Beyond rhetoric to relationships in a multireligious world

February 13th, 2015

Our daughter's best friend at UNC-Chapel Hill was a very bright young Muslim woman named Uzma Panjwani. Liz, our daughter, went to Mount Tabor High School in Winston-Salem, Uzma to Parkland High School. They began taking Advanced Placement classes together in high school and were roommates in college. They were roommates again as they got started in their professional lives in Washington, D.C. Uzma spent a number of Christmas holidays with us, and Liz observed Ramadan with Uzma.

In the aftermath of the shooting deaths of three young Muslim students at UNC, I have thought about Uzma and our friendship with her family. Across our planet, I am praying that the best, and not the worst of our respective traditions will somehow bring us into relationships with each other. I have seen it happen. And so I have been praying for the community in that university, and for the Muslim families in the deaths of their children.

The deaths of the Muslim students came in close proximity to another event that captured the attention of the news media, the intention to have Muslim prayers from the tower of the Duke University Chapel. Since my young adult years I have been a participant in interfaith dialogue. I have crossed boundaries in Israel and Palestine, moderated dialogues between Muslims and Jews, led Holocaust services and preached in synagogues. As a pastor, district superintendent and bishop I have also been a participant in the consecration of space set apart for Christian worship. These are important activities, even essential. But they are different. I believe that Duke Chapel was constructed, consecrated and set apart for Christian worship. This is its purpose. I respect the sacred spaces of Jews and Muslims, and honor their own purposes. Jews and Muslims are right to retain the identity of their holy places, and they are not bigots if they choose not to allow other religious traditions to practice in them. Christians are also not bigots in viewing Duke Chapel as a place set apart for Christian worship.

Here I am coming from a very different place than Franklin Graham, who was often represented as the primary Christian perspective in the general media reporting of this event. I honor the goodness of many Muslims, and I acknowledge the failures of many Christians, myself included. I speak as an advocate for continued interfaith dialogue and for the integrity of consecrated places of worship. From my perspective, the reconsideration was a wise one.

The proximity of these two experiences in time and space has called me to a deeper self-examination of the relationship of rhetoric and relationships in a multireligious world. I am convinced that it is unhelpful to compare one tradition at its worst with another at its best. I yearn for a moderating reform of global Islam that speaks against ISIS and Boko Haram; at the same time, I acknowledge the complicity of my own Christian faith with human enslavement and oppression. And yet it is also true that each of our traditions has produced men and women who are devout, compassionate, generous and sacrificial. Dialogue in a multireligious world cannot proceed when any faith is treated in a stereotypical and superficial manner.

Interfaith dialogue is an essential practice in the present moment, for we live in a dangerous and divisive climate. And thus our rhetoric as Christians can certainly be more attuned to the voice of Jesus who gave the Beatitudes (Matthew 5). As his followers we are called to be peacemakers. One of the most formative books I have read in the last year is “The Anatomy of Peace” from the Arbinger Institute. The authors speak of "a heart at war, where we treat others as objects" and a "heart at peace, where we see others as people" (124). This way of seeing leads to "organizations filled with people whose energies are largely spent on sustaining conflict — what we call collusion — and who therefore are not fully focused on achieving the productive goals of the organization”(52).

It is clear to me that the seeds of hearts at war manifest themselves in overt and subtle acts of violence. This violence is in contrast to a perspective that I find increasingly compelling: a consistent ethic of life. Rooted in the Roman Catholic tradition, a consistent ethic of life envisions a seamless garment of practices that includes the protection of the unborn, care for God’s creation, objection to torture, resistance to cultural violence, refusal to use the Lord’s name in the justification of warfare and violence and opposition to the death penalty. The recent hashtag #BlackLivesMatter becomes #JewishLivesMatter and then #MuslimLivesMatter, and ultimately, #AllLivesMatter. But to affirm that all lives matter is often a posture that takes us beyond our comfortable political divisions. This is what appeals to me about a consistent ethic of life; it messes with our political dogmas!

“The Anatomy of Peace” is an extended parable about generational violence and retribution. It is relevant, as we bear witness to the trauma of recent deaths of Christians in the middle East, Jews in Paris and Muslims in the United States. How do we break the cycles of violence? I am convinced that we begin by cultivating relationships across racial, ethnic, religious and partisan political lines. We do so with a confidence that we stand in our own traditions — and thus we acknowledge our differences — while also seeking to honor what is good and sacred about the other. In this way, strangers become friends, and violence may be transformed into the peace that is God’s gift.

Followers of Jesus see his cross as the final and sufficient act of reconciliation in a world that always protests against such a scandal. I am not naive about human nature, cultural tribalism or political complexity. And yet I trust in the power and providence of God, who breaks down the dividing wall of hostility that is between us (Ephesians 2), and unites us as one humanity.

May the Word made Flesh (John 1), in whom all of the fullness of God was pleased to dwell (Colossians 1) be an example to us that relationship — and not rhetoric — is the way that leads to life.

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