Our country and the world were shaken to the core by the events of September 11, 2001. In response, we were given a moral as well as political choice: to retaliate and seek revenge, or to seek to understand the root causes of violence and find ways to bring about a more peaceful and just world. Sadly, the U.S. government chose the former course. As a result, the world has seen an unrelenting cycle of violence, deception, and mistrust.
But many here in the United States and abroad, seeking a better way, have created an interfaith movement with the potential for reducing, and ultimately ending, the violence attributed to religion. I believe that we as the Religious Society of Friends are called to play an active role in this vital movement. We are a small group, but we have a long tradition of compassionate listening and willingness to speak truth to power. As British Friend Marigold Bentley of Quaker Peace and Social Witness writes:
The lack of dogma in our own faith enables us to open up to those who, for many, have unacceptable beliefs. Quakers have careful processes to enable delicate spiritual discussions. Quakers also have the gift of meetinghouses across the country that are ideally suited to interfaith encounters as they are unencumbered with religious artifacts. This is used to great effect by many Friends.
This is true in the United States as well as in the United Kingdom. Since 9/11/01, Friends have been eager to become involved in interfaith conversations. When I gave a workshop called "Islam from a Quaker Perspective" at Friends General Conference’s Gathering in Amherst, Massachusetts, Friends responded enthusiastically and we were warmly welcomed into the local mosque. At the FGC Gathering in Tacoma, Washington last summer, the Quaker Universalist Fellowship focused on the Interfaith Movement and invited Muslim, Christian, and Jewish speakers to participate.
Friends have also taken part in the interfaith movement at the local level. For many years, interfaith work was primarily carried on by religious leaders and academics. But since 9/11/01, many people now see interfaith work as a matter of urgency for everyone. As British Friend Sylvia Stagg has pointed out, "When I joined the Quaker Committee on Christian and Interfaith Relations (QCCIR), interfaith work was of general interest. Now in 2005 . . . interfaith relations have become an overriding necessity in all our community relations. They are no longer a choice but an absolute necessity."
Most ecumenical organizations, which were mainly founded in the 1950s and 1960s, have changed with the times and became interfaith, enabling Christians, Jews, Muslims, and other religious practitioners to work together as equals in local communities.
Although we, as individuals and as meetings, have reached out warmly and spontaneously to Muslims, Friends are not as involved as we should be in these newly transformed interfaith organizations. Because Friends don’t have professional clergy, we have tended to shy away from "organized religion." We have also been excluded from full participation in many ecumenical organizations because we were not considered to be Christian. But times have changed. Today our Quaker voices need to be heard, and we need to listen at these newly emergent interfaith gatherings. Those who feel led to do interfaith work need the support and encouragement of our meetings.
Interfaith work is not without challenges. When we reach out to those who are different, there are apt to be cultural misunderstandings. We need to be tolerant and patient, especially when dealing with Muslims and Jews, who have experienced discrimination and have felt under attack over the centuries. There are many hot-button issues that need to be handled with great care and sensitivity, and we need to do our homework in order to be effective.
The Healing and the Prophetic
Some interfaith groups focus primarily on healing divisions and building understanding. Others advocate for peace and justice. The work that I do for the South Coast Interfaith Council in the Long Beach area is primarily about the former. The mediation skills that I have learned as a Quaker over the past 20 years have proven extremely useful. One of the high points of this past year’s program was helping to organize an "interfaith icebreaker" for around 60 teenagers of various faith traditions—no easy task, but deeply rewarding. This summer I am facilitating "interfaith cafes," utilizing the Sacred Listening techniques developed by Kay Lindahl, a local interfaith advocate. Her approach is similar to what we do when we get together as Quakers and have worship sharing. We even use queries to stimulate in-depth conversation in small groups.
The work that I do for Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace (ICUJP) often involves "speaking truth to power" and standing up to the "powers and principalities." This group was formed after 9/11/01 by some of L.A.’s major religious leaders in order to promote peace with justice. Besides organizing educational events, vigils, and demonstrations, we have stood in solidarity with the Muslim community when it has come under attack. Since becoming involved with ICUJP, I have visited a Muslim imam named Abdul Jabbar Hamdan who was arrested on trumped-up charges and held in detention for over two years. Ironically, in front of the detention center where this man was held, there is a statue in memory of the Japanese Americans who were unjustly detained during World War II. By visiting Hamdan, I feel that I am following in the footsteps of Quakers who visited the Japanese internees then. Hamdan was finally released in the summer of 2006 because of lack of evidence, but the U.S. government is still seeking to deport him to Jordan, which he left 25 years ago, and where he could be subject to imprisonment and torture.
I believe that we are called as Friends to support the prophetic work of interfaith organizations such ICUJP, Tikkun, and the Shalom Center of Philadelphia. It is crucially important for Friends to join in the work of these "spiritual progressives."
Grounds for Hope
Interfaith work is not only important, it is also an incredibly joyful experience. When Muslims, Jews, Christians, and others come together to worship and to work on common concerns, there is often a sense of joy and mutual appreciation too deep for words. Many of these gatherings are celebratory, with music, ethnic food, dance, and various worship experiences. Youth and community leaders are honored.
Stimulating panel discussions take place and one’s spiritual horizons are broadened. For those who haven’t experienced such gatherings, I recommend either going to one and/or watching the video God and Allah Need to Talk by Ruth Broyde Sharone. Whatever the format of interfaith gatherings, people come away uplifted; and I sense the Divine Presence at work.
These gatherings also offer grounds for hope. I see parallels between the rise of the interfaith movement and the "citizen diplomacy" movement of the 1980s that helped to end the Cold War. Reaching out to the Russians during the Reagan era was my first Quaker concern. It still warms my heart to think back on this Spirit-led work, which I described in a Pendle Hill pamphlet, Spiritual Linkage with Russians: the Story of a Leading. Although conservatives believe that the Cold War ended because Ronald Reagan put so much pressure on the Russians that they finally gave up and cried "uncle," there is considerable evidence that "people power" and citizen diplomacy helped to convince both Reagan and Gorbechev that the time was ripe for ending the Cold War. This trust-building movement didn’t accomplish miracles overnight, however. It began rather modestly in the 1950s when small delegations went to the Soviet Union to begin a dialogue and create friendship.
A similar process of trust-building in the Middle East began in the 1980s and 1990s with groups like American Friends Service Committee and Fellowship of Reconciliation leading delegations and teaching listening skills. In 2004 I went to Israel/Palestine with another trust-building group, the Compassionate Listening Project. Our delegation of Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists stayed at a kibbutz, a refugee camp, Christian retreat centers, and a school in Bethlehem. We conversed with those in the Israeli/Palestinian peace movement as well as with settlers. One of the most heart-wrenching experiences was listening as parents shared with us the pain of losing their children in the recent violence. I will never forget the Palestinian family who told us how their 16-year-old son, a peace activist, was shot in the head by Israeli police in front of his mother, nor will I forget the rabbi who has dedicated his life to helping families heal from such trauma after his son was murdered by Palestinians. I will also carry the memory of an elderly Jewish man named Steve who invited a young Palestinian named Asmi into his home in Jerusalem and treated him like a son. Steve became the guest of honor at Asmi’s wedding and is now part of his loving Palestinian family.
These encounters help us understand the human depths and complexities of today’s conflicts. Despite war and terrorism, trust-building work has expanded since 9/11/01 and now includes mainstream groups such as the Rotary Club International. This reconciliation work goes largely unreported in the media, which tends to focus on the sensational. However, I am convinced that these efforts on the part of ordinary people will have an enormous impact over the long run, and that we are called to do this work as Friends.
William Penn and Tom Fox
As Friends respond to the call of the interfaith movement, we do well to keep in mind two Friends whose examples speak powerfully to our times. One speaks primarily to the head, the other to the heart.
William Penn was one of the great intellectual as well as religious figures of colonial America. Growing up in an age of religious war and conflict, and raised in a military family, Penn was utterly transformed by the experience of Quakerism. He renounced violence. He came to believe that the Light of God is present in all human beings, and in all religions. He founded the Quaker colony of Pennsylvania as a place where people of all faiths could practice their religions without government interference—a revolutionary idea at the time. Penn’s willingness to allow freedom of religion in Pennsylvania had a significant impact on our country’s commitment to religious pluralism. Furthermore, Penn envisioned a world in which nations would settle their disputes by law, not war. In 1693, he wrote a plan, An Essay towards the Present and Future Peace of Europe, which is considered a prototype of the United Nations.
I believe that as Friends, we are called upon to carry forward the legacy of Penn and to work diligently for a society based on tolerance and a world governed by international law. We are called to support the Quaker United Nations Office and other efforts to strengthen the UN, especially since many in the religious right in our country equate the UN with the Anti-Christ. We need to share our view with others in our country that the United Nations, despite all its flaws, still offers the best hope we have for a peaceful and just world.
Another Friend whose example calls to us and to our time is Tom Fox, who was taken hostage and then killed in Iraq last year. No Friend is better known throughout the world today, especially in the Muslim world. Tom Fox speaks to the heart of our Quaker faith. Like Mary Dyer, Mary Fisher, and other early Friends who were called to travel in the ministry, he was willing to risk his life to bear witness to the power of love and the Inward Light. He was also part of the interfaith movement; although he considered himself a Christian, he was open to spiritual insights from other religions, such as Buddhism, Judaism, and Islam. He went to Israel/Palestine and listened to all sides in this tragic conflict. He lived side-by-side with the Iraqi people and took up their cause and their concerns. He showed by his example what it means, in George Fox’s words, to "walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one."
When news of Tom Fox’s death was announced, he was deeply mourned by the Muslim community, which will always remember and honor him. A young Muslim man I know, Yasir Shah, wrote a letter to Friends Bulletin: "I’m heart-broken to say that it’s only recently that I’ve come to find out about such a courageous and dedicated man. . . . I believe that Tom Fox’s family, the American people, and the Iraqi people were blessed to have someone of his caliber to fight for them. . . . Tom Fox embodied the characteristics of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement . . . [and] I pray that we increase our unity in the stand against injustice, and continue to strive for the rights of all humans."
Not all of us, certainly, have the calling or the courage to follow Tom Fox’s example. But we are called to honor his memory and to carry forward his spirit as best we can in our Quaker witness to the world.