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Bible study on reconciliation among religions

Bible Study by the Right Reverend Duleep de Chickera, Bishop of Colombo, Sri Lanka, for the WCC Central Committee, which met from 26 August to 2 September 2009 in Geneva, Switzerland.

28 August 2009

 Bible Study 2

WCC Central Committee

Rt Rev Duleep de Chickera, Bishop of Colombo, Sri Lanka

Prayer

Eternal King enthroned on high, comforter and Spirit of truth, you that are in all places, fill all things and enrich all relationships across the divide. The treasury of blessings and the giver of life, come and dwell with us, cleanse us from every stain of division and separation and save our souls O gracious one. Amen

Introduction

The topic for this morning’s study is reconciliation among religions, or reconciliation amongst people of faith.

A story

Let me begin with a story about an attempt at interdenominational reconciliation which ended in disaster. There was tension between the Roman Catholics and the Jews in a particular place and the Roman Catholic cardinal invited the chief Rabbi to resolve the problem over a meal. Unfortunately there was some food on the menu that was taboo for the Rabbi; the flesh of the pig, the flesh of the crab and so on. Every time such a dish was served the Rabbi would politely refuse and the Cardinal would say insist “try it, try it, it’s very nice.” Well, they got through the meal somehow and when the Rabbi got up to leave he said “Cardinal that was a thoughtful meal can I thank your good wife for having prepared it.” Deeply offended the Cardinal said, “But surely Rabbi you know that we are not permitted to marry ?” To which the Rabbi enthusiastically responded, “Try it, try it, it’s very nice…”

There’s a lesson to be learnt here. When we embark on trust building across religious cultures we need to be informed about people’s practices, traditions and customs.

Further Remarks

This Bible study is not on interfaith dialogue, neither is it on interfaith cooperation; even though reconciliation amongst the religions will have a positive bearing on interfaith dialogue and cooperation. Also, dialogue and cooperation amongst the religions is always a sign of reconciliation and such reconciliation paves the way for more authentic dialogue and cooperation.

To some extent this topic is both controversial and sensitive for many Christians. Caught up in certain contexts where we have experienced the oppressive or the dominant and violent manifestation of another religion, some of us may be reluctant to even consider reconciliation. “No talks are possible, there is no hope, so reconciliation with the enemy does not make sense. If at all, it’s the other who must make the first move. “

While these sensitivities must be understood and addressed the Gospel does not permit us to shut the door on reconciliation. 2 Corinthians 5.17-18 makes the point; “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he / she is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”

The reconciliation rationale

These two verses offer a rationale for reconciliation and are applicable in all circumstances. They make three points which are foundational in our work of reconciliation. These are;

1.The present reality. Those in Christ are a new creation who see things differently and rise above the old ways in-spite of harassment from those who belong to the old way.

2. The past historical fact.Those in Christ have been reconciled with God through Christ. They are part of a movement initiated by God and directed according to Gods purposes.

3. The future consequences. The ministry of reconciliation is imperative for anyone who is part of the new creation. It carries hope for all for the future.

Consequently, there is no room for the new creation to either be hostile or indifferent to the work of reconciliation.

In addition to the teaching in these texts there are two other substantial reasons for reconciliation amongst the religions.

The sociological reason

The presence of a person from another faith who lives down the street requires us to cultivate cordial relationships. War, violence, persecution, economic migration, tourism, trade and so on have brought persons of other faiths into a face to face situation in todays world as never before and we must acknowledge these neighbours with courtesy. That is the test of any sound civilisation.

The political reason

The crises that humankind face are so massive that it calls for a pooling together of resources and indeed of spiritualities, if these are to be resolved. Simple reasoning suggests that there are better chances that peace, justice, the elimination of poverty and so on will become more real if the religions stand together. If interfaith reconciliation in Sri Lanka had been more visible and demonstrative than it is today, we may have been able make a much more effective impact on the current humanitarian crisis of internally displaced peoples, as well as on the wider movement towards sustainable peace.

The perspective of Christ

The opportunities that our Lord had for meeting and encountering people of other faiths were extremely limited; the then demographical circumstances were such. But thankfully the Gospel writers give us some instances where Jesus had encounters with non Jews and these were largely either Samaritans, considered second class Jews, or Gentiles, sinners, made up of the Romans and the Greeks.

Consider four such incidents

1. The first is recorded in Luke 17.17-18. Here Jesus affirms the values of the Samaritan leper which stimulate gratitude and praise to God as a demonstration of faith.

2. In Luke 7.9 we read of the Roman Centurions expression of faith leading to the healing of a servant. Our Lord is quite categorical in asserting that the faith demonstrated by this Gentile which brings healing is greater than what He has seen amongst the Jews.

3. In the encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman, a Greek, recorded in Matthew 15 21-28, she perseveres in interceding on behalf of her child in spite of Jesus’ initial reluctance to help. This is a quality that leads our Lord to recognise her faith as “great.”

4. And finally we note the popular parable of the good Samaritan in Luke 10: 25-37. This is one of our Lord’s most radical teachings. Contained in this story is the subversive Gospel; it is there for those who will dare to probe. The point is that being neighbour is reciprocal. So to “go and do likewise” simply means to mutually cross the barriers and for Jews, the people of God and Samaritans, the outcasts, to become demonstrative neighbours to each other. So, reconciliation is at the heart of this parable. Each has something in the form of a spirituality to offer the other and it is in doing so that all are enriched.

What exactly was Jesus doing and saying in these instances ? He was certainly taking reconciliatory steps towards other religions. He was certainly bringing down the middle wall of prejudice and stereotype and ignorance by affirming Kingdom qualities in the outsider. But much more, and this is the point, He was teaching that the other is well within the grace and purposes of God, because the other demonstrates the very qualities that Israel and the chosen people are called upon to acquire and demonstrate as signs of faithfulness.

The Biblical perspective

In this stance Christ is neither political nor naïve. He stands well within that strong and clear biblical theological foundation that provides the rationale for reconciliation amongst religions and is based on three attributes of God.

The First Testament is full of these attributes and I won’t even attempt to shower you with texts; but permit me to point to one very neat summary of these attributes in the first five verses of the prologue to S. John’s gospel. These verses indicate that God is;

  1. Eternal and cannot be contained by time,
  2. God is omnipresent and cannot be contained by space. God is at the top of the mountain, at the deepest point of the sea, in the grave and also in the darkness.
  3. And finally, God is dynamic and life-giving.

None, regardless of our theological stance will want to quarrel with these attributes!

When held together these three attributes teach that God is and has been everywhere present from the beginning in a life-giving way.

The implications of this Biblical perspective

  1. Firstly, it means that all history and all cultures have been pervaded and influenced by this One God. This is why we often see glimpses of the nature of this One God and hear echoes of the voice of this One God in persons of another faith.
  2. But it also means that in spite of this, the depth and quality of experience and revelation and the idiom of expression of the encounter varies. While some of this variety in experience and encounter is contextual, some of it must and will remain a mystery. But, and this is crucial, we must also be humble enough to admit that these very variations are demonstrated amongst disciples of Christ as well.
  3. And finally, and this is where we are moving towards, when we consequently talk about reconciliation with people of other faiths, we do so within the one human family under this One God who is everywhere present all the time in a life giving way. Reconciliation amongst the religions is not with lesser gods or with other gods, but within the purposes of this One God. In fact there are no other gods. There is no Jewish God, no Hindu God, no Muslim God, no Christian God. Since God is One there is God according to the Jewish understanding, there is rather, God according to the Hindu understanding, is God according to the Christian understanding and so on.

 

Practical consequences of this perspective

The interesting dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan woman in John 4 throws some light on the application of this perspective. At the point of meeting, the relationship is asymmetrical; there is a hierarchical gap between the two and with an audience like this I don’t need to explain why. So Jesus begins the process of reconciliation by closing the gap. Asymmetrical relationships do not help reconciliation and need to be addressed. So: “I’m thirsty give me some water” “says there is something you can do for me” – and is an expression of vulnerability, a manifestation of dependence, meant to close the gap.

There then follows an interesting theological discussion on where God is worshipped. Two traditions emerge, perhaps competing with each other. One says God is worshipped in the Temple, the other claims that God is worshipped on the mountain top. But under the direction of Christ, and this is the point, these two traditions interact in an atmosphere of dignity and truth and a third option emerges: God is spirit and truth and can be worshipped anywhere. This includes the temple and the mountain top, but it transcends both the temple and mountain top.

This is always the case when there is reconciliation amongst the religions and an equal relationship prevails. When people articulate their respective traditions with integrity; they both stand to be enriched through the encounter.

My story

Somebody asked me just before the study - what animal is it going to be today? I’m afraid it is the animal standing before you!

I am the product of an inter-faith marriage. My father was a socialist from a Buddhist background, my mother a very devout Christian. My father was an extremely rational human being. He taught the four of us to question. My mother somehow passed on a message that if you really want to believe you should try not to question too much. But since both my parents were honest and generous persons our home life was built on the foundation of open and lively conversations that encouraged searching and probing . At first the stance of my parents seemed contradictory, but as the four of us grew up we saw the connection and if you like the third option. It was this way that I came to understand that faith and reason are not opposites. I saw that Faith is the extension of reason and that it is only he or she who questions who has the right to believe. And so for me this became my crucial third option that shaped my thinking and grew out of an inter faith marriage. If my mother and father had been alike, I may have been a different person

The Asian contribution

My story is not unique. There are many like this in the world Christian communion. Many like this in South Asia - and perhaps some other parts of the world. Many who would say “your people are my people” while we do not convert and still respect the other religion. This dimension, the contribution that interfaith marriages and families of dignity can make to the final discourse ought to receive more attention in the work of the WCC. Sooner or later ecumenical groups like the WCC must research and draw on the benefits of this largely untapped resource of the input of interfaith marriages on inter religion reconciliation.

Group work

We are still with the difficult question of how to deal with extremists, those who resist, those who are not ready to reconcile, those who keep hurting people of other faiths.

I suggest that the incident in Acts 5. 33-40, could throw some light on this.

When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them. But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. Then he said to them, ‘Fellow-Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!’ They were convinced by him, and when they had called in the apostles, they had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.

Two questions:

  • Is there a reconciliatory role that persons of integrity are called to play within their own religious group when tensions occur ?
  • How does this apply to the church with regard to fundamentalist and ultra-traditionalist groups amongst us?