Peace Among Religions

Jonathon Swift, (1667-1745), Irish poet, essayist and satirist, observed that “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another”. I have thought about Swift’s maxim on and off over the years in the midst of church conflicts over controversial issues that became hateful. I thought about it recently with the almost daily news of lethal, religious-inspired, religiously-related violence: The Charlie Hebdo massacre committed by Islamic extremists including the cold blooded murder of a Paris policeman, a Muslim, trying to defend the magazine’s targeted editors and the murder of four Jewish customers at a Kosher supermarket, the deadly shooting in Copenhagen that claimed the life of a Jewish man trying to guard a synagogue, the beheading of American, British and Japanese journalists by ISIS, the unspeakable executions of twenty Egyptian Christians by the same Islamic terrorists, and the continuing incidents of anti-semitism in France.

Over the years I have always been quietly, emotionally stunned when I read the Beatitudes and came to the end: “Blessed are you when you are reviled and persecuted for my sake”. In my sheltered, secure and privileged context, I cannot even begin to imagine the horror of it and I hope that somehow those Christians, about to be brutally executed, could remember those words of Jesus and be comforted by them as they died.

Will it never end? Is it simply inevitable that the religious impulse within human beings sooner or later turns violently tribal? It is there, from Jahweh’s instructions in the oldest Hebrew literature to eliminate all the inhabitants standing in the way of the conquest of the Promised Land, to Christians tortured and killed in the Coliseum, to Crusaders stopping on the way to massacre Muslims, pausing at towns in Germany to kill thousands of Jews, to the expulsion of Jews from Spain and the Inquisition, to Christians killing Muslims and Muslims killing Christians during and after World War 1, to the Holocaust and Catholics and Protestants killing one another in Northern Ireland, on and on, a relentlessly dreary story of religious hatred and violence, right up to the present.

Is there no other side to this grim tale? It has always seemed to me that to be a follower of the One who promised that the Kingdom of God, like leaven in the loaf, like a mustard seed, is already quietly breaking into the life of the world, is not only to hope but to expect, and occasionally see, a blessing in breaking. I am happy to report on one I experienced recently in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Tulsa has had a history of racial conflict and violence and today sometimes calls itself the “Buckle of the Bible Belt”, a designation not ordinarily associated with religious tolerance and interfaith collaboration. But there it is: a remarkable, lively and flourishing enterprise, The Interfaith/Ecumenical Knippa Lectures, named to honor the late Clarence Knippa, a minister in the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. Knippa’s graciousness and personal relationships in the Interfaith community in Tulsa still inspires the series and its many supporters. Other Tulsa clergy: Jewish, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Mainline Protestant, including the late William Wiseman, long time pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Tulsa, met together with Clarence Knippa and initiated interfaith conversation groups across the city. Out of those early meetings the lecture series was spawned. Knippa, pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Tulsa, was described by his successor, who was also a strong advocate of Interfaith relations as “an effective and courageous community leader who had a vision of a just and decent society.” The Lecture Series began in 1988 with the inaugural lecture delivered by Donald Shriver, President of Union Theological Seminary. Subsequent speakers include Paul VanBuren, James Sanders, Fr. John Palakowski, Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, and Martin Marty. I was honored to be the 2015 lecturer. I was very pleasantly surprised to see a full sanctuary at Grace Lutheran Church, Clarence Knippa’s old Missouri Synod Church which still hosts the event. Rabbi Charles Sherman, my host, is the current chair of the Lecture Board. The atmosphere was remarkable. These good people understand the urgency of and are committed to Interfaith relations, respect, tolerance, and understanding. Following the lecture, in conversations with Jews, Muslims and Christians I thought again about Jonathon Swift’s observation and also something Hans Kung once said. “There will be no peace among nations until there is peace among religions, and there will be no peace among religions until there is dialogue between religions .” A small event, a little like a mustard seed or leaven in a loaf.

Comments

  1. Beautifully put. I find myself tempted to think of “Them” doing this — whoever they are — and then remember a person in that group who I know. That person doesn’t know or do what “They” know or do — and bang, there dies my prejudice.

  2. Pastor Adam Froncek formed a group at my church in the sumner of 2012 to study the bestseller, Jerusalem: A Biography by historian Simon Sebag Montefiore. Adam, a young intellectual, was using a sliver of the congregation to gauge the analytical capacity of his flock. Twelve souls signed up to explore the chronology of the Holy City.

    The two-hour monthly gatherings were guided by the able pastor, but ensuing discussions broke down into participants looking at the ancient past through the lens of the present. Christian platitudes were ever-present. Churchy language formed an unsophisticated lazy-think over the conversations. The pastor did indeed gain insight into how church people respond to such material.

    At one of these sessions a hegemon of the church compared a ruthless, manipulative ruler of ancient Jerusalem to a woman who was running for Congress. The church lady said, “this reminds me of that candidate who talks all the time about her disabilities just to gain sympathy votes in her run for Congress.”
    
“You mean Tammy Duckworth? The helicopter pilot?  The one who was shot down in Iraq and lost both her legs?”

    “Yeah, that one,” she replied.

    Church is a messy place.

    My membership in the the Presbyterian church began in 1984 after an agonizing search for a place where God shared an unbottoned space with the intellect. I had exhausted myself in eastern religiousity, EST, women’s Bible studies, spiritual communities of light and love and the emotional squeeze of evangelical Christianity. A friend in AA told me about Pastor Elam Davies at Fourth Presbyterian Church. His exegeted message and all the messages since distilled into one: love God, love your neighbor. I continually need to be told to love my neighbor, otherwise I would haul off and slug people — like the woman in the book group. It is far easier for me to love God than to love my neighbors, particularly neighbors in church.

    This one simple encounter transformed me into a Tammy Duckworth watchdog. I searched every media outlet for negative text, then wrote comments and letters extolling the virtues of this female war hero who got out of her healing bed and jumped into the psychological warfare of politics. After she lost that first run for Congress she told us she sat in her bathtub for 3 days and cried. “Yes!” I thought, “this is the real deal.” She’s even fearless in her vulnerability.
     
    Tammy won her 2nd run for Congress representing suburban Chicago. Her two artificial legs enable her to stand erect at podiums on the floor of the House of Representatives and public events. She moves around in a wheelchair, and last year she and her husband had a baby girl. Now she is running for the U.S. Senate. Where does she get such courage, such stamina, such resilience?

    It took one buttoned-up remark for me to pay attention to one extraordinary human being. God really does move in mysterious ways.

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