Practicing Pluralism & Protecting Religious Freedom

Practicing Pluralism & Protecting Religious Freedom July 31, 2015

Both Rev. Dana Trent, author of Saffron Cross, and Alicia Chandler, co-founder  of AJC Access Detroit, recently posted pieces exemplifying pluralism, through respective discussions on interfaith marriage and raising multi-faith children.Their practice of pluralism is possible because they are in settings where there is mutual respect  for another’s religious path. Pluralism and religious freedom can go hand in hand when conditions promote an open and fair exchange of ideas: there really is a choice. However, in places like earthquake-ravaged Nepal, much needed aid is provided along with the message of the gospel and “invitation” to convert, amidst the devastation and poverty. Here, pluralism is hard to achieve – and whose religious freedom we are protecting is even harder to identify.

In her memoir a few years ago, Rev. Trent told the story of her marriage to the former Hindu monk, Fred Eaker, accurately captured by the subtitle: “the Unlikely Story of How a Christian Minister Married a Hindu Monk.” In herrecent blog, she explains how Christians “get it wrong” – and illustrates with a select passage from Corinthians that the couple examined together:

Do not be mismatched with unbelievers. For what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness? Or what fellowship is there between light and darkness?   (2 Corinthians 6:14, NRSV)

We are led through their discovery process to the energetic embrace of difference that is pluralism:

…We tackled 2 Corinthians 6:14 head on, digging and wondering. The result was surprising.

An ancient scripture meant to deter us from getting involved with each other actually brought us together. Our core beliefs in God became the focus of our study and relationship, not the issues that divided us.

Alicia Chandler’spost about raising multi-faith children explains that exposing their children to both her own Jewish faith and her husband’s Catholic faith, helps them develop their religious identity and appreciate religious diversity.  Her explanation leads us to understand how they are doing so with respect and equity, and is drenched in pluralism:

And we will lose if we were to allow our faiths to be pitted in a competition against each other so our home was a place of contention instead of one of love and kindness. “Do you secretly hope you will win?” Yes, I do hope we will win.

Both women are able to articulate the importance of faith in their lives, in the lives of their families, and the value of each respective faith as well as respect another’s faith. They find pluralism, and do so in a way that is peaceful. Acknowledging that both religions can coexist without contention, or realizing that different religious paths can both be valid is not so easy when there is an imbalance of power, as I pointed out a few years ago.

A  recent Reuters report on Nepal’s draft language in the constitution, drew criticism from Christians and Muslims. Because it seeks to ban religious conversion, it will likely draw challenges from religious freedom hawks everywhere. But the path to pluralism in Nepal and other disaster-hit or poverty-stricken regions is quite rocky: the conversation involves conversion, but not among equals.

Nepal recently faced earthquakes that left many devastated, both emotionally and physically, with everything from homes to houses of worship destroyed, There are many faith-based organizations from around the world – such as the Hindu temple in my neighborhood – that are providing money and services to help the largely Hindu nation. It is no surprise that the new language in Nepal’s constitution presents challenges to any religion – minority or not – that seeks converts. However, that these “religious minorities are concerned about  [its] impact on their religious freedom” led me to think about two of my interfaith friends and their positions on religious diversity contrasted with this rather different context.

The draft language of the constitution attempts to address the strife that religious conversion causes:

“…any act which may be contrary to public health, public decency or morality or incitement to breach public peace or act to convert another person from one religion to another or any act or behavior to undermine or jeopardize the religion of each other is not allowed and such act shall be punishable by law.”

The “breach to public peace” due to exclusivism – where one religious path claims that others are not valid – is not easily understood. But what really happens when organizations like World Relief Durham, go to Nepal and provide much needed services and aid? World Relief Durham is a Christian-values based organization that distinguishes between evangelism and proselytism, and provides this definition:

“…to evangelize is: (in the words of the Manila Manifesto) ‘to make an open and honest statement of the gospel, which leaves the hearers entirely free to make up their own minds about it. We wish to be sensitive to those of other faiths, and we reject any approach that seeks to force conversion on them.”

If a person comes with power and provisions – and a message that “Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”  (John 14-6 NRSV), is a person in need, whose mental or emotional balance has been disrupted by natural disaster, ”entirely free” to choose? Further, if that path is rooted in an exclusive pluralism without acceptance of another path as also having validity, there is potential for disrupting public peace. Perhaps Nepal’s draft constitution seeks to protect and nurture that energetic engagement of religious diversity, something inherent in the ethos of this mostly Hindu nation, and especially to protect the religious freedom of those who have so little. Shouldn’t everyone be able to have the kind of pluralism practiced by Alicia and Dana?

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