Reconciliation, strongly affirmed in Christian scripture -- “For he (Jesus) is our peace, in his flesh…. he has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us,” (Ephesians 2:14) -- characterizes my work of interfaith relations. The essence of the choral blessing of the Christmas Angels “Peace on earth, good will to all people,” reconciliation became possible in God’s intervention in human history in a stable in Bethlehem.
I work with the conviction that reconciliation is a necessary precondition for peace, and that incarnation (i.e. engagement with the “other”) is necessary for reconciliation. This work of reconciliation is no longer a luxury. As you know, almost all major conflicts going on around the world today have religious dimensions. The reconciling work of interfaith relations is critical for the work of peacemaking.
As I write this letter four members of the Christian Peacemaker Teams (an organization I was close to back in the 1980s in Chicago) are held hostage in Iraq. These are people who incarnate God’s presence, seeking to bring reconciliation in the midst of unspeakable violence. They walk the walk, while most of us talk the talk. As the crisis broke, I worked with others to get religious leaders, particularly US and Arab Muslim leaders, to speak a strong word of support on behalf of the peacemakers. An Interfaith Open Letter which we put out with the cooperation of the Shalom Center of Philadelphia and Clergy and Laity Concerned about Iraq, gathered over 10,000 signatures in a couple of days, and these included many Christian, Muslim and Jewish religious leaders.
The Jewish Christian Dialogue table that I co-convene is an example of this reconciling work. This table is made of senior (national) representatives of Christian denominations and mainstream Jewish organizations. Since the Presbyterian Church (USA) resolution in 2004, to initiate a phased, selective divestment of funds from corporations that do business in Israel, it has been a highly tense table. This September, the members of this group undertook a Jewish Christian Mission of Peace to Israel/Palestine. We returned having learned a lot about the complex reality on the ground, about each other and with a stronger determination to work for peace. We believe that justice for Palestinians and security for Israelis requires American Jews and Christians to work together. Next year we plan to bring together a similar dialogue table with American Muslim leaders.
The theological conversations however, are also very important. Concerned that the discipline of Christian theology is not taking religious pluralism seriously, we initiated a Special Topics Forum at the American Academy of Religion meeting in Philadelphia, this November. Over 200 scholars attended to hear a distinguished panel on “Christian Theology’s Engagement with Religious Pluralism.” Some of these theologians and theological educators are committed to continuing the discussion.
Our distress about the increasing polarization of the Body of Christ in to Evangelical and Ecumenical camps, and the conviction that the theological questions around interfaith relations are at the heart of this division, prompted our Interfaith Relations Commission to seek a dialogue with the Evangelical community. Our next meeting in February, at Fuller Theological Seminary, will set the framework for a continuing dialogue.
Our key initiatives next year are geared towards taking interfaith relations to the local communities.
- Interfaith Dialogue Training will bring religious persons in local communities together to a two day training on dialogical skills including how to listen without thinking of what to say next! They will then participate with each other in six weeks of 2 hour meetings to sharpen their skills. I am encouraged by two very successful pilot projects in Columbus, Ohio and Queens, New York.
- God Is One: The Way of Islam is a primer on Islam for Christians written by a retired United Methodist minister, Marston Speight. It has been well received in the Muslim world. We are using the study guide in that book, written by my predecessor Jay Rock, to encourage churches to study it. Hartford Seminary will provide training to those willing to teach the book in Adult Education Classes in their churches. This project is co-sponsored by the Islamic Society of North America.
- Continuing Education for Pastors is another way we are trying to help those who are currently practicing ministry to learn how to relate to people of other faith communities. A three-day intensive training will provide both theological and practical tools.
Since the National Council of Churches is an organization of 35 member denominations that together comprise over 100,000 churches in the United States, and because we are connected to a substantial network of ecumenical and interfaith councils across the country, we think that each of these initiatives beginning next year will have significant impact in the way Americans think about people of other religions, and how people of different faiths relate to each other in this, the most religiously diverse nation in the world.
These local initiatives combined with national strategies of reconciliation significantly strengthen our work. We need your support: your prayers, your engagement in our programs and your financial investment. . Here’s how to do it.
- First, please check out my blog http://www.nccinterfaith.blogspot.com/ for regular reflections on critical issues on interfaith relations. It is also a vehicle for me to hear your reflections. So, please use the “Comment” button to add your thoughts.
- Second, let me know about opportunities in your local community to which we can bring our educational and training programs. We also have a variety of other resources available on our website www.ncccusa.org/interfaith that you might use.
- Third, particularly at this time of the year, but also at other times, I invite your tax deductible contribution to our programs. You may write a check to the National Council of Churches, USA and mail to
National Council of Churches USA,
475 Riverside Drive #880,
New York, NY 10115
or click here to make an online contribution.
In both cases please remember to write Interfaith Relations in the memo or comment line.
My wife Dhilanthi joins me in wishing you peace and joy during this Christmastide and throughout the coming New Year.