April 8, 2012
Barriers to Harmony? Forget the Reign of Difference
- Michael Reid Trice, PhD
Interfaith Harmony Week (IHW) takes place every year in the first full week of February. Inaugurated in 2010 through a unanimous vote at the United Nations, IHW is not an initiative to promote a 21st century soft-syncretism, where adherents of one religion over another drop the marks that distinguish them like so many charades, finally admitting with a knowing shrug and a wink that, “we’re all the same, right?” No. we aren’t. And what’s more, cultural anthropologists among those in related disciplines tell us that humans thrive on difference. So why promote harmony? Let’s return to this thought.
For the moment, consider that during IHW of 2013, 363 unique events promoting harmony took place in February around the world. In Nigeria the Interfaith Mediation Center initiated an evening titled: Imam and Pastor – From Vengeance to Forgiveness. In the Philippines’ Center for Islam and Democracy participants assessed the nature of shared peace even as conflict continues, in Denmark the organization Tro I Harmoni (Faiths in Harmony) held an event exploring the cardinal virtues of faith, hope and love in their country, and in Seattle, Washington we celebrated an evening under the heading: What are the Barriers to the Harmony we Seek? The Seattle event took place at Seattle University, and brought together a three-person panel from the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths. The panel represented leadership in mosques, synagogues, and congregations, who are working with the Seattle School for Theology and Ministry and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in order to end family homelessness in Western Washington.
The Seattle event went right to the heart of the matter: The core of religious conflict is not whether we promote harmony, but whether we first recognize the barriers to any hope for harmony in the first place. And, it should be said, barriers aren’t bad in themselves. As individuals, in our friendships, within our families and with colleagues, we require barriers of sorts that are distinguishing marks. I love to read a book more than Twitter, my best friendships are grounded in honesty and humor, my sense of family begins with genuine care, and my finest colleagues often prove unfailingly loyal to the team. All of these qualities are distinguishing marks that I value. The same is true of religious choices: I value refined questions over half-hearted answers, the idea of God’s highest quality being ‘grace,’ and peace-building as the highest public religious virtue bar none.
For reasons we don’t always see, human beings have problems in our own lives, in our relationships, with families and between religions, when such distinguishing marks become encoded with a stigmatization. By stigmatization I mean that barriers encroach on our healthy well-being. Self-loathing replaces healthy self-corrective, envy dissolves trust in friendship, one-up-man-ship erodes collegiality, and doctrinal diligence exceeds into religious and cultural animosities. In the parade of reasons that justify a hard line between ‘us’ and ‘them’, differences may swivel as guns in their turret. Conflict is first and foremost about the fear of difference. You are second-best, less significant, less right, less true, less worthy of value, and where I have the power to enforce difference I just might.
In Nigeria, upheaval of power balances led to layers of conflict that now require a commitment to reconciliation over vengeance. In the United States, popular fear of the cultural or religious ‘other’ translates into burned mosques or fatalities in a Sikh temple.
During Interfaith Harmony Week 2013, Seattle University wanted to first identify the nature of disruptive difference. The chief barrier to harmony between religions is a kind of excessive differentiation whereafter the return to harmony is often hard-fought in the face of such excess.
Today, the harmony we seek in our local communities and in the world are often efforts to recreate balances in power where the reign of difference became a rupture in our communities. The root of harmony in relationship is not located in the power of difference, after all. Interfaith Harmony Week was a success for the hundreds of venues across the globe because they took the idea of harmony seriously, as something more valuable than the reign of difference itself.
- Michael Reid Trice, PhD
Rooted in ancient Rome, yet also framed within the U.S. Constitution, is the idea of the public square or forum where “we the people” assemble to express our ideas and opinions. In Rome’s Forum stood the Rostra—a platform at the center of municipal life where public orators gathered to speak. The Rostra, named for the beak or ram at a ship’s prow, was lined with the rams of captured enemy warships, following the Roman victory at Antium in 338 B.C.E. The rams were hacked off the ships and then re-positioned on poles along that speaking platform. It is easy to imagine yourself at the Rostra with the Circus Maximus at your back and the gleaming marbled Coliseum before you. You feel the crosswinds of the orators’ ideas as if you were the ship’s ram pealing back the tide and cutting a course through the sea. You can navigate the sea by the stars if need be, but to navigate through public opinion to the truth requires that citizens listen and discern wisely, because even as they espouse public virtues in an ancient compact buttressed by trust, in the nearby Coliseum the masses watch carnage for sport. Life in and around the public square is complex. The same holds true today.
And expressing faith and values in the public square is also complex. To some “faith and values” can sound like code for the infusion of a religious element into an otherwise unalloyed public conversation. And yet, public discourse, as we know, has a history of being anything but one dimensional or pristine. Faith and values, when engaged in the public square, reflect the multi-dimensional realities we experience. When we lean into today’s realities we must discuss what has captured us in public discourse, what we are compelled to do as we cut through myriad opinions on matters such as immigration, the election of a U.S. President, and even the corrosive use of aspects of religion that may be co-opted and used to excuse violence around the world. Faith and values in the Public Square invites honest engagement about both ‘what,’ and particularly ‘why,’ you believe.
Additionally, we need to ask if there is something about living in the Pacific Northwest that shapes our specific view, making it different from others? We’ll need to assess that possibility together as well.
This blog is based on the belief that the contribution of faith and values is inseparable from the health of discourse in the public square—and not only because social responsibility is bound up in religious self-understanding. This contribution is necessary because our shared citizenry—that “we the people” part we publically solemnize—is central to the U.S. Constitution itself, particularly to the Bill of Rights. Within that document, the Establishment Clause is not about introducing a ditch and barbed-wire impediment between religious and secular life, between an imagined “us” and “them.” The document places all of us—the “We”—proximate to one another. The freedoms of Expression and Assembly allow “us” to stand at the Rostra and lean into the crosswinds of public discourse without fear of governmental retaliation and without the butts of rifles pounding at our doors. It frees us from experiencing violent carnage because discourse has ceased to be civil. And, as we engage in public discourse, our aim is not merely about reaching a least-common-denominator “common good,” which can be disguised as consensus or inertia in some cases. Rather, we are after “the greater good,” which holds for us the excellence of values in dialogue with one another, across religious and philosophical differences or even divides.
With a view to values and dialogue, a friend of mine, Marc Cohen, reminded me recently of a dialogue at the very beginning of Plato’s classic text, Republic. In the dialogue, a friend of Socrates, Polemarchus, threatens to drag a tired Socrates to a party. “I can force and coerce you to my will,” notes a determined Polemarchus. “But could you rather persuade me?” asks Socrates.
Isn’t honest dialogue, rather than coercion, the true indicator of the health of our democracy? Ultimately, what kind of model do we wish for ourselves, our families, and friends—the Rostra or the Coliseum?
Faith and values in the public square is about dialogue, persuasion rather than coercion, and the integrity of public engagement over against the fear that drives the tyranny of the urgent today. Words, dialogue, faith, values, the public square, persuasion and the Rostra—this is the story of civil discourse and who we are becoming as the public resonates with the questions we ask and the integrity of our responses. Happy writing.
Spring Sprung in 1964
— Michael Reid Trice
October 2012 begins a “year of faith” by marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council. That council took place astride the monumental ripsaw challenges to modern ecclesial life, and widely within the thematic twin trajectories of the nature of being Church (Lumen Gentium) and the future of that Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes). Even as these two documents were framed within the Council itself, their thematic resonance was evident throughout the entire Council. That autumn fifty years ago began an “ecumenical spring.”
Unlike prior Councils, Vatican II invited numerous ecumenical visitors, and that context set the stage for the flourishing of the “ecumenical spring.” The Council drafted a number of documents, including the foundational 1964 Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio), which was critical in movement towards inter-communion agreements between various faith traditions.
In global terms, Vatican II’s dialogues both hit their mark for fortifying essential global conversation, and largely missed the target in terms of the reception of these very dialogues into local communities. While global ecumenism continued ahead, local communities often lacked opportunities to participate in developing dialogues.
But that was 1964, and 2012 looks quite different. First, contemporary Christian denominational contexts are shrinking and/or embroiled in a discourse around sexual morality that creates unprecedented turmoil. Second, conciliar ecumenism—that is, ecumenical dialogue at level of a global council—is strained; even as new conciliar models arrive (such as Christian Churches And third, today’s context is much more interreligious and pluralistic than in 1964. Those involved in ecumenical dialogue are reconsidering those Vatican II texts that address religious freedom and interreligious relations, for example Decree on Religious Liberty (Dignitatis Humanae) and (Nostra Aetate).
Ultimately, ecumenists must sharpen their methodological hardware for a Christian context where the conversation is more sequestered, on the one hand, and is taking place within the complex worlds of multi-cultural and religious pluralism today, on the other. In the twenty-first century, we know that the Church’s ecumenical engagement in local, national and global environs will necessitate a call for renewal and an integrated ecclesial voice in response to the challenges of our time. Renewal will take courage of an undaunted kind, and not a new jargon that plays on the tired theme of an ecumenical winter. What we need is a new game plan. And one that responds to the clear challenges of our historical moment in the life of the Church.
Also see the full article Ecumenical, Interreligious and Global-The Future is Lutheran Buddhist?