The Reconciliation of Civilizations: A Sermon for Kol Nidre

On Kol Nidre 5769 I discussed one of the more positive and hopeful religious trends in recent years. Here’s an excerpt:

Yes, as the saying goes, 9/11 did “change everything” – but not necessarily in the way we might first have assumed. Yes, that tragic day did awaken the American public to the reality of Islamic extremism in the world, but we’re now finding that it might have awoken us up to something even more significant. It may have aroused within us the importance of understanding one another, of cooperating with one another. It may not only have exposed religion at its worst: it may also have inspired religion at its best.

Click below for the whole sermon:

I want to begin my remarks to you tonight by sharing a story from JRC’s service delegation to Africa this past summer. As I mentioned on Rosh Hashanah, 25 of us spent two weeks with NGOs in Rwanda and Uganda – and one of our destinations in Uganda was the Mirembe Kawomera Coffee Cooperative. Mirembe Kawomera is comprised of Jewish, Christian and Muslim coffee farmers who formed a fair trade coop several years ago to get a fairer price for their product, to ensure a viable, sustainable future for their communities and to provide a living model of interfaith cooperation and coexistence. As you know, we have been supporting the coop and selling Mirembe coffee at JRC for many years now – and it was truly exciting for us to visit the coop in person and to learn first hand about their efforts.

One thing we noticed right away upon visiting the farmers’ communities was that there were no separate Jewish, Muslim and Christian neighborhoods. They lived together quite naturally, without any outward tension relating to their religious differences. In fact, they took great pride telling us how easily they lived and worked together.

We met with and spent a significant amount of time with members of all three faiths. Perhaps most exciting for us was a weekend in which we attended Sabbath services at a Ugandan mosque, synagogue and church in succession. Though the religious rituals had obvious differences, what we found more striking was what each experience had in common – namely their inherent hospitality. Each faith community received us warmly and graciously, each were clearly delighted that we had taken the time to visit, and in each case, we were made to feel as if it was the most natural thing in the world for us to be sharing worship with them in a small rural African community.

One afternoon our group attended an educational workshop sponsored by the coop.  They had just experienced a poor harvest, and so an agricultural consultant was teaching a group of farmers about the principles of organic farming, showing them ideas how to maximize the yield of their product. Toward the end of the session, I was asked to offer some words on behalf of our group. I explained that our congregation had been selling their coffee for many years and that we were honored to support their efforts. I got an especially appreciative reaction from the farmers when I told them that we were deeply inspired by their example of interfaith cooperation, adding how sad it was that the rest of the world has not yet learned how to live as they had.

I’ve been thinking a lot about their example of interfaith cooperation since we’ve returned from our trip. Indeed, I think it’s generally true that these days: we Westerners tend to think of religion as more of a divisive than unifying force in the world, certainly since 9/11. It’s simply paradigmatic of our times. Often, just listening to the news daily can feel like we’re experiencing a non-stop, never-ending description of holy war blasting out at us from every corner of our world.

Of course the source of this perspective goes deeper than simply images conveyed by the media. The reduction of the world to a war between religious ideologies is nothing less than a fundamental world-view. This way of thinking is perhaps best typified by the ideas of Samuel Huntington, who coined the term “Clash of Civilizations” back in 1993.  According to Huntington’s prediction, following the end of the Cold War, the primary conflicts in the world would not be political or economic, but rather cultural and religious in nature. And the bloodiest of these conflicts, of course, would be the clash between Islamic and Western civilizations.

The tragedy of 9/11 only seemed to vindicate Huntington’s thesis. After 9/11, even many of his early critics became converts to the “Clash of Civilizations” way of viewing the world.  And of course, the “Clash” thesis became our reality when it became the central rallying cry of our government’s war on terror. Since 9/11 President Bush has used these images over and over and over again. Here is but one example, from a speech he gave several months after our invasion of Iraq:

The war we fight today is more than a military conflict; it is the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century. On one side are those who believe in the values of freedom and moderation — the right of all people to speak, and worship, and live in liberty. And on the other side are those driven by the values of tyranny and extremism – the right of a self-appointed few to impose their fanatical views on all the rest. (We) have seen this kind of enemy before. They’re successors to Fascists, to Nazis, to Communists, and other totalitarians of the 20th century. And history shows what the outcome will be: This war will be difficult; this war will be long; and this war will end in the defeat of the terrorists and totalitarians, and a victory for the cause of freedom and liberty.

I believe one of the most frightening things about our government’s response to 9/11 is the way it took an over-simplistic thesis – the notion of worldwide ideological conflict – and turned it into a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Though the world has always been a complex and multifaceted organism, we’ve all now been thoroughly conditioned to see the world in a stark and dangerous manner: reduced to a pitched battle between fanatical Islam and the freedom-loving West.

But still: as I think about the extent to which we all buy into this world-view, I can’t help but think back to those farmers in that village in rural Uganda. And as I’ve thought more about it since, I wonder if the Clash of Civilizations is actually as complete a reality as we tend to assume. Because there is indeed a different religious narrative unfolding in our midst. Not the one propagated by scholars or by our government, but by simple, ordinary citizens acting in their own communities. Grassroots efforts that are flying beneath the media radar, that offer us a decidedly different face of religion than the one we’re so used to seeing. It’s true: all across our country, in the most unlikely places, Muslims, Christians and Jews are coming together in community, in prayer, in dialogue and in action to show how religion can be a force for unifying diverse cultures and faiths.

Here are but a few examples:

Eboo Patel is a young man of Indian heritage, who grew up in suburban Chicago. Patel is one of those remarkable folks whose accomplishments at a relatively young age makes the rest of us wonder what on earth we’ve been doing with our lives. Among other things, he’s worked as an organizer, teacher and artist on four continents. He completed his Doctorate at Oxford University in the Sociology of Religion on a Rhodes Scholarship.  He’s also considered to be one of the most important interfaith activists in the country today.

In a piece for the NPR project “This I Believe,” he wrote the following, which I think will give you a good sense of his basic religious philosophy:

I am an American Muslim. I believe in pluralism. In the Holy Quran, God tells us, “I created you into diverse nations and tribes that you may come to know one another.” I believe America is humanity’s best opportunity to make God’s wish that we come to know one another a reality.

Inspired by his own Islamic tradition, Patel founded the Interfaith Youth Core – an exciting new organization that brings young people from different faith communities together to work in social action projects, fostering cooperation instead of conflict. Patel has rightly noted that religious extremist groups have typically attracted young people by giving them a transcendent cause to believe in. So through IFYC he seeks to bring religious youth together in the same way – but rather than sowing hate they seek to promote mutual respect and religious pluralism. Today, the IFYC is a prominent organization and a model of its kind. Based here in Chicago, it has a staff of 20 and attracts increasing numbers of diverse youth from all over the country seeking to work together for the common good.

Here’s another example: in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, a lawyer named Edith Howe attended an interfaith memorial service at a local church in Cambridge, MA. She recalled that during this powerful service she saw women wearing hijabs crying together with the rest of the diverse congregation. She realized at that moment that she didn’t know any Muslims personally and that she knew next to nothing about Islam. She later said, “I had this strong thought of how we were all the children of Abraham and how unnecessary and tragic it was. I thought, ‘What can I do about this?’”

Shortly after, she started a book group called “The Daughters of Abraham” designed for Jewish, Christian and Muslim women to read books about their various faith traditions. Seven years later the group is still meeting and fourteen other groups have now organized throughout the Boston area. Other groups are proliferating rapidly throughout the United States. Their mission, according to their website, is to overcome stereotypes and to foster mutual respect and understanding among Muslim, Jewish and Christian women. Ultimately, they seek to learn about the commonalities and differences found in Islam, Judaism and Christianity, and to develop an interfaith community of women who are educated in the traditions of the Abrahamic faiths.

Yet another example, this one even closer to home: Shortly after 9/11 a Glenview woman named Gretchen Grad, like so many, felt an overwhelming desire to respond to the tragedy in some meaningful fashion. Watching her own children interact so naturally with children of other faiths, she was inspired, along with Jewish and Muslim friends, to found “Hands of Peace” in 2004. HOP brings Jewish-Israelis, Arab Israelis, and West Bank Palestinians from the Middle East together with American teens in an interfaith setting here in the Chicago area. For two weeks during the summer, these youths live with host families, engage in intensive coexistence dialogue sessions, and get to know each other through team building, cultural sharing and social activities.

You may be aware that JRC has been an active participant in Hands of Peace for some time. Over the years, our members have served as host families, many JRC youths have participated in the program itself, and each year JRC welcomes the participants for Shabbat services. JRC member Alan Rubin has been a longtime HOP board member and I am honored to serve on their board as well.

Now it would be easy to dismiss examples such as these as just three isolated examples of interfaith do-gooding – but I believe they are evidence of a larger pattern. My own experience certainly bears this out. Since 9/11, I have found myself increasingly active in Abrahamic interfaith efforts. One important local initiative here in Chicago is the Jewish-Muslim Community-Building Initiative – an organizing effort sponsored by the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs that seeks to bring Jews into coalition with Muslim community organizations around local issues of common concern. They also engage in cultural exchange – just last week, they sponsored an Iftaar dinner with the Muslim community at Anshei Shalom congregation in Lakeview. Now I seriously doubt that this would have happened before 9/11: my colleague, Rabbi Asher Lopatin sat down with Imam Abdul Malik Ryan in an orthodox synagogue to break the Ramadan fast together and to experience one another’s evening prayer services.

Something significant is indeed going on and there’s more than merely anecdotal evidence to indicate this. In fact, studies show that these efforts are part of a growing national pattern since 9/11.  In 2000, a Hartford Interfaith Institute for Religion Research study reported that 7% of the congregations surveyed had participated in an interfaith service during the previous year.  When they repeated the survey in 2005 they found that this number had risen to 23%.  Another statistic is even more striking: in 2000, the Hartford study determined that interfaith community service hovered around 8%. By 2005 the level was at 37%. My colleague, Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer, a long-time interfaith scholar and activist tells me that during a recent internet search, she discovered at least 50 organizations with the name “Abrahamic” in their title – and the great majority of them were created in the last seven years.

I think these findings are telling in a number of ways. In the first place, they point out to us the extent to which our perspectives are shaped by the media, by self-appointed pundits, and by the government itself. They also indicate how much we tend to underestimate the power of grassroots activism – efforts that are having a meaningful impact in our own communities and around the country.

One important thing we non-Muslims are learning from Abrahamic activism is that the Islamic community is an exceedingly diverse community. If we look carefully at the Muslim world, it becomes increasingly difficult to claim that Islam is at war with the West when you meet Muslims themselves and learn that in fact “Islam” itself is made up of Arabs, Persians, Turks, Kurds, Berbers, Albanians Bosnians, Africans and Indonesians and many others, each containing their own unique world views.

And then there are the American Islamic communities, who are charting their own unique course – in ways quite different from Muslims in Europe and in Muslim majority countries. For their part, Muslim Americans are not living apart from or clashing with the rest of us. On the contrary, they are generally prospering, thriving and contributing significantly to America’s diverse and pluralistic national culture. In a 2007 survey, the Pew Research Center found Muslim Americans to be “largely assimilated, happy with their lives and moderate with respect to many of the issues that have divided Muslims and Westerners around the world.”

Yes, as the saying goes, 9/11 did “change everything” – but not necessarily in the way we might first have assumed. Yes, that tragic day did awaken the American public to the reality of Islamic extremism in the world, but we’re now finding that it might have awoken us up to something even more significant. It may have aroused within us the importance of understanding one another, of cooperating with one another. It may not only have exposed religion at its worst: it may also have inspired religion at its best.

To my mind, one of the most profound and eloquent responses to 9/11 was a slim volume entitled “The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations” by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain. As many of you know, this is one of my very favorite books. I’ve recommended it regularly for years, and I may well have even quoted it already in a sermon or two. In his book, Rabbi Sacks argues compellingly that religion does not have to lead to a war between rival civilizations; religion itself can actually be used to generate tolerance and an appreciation for human diversity.

Rabbi Sacks begins his book with the following words:

Religion can be a source of discord.  It can also be a form of conflict resolution. We are familiar with the former; the second is far too little tried. Yet it is here, if anywhere, that hope must lie if we are to create a human solidarity strong enough to bear the strains that lie ahead. The great faiths must become an active force for peace and for the justice and compassion on which peace ultimately depends. That will require courage, and perhaps something more than courage: a candid admission that, more than at any time in the past, we need to search each faith in its own way for a way of living with, and acknowledging the integrity of those who are not of our faith. Can we make space for difference? Can we hear the voice of God in a language, a sensibility, a culture not our own? Can we see the presence of God in the face of a stranger?

Contrary to popular opinion, I believe it is indeed possible. It is happening right in our own backyard and, yes, even as far away as rural Uganda. I know this to be true from personal experience: we are witnessing increased grassroots efforts created by ordinary individuals who understand that religion can indeed be an active force for peace and coexistence. People are discovering that religion can both respect uniqueness and difference as well as celebrate a common universal humanity. We have only to open our eyes to their example, to support their courage, and of course, join with them in their efforts.

In this regard, I am proud to say that JRC has been active in a variety of interfaith initiatives – from Evanston’s Interfaith Action soup kitchens, to Hands of Peace, to our work with Mirembe Kawomera. I will also say personally that my participation in Evanston’s Interfaith Clergy Association and Faith in Place – Chicago’s interfaith environmental consortium – provide me with some of the most fulfilling collegial relationships in my work as a rabbi.

I am also very excited to announce that JRC has recently received a grant from the Interfaith Youth Core to initiate an exchange program between JRC’s High Schoolers and students from the Islamic Foundation of Villa Park High School. Starting this month, we will bring Jewish and Muslim High students together to get to know one another, learn from one another, and engage in local service projects together.  I am enormously proud of this new initiative and know that JRC’s commitment to interfaith activism will only grow over the coming years.  If you are currently participating in one yourself or have favorites of your own, please share them with me. I would love for JRC to serve as a clearing-house for these kinds of sacred projects – and to do our part to help them emerge out from under the radar screen.

In the end, as I think back on our sojourn with the Mirembe farmers, I think the key to their efforts was their realization that by coming together they were ultimately ensuring a better future for themselves and for he fellow members of their community. One of the coop’s leaders, JJ Keki likes to point out when he shows folks around his farm, that coffee plants don’t thrive well all by themselves. They need to be planted together with other kinds of plants in order to grow in a healthy manner. And so on JJ’s farm you can see coffee plants nestled among guava, papaya, banana, avocado, casava and many more. This is why he believes growing coffee promotes peace and coexistence: because they ultimately need other plants in order to grow and thrive.

And so this is my wish for this Yom Kippur: that those of us in the religious community prove what religion is truly capable of. As we contemplate where we’ve gone wrong, let’s think seriously about the ways we debase the transcendent, universal message of our religious traditions. Together let’s find the wherewithal to ask the most critical questions of our time: Can we make space for difference? Can we hear the voice of God in a language, a sensibility, a culture not our own? Can we see the presence of God in the face of a stranger?

And let us find the courage to answer yes.

One thought on “The Reconciliation of Civilizations: A Sermon for Kol Nidre

  1. I am an American Muslim, and to be a Muslim is to be a peacemaker, one who seeks to mitigate conflicts and nurtures goodwill for peaceful co-existence. God wants us to live in peace and harmony with his creation; that is indeed the purpose of religion, any religion.

    Eboo and I are both committed to co-existence aka Pluralism.

    http://www.foundationforpluralism.com/WorldMuslimCongress/Articles/Mission-Statement.asp

    We are driven by the Qur’an, Al-Hujurat, Surah 49:13: “O mankind! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another. The noblest of you, in sight of Allah, is the best in conduct. Allah Knows and is Aware.”

    Our Mission

    Our Mission is to work for a world of co-existence through inclusiveness and participation. As a member of diverse family of faiths, our efforts will be directed towards justice and equity to attain peace for the humankind with a firm grounding in commonly held values. We cannot have advantages at the cost of others. Such benefits are temporary and deleterious to lasting peace. We believe what is good for Muslims has got to be good for the world, and vice versa, to sustain it.

    Indeed we aspire to promote goodwill amongst people of different affiliations, regardless of their faith, gender, race, nationality, culture or any other uniqueness blessed by the creator.

    Goals

    Our short term goal is to understand different faiths and let the values of Islam be understood as well. So we may know one another.

    Our Long term goal is simply to bring the realization that the purpose of all religions is to bring peace and tranquility to an individual and further create a balanced relationships between the individual, society and the environment. Learning about other faiths need not imply infidelity, but rather the search will enrich one’s own faith, it reaffirms the idea that the intent of every faith is to “fix” the individual as an active working and participating spoke in the wheel of life. Most get it and a few don’t.

    Islam defined

    The most precise definition of Islam: Justice for every human being.

    The Qur’aan starts with the word God of Universe (not necessarily Muslims) and ends with Humankind (and again not Muslims).

    We have a monumental task to repair the World, and we will do our part in working towards a World of co-existence, one person at a time. We are committed, and now help us God. Amen.

    Good Deeds

    Islam is a deed based non-judgmental religion, and consistently encourages individuals to do good. It emphasizes about individual responsibility towards the peace and security of society at large.

    Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) described a good deed as an act which benefits others, such as planting a tree that serves generations of wayfarers with fruit and the shade. The world is a better place today because of a good legacy bequeathed to humanity by people of all faiths that came before us. We owe it to coming generations to leave the world a little better than we found it, to usher an era of justice and peace.

    With Prejudice towards none

    Almost all Muslims are cognizant and repeat the verse “God is the master of the Day of Judgment, and he alone we worship”. A fully observant Muslim recites this verse at least 50 times a day and refrains from judging others, as he or she believes God only can make that call.

    Individual responsibility

    Qur’an, Al-An’am, Surah 6:163-164: I ask whether I should seek any god besides God–when he is the Lord of all things. All people will reap the harvest of their own deeds; no one will bear another’s burden. Ultimately, all of you will return to your Lord, and he will resolve your disputes.

    Citizenship

    Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) set an example of good citizenship early on in his life. The people of Makkah, non-Muslims at that time, called him Al-Amin; the truthful, the trustworthy and the peace maker because of his unwavering commitment to honesty in word and deed. The goal of the World Muslim Congress is to instill the humane values of Islam and to aspire to be Al-Amin to all.

    A Just society

    Islam emerged to bring peace, tranquility and equilibrium to the multitudes of tribes at conflict with each other in the 6th century AD. In a period of 23 years, thru suffering, persecution and sacrifice a just society evolved. Diversity was it’s basis, respecting each tradition and bringing them together and appreciating the creator was the foundation stone of Islam. Justice, liberty and freedom are the core values enshrined in Islam.

    Pluralism

    Islam is indeed a pluralistic faith and imbues a sense of humility and ideals of equality of humankind. These values are embedded in its rituals practices. All people harvest their own deeds.

    Qur’an, At-Taghabun, Surah 64:2-4: It was God who created you; yet some of you refuse to believe, while others have faith. He is aware of all your actions. He created the heavens and the earth to manifest the truth.

    He fashioned each one of you–and each one of you is beautiful. To God you will all return. He knows all that the heavens and the earth contain. He knows all that you hide and all that you reveal. He knows your deepest thoughts.

    The Madinah pact, prescribes the rights of its Citizens and Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was the signatory to it as the head of the City State. It was an all inclusive agreement between the Jews, Christians, Sabeans, Quraish, Muslims and other tribes for a peaceful co-existence. An example was set for a pluralistic society in documenting the rights of individuals. Perhaps it was the first historical document that included diverse people. The Word Ummah was used in the document to mean all residents of the City.

    Freedom

    God could have made us all sinless angels; instead he chose to make us humans, giving guidance on one hand, temptations on the other – then giving room to make mistakes, and room for correction. Islam has not claimed monopoly to heaven; it is assured to those who do good deeds. Good deeds are defined by Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) as how your treat others. He told his daughter that it would be her deeds that would earn her a place in the Kingdom of God and not her relation with the Prophet. ”There is no free lunch.

    Qur’an, Al-Inshiqaq, Surah 84:7-15: Each person will be given a book. Those who are given their books in their right hands (understanding the book correctly) will be judged leniently; and they will return to their people joyfully. But those who are given their books in their left hands (misunderstanding) will call their own destruction on themselves, and burn in the fire of hell. There are the people who have never cared for their neighbors; they thought they would never return to God. Their Lord watches all that people do.

    For Millions of years, the physical dimension of the Universe has existed in a perfect balance as it did not have the ego to compete with each other nor had the freedom to mess with it. They do, what God intended them to do. It is the human dimension that needed religion, and every religion is meant to bring peace to individuals and balance to the world around them through free choice.

    God willing, the Muslim community will be drawing the blue prints and developing a 14 year plan to find their space in the world of communities, as contributors and active participants in the peaceful co-existence for the people of the World. The Book “Muslim Vision 2020” is on the horizon.

    The human desire to monopolize World resources is the root cause of all evil. The pockets of anarchy and problems of the world are born out of fear and insecurities of evil men. Religion is not the source of wars or conflict. In fact, Religion is the best Gift humans have received from God, without which the World would be chaotic.

    Praise the Lord. We are pleased to announce the formation of The World Muslim Congress, A non-profit organization dedicated to promoting co-existence and contributing towards a just world. (Formed: 5/25/2006)

    Our silence has done more damage to us, our faith and our World. Silent no more, God willing, we will resolutely take back our faith for our good and the good of mankind.

    A Major Paradigm Shift

    The world has indeed become a global community. Everyone is a neighbor to everyone else; we aspire to nurture the concept of good neighborliness in the world. Our advisory board will be represented by individuals from every faith. It is time for us to be equal citizens of one world, our home. This is a major paradigm shift in how the religious organizations would be conducting their business in the coming years.

    Our upcoming website: http://www.WorldMuslimCongress.com will present a range of values in Islam. It is a shame that some of the translations of Qur’an contain phrases that are not in Qur’an. A dozen translations will be presented verse by verse, with the source. So you may know the truth!

    Qur’an, As-Saff, Surah 61:2-3: Believers, why do you say what you do not execute? It is most offensive in the sight of Allah when you say what you do not practice!

    Speak up, silent no more ®

    Mike Ghouse, President, World Muslim Congress, 2665 Villa Creek Dr, Suite 206, Dallas, TX 75234-

    Mike Ghouse
    http://www.Foundationforpluralism.com
    http://www.WorldMuslimcongress.com
    http://www.MikeGhouse.net

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