The Sangoma Is In

From a distance, detail and distinction can blur into one; the proverbial trees become the forest. There is a great distance between Africa and Canada, both in space and in culture, and perhaps as a result the panoply of traditional African spiritual and medical practitioners merge into our pop culture image of the ‘witch doctor’. In, “Witnessing a South African Healer” (, Pumza Fihlani brings these worlds closer by visiting Thabiso Siswana, a South African Bank administrator, in her other ‘job’: Siswana is a ‘sangoma’, a person able to communicate with deceased relatives. These spirits come and reside in the sangoma, who then consults the spirits on behalf on others. Another group of healers are the ‘inyanga’, experts in tradition herbs. People come to them looking for help with love or cures for illness. But there are also witches, whose roles are not so benevolent, and are paid to cast spells and curses on others.

Siswana is also a Christian, a mix western adherents would likely find unacceptable. One might ask how a Christian sangoma would reconcile their practice with the biblical prohibitions of mediums and magic, but then again few western Christians avoid seafood or pork, or wear four tassels on their clothes. Nor was it was that long ago that westerners feared the power of fairies in the woods and burned witches at the stake.

There are also charlatans within these callings, or the “many quack healers” as Filhani puts it. Any medium might fall under the same heading in Canada, and a parent whose child announced that great grandpa was living inside them would more likely be sent for medical treatment than to divination school. But in South Africa, and presumably across much of the continent, traditional healers are ‘the first point of contact for physical and psychological ailments for about 80% of the population”, and outnumber western trained doctors 5 to 1. There is no mention that Siswana is compensated for her work as a sangoma, but demand does appear to be high enough to wonder how great a temptation it might be to pose as one.

Filhani also paradoxically notes that sangomas are perceived to be “unsophisticated, uneducated and backwards”. She does not pursue this tension nor does she explore why sangomas are viewed negatively. It will be fascinating to see over the long term if South African culture moves toward western style secularism with its dismissal of the supernatural and its hard separation between the spiritual and the material.

(J R-M)

When Tragedy Strikes: A Christian Response

News Story:

On April 15, 2013 the news was flooded reports out of Boston, MA. that two bombs had exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and wounding more than 260. There were people from many different places present, including several from my current city of Lethbridge Alberta. In this situation, and others like it, all sorts of questions begin to form: what happened? Are there more attacks coming? Who is responsible? Are my friends and loved ones okay? Why would someone do such a horrible thing? We get drawn into a swirl of emotion, encountering fear, panic, grief, anger, and perhaps even hate as we search for answers.
A natural response in times like these is the desire for justice. We want to know who is responsible, why they did it, and hold them accountable. In the case of the Boston bombing, authorities discovered that Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his brother Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were responsible. Tamerlan was killed in a gunfight with Police while Dzhokhar was arrested days later. But why did they do it? Speculation has abounded and in this new story from MSN Canada News, it is proposed that these two were “angry about wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the deaths of Muslim civilians there.” Further, there are allegations that jihad may have had a role – which, according to Irving Hexham is “a holy war or striving with infidels by force or intellectual persuasion to make converts.” Whether this was in-fact the case or not, we do know that many atrocities are committed in the name of religion. Be it holy wars, acts of terrorism, or even vicious verbal attacks, religious beliefs deeply impact people and influence their actions.

Amidst all the questions being asked in this situation, one I would like to propose is how should we as Christians respond? How can we show compassion, grace, and love to those who murder other people having no regret, even feeling justified in their actions? This is not an easy question, but here are a few thoughts:

1) We must guard our hearts. Often in these situation we want justice, and rightfully so. However, all too often our craving for “justice” is really us seeking retaliation, revenge, and payback. If we’re caused pain, we want to cause pain bad – an eye for and eye mentality grips us and we seemingly forget that ultimately God is our judge and He indeed is just. Romans 12:19 says “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’” says the Lord.

2) We need to work on forgiveness. God has offered each of us an amazing grace and he freely forgives us of all sins when we confess them (1 John 1:9) and he asks us to do the same with others, even going as far to say that we should love our enemies (Matthew 5). Forgiveness leads to healing and prevents bitterness from destroying us from the inside out.
3) Finally, we need to remember that people are watching us and our reactions are a witness to others. What a powerful testimony to the work of God in our lives if we don’t become blood-thirsty but instead pitch in with relief efforts, help those injured or affected, and promote a message of grace. There is enough hatred and pain in the world, let’s instead sow seeds of love, compassion, grace, and forgiveness. In the words of my friend Randy Carter “Give them heaven, because people get enough hell from the world.”

In times of tragedy and pain, we as Christians have the awesome privilege and responsibility to be the hands and feet of Christ in our world. In the words of Paul, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” Galatians 6:9

Dalai Lama condemns Buddhist attack on Muslims in Myanmar.

Fear of differences prompts violence. Can world religions coexist? #worldrels

The recent explosion of violence in Myanmar between Buddhists and Muslims is really nothing new in the history of religion. The history of religion is bathed in blood. The Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, the massacre of Buddhist priests by Muslim invaders, the conflicts between Sikhs and Hindus, and the Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland all bred violence in the name of God.

In the ancient world, tribal wars were little more than a six year old boy’s school-yard taunts, which said, “My god can beat up your god.” It would be nice to believe that the human race has grown up since then, but the tribal mentality of religious warfare has changed little in the thousands of years that have passed since those times. Though we live under the guise of tolerance, war in the name of religion still occurs.
In Myanmar this past year, reports indicate that Buddhists, including monks, have attacked Muslims, killed hundreds, and displaced tens of thousands. The 50 year rule of a military dictatorship in this country ended two years ago, but without the iron fist of this dictatorship holding its people back, long-festering ethnic and religious conflicts have boiled to the surface, leading to inter-racial and inter-religious warfare.

Where does this hatred come from? It’s all about fear, really.
Fear of people who are different.
Fear of losing what we have.
Fear of being killed so kill them first.

In Myanmar the Buddhist fears the Muslims are dominating business and forcing Buddhists to be sterilized. Allegations turned into rumours; rumours became fear; fear turned into hatred; hatred turned into violence; violence leads to death which breeds revenge and more hatred, and the cycle of destruction spirals out of control.
All in the name of religion. As the Dalai Lama said this week, this is very sad.

Today it is about Buddhists attacking Muslims, but Muslims have not been innocent throughout their history. Neither have Christians. Neither has anybody else. We’ve all used God’s name to justify killing others.

The merging of religions will never be possible; instead, we must it our goal to have peaceful coexistence in spite of our religious differences. Though it lies within the practice of each of the world’s major religions to seek converts to what is believed to be truth, violence goes against the very soul of these faiths. The adherents of the world’s major religions will never come to a consensus on all matters of faith and practice, but we must learn to coexist nonetheless. We must seek truth while honouring the pursuit of truth that others are engaged in. We must let love conquer hatred, hope conquer fear, and let respectful dialogue replace prejudice. We must be willing to learn from one another, to agree to disagree without being disagreeable, and to find the desire for peace that lies deep in the heart of all humanity.

At least, I hope it does. I hope it’s in there somewhere.

Should Tamerlan Tsarnaev be given an Islamic funeral and burial?

More than two weeks after his death it is still not clear if Tamerlan Tsarnaev, deceased suspect in the Boston Marathon Bombing, will be given an Islamic funeral and burial. Comments from members of the Muslim community in and around Boston suggest that the question of a Muslim burial is complicated by the nature of the charges against Tsarnaev and the interpretation of Islamic law regarding funeral rites in light of those allegations. (

In their public statements several Islamic leaders in Boston have been distancing themselves and their communities from the Tsarnaev brothers. Certainly there are pragmatic reasons for this. They undoubtedly have a very real concern about the impact the bombings could have on the relationships Muslim people have with their neighbours, not to mention the potential for reprisals. But this issue gets even more complicated when one tries to understand possible theological reasons for this distancing. There are significant questions about if and how funeral rites might be performed and the underlying question and determining factor seems to be whether the Muslim community accepts that Tsarnaev lived and died as a Muslim.

While several leaders in the Muslim community in Boston have denounced the bombings, Imam Talal Eid of the Islamic Institute of Boston has made the strongest statement that Tsarnaev “left the fold of Islam” when he deliberately killed innocent people, an act condemned in the Qur’an. On this basis Eid has said that, were he asked, he “would not be willing to do a funeral for him.”

Imam Suhaib Webb of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center is slightly less definitive, saying that Tsarnaev “should be buried according to the religious tradition he adheres to. His case is with God.” Webb doesn’t clearly state his opinion on whether Tsarnaev was truly a Muslim but suggests perhaps he was, saying that although he didn’t feel that he could lead the prayers he “would not stop people from praying upon him.” In Islamic teaching, according to the example of the Prophet, funeral prayers should still be offered for those who are corrupt but, as a consequence of their offense and deterrent to others, these prayers should not be led by an imam.

Statements from other Imams in surrounding areas have voiced this same uncertainty, suggesting that the Islamic community needs to confirm whether or not the deceased lived and died as a Muslim. However Sheikh Ahmad Kutty, Islamic scholar from the Islamic Institute of Toronto says that, even if the charges against Tsarnaev are true they would not have removed him from the fold of Islam. ( According to Kutty this can only happen if a person denounces Islam and, in the absence of any evidence that Tsarnaev did this, the “reasonable approach” would be for the community to ensure he is given an Islamic funeral but for the community leaders, imams and scholars, not to participate.

In the Muslim community funeral rites, prayers and burial are considered to be a communal obligation and neglecting them is a communal sin. The question of whether or not Tsarnaev will have an Islamic funeral has the potential to impact more than just he and his own family. It is a question that requires a faithful answer, an answer that according to Islamic belief could impact the entire community, an answer that doesn’t seem to be clear even to those charged with making such rulings.



Jaweek Kaleem, “Tamerlan Tsarnaev, Suspected Boston Bomber, May Not Get Islamic Funeral From Wary Muslims” Huffington Post Religion, entry posted April 20, 2013,

Ahmad Kutty, “No Funeral Service for Boston Suspect: OK?” OnIslam Ask the Scholar, entry posted April 25, 2013,

Worth Dying For

Recent reports regarding the hunger strikes in Guantanamo ( combined with efforts to better understand both Buddhist and Christian thought regarding “self” have spurred me to reflect upon acts of self-destruction; particularly acts of self-destruction purposed for political protest.

Whether the ongoing self-immolation of Tibetan (monks resisting Chinese oppression (, the 16-year old girl from India whose attempts to seek justice for being rape fell on deaf ears (, or the continued suicide bombings among Palestinians against Israel (, the examples, sadly, are numerous (

As distinct as acts of suicide terrorism ( are from acts of non-violent self-sacrifice, there is shock all the same in the common thread these acts share i.e. in one’s willingness to sacrifice self for a cause.

While most religions hold teachings against suicide, so too do most hold (within their history) stories where self-sacrifice is revered. For example, within Judeo-Christian heritage the story of Samson ( who, while in captivity, engaged in a deliberate act of self-sacrifice in opposition to Philistine oppression. Within Chinese Buddhist tradition, acts of “abandoning the body” were in many cases “expressions of involvement in the world for the sake of specific goals such as defending Buddhism from persecution, enhancing fertility, preventing natural disasters, ending wars, etc.” (, page 193). And, (although highly controversial among different Muslim groups), the operationalization of “lesser jihad” has been conceptualized in acts of violent and non-violent self-sacrifice.

Reactions to acts of self-destruction, however, beg attention far beyond doctrinal exploration and historical excavation. Their evocative power seems pervasive beyond demographic boundaries. Evidently the “cry of anguish” that underpins such acts draws us in to take a deeper look, to listen more attentively and to seek to understand more intimately the injustices at hand. But beyond that is also the vehicle of self-destruction that so powerfully brings issues to the forefront. This, I believe, also spurs reflection (whether consciously or unconsciously) on the value of self and of life. In this, however, I wonder how my Christian perspective causes me to view acts of self-destruction differently from other faith traditions.

While thinking through this topic I looked for articles regarding self-destruction beyond that of a typical “Christian” purview within current news which brought to my attention several Buddhist reports condemning acts of self-immolation as being inconsistent with Buddhist thought ( Predictably I also came across reports of some pro-extremists (supporting the glorification of violent jihad ( And by contrast other Muslim reports in stark opposition to violent jihad ( Both, however point to an additional consideration that is to consider where (or whom or if at all) do we consider the power of life (and right to end life) to stem from.

All in all, the more I read, the more I yearn to gain a better understanding of the influence our religious convictions play within reactions to acts of self-destruction. But also, to better understand the complexity the acts themselves represent. There seems an inherent dualism regarding acts of self-destruction, i.e. that on one hand we are drawn to pay attention and lean closer to understand “the cry” of the injustice they are protesting while on the other hand charged to face the reality of the injustice of the self-sacrifice that brought us to such a place. In it all, I yearn to keep digging. There is underneath these acts so much to unfold. (MK) #worldrels

Buddhist monks leading the way towards Islamophobia in Sri Lanka

I first heard about these attacks in a prayer meeting where someone referred to the “militant Buddhists”. At the time, I was surprised to hear that term and made a joke about what an oxymoron it appeared to be. I now understand more of the context of the attacks led by Buddhist groups in Sri Lanka, as discussed in this article However, my initial response is probably representative of how many people, particularly in the west, view typical Buddhist behaviour as peace-seeking Some of these views are correct as the attacks in Sri Lanka can’t be described as common to Buddhist communities throughout the world. And yet, these violent acts and others are not as atypical as the average westerner may think.

The principles of the Noble Eightfold path, central to Buddhism, include right speech and actions which lead to a life that upholds the right ethics (pg 205). In theory, the religion is pacifist where violence and killing is to be avoided at all costs. However, there has historically been some allowance for defensive violence in the context of “just war” (pg.209). Over the years, many Buddhist communities have had need for defence during periods of intense persecution, especially in India and China. However, justification for the current violence towards Muslims in Sri Lanka is less obvious.

The group BBS (roughly translated Buddhist Strength Force), which is credited as a major source of anti-Islamic rhetoric, identifies itself as countering Muslim extremism yet there are not many examples of Islamic extremism by the minority Muslims in Sri Lanka. This group also has strong nationalistic interests. One suspected supporter of the BBS, the Sri Lankan Defence Secretary, made a speech that linked the Buddhist religion with race, culture and country, specifically in the context of “protection”, or defence. These examples appear to provide justification of anti-Islamic sentiments and provoke violent action due to undertones of urgency (i.e. “protection” and “countering….extremism”).

On one level, it is certainly possible that this is an example of how religion can be co-opted by politics to justify actions that are sometimes in apparent contradiction to the principles of the religion. This can occur in any religious community and at any scale, within a church or a nation. Are the Sri Lankan Buddhists’ concerns about national and religious identity or about protecting their economic position in the country and preventing a minority group from gaining economic power? Although it is important to be aware of political influence, there are also other questions which arise that may be helpful to consider the whole issue:

1) Is there a history of Muslim aggression in the region (i.e. is this only one side of the coin)?
2) Where else in this world is this occurring and why? Is the basis for these actions similar to what is happening in Burma?
3) Is this part of a “normal” tension between minority and majority religions? Does the exclusive and evangelistic nature of Islam contribute to the tensions?
4) Does Buddhist doctrine have an influence on the uptake of anti-Islamic sentiments in the general population as a result of less strict adherence to religious ethics? In Sri Lanka, the “Lesser Vehicle” Theravadin Buddhism is dominant whereby the laity is not able to achieve enlightenment.
5) Is the Western view of Buddhism partial or faulted, and if so, does this impact reporting on the issue? (SH) #worldrels

Boston Marathon Bombing

Boston Marathon bombing was a nightmare to North Americans for the past few weeks. I remembered that I watched that breaking news when I was on vacation in Hong Kong and had breakfast with my dad in a restaurant. It was really shocked to me. The incident also raises the questions again about the relationship between Muslim world and America. Abraham Kuyper’s proposed that the church should not control or influence the state. Similarly, in a secular society Islamic beliefs should do nothing to influence any country, included America. However, the reality is that all countries are influenced by religions to certain degree as long as the politicians are religious, or the country is founded upon certain religion.

The article “Judgment Not Included” ( covers several points about the reasons behind the Boston Marathon bombing. One of the reasons, of course that the author talked about is that the bombers are Muslims. The author of the article pointed out that “some 70,000 people, most of them Muslims, have been killed by other Muslims in the Syrian civil war, which the U.S. had nothing to do with … And every week innocent Muslims are blown up by Muslim suicide bombers in Pakistan and Iraq — every week.”

I have not added anything to his expression as I am a news story editor editing South Asia news almost every day. I watch a lot of raw footage of the bombing, too much, I would say. I always ask myself “what are they actually doing to blow up cars, buildings and people?” I can feel the fear and helpless of the people who live in those countries. They will never know if they can safely go home that day.

I can “understanding” Muslims, or any other religious group, who hate other religions or ideas that contradict to their own beliefs. But I really cannot understand why a Muslim, or the member of any other religious group, would kill other Muslims because of their differences of belief.

The author if the New York Times article said that “It’s a double non sequitur when it comes from Muslim youths who lived and studied in America, where, if you’re upset about something, you have many ways to express your opposition and have an impact…an American guy named Barack, whose grandfather was a Muslim, did just that. And he’s now president of the United States” According to the author, people’s mind can change, just as what Obama’s slogan said during his first presidential campaign. But the problem is whether the people is willing to change.

It seems that some people do not change because of the “change” involves a higher level of spiritual recognition rejection or negation, from their own beliefs. It also means that he will become the betrayer, of his religion, his family. This is a serious issue that needs to be thought about. Obama shows that people can develop in very different ways and that neither family background, ethnicity, early religion, or any other thing needs to determine their attitudes. Thanks God.

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(JLCC) #worldrels

Teaching World Religions in Public Schools

The idea of teaching world religions in public school is not new, and in one current poll commissioned by the BC Humanist Association, appears to have significant support ( The problem is that while most people would support world religions being taught, the development and implementation of curriculum would undoubtedly cause problems.

The first issue would be identifying which groups get included in the curriculum, and what weight would be given to each group. This is not an insurmountable problem, but would require the leaders (and followers) for each of the groups to accept a shared role in education. Some of this could also work with a multi-layered instructional design where students would share learning of a few global religions, and also have space to explore other traditions.

Another issue would be educational approach. Does the curriculum steer clear of the spirituality, and concentrate mostly on the history of the religion? Or, does it delve into the spiritual side? Both are possible, but each has drawbacks. If the educator stays with history, the learner misses out on seeing much of a particular religion’s worldview. Concentrating on the spiritual side is also difficult, as there are conflicts between the belief systems underlying assumptions, and the learners would find themselves potentially confused by experimenting with differing spirituality.

The last major issue is brought up in the linked article, though not identified as such. A related poll found that there is also a large portion of people who do not want religion promoted or practiced in any public school. In studying religions, there is always a chance that students will become engaged with a religion, and may choose a faith outside the one of their parents or peers.

All this said, the benefits outweigh the risks and the trials along the way. Understanding another person / group / tribe / ethnicity / people’s worldview through the eyes of their religion would go a long way towards eliminating some of the conflicts in the world. (BK) #worldrels


In reading the article Global Muslim report reveals opposition to suicide bombing in US, by The Guardian (, citing a report that reveals how the vast majority of American Muslims (and a large portion of Muslims worldwide) are opposed to suicide bombings, two reactions come to my mind. My first thought is, “finally, people are making the effort to disprove stereotypes against religious groups for violence caused by the radical minority.” Racial and religious stereotypes do not help us to understand people of different cultures and lifestyles. Instead, it causes us to form one-sided views on people, most of which are unfounded, inaccurate, or completely false. My second thought, however, questions the need for such a report in the first place. This is not the first time I’ve heard how most Muslims are opposed to the atrocities committed in the name of Islam, and I have never doubted that these heinous acts were done by a small radical minority, so why does it take a survey to validate such a statement?

Since September 11, 2001, America’s “War on Terror” has painted Islam as a violent religion that rewards its martyrs for their terrorist activity. The obvious danger of such a general view is that it hardly represents the majority of those who belong to this people group. Christians need only to look to today’s news and editorials to see how sweeping, general statements can be one-sided and inaccurate. Divisions over such issues as the ordination of homosexual ministers, or beliefs over heaven and hell (reinvigorated by the publishing of Rob Bell’s book Love Wins), shows how diverse Christians are in their belief over (what some consider) peripheral matters. Christianity has also had its share of religious extremism, still trying to live down the reputation earned during the Crusades.

What, then, must we do in response to such violent actions committed by radicals (of any ideology)? Much of this, perhaps, depends on what each of our individual roles in society is. A government official’s role is different from a military official, which is in turn different from that of an ordinary citizen. But it seems appropriate to begin with the understanding that we can rarely label a whole people group with sweeping statements that make presumptions on their beliefs. Education is helpful in dispelling unhealthy stereotypes, and building relationships people of various faiths puts faces to religions that might otherwise seem impersonal. Above all, as the Apostle Peter writes, “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing” (1 Peter 3:9). Fear begets fear, and violence begets violence. We have the opportunity to break the cycle. In doing so, we live out Christ’s teaching to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44), and maybe, through this, our “enemies” might know the love of Christ.

“@pwhsu: Report shows that the majority of Muslims are opposed to suicide bombings.

(PH) #worldrels