Sunday, October 29, 2006

What the Amish are Teaching America

Shortly after the tragic school shooting in the Amish community in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, I left for India to participate in the "Thinking Together" consultation. During that week, I stayed at the Shanti Ashram in Coimbatore and with folks at the Gandhi Museum in Madurai, engaging Gandhian activists and organizers in serious conversation and becoming convinced that the Satyagraha model of non-violent community change is still valid for our time.

It is in that context that I return to a reflection on the lessons of the Amish community following that tragedy. Rather than exact revenge from the family of the shooter, in their deepest grief following the deaths of 6 girls in that school room, and 8 critically injured, they reached out to that family in love. This is in utter contrast to what most people, including Christians, in our culture will do. Is it not surprising that they want to isolate themselves from the rest of the country?

It also makes me wonder what has gone wrong with right-wing Christianity so often associated with its Evangelical stream that its TV Evangelist leaders (Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Franklin Graham) and its organizational leaders (Tony Perkins, John Hagee etc.) have no qualms about calling for violent revenge, particularly against Muslims. We should all take a lesson from the Amish, or then again, perhaps we should read our Bibles more carefully and take a lesson from Jesus who taught us that the most important commandments are that we love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. He also exhorted upon us a more demanding virtue: Love your enemies.

The Amish are teaching us how to be Christian -- indeed how to be religious, since that's what all religions teach us. This is a lesson we cannot afford to not to learn.

Here's an excellent commentary entitled What the Amish are Teaching America from Sally Kohn, of the Center for Community Change, a powerful community organizing network.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Key Achievements of the Religions for Peace 8th World Assembly, Kyoto, August 26-29, 2006

More than 2000 people including 800 religious leaders from Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Shinto and Zoroastrian traditions gathered in Kyoto this August for the 8th Assembly of the World Conference of Religions for Peace.

"Religion has been hijacked by religious extremists, unscrupulous politicians, and the sensationalist media," said Secretary General William F. Vendley in his remarks at the opening ceremony. "Our vehicles of faith must be rescued from the hijackers' grasp. Our religious communities and leaders have to stand fast together, respecting our differences, pooling our collective moral strengths, and building an multi-religious alliance for peace."

The assembly's declarations, recommendations and commitments are very significant and important for religious communities to consider and adopt. In order to help disseminate that information, I will highlight and link key documents. I hope that religious communities will carefully consider these and find ways to implement them.

1. Kyoto Declaration: Delegates issued a multi-religious call to action: "As people of religious conviction, we hold the responsibility to confront violence within our own communities whenever religion is misused as a justification or excuse for violence." It promoted the notion of "shared security" in which all sectors of every society acknowledge common vulnerabilities and assume collective responsibility to address them. The declartion includes 20 recommendations for religious leaders, governments, international organizations, and busiensses to address violence and advance shared security through advocacy, education and partnerships with, and among, religious communities. Clike here for the Kyoto Declaration

2. Statements of Unity from Religious Leaders in Conflict Zones: The assembly created a safe space for religious leaders of these conflict zones to dialogue about the difficult issues of conflict. Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish religious leaders from Iraq, Buddhist, Christian and Hindu leaders from Sri Lanka and a delegation from Sudan issued statements of unity following those conversations. Members of the Isralei and Palestinian delegations had critical engagements. There was also a six party consultation on the situation in the Korean Penninsula.

3. Women's and Youth Assemblies: More than 400 participants from 65 countries participated in a Women's Assembly prior to the World Assembly, and adopted a Declation affirming, "women of faith make available strength and hope when all seems hopeless." Click here for the Women's Assembly declaration

Similarly, a Youth Assembly produced its own declaration proclaiming: "We choose hope because that's the only way forward." Click here for the Youth Assembly declaration

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

"Thinking Together" Meets at Shanti Ashram, Coimbatore, South India

Dr. Hans Ucko (Program Executive, WCC Interreligious Relations and Dialogue) who co-ordinates the "Thinking Together" group speaks at a Interfaith Prayer Service at the Gandhi Museum in Madurai. This prayer event has met every Friday night for over 25 years. Well over 300 people participated. Dr. S. Jeyapragasam, our host is in the foreground.

Ven. Buddhadasa, the one and only Tamil Theravada Buddhist monk. He lives in Madurai

My Colleague from the Thinking Together group, Imam Dr. Rashied Omar from South Africa in a traditional Indian head-dress and garland at our final celebration.

The WCC consultation "Thinking Together" which comprises scholars and leaders from many religious traditions met again at the Shanti Ashram in Coimbatore, India. The group which these days is focusing on the question of "Conversion," found the vibrancy of the religious diversity in India a poignant backdrop to their deliberations. This group in existence since 1998 is in its third project, the previous ones being: Religion and Violence, The Theology of the Other and now Conversion. While the papers from Religion and Violence consultation were published in the WCC journal "Current Dialogue" we are working on publishing the papers from the Theology of the Other in a book next year.
Following the consultation we participated in a seminar on Family Values at the local girls' University there and in some of the programs at the Shanti Ashram, an organization which attempts to live out the Gandhian principles of community organizing as it relates to some 60 villages in its locality. Dr. Vinu Aram, a physician who runs the organization is also active interfaith leader.

We also travelled to Madurai where we participated in a conference on Religion and Violence organized by the Gandhi Museum and the Gandhian Institute for Non-violence and Peace organized by Dr. S. Jeyapragasam. There I met Jill Carr-Harris, the Canadian born wife of the illustrious Gandhian leader PV Rajagopal founder of Ekta Parishad, a community organizing/ village revitalization institute with a large presence in Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Orissa. Rajagopal himself was in Orissa at the time organizing among Dalit and Adivasi (tribal) communities.
I also had the opportunity to visit my old seminary, the Tamil Nadu Theological Seminary in Madurai which specializes in Dalit Theology and Gurukul Lutheran Seminary in Madras where I had a meeting with faculty members and preached at their Sunday evening service.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Middle Church: Reclaiming the Moral Values of the Faithful Majority from the Religious Right

Bob Edgar's book "Middle Church" is a strong challenge to "middle of the road" Christians, Jews and Muslims in America urging them to wake up and wrest national attention away from a Christian Coalition agenda that focuses on hot-button issues like homosexuality and abortion in favor of more Biblically relevant issues of Peace, Poverty, and Planet Earth. The religious right, he says is "a version of faith so at odds with mine, so contrary to the central teachings of Christianity, Judaism and Islam that it condones poverty, condemns peace and contributes to the despoiling of God's creation." He calls on the "middle church:" people of faith who are centrists, somewhat deferential and largely silent, to return to the central message of Jesus' ministry—the imperative to love one's neighbor—and judge public policy by that measuring stick.

Distinguishing himself from the leaders of the Religious Right, Edgar, a former six-term Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania, writes of his faith: "As for me, my faith shaped how I viewed political issues, but I no more believe that God endorses my political agenda than I think he would vote for anyone else's. I've never believed that people should agree with me because of my vocation. And, given the recent political history, I can't help but recall with a smile that, during my first campaign for Congress, the Republicans began a telephone attack campaign against me. "Did you know," they would ask in hushed and sinister tones, "that Bob Edgar is a minister?" Evidently, they saw it as an insult. The voters, fortunately, decided it was an asset."

Its not only a must-read, but one that should be distributed to friends. Click here for

Check out also, Bob's Middle Church website:

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

NCC Interfaith Relations Commission Meets in Montreal

The Interfaith Relations Commission of the National Council of Churches, a gathering of representatives of several of the 35 member communions of the NCC and experts in interfaith relations, met in Montreal, from September 14-16, 2006. The meeting was held concurrently with the World’s Religions After 911 Congress organized by Prof. Arvind Sharma of McGill University, a noted expert in religious studies and interfaith relations.

Panels on Forgiveness and Reconciliation

Panel on Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Various Christian Perspectives. L to R: Fr. Tom Ryan (Roman Catholic), Rev. Lyndon Harris (Episcopal), Rev. Lydia Veliko (UCC),
Rev. Dr. Michael Ellis (AME Zion), Rev. Dr. Tony Richie (Pentecostal)

Dr. Manohar Singh Grewal (Chairman, World Sikh Council - America Region) served on the panel "Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Various Religious Perspectives."

On September 14th, the Commission hosted two panel discussions for the congress. The first, Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Various Christian Perspectives chaired by Rev. Lyndon Harris (Episcopal) featured panelists Rev. Lydia Veliko (UCC), Fr. Rom Ryan (Roman Catholic), Rev. Dr. Tony Richie (Pentecostal), and Rev. Dr. Michael Ellis (AME Zion). The second, Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Various Religious Perspectives chaired by Prof. Jane Smith (Christian) featured panelists Rabbi Dr. Daniel Brenner (Jewish), Dr. Thllayvel Naidoo (Hindu), Dr. Muhammad Shafiq (Muslim) and Dr. Manohar Singh Grewal (Sikh). The presentations will be posted on the NCC’s interfaith webpage within a few weeks.

During the next two days, the Commission met for its business. The following is not a comprehensive list, but describes our main actions.


First, the commissioners shared reports of what their communions are doing in relation to interfaith relations and heard the a report of my work as the director of the commission (see below).

Christian Zionism

Second, the Commission heard a presentation from Rev. John Hubers (Reformed Church in America) about Christian Zionism. He hosts a web site on the Christian Zionism, The Commission also received a statement from four of the highest ranking Christian leaders of Jerusalem condemning Christian Zionism. Understanding several ways in which this issue impacts interfaith relations, the Commission agreed to forward to the NCC’s Governing Board a statement that called upon the President of the NCC to appoint a task force that includes members from all the NCC Commissions to study the question and recommend actions, to link educational web resources to our web site and to host a educational rotation forum at the General Assembly.

Following that discussion, the commission agreed to forward a statement to the NCC’s Governing Board meeting the following week. Following a few revisions the Governing Board unanimously received that statement (see below).

A Christian Response to 400th Anniversary of the Jamestown Settlement
The Commission then received a statement from the Virginia Council of Churches on the 400th anniversary of the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia. The commission decided to forward a statement to the NCC Governing Board, that calls upon the NCC to raise awareness of the alternative history of invasion, genocide exploitation and denigration and loss of native land and religious traditions of Native Americans, the history of slavery and forced migration of African Americans. It proposes the preparation and distribution of resources that deal with the complexities and complicities that resulted in the destruction of cultures and religions and an examination of missiologies that tend to perpetuate those problems. The NCC Governing Board unanimously received that statement (see below).

Christian-Muslim Leaders' Dialogue
The Commission agreed to strengthen the ad-hoc committee that is dealing with creating an on-going dialogue table for Christian and Muslim leaders by appointing Dr. Peter Makari as its chair. We agreed that we cannot proceed any faster than our Muslim colleagues are able to move. We are hopeful that we will have a joint planning meeting shortly after Ramadan is over.

Next Meetings

We agreed that our next meeting will be on Feb. 1-3, in Arlington, VA immediately following the National Workshop on Christian Unity meeting at the same location. We will invite faculty and students from Eastern Mennonite University to engage with us to an educational session which may include many others. The fall meeting will be from September 20-22. We decided to accept an invitation from Rev. Dan Appleyard, a leader in the interfaith movement in Detroit to hold our meeting there. We also noted that as the new quadrennium begins in 2008, we might have a joint meeting on all NCC Commissions in January of 2008.

Fellowship with our Canadian Counterparts

A highlight of our meeting was a round table meeting and dinner with Interfaith Relations leaders of the Canadian Council of Churches. Their work is much smaller than ours, but we were excited about the new relationship and its possibilities.

The minutes of the meeting carrying a fuller description will be available to the commissioners within a few weeks.

Table Fellowship: L to R: Gwynne Guibord (Episcopal), myself,Terry Muck (Former Commission member) and Frances Adeney (Presbyterian Church USA)

Report to the Interfaith Relations Commission
Meeting in Montreal, Quebec, September 2006
Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana
Director, Interfaith Relations Commission of the NCCCUSA

It is not an exaggeration to say that Interfaith Relations suffered a major set back during the past three months particularly due to the conflict in the Middle East. I saw the effect most closely at the national level, although I had many reports from colleagues both in the international and local levels. At the same time I saw interfaith leaders at all levels making valiant efforts to find for new and innovative ways to break through this impasse.

During the very early stages of the conflict, first in Gaza and then in Lebanon, I called my Jewish colleagues from the Jewish Christian dialogue table. As you remember this table had been going on for over two years now and we have formed a few strong relationships. I suggested that this would be a great opportunity for Christians and Jews to speak together about the situation. If Christians want to talk about ceasefire, there is no conversation, they said. I suggested that we might together ask our congregations to pray for peace. As the best in our religious traditions teach us, I said, we should pray for the suffering of “the other.” There were many phone calls, more emails, and several face to face meetings. But we couldn’t even agree on the value of a conversation.

In the meantime, at an Executive Committee meeting of Religions for Peace, I brought up this question, and with their blessing initiated Season of, ( a website that lists, prayer resources, litanies, songs etc from many religious traditions that local communities may use either in their own peace events or in joint events of witness for peace together with other religious communities. That website has now received over 145,000 hits and will receive some new energy this week in the lead up to the International Day of Peace on Sept. 21 and the confluence of religious holy days at the end of September and leading to the Gandhi birth anniversary on October 2.

At least a few of us from the Jewish Christian dialogue table will gather in a couple of weeks, to at least begin to think through why it was so difficult to talk when the conversation was most necessary.

I have just returned from the WCRP General Assembly in Kyoto, Japan, where some 800 top religious leaders gathered. I have come to recognize that some of the most important work of peace happens behind the scenes. Although I didn’t participate in these, I knew that there were at least two sets of serious conversations that took place behind the scenes. One was between Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders from the Middle East and the other was between Buddhist and Christian leaders from Sri Lanka. Perhaps there were others. But these back-room events are perhaps far more significant than the public events as precursors towards possibilities of Track Two diplomacy. Despite my disappointment with the Jewish Christian dialogue table, my faith in the possibilities of Track 2 diplomacy was restored.

National Dialogue Tables

You already heard about the challenges of the Jewish Christian Dialogue table. Following our last Commission meeting, we’ve worked on getting together a Muslim Christian Dialogue table. Immediately after Pasadena, a group of us worked on a document in which we hammered out our hopes and desires for such a table, which also included a section on our strategy. I am attaching both the document and a process paper for your information.

We are clear that we don’t want to invite Muslim leaders to our (Christian) table, but that we want together form a common table. A part of the difficulty is that Muslims don’t have a National Council, that can co-ordinate for them like Christians do. In order to facilitate a common table we are working to first bring together a joint planning team which will meet shortly after Ramadan. ISNA, ICNA and Fetullah Gulen organizations have currently agreed to participate. I am still waiting on The Mosque Cares and the ASMA society to give us their word.

Theological Work

We also worked on our next AAR presentation. This November we will present Special Topics Forum on “Christian theology’s Engagement with Religious Pluralism: Biblical Texts and Themes.” We will begin to address some of the more difficult biblical questions that arise for those of us engaged in this work.

The following will participate in the panel: Amos Yong, Marjorie Shuhocki, Gerald McDermott and Francis Clooney. Kenneth Cracknell and Wesley Ariarajah will offer responses. We will notify the 200 plus attendees from last time to attend this time as well, so that we will have some continuity with the process.

The AAR has invited us to apply to become a Program Unit and I will make application for that soon.

Educational Projects
The brochure that we created, “Getting to know Neighbors of Other Faiths” is now prepared as a bulletin insert, which is a format that we are now following in the NCC, and is available on the NCC website for download for use by congregations. We will publicize this and hope that many congregations will use it.

God Is One had two great pilots and there are many inquiries from across the country. However, we don’t have the funds to take it out.

New Initiatives

· Dialogue of Civilizations:
The Tripartite Forum on Interfaith Cooperation for Peace was launched on March 24, 2006, at the UN. One of the parties to the Tripartite Forum is the Committee of Religious NGOs at the UN. Other two are: participating governments (16) and three UN agencies (UNESCO, UN-DESA and World Bank). I participate in this committee.

Kazakhstan: As we speak NCC president Michael Livingston is attending a summit of religious leaders in Kazakhstan. I was at the preparatory meeting of this event last April. Kazakhstan is attempting to be a leader in the community of nations in interfaith cooperation. They are attempting to build their capital city Astana as a city of peace, and wants to have interfaith dialogue as the foundational piece of that effort. This is the second summit that they are conducting.

I am finding that some government figures and even religious leaders from other traditions have done little thinking about how to have meaningful interfaith dialogue. Three Christians, Hans Ucko, Bishop Michael Baines (representing the Archbishop of Canterbury) and I were able to make significant impact at the Kazakhstan meeting.

Later this month I will be in Rhodes, Greece for another meeting entitled: World Public Forum: Dialogue of Civilizations. We were invited to participate by the Russian Orthodox churches. I think it is important that we are at the table at these settings

· Sri Lankan Theology consultation
I presented a paper at a Consultation of Sri Lankan Theologians. My contribution was to look at an aspect of Christian theology that seems to legitimize violence. Before we ask Muslims (particularly) to look at texts that seem to legitimate violence, we need to ask what Christian theologies legitimize violence. New literature on the theology of Atonement points to how our medieval theories contribute to the Christian legitimization of violence. I also suggested that our new theological thinking must be done with the presence and participation of colleagues of other religions.

· Communications:

In this constantly changing world of interfaith relations, communicating our perspective to NCC’s member communions and to organizations of other religious traditions is always a challenge. The Interfaith Relations Newsletter that I put out from time to time goes out to both a large email list and to places where I go to speak and lead workshops and such. But I am reasonably regularly writing material on my blog site ( This is an important way to keep information flowing out to our constituents. It is important that you all check the blog site regularly and encourage others to do so as well.

I want to express my gratitude of all of you for your continuing support for this work and your continuing engagement.

Statement on Christian Zionism
Received by the Governing Board of the NCCCUSA on Sept. 25, 2006
On August 22, 2006 four of the highest ranking Christian leaders of Jerusalem* issued a statement of concern about the rising popularity of modern Christian theologies and political movements that embrace the extreme ideological positions of Christian Zionism. It said in part:

“The Christian Zionist programme provides a worldview where the Gospel is identified with the ideology of empire, colonialism and militarism. In its extreme form, it places an emphasis on apocalyptic events leading to the end of history rather than living Christ's love and justice today. We categorically reject Christian Zionist doctrines as false teaching that corrupts the biblical message of love, justice and reconciliation.”The Interfaith Relations Commission of the National Council of Churches brings this concern to the attention of NCC member communions, noting that the theological stance of Christian Zionism adversely affects:

* justice and peace in the Middle East, delaying the day when Israelis and Palestinians can live within secure borders

* the lives and livelihoods of Middle Eastern Christians

* relationships with Jews, since Jews are seen as mere pawns in an eschatological scheme

* relationships with Muslims since it ignores the rights of Muslims

* interfaith dialogue, since it views the world in starkly dichotomous terms

Christian Zionism is flourishing in part because of the lack of knowledge and popularly accessible alternative Christian theologies of the end-times.

Therefore, the Interfaith Relations Commission of the National Council of Churches asks:

1. That the President appoint ba special task force that includes representatives from all five commissions to address this theological challenge.

2. That print and electronic resources explaining various theologies of end-times be made available to member communions on, and linked to, our website.

3. That the Interfaith Relations Commission offer a Rotation Forum on this subject at the General Assembly to raise awareness of the importance of end-times theology and to educate members and church leaders.


*His Beatitude Michel Sabbah, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Sweros Malki Mourada, the Syrian Orthodox Metropolitan, Bishop Riah Abu El-Assal, the Episcopal Bishop of Jerusalem and the Middle East, Bishop Munib Younan, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land

Enjoying a light moment: l to r - Sarosh Koshy (my NCC Colleague), Willard Bass (Alliance of Baptists who serverd as chaplain for the meeting), Jon Barton (Virginia Council of Churches, who brought issue immediately following to our attention) andStanley Bhasker (Presbyterian Church USA)

A Christian Response to the 400th Anniversary Commemoration
of the Founding of Jamestown, Virginia in 1607
Received by the Governing Board on Sept. 25, 2006

National Council of Churches Interfaith Relations Commission meeting in Montreal, Quebec, receives with gratitude an overture from the Virginia Council of Churches on the commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the settling of Jamestown in 2007. The events of 1607 inaugurated the shared history of 400 years, weaving together diverse peoples and cultures. This commemoration is an occasion to appreciate the past, but it also offers an opportunity for repentance, reconciliation and healing.

For some of us who are Native American this event begins a long history of invasion, genocide, exploitation, and the denigration and loss of native land and religious traditions. For others of us who are African American this event marks the port of entry of slavery and forced migration. Yet, in spite of this painful history, we are grateful to God that we have survived and thrived in this land.

This event also marked the beginning of the permanent presence of Protestantism in North America. The church too has thrived in this land. However we recognize and confess that many churches had much to do with the structures that supported racism.

The 2007 commemoration of the founding of Jamestown provides a kairos opportunity for Christian churches to focus upon their solidarity with indigenous peoples and reaffirm our commitment to combat racism.

Expecting that the familiar traditional accounts of European settlement will dominate the celebration the Governing Board of the NCCCUSA encourages the community of Christian communions in the USA, to:

* Be involved in activities that bring forward those parts of the history of the
event that have often been forgotten or omitted.

* Continue to stand against racism in all its forms

* Prepare and distribute resources that reveal the complexities and complicities of missionary efforts that resulted in the destruction of cultures and religions, the desecration of religious sites, and other actions that created a culture intolerant to the spirituality of indigenous and enslaved peoples.

* Since we are living at a time of unprecedented cultural and religious diversity in this land,
review and reflect on the degree to which current missiologies tend to promote lifestyles that perpetuate the exploitation of people, and that stand in the way of enabling their self-determination.