By Tarunjit Singh Butalia
A GROWING DIVERSITY
It was the fall of 2006, just after I had returned from Kyoto, Japan, from the 8th World Assembly of Religions for Peace. I was hauling my younger daughter’s bicycle out of the trunk of the minivan for repairs when my phone rang. It was Rev. Leonid Kishkovsky, then the moderator of RFPUSA. He was inviting me to serve as the moderator of the U.S. chapter of Religions for Peace.
I must confess that my term this past 7 years has been a joyous and blessed ride. I have had the privilege and honor of serving with some of the most dedicated and committed people of faith I have known in my lifetime. As a servant leader, I have learnt much from them – particularly the value of humility, simplicity, and compassion. For this I am deeply appreciative.
The story of our nation’s religious and spiritual heritage goes back to the ancient and historic native populations who lived here. It includes the migration of settlers from the East, the development of many diverse faith traditions in the 1800s and early 20th century, and the arrival of newer immigrants in the last fifty years. Each group brings their own religious traditions. Our nation’s principle of religious freedom has brought people from all over the world to America, and these people have blessed our nation with the full diversity of the world’s religious beliefs.
As we are well aware, religion has received quite a bad reputation in recent years for being the source of conflict, sometimes resulting in violence. It is said that nearly every conflict in the world today has a religious cause. The media is quite good at blaming religion as the cause of conflict across the world.
If I may say: Religion has not been the cause of violence, religious people have been the cause of violence. Religious fanatics and divisive politicians alike stand ready to utilize religion as a tool of their arrogance and power. Since “religious people” have been the source of conflict, it is going to be up to us as religious people as well to be those that help resolve those conflicts. If religion is part of the problem, it must also be part of the solution.
Religious fanatics within many of our religious traditions love the “us” versus “them” characterization. Demonization of the “religious other” then becomes a necessary tool to dehumanize a fellow human being. Such conflict is being confronted by people all across the world by those willing to “rehumanize” the religious other and working to engage the “religious other” in dialogue and collaborative action. This is the foundational work of the RFPUSA family. The organization’s recent focus of confronting Islamophobia through Our Muslim Neighbor project is evidence of this.
As people of faith, we need to reach out to those who pray and chant differently from us and work to build relationships with them based on trust and mutual respect. As our discussions change from having an intra-group monologue, to a dialogue with others of different faiths or denominations, we may find common ground on issues of collective social justice. Building social justice requires people of faith to work across religious boundaries as peacemakers. It necessitates dialoguing with faith extremists within each of our own faith traditions.
A safe society inherently focuses of issues of just peace – everlasting peace in which all are equal, and where compassion, justice, and reconciliation prevail. The task of working on peacemaking is the responsibility of people of faith and goodwill.
Today, our nation is more religiously diverse than it ever has been. We, therefore, need to work even harder together as peacemakers to build on this religious diversity to create a more just society.
My term as moderator was completed at end of 2013, and I now stand in solidarity with my brother in faith, Dr. Naeem Baig of the Islamic Circle of North America, who will lead the organization to an even brighter and stronger future.
And what a joyous and blessed ride it has been - Shalom, Salaam, Peace, and Fateh!