Who decides who can be in a dialogue?

Not long ago I was in a conversation where we were brainstorming about a potential dialogue when my Muslim colleague surprised me by saying “I heard that Dr W (name withheld) is a lesbian, so don’t invite her to the dialogue, because we only want people who accept the normative Christian beliefs.”  I responded by saying that Dr. W has never told me she is a lesbian but it bothered me that I didn’t say more. I wanted to point out that we don’t tell him who he can and cannot invite to dialogue with us from the Muslim context he represents.  I wanted to ask why he thought he could decide for us Christians who was “normative” in our tradition, or not.  I wanted to ask him why he thought he could know in advance who was going to be of value to him as a dialogue partner or not.

In another dialogue planning context, planning for an event involving  “Abrahamic religions”, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the question was raised as to why Aboriginal voices were not being invited to the dialogue table at this event.  The answer given was that it muddied the waters, since “they” were not of the Abrahamic religions.  Seriously? I wondered to myself.  Do aboriginals only have a valid voice at the table when they are there to represent Aboriginal spiritualities?  Did they mean to imply that an Aboriginal Christian has no voice at the interfaith dialogue table?

In yet a third dialogue planning context, the question of who were the ideal participants to be invited for that dialogue was raised.  This time it was a question of whether to invite academics of a religion that also practiced that religion, or the religious leaders within a given religious tradition. Because of the topic, some of the group felt it was important to have the academic leaders, as long as they were believers, others opted for the academics who knew the most about the topic to be discussed, and yet others thought that involving the leaders from the faith communities would be the most important, since the results of the discussion could then have the possibility for a wider dissemination and influence in the community.

Several years ago I had been part of planning a dialogue between Mennonite Christians and Shi’ite Muslims from Iran.  Our criterion for who could participate was limited by those people who had already been involved in the two previous academic dialogues we had held together.  Recognizing that our Canadian context had many of us living side by side, but not really knowing one another, we wanted to create a way to invite our local communities to participate.  We envisioned doing this through a public panel, where our dialogue story could be told together, and then by inviting observers from the local communities to attend and listen in to our already decade-long conversation.  But some members of the wider community in Canada, upon receiving an invitation to observe our dialogue, objected to who we were in dialogue with.  They objected to the notion that those people could adequately represent Shi’ism at the dialogue table [ implying that those contesting the dialogue could decide for us who/what is “normative”] and they judged both our and our dialogue partners as having the wrong motivations for dialogue [implying they were in a position to know best for us all].  By the time the dialogue event took place we were forced to meet under police protection and the public panel was shut down by the police because of the aggressive hostility of the protestors in the audience towards our dialogue guests. When the next round of dialogues took place in Iran, the public was again invited to observe.  Indeed, even women were allowed into a facility that normally only men are allowed in to. No one contested our right, as Mennonites, to represent a Christian voice at the dialogue table. No one challenged our motivations, as North Americans, for engaging in the dialogue there.  On the whole we encountered curiosity, deep listening, engaged questions, a dialogical spirit and built relationships that continue to go both ways.

In another context criteria for dialogue were defined to me this way, “like talks to like.”  I find myself resistant to that approach.  Globalization among other things increasingly puts us in contact with different people and different ideas.  Disagreements are inevitable.  Fostering a dialogue culture that avoids deep disagreements by limiting who we are “allowed” to dialogue with will only increase our problems.  We cannot learn constructive ways of dealing with conflict if we only talk to those we agree with, or with those who we have decided in advance are acceptable dialogue partners.

Does accountability to our larger community context mean they get to decide in advance who valid dialogue partners for us are? Should there be specific criteria for deciding who can be at a given dialogue table, or criteria that eliminate certain partners from being at the table? Do participants in interfaith dialogue self-select, or do the inviting partners get to decide who can represent the other? Who gets to decide who will sit at the dialogue table?

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5 thoughts on “Who decides who can be in a dialogue?

  1. Susan,
    Wow! I first just want to applaud you for all your work in the interfaith field. Your trip to Iran is something I dream about doing one day. To see that there is an example of someone who has already traveled that path gives me great hope.
    Did you ask any of those questions? Did you present how problematic a word like “normative” can be in a religious setting? I guess my question is did you confront the people in that place and at that time? I would be interested to hear their reasoning. Sometimes when we force the words out into the air, people can hear how divisive they are being.
    I would like to take the opportunity to offer an answer to your question. We decide who gets to participate in dialogue. We invite those that agree with our positions, but more importantly we invite those who would challenge our opinions. Sometimes the effort to simply include someone and to be willing to listen to an alternative perspective can make all the difference. Just by saying “you have a valid opinion and I am willing to hear you out” will change the environment, and begin the process of building bridges.
    Your story was inspiring, thank you for sharing.

  2. I really appreciate your statement that: “We cannot learn constructive ways of dealing with conflict if we only talk to those we agree with, or with those who we have decided in advance are acceptable dialogue partners.”

    From my feminist perspective, the question of who gets invited to the table is one of power and control. It’s too simplistic to say that the table should just be open to everyone…certainly there are times when, for safety or focus, the group needs to be limited. (We encounter this in my community around issues of gender discrimination and the need for women-only space.) However, anytime the invite list is limited, I immediately want to know: Who is doing the limiting? WHY? Are they aware that being able to include/exclude others is a place of power? Do they want/need to control the conversation in some way?

    Pushing back, as you are doing, is very helpful I think…. often the very discomfort that prompts the exclusion is a signal that there is an area that needs to be explored…with respect and curiosity, of course.

    Finally, as a Lesbian Christian I want to say THANK YOU for noticing that I have a claim to my faith tradition, too! Thank you for being my ally and for working to make room at the table.

    1. Thanks for naming the ways power and control are part of the dynamic that shapes whose voices are at a dialogue table.

  3. Susan, thank you for this piece. The questions of who is and is not invited to a table and why are questions all of us working in interbelief encounters struggle with. My biggest struggle in interbelief dialogue is not just who to invite but how to get those invited to accept. The people who are already inclined toward interbelief cooperation are already inclined to accept the invitation. I want to get the people who are not inclined to the table too. As someone who is not religious, many people are automatically disinclined from sitting at a table with me once they hear this fact. These are the people I most want to talk to. These are the people whose stories I most want to hear. I want them to hear my story as well.

    1. I can really relate to that struggle of how to get those who are invited to come to the table, to actually come. it is a real struggle, as you noted. I appreciate your struggle to find people who would be willing to dialogue with you as a nonreligious person. Your comments reminded me of my experiences leading Scriptural Reasoning at the University. Although designed to bring Muslims, Christians and Jews together in mutual scripture study, I have over the years been asked to include some nonreligious persons in the group. I have often found them the most helpful participants because they can ask the “best” questions by not having preconceived ideas about what a given scripture text means/meant. Their questions and perspectives have been helpful for helping the religious practitioners learn to explain their ideas in ways that can be intelligible in a context where they cannot assume the listener has a shared background. It grows their ability to formulate their thinking, their ability to articulate it, and their ability to empathize with those who don’t see the world the way they do.
      It also reminded me of an occasion when a Muslim cleric was informed that person A, a Christian, considered him to be “lost.” He really wanted to meet that Christian person to discuss and understand why they would hold this opinion of him (in advance of ever knowing him).

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