PEACE PROBE by Gene Stoltzfus

Interfaith Dialogue: Who needs it for Peacemaking by peaceprobe
December 1, 2006, 12:25 pm
Filed under: Interfaith Dialogue

Greetings. My name is Jon Reeves. I met you about a year and a half ago at Southwestern Assemblies of God University in Waxahachie, TX.I am now a M.Div. student at Brite Divinity School, Texas Christian University, and I have a favor to ask of you. I am currently enrolled in a grad seminar on interfaith dialogue, and this week I am giving my final presentation on the place of interfaith dialogue in peacemaking. Would you mind commenting on the importance of interfaith dialogue in peacemaking? You don’t have to write much, but, given your work with CPT, I think my classmates will benefit from any answer you have to offer.

Dear Jon,   

Thank you for your question. Interfaith dialogue and cooperative interfaith work regularly occurs in peacemaking. Often the two terms interfaith and intrafaith are confused. Intrafaith implies working across denominational lines of the Christian world or the subsets of another religion whereas interfaith implies working across religions. The terms interfaith or interfaith dialogue refer to cooperative interaction between people of different religious traditions, at both the individual and institutional level leading to tolerance and mutual respect. There is a need for both in the work of peacemaking where the person of faith takes a stand within the context of conflict and violence and where peace is a basic human need. In my comments I will share from both an intrafaith i.e. Christian , and the interfaith experience.

Intrafaith Peacemaking: Every expression of Christianity that I know of takes the Bible’s record of Jesus and the context of his life seriously. When it does so it is inherently enmeshed in to Gospel of Peace. Because of this direct connection there is a basis for dialogue and often a basis for action or building alliances, coalitions, or worship experiences. I need not remind you that there are many divisions among Christians about what constitutes legitimate peacemaking. However in the context of violence those intrafaith divisions are muted and sometimes even forgotten. 

Several years ago when I was with Christian Peacemaking Teams (CPT) we were asked by a local group to join a prayer vigil on Viequez island off the coast of Puerto Rico. A major chunk of that island had been appropriated by the US Navy for use in target practice. This had gone on since World War II and local people were distraught with the disruption created by the explosion of ordinance to their daily lives. People from all over Puerto Rico had become involved in the work to get the target practice on the island stopped. As part of the support for this local movement leadership from all the Christian communities, Evangelical, Pentecostal, Catholic and Protestant joined to protest and work against this condition. 

CPT was asked to send occasional delegations to support these efforts and to join the local peace efforts on the island. The participation of Christians from the mainland was warmly welcomed and led to a variety of common efforts including extended prayer vigils at the site, joining local people who entered the target area to give visibility to the destruction (sometimes led to arrests), and participation with Christian leaders in press conferences. The enormous unity among Puerto Ricans especially among Christians helped lead to the end of the use of Viequez Island as a place to practice shooting for the Navy’s big guns. In this case, technically interfaith dialogue occurred along the way as a natural outcome from common goals and work together. 

In some situations like Colombia the cultural milieu has Christian content that goes back generations I experienced the willingness to dialogue differently. Even here where there is a significant rift between traditional Catholic faith expression and newer evangelical and Pentecostal churches the basic thirst for peace and a culture of justice is deeply felt. As we entered the community we deliberately introduced ourselves to evangelical and Catholic leaders. In some cases our introduction led to extended discussions about the Gospel of peace. At various times we found ourselves joining with evangelical leaders to engage in prayer vigils for peace and justice. Since Vatican II Catholic leadership has been committed to the work of peace and justice although it ebbs and flows depending upon the setting. 

Some years ago our team joined with Colombians in an extended fast and vigil during lent. The prayer center was located in the center of the city of Barancabermaja very near the main Catholic church. During Holy week the pastor of the local parish invited CPT members or others people engaged in the fast to announce the vigil at each of the masses and invite Catholic people to join. As part of the build up to Easter the vigilers decided to have a foot washing service on Good Friday evening. Some of the CPT team members had come from denominations that practiced foot washing in the spirit of the Last Supper. As the vigilers began their service of foot washing others from the city joined in the foot washing, including soldiers. The event grew from a moment to remember the way in which Jesus and disciples completed their time together at the Last Supper into celebration of hope for the time when soldiers and non soldiers, guerillas and poor peasants, abusers and abused would be reconciled to a world of service for one another. 

In our work we have learned to persistently call all people who name the name of Jesus to the core of the Gospel of Peace. In CPT all of us reject the use of guns and have chosen the instruments of nonviolence to replace them. We recognize that this conviction is not shared by all Christians but we have been amazed to discover how often people welcome an absolute commitment to nonviolence because they see that it opens doors for dialogue, creativity, and hope filled initiatives otherwise unavailable. We have learned that actions based upon our core commitments lead to dialogue in academia and with the common folks. What we have done is just a beginning. In general our experience is that interfaith dialogue about peacemaking takes on content and focus when direct action is included in the content of the dialogue. 

These two examples of grassroots interfaith peacemaking demonstrates how the work leads to fresh dialogue and new possibilities for understanding scripture and the work of the church. We have only touched the surface of an amazing world of opportunity for interfaith work. Peacemaking in the spirit of the Gospel of Peace holds enormous possibility in this world where peace is such a basic human need.

Every expression of Christianity that I know of takes the Bible’s record of Jesus and the context of his life seriously. When it does so it is inherently enmeshed in to Gospel of Peace. Because of this direct connection there is a basis for dialogue and often a basis for action or building alliances, coalitions, or worship experiences because of common interest. I need not remind you that there are many divisions among Christians about what constitutes legitimate peacemaking. However in the context of violence those divisions are muted and sometimes even forgotten. 

Interfaith peacemaking: I have also worked extensively in the Muslim world where despite negative perceptions arising from international politics there are wide margins of access for dialogue and common work. In Palestine and Iraq we learned to confidently identify ourselves as Christians with a very specific work, peacemaking. The Christian identity set the stage for confidence building dialogue and common work. Like Christians, Muslims have an abiding mandate to work for peace arising from their Holy Book the Koran. 

I was a member of a small group of peacemakers that visited many Sunni and Shiite mosques in a quest to build confidence and peace initiatives. Often these visits began without outside introductions, in the cold. The typical visit would begin seated comfortably on the floor with a local Sheik or Imam and one or more assistants. The conversation would begin with us introducing ourselves as Christian peacemakers and a description of work in other parts of the world. The leadership would then refer to Koranic teachings regarding how Islamic believers should relate to and respect Christians. The clerics also summarized Islamic teachings on peacemaking. 

Over two hours there was an exchange of stories of peacemaking around the world and local efforts often related to human rights and imprisoned neighborhood people or others who were killed in a questionable raid. These conversations gained momentum often concluded with an elaborate, tasty meal together. Over time as these local leaders learned about and gave thought to peacemaking work further discussions about cooperative work ensued. 

By the second visit local Sheiks often had assembled a list of persons who had either disappeared or urgently needed support in detention. Sometimes we were asked to help arrange discussions about security issues with the forces of occupation. As time progressed delegations from various mosques would arrange to visit us in our apartment. Always these visits were accompanied by teachings from them on the nature of Islam and its peaceful intent. Sometimes there were detailed inquiries on how we do peacemaker teams work with the inference that something like that could be done in Islam. Over time we were able to help with some training in this regard. 

When four CPT workers were taken hostage Nov. 26, 2005 there was a firm and sustained outcry of support for their release from a wide assortment of national and international Muslim associations. Common work over the last ten years in Palestine first and later in Iraq laid the groundwork for this support. It was not exceptional in our case. This is the kind of support that is typical for the Muslim world where peacemaking, justice and spiritual struggle are deeply rooted in spiritual life. The larger problem for Muslims and Christians is the manipulation of believers by violent sub groups who have restricting and often mean political objectives. We have learned to tenderly navigate the subjects of 9/11 and the crusades both of which have taken root in the memory of millions of Christians and Muslims. 

In the experience of peacemaking I have not had the luxury of carefully choreographed dialogues however I believe that such efforts can help create the basis for common work for peace. Rooted deeply in all major world religions is a quest for peace. We have a great deal to learn from one another in practical matters. Interfaith work however, is not just a good idea to get us all to work together. Real interfaith work carried on by people of faith pushes us deeper into the roots of our faith and opens us to surprises.


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