I marveled at these experiences. How I wished my countrymen could try it. What a difference it might make if public schools in my country started their day with a recognition of religious wisdom and diversity. What a difference it might make with respect to religious tolerance, religious acceptance, religious understanding. What a difference it might make in preventing religious violence.
The problem is exclusivity. Christians misuse sayings of Jesus to promote Christian imperialism. Jews use ancient promises in their tradition to justify occupation of another people. Muslims misuse the Koran to uphold acts of terror against the innocent. Fundamentalist Hindus foment violence against their Muslim neighbors.
In each and every case, adherents to each religion claim exclusive rights to the truth and the path to the divine. In ruling out the pathways of others, they lay the ground for dissension and violence.
In my own Christian denomination, the United Church of Christ, I'm grateful we are a "united and uniting" church. We are a combination of three Protestant communities that joined together in the 1950's. We have also been working consistently to work more closely with others and heal some of the brokenness in the body of Christ, the church. We pride ourselves on being a welcoming church, the first major denomination to recognize the ordination of women and of gays and lesbians. Still, we are light years behind the need.
As Christians continue their efforts to talk to each other, the world is aflame with inter-religious conflict. And with each new spate of violence, more people despair of religious understanding or succumb to the inevitability of warfare.
Here in Brookings, South Dakota, we have an inter-faith dialogue. We have been meeting for two years now, once a month. The evening begins with a meal. When the Hindu community is host, we know we will have an excellent vegetarian meal. When we visit the Islamic Center, we anticipate and enjoy dishes common to the Muslim community. When we are hosted in a Christian church or at the public library, we know we will sit down to a buffet of excellent pot luck.
Conversation and discussion follows the meal. We avoid presentations and experts. All questions and comments are acceptable, as long as they are respectful and don't steal speaking time from others. We have gone from the polite to all questions are appropriate. We include persons who are Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, Bahai, Quaker, Agnostic and Atheist. We find our traditions often have similarities we didn't recognize before.
Because the Hajj had just concluded, at our last session, we found ourselves exploring the topic of pilgrimage. We discovered how many of our group, from several different traditions, all had a profound experience of pilgrimage. The characteristics of each were common. It confirmed again the words of Ramakrishna, the nineteenth century saint: "God has made different religions to suit different aspirations, times and countries. All doctrines are only so many paths; but a path is by no means God himself. Indeed, one can reach God if one follows any of the paths with wholehearted devotion."
Gandhi respected all the wisdom traditions. A way of nonviolence does as well. But even more important, those of us who profess nonviolence must constantly find ways to practice and preach inclusivity, rather than the violence of the exclusive.
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