Susan Harrison: Why I am committed to building relationships with those from different religious and ethical traditions

Managing Director’s Note: beginning in the Spring of 2013, all Contributing Scholars will answer the following question as their first post: Why are you committed to building relationships with those from different religious or ethical traditions?

I have been described as “a consummate networker” when it comes to building bridges between people of other faiths. Many years ago, just prior to entering seminary, I became friends with a Muslim woman my age and seeing my faith and the world through her eyes changed everything for me. People of other religions and cultures were no longer people I needed to change to become a Christian like me (as I had been taught to believe, “the other” was missing something I had to give them) but full participants in humanity with something to teach me about human living and God. We share this planet together, and as we are able, we need to work together to cooperate at healing the world, and building safe and just societies for all persons. How I work at bridge-building is context dependent, always relationally based, and grassroots oriented. While there is a place for politicians and the world’s religious leaders to work at Peace treaties and formal dialogues, I am convinced that a strong civil and global society will depend on the everyday believer being empowered and part of the solution.

Weary of dialogue that pairs “like with like” or misunderstands peacemaking to be an elimination of differences, I work especially hard at helping people of deep difference to meet one another, and stay in relationship with one another long enough to be “converted” toward the humanity and value of the other, as a very different other. To this end I have given presentations and arranged academic panel discussions on the value of dialogue with and between religious fundamentalists. I have worked tirelessly at leading local Scriptural Reasoning groups at the University and Community levels. I have worked at creating occasions to provide private encounters between community religious leaders in conflict with one another. I facilitated and participated in numerous dialogues between Mennonite Scholars and congregations in North America and Shi’ite clergy from Iran, as well as dialogues with women in Iran.

I am committed to building these bridges and facilitating these relationships because I think that religion can be a powerful force for good in our world, and not only for harm. In my research I look at how Christian theology of “the other” has been used to justify persecution and violence towards others in past and recent history. And I challenge Christians to think about what implications it would have to take seriously – e.g. Jesus’ commands to Love both neighbor and enemy – when we are doing our theology of other religions. If our first task as Christians is to “love” the one who is different from us, religiously as well as in other ways, instead of our usual approach of trying to determine if they are “saved” or not, how will it re-define our relationships to them? I am convinced that when our starting point is an ethic of unconditional love for “the other” that relationships with those of different religions is an imperative part of worshiping God.

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5 thoughts on “Susan Harrison: Why I am committed to building relationships with those from different religious and ethical traditions

  1. I don’t know if this is a direct personal response to Susan but regardless I admire your persistence in bucking the trend in theological pursuits and reaching out to ‘others’. While I am not a God worshiper nor a believer I value those human forces that try to unite people. My Unitarian friends have taught me that universal truth to trust the integrity of every person, regardless. I am pondering how your essay would be as powerful to me without inserting religion into the dialog. I love you.

  2. Thanks Uncle Don ! I share your value of “the integrity of every person.” While I try to engage religious motivations for doing this, there are certainly motivations that can be informed by sources other than religion. I think that what is of import is valuing others as they are, and seeing that how they are different is a fundamental part of their human dignity. I want to challenge the religions to consider what it means to affirm the fundamental human dignity of all persons, and particularly how this demands that we then affirm the differences between us.

  3. I am drawn to Susan Harrison’s journey to seeing goodness in others and learning from them rather than assuming they have nothing to offer. What about the question of incomplete truth and untruth in all religions. For example, the Crusades were a contradiction of what Jesus taught. For the monotheistic religions atheism is an untruth for believers. Can room be made to state bone deep convictions within dialogue that grows out of trusting relationships?

    John Rempel, Toronto Mennonite Theological Centre

  4. Thanks for your responses Brian and John. One question back to you John is what is the relationship of “bone deep convictions” to an affirmation/possibility that *all* religions have incomplete truth and untruth ?
    With respect to dialogue and convictions my personal opinion, shaped through experiences and study, is that there is no such thing as dialogue that doesn’t come from some kind of place of conviction, although participants don’t always seem to be aware of what their non-negotiable convictions are, or where those boundaries start/end (how I interpret “bone deep”). I personally find dialogue that does not move beyond “religion show and tell” to flushing out the “bone deep” to be boring and not much more use than a “first date.” (date = interpersonal encounter) Indeed, a bad first date in the sense that it rarely leads to more meaningful encounters, which can ultimately lead to a trusting relationship. Trust takes time, allot of listening, allot of patience and forbearance. Bone deep convictions expressed outside of the context of trusting relationships often become talking “at” one another/monologues, instead of true dialogue. This is what occurs in apologetic, polemical, and non-constructive encounters. Having said that, admitting conflicting views and convictions is perhaps more honest than staying at “nice” but it’s also frightening and risky (it needs trust). I doubt that healthy societies, healthy interpersonal relationships, nor healthy human living, can truly take place apart from environments where people can learn to recognize they have bone deep convictions, respect that others have different ones, listen to understand (and if necessary, change), and learn to negotiate these constructively — including how to “agree to disagree in love.”

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