Thursday, March 24, 2011

Ministry of Interfaith Reconciliation

I like the word “ministry of reconciliation.” It means going to a situation where people have been demonized and learning to appreciate their humanity as well as their unique culture and beliefs. You don’t have to go to Iran to find Muslims who are misunderstood and demonized, however. You can find Muslims everywhere in the United States; and unfortunately, they are often the target of misunderstanding and prejudice. As I write this, Congressman Peter King of New York is conducting a hearing in the House, focusing on what he calls the “Radicalization of Islam in America.” Many in the interfaith movement have pointed out that this hearing unfairly targets Muslims. Sheriff Lee Bacca of Los Angeles, one of my heroes, was the only law enforcement officer to testify about this alleged threat and he pointed out that two thirds of terrorist acts in the US were committed by non-Muslims since 9/11.

This hearing is just one of many blatant example of Islamophobia. I wonder what FWCC has done to counteract this growing prejudice. When I re-read its book Friends Peace Witness in Time of Crisis, a collection of talks given at a FWCC-sponsored peace conference two years after 9;11, I found only two references to Muslims. This was odd because in 2003 the United States had just launched invasions of two Muslim countries, Iraq and Iran, and has planned what the military calls “The Long War” to subdue the Muslim and make it safe for American business interests. The longer this ill-conceived war lasts, the more blood is shed, the more resources are wasted, and the more Islam itself becomes the target of fear and bigotry in the United States.

That’s why the work of the Wolfes is so important, and why I am wondering if anyone in FWCC has thought introducing an interfaith element into the 2011 Triennial. 10% of the population of Kenya is Muslim, and religious conflicts between Muslims and Christians have sometimes led to deadly violence. What role have Quakers played—what role can FWCC play—in helping to bring about reconciliation between Muslims and Christians in Kenya?

As I said before, there is much interfaith reconciliation work to be done here at home. Last summer I traveled 7,000 miles in the ministry and visited 14 monthly and yearly meetings, sharing the good news about interfaith reconciliation and peacemaking. Everywhere I went, even in the most remote areas, I found evidence that America is a multi-religious country where most people are trying to live together in peace and harmony. But there are also serious conflicts fueled by politics and religious prejudice.

In Nashville, TN, a place some have called the “buckle of the Bible belt,” I found that there are over 10,000 Kurdish Muslims. They emigrated here after the first Gulf War. These Muslims have been trying to build a mosque large enough for their needs but they have met with considerable resistance from those who see Islam as a threat. But they have also received support from many mainstream Christians. When I was visiting Quakers in Nashville, I learned that over 800 people had marched in support of building a mosque on the outskirts of their city

Friends have the opportunity to practice the ministry of reconciliation both here in the US and around the world in many ways.

Learning how to listen compassionately, nonjudgmentally, is key to doing interfaith or intrafaith reconciliation. This is a gift that I have learned from my 25 years as a Quaker. It’s something that you and I can bring to the interfaith movement.

The goal of interfaith work is to have an appreciative understanding of other faiths, and a clearer understanding of one’s own. That’s why it is important not to gloss over differences, to say “we are all alike.” We need to be prepared to have clear, succinct answers when people ask questions about our faith. Dialoguing with Muslims after 9/11 is what led me to think more deeply about Quaker theology and to write a pamphlet explaining Quakerism to Muslims, and Islam to Quakers.

Interfaith work has led me to a new understanding of theology. I no longer see theology as inherently divisive. Theology simply means “to think as clearly as possible about one’s religious experiences.” If we share our thoughts and insights with others in a respectful and humble way, we can all benefit.

We also need to go more deeply than just dialogue. We need to join in opportunities for worship and spiritual sharing with those of other faiths. Douglas Steere calls this “mutual irradiation” and I have found it to be the most rewarding aspect of interfaith work. As Linda points out, those who are contemplative and prayerful share a common experience and perspective, regardless of faith tradition

To overcome prejudice, we also need to learn how to give religion a human face through stories and anecdotes. These stories can change attitudes much more effectively than reasoned argument..

As one builds trust, one can also ask tough questions as long as one does so respectfully.

The hard part for some of us is to let go of our assumptions and prejudices, especially when such assumptions and prejudices seem reasonable and self-evident. For example, as a liberal Friend, I believe fervently in toleration and pluralism. That’s why it drives me crazy when people have rigid dogmas and believe theirs is only path to truth. Yet if I stop and think, I realize that beliefs cannot hurt me.

What of hurtful actions that stem from these beliefs? Here I must learn how to speak the truth, as I understand it, with love.

To deal with tough issues, there must be trust and trust takes time. No issue is more contentious in the interfaith work than Israel-Palestine. Most Muslim-Jewish dialogue groups avoid this issue. Yet it can be addressed if one is willing to devote enough time to building trust, and if one is willing to engage in compassionate listening.

The same is true about the conflicts among different branches of Quakerism. We may not agree, but we can learn how to disagree agreeably.

A Friend of mine asked me how to deal with anger when we encounter someone whose beliefs differ from our deeply cherished beliefs.

I paused and asked her: “What do you love more, your beliefs or the other person? As long as you love your beliefs more than the person you’re dialoguing with, you will find it hard to relate to ‘that of God’ in the other person.”

Can we learn to love and appreciate those whose principles are fundamentally different from our own? Appreciation doesn’t require agreement, just compassion and respect for the other. That’s what it means to “walk cheerfully answering that of God in everyone.” The operative words are “cheerfully” and “answering”—that is responding in love. That, to me, is the essence of our Quaker faith and practice.

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