Peacemaking and Pluralism - What's Love Got To Do With It?
My husband Bob and I are just back from the Parliament of World Religions, held in Chicago August 14-18, 2023. I have been processing all that I learned in this wonderful week among more than 7,000 attendees representing 95+ nations and 200+ faiths.
Looking back at this week my lasting impression is our delight in the spirit among all attendees we met of curiosity, openness, good will and desire not only to learn about and from each other, but to respect and celebrate our different ways of seeking and worshiping the Presence we all honor.
This was the most diverse gathering I have ever attended! Just as an example, we walked back to our hotel from registration at the conference center on Monday evening with a lovely older gentleman who had also just registered. We were all discussing the storm that was raging outside our conference center that evening. Before we parted ways, we asked where he’d traveled from, and he said Sierra Leone! We wished each other a peaceful night and parted ways as friends.
A flavor of the conference as a whole is offered in a report from the Episcopal News Service. We attendees all celebrated “a shared joy for what the world can be when people of faith committed to justice, peace, and sustainability come together,” as the Parliament’s Executive Director, The Reverend Stephen Alvino shared with us in an email to attendees after the closing of the Parliament.
The themes of this Parliament, defending freedom and human rights, are critical to our world, and attendees recognized that we all have a part to play in peacemaking. Rev. HPs. Phyllis Curott, 2023 PoWR Program Chair shared:
“Today we are all standing at a pivotal moment where history seeks to repeat itself. It is a moment of urgency - an existential global scourge has returned…It is a stark reality that transcends borders, cultures and faiths. A reality that demands our collective action and moral courage. As people of faith and spirit we have a singular responsibility. Here is the truth we must all confront and change. Despots are misappropriating religions to justify the unjustifiable. Tyrants proclaim themselves saviors posturing with religious symbols and exploiting language to affirm their power. And tragically, there are religious leaders who stand beside them and religious communities who cheer them.”
You might ask, what is the role of each of our faiths in promoting human rights and defending freedom? My husband Bob and I spoke on a panel Tuesday August 15 on Religion and Human Rights, sponsored by the Islamic Networks Group. Our panel was comprised of a Christian, a Jew, a Buddhist, a Hindu and a Muslim. We talked about how religions, including the three Abrahamic faiths, have supported human rights, and how our faiths have also been used to trample human rights. I spoke about the Christian awakening to the dangers of Christian supremacy after World War II, and the realization that this was a significant impetus to antisemitism. I also celebrated the growing recognition in Roman Catholic, Orthodox and mainline Protestant religions that all people have access to God’s grace, and a path to salvation.
One way we fight this battle for peace and human rights is by increasing understanding and appreciation for, and creating relationships, among people of other faiths. That is the work we do at Building Bridges Together! We met so many attendees at the Parliament who are deeply committed to this furthering of our human-to-human relationships!
We learned more about how each of our Abrahamic faiths embrace the concept of pluralism. According to Websters, pluralism is defined as “a theory that there are more than one or two kinds of ultimate reality” or “a society in which members of diverse … ethnic, racial, religious, or social groups maintain their traditional culture or special interest within the confines of a common civilization.” For different religions, this means that we have humility and an understanding that the God we worship values diversity in faith and observance, and that not one of us has the whole truth.
So, how do our Abrahamic faiths look at other faiths?
A fundamental precept of Judaism is that God is one – and therefore there is one morality and one ethical code applicable for all humans, ethical monotheism. Judaism teaches that God’s primary demand for all humans is that they treat each other decently. The Talmud tells the story of the sage Hillel, who was asked by a pagan to summarize the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel famously said, “ What is hateful to you, do not do to others; the rest is commentary, now go and study.” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a.) God cares more about how we treat each other than about religious observance. Isaiah 58, read every Yom Kippur, states “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him." (Isaiah 58:6-7.)
In Judaism, all humans are valued by God. In fact, a version of the commandment, “You shall not abuse the stranger, for you were a stranger in the land of Egypt,” appears at least 36 times in the Torah, and therefore is one of the most repeated commandments. In the very center of the Torah this commandment appears in the Holiness Code, in Leviticus 19:33:
"And if a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall not mistreat him. The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God."
Why do we need so many reminders? This is clearly a very hard commandment for humans to follow. We are tribal by nature and focus on differences to exclude others from “our tribe.” But Judaism offers us a common human morality and views every individual as unique and cherished by God.
We were excited to attend a panel of Muslim scholars and teachers, including a professor of Islamic religion, a mufti and an imam. These esteemed panelists made it clear that Islam values pluralism as a core precept. They pointed to the Quran, which tells us that God created diverse nations and tribes so that we would come to know one another, not so that we may despise one another [49:13] and, if God willed, God could have made mankind one people, a single nation, but differences will continue [11:118]. All humans are to strive to be “good” and the People of the Book are recognized expressly.
What about Christianity? Jesus taught that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. [Matthew 22:39; Luke 10:27]. One of the best known of Jesus’s parables is the Good Samaritan, in which an injured Jew lay on the side of the highway, and a Samaritan, from a tribe despised by the Jews, helped this Jew with medical care and paid for his place at a nearby inn, and checked on him. [Luke 10:30-35]. Jesus taught this parable to show us that our “neighbor” is anyone whether or not they are of “our” tribe – each human is worthy of dignity, respect and our love and care. Jesus commanded us to love each other as Jesus loved us – unreservedly.
Pluralism is a value my husband and I embrace, and we were thrilled with the opportunity to experience rich diversity during our week at the Parliament. We loved being with people of all faiths embracing this idea that all humans are valuable and unique. We saw people expressing their faiths in so many beautiful and different ways, whether by dress, by drumming, by gongs, by singing, by marching, by walking the labyrinth.
All the panels we attended were inspiring and we met so many like-minded people doing important work to heal the world. It was a chance to exercise our own curiosity and we took advantage!
One important theme we were continually reminded of is that we need to respect each other’s faiths and avoid “essentialism.” We are not all the same, and that is to be celebrated, not to be deplored! We need to look not only for the common themes among different faiths, but also respect the distinctions between different faiths. We are not called to convert each other to our faith – each of us has a perspective, and a window into the Presence. We each have access to grace and a path to salvation.
Pluralism is a perspective we humans need to cultivate actively – it may not come to us naturally, in the same way that “loving the stranger as ourselves” is not easy for humans. And it does require us to think about faith in different ways.
By way of example, some people see a glass as” half empty” and some people see the glass as “half full,” and neither of those are inherently bad perspectives, but rather they complement one another. We can all use some optimism and some caution in life.
In the same way some people focus mainly on the differences between faiths, and may be critical of “the other,” while some focus on common themes and miss the revelation and nuance in understanding that comes from a perspective different than our own. The risk of focusing on differences is that we may favor one faith above the other, or come to fear that which we don’t appreciate, understand, or adopt. If, however, we focus only on common themes, we risk “essentialism,” losing the individual expressions, teachings, and centering truths of different faiths. This could lead us to a watered-down common faith that appeals to no one, or a lack of appreciation for the beauty in the different ways to view God. Just as each human is unique, and holy, each faith offers a new way to see the Presence.
Different faiths are like different facets of a diamond, with God at the center of it all. One panelist observed that a good exercise is for a person who tends to focus on common themes [this would be me!] to spend some focused time appreciating the differences among faiths, while someone who tends to notice the differences between faiths should look intentionally for common themes. This type of practice exercises our muscles to grow an ability to appreciate the stranger in faith.
What do you think about this – do you have examples of epiphanies arising from changing your perspective on a group that you initially feared or disliked?
Peacemaking and freedom of religious expression is precious to all of us. One of the Parliament’s Plenary speakers, Jen Butler, ended her powerful talk by reminding us of a 1946 poetic confessional by the German Lutheran pastor, Martin Niemöller (1892–1984):
First, they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
We would be wise to continue to build our relationships and seek collaboration and cooperation among people of different faiths and all those who support freedom of expression if we want to protect our ability to worship as we are inspired.
What’s love got to do with it? Well, everything! We continue to celebrate the chance to meet and greet the Holy One in every human being. We are each worthy of dignity. More than that, we are all worthy of love and appreciation for our unique gifts and role in this world.
We returned from Chicago energized by so many humans engaging with curiosity, openness, and respect regarding all faiths. We found a real hunger for relationship building - this is what our Interfaith Bridges™ program is designed to foster! We look forward to the journey toward greater understanding, bridging across difference and finding ways to appreciate each other. We hope you will join us on this journey.
Diane Frankle, Co-Founder, Chairman of the Board and COO, Building Bridges Together