Together - A Narrative
"Thinking Together" was the name that we chose for ourselves as we met for the first time in Malibu, California, November 5 - 8, 2000. We were theologians, scholars, and thinkers from differing religious traditions, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Judaism. But we did not present ourselves to each another by our titles. We were known by our first names. We knew that each of us was not, in any manner, officially representing the religious tradition to which he or she was committed. Fortunately, most of us did not occupy such positions within our religious traditions that might qualify us as designated spokespersons for our traditions. We were meeting merely as persons for whom our own religious tradition mattered much, and we were willing to critically reflect about our own tradition in the presence of other religionists. We shared with one another issues that were important in our traditions, even issues that needed rethinking and reformulation. There was both an atmosphere of trust enabling us to share with utmost honesty and an ethos of friendship that helping us to learn from one another. We ended the sessions by listing a set of issues to be explored further in the meetings that would follow.
The tragedy of September 11, 2001 in New York and Washington D. C. shocked us all profoundly. September 11 was a sad day for all who believe in the power of religious traditions to create and maintain a humane world, because the name of God was appealed to, and certain religious beliefs were called in, to support dastardly violence on innocent people. Therefore, we, as a group, could not possibly meet to engage in "thinking together" without taking note of this sad moment in recent human history. We decided to address the issue of religion and violence in the next meeting. It was clear to us that the composition of the group needed to be more inclusive than the first meeting. During the first meeting in Malibu, our Muslim friends could not join us due to other commitments; there was only one woman in the group, and only one person for each religion other than Christianity. Therefore, the second meeting was planned in such a way as to have two or more persons from each of the religious traditions, with a good number of women among them.
So, we gathered on February 8, 2002 in St. Petersburg, Florida, U. S. A. to address the issue of religion and violence. We were Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Muslims, and Jews. Again, we were aware that we were not officially representing our religious traditions, but had come to the meeting as persons with deep religious commitments. We were also people with different countries of origin - Netherlands, Sri Lanka, Thailand, India, United States, Sweden, South Africa, Canada, Trinidad, and Israel.
In the first session we introduced ourselves to one another, though some in the group had known one another for years, especially through the programs of the World Council of Churches. For Shyamala, a professor of English from India, it was her first time participating in such a meeting, in contrast to Wesley, a Christian theologian from Sri Lanka and a veteran in interfaith dialogue. Harold is a historian of religions from Canada who is committed to dialogue between Hindus and Christians in academia, and Vinu is a medical doctor who works among the poor in South India. Henk is a Mennonite pastor from Amsterdam, Netherlands, whose church has a long-standing tradition of pacifism. Mahinda is a Buddhist monk from Sri Lanka and Parichart a Buddhist lay woman from Thailand; they teach in universities in England and Thailand respectively. Farid, a Muslim scholar and Rashied, an Imam, both from South Africa, have years of experience in inter-religious dialogue and action. While Debbie is a Jewish schoolteacher in Israel, Tikva, a Jewish scholar, teaches "Old Testament" to Protestant and Roman Catholic theological students in Chicago. Anant, a Hindu from Trinidad, teaches religion in St. Olaf's College in Minnesota, U. S. A., and Thomas, a Christian theologian from India, teaches world Christianity in Atlanta, U. S. A. Jay in New York and Hans in Geneva are both heading programs of interfaith dialogue at the national and international levels respectively. At the end of the introductions we were keenly and gratefully aware of the rich religious heritages this group was bringing to the meeting. There was an air of eager expectations.
Hans followed the introductions with a presentation outlining the current world situation of terrorism and war, the challenges that face people of religion, and the tasks we could engage in during this particular gathering. Hans's presentation made two things clear to the participants. First, it was not enough to say to one another that all our religions, in their core, are for non-violence and peace. We had to wrestle with the fact that our religions have contributed, and still contribute, to the promotion of violence. We would do well to acknowledge together our sad histories. Second, we had the opportunity to reflect together on causes of violence and how we as religious people might play a part in promoting peace in, and removing violence from, our societies.
The next morning we began a series of presentations by selected members that lasted for the next two days. Mahinda, Wesley, Anant, Rashied, and Debbie offered their critical reflections on the place of violence in each of their religious traditions. Two things followed each presentation. Persons in the group who belonged to the same tradition supplemented what was presented. For example, when Mahinda presented his views on Buddhism and violence, Parichart added her own remarks on how she faces this issue in the context of Thailand. A similar scheme was followed for each of the presenters. This method helped us to recognize the richness of each tradition, and guarded us from a highly monolithic view of religious traditions. Also after each presentation, the group asked questions for clarity, and offered their appreciation, criticism, and challenge. Harold consistently asked of each tradition: Is the use of violence ever justified in your tradition and if so, how and under what circumstances? Such questions were honestly faced by the presenters and discussed with a great sense of empathy and solidarity by the rest of the group. We also noted and listed some key issues to be picked up later.
One of the positive features of the discussion was that no one in the group was satisfied with discussing ideas in a vacuum. Each offered specific textual references, concrete instances of violence or resistance to it, and personal experiences so that religion and violence were discussed in a down-to-earth fashion. As the sessions progressed, our mutual trust increased to that extent that we could even make humorous remarks about one another's traditions. It was indeed an experience of genuine openness with one another!
Such an experience of openness led to the affirmation of common concerns. All of us expressed agony and anguish over the ways in which our religious traditions had supported violence at times. There was no defensiveness; rather we acknowledged together the presence of violence in our religious traditions, even though a commitment to non-violence and a desire for peace was affirmed at the core of each religious tradition. Thus we discovered a dialectical relationship between ideal vision and actual practice. We were together, as well, in asserting that there were ambiguities and contradictions in our religious traditions that gave room for the eruption of violence.
We were not in the meeting room all the time, though we spent several hours there. We ate every meal together, some took walks together around the campus of Eckerd College where we had our meetings, and we all visited the impressive collection at the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg. These were occasions where our discussion on religion and violence continued in less formal and more personal ways. We were not simply talking, either; we prayed together and meditated together. Every morning persons in the group, in accordance with their own religious traditions, led us in prayer/meditation/singing. We were truly together in our adoration of the Transcendent, whom we call by many names.
When we ended discussing all the presentations, there was a celebrative mood in the group. We were overjoyed by the sense of a critical unity we felt among us, that appreciates diversity on the one hand, and discovers areas of collaboration and common action. In such a heightened sense of togetherness, we could not stop with merely "thinking" together. We realized that we could speak together on the issue of religion and violence. In other words, we found a "voice" that could express our common concerns, longings, and goals. So we set to work, in two groups, on the list of key issues we had noted down during the presentations.
Three tasks were clear to us at that point of time. First, we needed to name the various faces of violence in order to recognize the complexity of the question of violence. Second, we had to find language that could express with a certain amount of precision the relationship between these various faces of violence and our religious traditions. Third, we had to name the challenges faced by religions in the continuing presence of violence in our communities, societies, and nations. As we discussed these in our small groups and met together again, we realized that there was a fourth task, namely, that we had to express our shared commitment to peace as people of various religious traditions. Integrating all these four concerns, we drafted a document that could be of use and help to all those interested in addressing the problem of religion and violence.
As we said good-bye to one another on the morning of February 12, it was clear to us that the task before us was huge and overwhelming. Our religious traditions need an intense renewal that will enable them to acknowledge the dehumanizing power of violence, and offer a penetrating moral critique of the structures that perpetuate violence. Such a renewal would include educating people of all religions about their commitment to human welfare, and recovering from our own traditions creative alternatives to violence. Yet, we left with the knowledge that it was precisely our religious faith that offers us the hope for such a renewal.
Mr. Thomas Thangaraj is Professor of theology at Chandler
School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A.