An essay donated by Brandon Arkell
Interfaith reconciliation as viewed
by the Universal Life Church Monastery
A long-standing belief in the religious community is that different faith groups are inherently incompatible with one another and will never achieve any kind of solidarity or common ground. It is the belief of the Universal Life Church Monastery that this is a myth, and that, while there may exist core differences among the world's religions, there are also a great deal of shared interests. Although religious strife dominates the news headlines, we often overlook the ways in which religions sustain and protect one another. It is our mission as an ecumenical, interfaith church to embrace these differences while also bridging the gap between faith groups and celebrating these common themes, for we are all children of the same universe. We would like to show how progress to this end is not only possible, but continuing to be made.
History may look dark when we consider the religious differences that have divided us, but it is important to note the more recent, inspiring achievements that have been made in nurturing a discourse of understanding and co-operation, enabling us to recognize those common principles which unite us. The future is brighter than we think.
We hear constantly of the conflict between the Muslim world and an increasingly secularized Christian West. Much of this strife is rooted in the Crusades of the Middle Ages, in which the Latin Christians of what used to be the Western Roman Empire sought to take back Jerusalem—a holy city in the Christian faith—from the Muslims, whom they viewed as infidels. The ideological rift existed not just between Christians and Muslims, though, but also between Latin and Orthodox Christians. Ironically, the siege of Zara in 1202 was an attack on a Christian community as repayment of a debt to the Venetians for building the Crusaders' naval fleet (the Venetians wanted to regain commercial control of Zara), and the subsequent siege of Constantinople in 1204 was yet another attack on Christians motivated by the financial patronage promised by the son of the deposed Byzantine emperor. In the Crusades, we see tension and conflict both between and within religious communities—driven largely by ambition and enterprise.
It might seem as though these events bear testimony to the claim that religious conflict is insoluble. When the United Kingdom created Iraq out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in 1919, it placed three distinct ethnic groups under the same government, contributing in part to the ethnic strife of the past few decades. Both the south-eastern Shia Arab majority and the northern Sunni Kurdish minority—together comprising the vast majority of the country's people—became dominated by the Sunni Arab Ba'athist party, centered in the capital city of Baghdad. The nationalist and socialist Ba'athist regime shunted Shi'is out of the party, wooing support from them during the Iran-Iraq war, until constant protesting on the part of Shi'is led the Ba'athists to execute ninety-five Shi'i ulama. However, this figure pales in comparison to the number of deaths incurred during the Halabja poison gas attack of 1988. In that attack, the Ba'athists unleashed a chemical weapon in the Kurdish town of Halabja, killing between 3,200 and 5,000 people and injuring between 7,000 and 10,000; thousands more died later of complications related to the attack.
So where do these events leave us? Should we just throw up our hands in despair? Hardly. There is reason to believe that people of different faith groups can co-exist in peace, and even come to one another's aid in times of tragedy, if we choose to seek a higher path to resolving our differences. Consider, for example, the reaction of Muslims after the New Year's Eve bombing of the Coptic Saints Church in east Alexandria that killed twenty-one. While Coptics were clashing with police and getting tear-gassed, moderate Muslims distanced themselves from the extremists who instigated the attacks. But they did not stop there. At the subsequent Coptic Christmas Eve Mass held in Cairo, a coterie of Muslim Alexandrians greeted Christian celebrants and escorted them into the church, acting essentially as human shields against a possible follow-up attack by extremists from their own Muslim faith. As 50 year-old Muslim Egyptian housewife Cherine Mohamed stated, "I know it may not be safe, but it's either we live together, or we die together. We are all Egyptians." The only difference between this statement and the mission of ULC Monastery is the belief that nobody has to be sacrificed in the first place in order to achieve solidarity.
This interfaith camaraderie can be seen in other areas too, and it has been the aim of the ULC Monastery to make it more visible. Only twenty or so years ago, religious groups routinely ignored or avoided the topic of HIV and AIDS awareness; now that they realize it affects every segment of society, they have learned to put aside their petty differences, recognized a common goal, and joined forces to fight the disease. Last year's National Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS is a prime example of this interfaith effort to overcome differences for the sake of the less fortunate. At Thorne Baptist Church in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, local leaders and educators kicked off the Tri-County Interfaith AIDS Initiative at the annual Caregivers Appreciation Banquet. But it was not only Baptists in attendance. Leaders from numerous denominations and religions—Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim—attended the conference with one goal in mind: to end human suffering. Such organized effort is proof that the world's myriad faith groups can accept their differences while also recognizing the common aim of improving the state of humanity.
Doctrinal differences are typically seen as a problem, but the ULC Monastery tends to view them as preferences, and these preferences need lead no more to trouble and strife than a difference in opinion over one's favorite color, as ULC Monastery's presiding chaplain, George Freeman, explains:
It is an interesting pursuit to reconcile doctrines of faith. I like to think there are many "faces", so to speak, of spirituality and that we are free to find which resonates most with us and how we take the world around us to work. Life is full of contradictions, but in all cases, both sides of the contradiction exist. I see no problem with the tenets of some faiths seeming to contradict those of others. This is a humbling message that we simply can't see the big picture, but that doesn't stop us from experiencing it from time to time through spirituality. This is how I prefer to look at the issue.
The philosopher will point out, "but not every religion can be right on every point, logically speaking; obviously, the Jews and the Christians cannot both be right on the question whether Jesus was the Messiah. Therefore, we must pick one religion or the other." This is true; only one can be right—but this attitude presupposes that being right is always the most important thing. The crucial point is that contradictions exist, and we can obsess over which side is right, or we can learn to live with them. This can only be achieved through religious reconciliation, and it is our hope as an ecumenical church that others will join us in this task.
Author: Brandon Arkell, Universal Life Church Monastery, Seattle WA.
Their website is at: http://www.themonastery.org/