By PJ Rain
Shortly after his signing during the midst of the NBA’s 2010 Summer free agency frenzy, New York Knicks power forward Amar’e Stoudamire proclaimed that he intended to spiritually immerse himself into the Jewish faith. Stoudamire’s mother had often spoken to him when he was younger about his “Jewish roots,” and during an interview that he gave on his recent visit to Israel, he stated “I’m a history guy. I love studying. I wanted to try to find my original culture. I’m very spiritual. This trip helped me a lot with finding the original culture.” Later in the interview and to the great delight of the Israeli interviewer, Stoudamire went on to speak of Judaism as “a beautiful culture…the original culture…, and from a spirituality standpoint, where it all started.” When the interviewer quizzed him regarding some of the tenets and practices of the Jewish faith, Stoudamire acknowledged that although he wasn’t raised in accordance with Jewish customs, he intended to adhere to the principles and to raise his family to do the same.
While it would be nice to see Stoudamire display the same type of public enthusiasm, appreciation, and celebration of his very obvious African roots, it is not appropriate for any of us to question or denigrate an individual’s path towards spiritual wholeness and divine truth. If such quests are pure in nature, they should all lead to the same place, an ultimate Good and ultimate Peace for us all. Unfortunately, as a society today, we are still very far away from acceptance and appreciation on a spiritual level, and it’s probably because we are still struggling with basic tolerance on a racial and cultural level. Stoudamire’s own agent, Happy Walters, who also happens to be Jewish, is a perfect example of this type of “supremacy-cloaked” intolerance. In a recent interview for Fanhouse.com, Walters strongly refutes Stoudamire’s claim by stating the following:
“He’s not Jewish. It’s all getting blown out of proportion…Amar’e is just a student of history and had been planning a trip to Israel for a while…I think his name is Swahili. It has nothing to do with Judaism…it’s not like he had a Bar Mitzvah…if he finds out his mother’s great grandmother was Jewish, then hey it’s possible…I haven’t checked to see if he’s circumcised.”
That response by Walters is more indicative of a checklist for admission into a private club than of a welcoming acknowledgement of a spiritual journey.
The same type of arrogant intolerance also came from the mouth of Fox News correspondent Brit Hume with regard to the Buddhist principles under which golfer Tiger Woods was raised. Back in January of this year as the details of Woods’ extramarital trysts threatened to derail his professional career, Hume publicly urged Tiger to turn to the Christian faith because he felt that Buddhism did not offer the same forgiveness and redemption as Christianity. Hume further stated that if Tiger would turn to the Christian faith, he could become a great example to the world.
Later during his well publicized apology press conference, Tiger clearly asserted that he would prevail in his bout with adversity by returning to the Buddhist principles of life management that were taught to him by his mother, emphasizing that “cravings for things outside of ourselves cause an unhappy and pointless search for security.” In spite of what Brit Hume, Pat Robertson, and any other condescending “religious” zealot professes, the tenets of Buddhism are based in the fact that at the heart of every feeling being there is a fundamental, indestructible, basic goodness that is already intact. Through our own actions and reactions within the world around us we can sometimes obscure that connection, and through our own actions we can also restore and strengthen that connection.
The ultimate objective within the canons of Buddhism seems to reflect the same positive elements of any other spiritual journey. Yet, in a country where the very first amendment to our Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…,” there is an unacceptable level of ignorance and hostility directed towards peoples from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East who have chosen a spiritual journey other than what might be contained in our Judeo-Christian social infrastructure to nourish their souls.
In the 1960s boxer Muhammad Ali endured considerable criticism for joining Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam and converting to a Muslim. Ali had been raised as a Christian, and he developed a relationship with God and a strong sense of purpose under the guidance of his Baptist mother. However, after representing his country and winning a gold medal in the 1960 Olympic Games, Ali was hit hard by the realities of bigotry and racism in America. He constantly wore his gold medal around his neck upon his return to his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, but after he and a buddy were refused service when they ducked out of the rain and into a local diner, he angrily tossed the medal into the Ohio River. Ali’s thoughts at the time were simple; he wanted and expected America to be America. He had worn the USA across his chest and waived the American flag in victory, but he still couldn’t eat in a restaurant that was located a few blocks away from where he was born. Joining the Nation of Islam and the Black Muslim movement of the 1960’s was an avenue for Ali and many other Blacks to reclaim the pride, dignity, and self determination that had been systematically stripped from them through blatant violence, economic deprivation, and covert religious and academic mis-education. Since that time, as with any spiritual evolution, Ali has migrated towards a more transcendent and less earthly sect of the Islamic religion as he seeks the inner peace and tranquility that true faith brings to all of us. Ali also remains one of the most celebrated athletes and personalities of our time.
Unfortunately, as the religion of Islam continues to grow, it is once again being vilified as some type of deviant anti-American cult, rather than respected and appreciated as one of many alternatives to achieving faithful and spiritual bliss. Throughout much of the summer a fierce debate has been waged through national media outlets, political circles, and in the streets of Lower Manhattan over the issue of whether an Islamic community center and mosque should be built within two blocks of the Ground Zero site. Instead of maintaining responsible and logical coverage of the issue, local and national media outlets have stoked the flame to such inferno-like levels that even an unknown Florida pastor garnered national attention by threatening to hold a Koran-Book-Burning on the anniversary of 9/11 if the proposed mosque site was not moved. Since that time, the man in question, who will not be further dignified by name or title, has backed off of his position under claims that he continues “to negotiate” with Islamic leaders regarding the site and that his intent was only to expose the radical elements of Islam – how ironic?
Further evidence of this anti-Muslim insanity involved Michael Enright (a young white male whose religious beliefs have been difficult to ascertain) stabbing New York cab driver Amhed H. Sharif multiple times after the driver responded in the affirmative to Enright that he was a Muslim. Yet, instead of publicly stressing to opponents of the mosque that the Masjid Manhattan mosque (founded in 1970) is about four blocks from Ground Zero and the Masjid al-Farah is about 12 blocks away, media outlets continue to list for-and-against polls that dissect the results by political party, religious affiliation, income, and any other way to keep the debate raging and the hatred growing. Instead of indisputably emphasizing that Muslims in this country were impacted just as directly and indirectly by the 3,000 deaths on September 11, 2001 as Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and Agnostics, they continue to provide platforms for supremacists like Dutch Parliamentarian Geert Wilders to intensify resistance against religious freedom and diversity.
On August 25, another unproductive platform was given to Fox News anchor Glenn Beck when he hosted a gathering at the Lincoln Memorial in the name of “Restoring Honor” to the country. The controversial rally was held on the anniversary date of Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous "I Have a Dream" speech which was held at the very same site. Beck claimed that he was unaware that King’s famous speech occurred at the Lincoln Memorial on that same date 47 years ago and maintained that the purpose of the rally was to pay tribute to military personnel and “others who embody our nation’s founding principles of integrity, truth, and honor.”
However, the crowd at the rally held in Washington, D.C., a city with one of the nation’s largest concentrations of African-Americans, was extremely lacking in persons of African descent. In fact, one of the few African descendants present in the audience practically denounced her ancestry during a series of video interviews given by some rally attendees. St. Louis Cardinals superstar Albert Pujols’ acceptance of a “Hope Award” and the presence of various clergy from non-Christian denominations at the back of the stage seemed inconsequential to those in attendance as Beck delivered contradictory messages about unity, diversity, and tolerance while at the same time declaring that America needed to return to Christ (an exclusively Christian concept). Of course Beck’s homogenous audience couldn’t keep from being somewhat moved by a few members of the Black community who he paraded out on stage to provide a spiritual uplifting through song, but his efforts were a far cry from what Dr. King accomplished.
In his famous speech, Dr. King not only galvanized a diverse group of people with his presence, but he also demonstrated the beauty of true religious faith through his message. King was an ordained Baptist minister, and he had a doctorate in theology, but more importantly he had the ability to inspire souls to have true faith that the virtues of freedom, justice and equality of opportunity would prevail. In his speech, he metaphorically spoke of “every valley being exalted…every mountain being made low…the rough places being made plain…and the crooked places being made straight.” The universal faith that King inspired that day was powerful enough that even as Beck’s “Rally to Restore Honor” continued, the believers in King’s dream marched on the periphery to defend the significance of that momentous occasion in 1963.
Beck on the other hand, commented cryptically about a nation that had “wandered in the darkness” for too long and the need to “reclaim the Civil Rights movement,” while at the same time emphasizing the nation’s need to return to God. Beck also spoke of returning to the noble values of the “Founding Fathers,” while conveniently omitting the brutal massacre of the land’s original Native American occupants as well as the enslavement of the Africans who were forced to re-cultivate and re-mold it. He then later revealed an underlying theme of his gathering when he spoke of “the next George Washington” in the crowd who may be eight years old now but in 25 years could come to the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial to “proclaim I have a new dream.”
Why must there be a need to proclaim a new dream when Dr. King’s dream has not yet been fulfilled? Yes, we have a Black president but there is still much work to be done. Meanwhile, Beck and others are attempting to turn back the clock behind a cloak of politics and religion. Beck has even gone so far as to create his own term, “liberation theology,” to criticize the religious beliefs of the President of the United States as “a perversion of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The real perversions in religions of all types tend to revolve around the same figurative “idol” worshipping that many of them caution against—the worship of money and the carnal desire for power through material wealth. It is for this very reason that athletes and celebrities often find themselves injected into public debates over their private spiritual journeys. Where does an Israeli interviewer get the right to challenge Amar’e Stoudamire’s commitment to a religious fasting regimen, and when did Stoudamire authorize his agent to qualify his beliefs? What created the desire to convert Tiger Woods and his multi-million dollar image from Buddhism to Christianity? And why is Muhammad Ali’s Muslim presence at major functions and events all over the country no longer considered a threat to those who opposed his conversion to Islam back in the 1960s?
More importantly, why do Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and the 5-7 million other Muslims in this country have to continually placate everyone else because of a tragedy that was attributed to only a couple dozen members of their faith? Wars have been waged for centuries over the possession of wealth and land under the guise of religious and political ideals. The lines between various religious disciplines should not be drawn so deeply that the best any one group can do is tolerate the other. That type of irrational behavior should be reserved for rival political parties vying for campaign funding. Differences in faith should be appreciated and even celebrated if any of our true spiritual goals are to be reached. Religion should not be used to justify other cultural biases, and it definitely should not be used to mask ulterior financial motives.
SUBMITTED BY BW-N SPORTS