David Smock: Clash of Civilizations or Opportunity for Dialogue?

by David Smock
Isa. 42:1-9

Clash of Civilizations or Opportunity for Dialogue?

“I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness…Behold, the former things have come to pass and new things I now declare.”

Gosh! That sounds like what we have been doing in Afghanistan. We have been the light to that nation as well as to all the other nations of the world. We have opened the eyes of the blind. We have brought the Taliban prisoners out of darkness. We have rejected the former things and have declared a new day. Moreover, we have accomplished it with minimal American casualties.

That is only verses 5 to 9. Let us listen again to the first part of chapter 42. The servant will bring forth justice to the nations. The servant will not cry or lift up her voice or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed the servant will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; she will faithfully bring forth justice.

"A bruised reed"; "A dimly burning wick"; Not a B52. Our campaign in Afghanistan will have only limited effectiveness and the benefits will be short-lived if we confine our strategy to military action. How can we bring justice as a bruised reed, as a dimly burning wick?

What kind of challenge are we actually facing? How can we respond? I am not talking here merely about the challenge of terrorism but the more global and fundamental challenges we face. Challenges not so much to our nation as to us as Christians.

Samuel Huntington of Harvard argues, and he anticipated this several years ago, that we are confronting a clash of civilizations. Conflict between the Judeo-Christian world and the world of Islam is inevitable. Moreover, it cannot be addressed except by a power confrontation. Huntington wrote in 1993 that with the end of the cold war, the great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict would be cultural. The principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The challenge for Western policy-makers is to make sure that the West gets stronger and fends off all the others, Islam in particular. These civilizational types are based largely on religious ideology, western Christianity is one, Orthodox Christianity is another, Islam is another, Hindu civilization is another, and so on.

While Huntington generated debate in 1993, now many are convinced that he was right all along. Those captured by this clash of civilizations ideology will have us moving on to attack Syria, Iraq, Somalia and Iran once we have finished in Afghanistan. While President Bush has gone to considerable lengths to try to argue that American military action against terrorism is not directed at Islam, the rhetoric and advanced planning of some of those around the President would suggest otherwise. In addition, the rhetorical diatribes of Osama bin Laden declaring a jihad against Christians and Jews, against America and Israel helps feed this frenzy against Islam in the West.

There are myriad flaws and non-sequiturs in the clash of civilizations ideology. However, the most obvious fallacy is saying that so-called civilizations stand in opposition to other civilization types given the frequency and number of clashes and conflicts within a particular type of civilization. Iran and Iraq were engaged in a decade-long war. Muslim Sufis can be sharply differentiated from Muslim Wahhabis. Turkey and Saudi Arabia can hardly be considered soul mates. World War II saw Christian Germany attacking other Western Christians and Russian Orthodox. And so on.

Despite the fact that the Clash of Civilizations ideology is seriously flawed, the events of 9/11 and after have made painfully clear to us the need for improved understanding between Christians and Muslims. Misconceptions and misunderstandings abound. Little effective communication occurs. How can we look to the metaphor of the bruised reed and the dimly burning wick to guide our efforts at promoting peace and righteousness in our badly divided world?

One of the most moving and influential conversations I had when I visited religious leaders in Israel and the West Bank last spring was with a devout Muslim sheikh and a devout Orthodox rabbi who told me that they feel a greater rapport with each other than they do with secular Muslims, by the sheikh, and secular Jews, by the rabbi. There is a bond that can bring religious people together, bridging ideological and theological differences. In the middle of the awful and bloody conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians over the past months, the chief rabbi of Israel and the chief Muslim sheik of the Palestinian Authority have been prepared to jointly declare a religious peace and ceasefire, but Israel’s Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, thwarted them from doing so. This process, in which I have been a bit player, has been both exhilarating and profoundly frustrating, but it has demonstrated the power of shared religious conviction in rising above political conflict and demonstrating the “bruised reed” approach to promoting peace and righteousness.

There is an urgent need for Christians, Jews and Muslims to reach out to each other to make joint commitments to peace and to promote greater understanding. This must be done both domestically in this country but even more critically internationally, bringing together Christian and Jewish leaders from the West with Muslim leaders from the Islamic world. My main interest and the focus of my remarks today are on international dialogue, but I do not want to dismiss the value of domestic interfaith dialogue.

Diana Eck of Harvard and a specialist on interreligious relationships has said, “Dialogue is the foundation for One World. One World cannot be built on the foundation of transnational corporate capitalism. One World cannot be built on the foundation of competition and polarization between the superpowers. One World cannot be built on the foundation of science, technology and the media. One World cannot be built on Christian, Muslim, Jewish or Sikh triumphalism. One World cannot be built on the foundation of mutual fear and suspicion. Laying the foundations for One World is the most important task of our time. These foundations are not negotiated statements and agreements. These foundations are, rather, in the stockpiling of trust through dialogue and the creation of relationships that can sustain both agreements and disagreements. Moving forward as Christians, in dialogue with those other faiths, we will create the foundational relationship of One World. Moving forward alone, we will not.”

In a recent op-ed column in the Washington Post, the Israeli author Yossi Klien Halevi wrote, “If September 11 does eventually provoke widespread self-reflection among Muslims, they will find Jews and Christians eager to admit them into the frustrating and exhilarating process of dialogue-the true spiritual adventure of our time.” The true spiritual adventure of our time.

I can envisage multiple purposes being served by this kind of dialogue but four are particularly critical:

  1. Christians and Jews need to understand the varieties of Islamic thought. Only through dialogue can we fully appreciate the extent to which the fanatical and heretical theology that motivates Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network are aberrations and perversions of the Qur'an and the teachings of the Prophet Mohamed.
  2. There is an opportunity emerging out of the tragedy of 9/11 and the aftermath for moderate Muslims to reclaim the initiative within Islam and for moderates to marginalize the extremists. A growing number of moderate Muslims are speaking out and critiquing Islamic practice in an effort to promote reform and reenergize the Islamic center. Through interfaith dialogue, Christians and Jews can lend their support to these efforts. The reforms will be purely internal matters, but the moderates who are challenging the extremes and thereby running the risk of arousing hostile reactions within the Muslim community can benefit from moral support from Christians and Jews.
  3. Effective interfaith dialogue and alliances can strengthen the role of religious leaders as international peacemakers. If religious leaders can speak with one voice on an interfaith basis in times of conflict between Muslim and western countries, peace and righteousness can be advanced.
  4. Effective dialogue can moderate Christian and Jewish self-righteousness and superiority in relation to Islam, and dialogue can help overcome mutual demonization.

A variety of approaches can be employed to generate effective dialogue. Interfaith dialogue needs to be a conversation among people of different faiths on a common subject, the primary purpose of which is for each participant to learn from the other so that he or she can change and grow. Dialogue can occur at elite levels or at grassroots levels. It can actually strive to achieve peace agreements by mediating among those in conflict or, at a more basic level, it can transform the relationships among the participants.

Probably the most successful efforts at interfaith dialogue focus on the telling of personal and group stories, particularly when members share the pain and suffering that they have experienced at the hands of the other religious group represented in the dialogue. Dialogue with Muslims will almost inevitably provoke Muslim references to the Crusades and will provoke references to more contemporary manifestations of what Muslims consider to be Christian aggression against Muslims. Thus, dialogue sessions provide opportunities for sharing grievances and articulating the suffering of each community. Moreover, dialogue becomes most transformational when those who have sinned against the other repent and seek forgiveness from the aggrieved party. The admission of guilt by members of one group for past wrongs committed against the other religious group can provide a powerful basis for healing.

Storytelling offers an opportunity to walk through history, acknowledging collective and individual injuries. It has been used very effectively by David Steele, a UCC pastor, who has organized more than 30 interfaith dialogues among Muslims, Orthodox and Catholics in various parts of the former Yugoslavia. David tells stories of Muslim imams and Serb Orthodox priests telling stories of the atrocities that each of the sides committed against the other in Bosnia, and then each confessing the sins and atrocities that their side committed against the other. Then both breaking down in tears and hugging each other as they ask for collective forgiveness and express hopes for reconciliation.

Another approach is to highlight the theological and scriptural similarities among religious groups in conflict, as well as seeking to ameliorate the hostility that may be engendered by theological differences. A variation on this approach is for groups of different faiths to study jointly the sacred texts of each religion as a means of deepening the understanding that each group has of the beliefs of the other group. Similarly, interfaith groups can share their religious rituals to enhance mutual understanding. A central goal should be to address misperceptions and to break down stereotypes that each group holds regarding the other.

The dialogue process should aim at building relationships between participating individuals and between religious communities, both within the dialogue setting and more widely. Intergroup reconciliation should be the overarching goal.

Verbal dialogue can be effective but it also has its limitations. Deeds of reconciliation, particularly shared deeds among enemies, reaching across religious boundaries, are usually much more effective in breaking down barriers than merely engaging in interreligious conversation. When Israeli Jews helped to reconstruct Muslim mosques damaged by the Israeli army the impact was powerful, as were visits by Palestinian Muslims to the gravesites of Israeli Jews killed by Palestinian terrorists.

Probably most important of all, meaningful religious dialogue must go beyond feel-good encounter sessions. The justice issues that lie behind conflict must be central to dialogue. Dialogue that contributes to peace must confront the political issues that divide the communities. Dialogue between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims and Christians must address the hurt and anger that each side feels toward the other and the political oppression and vicious attacks that each sees the other inflicting on it. Rarely is conflict between two religious groups simply a matter of theological difference or religious misunderstanding. Politics, power and military aggression are usually deeply intertwined with religious differences.

The horrific terrorist attacks of September 11 thrust religion onto center stage in world affairs. The Muslim perpetrators claimed religious motivation and justification calling for a jihad against Christians and Jews, and particularly those in America and Israel. At no point in the recent past has the stage been set for what could be a disastrous clash of civilizations. Yet at no point in the recent past have there been a more urgent need and a more propitious opportunity for faith groups to engage each other in meaningful dialogue to promote reconciliation and joint efforts to address the justice issues that allow evil to gain the upper hand.

We are truly called to be a light to the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, as our scripture in Isaiah declares. Nevertheless, this can most effectively be accomplished if we are bruised reeds and dimly burning wicks, reaching out across lines of religious division with humility, declaring our own sins and shortcomings, and engaging in a joint effort to establish peace with righteousness.


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