Global Religion and Isolationist Dialogue

As I read through various newspapers these last few weeks the news brought me this:

  • Christian churches burned in India, with pastors and members terrorized by Hindu nationalists while the police did nothing.
  • More threats by Arab and Iranian Muslims against Israel, with a backdrop of hatred for Jews stoked by Muslim leaders.
  • Shi’ite and Ahmadiyya mosques in Pakistan burned by Sunni extremists, and vandalism of mosques in the US by Christians.
  • And so on.

Yet in the last few weeks when I’ve attended inter-religious dialogue meetings in the US all I’ve heard is a succession of religious leaders telling me that their religion honors and respects other religions and religious people.

It is small wonder that, as a friend of mine says, inter-religious dialogue is a small concern for a small minority of people. As fascinating as it is for us in that small minority, it seems completely unrelated to the larger world of relationships between religious people; relationships fraught with violence.

And frankly when religious leaders speak in respect filled tones about mutual love and understanding they sound incoherent when their co-religionists are busy burning churches, or mosques, or synagogues, or temples and are engaged in vicious sectarian violence.

Yet the reason for reluctance to engage global religious realities is clear. There is the danger that inter-religious dialogue in the United States will become a proxy war for religio-political conflicts elsewhere. For decades dialogue with Jews has been hampered by the identification of Judaism and Islam with the struggles between Israelis and Palestinians. As Christians have taken sides (and Christians have taken both sides) they were drawn into this conflict as well.

The same thing has happened when Christians and Hindus, or Hindus and Muslims become engaged in dialogue in the US. Conflicts between Christians and Hindu nationalists in Orissa, or between India and Pakistan quickly loom up and whether they are at root political, economic, or cultural they overwhelm the discourse. Even dialogue between Hindus and Buddhists can get caught up in the vortex of ethnic and political violence in Sri Lanka or Nepal.

And of course American Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, and Jews don’t believe themselves responsible for the deeds of their (often radicalized) co-religionists. Why should a third generation Muslim in the US answer for the work of the Taliban?

Yet at some point inter-religious dialogue in the United States needs to find a way to be engaged with the reality of global religious conflicts without getting bogged down in proxy political haggling. The religious impulses to conflict and violence cannot be dismissed just because they are chronologically or geographically distant. If those religious impulses dwell in Pakistan, or Serbia, or Israel, or India or Sri Lanka then they dwell in the United States as well. If our dialogue is to be relevant to global religion, and indeed our own society, we cannot cut ourselves off from the reality of conflict lived out daily elsewhere in the world.

In an upcoming blog I’ll address how to do this.


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