Dilatato Corde 1:2
July - December, 2011


As a fifteen year old boy I read a novel by Frank Heller,a Swedish author not very well known today. His novel,  Du dåre i denna natt (You Fool, This Night), begins like this in my translation:

Deep Versailles peace reigned over Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia; currencies were rolling down the hills, politicians were murdered, whole populations died of starvation, half the world was crying for goods, half the world was unemployed, there was war in the east, in the south and in the north. Poland was at war with Lithuania, Russia was at war with Poland, Romania threatened Hungary, Hungary threatened Austria, Yugoslavia told Italy to shut up and Italy replied to Yugoslavia, shut up, yourself. A deep peace was reigning over the entire world.

That satire about peace in the 1920s that wasn’t really peace could apply also in our time. The word “peace” continues to be proclaimed and thrown over the world like a blanket. And under it, killing, hunger, injustice and arms trade continue to torment people. Today too, there are proclamations of peace coming back to haunt anyone on the receiving end of this peace. Another peace like this and they are lost.

Like love, peace has become an almost empty word. I read the words of the prophet Jeremiah: “For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace’, when there is no peace” (6:13-14). When peace is distributed left, right and centre, someone is making a profit.

Increasingly churches, interfaith bodies, NGOs and others make statements and declarations about peace.  One religious leader asks for peace, another religious leader demands peace, an interreligious leader calls for peace. It is so smooth. Everyone loves peace. In her book Spirit in Ashes (1985), Edith Wyschogrod  cites Saint Augustine, who had some critical insights on the matter: “There is no one who does not love peace. . . . Even brigands seek to keep the peace with their comrades. . . . It is not that they [the violators of peace] love peace less, but they love their kind of peace more.”  Who is against peace? No one. We love it as a concept and we love it as long as it suits us.

Peace is a longing and a wish deep down inside us. It is part of our religious and cultural discourse or ritual.  Peace is a word of greeting in many languages. In the church, Christians exchange greetings of peace with their neighbor before receiving the Eucharist. In Hebrew, the word for hello is Shalom. The most common greeting in Arabic is As-Salāmu `Alaykum, Peace be upon you. The words are dense and behind them is surely the wish that peace be with us all and that it never move away. But when we get out of the greeting-zone, which peace are we talking about? Or whose peace? Peace as I see it or peace as you would need it? Peace is not enough to extinguish war. The Bible speaks poetically about the necessity for peace and justice to embrace (Psalm 85:14). Unless grievances are solved, there can be no peace. But peace and justice cannot embrace until we have seen the inter-linkage. In our time we have become increasingly aware that the debt crisis is part of the environment crisis; the destruction of the environment is linked to the denigration of people.  We have realized that the world and everything in it is interconnected.

Our time is blessed with individuals who for the sake of peace seek to work together with people of diverse cultures, confessions and religious traditions. Interreligious gatherings that bring together people of different religious traditions to address such common issues as peace, education, or poverty, are a rather new phenomenon in the world of religions. While this is a good thing and should be encouraged, we need to be aware of the pitfalls are possible.

In our time, religion is on its way back, but we need to ask, what kind of religion? Mainline religion seems to be in the backwaters and fundamentalist expressions of religion appear to have the momentum. There are those who say that religion has become a global threat to the survival of our world. Terrorism and religion are so often mentioned in the same breath in media that some people regard them as partners. Even if one does not subscribe to the glaring caricatures of religion as predestined from all eternity to be in cahoots with terrorism, it is obvious that religion can easily be used to intensify conflict. Religious people and interreligious organizations would do well to remember this before becoming too glib about the potential of religion to be a peace-maker.

Therefore, we need always to remember that religion does not travel easily in our world today, even when it is back on stage. There are many misgivings. Some of them are certainly exaggerated, such as the ironic-sarcastic atheism that takes aim at marginal aspects of belief or at fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible (see Dawkins and Hitchens). But many are an expression of a deeply rooted disappointment of the role of religion has played in history, which was not always that of promoting healing and confidence.

People remember religion, at least in Europe. There is an old story from Sweden of an old lady who when reflecting on life said, “Well, whatever you do, you can never be really happy, there is thunder and lightning in the summer and during winter the pastor has hearings and examines our faith.” She was referring to the catechetical gatherings in the parishes. They may be gone, but people still remember them and the authoritarian power of the church they manifested. People outside the realms of the church very likely have had similar experiences in their religious traditions.

But there is interest in interreligious cooperation, and there is hope that religions will get their act together. Interfaith has become a word that people who are not specialists understand and affirm. And many have seen, both within the world of religion and the world itself, that religion can be a crucial contributor to generating social change towards peace. Interfaith is more and more requested and in demand, and religious people are often invited to attend this or that manifestation. People of religious traditions should, however, be concerned to know who invited them to sit at the table. They should think twice before they sit down at the tables of the powerful, the economists, the politicians, and the business people, who have invited them to corroborate what is being proclaimed as peace. It should not be enough for them to sit at the table of powerful presidents, kings, or chief executive officers (CEOs), if they are there only to sport a saffron robe or priestly garb. It is not enough for a religious organization or interfaith organization to make declarations or statements about peace, when such language does little more than echo a UN-declaration. Learning the language of peace requires deep listening. Religions know this. The meaning of the name Avalokitesvara, one of the more widely revered bodhisattvas in mainstream Mahayana Buddhism, is ``the one who looks deeply into the world and hears the cries of the world.'' One of the most powerful expression in the Hebrew Bible is, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings” (Exodus 3:7). The word used in Hebrew for know, yada, means much more than intellectual knowledge. It is wisdom. It is the word used for the most intimate relation between two persons, sexual intercourse. This is how close God is to the people and their suffering. This is deep listening.

The myths, stories, and rituals that make up our religious traditions echo a world of deep listening. The contributions of religious people to peace should come out of this world, for it is here that they will find the insights and ethical considerations that they, as religious people, can bring to peace-ministry and conflict resolution.

Let us for a moment focus on the word Shalom. It is well known that shalom is not peace as in absence of war and that it is not a static notion. Shalom is the positive enjoyment of physical, economic and social well-being. Shalom is not only an ideal to attain in days to come or in a spiritualized realm. It is important that religion not allow its otherworldly concerns to anaesthetize people to the reality of global dangers.  In a secular age, when people are exercising their freedom not to follow religious authority blindly, people of religion must begin taking risks for peace.  The very meaning of Shalom suggests that there is no shalom without an effort.  The root of the word has to do with shalem, to pay.  Peace is costly and requires sacrifices.  It is not sufficient to love peace.  It requires more. “Depart from evil, and do good; Seek peace, and pursue it” (Psalm 34:14), or as in the Sayings of the Fathers, “Be like the followers of Aaron: love peace and pursue it” (Pirke Avoth 5:12). Merely talking about peace is not enough. Nor is it right to engage only in wishful visions of peace, where none exists.

And yet, there is no question that our time is often at loss about how to address fundamental and global threats to our world. With so much agony caused by violent conflict, war and bloodshed, the world badly needs peace. But how do we go about it? It is not enough to talk about it. It is not enough to make statements about it. You cannot buy peace, and you can also not give it away as a commodity. The world is clamoring for peace, peace among nations and peace of mind. And yet, in spite of many efforts, real peace is not to be found: harmony is deceptive and divisions remain. We need images that will remind us that we belong together, that our lives are intertwined, that we are one human family inhabiting our one and only home, the planet earth. Such a vision of the world requires another perspective, a spiritual dimension. How do we go about addressing effectively the many ills of our societies in a way that would really make a difference? 

The contribution of religious and spiritual leaders will not be the same as that provided by political leaders. Our language is not the same. A genuine contribution from religious and spiritual leaders should come from our religious and spiritual traditions, the integrated and integrative dimension of what we stand for. The inner core of that which propels us in our ministry and our life, the realization of interconnectedness—something we can hardly grasp and yet so powerful in our life—needs to inform the language we speak and the actions we engage in.  People in our religious traditions as well as people outside of any particular tradition look to us to be interpreters of life’s spiritual dimension, of that realm that is between “the things of the spirit” and material things and that give meaning to life. They expect us to speak from experience about that which is boundless and yet calls us to specific expressions of obedience or integrated discipleship.

The essence of what we, as religious and spiritual people, handed down from one generation to the next, must be at the very heart of the contribution we bring to peace making. However, we offer it not as a well-wrapped parcel from yesterday, but as a plan for action that has been decided on through our struggle with the challenges of our time. In Islam this is called ijtihad, but it is a spiritual exercise that people of all religions should engage in if they want to be relevant to the demands of the present.

Through encounters with people of other faiths, many have come to realize that we are closer to each other than we have been led to believe. There is no question that there are major differences between the narratives and self-understanding of people of different religions. These differences are to be cherished and not harmonized in a simplistic way. Something in another tradition that we may not be able to share might still spur us to remain together in dialogue, listening to each other’s experience of that which matters most in our life. It is in listening to each other’s unique experiences that we will be able to discover that which brings us together. There is, in spite of all the differences, an inner core common to all religions: the mystery of life, the conviction that life matters, that human beings matter, whether we think that we are appearances of the moment or believe that we are created in the image of God. The spiritual dimension in striving for peace could be a sign of reconciliation and unity between people of different religious traditions. A disinterested examination of the world of religion would teach us that it is spirituality that links simple believers and erudite men and women; it is the common denominator that religious leaders ought to emphasize and religious adherents ought to practice.

The interreligious cooperation of religious leaders in local, national, and regional situations of conflict has played a significant role in various peace initiatives. I think of Hindus and Muslims working together to heal communalism in Mumbai and in Gujarat. I think of the Interreligious Council of Sierra Leone, which brought an end to conflict in that country. It is in efforts like these that people have begun to see the other as a friend and as an ally in spite of religious differences. The potential of dialogue to foster friendship in place of enmity is one that we should cultivate.

But we also need to be aware of a potential pitfall. The actual impact of dialogue in situations of conflict may disappoint high expectations. When dialogue is unable to quell conflict, its relevance is questioned. In situations where religion seems to be implicated in the fomenting of conflict, there are often expectations that dialogue can significantly contribute to the resolution of these political or communal controversies and restore peace,. However, by its very nature, interreligious dialogue is not an instrument that can instantly resolve problems in emergency situations. Dialogue is not an ambulance; dialogue is prophylactic health-care. Contacts and relations of precious trust and friendship between people of different religions, built quietly by patient dialogue during peacetime, may in times of conflict prevent religion from being used as a weapon. In many cases, such relations may pave the way for initiatives of mediation and reconciliation. At times of communal tension or at the peak of a crisis, contacts across the communal divide may prove to be invaluable in the construction of peace.

Efforts to prevent polarization between religious communities at the world level are more important than ever. The media make it all too easy for people to perceive conflict in one place as part of a conflict in another, causing enmities in one part of the world to spill over into other regions. An act of violence in one place is used to confirm the stereotype of the "enemy" in another place, or even to provoke revenge attacks elsewhere in the world. The crisis between Muslims and Christians that was provoked by cartoons of Mohammed in a Danish newspaper is a case in point. The Danish cartoons were seen by some Muslims as a Christian attempt to denigrate the Prophet. As news of this act of disrespect spread across the globe, a local incident was interpreted as evidence that Christianity was attacking Islam. As much as possible, we must try to de-globalize situations of conflict and analyze each incident within its own context. The emphasis on the specificity of every incident does not, of course, prevent people of faith in other parts of the world from being concerned and involved. An interreligious engagement in one place may in fact be an essential contribution to peace building and reconciliation in another. Good news can also travel across our planet. What dialogue can do is enable people of different religions to foster a counter-culture in situations when stereotyping is rife. In some places in the US, following September 11, Christians and Muslims provided a different message from that of stereotyping all Muslims as terrorists. They came together, prayed together and countered dangerous simplifications. They refused to be separated from each other in times of hate speech and lynching mentalities.

Individuals and communities may, even with the best of intentions, encounter problems and difficulties in interreligious relations and dialogue. Sometimes the call for dialogue is met with hesitation, suspicion, indifference or opposition, both from within one’s own community and from other religious communities. Although dialogue by its very nature is direct encounter, there are invisible participants on each side in every dialogue. Our dialogue partners will, mutatis mutandis, every so often hold us responsible for what fellow Christians have done or neglected to do, said or not said. In dialogue with Christians, Muslims will recall the crusaders. Hindus will remind Christians of the inevitable link between colonization and mission. Jews will recall the long history of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism in Christian Europe. And even if they are not mentioned aloud, the crusader and colonialist-cum-missionary are invisibly present. It is naive to think we can come to a dialogue without bringing our history with us.

But it is not only history that colors dialogue. Religion is not a monolith, and religious people are not all the same, even if they belong to the same religion. I can think of few instances other than religion where pars-pro-toto seems to set the rules. A religion can be dismissed wholesale because a meeting with a protagonist of that particular religion went wrong. While I personally may be open to dialogue, my co-religionists may have left a bad impression on my counterpart of another faith. People come to dialogue with a history of trust or distrust. There is often much to unlearn; trust is not built over night.

There are deep disagreements within religions, and we know that the dividing lines are not always between religious communities but often within religious communities. The differences may be theological, but they can also relate to social, political, and moral issues. We may, for various reasons, find ourselves in opposition to some of those with whom we share a common faith. In fact, dialogue may create the experience of feeling closer to a person of another faith than to the person next to you in the pew. You may not share the same faith, but there is a relationship of affinity that transcends religious boundaries. Ernst Simon spoke for many when he said, “The people I can pray with, I can't talk to, and the people I can talk to, I can't pray with.”

Dialogue cannot only be an occasion to come to terms with issues of divergence. Dialogue will wither if we only meet in the context of divisive issues. Dialogue also offers the space to build alliances on issues of common concern between people of different faiths. It is important to seek such partners and explore ways of rebuilding the credibility of dialogue as a means of enabling people to enter a relationship of mutual respect and openness in discussing divisive issues or seeking ways of a common witness. The ecumenical principle of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches is becoming ever more applicable to interreligious dialogue: “That which we can do together, we should not do separately”.

Motivations for dialogue are conditioned by power relations. We cannot ignore issues of majority, minority and numbers between religious communities. However, power is not determined solely by numbers. The one who has the resources can be the majority, but this is not necessarily always the case. The Christian minority in India has more resources such as schools, clinics and other important institutions than many other religious communities’ The Jewish minority in the United States exerts considerable influence in society. Numbers matter, but numbers are not all that counts.

Discriminatory practices exacerbate distrust and division. The intermingling of state policies and confessional identities that are rooted in communal traditions may lead communities to look at each other as a threat. This is particularly true in times of uncertainty or of political and constitutional changes involving a redefinition of the relationship between the state and religion. Interreligious dialogue cannot shy away from recognizing the effects of uneven power relations and the impact of mutual perceptions, no matter how distorted they are. The following story from the Jewish tradition says quite a lot about hermeneutics and power.

Once upon a time in the Middle Ages, there was a Pope who told the Jews of a small town that they had better pack their suitcases and get ready to leave—unless they could answer three questions. If they answered correctly, they could remain in the town and no one would ever bother them again. None of the Jews thought they would be able to give the correct answers, so they started packing. But one of them, Yankel, the tailor's apprentice, wanted to give it a try.

He arrived at the Pope's palace and was given an audience. The Pope said, "I will ask you three questions, but I will mime them rather than put them into words. If you answer the three questions correctly, your people can stay." Yankel nodded in agreement; he was prepared to answer.

"The first question is as follows," said the Pope, and held one finger in the air.

Yankel answered by raising two fingers in the air.

"The second question is as follows," said the Pope, and moved his hand horizontally back and forth.

Yankel answered by clasping his hands together.

"The third question is as follows," said the Pope, and took out a loaf of bread.

Yankel answered by taking an apple out of his pocket.

The Pope said, "You have answered all the questions correctly. You may tell your people that they can stay."

After Yankel left, the Cardinals said to the Pope, "We did not understand this at all, neither your questions, nor his answers. Please explain what they meant."

The Pope said: "I raised one finger in the air, which means, there is only one God. He raised two fingers, which means that you worship God in faith and deeds. I moved my hand from left to right to say that we are separated from each other. He clutched his hands, saying that he thought we could be united. I took out the loaf of bread to remind him of the bread of life, and he brought forth an apple to make me remember the fruit of the earth. He understood well and answered well. "

The Cardinals were in awe.

Back in the little town, the Jews were busy packing when Yankel arrived. He said, "We don't have to leave. I answered all the Pope’s questions correctly."

Everyone was astonished and asked him what the questions were and what he had answered.

Yankel explained: "The Pope raised one finger as if to say that he was going to poke out my eye. I answered with two fingers to say, “'I'll poke out both of your eyes.” The Pope waved  his hand to show that he was going to cut my throat. I put my hands together to say, “I'll strangle you.” And finally, I guess the Pope gave up, because he took out his lunch—and so I took out mine!

The Jews were in awe.

Two completely different backgrounds provide the grid for understanding what took place. The Pope is powerful; Yankel is powerless. The Pope can allow himself the luxury of confining the conversation to theological matters that hover over actual reality and are unrelated to the particularity of the situation. He has no particular concern about how Yankel must feel, having the sword of Damocles hanging over his head.

For Yankel, the encounter with the Pope, although it is supposed to be a matter of questions and answers, cannot be dissociated from other encounters the European Jewish community has had with the hierarchy of the Church. Yankel‘s understanding of the situation is in every respect colored by experience, his own as well as those of countless Jews who know what it means to be at the mercy of the dominant Church. His genetic memory tells him that the dialogue with the Pope is threatening and a potentially dangerous situation. He interprets every word and gesture of the Pope defensively, for he senses that the Pope is out to get him and his fellow Jews. The story reflects the actual power relationship between the Church and the Jews. The Pope has nothing to lose. Yankel, on the other hand, has to win. The Pope can afford to stay within the theological realm; Yankel doesn’t even dare to enter it.

The success of dialogue initiatives depends largely on their intentional and concentrated effort to dispel fears and suspicions between those who represent different religious communities. Equally, it is essential that interreligious dialogue create an opportunity for strengthening cross-confessional loyalties, always upholding, in discussion and joint action, the centrality of the common good and inclusive political participation.

Linked to the issue of power is the reality of asymmetry in dialogue. Even though we may use the same words, it is not a given that we mean the same thing, and, in fact, we may not have entered into dialogue for the same reasons. One might be in the dialogue in order to strengthen and intensify one’s own spirituality and religious commitment; another may be in dialogue in order to address a controversial issue.

It goes without saying that for interreligious dialogue I need a counterpart. I may have the most elaborate agenda for the betterment of the world, but cooperation requires more than my idea of how best to address the threats to world peace. We cannot set the table by ourselves, and the question of the menu also has to be worked through in dialogue. The pitfall lies in thinking that it all depends on my willingness to determine where to go and how to get there. But it takes two to tango.

What conclusion can we bring to these reflections? Be humble. Don’t multiply words. Don’t yield to the temptation of being satisfied with feeling good and forgetting how difficult it is to do good. Sing the song that religion has always sung, but don’t sing it so loudly that you are unable to hear the cry of the world.

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