Published: Friday, September 22, 2006
Why hasn't religion brought peace to the Middle East?
By R. W. Dellinger
The greatest problem that religion must answer today is that it has not been a source of peace in the Middle East --- in fact, religious leaders have been the ones leading the charge for war.
Oftentimes in a society --- even in so-called religious nations --- there are forces more powerful motivating people than their faith.
Jesus is a model for peace, whose greatest political temptation --- and triumph --- was not joining the zealots of his day to wage a violent civil war against Roman rule.
These points were stressed by a rabbi, Muslim Imam and Mennonite Christian during a Sept. 14 "Peace Symposium" at Marymount College in Rancho Palos Verdes. The evening event, which drew some 100 people, marked not only the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorists attacks, but also the International Day of Peace on Sept. 21.
The symposium, part of an 11-day campaign for peace, was a collaboration among Marymount's Campus Ministry, Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies and Office of International Students Programs. Ken Zanca, professor of philosophy and religious studies, moderated the program.
"The great problem that religion must answer --- in fact, the indictment against religion --- is that it has not functioned at all in the Middle East as a source of peace," declared Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director of the Hillel Center at UCLA. "No prominent religious leader stands out, either in the Jewish community or Muslim community, in pursuing peace. Instead, religious leaders are leading the charge for war."
He said today's religious authorities have to ask themselves why religion isn't perceived by most people as being a force for good. And the key issue is whether religions can transcend self-interests and "self-rightedness" to achieve their lofty goal of a "universal unity" where all people celebrate the oneness of being.
Rabbi Seidler-Feller also stressed that the "magnificent secret" of monotheism is not that any one has a monopoly on the truth, but that members of all three great faiths are linked by the image of God. But too many contemporary believers, he said, have "zero tolerance" for members of other faiths, creating contempt and, too often, bloodshed.
A cleansing of hateful teachings in Judaism, Islam and Christianity must take place, noted the rabbi. And if these texts can't be reinterpreted, they must be refuted. Other "sources of darkness" in the three religions are nationalism vs. God, a reborn tribalism separating people from the common good and a return to biblical literalism.
In addition, he said, Jews often see themselves as victims, which is harmful because victims claim no moral responsibility.
Rabbi Seidler-Feller, however, stressed that there were many "counterforces" in the Bible against aggression and warfare, including God telling David that he could not build the temple because his hands were bloody. Moreover, the patriarch of all three great monotheistic faiths, Abraham, was "kept" for sacrificing Isaac.
"The angel of Yahweh saved his son," he pointed out. "And the grace of Abraham was that he realized God prevented that violent act. Because that God could not be cruel."
What motivates believers
Imam Jihad Turk said Islam was a continuation of the faith tradition of Abraham as seen in the teachings of Moses and Jesus - an example to be followed, not questioned and negated.
He recalled the cold-blooded killing of a Baghdad girl after she had been taken hostage, ransomed and returned to her family. But to save the family's honor, her uncle shot her.
"As a person of religion, it's my hope that religion is the primary mover in my life and in people's lives," said the director of religious affairs at the Islamic Center of Southern California. "But as this story typifies, these are often times forces more powerful in society that motivate people to do what they do. It was the pressure of this tribal society to make this man do what he did."
Jihad Turk said one statement of the prophet Mohammed stood out above all others for him: "I have come for no other reason than to teach good conduct, to protect your character, for the preservation of human thought, life, property and family." And the five major principles of his faith all spring from this.
He pointed out that Islam is a religion of inclusion, not exclusion. No one has to be a Muslim to go to heaven. He also thought it is important to identify and acknowledge verses in the Koran that supposedly justify harming others. He emphasized that these passages have to be contextualized and reinterpreted for today's followers.
"Historical context must be taken into account, too," he said. "They were not written for all humanity for all time."
As a negative force, Jihad Turk cited Wahhabism, the fundamentalistic perception of Islam that has its roots in the 18th century and still flourishes in Saudi Arabia, which has been used to justify acts of terror and holy wars.
"So we have a deep challenge in the Islamic world," he said. "And it is an urgency for ourselves to resolve this problem. Because by far the biggest victims of the Islamic extremists in the world today - if you look at Iraq - are Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
"And it's important for us as a Muslim community in the United States of America, where we have this freedom, this example of a pluralistic society, to really bring that example and develop a theology that can then be used in directing moral behavior and to empower Muslims in other nations to reflect the human dignity of all people."
'The greatest peacemaker'
Kent Davis Sensenig, a Ph.D. candidate in Christian ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, reported that he has been studying "just peacemaking practices," including trying to build bridges between evangelical Christians and American Muslims. From 1963 to 1973, his parents were part of an American Mennonite mission team in Vietnam and conscientious objectors to war.
"My family experience shows me how God blesses nonviolent approaches to peacemaking, especially when we are going to cross cultural boundaries, take personal risks and learn new languages," he said. "Those willing to die for God's cause, but not kill for it, are called children of God by Jesus in the beatitudes."
Sensenig pointed out that Jesus repeatedly rejected joining with violent zealots against their repressive Roman rulers. Instead he sought a totally peaceful way of changing society --- and the hearts of humankind.
"That Jesus was the greatest peacemaker of his day can be seen in the fact that his band of disciples included both former zealots and revolutionaries against Rome and former tax collectors, ex-collaborators with Rome," he said.
"Together, they led a nonviolent revolution to subvert pagan domination with transforming initiatives of love and justice, like those found in the Sermon on the Mount. The apostle Paul called this overcoming evil with good in his letter to the Romans."
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