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Reflections on post-9/11 interfaith dialogue in preparation for this week’s panel

February 16, 2015

I will be co-moderating an interfaith panel (Jewish, Buddhist, Christian and Muslim leaders) on Thursday, Feb. 19, at Huston-Tillotson University. If you are in the Austin area, PLEASE COME. Here’s the info.

In the meantime, here are some reflections on the value and challenges of interfaith conversations over the last dozen or so years (from my perspective as a religion reporter). I’ll circle back to the upcoming event. Here goes: In terms of learning the religion beat, I cut my teeth on interfaith dialogue. It was early 2002 as our country was still trying to make sense of 9/11 and faith leaders sought to create a safe space where everyone could learn about Islam from the Muslim neighbors who had until then not drawn much attention. There was an air of urgency, a sense that this work was imperative if we were going to move forward without being hopelessly fractured. There were so many events back then. Panel discussions and pulpit swaps and invitations to churches and mosques and synagogues. All of these alliances. Some of them already established. But many of them, particularly with the Muslim community, delicate and new. (Sheikh Safdar Razi, still new to the U.S. and struggling with English, emerged from his small Shiite community on Sept. 12 to speak at the Texas Capitol. “Somebody has to go out and tell them we’re not terrorists,” he told me later.)

Austin Area Interreligious Ministries (now known as iAct) took the lead in pulling people together — Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Baha’is, Hindus and others. The objective was finding common ground, highlighting the heartwarming aspects of the varied religions, particularly Islam, which President Bush had asserted on the evening of Sept. 11 was a religion of peace. Not everyone went along with this. For one thing, some Christians, especially more conservative evangelical Christians, found it unacceptable to engage in a discussion with non-Christians without being able to witness. I remember one African-American minister unleashing his frustration at an interfaith event. His religion called him to spread the Gospel, he said, not pretend that all religions were equally valid.

As time went on, another challenge revealed itself: The troubling passages in holy texts. The very source for many religious extremists to commit violent acts. Could they be ignored? People tried. Then, one day, Rabbi Kerry Baker had enough. At roundtable discussion with Muslim journalists from overseas, after people made comments about terrorists misinterpreting the Quran and not representing “true Islam,” Baker banged the table with his hand and demanded that believers own up to their problematic scriptures and stop pretending that their religion didn’t inspire violence. The visiting journalists seemed a bit stunned.

(Incidentally, Baker, who once said it’s his “lot in life to say unpopular things,” was including his own tradition in this comment.)

The point is, no, it wasn’t perfect, but I don’t know where we would be without these conversations and events that took place after 9/11. Even if religions were sugarcoated and people often avoided tough questions, at least we learned a little about each other. At least we saw the humanity in each other. (And, for the record, sometimes people did push the boundaries, did ask the tough questions, etc.)

I don’t know where we are today with regard to interfaith dialogue. Now that I’m no longer a religion reporter, it’s harder for me to assess. I do know that some evangelical Christians have found a way to promote understanding about world religions in a way that doesn’t compromise their beliefs. Pastor Tom Goodman of Hillcrest Baptist Church did a terrific series of live interviews at his church a number of years ago. (I wrote column about it.)

I also recently learned about a conservative Christian named Jim Miller whose Church Without Walls promotes dialogue between Muslims and Christians. People don’t have to agree. But they have to live together.

The Chapel Hill murders, the arson attack on the Houston mosque and other anti-Muslim acts here in the U.S. should remind us that there is still work to be done. (Let’s face it, there will always be work to be done. There will always be hatred and bigotry and violence.)

And I think that, generally, we seem to be catching on to the importance of religious literacy. At least I hope we are. But it’s tricky in this age of information overload. We have gone from being simply ignorant (not having much information about other religions) to actively misinformed (having access to too much and often erroneous information). Thanks, Internet.

That’s why this conversation at Huston-Tilloton is important. We need to be sure that we’re going out of our way to bridge gaps and draw more people into the dialogue. I think we have moved on from the notion that all religions are different paths up the same mountain. We want something more honest and challenging now — even if it’s just to listen to a group of people give their take on some key questions: Why am I here? Where am I going? What helps me get there? What are obstacles to this path? It will, of course, be more than just answering those questions.

What I love about this panel is that we have a Southern Baptist minister and a Sunni Muslim imam and a Reform rabbi and an ordained Buddhist monk who is also a psychologist. They will each speak from the heart about what their tradition teaches and what it means to them. Some of their beliefs may overlap, but many won’t. These are very distinct paths, and it’s important for us to see where they diverge, not just where they intersect. Remember, we don’t have to agree. But we do have to live together.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Jack Wirtz permalink
    February 20, 2015 7:55 am

    Eileen, good work, if the Christian doesn’t begin and end with this, he is ad-libbing his own perspective and not as a disciple of Christ.

    Romans 12:9-21
    Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good.
    Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality.
    Bless those who persecute you; bless and curse not.
    Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation.
    Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.
    Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ” VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says YAHWEH.
    Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

    *Caps are quotes from the Old Testament quoted here by Paul.

  2. Matt Dillahunty permalink
    February 21, 2015 1:27 am

    The panel seems to be missing something. I wish I’d been a bit less distracted so that I could attend, but I found out afterward.

    • eeflynn permalink*
      February 22, 2015 5:34 pm

      Matt would have been great to have you attend. Even better to have you on the panel. I would like to organize another one and include the atheist perspective.

      • Don Rhoades permalink
        April 10, 2015 9:46 am

        Great idea.

  3. Jack Wirtz permalink
    February 24, 2015 1:30 pm

    Apostate gets death sentence
    Saudi Gazette report
    Monday, February 23, 2015
    HAFR AL-BATIN — The General Court has sentenced to death a young Saudi man in his 20s for denouncing Islam as his faith and various other acts of blasphemy, Al-Sharq reported.
    A source from the court reported that the convict documented his apostasy by capturing a video and posting it on the social networking site Keek.
    The source said: “In the video he cursed God, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and his daughter Fatimah and ripped a copy of the Holy Qur’an and hit it with a shoe.
    “The death sentence was issued after his apostasy was proven.”
    The Hafr Al-Batin branch of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice arrested him last year and his case was forwarded to the Bureau of Investigation and Public Prosecution.
    A sheikh at the Ministry of Islamic Affairs Abdullah Al-Enizi said renuciation of Islam is not a new phenomenon.
    He said: “It has existed since the age of the Prophet and there are multiple Qur’anic verses on it.
    “The phenomenon continued throughout the Islamic ages and cursing the Prophet and the Qur’an is a form of conversion that must be dealt with accordingly through the courts.”

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