Category Archives: Religion

Bathtime for Babar

The Guruvayoor Devaswom elephant sanctuary, Punnathurkotta, holds the most elephants I’ve seen in one location. It’s an amazing place. The elephants are well-attended by their mahouts and temple vets, who prepare them for various rituals and festivals at the nearby and enormously active pilgrimage site, Guruvayoor Sree Krishna Temple. Today a number of the massive creatures at Punnathurkotta were getting scrubbed down (see video below).

A.B. Breivik and Religious Terrorism

Reasons for the recent attack and murder of dozens of people in Norway by Anders Behring Breivik are slowly but surely coming to light. If you’re really assiduous and interested, and indeed wise enough to bypass commentary from the media’s talking heads about what happened, you’ll go straight to the source, Breivik’s 1500+ page manifesto, 2083: A European Declaration of Independence (read it here). No doubt some enterprising sociology or religious studies grad student somewhere has already digested most of it and is preparing a dissertation prospectus based on it.

The academic don of all things religious and terrorist, Mark Juergensmeyer, has already scripted a piece on the striking parallels between Norway’s Breivik and the U.S.’s McVeigh over at Religion Dispatches. Check it out and report back, dear reader(s).

What I’d like to point out in this blogamarole is some news I recently came across about Breivik that really drew me in. Namely, the following two articles present some very interesting material for anyone interested in the long and winding historical relationship between religion and politics across the Indo-European world, Indo-Aryan invasion theories and, more generally, religious terrorism:

“Norway massacre: Breivik manifesto attempts to woo India’s Hindu nationalists,” Christian Science Monitor (25 july 2011) 

“Varanasi, Hindutva link in Norway mass murderer’s manifesto,” Star News Bureau (26 July 2011)


The India connection revealed in these articles comes as no surprise. Breivik clearly had been closely following the history of Hindutva (Hindu Nationalist) rhetoric and violence against Muslims in India, and he has no doubt bought wholesale the long ago debunked Indo-Aryan socioracial theories championed by (mainly, but not exclusively) northern Europeans in the 18-20th centuries that could lead any unwitting blond-haired, blue-eyed übermensch from Scandinavia to the Himalayas. Having taught some of this history to college students over the last few years, it’s always a challenge to get young folks new to South Asian Studies to understand how the linguistic and religious histories of places like Iceland and India can be related. Breivik presents us with a case in point, a tragic one, to be sure, and one unlike I’ve seen in recent history. I do not want to give this guy a virtual podium from which to spout his hate speech and fascist rhetoric, and I’m highly dismayed by the massive growth of religious extremism in northern Europe over the past two-three decades, some of which has become institutionalized in the political machines of that land’s “progressive” countries.  And yet, I also recognize that from a strictly academic perspective this event is so historically significant. It will be be brought up in classrooms and in publications on religion and politics and cultural studies for a long, long time.  

Snyder v. Phelps, Redux

On 06 March 2011, peashooter Wildbillycircusstory eloquently wrote about the 8-1, Justice Roberts’-led, Supreme Court ruling on Snyder v. Phelps, et al:

“the First Amendment bars recovery for the tort of Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (IIED) when the offending speech concerns a matter relating to public rather than private matters.  While conceding the defendants intentionally chose the funeral of plaintiff’s son to publish their views, it nevertheless held the communication within the ‘special protection’ afforded by the First Amendment.”

That entry into the annals of Eat My Peashoot set off a somewhat spirited, and ultimately set aside (presumably to prevent endless commentary without resolution), back and forth between Wildbilly and me. As I see it, the Westboro Baptist Church business of picketing the funerals of fallen soldiers, while using reprehensible anti-LGBTQ speech, is one of those cases that makes squaring the constitutional law protecting free speech in this country with one’s conscience and moral compass nearly impossible to do. Here’s a typical image from one of the Westboro Church’s rhetoricians.

Images like this one are all over the internet. And for as long as I can remember, in the United States it’s very common, if not expected, to see expressions of U.S. patriotism (note the flag belt on the lady in the photo) brandished about like this, as if to be a citizen of the U.S. one must keep to a narrow, fundamentalist reading of the Bible. What’s more, American citizenship for many in this country must involve Christian theology. And it’s not just any theology, but a theology that espouses a far-right ideological agenda that, almost invariably, deploys hate speech to make its point. Thankfully, there is another side to this rhetoric, but it’s not as frequently covered in the mainstream media as are the dissertations of the Phelps, et al brigades.

None of this is news, of course, not to the history of this grand old country, not to Eat My Peashoot. So why rehash it now? Simply because I’d like to draw to the attention of Eat My Peashoot’s fair readers an article in a recent issue of Religion Dispatches, “What To Do When Fred Phelps Arrives in Your Neighborhood.” This piece nicely addresses the difficulties that arise for folks who want, simultaneously, to support the country’s protection of free speech, to oppose the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric of Phelps and the Westboro Church, to honor fallen soldiers, and (perhaps) oppose U.S. militarism. And there’s more. It’s an interesting and  creative piece — read it here. Had you thought about “fantasy picketing” or “fantasy dissent” (like “fantasy baseball”) as a way to move past, or somehow cope with, this issue? I hadn’t. Sure, it’s not likely to materialize. But that’s not the point, or what I take away from the article. The point of the article, possibly, is to underscore the way in which the ground of the U.S. becomes damaged when religion and politics start snogging in public, and religious ideologues — who claim to speak on behalf of the transcendent Almighty, and for this are given unlimited news coverage, and consequently wield great influence — are protected by law to pontificate hate speech.

Thankfully the anti-Phelps / anti-Westboro Baptist Church picketing, umbrella-blocking, et cetera will persist, all of which is perhaps the best (only?) civil, nonviolent antidote available. Be sure to see some of this signwork, too.

Snyder v. Phelps, et. al.

Last week the Roberts’ Court issued yet another First Amendment ruling.  In an 8-1 decision, the Court held the First Amendment bars recovery for the tort of Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (IIED) when the offending speech concerns a matter relating to public rather than private matters.  While conceding the defendants intentionally chose the funeral of plaintiff’s son to publish their views, it nevertheless held the communication within the “special protection” afforded by the First Amendment. 

Factual Summary

The Westboro Baptist Church, and its founder Fred Phelps, have picketed military funerals for the past twenty years to raise awareness of its belief that God hates the United States for its tolerance of homosexuality.  They specifically target military funerals brandishing picket signs stating, “God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9-11; Thank God for Dead Soldiers; God Hates You; Don’t Pray for the USA;” and “Thank God for IEDs”.  The group attended the funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder who was killed in Iraq in the line of duty.  They also tailored their signs to attack Lance Cpl. Snyder: “God Almighty Killed Lance Cpl. Snyder; He died in shame, not honor — for a fag nation cursed by God…Now in Hell.”  (It should be noted that the Westboro Baptist Church has fewer than 100 members, almost all of whom are relatives of Rev. Phelps). 

All parties agree the Church conducted its protest within the “time, place and manner restrictions” of the State of Maryland.  These regulations required the demonstration to remain within a 10 by 25 foot plot located 1000 feet from the church where the funeral was held.  The plaintiff, Lance Cpl. Snyder’s father, testified he was only somewhat aware of the protest on the day of the funeral, but subsequently observed significant media coverage of the event.  He filed a lawsuit alleging IIED, inter alia, against Westboro Baptist and Phelps individually.  A jury subsequently returned a multi-million dollar verdict in his favor.


The Supreme Court reiterated that speech “fairly considered as relating to any matter of political, social, or other concern to the community…occupies the highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values” deserving special protection.  The deliberately provacative context of Westboro’s protest — at the Marine’s funeral — failed to transform the nature of the speech.  While certainly “outrageous”, the speech did comment on matters of public concern and therefore deserved the highest degree of protection.   The Nation chose to shield hurtful speech on public issues to preserve open and free debate, and the Court overturned the verdict in Mr. Snyder’s favor.


Justice Alito was the lone dissenter.  In spite of many other available venues (parks, military recruitment centers, etc.), Westboro deliberately pickets funerals “because it is expected that respondents’ verbal assaults will wound the family and friends of the deceased” while generating significant media coverage.  Alito contends Westboro ceased commenting on matters of public concern when it attacked Cpl. Snyder’s religion (Roman Catholic) and his “wicked, sinful manner of life” defending the “United States of Sodom”.  Alito sought to uphold the verdict based upon Westboro’s direct, unfounded attack on Cpl. Snyder which it specifically designed to induce anguish in the Snyder family.

My Two Cents

While I’m mindful of Alito’s objections, the majority got this right.  Clearly Westboro sought to use Cpl. Snyder’s funeral to generate media attention to their cause.  This tactic has proven remarkably effective for them; while largely ignored on a national scale, the local media invariably runs a story on these demonstrations when a small town’s “favorite son” returns home in a coffin.  Even with direct assaults on the decedent’s religion and values, the larger social issues are subject of national debate.  The fact that I vehemently disagree with Westboro’s positions and methods doesn’t lessen their First Amendment protections, but it proves Mr. Zappa was right once again: JESUS THINKS YOU’RE A JERK!

Glenn Beck on Religion

It’s Glenn Beck hour over at Religion Dispatches this week. Read on!

Glenn Beck’s ‘Social Justice’ Heresies: Why Beck’s Mangled Theology Isn’t The Concern For Liberals,” by Sarah Posner

Glenn Beck Takes on Liberation Theology: An Interview With Serene Jones,” by Elijah Prewitt-Davis

Glenn Beck’s Cheap Grace: The Bible Sounds More Like James Cone Than Glenn Beck,” by Karyn Carlo

What’s Fr. X’s wedding percentage?

Episcopalian priest, Tim Schenck, suggests on his blog, “Clergy Family Confidential,” that perhaps the clergy should have trading cards!

Nothing fancy, just an action photo on the front with parish stats on the back. Even though priests are always saying “it’s not about the numbers” we don’t actually believe this. So we should put our numbers where our mouths are and stick them on the back of bubble gum cards.

What’s more…

They would still be sold in wax packs but rather than a stale piece of gum you’d find a stale wafer.

Attempting to Explain the Unexplainable

Ali Sethi’s op-ed in today’s NY Times is a poignant series of reflections on the complex history of religions and religious nationalisms on the Indian Subcontinent. His starting point is the recent attacks on Ahmadi Muslims in Lahore, on 27 May 2010,  in which more than 80 Ahmadis were reportedly killed. The Lahore Ahmadiyya Movement is a minority Muslim sect in Sunni dominated Pakistan that has been considered heretical by the Pakistani State, and hence persecuted, since nearly the birth of Pakistan in 1947. The central claim of heresy leveled against Ahmadis has to do with their interpretation of the concept of jihad and their belief that Muhammad was not the final prophet. Ahmadis believe that all of God’s prophesies were brought together in the person of Mīzrā Ghulām Ahmad (1835-1908), the tradition’s founder. Ahmad had a liberal, interfaith approach to religious discourse, and he was regularly engaged with his Muslim, Hindu, and Christian neighbors on the Indian Subcontinent. Sethi’s remarks on the Ahmadi tragedy and the history of Islamization in Pakistan make for engaging reading. And he presents some useful insights on the persistent struggle with cultural memory in South Asia, particularly concerning the effects of Partition. Given the U.S.’s involvement (read: regular drone attacks) in the region, and the general lack of knowledge of modern South Asian history among Americans, this first person account of growing up in the region—amid multiple Talibans, inter-Islamic dispute and violence, the use of religion by politicians and military leaders, among other things—is important and, I hope, will be thought-provoking.

Freewheeling Darjeeling

A visually stunning and historically informative documentary about Indo-Tibetan culture will soon start making the rounds in select theaters across the country. It’s called Journey of a Dream, and it’s about a Tibetan man, Shenpenn Khyamsar, lead guitarist and songwriter for a heavy metal band called Avatara. Khyamsar was born among the exiled Tibetan community in Darjeeling, India, and his story touches upon the ways in which Tibetan history, exile in India, the Tibetan Freedom Movement, Buddhism, and heavy metal music have converged in his life.* The story sends up trenchant messages about the dangers of nationalism, the power of social cohesion, and the capacity of music and art to deliver political critique.  From the looks of the trailer, the film has some pretty interesting history of the rock-n-roll scene in Darjeeling. Check out the trailer here!

The film is set mostly in Darjeeling, the misty mountain hill station of northeastern India. Darjeeling is probably known by most folks nowadays as a type of tea that is grown in the hill terraces surrounding the town. The British established a sanatorium in Darjeeling in the 19th century, and built up the town with British-style schools, summertime political institutions, and many leisure clubs, and the town served as a cool weather retreat from the lowland plains of Calcutta and Delhi, which were too bloody hot in the summers for the British and their woolen attire. They also cultivated (on the backs of Indians and Nepalis in the region) tea plantations in and around Darjeeling, many of which continued to thrive after the Queen officially gave up British colonial rule in South Asia in 1947. Nathmull’s of Darjeeling is a fine example of the thriving tea industry today in Darjeeling.

Darjeeling is a truly beautiful place, one of my favorite in all of India. It’s very hilly, situated just across a small valley from Mount Kanchenjunga (28,225 ft!), with Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and roadside temples peppering the sides of hills, mountain plateaus, and winding footpaths. Today Darjeeling enjoys an interesting mix of British colonial and Tibetan Buddhist architecture, a smattering of Hindu temples and art, a large central square, Chowrastha mall, that hosts speakers and musicians and lots of people just hanging out, not to mention a bustling market that winds along the main pedestrian thoroughfare of the town.

*Khyamsar’s parents fled Tibet following the 1959 “Lhasa Uprising” against the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which had previously quashed the Tibetan army at Chamdo in 1950 and proceeded over the next several years to “peacefully liberate” Tibet by trying to annex the country into the PRC. During the 1959 uprising in Lhasa, over 300,000 Tibetans opposing the PRC’s occupation of Tibet surrounded the Dalai Lama’s Potala Palace to protest the PLA’s ongoing military presence in their country. The PLA retaliated with a violent attack on the protesters, reportedly killing 86,000 Tibetans. Many Tibetans, including the current (#14) Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, fled the PLA’s persecution and sought sanctuary in India, with large numbers of refugees settling in the Himalayan towns of Dharamsala in the northwest (where His Holiness presently lives) and Darjeeling in the northeast.