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The Most Difficult “Religious Other”

By Paul Chaffee


Confronting the religious ‘other’ has been a core theme of the modern interfaith movement. The ability to identify and approach the other and discover a friend has become a cottage industry, generating conferences, academic research, and workshop curricula, particularly since the ugly rise of Islamophobia since 9/11 and recurring anti-Semitism.

Faith challenging faith, though, is only part of the issue. In 1991 the Catholic theologian Hans Küng famously wrote that there will be no peace among nations without peace among religions; and there will be no peace among religions without dialogue among religions. Less well known is his third point, that there will be no peace among religions until there is peace within religions.

Interreligious activists talk about how often one can feel more comfortable and of-one-mind with members of other religions than with members of your own tradition. Ironically, the closer in to the ‘family’ one gets, the tougher any conflict becomes. Interfaith peacemaking (between traditions), however difficult, is usually less of a challenge that intrafaith peacemaking (within traditions). Family fights are the most intransigent, hardest-to-reconcile religious conflicts. Today’s dramatic exemplar is the conflict between Shia Muslims and Sunni Muslims. Though they turn to the same prophet, the same God, and the same scripture, the Shia-Sunni conflict is global, fierce, deadly, and cruel in the extreme. Their struggle is grounded in a disagreement about leadership succession when the Prophet Mohammed died more than 1300 years ago.

Muslims, of course, have no corner on religious family fights. I remember how impressed I was decades ago, studying Shakespeare, at the bard’s ability through all his poetry and drama to conceal whether he was Protestant or Catholic. (Literary historians still disagree.) Power teeter-tottered between these two Christian traditions during Will Shakespeare’s life – if you found yourself a leader in one tradition in a year when your opponents prevailed, you risked gruesome torture and death by fire or beheading.

The perennial but ultimately flawed solution to internal disagreements and schism is authoritarian rule. But whether we’re talking about families, religions, or nations, such solutions don’t prevail in the long run. Centuries of strong-armed Roman Catholic authority broke apart when Protestants rose up in the sixteenth century, a ‘family’ fight of epic proportions that continues in Ireland and Latin America. Early Protestants who rejected Rome, typically set up their own authoritarian rules on arriving in North America. But the genie was out of the bottle. In a land of ‘religious freedom,’ a dissident minority can move down the road and start a new tradition. Many have and many still do. 

The resulting jumble of religious institutions has troubled Christian theologians and historians, and for the past century an ecumenical movement to heal these relationships was joined but has faltered. Institutional fragmentation represents spiritual failure to some, but surely is better than killing each other in the name of doctrine. It is easier today to start an interfaith council than to bring Evangelical and progressive Christians into the same room.

Requiring Respect rather than Agreement

The Bhagavad Gita, treasured by Hindu traditions, is a conversation between Lord Krishna and Arjuna, a warrior who sees family members across the battlefield among the enemy forces he is committed to defeat. Today university research is going forward and books being written about the perverse complications of the human tendency to let disagreements with those closest to you escalate into life-threatening violence.

One of the core discoveries of the interfaith movement this past quarter-century is that our religious differences can be universally celebrated and honored rather than divisive within the larger family, as long as no one insists that theirs is the only true, authentic faith and practice. As long as an attitude of mutual respect prevails, the devil at the door can be kept at bay.

In a career dedicated to healthy interfaith relationships, one of the most moving stories I’ve witnessed concerned a festering conflict within the Church of South India. Some years ago the denomination, which traces its origins back to Jesus’ disciple Thomas, was facing a breakup. Then through their relationship with the United Religions Initiative in India, conflict-resolution skills were brought to bear, a healthy, reconciling dialogue ensued, the breakup was averted, and the Church of South India emerged stronger than before. It is a wonderful instance of what the interfaith movement is able to achieve and then take ‘home.’ 

Healing Intrafaith Conflict

This kind of healing effort is a gift the interfaith community can offer spiritual, religious communities suffering intrafaith tensions. The interfaith division of Scarboro Missions in Toronto has the best collection of curricula focused on interfaith bridge-building and peacemaking, a treasure. At issue though is much more than conflict-resolution skill-sets. Looking across thousands of interfaith conferences, councils, and classes, certain themes emerge:

  • Coming from a posture of respect, even when you find yourself disrespected, is critical.
  • Listening skills are seriously inadequate in dysfunctional families, congregations, and traditions.
  • Ending demonization and forgiving demonization need to be mastered.
  • Confession and forgiveness are important in healthy relationships.
  • Discerning the whole human being in our relationships is transforming.
  • Discovering the joys of serving each other is a major interfaith peacemaking take-away.

One other theme that resonates through healthy interfaith activities the world over is the reality and power of the Divine Feminine. I’m not talking about Joan of Arc or Amazonian warriors, but rather leaders who depend on hearing everyone in the room, who consider the long-term consequences of our decisions, who nurture collaboration rather than winning. Many men share these gifts, of course, and some leading women seem to lack them. Still, it tends to be women in the interfaith communities of the world who are making the most difference in constructively transforming our traditions and faith practices.

And a final point that seems obvious but bears notice. If family fights represent the toughest obstacle to peace, then learning to love and care for your own family members is a critical step in building a peaceful world. Dissolving petty jealousies in a common cause is a powerful tool. So is building a strong sense of community without making outsiders a problem or a scapegoat. Refusing to let disagreements rule a relationship is critical.

The largest interfaith group – humankind – is seriously in need of learning to address our most troubled disagreements, with those who are closest to us. Peacemaking, if it is to work in the world, needs to begin at home. With you and me.