Thursday, September 18, 2008

On the Oneness of God and Humanity

I was the only Jew present at my first meeting of "Thinking Together," the World Council of Churches' think tank on cutting edge issues in interfaith dialogue. For half of the four-day meeting in 2007, I had struggled with powerful reactions to many of the things group members, particularly the Christian theologians present, had to say about conversion, the group's current topic of discussion. Over and over again, my mind shouted, "Do you guys know what it is like to be on the receiving end of Christian conversionary activity?" "Do you know that when you say, 'mission,' this touches my deep memory of the persecution, exile and genocide that my people has suffered?"

By the end of the meeting, I had learned that these people did indeed know a great deal about the Jewish experience at the hands of Christians. In fact, several of the people at the table had written renowned books on the subject. What is more, some of the Hindus at the table had even more recent reason than I did, as a Jew, to associate conversion with destruction of communities and cultures. I learned that in recent years there has been a great deal of tension, and some violence, related to the aggressive activity of Christian missionaries in Hindu communities. By the end of the week, I had learned far more from these people than they had to learn from me.

This summer I was joined by an old friend, a renowned Jewish educator from Israel, and a long-time participant in the group. No longer the only Jew in the room, free of my internal need to convey "the Jewish perspective," I was open to whatever learning this year's meeting would bring.

As before, I was struck by my good fortune to be sitting with this remarkable group of people. There was a senior Jewish educator from Jerusalem, a progressive imam and Islamic scholar from South Africa, a Buddhist professor of conflict resolution from Thailand, a professor of Hinduism from India and Trinidad, a senior leader of the Presbyterian Church in the US, an internationally known Christian scholar and leader of the interfaith dialogue movement, and a Buddhist monk and scholar from Sri Lanka wearing bright orange robes, among others. I knew that the experience would further develop my identity as a citizen of the world, expanding my perspective and stretching my heart and mind. This happened, though, in a surprising way.

Since the topic was conversion, we expected that challenging moments might arise in conversation between the proselytizing religions represented at the table (i.e. Christianity and Islam) and those religions that tend not to seek converts aggressively (i.e. Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism). To our surprise, this year our attention was drawn to a different fault line in the group, the differences between those who consider themselves monotheists and those coming from traditions that are not theistic, or emphasize multiple manifestations of the Divine.
In my opening remarks on Jewish perspectives on conversion, I had sought to articulate why seeking converts has not been a prominent part of Jewish practice over the centuries. I emphasized that Judaism does seek to serve as a "light to the nations" (Isaiah 42:6), but that this is about bringing the world to God and to justice, not about persuading the peoples of the world to adopt the particularities of Jewish practice. In the course of exploring that point, I cited beloved texts that are central to my own prayer life, such as, "On that day God will be one and God's name one." (Zechariah 14:9, quoted in the Aleinu prayer)

When I finished my introductory talk to the group, my Hindu colleague, Anant Rambachan, offered some appreciative words about what I had said. Then, very gently, he said that my remarks on bringing people to the one God and my reference to the prayer for the recognition of God's oneness were difficult for him. "Such texts," he said, "remind me of times when, growing up in Trinidad, people would break into our Hindu temples and destroy the murti (sacred images)."

Anant is an elegant man, brilliant and gracious, and he commands great respect and love in the group. The room fell utterly silent as he spoke. I, for one, was mortified that I had said something that had been offensive to someone whom I hold in such high esteem. I rushed to tell him that I was sorry to have offended him, that that had certainly not been my intention. He made clear that he had taken no personal offense, but we all realized that something important had happened. We had encountered a profound difference between the self-described monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, on the one hand, and Hinduism, on the other, with its rich teachings of the many different names and manifestations of the Divine in the world. And the monotheists at the table were forced to confront the ways in which belief in one God can convince people that theirs is the only truth, and to make this a rationale for hurting the other.

For me, this was a stunning moment. In my work life, I have spent a good deal of time and energy seeking to help Christians understand that some of the ideas, language, and images that are most precious to them resonate very differently for Jews, evoking memories of many centuries of oppression. I have asked Christians to examine their liturgy and their sacred texts, and to try to take the empathic leap of imagining how these might seem to Jews. As an heir to the profound Jewish historical memory of persecution (and worse), I have argued that Christians have a responsibility to look self-critically at their own tradition and history, to see how it has done harm, and to consider the implications for Christian practice in our own day.

Suddenly, my own religious language – words that I have known since I was a small child and recited daily for decades, was a source of pain to another, who had himself been on the receiving end of religiously motivated violence. The concept of monotheism lies at the epicenter of Jewish tradition and Jewish self-understanding. How could this concept possibly be a source of harm to others? Yet here was my treasured colleague, challenging me to contemplate the damage that had been done in the name of my own cherished belief.

These were the very moments for which the "Thinking Together" project was created. Moments when each of us might enter into an entirely new understanding of our own tradition by seeing it through the eyes of "the other." In relationship with people of different religions and from different parts of the world, we are forced to consider hitherto unimaginable questions. Our relationships of respect and affection lead us to examine unthinkable thoughts, considering our most treasured convictions from multiple perspectives, seeing our own worldview as only one among many imperfect human attempts to make sense of a world far beyond our own understanding.

In such moments, one does have another option. One can say, explicitly or implicitly, "No! I am right and so you must be wrong! My truth is correct and I have no intention of considering your perspective on it!" After all, we see this kind of behavior modeled every day in the public square in our own country, and perhaps in our personal relationships as well.

But for thoughtful people who desire to understand more about God's world and to respond to the sacred call to make peace in our world, we must listen to "the other," even when he or she challenges beliefs that are axiomatic for us.

Having experienced this conversation, what is my obligation? Do I need to stop saying the offending words in my daily prayer? Reconstruct my whole theology to excise monotheism from my beliefs about God and the world? I don’t think this is my obligation, nor did my conversation partners at the table in Geneva want me to abandon my own religion in deference to their feelings. But it is incumbent on me to take in the depth of their challenge, bringing new questions into my ongoing relationship with Judaism based on my relationship with them.

Fundamentally, this is how individuals can contribute to the building of peace in the world: by our willingness to listen deeply to truths very different from our own, to grapple with these truths and allow them to affect how we think and who we are, to stretch our minds and hearts beyond our own comfortable truths. This is the essence of peace-making, of world-repair, one conversation at a time.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Peaceful Presence at the RNC

September 2008

From the moment I heard about the project, I knew that I wanted to be part of it. Back in June, a soft-spoken Catholic woman came to a meeting of an interfaith dialogue planning group I attend in St. Paul, Minnesota. She told us that her Catholic community would sponsor a “Peaceful Presence,” a space dedicated to silent prayer from 8 AM to 8 PM each day of the Republican National Convention. The goal was to create a silent haven of prayer very near the noisy, combative energy of the convention. Those present would be invited to focus their prayerful attention on peace, cradling the more contentious energy of the convention and its environs with care and compassion. All would be welcome to enter, as long as they respected the silence and the non-political nature of the space. Each day would be punctuated by three worship experiences, each from a different religious tradition. The group had reserved the sanctuary of a Presbyterian church near the convention center and was beginning to get the word out and to find leaders for the worship services. I was thrilled and immediately handed her my card.

When the day of my service arrived, I came early to the church to sit in the silence with the others before I needed to serve as their prayer leader. I knew that I had been excited about the opportunity. (I had even e-mailed some peacemaker friends around the country, letting them know how tickled I was that I'd be teaching Compassionate Listening down the street from the Republican National Convention.) But I was utterly unprepared for what would happen to me when I stepped into the church.

The sanctuary was enormous and traditional in style. At first there was just a handful of people scattered in seats around the sanctuary, each in his or her own private space. All in complete silence. The quiet in the room was exquisite, and the sense of prayerfulness powerful. I felt deeply drawn into the quiet, happy to be in this place, happy to be part of this sacred enterprise.

My instructions had been to just stand up at the time scheduled for my service, to introduce myself and begin. I stood up, prepared to offer the brief introduction to Compassionate Listening that I had agreed to do. But deep inside, I was loath to break the silence, which was so deep and beautiful. Balancing my commitment to teach and my desire to honor the silence, I began to sing a soft chant on the word "Shalom," hoping to gently sing the group (now a group of twenty or so) out of the silence. We sang together for peace, quietly and tenderly.

When I began to speak, I told the group how moved I had been by their silent prayer. I mused about the project of creating a peaceful presence down the street from the RNC, about the sacred generosity of those who were spending many hours in this place, offering their time to pray for peace – at the convention, in our country, and around the world. "I suspect that many of us," I said, "are people who at times – in our own lives, in our own spaces, pray over the newspaper, pray for the world, seek to offer our prayer as a cushion for the world's suffering and a gentle embrace around people in conflict. But there is something remarkable about our bringing ourselves and our energies here, to this place. I am so moved by those of you who have come here day after day this week. I am so honored to be here with you."

I did my thirty-minute meditation on Compassionate Listening, then sang the group back into the silence again with the same "Shalom" chant. I wrote Jewish prayers for peace in the book of personal prayer on the altar, then took my seat again to settle back down into the silence. I heard some people quietly leaving, but I could sense that I was not alone. There were a few of us, alone again in the huge sanctuary, filling the space with stillness and with our heartfelt hopes for our country and for the world.

When it was time to leave, I embraced the coordinator of the project. She sweetly gave me a single rose as an expression of thanks, but I had already received an enormous gift. Out on the street, the light was bright, people were hurried, police barricades were everywhere. But inside me was a great well of quiet prayer, and I was grateful.


August 2008

Through an extraordinary stroke of good fortune, I had been invited to join a think tank exploring cutting edge issues in interfaith dialogue, sponsored by the World Council of Churches. For two consecutive summers, I have had the remarkable experience of traveling to Geneva, Switzerland, to meet with this exceptional group of people: a senior Jewish educator from Jerusalem, a progressive imam and Islamic scholar from South Africa, a Buddhist professor of conflict resolution from Thailand, a professor of Hinduism from India and Trinidad, a senior leader of the Presbyterian Church in the US, an internationally known Christian scholar and leader of the interfaith dialogue movement, and a Buddhist monk and scholar from Sri Lanka wearing bright orange robes, among others. Now with this group for the second time, I was thrilled by the opportunity to develop my identity as a citizen of the world, listening and learning about how the world looks from parts of the globe far beyond my own experience and perspective.

As our four days of work drew to a close, we were treated to an outing: a hike in the hills outside Geneva and a festive dinner together. We set out on our hike, expecting to find a path in the hills set aside as a place for contemplation, with texts by great spiritual teachers planted at various points along the way. It sounded like a wonderful thing to do with this group, and so we hiked. And hiked and hiked – uphill. We were a good-natured group, enjoying one another's company, offering pseudo-theological explanations for why the expected spiritual texts continued to elude us. Finally we reached the top of the hill, and it was clear that we were not going to find the rumored signs. Several people mused about how spiritual "texts" may have been present for us on our walk together, but not in the physical form we had expected. Suddenly beautiful words began to pour forth from Thomas, a prominent Christian scholar and theologian from India, as he pointed to the greenery around us.

"Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will God not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? "Therefore do not worry, saying, "What shall we eat?' or "What shall we drink?' or "What shall we wear?' . . . For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and God's righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble."

I was stunned at the beauty of Thomas' words. My knowledge of the New Testament is woefully lacking, and I knew Thomas to be a person of great eloquence. So I paused, deeply moved by the suggestion of his words that the "texts" had been all around us throughout our hike together, in the beautiful plants we had seen, the glorious beauty of our surroundings, in the blessings of our friendships and our shared work. Yet his words – they had such a ring to them – had perhaps exceeded what even Thomas could have created in the moment. I swallowed my pride and asked, "Did you just make that up?" My Jewish friend, with decades of interfaith dialogue work in her background, was quick to point out that Thomas had been quoting a passage from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:28-34). Thomas laughed, his whole face lighting up with delight, graciously accepting my ignorance of his sacred text. No, Thomas said, he would not have been able to make up those words. He laughed in a self-deprecating tone about the way in which he had been educated to memorize large chunks of the Bible when he was a child. "You learned this text when you were a child from your Bible," I said to Thomas, "but I just received it, right here on this mountain top, from you. I will treasure it as a gift from you."

On a mountaintop outside Geneva, with my new friends, spanning four continents and five world religions, I had received the blessing of a beautiful walk in the woods and an introduction to one of the great sacred texts in the history of religion, the Sermon on the Mount. At the perfect moment, Thomas had shared his beloved text with me, transforming a light-hearted afternoon with friends into a sacred pilgrimage. I will always have a special relationship with the Sermon on the Mount, for I learned it at a special moment in my own life, with gratitude.