Defend the faith and use it to stand up to extremists

Rabbi James A. Gibson, Imam Abdu’Semih Tadese and Bishop David A. Zubik, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Chapel Hill. Paris. Libya. Copenhagen. Bangui. The list is endless. The fact is inescapable. In our day, the price of religious hatred is blood. Blood on the floor. Blood in the parking lot. Blood on the desert sands. Blood on the streets of our cities.

No one in the kosher supermarket in Paris had defamed the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. None of those in that apartment building in Chapel Hill, N.C., had cursed Christians. No Coptic Christian in Egypt had insulted anyone to merit beheading. None who have died in these attacks on religious groups consciously offended another faith. Their lack of offense was no defense against violent death at the hands of those who scorn God’s gift of life.

And even death is no escape from hatred and indignity. Last week in eastern France, hundreds of headstones in a Jewish cemetery were vandalized.

In Central Africa last year, tens of thousands of Muslims fled from machete-wielding Christians bent on murder and mayhem even as Christians have come under attack by Muslims in the same region.

Some will attribute the rise in faith-based violence to economic causes. Others will point to lack of social integration, causing stigma and fear. Still others will say that violence is a core component of one faith thinking itself superior to others. And some will throw up their hands and give over the entire problem to God or Satan or both.

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars but in ourselves.” So wrote William Shakespeare more than 400 years ago. His words ring true now more than ever. Neither God nor God’s teaching is the cause of our violent hatreds.

Yet we, leaders of three major faiths, admit some measure of responsibility for the violence done in our names even though we are not in any way responsible for these acts, which we find horrific and repugnant.

This is why we eagerly look for condemnations from faith leaders when brutal acts are committed by those claiming our faith as their mantle.

Those who say they can’t find such statements are not looking very hard. Muslim leaders have decried the violence against Jews in Europe. Christians and Jews have protested the violence against Muslims in this country.

When a Palestinian Muslim was murdered by Jewish extremists in Jerusalem last summer, one Orthodox rabbi declared that the Jewish hand that murdered Muhammad Khdeir was tainted forever and incapable of ever again fulfilling God’s commandments.

Over 30,000 Danes rallied last week in Copenhagen against the murders at a community center and a synagogue and in support of the Jews who live among them.

Rabbi Michael Melchior, who lives in Israel but whose extended family still resides in Copenhagen, wrote in The Times of Israel:

“I am putting out a joint press release with Sheik Abdullah Nimer Darwish, the founder of the Islamist Movement in Israel. In our joint statement we emphasize that those who carried out the attack are not only our enemy. They are the enemy of G-d (God), the enemy of mankind and the enemy of Islam as well.”

To those who say that religion is the problem, we hereby declare without equivocation: Those who perpetrate these acts are, in fact, the enemies of God. We refuse to be their window-dressing. We reject any claim they make to worship the God we adore and serve.

As Pope Francis has said: “Religious fundamentalism, even before it eliminates human beings by perpetrating horrendous killings, eliminates God himself, turning Him into a mere ideological pretext.”

But, in the end, all of our condemnations are only weak reactions against these horrors. The cycle is now predictable. An outrage is committed. We condemn. We call on governments for more protection. Despite this, someone perpetrates another act in a place we do not expect. And the cycle starts all over again.

So we ask, what can we do?

We call for our communities here in Pittsburgh to begin immediate dialogue efforts at all levels. Religious leadership must band together and listen to each others’ fears. The faithful of Christianity, Islam and Judaism (as well as Hinduism and Buddhism) must sit down together and explore differences before reclaiming our common purpose.

The Religious Leadership Forum of Southwestern Pennsylvania, which has been dormant almost since the outbreak of the Iraq war, must be called back into session as soon as possible. This worthy organization helped shape the response of our faith community over the years regarding civil rights and worker rights, local injustices and global issues.

For too long have we been content to tend to our own flocks, to minister to pain and sorrow in our own ranks without expanding our circle of concern to include those who are different, those who believe things we do not accept or understand.

Despite our differences, we affirm that all of us want to make this world a better place, to improve the atmosphere of cooperation and trust in our midst and to work, through our friendship and respect, to prevent religious violence from entering our community.

This is holy work and we are committed to it. We will get up from our places in our mosques, churches and synagogues and seek each other out to promote a new era of religious understanding and friendship. If we cannot, or worse, are not willing to do this, then we question how we can be God’s witnesses in a broken, fragmented world. We are dedicated to healing through our word, our presence and our deeds.

Professor Jacob Rader Marcus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion said many years ago: “It may well be that we cannot love our neighbor as we love ourselves — that is a counsel of perfection — but the least we can do is to tolerate him and his differences.”

We would add that tolerance is merely the starting point. We have so much more to do to attain our goal of peaceful co-existence. We must build a better community in God’s name, together, starting now.

James A. Gibson is senior rabbi of Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill. Abdu’Semih Tadese is imam of the Islamic University Center Pittsburgh in Oakland. David A. Zubik is bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.

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