Issue 48, December 2006
Upholding common human values and respecting differences
Thank you to the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue for convening this important anniversary gathering, and for the honor of speaking with you today. I am here on behalf of the World Council of Churches, a global fellowship of over 340 Protestant and Orthodox churches, and in particular its Office on Interreligious Relations and Dialogue. I serve as a member of the WCC governing body, the Central Committee.
In February of this year, the WCC held its 9th global assembly in Porto Alegre, Brazil. The theme, expressed in the form of a prayer, was "God in your grace, transform the world." This prayer is a helpful starting point for a Christian understanding of inter-religious encounter. "God in your grace, transform the world" necessarily includes the transformations we experience in relationship to people of other faiths - not at the cost of our own convictions, but in order to lend ourselves more fully to the divine mystery that surpasses human understanding.
As a Christian, Jesus' example rightly informs my reflections on this topic. In his encounter with others - in word and in deed - Jesus both transformed and was transformed. Today my remarks will focus on a story in the Gospel of Matthew, a story of Jesus' transformation in relationship to a woman of another faith. As a Canaanite, a Gentile, she stands outside of the realm of his ministry among the Jews. Nevertheless, she calls to him to heal her daughter who is possessed by demons. His response to her unequivocally reinforces the boundary between them. She persists with him, and in doing so, Jesus is transformed by her faith, and her daughter is healed. I will read the text, which comes from Matthew 15:21-28.
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon." But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him saying, "Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us." He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me." He answered, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." Then Jesus answered her, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed instantly.
Much of today's inter-religious encounter is, unfortunately, reminiscent of Jesus' initial response to the woman. However, I selected this text not to underscore an exclusivist approach, but rather to highlight the powerful transformation that even Jesus was subject to in his encounters with the "other." In an unusual gospel scenario, Jesus is not the exemplar in this story - at least until the moment of his own transformation. Rather, the woman he encounters provides some key insights into what it means to uphold common values and respect differences.
What is significant about this story is that the woman is a Gentile, a Canaanite. At the time of their encounter, Jesus' ministry was primarily among Jews. This woman - who stood outside of his particular religious community - calls him to recognize her own faith, and to heal her daughter. Her tenacity and persistence, even in the face of his insults, set an example of the respect that difficult dialogue requires.
Ultimately, it is her faith which transforms his understanding. Through her faithful persistence he is opened to recognize their common values, despite their differences. In the presence of his disciples, Jesus responds to one his faith group labels unclean, one he is not supposed to relate to in this way. He is transformed by her, and so is his ministry. She challenges him to respond to faith wherever it exists, and in doing so, healing occurs. But the story doesn't end there. This encounter transforms Jesus not only in that moment; he emerges with a different self-understanding, a different understanding of her, and a different understanding of the relationship between them. They are both forever changed.
It is important to note that it is the healing of an innocent child that becomes the focal point of their encounter - transforming their awkward dialogue into a mutual mission. The task of casting out the girl's demons brings them into closer collaboration. Inter-religious encounter itself is about casting out the demons which block our way to becoming instruments of peace in our broken world.
The term "encounter" often connotes a brief moment of contact. The kind of encounter I am speaking of, however, is one that is carved out of authentic, truthful, and sustainable relationship building. The kind where we can ask the real questions: Who are you? What do you believe? Why do you believe that? In what ways do we need each other, differences intact? When asked in a context of mutual respect, these questions can get to the core of both our self-perceptions and our world perspectives, and even open us to see ourselves and others in a new light.
When Jesus is transformed by his encounter with the Canaanite woman, his purpose is not changed; rather, his self-understanding in relationship to others is expanded. His path remains the same, but the road is no longer one-way. Instead, he relates differently to other travelers along the road, travelers who are not with his caravan, and perhaps never will be. And they relate differently to him. Inter-religious relations are not intended for compromising our core commitments, nor are they intended to be a forum for conversion. On the contrary, it is imperative that our encounter with each other comes from a place of deep religious conviction, of profound faith. This is what can lead us to a shared mission of healing a broken world.
As youth in this moment in history, we face a particular set of challenges. Our world is marked by fear of the other, of the unknown. Many communities are clamping down, closing their doors, building walls. My own country is deeply indicted in this. Only those with a certain set of prerequisite experiences are allowed to sit at the so-called master's table. And these divisions, compounded by fear, have created a terribly violent and volatile world.
And yet we all hear the many voices that are calling to us - people who are not within our own communities, who are not who we imagined we would encounter along the way. Will we find our hearts and minds open to challenge - will we allow our work and witness to be transformed by the faith of each other?
In our globalizing world - with communication technologies like email and skype - we have new opportunities for collaboration. For us as young people, matters of theology and eschatology are undoubtedly important - but they will not likely form the basis of the kinds of grassroots inter-religious projects in which we participate.
The new model for inter-religious relations, in which many of us are active, involves a shift from dialogue to service based on common human values. It requires a collective attempt to understand each other's social realities and spiritual moorings in the midst of a common attempt to comprehend, critique and serve in the cultures we inhabit together. As a Lutheran, therefore, I am particularly interested in the Lutheran World Federation's work on "social spirituality" and its relationship to common service. In these new interfaith ways of encountering each other, we are learning that interfaith dialogue must necessarily be accompanied by interfaith deeds: we must come to know each other in speech and in action.
This collaboration for the common good is not simply a mechanism for avoiding the difficult dialogues that necessarily shape our relationships with each other, or resorting to service as the lowest common denominator. Rather, the frame of reference is shifted. When we utilize our energies in service to the world, we are opened to learning about and respecting our differences on the firm foundation of our common values. This "common ground" frees us to explore our differences unfettered by fear.
Where I live, in Boston, Massachusetts in the United States, I am the assistant director of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University. The Pluralism Project is a 15-year-old research organization dedicated to mapping the diverse religious landscape of the United States as it has changed with immigration. Much of our research in recent past has focused on the emerging interfaith movement in the United States and across the globe. Two groups of people are making particular inroads in this work: youth and women.
In our research we are finding that young people are not only the future leadership, but they are the leaders of current efforts. From multi-faith college councils, to shared worship space on campuses, to community leadership projects, young people are forging inter-religious alliances in ways that recognize the reality of religious diversity as a given. For many of us who have grown up in multi-religious societies, these collaborations seem natural, even necessary.
One example I can offer of interfaith youth leadership in the U.S. is our affiliate organization located in Chicago, Illinois - the Interfaith Youth Core. Their mission is "to build a movement that encourages religious young people to strengthen their religious identities, foster inter-religious understanding and cooperate to serve the local and global community." Executive Director Eboo Patel has often made the point that there are few alternatives to the popular global youth organizations like Al-Qaeda that promote inter-religious conflict. His vision with the Interfaith Youth Core is to create an alternative organization that provides meaningful opportunities for inter-religious cooperation. In cities throughout the U.S., Interfaith Youth Core organizes "National Days of Interfaith Youth Service" as opportunities for young people to make a difference in their communities, in our country, and throughout the world.
Regarding women, we have an extensive multi-religious women's network at the Pluralism Project. What we have learned is that inter-religious relations have offered a new realm of leadership that is oftentimes inaccessible to women within their own traditions. These efforts offer a new model for inter-religious engagement: they are often inspired by a deep-seated commitment to community-building; they are often formed at the behest of a personal invitation; they tend toward common action in the form of group or social projects; and they honor the centrality of storytelling and relationship building for their own sake. Personal testimonies, reflections, and engagement in difficult dialogues are not limited to theological arenas of consensus or disagreement, but instead focus on the day-to-day experiences where conflicts of identity, more often than ideology, take center stage.
One example is Women Transcending Boundaries, an interfaith organization based in Syracuse, New York. After an adult forum at her church following September 11, co-founder Betsy Wiggins struggled with the desire to reach out to the Muslim women in her community. Through various connections, she was introduced to Danya Wellmon. The two met for coffee, and after hours of conversation about their beliefs and experiences, they decided to extend the invitation to others. Within a month of 9/11, the first meeting of the group took place in Wiggins' home. Twenty-two women attended, including eleven Muslim women, and eleven others from the Buddhist, Jewish, and Christian faiths. The group continues to meet monthly on Sunday afternoons in a local private school, with between 40 and 60 participants at each meeting, including many young women. The organization's three core commitments are: storytelling, service, and socializing. Of particular note, WTB's service projects have ranged from local to international, such as assisting with a literacy project in Syracuse, and raising funds for a girls' school in rural Pakistan.
These two categories of leaders in inter-religious relations are currently being lifted up by the World Council of Churches as it redefines its programmatic plans for the next period. Inter-religious relations as a whole will continue to be a critical part of the Council's future work. In fact, I learned earlier this month that the WCC's Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel recently accepted the first Hindu and Muslim participants - what a valuable example of collaborative service for peace with justice that can be replicated worldwide.
So the obvious question for this gathering is, "How might we, as young people, identify our common values and provide leadership in creating peace with justice? How might we think critically about our differences, without allowing them to become divisive? How might we each mobilize our own religious convictions, without compromising them, to work with others for the sake of a better world?
I think it is fair to say that our common values have been identified at gatherings past: compassion, love, peace with justice, dignity of every human, service to our neighbors, and so on...We will continue to identify these values as we work together - they will be documented in our common service to the world. As a young Christian woman, I continually strive to live out Jesus Christ's example of service. For those of you who are not Christian, the example that you strive to emulate is different - perhaps the example of the Prophet Muhammed, the Buddha, or Guru Nanak. My relationship with you in service to the world, and my recognition of your faith in that relationship transforms me, transforms our relationship, and raises valuable questions that I - that we - need to grapple with as we accompany each other on the journey.
I ask you to be persistent in calling me to faithfully serve the world, and I will be persistent with you. This is how we together will transform ourselves, our relationships, and heal our broken world. In closing, I offer this prayer: God, in your grace, transform our relationships so that we, with your blessing, might become harmonious instruments of your peace in the world. Amen.
Kathryn M. Lohre presented this paper at the Interreligious Youth Gathering in Assisi, Italy from 4-8 November, 2006.