By Don Frew
Beyond the Abrahamic Family
In the December 2011 issue of The Interfaith Observer, Bettina Gray wrote about the recent changes in the interfaith movement. Her piece is impressive and inspiring, an optimistic view of our interfaith future. She wrote as one with significant experience and a long history in interfaith work; but she also wrote from the perspective of someone embedded in the “mainstream” religions that have dominated interfaith work since its beginnings. Once restricted to Abrahamic faiths (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), the administrative core of interfaith work gradually expanded to include the other two members – Buddhism and Hinduism – of what have been called “the big five” religions.
The view of recent interfaith history from outside of “the big five” is somewhat different.
Being Invited to the Table
I joined the Berkeley Area Interfaith Council (BAIC) in 1985, just after Bettina stepped down from the Council’s leadership role, moving on to other projects. At the time, in addition to members of “the big five,” BAIC had a number of representatives from smaller, “alternative” religions, including Baha’i’s, Druids, Scientologists, and Sikhs. I wasn’t even the first witch in the BAIC; there had been Wiccan representation at BAIC since 1975. Back then, this level of diversity was unusual.
When we talked to other interfaith councils around the country about being truly inclusive of religious, spiritual traditions, we were told, “Well, you can get away with that… You’re Berkeley.” Many interfaith groups back then were limited to members of Christian and Jewish groups, or to Abrahamic traditions, or to “the big five.” Many had rules to keep the “wrong people” out, such as requiring a group to have been in existence for at least 100 years or to be part of a “judicatory” or denomination. This sentiment and these restrictions largely prevailed until 1993.
That year the Parliament of the World’s Religions changed everything. In my own Wiccan community, it was seen as the most significant event in our history since first revealing our existence to the public in 1954. After the 1993 Parliament, everyone seemed to shift, wanting to become as inclusive as possible in their interfaith work, or at least moving in that direction. Barriers keeping out members of “alternative” groups fell all around the country.
Caring for the Earth vs. Peace on Earth
During this rush to inclusivity, I remember one statement, attributed to Mikhail Gorbachev, being quoted over and over: “For all that divides us, we have but one planet.” This statement both pointed out the obvious, that we are all in the same boat and might as well get along; and focused attention on the environment as an issue of common concern. As a practitioner of an Earth-religion, I benefited on both counts. The interfaith movement saw an unprecedented surge in involvement by members of indigenous traditions. The movement was more welcoming and a spiritually rich resource.
In the nineties I participated in United Religion Initiative’s planning conferences where we drafted language for the organization’s Charter. I witnessed thousands of people from an amazing diversity of faiths, cultures, and nationalities working together for the common good. Then in 2000, the URI Charter was signed, and we started to see more and more Cooperation Circles around the world forming in support of URI’s core vision: “The purpose of the United Religions Initiative is to promote enduring, daily interfaith cooperation, to end religiously motivated violence and to create cultures of peace, justice and healing for the Earth and all living beings.”
Our interfaith future looked bright, until the ill-fated events of 9/11. Bettina wrote:
“Ten years ago 9/11 happened. In its wake came a shocked awareness that communications among religions and interfaith cooperation are vital. Interfaith 2.0 was born. In the wake of the tragedy compassionate and concerned people everywhere reached out to strangers and started talking, one conversation at a time.”
This is true, but post-9/11 interfaith had a new spin – it was all about peace. This is certainly understandable, given 9/11’s horrific nature and people’s desperate need for reassurance that it will not happen again. Yes, there was a sudden uptake in interfaith programming around the country and the world – this was and remains a good thing. But in counter-intuitive ways it was a huge step backwards for inclusive interfaith work.
Programming about peace took priority over everything else. The URI started branding itself as a peace organization. “Be a peacemaker!” was emphasized in its promotional literature and products. When someone called the URI office a recorded message talked about how you could join URI and work for peace. Peace, of course, is a wonderful and laudable goal, but it has always been only one of the purposes of the URI. Where did that leave all of us with Cooperation Circles focused on justice, gender issues, the environment, literacy, or dozens of other interfaith arenas?
The events of 9/11 had their roots in ancient conflicts among three Abrahamic faiths: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. It was natural that the solution would be sought in dialogue among those faiths. The rest of us – some without any history of perpetrating religious violence – were shunted to the side. We watched what we had entered with optimism and enthusiasm about a fully inclusive movement, focused on issues of truly common concern, become ever more narrowly focused on one issue, rooted in in-fighting within one family of religions, the descendants of Abraham.
Where was the focus on economic justice, the environment, the concerns of women and indigenous people? Where were the representatives of the non-Abrahamic faiths? Repeatedly we were told that peace was now the highest priority for time and resources. Other program concerns have to wait. Repeatedly we were told that panels were full or that because the focus was on Abrahamic issues, other representatives were not as needed.
I was told about, but didn’t witness, a panel at a North American Interfaith Network Connect on religious violence that only included Abrahamic speakers, until someone from the audience asked, “Why don’t we hear from some of the faiths that don’t make war on each other?”
In a strange way, it seems that the faiths that don’t have a history of religious violence are being marginalized once again, as if not being violent made us somehow irrelevant. I would argue the opposite; that perhaps such faith traditions might have insights that could help.
I saw the renewed centrality of Abrahamic traditions manifest when a group formed in San Francisco to advance the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals:
- eradicating extreme poverty and hunger,
- achieving universal primary education,
- promoting gender equality and empowering women
- reducing child mortality rates,
- improving maternal health,
- combating HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases,
- ensuring environmental sustainability, and
- developing a global partnership for development.
The planning group consisted of a large number of ministers, a few rabbis, lay leaders from Christian and Jewish communities, and me. I support the MDGs. Like many, I believe the goals are interwoven, that they should be addressed synergistically, and that success in one arena should help the others.
My own Wiccan group is most interested in advancing goals three and seven, though we recognize the importance of all. From its first meeting, though, the San Francisco MDG program planners focused entirely on goal one, eradicating poverty and hunger. When I pointed out the need for addressing the other goals as well, I was told that poverty was obviously the most important one. When I suggested that focusing on all of the goals would attract more representatives of other faiths, I was told that other faiths “didn’t care” or else they would have been at the meeting.1 The group proceeded on with their business, without me.
Happily, things have started changing in the past couple of years. Hurricane Katrina seemed once again to focus attention on global warming and environmental issues, at least until the recession competed for everyone’s attention. URI globally seems to be much closer to an embrace of the entire purpose driving URI. Globally, it seems that all of the Millennium Development Goals are beginning to receive the attention they deserve.
9/11 was a step backwards for the role of non-Abrahamic faith traditions in interfaith work. It could have been a great step forward for all of us, greater than Bettina imagined, but which I’m sure she would approve. Let us once again commit ourselves and our interfaith movement to action that most includes people of all faiths working together to address all of our needs and those of the planet.
1 An onging issue for non-Abrahamic groups arises from the fact that most of them do not have paid clergy. As a result, they are most able to attend interfaith meetings after work hours or on weekends, whereas paid clergy prefer to meet during their business hours. As a result, more often than not, when Abrahamic clergy set the day and time for an interfaith meeting, most non-Abrahamics can’t come.