Interfaith Dialogue in a World of Hurt: Consider the Alternative
Editors' Note: This article is part of a Public Square conversation on Interfaith Dialogue. Read other perspectives here.
I admit that I am not the biggest fan of meetings devoted to interfaith dialogue. Too often they have a pablum-y quality, as participants smile and mumble their way around hard issues and as concrete steps toward justice are eschewed in favor of vague declarations about peace, love, and understanding. But I still hang in with a couple of interfaith circles in Los Angeles because there are clearly occasions when we would be lost without the capacity to draw upon interfaith friendships and the deep respect engendered by serious time spent in the company of interfaith colleagues (and these days I believe that "multifaith" is the preferred term).
Occasion and context are everything: When there is urgent peacemaking or justice-seeking work to be done is when the value of interfaith relationships comes to the fore. Examples include struggling against state torture, stopping sex trafficking, advocating for specific steps to curb gun violence, embracing the cause of low-wage workers and immigrants, standing up publicly to condemn outrageous acts of bigotry in the local area, and even pushing the transition away from fossil fuels for the sake of planetary health.
Given how easy and how natural it is for interfaith groups to be about some specific cause or action, it does remain striking to me how many of them still manage to be about nothing: about simply being in a room together, sipping tea and blathering niceties.
And here is a specific self-criticism directed at myself and at other Christian leaders who take part in interfaith dialogue. We do ourselves and our tradition a disservice when we pretend that it is acceptable or even advisable to leave the thorny Israel-Palestine issues off the table on the ground that these issues are too hot to handle. I am sorry to say that too many liberal Christian leaders, wracked by guilt over centuries of Christian anti-Semitism, and too many conservative Christian leaders, convinced that a full "restoration" of Israel is an essential precursor to Christ's glorious reign on earth, are basically unable to see straight when it comes to the Palestinian side of the argument: not just the massive displacement of Palestinians in the 1948 nakba (Arabic for "catastrophe") but their continuing displacement in an ongoing and illegal Israeli land grab.
It has been painful for me at times, and it has cost me a few friendships, but I have tried to be consistently clear that I can be no real friend to my Jewish colleagues if I perpetually bite my tongue regarding wrongful activities by the State of Israel. It goes without saying that any critique of Israel made by a Christian must be voiced with precision, restraint, and sensitivity to the existential concerns of the Israelis. But if a critique is never voiced at all, it only emboldens those in Israel and among Israel's American supporters who press for yet more expropriation of Palestinian land and yet harsher measures to impose true apartheid-like conditions on the Palestinian people.
My counsel to other Christian leaders on this matter is simply this: Do not make critiquing Israel your calling card, so to speak, within interfaith circles or you will surely be marginalized and rendered ineffective. Never say either more or less than is already being said by responsible Israel-based and Jewish-led peace groups. And, finally, (this should be obvious) only speak the truth in love. But do not fail to speak it at all, or you will no longer be engaging in interfaith dialogue; you will be engaging in mere interfaith diversion.
Rev. Peter Laarman is executive director of Progressive Christians Uniting, a network of congregations and individuals in Southern California. Ordained in the United Church of Christ, he previously served as senior minister at New York's Judson Memorial Church and worked in communications for the U.S. labor movement. He is a contributing editor at Religion Dispatches.