
The Center for African American Theological Studies and Nurturing the Call are having an Open House for individuals interested in the programs.  Come and learn and share some food and fellowship.

Wednesday, Dec. 7 , 2011    

5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

At SCUPE Office, 200 N. Michigan Ave., Suite     502, Chicago IL
To RSVP email: Cynthia(at) or call 312-726-1200 ext. 236

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ALTE to honor their first graduating class

Advanced Latino/a Theological EducationYou are cordially invited to a celebration service and reception honoring the first graduating class of students completing the ALTE Certificate Program in Latino/a Ministries.

ALTE, Advanced Latino/a Theological Education program, provides Latino/a church leaders, who possess varying levels of education, access to graduate theological education. SCUPE partners with Instituto Bíblico Ebenezer, and Western Theological Seminary to bring the ALTE program to the Latino/a community.

Generous funding from the Henry Luce Foundation helped make the ALTE program a reality.

1:00 – 3:00 PM
Pentecostal Church of God
3950 Marquette Road
Lake Station, IN 46405

Guest Speaker:
Dr. Daniel S. Schipani
Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling
Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary

RSVP by December 1, 2011
Call:  773-252-3929 or

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Sermon from the Thanksgiving Service at Rockefeller Chapel

Chicago Children's Choir

I had the privilege of preaching the sermon at the Hyde Park and Kenwood Interfaith Council‘s Annual Thanksgiving Service at the Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago. This is the centenary year of the Interfaith Council.The Chicago Children’s Choir sang and Oba King, storyteller and drummer performed. The service featured a new hymn written by Rabbi Elliot Gertel a long time religious leader in Hyde Park.

Good morning, friends and neighbors, and happy thanksgiving! I am very grateful to be here with you on this centenary year of the Interfaith Council, not only because of my long history with this organization, but as a long term resident of Hyde Park, I am proud and grateful that the religious institutions of my community have come together and worked in cooperation for a century now, as what is perhaps the longest running interfaith council in the country. For all those who have for years carried the burdens of responsibility for the hunger programs, for the social services, for the interfaith dialogues and for the many ways you have been the conscience of our community, on behalf of all of us, my heartfelt thanks.

I have a friend who loves to read mystery novels. There was something unique about the way he read them, though. The first thing he does is to turn to the last chapter and find out what happened and who had done it. Then he would go back and read the rest of the book. What a crazy way to read a mystery, you say. You take the mystery right out of the novel, because now you know the answer to the question, “who done it!” My friend insists that it is better to read the book that way. Because, he says, that’s how the novel got conceived in the author’s mind, in the first place. Before the author sat down to write one word, she knew that the butler did it. When you know that, and then you start reading the book from the beginning, and you come to the place where on a dark and stormy night, the telephone is ringing, you know where that fits into the entire scheme of things, which ends by saying the butler did it.

So you know what I did? I went and looked at the last chapter of the book that is authoritative to my faith, and discovered that it paints a picture of the author’s vision of the end. John, who wrote the book of Revelation writes: “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life, with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” What a fascinating picture — a river of life that flows through the middle of the city! Can you imagine a refreshing river of life flowing down 53rd Street, Cottage Grove or Garfield Blvd where on either side of it are trees of abundance, with 12 kinds of fruit — that is to say the full complement of fruits, being produced every month, meaning with dependable regularity? Can you imagine healthy and vibrant communities, with children playing with great delight in the parks, without any fear of random violence, learning in state-of-the-art schools, and families are happy, safe and content? And can you imagine religious congregations, like the healing leaves offering opportunities for the reconciliation of relationships, and the building community?

This is “Seeing the City with Prophetic Imagination,” a slogan we use at my present organization, SCUPE, a consortium of seminaries that focuses on grassroots-based urban theology and ministry. In this, we stand in the tradition of the prophets and sages of all traditions who challenge us to imagine the new reality. The Hebrew prophet Isaiah, for example, also spoke about such a city. It’s a city in which children do not die, — perhaps, I might add, by hunger or even by stray bullets — rather everyone lives their lives to the full length. Earlier this month when Hyde Park Union Church under the leadership of Rev. Susan Johnson organized the Urban Dolorosa events, it was a powerful reminder that violence against children continues to be a scourge on our communities. 263 children and youth were killed by violence in the city of Chicago in the past three years. The events helped us to remember the children, dignify the grief of their families and to commit together to end this violence. This was Isaiah’s vision – that children will be born into an environment that gives them a chance to live out their lives with dignity, self respect and opportunity. Listen to this promise: “Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together…. They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.” says the Lord.’

Dr. Martin Luther King stood squarely in that tradition when he articulated his own dream. Back in 1963, to some it may have felt as impossible and utopian as “the wolf and the lamb shall feed together,” or the river of life that runs through the city. This is not just Isaiah’s dream, John’s dream or Martin’s dream. This is God’s dream. But if Martin Luther King only preached about his dream, his legacy would be one of a dreamer and nothing more. The reason why Dr. King is such great hero for all of us is because he did not stay a dreamer. He could no longer put up with reality as it is, he allowed the dream to catch hold, put feet on it, and organized towards it.

So, on this centenary year thanksgiving let me suggest three things for us:

First, in our personal and family lives, let us remember God’s vision is that all of us – all sentient beings, as our Buddhist friends call all living things — live in abundance. Thanksgiving is our collective confession that God provides in abundance and is benevolent and merciful. Therefore all of us can affirm with our Muslim sisters and brothers, when they say Bismillah ir rahman ir Rahim. Indeed, if we believe that God is benevolent and merciful, then we don’t need to be anxious. “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing,” said Jesus who embodied the paradigm of God’s abundance. “Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” This is also the message of the Sabbath keeping which is the sacred practice of our Jewish sisters and brothers. In doing so, they affirm that God is faithful to provide seven days of abundance for six days of work. We can take a day to rest, confident that God is faithful to provide. And if we don’t have to be anxious about tomorrow, we don’t have to be tight-fisted, and we don’t have to accumulate. Instead, thanksgiving is our confession that we too can be generous like the benevolent and merciful one. But our problem is that our society runs on the accumulation paradigm. We are constantly bombarded with messages telling us that unless we buy this or that widget, and that unless we go shopping starting at 4 am tomorrow, there is something wrong with us, that unless we accumulate, we might be lose the race. Giving thanks re-orients us from this anxiety-ridden accumulation paradigm and towards the generosity of the abundance paradigm. We need to make this our spiritual practice, not just once a year, but every day. If giving thanks at meals can become not just as a perfunctory ritual but one that truly confesses our faith in the benevolent one, it will be a regular reminder to re-orient our lives towards the God of abundance.

Second, in our community life, it is good to remember that God has created us in incredible diversity. Hyde Park as a community and the Interfaith council by its very existence celebrates that diversity. One hundred years ago when ecumenically minded protestants came together to form this organization, they were surely aware of the incredible religious diversity in the world. Just 18 years before that in 1893, the Parliament of the World’s Religions first met in Chicago, bringing in religious leaders from around the world. They may not have imagined that people from all these religious communities would find a home in Hyde Park 100 years later, or that the United States would be the most religiously diverse country in the world.

Indeed, today, all of us have the opportunity to so engage with that rich diversity. People of other faiths are all around us. We can relate to them not only through their religious institutions and the interfaith council, but also in our day to day lives, because they are our neighbors and colleagues today. So, energized by that interaction in Hyde Park and the Interfaith Council, I went away to the Christian ecumenical world to help them understand why and how Christians should engage with other religious communities in dialogue and cooperation. There’s a lot to say about why and how we must engage with others, and the many lessons that we as religious communities have learned along the way. Another day, we can talk about that. It is enough for now to say that the one thing it has done for me is to greatly deepen my own faith, and expand its horizons, which is the common testimony of those who engage in this exciting adventure we call interreligious dialogue.

Third, brings me to what might be the more difficult question, of what we need to be doing next. Let me approach that question through food, since that’s what you are thinking about right now! These days at SCUPE we are engaging our prophetic imaginations towards a time when there will be no Food Deserts — areas in our communities where there is no easy access to healthy food. Where I live in Hyde Park, this is not a problem. But what if I lived west of MLK blvd. in the Washington Park neighborhood? It was only this March that a Sav-a-Lot store was opened on 63rd st, one where you can buy fresh fruits and vegetables. But even today, if I needed to exchange food stamps, my best bet would be a liquor store. Did you know that of the grocery or convenience stores that are licensed as food stamp retailers in the city of Chicago, 9% are primarily liquor stores, and 44 of them are in those communities designated as food deserts? There are 8 such convenience stores in the Washington Park community and 4 are liquor stores. Also the next time you drive down Garfield Blvd, observe the number of fast food restaurants, where you can sometimes buy a burger for a dollar. So, what’s a single mother to do — go to the liquor store, or go to McDonald’s? Are you surprised that there is a disproportionate number of poor people who die 6 years too early because of diabetes related illnesses? And this is the community that’s just about 5 blocks from where we are right now.

Let us be clear. Interreligious dialogue does not only happen when we religious leaders come together for conversation on deep theological questions. There is a robust conversation going on between people whose loved ones are cut down by violence, those who have to live in food deserts, those who have lost their jobs, those whose homes have been foreclosed on, those who are sinking in debt. They’ve been talking for a long time about faith, hope, the meaning of life, about why bad things happen to good people, and how to we must survive together. I know, because for a good long time I’ve been visiting people and holding home Bible Studies in people’s apartments in Englewood and other south side communities. But many of us don’t have access to that conversation.

That is, until now. Now, a part of that conversation, and only a part, has manifested itself in the occupy movement. It is, of course, about protesting a massive injustice, of a government that is taken hostage by the 1%, but it is a lot more than that. It is people clamoring for faith and hope, when anxiety and worry so threaten to overcome them. It is people of faith struggling to imagine a new world, and trying to put feet on it. Afraid that if they wait too long it will be too late, and encouraged by similar uprisings that are happening elsewhere in the world, these our sisters and brothers are stepping out in faith. I’ve talked to them in Chicago, and last weekend in San Francisco. I find most of them to be people of faith, some of them even Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others. But they don’t have to belong to a particular religious community to be people of faith. They only need to be motivated by faith to know that a new and different future is possible and by a determined hope that puts feet on it.

So, what’s the religious community to do? Those who stand up for justice will always be on the right side of history, said Martin Luther King, Jr. In fact, my religious tradition teaches me that God goes before me to the place I would rather not go, and sometimes pushes and prods me to engage in things I would rather not engage. When someone stands for justice, my tradition teaches me, that is where I can find God. So, I want to recognize that just as much as interreligious dialogue has deepened my faith my dialogue with those who live in disinvested communities, those who are vulnerable in our midst, those who are engaged in the occupy movement, will also contribute to my religious well-being. This is the next stage of our dialogue.

Let’s start with the last chapter, God’s dream for our community. That’s how the author conceived the story. On a dark and stormy night, the telephone is ringing. Do you know where that fits in the story which ends saying the butler did it? It is 2011, 100 years after we came together as an organization. Where are we in the story that ends with the river that flows in the middle of the street of the city? I don’t know about you. But I’ve waited long enough. The southside has waited long enough. The devastated places of this God’s earth have waited long enough. I am prepared to say today with you, with Isaiah, John, and Martin Luther King, this is the day we must again commit to a new future of putting feet on our prophetic imagination.

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Bishop Duleep de Chickera — Peacemaking in a Culture of Violence: Lessons from Sri Lanka

Bishop Duleep de Chickera

Last Saturday SCUPE continued its focus on the theme it had started to work on at the Congress on Urban Ministry last March, “Peacemaking in a Culture of violence.” The visit of Rt. Rev. Duleep de Chickera, recently retired Anglican Bishop of Colombo, Sri Lanka provided a great opportunity for us to explore the question from an international, specifically Sri Lankan perspective. A highly diverse group of about 35 persons participated in the conversation at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ in Lincoln Park.

In my opening remarks, I pointed to the Congress document, “A Call to be Peacemakers,” which, among others, asserts  that peacemaking is a theological imperative for Christians, and that justice is integrally related to peace. Irrespective of where it occurs, whether in Sri Lanka or in Chicago, violence is violence and is antithetical to the Gospel.

Therefore we invited Rev. Zach Mills, Associate Pastor of Hyde Park Union Church to make that link for us. His church helped organize Urban Dolorosa (Sorrowing City) a week-long series of events in memory of children killed in gun violence in Chicago. Rev. Mills offered a reflection on how that event impacts our call to be peacemakers

Following a brief explanation of the context of the conflict in Sri Lanka and its current status, Bishop Duleep outlined seven principles or learnings from the Sri Lankan context.

1. Violence is not only that which is visible. It is also structural. This means we need to address the question at a deeper, structural level.

2. The right to define one’s aspirations must be left to each community.

3. Integration of communities must be done justly. For example, there are three other tendencies of dealing with others: assimilation (without regard to the other community’s self determination), annihilation (attempting to destroy the other), and separation (keeping communities separate).

4. There needs to be a deep analysis of the nature of conflict and nature of peace. Since conflict recurs, peacemaking is not static, but always moving. For peacemaking, it will always be necessary to work towards deeper levels of justice.

5. We should look for healing justice, rather than retributive justice or even restorative justice. In healing justice, the victim determines the agenda.

6. The prophetic tradition seeks to give voice to the voiceless and calls governing regimes into accountability.

7. There is tension between communication and change. If you swing too much in one direction, you loose the opportunity to engage the other.

Following the Bishop’s presentation, rather than spend all our time on questions and answers, the audience worked in small groups to consider how these learnings translate into our own contexts. Such a process is foundational to SCUPE’s method. While affirming the experience, the expertise and the learning that the speaker brings, we also seek to receive the insights that arise from the audience. The following is a compilation of some of the good ideas that were presented.

1. Affirm that peace is a continuing process. We will never reach peace, because justice is never complete. Peace is the journey.

2. We need to cultivate a prophetic imagination in order to more clearly name and expose structural violence. It can be done in worship through liturgies and sermons, or through the arts.

3. Educating the next generation is a an important need. Children must grow up learning to be peacemakers. Therefore, we must find ways to offer youth platforms to express themselves creatively using the arts (as in Urban Dolorosa). We must find ways to play together and eat together.

4. Peacemaking must include forgiveness but with accountability. This is the value of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa. It was a good but not perfect model. It can be adjusted to fit other contexts.

5. Sometimes in the rush to punish perpetrators the voice of the victims are not heard or ignored. Listening to the voices of the victims is critically important.

6. Peacemaking requires us to be transparent, to have moderate or balanced opinions, to be tolerant and learn to accept diversity and difference, to learn others’ culture and language, to not proselytize but to share “the hope that is in you with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).

7. Identity can separate us for the other. How do we bring about “just integration” when we find ourselves so separated. One problem is that we tend to define others without allowing the other an opportunity for self-definition.

These are basic ideas. Now the conversation must continue and seek to deepen and broaden these. Please use the “Comment” link to do so.

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Are you ready for the revolution?

I once heard of someone who has unique message on his answering machine. After going through the usual stuff of “please leave a message…” he ends his message with these words: “I am ready for the revolution, are you?”

Rinku Sen who in 2003 wrote an important book, that I as a community organizer found helpful Stir It Up: Lessons in Community Organizing and Advocacy has written an important article on  Occupy Wall Street. In it she considers the distinctives between organizing and movements. Organizing builds the infra-structure for movements and sometimes trains its leaders. In other words, movements don’t just happen, it needs organizing to create the foundation on which it can happen.

For example, she points out that “Rosa Parks did not just sit down one day ‘cause she was too tired to move to the back of the bus, rather, she was a devoted member of the NAACP for 20 years before that day. She had put in her time recruiting members, registering people to vote, supporting legal efforts and plotting change. And before Mrs. Parks refused to move, others had too, just as there were desegregation sit-ins at Southern lunch counters before the Greensboro Five sat down at Woolworth’s. Some of those sit-ins even had some success, but they didn’t spark spontaneous mass action.”

What’s the relationship between the community organizing networks and the Occupy movement? It is important that community organizers stop thinking that unless the occupiers are allied with their particular group or its method they won’t regard them worthwhile. Indeed, community organizers must be willing to seize the moment and offer their organizing expertise to the occupiers. It is also important that occupiers understand that the infra-structure of community organizing is incredibly important for the movement to succeed. They need to do their homework to know how the structure works and who the power players are. They can also benefit from the training the community organizers can provide so that their people can be protected from the abuse they can receive by people with more power.

Here’s the article: Occupying, Organizing and the Movements That Demand Both

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Bible Study at Christian Peacemaker Teams Conference

I did Bible Studies at the 25th anniversary of Christian Peacemaker Teams Conference on Friday and Saturday, October 14th and 15th at Reba Place Church in Evanston, Illinois.

Click the link to watch:

October 14th “Listening to the voices from the margins” Scripture Text: Exodus 16: 2-21

October 15th “In it Together: Working for Peace with the Religious Other?” Scripture Text: Mark 9:33-40

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God at the Occupy Wall Street Protest

Religious leaders from mosques, synagogues and churches in New York area came to Zuccotti Park, not to support the Occupy Wall Street protesters, but to participate in the movement.”There can be no such thing as justice until there is economic justice,” Rev. Michael Ellick of Judson Memorial Church said.

Following an interfaith service at the Judson Memorial Church in Lower Manhattan religious leaders of many faiths carried a Golden Calf, a symbol of idolatrous wealth through the protest crowd.

Rev. Jennifer Butler, Executive Director of Faith in Public Life wrote: On Sunday, we joined hundreds of people for an interfaith worship service at Judson Memorial Church and march to reflect on the condemnation of greed throughout Scripture. The calf was displayed in the sanctuary during worship and carried at the front of our procession through Lower Manhattan. In church and in the streets, the cheers and prayers were overwhelming. Photographers and TV crews flocked to us. Apparently you don’t need to know your Exodus to understand a symbol of idolatry.

Rev. Donna Schaper, Senior Minister at Judson Memorial Church and the faith leaders who have rallied around the Occupy Wall Street movement, say their involvement is as solid as their religious beliefs. Schaper thinks the time has come for faith communities to join the voices protesting the scandalous corporate greed and income inequality affecting 99% of Americans. “Some say faith leaders should stay out of this,” said Schaper. “But actually every faith gives preference to the poor. The Hebrew and the Christian scriptures are full of warnings about the acquisition of wealth to the harm of others, and of the requirement that the poor and dispossessed be cared for.”

“This isn’t just a jobs issue, or an education issue, or a health care issue, this is a spiritual issue, about what the United States has become,” the Rev. Michael Ellick, of Judson Memorial, told the crowd.

Today and Tomorrow, I am leading Bible Study at Christian Peacemaker Teams 25th Anniversary Conference. This will be a major theme in my bible study.

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