Saturday, February 25, 2006

Jim Wall on Hamas Election

James Wall is a senior contributing editor at the Christian Century magazine. His is a leading Christian voice in many matters of religion and politics, particularly around issues of justice in Israel/Palestine. In the linked article, which appears in the current issue of Christian Century, he helps put in perspective the recent Hamas victory and US and Israeli threats about withholding funds from the Palestinian people. He concludes: “Hamas won in a free and fair democratic election. Not to accept that fact is to announce a new definition of democracy in the Middle East: election winners may govern only if they are approved by the U.S. and Israel.” To read the article, click here.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

WCC Adopts "A Minute on Mutual Respect, Responsibility and Dialogue with People of Other Faiths"

The World Council of Churches General Assembly on Thursday adopted the linked "Minute on Mutual Respect, Responsibility and Dialogue with People of other Faiths." It stresses the importance of interfaith dialogue on a local and a global level and urges churches and councils of churches to "create platforms for such dialogues". Referring to the cartoon controversy it says, "As people of faith we understand the pain caused by the disregard of something considered precious to faith. We deplore the publications of the cartoons. We also join with the voices of many Muslim leaders in deploring the violent reactions to the publications."For the full statement please click here.

From the WCC General Assembly -- Inter-relgious Dialogue Is a Pressing Need Says Archbishop of Canterbury

The following link is to a report of speeches made on interfaith relations at the WCC Assembly by several important church leaders:

"Inter-religious dialogue is now recognized as one of the most pressing needs of our time. In addition to the theological issues arising from the shrinking of the world and the ever more porous boundaries between communities, religion has become an increasingly significant component in inter-communal relations. Faith can make things better, or it can make them a great deal worse," said the Archbishop of Canterbury. The following link will take you to the full report.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Culture War or Misunderstanding Press Freedom?

The linked article by Professor Benjamin Barber provides a fresh and important perspective on the cartoon issue as a misunderstanding of press freedom. Prof. Barber is the Gershon and Carol Kekst Professor of Civil Society at the University of Maryland and a principal of the Democracy Collaborative, with offices in New York, and Maryland. The article appears on the NCC website. Please click the link to read it.

Friday, February 17, 2006

"God Is One" Adult Education Curriculum Training

The National Council of Churches, in a project co-sponsored by the Islamic Society of North America and Hartford Seminary is encouraging churches to undertake an Adult Education Study on Islam, using an excellent resource God Is One: The Way of Islam.

This is a primer on Islam for Christians was written by retired United Methodist minister Marston Speight and comes highly recommended by Christian and Muslim scholars. A six-week long study guide for use in churches was written by Dr. Jay Rock (Director of Interfaith Relations, Presbyterian Church (USA)). The study guide also encourages building of relationships between churches and mosques

We are encouraging potential teachers/leaders of Adult Education classes and pastors of those churches to attend a day-long training event to prepare for this teaching.

The day-long training events will be on Saturday, March 11th at Hartford Seminary, and Saturday March 25th and Union Seminary in New York City. The events are free but registration is required.

Below is a more detailed description. If you are in New York, New Jersey or Connecticut, I hope you and your church can participate. If not, please let me know of your interest so that we might schedule a training event in your area.

I will sincerely appreciate it if you would let your friends and colleagues in area churches know about this. Please call or email if you have questions or for registration. Thank you. My email is: You may also leave a comment to this post

“God Is One: The Way of Islam” Curriculum

Co-sponsored by:
National Council of Churches, USA
Islamic Society of North America
Hartford Seminary

God Is One: The Way of Islam by Marston Speight (former director of the Office of Christian-Muslim Relations of the NCCCUSA and retired United Methodist minister) was reprinted following 9/11, with an study guide written by Jay Rock (Director of Interfaith Relations, Presbyterian Church, USA). Upon the initiative of Muslim leaders the three sponsoring organizations have come together to encourage churches throughout the United States to use this book and it’s study guide as an adult education/Sunday school curriculum.

The goals for this project are threefold:

  • Enhance the knowledge of Islam among Christians

  • Improve the attitude of Christians towards Muslims

  • Encourage building relationships between Churches and Mosques in local communities.

We are now ready to run a Pilot Project that will involve churches located in the vicinity of Hartford Seminary (Hartford, CT) and Union Seminary (New York City). If your church would like to participate in the important venture, we ask you to do the following:

  1. Agree with your pastor and church leaders to participate in this pilot project

  2. Schedule the God Is One Study either this summer as a special adult education session or this fall as a part of your regular adult education curriculum

  3. Select leader/s for the study group/class and arrange for them to attend a day-long training session. This is required. Pastors are encouraged to attend but are not required.
  • Two day-long training events are now scheduled.
Saturday, March 11th at Hartford Seminary
Saturday, March 25th at Union Seminary, in New York

  • Training will be conducted by Hartford Seminary Islamic scholars who are themselves Muslims.
  • Participants will receive a complimentary copy of “God Is One” for personal use and a set of resource materials for the participating church. Lunch and snacks will also be provided.

4. Conduct the adult education group/Sunday school class in the summer or fall, 2006

5. Conduct before and after surveys of participants

6. Participate in an evaluation in November or December 2006.

To register or for more information, please call or email

Office of Interfaith Relations,
National Council of Churches, USA
475 Riverside Drive #880, New York, NY 10115
Phone: 212-870-2560

Monday, February 13, 2006

A Dialogue of Civilizations

The following is a NCC press release and statement issued today. You can also find it at

NCC praises ‘disciplined restraint’ over cartoons and calls for a ‘dialogue of civilizations’

New York, February 13, 2006 – The National Council of Churches USA said Monday it stood in solidarity with North American Islamic organizations who “exercised disciplined restraint and advocated diplomacy and education” over cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad.

The Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana, Associate General Secretary of the NCC for Interfaith Relations, also called for a “dialogue of civilizations” involving religious leaders and leaders of political, academic, media and business sectors of society.

The dialogue, Premawardhana said, would provide “a common table at which we can educate each other about those parts of our faith and life that are most holy and significant. It will also provide the opportunity for people of different faiths to come together on values that unite us.”

Premawardhana said the NCC “strongly affirmed” freedom of the press but was “deeply disturbed by the inability of the press to understand and respect the sensitivities of religious people.”

“In the context of a widespread and growing Islamophobia in both Europe and the United States,” Premawardhana said, “the offense is not only an affront to deeply held religious convictions, but an irresponsible case of cultural stereotyping.”

Premawardhana also supported the right of Muslims to protest but “strenuously condemned” the violence that has accompanied protests over the cartoons.

The full text of the NCC statement follows:

NCC Advocates Dialogue of Civilizations

As the worldwide ecumenical community gathers for the General Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Porto Alegre, Brazil, under the theme “God in Your Grace, Transform the World,” the National Council of Churches USA joins in that same prayer, particularly as the intractable dispute over cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad escalated last week into violent protests in many Islamic countries.

We stand in solidarity with North American Islamic Organizations who have exercised disciplined restraint and advocated diplomacy and education. These organizations include the Islamic Society of North America, Council for American Islamic Relations, Muslim Public Affairs Council, Islamic Circle of North America and the ASMA Society.

We strongly affirm the freedom of the press, but are deeply disturbed by the inability of the press to understand and respect the sensitivities of religious people. In the context of a widespread and growing Islamophobia in both Europe and the United States, the offense is not only an affront to deeply held religious convictions, but an irresponsible case of cultural stereotyping. We applaud the Norwegian press for its courage to offer an apology to the world-wide Muslim community and lift up their example for others to follow.

While we strongly affirm the right of Muslim people to protest, we strenuously condemn the violence that has often accompanied such demonstrations, particularly on Danish embassies and are grieved by the lives that were lost in the violence. We are grateful that the large demonstration in London over the weekend was non-violent.

Many have called this controversy a foreshadowing of a “clash of civilizations.” The National Council of Churches USA, representing the mainstream Christian community in the United States, a community that attempts to live out our deeply held values of justice and peace among all peoples, calls instead for a “dialogue of civilizations.”

A dialogue of civilizations will bring together not only religious leaders, but political, academic, media and business sectors of society. While acknowledging the deep differences among us, such a dialogue will encourage participants to a common table at which we can educate each other about those parts of our faith and life that are most holy and significant. It will also provide the opportunity for people of different faiths to come together on values that unite us.

We support the Global Dialogue of Civilizations initiated at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 2004 and the recent call by the Philippine government to institutionalize interfaith dialogue at the United Nations. Such initiatives, we believe, will help inculcate new rules of civic behavior respectful of other cultures and religions in the growing pluralism and, indeed, interaction of cultures and religions in most metropolitan areas around the world.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Interfaith Dialogue at University of Florida, Gainesville

Jerusalem: A Hotbed of Religious Animosity was the title for an interfaith dialgoue organized by Islam-on-Campus, a student organization in University of Florida on Thursday, February 9th at Gainesville. The event was attended by over 300 people. Although Rev. Dr. Bob Edgar was originally scheduled to speak for the Christians, a schedule conflict prevented him attending and I spoke in stead. The event was co-sponsored by the Jewish Student Union and the UF Campus Crusade for Christ. For a news report on the event click this link:

Imam Mohammed Abdul-Malik (Brooklyn, NY), Rabbi Jonathan Seiger (UF, Gainesville) and I formed the panel that addressed the gathering. My presentation follows:

Jerusalem: A Hotbed of Religious Animosity
Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana
February 9, 2006
University of Florida, Gainesville

Thank you for inviting me to address you on this very important topic. I am not Bob Edgar. He sincerely apologizes for not being able to be with you today. But I am glad he is unable to come, because that meant that I could come in his stead to your beautiful campus and participate with you in this important gathering. I commend you, “Islam on Campus” for having the insight and courage to organize events like this.

Last week, on February 3rd an interesting event took place in Washington DC. It was the National Prayer Breakfast. What has traditionally been an Evangelical Christian event was for the first time an interfaith worship. Sen. Norm Coleman, Minnesota Republican, was its first Jewish co-chairman, and Jordan's King Abdullah II, a leading Muslim ambassador for peace attended the breakfast and gave a major luncheon speech.

In his speech, the King called on the moderates of Christianity, Islam and Judaism to unite. "In every generation, people of faith are tested," the king said. "In our generation, the greatest challenge comes from violent extremists who seek to divide and conquer. Extremism is a political movement, under religious cover. Its adherents want nothing more than to pit us against each other, denying all that we have in common. To overcome this foe we must explore the values that unite us, rather than exaggerating the misunderstandings that divide us. Together, we have a duty to this generation and many to come to witness to the positive role of faith in public life," the king said. "Humbled through that faith, strengthened by that faith, we can, with God's help, create a more just and peaceful future." I applaud the King, and want to do everything I can to take his message out to the world.

So, I want to fuss with our title “Jerusalem: the hotbed of religious animosity.” No doubt its a catchy, sexy title, and some of you may have come here to see a fight! And clearly there’s a lot one can say about religious animosity these days – and it’s not only about cartoons. I think it is right and appropriate for us to examine the theological causes of religious animosity and how a city like Jerusalem, holy to these three religious traditions plays into it. But rather than leave it there, I hope we can find ways in which all our religious traditions can undercut the extremism that perpetuates animosity. After all we are thinking today of Jerusalem: the city of peace.
As you know, like the Jewish and Islamic traditions, Christian tradition is not monolithic. There is no way I can say to you, this is the Christian view, for there are many Christian views. The National Council of Churches itself represents 35 Christian denominations in the Anglican, Orthodox and Protestant families. The Orthodox communion has been in Jerusalem and the Middle East since the beginning of Christianity. There is a story about how western Protestant missionary went to Jerusalem. He met a Christian there and as is typical for Evangelists, he asked the man if he was Born Again. “Of course,” he said, his family has been Christian for generations. “Really,” asked the missionary, “who converted you?” assuming it was the work of a recent missionary group. The man looked at him squarely in the eye and said “St. Paul.”
Before I get to more detail about the theological reasons why this city is so important to Christians let me read to you two short paragraphs. First, from a 1996 document issued by the National Council of Churches entitled A Message on Jerusalem: City of Holiness and Hope.
“A Jerusalem that is called holy by Christians, a place where every Christian can feel at home, cannot reflect values that are at odds with fundamental tenets of our faith. This, too, is our stake in Jerusalem; not a territorial claim, not a political design, but rather a steady insistence that the city we call “holy” and “home” reflects common values of love, sharing and justice…. We join our brothers and sisters in the Abrahamic traditions in striving together, in hope and love, for a Jerusalem that remains holy for all.”

The second is an Easter message sent last year by the Heads of Churches of Jerusalem. Let me offer a parenthetical note to say again, yes there are Christians in Jerusalem and in Palestine and their numbers are dwindling rapidly. Churches are concerned churches in Jerusalem, which a still living and vibrant communities may end up being museums, if we are not careful. This is a serious concern to the Heads of Churches in Jerusalem. In a letter entitled A call from Jerusalem to the World, they wrote:
“We are a Christian community made up of Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Episcopalians and Lutherans bound together by a common identity and have been witnessing together for the Risen Lord since the first Pentecost…. We believe in Jerusalem as a city of Peace shared by Muslims, Jews and Christians. We also believe that Jerusalem should serve as the capital for Palestine and Israel….. We are calling on both Israelis and Palestinians to see God in the other and accept the humanity of the other and recognize each other’s human, civil, religious and political rights. Once we recognize our common humanity and rights, peace with justice becomes a reality.
There’s a lot one can say about biblical and theological value of Jerusalem for Christians but I am going to have to limit myself to a short period of time, which means that I cannot be as comprehensive as I would like to be. I can only point you to a few key issues.
It’s necessary to say at the outset that Christianity arose from Judaism. Jesus himself was Jew as well all his disciples. If there is one thing I’ve learned from two-years of coordinating a dialogue table between leaders of mainstream Jewish organizations and leaders of mainstream Christian denominations is the primacy of land to Jewish theological self understanding. Christians and Jews in the United States have worked together at many issues from civil and human rights to issues of peace and justice. We’ve struggled together to keep church/synagogue/mosque separate from the state. Given that history, Christians around that table, including some who have spent years of study of Jewish scripture and tradition, puzzle over the need for our Jewish friends to have a self-consciously “Jewish” state in Israel with Jerusalem as its capital. While we recognize that this tradition that is rooted in the land was also the self understanding of early Christians, what marks the Christian ambiguity towards the land is a “de-territorializing” tendency that has its roots in the New Testament. In other words even though we think of that piece of land as “Holy Land,” from its early days Christian theology moved towards dissolving spatially localized notions of the “Holy.” It is not the temple and the Holy of Holies that is at the center, but Christ; it is not the Holy city or land that constitute the area of holiness, but the new community, the Body of Christ.
It all starts with Jesus. The first thing we need to notice is that that Jesus was primarily concerned with the Kingdom or Rule of God. There is considerable agreement that Jesus was not about to overthrow the Roman government and set up an alternative territorial, political entity in Jerusalem. Rather, the way he went about inaugurating the Kingdom was by getting together a community of twelve disciples. He was clearly concerned with his own people. But that concern was not so much with the house of Israel, whose leaders were subject to his growing criticism, but with the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” It seems clear that his attempt was to create a new, alternative community of the People of God. This was the meaning of gathering twelve (the number of tribes in nation of Israel).
Jerusalem was important to Jesus. The synoptic, (first three) gospels have him traveling from Galilee in the North to Jerusalem where he taught, preached and healed, but more interestingly led a grand demonstration on the city riding on a donkey. But notice: upon his entry into Jerusalem it was the temple that he cleansed – indicating that his challenge was indeed a religious one. His prediction of the fall of the temple points to the need to replace it not by a new political policy, but by a new way of religion and a new community to embody it. So, by investing in and mentoring this group of disciples he worked at creating a community, that would live by the values of God’s kingdom which he elaborated in contra-distinction to the Jewish law, and as a more inclusive and universal reality. It was a community that would be governed by selfless service and would stand in sharp contrast to those existing national political entities.
Jerusalem is the place where Jesus’ life and ministry reaches its climax. It is the city where he was captured, and outside its walls he was crucified. It is easy to expect that when this catastrophe occurred, the community of disciples would scatter and nothing more would be heard from them. But something unexpected happened. In the disciple community’s words, Jesus resurrected, walked and talked with them, indeed ate with them and in 40 days ascended into heaven. And on the feast of Pentecost when the disciple community had gathered in the Jerusalem temple, the Holy Spirit came upon them and they became energized and empowered to boldly speak the gospel or the good news: that this Jesus saves.
That day 3000 people came and joined with that original community of disciples in Jerusalem and the church was born. And it was from this city and this original church that the church spread out as the book of Acts says, “from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria to the utmost parts of the world.” The last chapter of the book has these words, “And so we came to Rome,” as if to say, that was the point of this entire story. Indeed, by the end of the book, the church had moved its center of gravity from Jerusalem to Rome (the center of the world).
Much of the New Testament contains the letters of the Apostle Paul to the churches he established around the then known world, particularly in the Jewish diaspora. With the development of the synagogue tradition, the value of temple worship, and therefore of Jerusalem was waning for the diasporic communities. Perhaps building on this sentiment, and, I believe, wanting to put some theological distance between the tradition of his birth and his new articulation of faith, his writings push the church towards a self understanding that’s more universalizing. For instance, for Paul, this new community in Christ is the New Israel. He is very clear that God has not revoked his covenant with the Jewish people, but insists that what we have here is a new universal community.
This universalizing trend continues in the Fourth gospel as well, perhaps the best known in the story of the Samaritan woman in John 4. The woman, realizing that Jesus must be a Jewish prophet, asks him a question that had been bugging her, possibly a question that may have been bugging John’s readers as well – at least a question that John wanted his readers to be bugged by. Here’s the quote:
The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say (i.e. Jewish religious leaders) that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem. Jesus said to her, “Woman believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.”
It is easy to notice the displacement of both Gerazim and Jerusalem as being “holy places” appropriate for worship. What matters now is the spirit and the presence of Jesus.
Now you might notice that this is not just a universalizing tendency, but a spiritualizing one. In order to worship one does not need a place on terra firma, but spirit and truth and the worshipping community.
This tendency reaches its zenith in the book of Revelation. And here we see that New Testament theology takes us from a place of concrete reality to sophisticated theological imagination. Listen to these words from the last two chapters of the Bible.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “see the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And then it goes on to describe this new Jerusalem: "Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the city. On either side of the river, is the tree of life, with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations."

Some of the real high points of Christian theological thinking are closely aligned with this theological imagination. Martin Luther King, Jr. for instance, was deeply moved by the image of the New Jerusalem. The hymns of Zion which are favorites in the African American Christian tradition help people to sing out this faith. But there was a problem with that too. Too often that dream was located in the “sweet by and by.” Martin King wanted to bring that New Jerusalem down to earth. Here’s what he said, in what was to be his last sermon, preached in Memphis the day before he was shot dead.
"It's all right to talk about 'long white robes over yonder,' in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It's all right to talk about 'streets flowing with milk and honey,' but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can't eat three square meals a day. It's all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God's preachers must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.

But there are many low points. Despite what I wanted to show in this quick survey it is also the case that in the ebbs and flows of history, Christians have had a real love affair with the terrestrial Jerusalem. How can we not talk about the crusades. King Abdullah’s point is valid here as well. Extremism tends to manipulate religion to achieve its ignoble ends. And religion with all its divisions often capitulates. I don’t have the time to say much about this. And I hope it is sufficient to acknowledge that the church was intimately involved in organizing and often motivating the crusaders, in its attempt to gain control of terrestrial Jerusalem.
Now in recent times, some Christians have begun another love affair with the terrestrial Jerusalem. Motivated by a particular apocalyptic theology which arose in England the 19th century, it was popularized here in the 1970s by Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth a book that became was the decade’s best selling non-fiction book. And then you may know about the current sensation, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ Left Behind series: twelve books that have sold over 60 million copies. Although this is presented as fiction, many Christian readers understand the story as prophetic. The details vary, but most accounts feature the rapture of believers. This is why you have seen the bumper sticker: In case of rapture this car will be unmanned. Someone asked me if that means that rapture is what happens on the backseat of a parked car! No, it means that one day Jesus will come in the clouds and believers will be suddenly taken up to the sky where they will have front-row seats to the tribulation that is to follow for a 1000 years. At the end of the tribulation Jesus will come and there will be huge battle in the field of Megiddo, in Israel, hence the word Armageddon. At this time Jews will convert to Christianity and those who do not will be killed, when Jesus establishes his kingdom. I don’t know about you, I think this stuff is scary!
Here’s how this theology plays itself out. A recent headline in the Jerusalem Post announced: Evangelicals to Launch Christian AIPAC (American Israeli Public Affairs Committee). Pastor John Hagee of San Antonio, TX will call a group called Christian United for Israel. Because of the theology that connects with terrestrial Jerusalem, CUFI will support Israel unilaterally. The article says, CUFI intends to "interact with the government in Washington" and persuade it "to stop pressuring Israel to give up land for peace. Besides the fact that this does not work, Israel has a Bible mandate for the land.” CUFI will also support moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, this in keeping with “the Bible issue” says Hagee, not Israeli politics.
I hope you understand that from time to time in history, Christians tend to get infatuated with terrestrial Jerusalem, and when that happens we all need to watch out. When we begin speaking through our theological imagination of the de-territorialized, or heavenly or New Jerusalem, we all ought to join in.
One final note: Despite all of that, our connection with the territorial Jerusalem is really our sisters and brothers who have lived there a long time, and live there today. Today, I received an email letter from Bishop Munib Younan, the Lutheran Bishop of the Holy Land and Jordan. We writes in the context of the turmoil over the cartoon controversy, like King Abdullah, calling all us Muslims, Jews and Christians to re-assess our attitudes and actions, and to ask ourselves how we can transform this global volatile hostility into a world-wide willingness to seek common values of mutual respect and care for our neighbor. At the end of his long letter he offers this challenge and I think from Jerusalem, he speaks to all of us:
"People of faith and courage, it is time we stand up and lead the way back to 'the public commons' and civil discourse that values and builds community. We as Christians believe that we are all one, united in the Body of Christ, and that when one part of the body suffers, we all suffer. As humans, we are also one united global family, and it is time to realize that what hurts one part of that family hurts us all. From Jerusalem, we challenge Muslim and Christian leaders to gather here in the Middle East, over the chasm of the supposed "clash of civilizations," to meet and create a code of ethics and conduct by which religions and nations should treat one another and deal with religious differences. From Jerusalem, we pledge to take on this urgent task of making religion a driving force for reconciliation and justice, part of the solution to our world's problems rather than a source of conflict. If people of faith and living conscience do not stand up and call our religions and our people back to the common values and commitments of love, justice, peace, mutual respect – even forgiveness - who will?"

And that’s a Christian leader from the terrestrial Jerusalem speaking out of the values of the celestial holy city, of which I believe all people of faith, courage and hope are a part.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Interfaith Relations Commission Dialogues with Faculty of Fuller Theological Seminary

An important part of the Interfaith Relation Commission's meeting was a dialogue with a part of the Evangelical community, Fuller Theological Seminary. Dr. Howard Loewen (Dean, School of Theology) hosted the meeting. In his presentation, Dr. Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen surveyed Evangelical engagement in interfaith relations. I gave a presentation on Ecumenical engagement in interfaith relations. My presentation follows.

Dr. Paul Rajashekar, Dr. Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen and Dr. Tom Ferguson engage in a round table dialogue following the presentations.

A Brief Overview of Ecumenical Engagement in Interfaith Relations

Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana
Associate General Secretary for Interfaith Relations

Dr, Howard Loewen and friends from Fuller, thank you for the generous welcome and gracious hospitality you have provided for us these days. It is my hope, and indeed ours that this might just be the first step of a longer more sustained dialogue.

I just want you to know that I have strong Evangelical credentials, having grown up Baptist in a Buddhist cultural environment, where Evangelical theology was an important part of my formation. Although I rebelled against that formation in my late teens and twenties, becoming more ecumenical and interfaith, I’ve always maintained a core evangelical commitment. In this country for 25 years now, first in a Southern Baptist context, and then in break away movement that became the Alliance of Baptists, I’ve had think through carefully about what it means to be Baptist in these days, and the Evangelical commitment that is intrinsic to that identity.

Like me, there are lots of people in our so called “ecumenical” churches who have strong Evangelical credentials. Indeed many in our circles don’t even like to couch this dialogue in these terms. So first, let’s make sure that we understand that this is conversation between one small part of the ecumenical movement – the interfaith relations commission, with one small part of the Evangelical movement – Fuller Theological Seminary. Second, while we may argue about whether it is theologically or ecclesiologically appropriate we may more easily agree that in the public perception that there is such a polarization that it is promoted and heightened by the media pitting us against one another. As you all know, the fundamental commitment of the National Council of Churches is to the visible unity of the church. And even the perception of such a polarization is detrimental to the witness of the Body of Christ. Third, I want to tentatively suggest that the terms Evangelical and Ecumenical are not necessarily structural descriptors as they are theological markers. And as such many of us fit not in opposite ends as the media often depicts us, rather somewhere in between.

Since we need to keep these presentations brief, I need to say at the outset that this is in no sense a comprehensive overview or perhaps even an adequate one. I want to simply highlight a few theological movements over the course of this past century that have made sense to me with the hope that it will be a sufficient prelude to get a good dialogue going. Many of these examples are from the Indian subcontinent and Asia. And that’s not only because that’s the area of the world with which I am most familiar, but also because theological thinking from that part of the world has led the ecumenical world in its journey towards interfaith relations.

Early in the last century, at a time when the colonial missionary movement was intent on aggressively evangelizing indigenous people with barely a consideration for their religious and cultural heritage and sensitivities, some Christians became aware of an unexpected reality in India. In the words of F. W. Steinthal, it was the realization that there is "among Hindus and Brahmans as deep, genuine and spiritual religious life as is found among most Christians." This realization became one of the focal points of the World Missionary Conference, the first ecumenical conference in the modern times, in Edinburgh in 1910. We are now close to a century in protestant ecumenical grappling with interfaith relations.

The early models were Christologically oriented. Shortly after Edinburgh, in 1913, J.N. Farquhar published The Crown of Hinduism. He suggested that in the same way that the New Testament gospels claimed that Jesus was the fulfillment of Judaism, so also Jesus should be seen as the fulfillment of Hinduism. Seen thus, Jesus comes not to destroy but to fulfill the religions of human beings. In 1913, this supercessionism may have seemed progressive but those of us engaged with relationships with Jews have quickly learned its fallacy.

In 1925 E. Stanley Jones published The Christ of the Indian Road. Jones asserted that Christ was already incarnate in India and drew the inference that the Christian missionary task was to discover the Christ who is indigenous to India, rather than import the Christ of the West to India. This incarnational model is valuable and is still useful to help Christians get to the first stage of relating with people of other faiths. In my own ministry in an inner city Baptist Church in Chicago, I used this model effectively to move middle-class, highly educated, Caucasian church members to engage with people who are low-income, African American and living in inner-city neighborhoods by urging them to see the risen Christ incarnate in those communities.

However this model is not without its difficulties. Charlie F. Andrews, one of India’s beloved missionaries and close friend of Mahatma Gandhi, writes the following, which highlights both the promise and the pitfall of incarnational theology. Andrews sees incarnation even in the Hindu scriptures that provide such meaning to the people of India.

When we turn from the personal lives of the Indian people with whom I have lived all these years, to the literature which is regarded by them all as a part of their own sacred scriptures, I find in this also passages of such deep spiritual beauty and moral insight, that I have found myself constantly saying ‘This is nothing else than Christian.’

The problem, of course, is that this scripture is not Christian. Even if Christians may speak among themselves of Christ incarnate in a culture or within a religious tradition or scripture, as Catholic scholar Raimundo Panikkar learned when he attempted to locate the Christ incognito in Hinduism, in his Unknown Christ of Hinduism, this is problematic. In this book he made an excellent comparative study of the two religions, but Hindus who typically have no difficulty incorporating Christ, or any other deities into their pantheon, were offended by what seemed to them to be “superior” Christology. Although Panikkar made a vigorous defense of in a later edition, suggesting that only problem with his Christology is the title of the book, he has remained unconvincing.

A pivotal event in the Christian efforts to deal with pluralism was the International Missionary Conference held at Tambaram, South India in 1938. The discussions of this council revolved around its preparatory volume, Hendrik Kraemer's The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World. Using Barthian categories of the uniqueness and decisiveness of the Christian faith, Kraemer justified the universal mission of the church in its perceived relation to the world's major religions. He characterized Hinduism as a "primitive apprehension of reality," a naturalistic, vitalistic, "human attempt," a "groping after God." Despite Kraemer's triumphalistic attitude, however, was his insistence on a deeply personal, truly humble and genuinely self-giving attitude towards the Hindu. This he maintained is the only point of contact between the Christian and the Hindu. Kraemer sought thus to reject arrogant and imperialistic attitudes that were evident in Christians' approach to people of other religions.

Wesley Ariyarajah, in his Hindus and Christians: A Century of Protestant Ecumenical Thought, on the history of the ecumenical attempts at relating to people of other faiths, concludes that Tambaram resulted in dividing the ecumenical movement. The consultations and assemblies that followed Tambaram manifested a sharp polarization of those who represented what might be called Kraemer's "Tambaram position" and those who advocated a "dialogical position." What is interesting is that most of those who advocated the “Tambaram position” were western Christians who typically had their faith formation in mono-religious contexts. Those who advocated for a “dialogical position” were mostly Asian Christians who had their faith formation in multi-religious contexts. Western Christians worried about sacrificing fundamentals of the faith, watering-down evangelical passions and engaging in syncretism. Additionally, western theology based largely on the work of theologians such as Karl Barth had no handles to deal with the interfaith reality. To western Christians whose theological framework did not take the interfaith reality into account, the “Dialogue position” was scary. However, to Asian Christians who had grown up in religiously diverse contexts it was an exciting and necessary adventure of faith.

During the decades of the 50s and 60s many Asian countries having just gained independence from the colonial empires and its missionary movement, began to formulate what might become their indigenous theologies. Choan Seng Song, a Taiwanese theologian in 1964 proposed a celebration of the end of western missions that would at last pave the way for an indigenous Asian theology to emerge. He proposed a shift from the Christological paradigm that caused the Tambaram divergence to a creation paradigm, where we can understand God as the creator of all people made in God’s image, even though in all their diversity. He is still one of the foremost proponents of a dialogical theology.

More recently, Wesley Ariarajah picked up the argument. The history of Israel begins at the Exodus event. But the Biblical writers don’t begin the story there. They want to reach further back to the patriarchs – to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Why would they? Would they have wanted to affirm that because of God’s covenant with Abraham, “all the families of the earth will be blessed?” These days we talk about the Tent of Abraham, under which Jews, Muslims and Christians gather. Perhaps the biblical authors reached back to Abraham because they wanted to broaden the tent. But they didn’t stop there. They reached back even further – to the story of Noah, where the covenant was with all living beings. But they didn’t stop there either; they reached even further to the very beginning. And with that they included all of creation. When the story of the Bible begins with “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” it means not just Christians or Jews, but the entire world. When it asserts that human beings were created in God’s image, it also means, Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists among others. In addition, there is also a consistent biblical affirmation that all creation is under God’s providence, as the Psalmist declares, “The earth is the Lord and all its fullness, the world and all who dwell therein.” The affirmation that the whole world is under God’s providence leads without too much difficulty to the notion of the “previous-ness of grace” as Ariarajah puts it. That there is nothing that we, human beings can do to receive God’s grace, he points out, it is already available to all.

In India, the Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society in Bangalore was headed by M.M. Thomas. A prolific writer with an acute theological mind, Thomas became one of Asia’s most respected theologians and a foremost proponent of the dialogical approach. His work Salvation and Humanisation, had a significant impact on the 1972 Chiang Mai conference of WCC’s Commission on World Mission and Evangelism which produced the document “Salvation Today.” With that Thomas became the foremost proponent of a soteriological model for dialogue. Christopher Duraisingh writes of M.M. Thomas:

He has insisted that it is the collective struggles of human beings for their humanization that provides an adequate point of departure and ground for our rethinking mission and dialogue. It is not through our a priori doctrinal formulations on God or Christ, but rather through our collective human search for meaning and sacredness that the “universe of faiths” could be adequately understood.

In that same article, Duraisingh proposes yet another shift from the Christo-centric and theo-centric models to a soteriological model. In this he follows Catholic theologian Paul Knitter, who in No Other Name? reverses his own theo-centric position. He writes:

“If religious believers could agree that the center of their dialogue should not revolve around “Christ” (or Buddha or Krishna), or around “God” (or around Brahman or Nirvana) but around “salvation” – that is, a shared concern about and effort to remove the sufferings that rack the human family today – perhaps the religions would have “the right of way” of getting into the circle of dialogue” …. Such a salvation-centered starting point would call on different religious believers to share …. A common praxis… Shared liberative praxis, it is hoped, would be the basis for mutual doctrinal understanding and clarification.

With the establishment of the Sub-unit on Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies in 1971 (since 1991, the Office on Interreligious Relations) the ecumenical movement formalized its commitment to interfaith dialogue. For the past thirty two years this office has made significant progress in the arena of interfaith relations. Many of its programs have both helped Christians to understand and respond to religious pluralism and to build relationships of such trust with leaders of different faith as to provide opportunities to invite them to WCC assemblies. The educational program My Neighbor’s Faith and Mine in 1984, led to the Baar Declaration: Theological Perspectives of Plurality in 1990. Last year’s publication of “Ecumenical Considerations” detailed lessons learned following 30 years of building interfaith relationships and was a re-working of their 1979, Guidelines on Dialogue with People of Living Faiths.

Shortly afterwards, in 1973, the NCC began a program of Jewish Christian Relations. Several communions, notably Presbyterians and Episcopalians had already been engaged in relations with Jews. It began with Jewish evangelization, propelled largely by dispensationalist theologies back in the mid 19th century. Early in the 20th, there were even Jewish-Christian Presbyterian churches. But by the 1950s churches began to question the dispensational theologies and mainstream Christians seemed to lose the energy for Jewish evangelism, preferring dialogue instead.

Our relationships with Muslims began in 1976 and for many years the interfaith work of the National Council of Churches was carried out by two committees: A Committee on Jewish-Christian Relations and a Committee on Muslim-Christian Relations. In the mid 1990s these two committees were joined together into a “Working Group on Interfaith Relations.” One of the more significant achievements of this group was the adoption in November 1999 of the policy statement, “Interfaith Relations and the Churches,” and its accompanying study document. Terry Muck will walk us through that theological rationale a little later. In November 2000, when the National Council of Churches adopted a new constitution and Bylaws, it became the Interfaith Relations Commission--one of five Commissions charged to carry out the work of the Council.

Now looking forward, there are two more emerging theological trends we need to pay close attention to. One is the Pneumatological approach, best presented by our own Amos Yong who not too long ago published: Beyond the Impasse: Toward a Pneumatological Theology of Religions. I think it is important to recognize that in Amos and Tony Ritchie we have two courageous trendsetters who are pushing and prodding the Pentecostal family of the Body of Christ into brand new ways of thinking about the work of the Holy Spirit, who like the wind, blows in unpredictable directions. I see significant value in following this development and encouraging our colleagues. Not only is it valid in itself, we must recognize that significant growth in the Body of Christ particularly in Latin America, Africa and Asia is coming from the Pentecostal family.

The second trend is Post Colonial Theology, which comes out of the struggles of emancipation from the colonial dominance in Asia and Africa. Having begun with movements for indigenization and contextualization it is described as contributing to “exorcising” the “demon” of imperialistic Christianity, as an active confrontation with the dominant system of thought, its lopsidedness and inadequacies. This is my current passion, so there’s a lot I can say about it, and want you to appreciate my disciplined restraint. Let me offer just three quick points.

First its starting point is the margin. Center, uniqueness, majesty and Lord are terminologies of authoritarian and patriarchal culture, says RS Sugirtharajah, my former NT professor. There is good reason to reject them as Christ himself did. His own ministry and the context for the divine manifestation is the periphery. In fact, the margin is a place pulsating with critical activity, a place alive with argument and controversy and a place of creative discourse. Sugirtharajah would say, to see best work in interfaith relations, we need to look to the periphery of our communities.

Second, Community Building is a Core Discipline, says KC Abraham. Theology should be at the service of people in their search for meaningful communities which exist in harmonious relation with nature, and between different faiths. They will be communities that refuse to accept the logic of profit and progress which has turned our life into commodities. They will be different from the traditional collectives that have submerged our selfhood and suppressed our women. They will be communities that have overcome all human-made barriers of caste, creed and religion that celebrate their common humanity, living life to the full, in harmony with self, others and nature. Interfaith relations cannot be divorced from the rest of community life Abraham would say, it is integral to all our daily struggles.

Third, Post Colonial Theology seeks a new language that will emerge out of a discipline of alternative reading. The once supreme reign of historical criticism, which made “disinterested,” “objective,” “scientific,” and “apolitical” reading the main virtues for engaging with the text, is now being severely challenged by context-based and ideologically committed readings of various subaltern groups – women, indigenous people, Dalits, etc. We need to treat these different approaches not as competing practices, assigning some as superior and virtuous and others as exotic and marginal. Rather we need to recognize that in different ways the practitioners of these reading modes are active participants of a shared textual and critical tradition and in their usage of methods and application of theories they are interrelated. Edward Said’s methodology of contrapuntal reading is a method of bringing the experiences of the exploited and the exploiter, texts from the metropolitan centers and the periphery to be studied together. Contrapuntal reading requires the simultaneous study of mainstream scholarship and of scholarship emanating from the peripheries, which the dominant discourse tries to domesticate and speaks and acts against. For us engaged in interfaith relations, it would mean reading the Bible, the Qur’an, the Bhagavad Gita and their various interpretive traditions that we may discern new ways in which God is speaking to us.

Thank you!

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Interfaith Relations Commission Meets in Pasadena

The Interfaith Relations Commission of the National Council of Churches just concluded its meeting in Pasadena, CA at Fuller Theological Seminary. The highlight of the meeting was a dialogue between the commission (as a part of the Edumenical Movement) and faculty at Fuller (as a part of the Evangelical Movement). I will post more information on that later.

The Commissioners:
Seated l to r: Rev. Stanley Bhasker, Rev. Dr. Gwynne Guibord, Dr. Barbara Brown Zikmund (chairperson), Rev. Rothang Chhangte (co-chair),
1st row standing l to r: Fr. Francis Tiso, Dr. Amos Yong, Dr. Peter Makari, Dr. Doug Mills, Dr. Paul Rajashekar, Dr. Frances Adeney, Dr. Shanta Premawardhana, Mr. Guy Higachi (our host from Fuller)
2nd row standing l to r: Rev. Willard Bass, Dr. Michael Birkel, Rev. Nathan Digby, Dr. Michael Reid Trice, Mr. David Leslie, Dr. Don Dayton, Dr. Jay Rock

Not in picture: Rev. Dr. E. Gail Anderson Holness

My report to the Commission follows:

Interfaith Relations Commission
February 2-4, 2006
Associate General Secretary’s Report

In my report to the General Assembly in 2004, I wrote this: “Someone said that there are two movements in the world these days: globalization and interfaith. Indeed, we are in the midst of a paradigm shift. The opposition we see by those who pull back toward cultural homogeneity, religious exclusivism and political unilateralism is a sign of a systemic pullback toward homeostasis that confirms this hypothesis. I believe that it is critical for the church to position itself to lead in this arena.” Here’s why I think this is still true, and why we must work to position ourselves to lead in this area.

I have just returned from a meeting in London of a group called Young Presidents’ Organization. These are CEOs of major corporations who are under 50 years of age. I sat next to the guy who started Travelocity, a real estate developer from Boston and the executive producer of a movie that premiered at Sundance, called “A guide to recognizing your saints.” These people with successful businesses and lots of money are sick of the extremist rhetoric. Their Peace Action Network wanted to meet with several religious leaders Jewish, Muslim and Christian to ask us about how to promote interfaith relations, how to reduce the extremist rhetoric in the media and how to be more intentional about track 2 diplomacy.

Last week’s headline in Philippine newspapers read interfaith dialogue is the best solution to terrorism. "Faith is the greatest antidote to terrorism," said President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and urged religious leaders to reach out across cultural and religious barriers. What they are doing is just as important as building up military forces to fight terrorism and injustice across the globe, she said. In the Philippines, the "vestiges of conflict in Mindanao are finally fading away" due to interfaith dialogue. "I have reached out to lead interfaith dialogue in the Philippines to bring peace and understanding in Mindanao just as I have reached out to our friends and neighbors in Asia to conquer anything that divides us on ethnic or religious lines," Arroyo said.

And then today in Washington DC, there’s a National Prayer Breakfast. This traditionally an evangelical Christian event will be a demonstration of interfaith worship. Sen. Norm Coleman, Minnesota Republican, is the first Jewish co-chairman, and Jordan's King Abdullah, a Muslim, will attend the breakfast and give a major luncheon speech a few hours later.

Indeed, Interfaith relations is coming of age. My goal for this year is to position the NCC to be in the leading edge of this burgeoning interfaith movement.

1. Organizing Work

Jewish Christian Dialogue Table

Since we met last the Jewish Christian Dialogue Group went on a Mission of peace to Israel/Palestine. You may have seen reports of this trip. My reflections from that trip are in the newsletter. We said that we have “demonstrated that Jews and Christians can work together to seek peace even when there is disagreement on specific policies and solutions,” and that we are committed to be “even more effective advocates for a secure, viable and independent Palestinian state alongside and equally secure State of Israel.”

We committed to:

  • Deepen our engagement with each other and expand the number of Jews and Christians committed to interfaith dialogue on the local level as advocates for peace

  • Mobilize each of our communities of faith across the United States in a concerted effort to bring reconciliation and peace to Israelis and Palestinians

  • Together, we seek to mobilize elected officials and our American fellow citizens on behalf of a negotiated peace settlement

  • Effectively support those Palestinians and Israelis who are courageously working for reconciliation and a two-state solution with concrete actions that will help sustain their work.
The more difficult parts of the trip were our meetings with Rev. Mitri Rahab and Canon Naim Ateek and folks at Sabeel. Most of our communions support Sabeel and consider them an ecumenical partner. The month after we returned Friends of Sabeel USA held their regular series of meetings in different parts of the US and received serious protests from Jewish organizations including the ones in our group. This provided an opportunity for me to coordinate a meeting with Naim Ateek in New York and select colleagues from each side, to create an opportunity for better understanding. Despite some rough spots, we agreed that we need to continue to consult with each other – indeed that Friends of Sabeel should hear from mainstream Jews rather than fringe Jews and mainstream Jews should hear from Sabeel and mainstream Christians than those Christians who uncritically support the policies of Israeli government.

As you know, the situation in the Middle East is constantly changing. What is encouraging to me is that our Jewish friends are open enough now to acknowledge to us that their organizations disagree about how to interpret current events: Sharon’s departure and Hamas victory. We were most recently trying to negotiate a time for a conference call to talk together about how to interpret these events.

Another possible offshoot of this is our cooperation on the domestic front. Remembering that Jews and Christians have a long standing legacy of working together on issues of justice, a conversation on immigration reform has also begun. There was one event in Tucson, AZ in August and another in New York in December to think about our common concerns as religious people.

Muslim Christian Dialogue Table

Questions about a similar Muslim dialogue have risen sharply. I hope that will be a part of the conversation when the interfaith staff caucus later today. One part of the question has to do with questioning the validity of the Jewish Christian table without the participation of Muslims. We have repeatedly raised this question with our Jewish friends, some of whom find it a difficult sell to their constituency. But we’ve, I think, come to a place when we can insist on it. Secondly, the issue is getting a table going for its own sake. We need to recognize that the Muslim community is organized and structured differently. I plan to devote some extra time and energy to getting this set up this year.

In the work of organizing, our natural ally is the Justice and Advocacy Commission. I was with them earlier this week in Atlanta. I shared with them the work we do, and sought from them a commitment to work with us and use as a resource as they include people of different faiths in their various programs, be they advocacy on Capital Hill, or initiatives such as Let Justice Roll or the Eco Justice program.

Patriot Act Resolution

You may remember that one year ago, following our meeting in St. Petersburg, Florida, we brought an initiative before the Governing Board to urge action on the USA PATRIOT ACT and the question of Dr. Sami Al Arian. That initiative led to JAC undertaking to bring a resolution to that effect. This was brought before the General Assembly on Nov. 9, 2005

In that resolution, the General Assembly committed itself "to the monitoring of current and potential civil and religious liberties abuses" and pledged to educate member communions "on the importance of upholding civil and religious liberties, even and most critically in times of national distress." Since the terror attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, the nation has been preoccupied by the war on terror and the war in Iraq. These stresses have "led this country to the point of willingly sacrificing the very ideals that have made it great," the resolution says. Threats to liberties include indefinite detention and the withholding of due process; extraordinary rendition and torture; arbitrary designation of enemy combatants; the suspicion of immigrants and those applying for immigrant status; the invasion of private medical records, library borrowing and other personal documents; "and a creeping reliance on selective religious fundamentalism as the lens for shaping public policy, especially at the expense of religious communities. Attentiveness to civil and religious liberties is important, the resolution said, because "as women and men of faith we believe our increasingly diverse society is best served by expanding, rather than narrowing, the opportunities of people of all faiths to access the public square, and thereby expand mutual interaction and respect."

In Al-Arian's recent six-month trial on 17 federal charges, the former University of South Florida professor was acquitted of eight counts and the jury hung on the remaining nine, saying there wasn't enough evidence to convict him. We have supported the Muslim community in joining ACLU in urging the government to drop the charges. But the government wants to retry him, with believe it or not “a more intelligent jury!”

2. Theological Work

AAR Panel

Over 200 participants of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) meeting in Philadelphia gathered for a Special Topics Forum on Monday, Nov. 20th, to hear a distinguished panel of Christian theologians address the question of “Christian Theology’s Engagement with Religious Pluralism.” Diana Eck (Harvard University and Director, Pluralism Project), Paul Rajashekar (Dean, Lutheran Theological School at Philadelphia), Damayanthi Niles (Eden Theological Seminary), Tony Ritchie (Society for Pentecostal Studies) and Francis Tiso (US Conference of Catholic Bishops) formed the panel. Barbara Brown Zikmund (Co-chair, NCC Interfaith Relations Commission) moderated the discussion.

I am fully expecting that we will be invited to continue the conversation.

TTR Project

I was invited by the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion, to work with a couple of colleagues Kathy Talvacchia and Lucinda Mosher to create a panel to write papers for a special issue of Teaching Theology and Religion in April 2006.

We gathered together scholar/practitioners of twelve religious traditions -- Afro-Caribbean, Buddhist (Won and Zen), Baha’i, Christian (Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant), Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Zoroastrian -- to address the question, how each tradition is preparing its clergy (or religious leaders) to theologically understand and deal with religious plurality in the United States. Although they are not official representatives, each of them is an active participant in their religious community and engaged at some level in training their clergy or religious leaders. As one of the General Editors, I coordinated the process, got the right people together, got them to write these essays on a tight schedule did a peer review and sent it off. These are academically, pedagogically focused essays but their presentations are very different from each other: some are overviews, others focus on education and educational theory, and each demonstrates the unique ways in which religious communities define religious leadership. I wrote the introduction to the issue.

Thinking Together

WCC’s Office of Interreligious Affairs held a planning meeting of the Thinking Together group. Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish and Christian scholars have come together for several years now in this Thinking Together project. Their first project “Theologies of the Other” is now completed. We are working on finalizing the papers for publication later this year. Our planning this time was for our next project on “Conversion.”

We held this event in conjuction with a young adult interfaith conference. I am often surprised at the ease with which young people process interfaith relations. Some of my thinking together colleagues produced the booklet “Religions: Fortresses to be Defended or Wellsprings of Healing” for this event.

3. Educational Work

The work we planned to do on updating the website is not yet done. But don’t worry, we have just hired a technical services person in our communications office. This person will among other things be a webmaster. He will come on board I believe by March and working on our pages will be one of his first tasks. On the bright side though, you should know that I am now writing a blog. These are thoughtful reflections that pertain to interfaith relations questions.

I want you to know that we have a whole menu of educational programs that are ready to go as soon as we get some money. We took this menu to Carnegie Foundation of New York in November and was turned down. Now we are taking these one by one to other foundations.

  • The God is One project will get underway this March. We are scheduled for march 11th in Harford and 25th in New York. Hartford Seminary’s graduate students will teach. Please let your churches in those areas know. As soon as we are able to get more money for the project we’ll be ready to take it to other locations. Hartford will contract with Islam teachers in other seminaries to help teach it in their cities.
  • Interfaith Dialogue Training is ready to go (clamoring to go)
  • Continuing Education for Pastors is ready to go.
I also want to compile a list of interfaith educational resources that are published by our communions. If possible I would like to have hard copies of those materials available for display in my office as well. Please let me know.

In January I attended ELMC and shared with them our concerns for specific educational materials on interfaith relations on the one hand, and impacting the Uniform Series and other educational resources with non-excluvistic interpretations of scripture. Two committees, the Committee on Uniform Series and the Committee on Curriculum Research and Theory specifically want to continue the conversation with our Commission.

We have a new associate at the Development office Story Ducey who is very excited about interfaith relations. With her help I am hoping that we can get some real funding in hand before the first half of this year ends.

Post Tsunami Concerns

I’ve continued to keep channels of communication open with PGI in Indonesia and NCC in Sri Lanka in an effort to monitor interfaith tensions that arose particularly following the tsunami. I have just returned from Sri Lanka. The slow pace of recovery and government ineptitude and corruption, including the land grab of 100 meters of beach front property is now infamous. But it is the criticisms of the NGOs that should most concern us.

NGOs, particularly religious ones are continuing to be under serious criticism. In my report of the last trip, I pointed out several problems:

  • denominational branding, ubiquitous in the tsunami affected areas, presents an image of a divided church when at a time of anti-Christian violence, the local church would have been greatly served by a united front,

  • some NGOs used the tsunami for the purpose of evangelizing, which exacerbated already existing interfaith tensions. Anti Christian violence increased and the anti-conversion legislation gained new momentum.

  • decisions about how to spend the money was made in donor countries rather than in consultation with the local religious and community leadership, with the result specific community needs were overlooked

  • NGOs paid no attention to local and Asian religious leaders’ vociferous demand to the needs of building community. Most NGOs seem to have functioned on a western-oriented paradigm of providing goods to individuals and nuclear families with little or no consideration for the needs of the local community and extended family causing more serious disruptions of community. Religious leaders, right from the immediate aftermath of the tsunami loudly stated that building community must be the highest priority, since community is the most significant factor in creating an environment of healing.

In the eyes of the religious leaders I met, both Buddhist and Christian, the above are still critical questions. Now there are additional criticisms:

  • NGOs, including US church based relief organizations, have become “fat” at the expense of the tsunami affected communities. This linked article entitled “The Rise of Disaster Capitalism” by Naomi Klein was presented to me by a couple of religious leaders as evidence of this: They particularly picked up on the notion that “reconstruction” is nothing but sophisticated colonialism.

  • Local organizers of NGO funded projects have also become “fat.” There is very little oversight and accountability of the projects. In some cases so much excess funds were written into the original proposals that local organizations that try to keep their organizers within reasonable limits (eg: keep them from buying multi-million rupee SUVs) find their hands are tied. The flaunting of this newly acquired wealth by local organizers in the context of the continuing disaster is creating an environment of anger and outrage.

Interfaith/Peace Build

In a great opportunity for NCC and CWS to work together, I brought NCC’s relationships with Habitat for Humanity to a joint project with CWS. CWS provided $150,000 for an interfaith/peace build. In the context of serious interfaith and inter-ethnic tensions, highlighting such a project in the press we believe would have beneficial results. If the project is successful we will try to get more such projects going. The location is near Galle and the Interreligious Peace Foundation of Galle will be one of our partners.

Next Steps:

I have a few thoughts of the big, bold variety that I want to lay before you. I think they are important concerns for us to consider going forward.

1. Explore how to take the Evangelical dialogue forward and make it NCC-wide.
2. Together with our Evangelical friends, explore the question, how to impact independent Evangelical churches that send missionaries who do not have any inter-religious sensitivity causing serious interfaith tensions in many parts of the world, but specifically in Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka.
3. Consider an action by the NCC on Christian Zionism, particularly because of its recent upsurge in popularity following the Left Behind series and the way that apocalyptic theology is driving US foreign policy, causing serious difficulties to Palestinian Christians and Muslims.
4. Organize Muslim Christian dialogue table this year