A new narrative

The malicious and intentional spreading of an offensive, anti-Muslim video. The murder of an American ambassador. Protests around the world. Hate crimes against mosques in the U.S.

All of these events seem to further solidify the already-entrenched narrative about Muslim-Christian relations—that Muslims and Christians are in a “clash of civilizations,” fundamentally at odds, and hell-bent on the destruction of the other. The images we see on CNN, and the headlines we read in the morning paper, point to an inherent battle between the world’s two largest religious groups.

But another, more subtle, yet more powerful, narrative exists. One I’ve tried to share often on my blog. I was reminded of it again tonight, first at a banquet celebrating the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Fitr (which was last month) and second at Catholic Mass.

The banquet, hosted by the university’s president and attended by diverse leaders on campus, began with the maghrib, or sunset, prayer. As the Muslims lined up in their rows, and rabbis, Jesuits, and other non-Muslims bowed their heads in reverence, I looked over to find one of Georgetown’s Franciscan priests in the prayer line with the other Muslims, bending and placing his head on the floor. I was so moved by the message that this Franciscan’s participation sent—that his belief in God, and his vocation as a priest, doesn’t preclude him from worshipping with those who are different. It actually calls for it.

At the end of the prayer, the university imam spoke to the congregation about the meaning of the Arabic word for prayer, salah, which literally means, “reaching out and connecting.” He discussed the importance of reaching out not only to God, but also to those around us.

This “reaching out” continued through dinner, as we met new people and shared stories. I was lucky enough to sit next to Georgetown’s first Jewish chaplain, a rabbi who retired a few years back. He told me of his time working in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements; how he was a Freedom Rider and met Martin Luther King and Malcolm X; and that he studied under Abraham Joshua Heschel, who famously said of the March on Washington: “I felt like my feet were praying.” I was not only amazed at the compassionate action of this man, but also by the fact that our conversation quickly transitioned into a discussion about how we miss cheap falafel in the Middle East.

He also spoke to me about his concern for the declining numbers of Jesuits. He began rattling off statistics about how many Jesuits were in the Maryland province when he began at Georgetown in the sixties, compared to today. As he finished his shpeal, I realized that I wasn’t talking to a Jesuit concerned about this decline, but a rabbi. He cares about Catholic clergy just as much as those in his own tradition.

After mingling with Muslim friends I hadn’t seen since before I went abroad, I went to Mass, where the reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians stressed that we are all parts of Christ’s one body. In the homily, the priest discussed the intersection of diversity, complementarity, and dependence—that in our diversity we complement one another, and more importantly help one another when we are in need.

I couldn’t help but think of the following passage from the Qur’an, which Georgetown’s president had read shortly before at the banquet:

“If God had willed, He would have made you one religious community, but [He intended] to test you in what He has given you; so race one another in good deeds.” Just as in Paul’s letter, the Qur’an speaks of God’s desire for diversity, complementary, and dependence.

And I thought of the sweetest thing that a Muslim friend said to me as we left the dinner—how he and others had missed me, and how a hole had been left, when I was abroad. I was struck by the kindness of his words, but also the greater truth that they held.

A truth that must become the new narrative about interreligious relations: that without one of us, there is a gaping hole. When one part of the body is missing—whether it be the rabbi, the Catholic girl, or the Muslim boy—we cannot move or act. We cannot “pray with our feet” and race together in the game of doing good works on our common planet.

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3 thoughts on “A new narrative

  1. Jordan! I miss you and I miss our understanding of eachother. Since coming back from Jordan I feel as though I have been thrust back into fearful, hating, and disrespectful masses. This article has encouraged me again that I am not alone in the fight for understanding and laying the foundations for peace in our world. Thank you for sharing. Thank you for finding the courage to speak out against norms in our society and for challenging people to see the similarity instead of dwelling on differences and misunderstandings. I pray that more people will join us in our fight. You encourage me and I feel blessed to have met you! Keep pushing forward; you are doing GREAT things!

  2. Through the centuries our religions have divided us. Politicians have used religion as a cynical tool to manipulate their populations, to incite fear and hate to further their own ambitions. The need to impose our righteous beliefs on others has been has been the excuse to fight devasting wars that defy the tenets of most religions, when the actual purpose was to gain territory for strategic or economic gain.

    Our religion is the most personal part of our being and dictates how we live our lives. These rules give our lives structure and great comfort in times of confusion and grief. At the same time, it is these rules that divide us. Each religion believes their tenets are the only true interpretation of God’s will. Most religions believe it is their unique responsibility to spread their righteousness to the rest of humanity.

    I say “NO”.

    Religion is a personal experience, not universal one, although most religions contains some common elements. I believe we must begin to look beyond religion for the answers. I know this statement will offend many, and for that I apologize. The world must look beyond the man-made rules of ancient prophets on how we must worship God. Hate can only thrive in ignorance. Today’s technology can fuel the hate and fear that divides us, or, it can become the tool that educates us to a greater level of understanding. I contend that education, not religion, is the great hope for humanity. Personal religious liberty for all, must be the goal, and that comes with access to education, which is increasingly only a keystroke away. Technology is certainly not the perfect answer, but is the most promising one in the last thousand years.

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