Friday, June 26, 2015

Interfaith Conversations With Our Neighbors

Illumination from the Bible de Souvigny (about 1100 AD)
showing Muslims, Christians and Jews in Abraham's lap.
"You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor." (Exodus 20:16)
The verse above is a biggie. In fact, as I'm sure readers of this blog know, it's on God's "Top Ten" list. Yet we violate this commandment, perhaps daily, in small and large ways. "Did you hear about the new rector? He's got a problem with strong women...pass it on." Or, "did you hear about the woman who just moved in down the street? I heard that she's been having an affair with a co-worker..."

Gossip is corrosive; it destroys lives and it destroys the neighborhood. And sometimes perception becomes reality. It doesn't matter whether or not it's true - when the whispering starts it's hard to stop, and there are things we can never un-say. So we are warned to guard our words and to be careful with them and to not judge one another. But it does seem to be an insidious human tendency from which Christians are far from immune. 

We sometimes violate this same commandment when we speak about those from other religious traditions as well. Sometimes it's because we just don't know any better. Sometimes it's because we compare our best qualities or holy texts to another's worst. The result is the same, however, and this practice is one we need to repent from and then make amends for as we seek to restore relationships. Who is our neighbor?

I've been reading Amy-Jill Levine lately and in particular, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. Levine, a practicing Jew and a New Testament scholar, challenges much of what many Christians believe to be "orthodox theology" that is in fact rooted in a posture of bearing false witness against our Jewish neighbors. Whenever we say that the Old Testament is all about law and the New Testament is all about grace we violate this commandment. Just because it is woven into the fabric of our liturgical and preaching lives doesn't make it right; it just makes the work before us that much more challenging. So we embark on it, always, with God's help.

I am fairly confident that whatever headlines are written out of the 78th General Convention of the The Episcopal Church, the big ones won't be about our commitment to ecumenism and interfaith dialogue. But for the past two days I've been sitting with folks who were tasked as part of a legislative committee to work on resolutions that will, we hope, come before both Houses before the week ends. One of those resolutions has to do with developing ongoing training akin to Safe Church and Anti-Racism Training about other religious traditions, for both clergy and laity. This builds on a commitment made six years ago at the 76th General Convention to inter-religious dialogue. Today in testimony before our committee one person noted how she mentioned in passing at a Bible Study last week how for Arabic Christians, God = Allah (i.e. it is the Arabic name for God, not the Islamic name for God.) She had two parishioners refuse to be confused by facts, however.

So we have a long way to go. But I'm proud to be part of a denomination that wants to continue to talk with our neighbors - all of them - about how we find our way to God. That begins, at least, by trying to understand one another, and tell the truth about each other. It begins by listening. While this work may not make the biggest waves this week and next in Salt Lake City, it's work that has a profound impact "on the ground" in congregations, in confirmation materials, in what we speak from the pulpit, in how we seek partnerships among other people of good faith. 

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