Interfaith Alliance and Human Rights First worked as partners on the national initiative called Faith Shared, as did Tad Stahnke, my colleague from the HRF staff, and I. All of us benefitted from the wise counsel of our friends at Rabinowitz/Dorf.
With great gratitude for the opportunity to stand in this historic pulpit again, I come here today to share with you a challenge and good news about the promise of this moment and the possibilities of positive change in our world. Seldom, if ever before, have the monotheistic Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—faced as positive an opportunity as that which exists right now. Our religions’ words and actions can help shape our country and impact the international community for great good.
A harried, schismatic, fragmented, and skeptical world is ready and eager to be surprised by the discovery of the power of these religions to promote understanding, nurture mutual respect, and lead residents of our global village in taking a giant step toward domestic tranquility, inter-religious cooperation, and international peace.
Governments, special interest groups, and ideologues have not been able to accomplish these goals. We now know that isolationism is impossible, condemnation does not work, and demonization makes everything worse. It is little wonder that each of our traditions has been trying to tell us since their inceptions that diversity is a divine gift and living in fellowship is the divine way. But, religion is yet to be fully tried as a source for help in this regard—real religion that is, holistic religion, religion at its non-manipulated, un-tampered-with best.
Let me be specific and suggest to you a strategy with which to begin or to continue our faith-based efforts to restore a modicum of mutuality, security, and a shared-goal of cooperative unity in our world and to highlight the powerful healing influence of real religion practiced with disciplined devotion.
Reading each other’s scriptures as we have done in corporate worship this morning is a good way to begin. This practice models a starting place for learning, seeking understanding, and growing in respect for each other’s sacred books and the traditions they have inspired.
But, we must be careful here—proceed with caution as well as with resolve. As we read each other’s scriptures, we must keep in mind a fundamental principle of sound scriptural interpretation. No one verse or one passage in any book of scripture should be allowed to hijack and hold hostage the central truth, the overarching as well as pervasive moral mandate, which emerges from the full sweep of truth in that scripture. Cherry-picking texts isolated from the whole of the scriptures in which they are found allows mean-spirited people to turn the scriptures of our religions into weapons rather than respect them as sources of truth that begets love.
Each of the Abrahamic religions can be and has been severely distorted and selfishly or politically prostituted by people ripping scripture passages in its tradition from their historical, literary, and theological contexts. Critics of Islam continue to blame the Qur’an for mandating Muslims to eradicate non-Muslims from the face of the earth. Critics of Christianity fault certain passages in the gospels for crusaders marching as if to war to convert or murder Muslims and Jews in the name of Jesus. Critics of Judaism denounce principles and practices in the Torah as inspiration for ongoing conflict in the Middle East. There is no inequity in the redundancy of untruths based on inappropriate and outright wrong interpretations of our scriptures. Read them, please, and you will see for yourself.
The second step in my recommended strategy for better cooperation and a world-wide demonstration of the positive power and healing force of religion is a rock-solid commitment to and vigorous public support for religious freedom. Freedom is religion’s best friend. Indeed apart from people’s freedom to make choices and act on decisions related to religion, there is no authentic religion.
One week from tomorrow, citizens of the United States will celebrate again our nation’s independence and the unique experiment in government envisioned, structured, and launched by our wise founders. Let us not forget that the first freedom among those visionaries, the freedom that became the cornerstone in the architecture of this democracy, was religious freedom—for everybody.
More than 200 years before the United States became the most religiously diverse nation in the world, the founders of this government gave us a formula for dealing with that diversity in a manner that is good for religion, good for inter-religious cooperation, and good for government: no establishment of religion and the free exercise of all religions.
These early patriots knew that unless all people are free, none are really free. If Muslims are not free to construct mosques, Sikhs to build gurdwaras, Hindus to erect temples, Buddhists to build shrines, Jews to build synagogues, and others to remain non-religious, Christians will not be free to construct church buildings.
Religious freedom deserves profound devotion and support from all of us.
A third step in a strategy for demonstrating the positive force of religion and the power of inter-religious cooperation is a resolve—a firm resolve—that we—all of us—will walk together. A vision of “walking together” is as old as all of our scriptures, as basic as government itself, and as contemporary as the stories in this morning’s news.
All three of the religions in our focus this morning embrace walking together as a powerful metaphor for spiritual maturation—for Jews, a pilgrimage as in the Exodus journey; for Christians, “the way” of walking in Jesus’ steps; and for Muslims, the hadj, one of the five pillars in Islam.
Walking together is a spiritual discipline that involves all of us not attempting to become just like each other, conforming to one mindset, personality, political identity, belief, or religion, believing that homogeneity is not desirable even if it were possible, but journeying alongside each other with respect for each other, becoming comfortable with each other after getting to know each other, learning from each other, all staying the course even when it is difficult, sharing energy, moving inexorably toward a shared goal, knowing that the journey itself is as important as the arrival and that there will be no arrival without a shared journey.
But walking together does not come easily or happen accidentally. The ancient Hebrew prophet named Amos asked, “Will two walk together unless they have agreed to do so?” “No,” he answered immediately. Walking together is an act of the will—it requires an appointment; it is a result of intention. Interestingly, the prophet’s appeal was to human wisdom not to divine intervention. God is not the problem; we are. God is waiting on us to walk together.
Well, that’s it—the makings of a strategy for meeting the challenge of a divided world in a manner that can give religion a new name, a new influence, and new respect.
What we have done together in this great Cathedral this morning along with similar services in houses of worship across our nation can alter the image and substance of our nation as well as of religion. Today’s wonderfully written liturgy informed by Islam, Judaism, and Christianity declares unambiguously, “We are not exclusive isolationists, rather citizens of the world,” “We are not scripture burners but scripture readers,” “We are not fear-mongers wanting only our way, we are peace makers seeking only God’s way.”
Last year on September 11, the day on which Muslims celebrated the end of Ramadan in 2010, in a national environment poisoned by the debris of hate, in Monroe, Louisiana, along with several members of the church in which I serve as pastor, I went to the Islamic Center of Northeast Louisiana to join the Friday prayers with our Muslim friends. With generous kindness and personal surprise, the imam spontaneously asked me to speak to the Muslim congregation. Seldom have I felt the intensity, warmth, and strength of fellowship that come from faith shared—shared faith—among people of different religions who understand that we are citizens of the same nation, stewards of one world, and brothers and sisters walking together a path that encourages a shared journey. How I hope and pray that my sentiments on that day can be experienced some day by all Americans in relation to all religions.
I close with a paraphrase of a historic document that calls us into a covenant which to keep, along with heeding the guidance of our scriptures, protecting our blessing of religious freedom, and reaching out to each other to walk together, provides us another way—a better way—of keeping our faith and saving the world. From the Mayflower Compact come these words:
We pledge to walk together,
In the ways of truth and affection,
As best we know them now
Or may learn them in days to come,
That we and our children may be fulfilled
And that we may speak to the world
In words and actions
Of peace and goodwill.