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Dan Nejfelt
Dan Nejfelt, Faith in Public Life’s Messaging and Trainings Manager, worked at Sojourners magazine as part of his graduate study of journalism at the University of Missouri before coming to FPL. Prior to that, he taught remedial reading and writing to 7th and 8th graders in rural Arkansas as a Teach For America corps member. Dan blogs about health care, the Religious Right and budget issues.

Reflections on Rosh Hashanah and the beginning of Ramadan

September 18, 2007, 2:30 pm | By Dan Nejfelt

Time for Reflection.

This year in God’s plan, Rosh Hashanah coincided with the beginning of Ramadan. On the advent of the Jewish New year the Jews gather in Synagogues and pray for renewal and hope for the future.

Since the war in Bosnia, which brought us together, we have shared many other perilous journeys to conflict-ridden parts of the world in the quest for Peace. Coming from our respective traditions in which lately there has been an unfortunate seepage of politics into our ideological roots, casting us in adversarial roles, our journey has not been easy. Yet not only has our friendship endured, it has only gotten stronger.

As we prayed at the synagogue and the mosque, we were before the God of Abraham, reflecting on the opportunities and the challenges that we face.

As I prayed in the synagogue this week on Rosh Hashanah I reflected on the Torah portion of Abraham, Isaac, and Ishmael. Brothers lost, living in darkness, separated by fear and jealously. Would Ishmael and Isaac only gaze upon one another at their father’s death? Is not the greatest plague that of ”darkness,” when brothers remain estranged and cannot feel each other’s pain?

Thousands of years later now the same darkness seems to prevail – one brother not feeling the pain of the other. These Holy days, as I search for new beginnings and a fresh start, I am reminded of my faith’s demands of me to respect and sanctify life. On this Rosh Hashannah, as I read the Torah, my journey of hope and trust with my Muslim brother came to my mind. These are challenging time for Muslims, Jews and Christians but also an opportunity. This is the time to turn our errant behavior into good deeds and dispel the darkness. This demands that we stand up to those who bash and demonize Muslims and others, and discriminate out of ignorance and fear against our biblical brothers and sisters. Unless we act courageously the plague of darkness will continue. May our prayers for Peace be fulfilled in our daily lives.

For the Muslims, the month of Ramadan marks the beginning of the Divine revelatory process of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad. In this month Muslims fast during the day and gather in mosques every night to offer prayers and listen to the Quran. It is considered the most blessed month, in which besides extra attention is given to the needy, the poor and the sick. The Fast must include refraining from anger and violence. The idea of the whole exercise is to refresh a sense of deep spiritual commitment, through which can come renewed efforts to address the prevailing injustices in the society around us.

For Muslims who abhor acts of violence, these are indeed difficult times. The month of Ramadan, which just started and signifies the start of the Quranic revelatory process to Prophet Mohammad, is considered by the Muslims to be a Blessed month. During this month Muslims pray, reflect, meditate and ask for Gods’ help. The mosques are full, charity is at its maximum, and the Quran is read and listened to extensively. They stand in prayers all night to offer special prayers for themselves, their family and the rest of the world, for peace and stability. Islam to them means Peace as it literally does. Muslims must attain and internalize this value above all if at all they are abiding by the teachings of the Quran.

All of this seems serene and peaceful.

During the first night after breaking the fast I stood in prayers at the mosque and was listening to the Quranic recitation of the verse

Those who believe and those who follow the scriptures the Jews, the Christian and the Sabians (a small Christian denomination in Iraq), Any who believe in God and the Day of Judgment, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.

My friendship was being reaffirmed. Friendship not just between the two of us but with many others from different Faiths and persuasions with whom I have bonded in our common destiny as the verse was pointing to.

Sadly enough my mind wandered to the daily news of violence and bloodshed committed in the name of Islam. I feared that this month in which all warfare must stop and all bloodshed must end, will be washed away in a torrent of blood, blood of innocent people, Muslims and non-Muslims. This seemed overwhelming for a moment, but the spirit of Ramadan again prevailed in reminding me how emphatic the Quran is in condemning mischief and mayhem. These daily acts of violence are morally offensive in the Quranic sense and give a contrary image of Islam.

The Quran’s declaration in the verse quoted above stood out in my mind. It seemed that it was addressing all of us who believe in our faiths’ commitment to Peace and Justice. It reaffirms not only our friendship but our work together. We must continue to speak out boldly and act against those who are committing these acts in the name of their religion. Realizing that these misguided people will continue to unleash acts of terror on anyone and anywhere in the name of religion, the need for the Muslims to raise their voice and act is urgent. Bold condemnation of these acts, whether committed by individuals, groups of people or even governments, is the right action from our faith perspective. We must not be intimidated.

We know and are convinced through our friendships that the universal ethical calling of a just peace cannot be readily answered if we live only among ourselves. We have learned that we can no longer act as if only what happens in our immediate communities matters. We must act to show that we owe solidarity to others beyond our communities in order to better appreciate the universality of human dignity.

This is the essence of the spirit of Ramadan and Rosh Hashanah.

Shana Tova and Ramadan Mubarak

In the synagogue —for renewal and hope they all pray

In the mosque, heaven’s doors are open, they say.

Tell them — to open their eyes and see.

That God isn’t there besides thee.

If you will only look beyond the prayers and meditation,

You will see Him where there is injustice and oppression.

In the occupied territories of armies grand

And the crowded refugee camps of different lands;

In the pit of the stomach of a hungry child

In the carnage of suicide-bombers reviled.

He is no more at the Haram or Wailing Wall

The message should be clear to us all.

We will now find him only where

There is nothing left but only despair.

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The long march to peace

September 12, 2007, 2:23 pm | By Dan Nejfelt

President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld pushed for war with Iraq immediately after 9/11. One and a half years later, they fulfilled their wish by launching “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” and the bloodshed continued ever since.

Just as 9/11 served as a starting pistol for the race to war in Iraq, the sixth anniversary of that abominable day should mark the start of a decisive leg of the long march to peace. Regardless of whether the surge ends, President Bush will prolong this war for as long as we let him.

Religious groups continue to sound a prophetic call for peace. An Interfaith fast, organized by numerous Muslim, Jewish and Christian groups, will occur on October 8, and you can register to organize a fast in your community, or find one near you, at the Interfaith Fast web site.

Christian Peace Witness, which held an inspiring religious service and march for peace on the war’s fourth anniversary, is organizing peace vigils across the country, which will continue occur continually between now and the fourth anniversary of the Iraq war in April. You can register to lead a vigil in your community at their web site.

If peace were easy, we would have it by now. Ending the war will continue to take tremendous effort on numerous fronts, and the movement’s spiritual health will be necessary for its ultimate success. Interfaith Fast and Christian Peace Witness can provide this nourishment. Please take part.

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Jennifer Butler: After 9/11, choosing love over fear

September 11, 2007, 10:49 am | By Dan Nejfelt

Someone asked this morning, “What year were the terrorist attacks?” The answer, “Six years ago, 2001″ struck me. Was it that long ago? It seems like yesterday.

Even as I know 9/11 has been used politically to whip up fear; I will admit it: I am afraid. I find my fear, and therefore my courage intensified by the confluence of 9/11/01 with first day of my married life with Glenn, who was moving to New York City that day to join me, arriving to find us walled off from one another. This morning I went over our catastrophe plan again, and we told each other with a kiss, “have a good day.”

Today the spiritual struggle for me is what it was in 2001. In 2001, as NPR informed me of the first plane striking the twin towers, I calmly alerted my interns at our office across from the United Nations. As the NPR station went dead (it was in one of the towers), I turned on TV to monitor events. As more planes hit and rumors spread the prayer, “Where there is fear, let me sow…” I couldn’t complete the sentence in the turmoil, so I made up the words, but it helped. A few days later I found St Francis’ prayer in Union Square Park in a makeshift vigil surrounded by people of all nationalities and faiths, many wrapped in American flags.

My tradition tells me that I am to act out of love, not fear. From “Fear not!” to “Perfect love casts out fear,” my marching orders are clear. We often think of fear and love solely as uncontrollable feelings. But they are also choices. I have a choice every day and every hour: be guided by fear, which leads to more violence, or choose hope and love, which leads to creative solutions.

Are these naïve words; empty clichés? “God gave us not a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power, love and self-discipline.” The opposite of fear is power. The opposite of fear is self-discipline and love. This is what I learn from my staff, from all of you, when you choose to sit down with those who supposedly are our enemies and hammer solutions. When you forge coalitions to retake your communities from intolerance, greed, fear mongering, corruption, abuse of power. When we cross divides, speak the truth, sacrifice comfort to do what is right. And when we push our national leaders to do the same.

Rev. Jennifer Butler is Executive Director of Faith in Public Life

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September 11, General Petraeus, and the Failed Moral Vision of a Nation

September 11, 2007, 10:01 am | By Dan Nejfelt

Five years ago, on September 11, 2001, I and other staff members of the United Church of Christ Washington DC office were in a Congressional hearing room with 20 poor people from across the country waiting to give testimony on a bill to reauthorize funding for low income Americans, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. We knew there had been an attack of some kind, and were nervous, especially when the members of Congress didn’t show. We soon realized that we needed to get out, and then the evacuation of the Capitol started.

Why we were still sitting there in a Capitol Hill hearing room in the midst of chaos and what was then still a rumor that the nation had been attacked, I don’t know. We had already seen the images on television of the twin towers going down, the Pentagon could be seen smoldering in the distance from the front steps of the Cannon House Office building as we entered.

No one in Washington on that day knew what to do, where to go, or how to think or even talk about how the world would be made different by what we were experiencing. All we knew was that it would be time for this nation to act. The only question was how and when.

Fast forward to September 10, 2007. Yesterday’s testimony before the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committee by General Petraeus, our top commander in Iraq, indicated, more than anything, that the world has changed very little since 9/11. Vulnerable people (then New Yorkers and DC Pentagon workers, now Iraqis) are paying for the sins of an overmilitarized world with their lives. As the General sat and provided cover for a President, a Congress, and a nation mired in an unpopular war that still has no purpose or direction, I truly felt that this sideshow is about as far from a tribute to the lives lost on 9/11 as one could imagine.

The General’s speech writers did succeed in using a headline-grabbing catchy phrase to characterize supporters of withdrawal from Iraq, warning that they would be “rushing to failure.” Where would those Americans in poverty we sat with 6 years ago on 9/11 be today had this Administration and Congress not decided to squander $195 million a week on one war? Probably better off. Where would Al Qaeda be had this nation fought the war on terror through development assistance to the poor instead of military support for the rich and the powerful in the Middle East? Probably worse off.

Some of those “rush to failure” members of Congress released statistics yesterday on what $195 million a day, one day in Iraq, could buy. It is staggering. One day in Iraq could provide unemployment benefits for almost 722,000 unemployed Americans for one week. One day in Iraq could fund Social Security retirement benefits for one day for over 6.75 million Americans. One day in Iraq could vaccinate three-quarters of the children in Africa for measles and give millions a lifetime protection from the disease. One day in Iraq could provide paid sick leave to half a million workers for an entire year.

No, General Petraeus, the nation has already “rushed to failure.” It’s time we rush to victory and get out of Iraq and redirect our priorities once and for all.

Rev. Ron Stief is the Director of Organizing Strategy for Faith in Public Life and on September 11, 2001, was working across from the U.S. Capitol directing the offices of the United Church of Christ.

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Pew poll shows that voters value candidates’ faith

September 6, 2007, 5:04 pm | By Dan Nejfelt

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a new poll about the presidential candidates’ favorability ratings and popular perceptions of their faith. Pew’s summary leads off by saying that

So far religion is not proving to be a clear-cut positive in the 2008 presidential campaign. The candidates viewed by voters as the least religious among the leading contenders are the current frontrunners for the Democratic and Republican nominations – Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani, respectively. On the other hand, the candidate seen as far and away the most religious – Mitt Romney – is handicapped by this perception because of voter concerns about Mormonism.

However, the data show clearly that religious faith is seen as a huge positive for every candidate about whom adequate data was gathered. Consider the attached table.

The report’s introduction doesn’t seem to match its results. Being perceived as religious clearly is a net positive for each candidate, including Romney. While there’s no disputing that Clinton and Giuliani are frontrunners in election polls and in “Godless numbers,” correlation doesn’t even suggest causation here. In fact, there’s a much clearer correlation between their popularity and perceptions that they are religious. Buried far beneath the study’s introduction is this:

Overall views of the presidential candidates are linked with views of their religiosity; those who perceive a candidate as being very religious tend to express the most favorable overall views of each candidate, followed by those who perceive the candidate as being somewhat religious. Those who view candidates as being not too or not at all religious, on the other hand, are much less likely to express favorable views.

Eighty-seven percent of people who view Hillary Clinton as very religious have a favorable impression of her, and only 22 percent of people who view her as not very religious have a favorable impression. Giuliani is viewed favorably by 77 percent of people who see him as very religious, but only by 43 percent of people who see him as lacking faith. In Clinton’s case, faith seems to be among her strongest assets, and perceived lack of faith looks like her greatest weakness. Giuliani too seems to benefit a great deal from perceptions of piety and to be damaged by perceptions of faithlessness. This pattern holds for all other candidates, as well.

A multitude of impressions, values and beliefs contribute to people’s candidate preference. That perceptions of religiosity vs irreligiosity do not perfectly mirror the results of the latest election polls is not an argument against the clear importance of religion to voters. If anything, Clinton and Giuliani succeed in spite of their “godless numbers.” For them and for all candidates studied, a religious image is an unmistakable asset.

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