Reflections on the Abrahamic Traditions Dinner

Dr.  Joe Thomas

Abrahamic Traditions Dinner, March 5, 2011

The Abrahamic Traditions Dinner brought together individuals from Christian, Jewish and Islamic backgrounds. Hosted by the Intercultural Friendship Foundation, a Turkish Muslim campus group, everyone enjoyed an excellent homemade Middle Eastern dinner and a time of warm conversation around the table. I would estimate the total attendance was around 100 people.

Dr. Dannie Otto, professor of Medieval Philosophy at Eastern Illinois University, moderated the event. He is also the First Mennonite Church liaison to the Muslim community in Champaign-Urbana. He provided an explanation of the specific themes found in A Common Word between Us and You. His introduction was followed by three responses from Rabbi Norman Klein of Sinai Temple, Me, and Rizwan Uddin, a professor at the University of Illinois.

A time of discussion followed the response papers. There were two major themes that emerged during the discussion: 1) the importance of separation of church and state for creating peace among peoples of different religious perspectives, and 2) the sometimes complicit role that religion has played in the death and destruction of human beings.

All the responders were in agreement on the vital role the separation of church and state principle plays in maintaining peace among rival religious perspectives. Indeed, Rabbi Klein highlighted the fact that in America, where the principle of separation has been most rigorously pursued, the number of Christians attending church regularly is significantly higher than in Europe. I echoed this comment and stated that I believed the principle of separation to be one of the great insights of western civilization.

The three panel members were largely in agreement in their responses to the second theme, too. While there was some discussion about the “Just War” theory, it was agreed that the theory was often times ignored. There was also agreement that religious believers have a right to protect themselves and that pacifism was not a dominant position in Christianity, Judaism or Islam. I raised the question about the responsibility of religious believers to participate in government and the complicating situations this sometimes created on issues of war and peace. I brought up the country of Ghana as an example. Ghana has become a majority Christian country over the last few decades and recently declared itself officially a “Christian nation”. Whether one agrees with such a pronouncement or not, should the Christian believer in Ghana take responsibility for running the country since they make up the majority of the people? And if the answer is “yes,” doesn’t that mean they will be forced to sometimes make messy decisions on the issue of war and peace? This, of course, is not to ignore the historic truth that Christians, as well as Muslims and Jews, have committed atrocities against other peoples. My own belief, derived from studying the history of Christianity for over twenty years, is that collectively Christians usually commit their most egregious crimes when they have mixed their Christian faith with some ideology, such as communism, Nazism or nationalism.

As I reflect back on the evening, I continue to think about a topic that was not raised at the Abrahamic Traditions Dinner. This is the issue of forgiveness. While it is clear that Christians, Jews and Muslims have each participated in the most sinful acts against each other, there was not a word spoken about the role of forgiveness in bringing about peaceful relations between the three monotheistic religions. A Common Word between Us and You, as helpful of a document as it is in its call for peaceful coexistence, does not mention forgiveness. Instead it is assumed that Christians, Jews and Muslims can begin anew their relations with each other without addressing the sins of the past. Perhaps a “Truth and Reconciliation Committee”, such as the one used in South Africa, needs to be formed to begin a thorough assessment of the crimes and sins committed in the past and present between the three religions. Perhaps we could form the first committee here in Champaign-Urbana. The fruit of such an exercise might create the necessary space for forgiveness to be discussed, given and received. Only then, I believe, will we be ready to move forward on the basis of the love of God and neighbor for which A Common Word calls.