“We know, Peace is more than the absence of war,
And Love is much more than the absence of hate,
And Yes, Life is so much more than the absence of death
So much more…
How long would it take for us to say,
“Every Human Life is Sacred” in every tongue,
Seven and a half billion times?
Could it take a lifetime? or so much more?
And, in that time, no one could die,
At the hand of another?
No war, filling the air with bullets, rockets, and bombs,
Staining the houses of worship,
With the blood of those who simply came to worship.”
—Imam (hajji) ‘Abdur-Rahim Muhammad, “Peace talks (And, so much more…)
In chairs of concentric circles in the gathering room of the International Conference Center at the University of the Incarnate Word, sat San Antonians coming to pray, to meet, perhaps even to weep over the ever-increasing violence in the Middle East. Even as ISIS implements its caliphate in northern Iraq and Syria, while the War on Terror is waged in Afghanistan, here in San Antonio Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, and Jews are coming together to pray for the peace that our world seems in such short supply of.
Although our nightly news almost singularly covers the ever increasing bloodshed in Gaza, religiously tainted violence is being waged all across the globe. While it is certain that violence continues, what is not yet seen is whether we will use a peaceable means to undermine bloodshed without initiating more violence of our own. It seems that even in our own country we are not immune to this; we cannot even justly kill killers on death row without removing from them their humanity – and our own – in the process.
Yet some are stepping out into that long march towards subversive non-violence, reaching for peace together instead of waging peace against one another. The University of the Incarnate Word’s Sister Martha Ann Kirk – a native Texan – along with Israeli-born Rachel Walsh and Gaza-born Rolla Alaydi, wanted an interfaith prayer service where Christians, Jews, and Muslims could come together in a spirit of peace and understanding. So they set about orchestrating a dialogue between the largest Jewish and Muslim communities here in San Antonio. What resulted was a beautiful, but messy, interfaith prayer service held at UIW Thursday, July 24.
Such a dialogue is not easy. It takes courage to reach out across the lines of fear, race, language, and religion–especially in the face of longstanding violence. But as the 125 participants in the interfaith prayer service can attest to, faith is also capable of bringing people together in spite of their entrenched experiences.
Captivated by the program’s opening songs in Arabic and Hebrew, I sat surrounded by thousands of years of faith cultures translated into songs and speech. There I reflected upon what had brought us together in spite of our differences. Was it the realization that we all affect one another for better, or for worse, in the name of our religion? If what we do actually affects each other in such a way, how does our behavior reflect the God we say we worship?
Indeed, many of our faith traditions share much in common even though we are distinctly different. We still “borrow” from each other. We still read many of the same scriptures and sacred texts. Perhaps this is why I was so moved when Mara Nathan, Senior Rabbi of Temple Beth-El, acknowledged this fact before she read from the prophet Isaiah:
“And God will judge between the nations, and will decide concerning many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
“Modern Israeli poet, Yehudah Amichai, puts it this way,” Nathan said. “Don’t stop after beating the swords into ploughshares – don’t stop! Go on beating and make musical instruments out of them. Whoever wants to make war again will have to turn them into ploughshares first.”
Sitting next to me during the service was fellow Mennonite and friend John Blatz of RAICES Refugee and Immigration Law Center. As an attorney at RAICES, Blatz has often argued on behalf of asylum seekers escaping religious violence the world over. Unfortunately, this is a human condition perpetrated by Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Jews alike. According to an International Religious Freedom Report compiled by the US State Department, 2013 saw the displacement of more people due to religious conflict and intolerance than any other year in recent memory. Millions are fleeing their homes because of religious wars and conflicts. Still, those like Blatz are looking past our obvious differences in order to see the humanity in others.
A similar theme washed over me as Gloria Ray of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church admonished the crowd to stare deeply into the eyes of those sitting next to us. “When you look into the eyes of your neighbor, you look into the Divine,” she said. “You may think that we are many, but we are one. We are the Spirit of the Living God.”
How much smaller does our world appear when we look deeply, intentionally, into the eyes of our neighbors? Indeed the world seems much smaller today than it did even a year ago, and for all the wrong reasons. Christians are killing Christians in Ukraine and across Latin America. Muslims are killing Muslims in Syria and in Iraq, while the conflict between Israel and Hamas continues without a solution in sight. Lately I find that the more I am intentional about interfaith dialogue, the closer in proximity I become with those who have family members in harm’s way. This must mean that proximity to each other can make it easier for us to do good, or harm, to our neighbor.
As a student of religion and ethics, my interfaith journey has intensified this year more than any other. I have studied Torah at Temple Beth-El and I have recently broken bread during a Ramadan Iftar sponsored by CAIR. Whatever I have done has been as a guest – as an outsider participating in something that was not my own. But I was invited and accepted as a human being. As a Christian, I have been painfully aware of the baggage that comes with our history of the Crusades, of anti-Semitism, of anti-Muslim polemics, and the Inquisition. But if it were not for dialogue – if it were not for being welcomed as a guest into the sacred familial traditions of others, I would have lost my sense of hope in reaching towards peace together. Alone, I am merely an ideologue, but together in community, we can strive for what seems so out of reach on our own.
San Antonio’s community is certainly one of diversity. But events like the interfaith prayer service only increase our ability to understand one another in the way of peace and mutuality. Although this is a messy and difficult task set before us, it is also beautiful. Lives literally depend upon it.
*Featured/top image: Interfaith leaders, including program speakers Imam (hajji) ‘Abdur-Rahim Muhammad and Rabbi Mara Nathan, pass lighted candles during the conclusion of the interfaith prayer service. Photo by Tyler Tulley.