At a recent meeting of the Commission on Christian Jewish Relations (CCJR) here in Rochester, the members of the Commission were engaged in a painful and difficult discussion, arising out of the controversy that erupted over a letter, signed by leaders of fifteen Protestant religious denominations and organizations that was sent to Congress on October 5, 2012 asking that Israel be held accountable for monies sent to it by the United States in light of what the authors of the letter perceive to be human rights abuses by Israel against Palestinians and Israeli Arabs. The letter spawned a flurry of articles in various secular and religious newspapers and media outlets and angered a number of Jewish groups, including members of a dialogue roundtable that meets yearly to discuss the Israel/Palestine situation and of which a number of the signers of the letter were members. The Jewish members of that dialogue group canceled their October 23 meeting. As a commission dedicated to Christian Jewish dialogue in our local Rochester community, we believed we had to discuss this incident, as it had become a cause célèbre in American Christian Jewish relations. We knew it would be a difficult, painful and probably emotional discussion and we would have happily talked about something else if we could have, but we believed that to be true to our mission, we had to dive in, despite the discomfort it caused everyone on both sides of the controversy.
In the course of our conversations that day, we reflected upon what is the point of interreligious dialogue. Some people around the table believe that dialogue is not enough if it does not result in some visible action in the world. We briefly talked about what we could “do” as a commission to address the controversy that had erupted in the wake of the letter. One member of the commission then made a statement that I believe is critical to remember for those of us who engage in interfaith engagements of any kind: Dialogue IS action.
Indeed. Dialogue is action. For people to sit around a table and engage in substantive conversation about issues of mutual concern, about issues that are difficult to discuss across various divides is itself real action that makes a difference in the world. Interreligious dialogue is not mere idle chatter. While it does not aim to change anybody’s mind about fundamental religious beliefs, nor even about real world political and economic realities that often stem from such beliefs, it does some really important things that have real world consequences. First and foremost, it creates relationships. Real flesh and blood relationships between people who might otherwise never get to know one another very well. And those relationships matter a lot. Those of us on the CCJR have built deep levels of trust and respect between us and when these controversies erupt, and we have wildly different perspectives on the substance of the controversy, we nonetheless are able to engage in respectful, and even loving, conversation across those huge divides. That is not nothing. When people in conflict can see the person on the other side as a friend whose feelings matter, the whole tenor of the dialogue changes. The need to be absolutely right diminishes as the desire to find some common ground arises. Stereotypes are shattered and the religious “other” becomes a human being with a face and a name. Relationships can be transformative, and transformation is what most religious traditions invite their adherents into.
That same week the Interfaith Chapel hosted the first Scriptural Reasoning event, gathering Jewish, Christian and Muslim students in the “Tent of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar” (literally – in a tent!) on the River Level of our chapel. This was a first tentative step in bringing these students together to talk about their respective sacred scriptures, sharing with each other out of their own experiences and beliefs and beginning to learn to listen to one another as they presented their own scriptures to one another. This was a new experience for these students, some of whom have not engaged in interreligious dialogue before. They are interested in learning how to do it and willing to learn about each other in more than superficial ways. As I watched and listened to them courageously discussing their own sacred texts with others for whom those texts are not so sacred, I was grateful for their willingness to go out on the emotional limb and open themselves to this dialogical process. Over time, I hope they will come to know one another and respect one another more deeply. As trust builds they will be able to share more and question more. It was a beginning and I was honored to be able to share it with them.
Dialogue IS action. Whether it’s a group like CCJR that has been together for many years and where the participants know each other well, or a group of college kids just coming together for the first time and not sure what its all about, dialogue is the beginning of relationship building. Relationships of trust and respect matter enormously in a world of sound bites and polarized political and social rhetoric. In a religiously pluralistic world dialogue between people of different religious traditions is action that matters because it builds bridges of compassion and understanding that can help temper conflicts when they inevitably arise and perhaps, even promote cooperation and problem solving.
When CCJR came together around our monthly dialogue table in the midst of a painful controversy, that dialogue was itself meaningful interfaith action. When the college students took time out of their ridiculously busy schedules to gather in the tent and dialogue with one another across their different religious traditions they were not just killing time or making small talk. They were acknowledging the interconnectedness of all of us. As St. Paul reminds the Corinthians, one member of a body cannot say to another “I have no need of you.” (1 Cor. 12:21) All of the human family is connected. We all have need of one another and when we engage in dialogue, particularly at difficult junctures, we acknowledge our interdependence and connection.