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College of Preachers Abrahamic Fellows Confront Religious Violence

The College of Preachers at Washington National Cathedral organized and hosted an unprecedented Abrahamic residency for three scholar-theologians June 14-25. The task assigned to Bishop Krister Stendahl, Rabbi Marc Gopin, and Abdulaziz Sachedina was to plumb the doctrinal, historical, and psychological depths of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam to discover sources used to justify religious violence and develop approaches to counteract them.

By Joe Montville, CSID Board Member

The College of Preachers at Washington National Cathedral organized and hosted an unprecedented Abrahamic residency for three scholar-theologians June 14-25.

The task assigned to Bishop Krister Stendahl, former Dean of the Harvard Divinity School, Rabbi Marc Gopin, Laue Professor of World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University and Abdulaziz Sachedina, Ball Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, was to plumb the doctrinal, historical, and psychological depths of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam to discover sources used to justify religious violence and develop approaches to counteract them.

In an intellectual, moral, and personal relationship that became increasingly close as their days in residence together progressed, Stendahl, Gopin, and Sachedina concentrated on finding ways to appeal to practicing Christians, Jews, and Muslims by reaffirming traditional religious identities and interpreting the holy writings of each tradition in ways that encourage caring relationships with all human beings. The fellows purposely avoided the interfaith dialogue tradition of appealing to universal values. Instead, they focused on the religious authenticity of their respective work as a Christian, a Jew, and a Muslim through statements directed to their own communities.

In the following joint statement, each fellow offers the beginning of a work in progress aimed at removing any religious legitimacy for political murder. As the Joint Statement makes clear, the commitment of Stendahl, Gopin, and Sachedina to serve an urgent mission is firm, and they intend to continue their collaboration with each other and with the College of Preachers.

Joint Statement:

Violence in the name of God and religion calls for passionate and reasoned refutations.

Our three Abrahamic traditions have their share in that sacrilege, both in history and in the present. In our respective languages, speaking from within our communities, we recognize that we are different as Jew, Christian, Muslim, and we treasure our differences as a richness. We recognize even more strongly our common call to honor and preserve the dignity and sanctity of human life.

From Krister Stendahl:

There is a crisis in the Abrahamic family. Religious zeal is increasingly spinning out in hatred and acts of violence. Decades of interfaith dialogues and statements seem ineffective. People die.

For me as a Christian, it is now important to recognize that urgent action is called for. As a Biblical scholar, I know well the texts of Scripture that work for peace, as well as all those words that have aided and abetted Christian teachings of contempt for Jews and Muslims.

But the present urgency brings to mind my great teacher St. Paul. In Corinth, he found conflicts among the faithful and faith-filled. Their different theologies and practices seemed to ruin the community, and so he wrote - or recited - an ode to love. It ends with the words, “so faith, hope, love abide, but the greatest of them is love.” Imagine, Paul, the apostle of faith, lets faith be trumped by love!

To privilege ethics over theology - that takes a good theologian and a keen awareness of urgency. That is where we are now in our diversity, in our common humanity, in our Abrahamic family, where we share so much in various ways, ways that should enrich us rather than separate us.

In my Bible it says: “Anyone who says I love God and hates his brother is a liar.”

From Marc Gopin:

Ancient Jewish history is replete with moments of emergency, times when prophets and rabbis had to make fateful decisions in order to preserve the possibility of a better future. In so doing, these courageous leaders had to calculate the complex priorities of sacred traditions of Torah, they had to decide on halakhic, Jewish legal/spiritual, priorities to be considered in facing emergencies. Always those priorities favored pikuah nefesh, saving lives, preventing the unnecessary loss of life, and working with tradition in a way that maximized kiddush ha-shem, the sanctification of God's name on this earth by the Jewish people whose primary task is to live up to, as best as they can, the idea of being an or la-goyim, a light unto the nations.

There are many challenges facing the global community of nations today in terms of its survival, in terms of discovering a way to live in balance with the earth's resources, for example. But all of those challenges cannot be successfully confronted by other halakhic priorities such as ba'al tashchit, minimizing waste and destruction of God-given resources and sentient life, if we end up in a war of civilizations within the family of Abraham, as it is represented by Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

We know the challenges. We know that these three children must come to a place of absolute respect, equality, and a recognition of friendly boundaries between loving neighbors. We know that there are halakhic and spiritual resources within Jewish tradition, such as the mitzvah of redifat shalom, pursuit of peace, pesharah, the art of compromise, hakem takim imo, helping others in distress–even enemies, teshuvah, acknowledgement of harm done and commitments to a better future. Above all, however, there is the mitsvah to save human life. Even at a level of pure self-concern, the Jewish people must face the reality of needing coexistence in peace and justice, rather than in terminal violence with billions of Christians and Muslims.

This requires halakhically and ethically unprecedented efforts to reach out to others, to learn from everyone's wisdom and to share our own on how to coexist with other religions without war, and even with deep respect. Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Isaac, and Ishmael, would want no less from us. They all wanted children to survive and thrive on this God-given earth, and we owe them our best efforts theologically, halakhically, and ethically, at this critical hour of human history.

From Abdulaziz Sachedina:

The world community is looking at the Muslim community and its religious leaders to provide Koranic guidelines that speak to the urgent need to stop meaningless violence in the name of Islam. Both Muslim and non-Muslim lives have been threatened and destroyed in the crossfire of sectarian and religiously justified nationalist movements.

There is no shortage of Koranic passages that teach tolerance and respect of other religions. As I read the Koran, it becomes obvious to me that Muslims are required to engage in instituting the good and advancing justice for all humans, as humans. God has honored all the children of Adam and Eve with nobility and has endowed them with the ability to make this earth a stage for just relationships (K: 17:70). This honor, as the Koran teaches, has been extended with special blessing to Abraham, who has been promised leadership among his children who will commit to uphold justice. Hence, Jews, Christians and Muslims are called upon to bear witness to God's mercy and establish justice and peace among all nations of the world as part of their moral-spiritual commitment.

Today this message is in danger because political ambitions of some militant groups have led them to abandon the message of just relationships taught by the Prophet's tradition (Sunna) and the Koran. The endless violence committed against any human being, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, makes it urgent for the Children of Abraham - that is, Jews, Christians, and Muslims - to engage in creating partnerships in “competing to do the good” (K. 5:48) and spreading the ethics of just relationships.

Joseph Montville directed the Abrahamic Fellows project for the College of Preachers at Washington National Cathedral, which was made possible by a generous grant from the William and Mary Greve Foundation. He is Senior Fellow, Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution, George Mason University, Diplomat in Residence at American University and Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Press release information: http://www.religionnews.com/press02/PR070804B.html

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