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.