There are times in our lives when we find ourselves participants in something so much larger than ourselves that our reality is profoundly and permanently altered. We can choose to keep the vision to ourselves, of course, but if it’s something really significant, it burns inside us until we share it with others. When we share our miracle with others, it is always with the hope that they, too, will participate in some way with the awesome power of the original event and be able to transform their own consciousness as a result.
I have an abiding interest in Islam, going back to my undergrad years at the University of Wisconsin. One of my majors was religious studies with an emphasis in Islamic ethics, and I found it fascinating to explore how Christianity and Islam have, despite their obvious shared history, managed to remain antagonistic toward each other over the centuries. Keep in mind that this was twenty years prior to the events of September 11, 2001, before the whole country was mobilized to reject Islam in the name of a manufactured war.
There is something unique about the Near East: it is the birth place for many religions and cultures. The area we call the Fertile Crescent gave rise to the great kingdoms of Babylon and Persia, which influenced much of human civilization. It is this same area of the world that gave rise to Judaism and the nation of Israel, with their important innovation of monotheism. Later two of the largest and most historically important religions on earth—Christianity and Islam—also emerged. As each spread out from this region, each had significant impact on the history of the peoples they encountered. Despite Christian claims to the contrary, both religions came to utilize violence and warfare to expand their political agenda, and both religions have within their sacred texts glorifications of warfare and the destruction of “God’s enemies”. Today, thankfully, there are forward-looking women and men in both traditions who refuse to be bound by the archaic definitions of the past when modern scholarship and the social sciences (not to mention common sense) suggest a more inclusive, loving and unifying interpretation of those traditions.
As pastor of the Reformed Catholic parish in Fort Wayne, I place myself firmly in this latter camp. My congregation is comprised primarily of those who love the traditional forms of worship that are part of historical Christianity, but who also want the freedom to reinterpret and augment the intolerant tradition they’ve inherited. As a member parish of the Center for Progressive Christianity, we affirm 8 Points, namely that we are Christians who:
1. Have found an approach to God through the life and teachings of Jesus;
2. Recognize the faithfulness of other people who have other names for the way to God’s realm, and acknowledge that their ways are true for them, as our ways are true for us;
3. Understand that the sharing of bread and wine in Jesus’ name are a representation of an ancient vision of God’s feast for all peoples;
4. Invite all people to participate in our community and worship life without insisting that they become like us in order to be acceptable ,including, but not limited to: believers and agnostics, conventional Christians and questioning skeptics, women and men, those of all sexual orientations and gender identities, those of all races and cultures, those of all classes and abilities, those who hope for a better world and those who have lost hope;
5. Know that the way we behave toward one another and toward other people is the fullest expression of what we believe;
6. Find more grace in the search for understanding than we do in dogmatic certainty—more value in questioning than in absolutes;
7. Form ourselves into communities dedicated to equipping one another for the work we feel called to do: striving for peace and justice among all people, protecting and restoring the integrity of all God’s creation, and bringing hope to those Jesus called the least of his sisters and brothers; and
8. Recognize that being followers of Jesus is costly, and entails selfless love, conscientious resistance to evil, and renunciation of privilege. (see www.tcpc.org for more information)
These 8 Points are at the foundation of what we do as a Christian community and so on May 11 of this year, Holy Redeemer joined with the other member churches in observing Pluralism Sunday. The goal of this observance was to honor and acknowledge the value of religious traditions other than our own. I invited a public speaker from one of the local mosques who arrived with his daughter and a friend to present to my parish some key points of similarity between Islam and Christianity. He graciously accepted questions from the congregation and was able to give us a better grasp of the central concepts our two traditions share.
Both religions are Abrahamic in origin, meaning both claim spiritual ties to Abraham, who made the first covenant with the One God. Islam and Christianity both have sacred texts they believe contains God’s Word and both believe that Jesus was sent by God to bring enlightenment to humanity. Both have a reverence for the created world, and both believe that actions have consequences, that justice will ultimately prevail. Our speaker was too gracious to note that Muslims have historically treated Christians better when they were in political power than the other way around. He also informed us that not all Muslims take a literal view of their religion. Much like Christianity today, there are liberal voices and believers everywhere, reinterpreting and sifting through the sands of tradition, trying to separate the cultural from the essential.
Following his presentation, we continued with our usual order of service, which culminates in the distribution of Eucharist, the bread and wine. At communion time, I made my customary invitation, welcoming all to our table. Even if we disagree on the meaning of the bread and wine, we can all at least agree that they are a symbol of God’s open banquet for all humanity.
Distributing communion, I became aware that our Muslim guests were also in line to receive communion in a Catholic church! I thought of the centuries of hate that had divided our peoples, and I thought of the bloodshed on both sides. I thought of the propaganda and lies and generations of people caught up in the business of condemnation and judgment. I thought of my own Catholic tradition and the recent embarrassing statement on Islam made by the Vatican. I thought of Osama bin Laden, calling for the death of unbelievers. But none of that mattered.
At a Catholic Mass in Fort Wayne, Indiana, a Muslim brother and his companions came forward to receive communion knowing they would not be turned away. The innumerable hurts of our shared history dissolved and the distance between us was no more. We were not “Muslim” and “Catholic”, we were brothers of the One God. “Body of Christ”, I said, and gave him Eucharist. He smiled, meeting my gaze, and took the bread and wine. Tears began to roll from the corners of my eyes and I could barely find my way back up to the altar. That event has burned within me for the past month, becoming clearer every day.
And this much I know to be true: when world peace comes, it will not come through government proclamations or the edicts of the world’s religions. It will come in the quiet moments of genuine unity between individuals who, for the life of them, can’t think of a single reason not to love each other.