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#343 – Dancing on the Head of a Pin or the Edge of a Sword

July 3rd, 2019

Richard Marker

This post is not about philanthropy; those who subscribe only for our commentary on philanthropy topics may want to take a pass. But the subject matter in this post is timely, so it might be worth a read anyway.

When I was an academic, and then again as a quondam theologian, the discourse often was admired or denigrated as a calculation of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. When I left those worlds, I discovered that problem solving mattered more. I was struck by that dialectic last week when I attended a modestly historic event in Paris in international interreligious relations.

The context: In a volunteer capacity, I have been involved in inter-group and inter-religious matters for my entire adult life. Over the last 2 decades, most of those involvements have been on the international level – having had the honor of serving several elected leadership roles.

One of those chair-ships was of the Board of World Religious Leaders, a biennial think tank of leaders from 6 world religions, including some whose names you would certainly recognize. [When elected, I pointed out that all the rest were leaders of followers; I was just a leader of leaders.] That role has taken me to many countries and led to extraordinary friendships with remarkable individuals whose knowledge, passion, and transcendent empathy underscore the universality of religion, even while affirming the uniqueness of their/our own.

This post, though, emerges from another past chair-ship, that of a unique consortium in the Jewish world, the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations. For those of you who may never have heard of IJCIC, it is the official consortium representing the world Jewish community – including the major denominations and community relations organizations – to other world religious bodies such as the Vatican, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Christian Orthodoxy, and many more. It has been around since 1971.

Two decades ago, IJCIC split with one of those world bodies, the World Council of Churches. Suffice it to say that the reasons were real, but as time went on, it also became clear that it was time to see if it would be possible to get beyond that schism. Those discussions began in 2012 and continued on a behind-the-scenes level since. Last week, in Paris, I am pleased to say, the WCC and IJCIC formally reestablished our relationship. Our hope is that, even when there will be inevitable divergence of points of view, there is now a more open and solid communication to prevent that regrettable 2-decade schism from recurring.

The atmosphere surrounding our meeting is a changed world that neither Jews nor Christians can dismiss or ignore. Our topic, “The Normalization of Hatred” was not pure rhetoric. By any statistical measure, there is more anti-Christian, anti-Jewish, anti- Muslim behavior and speech than at any time since World War II. And as antinomian nativism surfaces dangerously throughout the world, religious leaders may not be silent, or passive.

If we cannot be silent, what words can suffice?

What emerged was a delicate balance of how to articulate the fear and vulnerability that is now a daily reality for Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities in so many places. Composing a communiqué that was credible and comprehensible was not easy. For example, does the word “Islamophobia” adequately convey the irrational and irresponsible hatred of Muslims or need we find an alternative way to express that? Or, has the word “antisemitism” been used so much that, in the face of a frightening surge, even in the USA, some disagree on its proper definitions? And what word should we now use to describe a hatred of Christians that see them murdered in prayer?

Our meetings last week were not characterized by disagreement between the Jewish or Christian leaders on the facts or their horrendous implications. However, there was no immediate consensus among the individual attendees about how precise our word choices need to be. Some comments reminded me of my academic years alluded to above, when precision was the only credible way to speak, when anything stated or written must be defensible against any challenge. Others were more committed to expressing our current dystopian reality in ways affirming the aspirational ideals of our respective religious traditions; our Traditions must convey a vision of a better and more inclusive future rather than surrendering to the nihilism that surrounds us. And still others felt that the most recognizable words were the most effective to the largest numbers. “Islamophobia” may be an insufficient word to describe the hatred and abundance of unacceptable hate-actions against Muslims, but it has become the most recognized statement. The definitions of antisemitism may be arguable, but there is little doubt that, by any definition, it is there, and growing, and anti-Jewish behaviors are no longer isolated.

This last group argued, persuasively, that the urgency of the moment takes precedence over academic type precision. This, despite the awareness that there has been a weaponization of this complex shorthand vocabulary by some in order to silence the voices for good and to distort the reality of the dangers we all face.

The WCC and IJCIC, dedicated ourselves not only to restoring a relationship that honors our respective traditions, but also to being assertive voices, together, to a world that needs our commitment to action more than our precision of words. Our group, wisely I think, decided that the edge of the sword poses more of a danger than counting the angels on the head of a pin can solve.

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