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


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