|Fr John Brian (right) with event participants Dr Manucher Javid, MD (left) and Dr Azam Niroomand, PhD (center)|
photo by Christopher River Paprock
An Interfaith Reflection Statement by
Rev Fr John Brian Paprock, director of Inroads Ministry
September 14, 2010, 7:00pm, Madison Baha’i Center, Madison, Wisconsin
Peace be with you.
As a long time member of interfaith dialogue and interfaith activity, I am honored to be here. It would be hard, if not impossible, to represent the Interfaith Community of Madison – our community is just too diverse. I am honored that the event organizers felt that I may be able to do so.
Even though I may not be qualified to fully represent Madison’s diverse religious and faith traditions, I have been involved in interfaith and ecumenical activity for more than twenty years, mostly through pastoral efforts after my ordination to the Orthodox Christian priesthood. I have written several books of interfaith topics, including “Neighbors, Strangers, and Everyone Else” which addresses topics of co-existence. I have served as a hospital and hospice chaplain, often advocating for minority faith traditions in institutional settings. I founded Inroads Ministry first as a vehicle for non-denominational retreats and then for community efforts, including Interfaith Awareness Week at the Capitol - which will be December 5-11, 2010 this year. The Interfaith Awareness Week is always schedule for the week of Human Rights Day, a day designated by the United Nations in honor of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This brings me to the purpose of this gathering.
The Declaration was written in 1948 and details the rights of all human individuals and directs governments to act accordingly. Obviously, many governments have not always considered this Declaration in the course of their governance. Obviously, not every group sees the benefits of human rights, especially of those deemed enemies of the state – which usually happens to be the very people the Declaration was pledged to protect. Among these are often those with differing beliefs from those in political power.
Article 18 of the Declaration of Human Rights
• Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
It is abhorrent to people of good conscience (that aspire to the high ideals of their faith tradition) that violations of human rights continue. People of diverse faiths have experienced prejudice and persecution; have been imprisoned, tortured, maimed, killed. Some have inherited a history of such violations. Others have personally experienced it.
As an Eastern Orthodox Christian (which is not of European Western Christianity), I have inherited grievous atrocities committed against my spiritual ancestors and my religious family. Over the centuries, Orthodox Christians have had only short periods of time and isolated pockets of stability to practice their faith in true freedom. From the initial Roman attempts to wipe out the early Christians to the brutal treatment of the Ottoman Empire that stretched across the Middle East; from the genocide of the Armenians to the gulags of the atheist Soviet states; stories of rivers of blood, destruction and desecration of holy images and places continue to be vivid reminders of the roots of Orthodox Christianity, surviving in scattered minorities throughout the world. Only in the long-awaited freedom and recognition of human rights have some of the sacred places and sacred things been restored.
This history can be repeated by several of the world’s religions. And there are still problem areas in the world. Even here in the United States, we have problems of intolerance and outright aggression toward those of different beliefs.
In a few weeks, I will be participating in an Orthodox Peace Fellowship conference in California with the theme, “Interfaith Dialogue: Seeking the Peaceable Kingdom” – which an allusion to a prophecy of Isaiah.
Isaiah 11:6 - The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them
Isaiah 65:25 The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, but dust will be the serpent's food. They will neither harm nor destroy…
It is clear that the peace in Isaiah’s prophecy did not require new or different animals, but that the animals were able to act differently, even against their former nature, in order to be together.
This peace is the underlying reason I became involved with interfaith work – a deep desire to bring peace. There will be no peace in this world unless we find a way to get along with those that believe differently, look differently, or act differently, from ourselves.
At the same time, we need to guard against an inherent hypocrisy which cries “we have been persecuted (killed, maimed, or martyred) in the past” then turns a blind eye when others are treated in like manner.
It is very easy to push the open persecution of a people to the internal matters of foreign states. Indeed, we need to tolerate diversity of states as much as we purport to tolerate diversity of individuals. However, we also need, in the safety of the freedoms afforded us as US Citizens, speak out against evil and dark practices wherever they exist – not to the detriment of another’s beliefs, but to the highest purposes of creation, life and liberty.
Whatever good intent we lay upon our free will decisions, we need to be cautious that we do not resemble those opposed to the freedom that will inevitably bring a seemingly greater diversity. People of good conscience are called upon by the highest ideals of their faith traditions to operate without coercion or suppression, lest by baser emotions and lesser ambitions, their practice becomes a festering form of violence, perpetuating evil and suffering in this world.
The repression or suppression of another’s faith may actually suggest an inherent weakness in our own. If our religious ideals are shown to be weaker or lesser than another’s, perhaps we need to dig deeper into our own teachings and traditions or maybe consider discarding them for a more worthy teachings and traditions.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”
So what do we do when confronted with obvious prejudice and persecution? We may need to be reminded of the higher ideals of our various faith traditions.
For instance, there is a story about Muhammad, the prophet and founder of Islam. According to the story, Muhammad and a group of his followers were travelling as a funeral procession came along. Muhammad stood at attention along the road, giving respect. His followers did the same, until one of them noticed that the deceased was not of Islam.
“It is a Jew,” he said and waved off his brethren from the road, but Muhammad continued to stand in respect. This caused confusion among his followers; most of whom were already walking away.
“It is a soul,” said Muhammad, as he continued to stand in honor until the procession passed. His example humbled his followers, most of who stood with him. This is an honorable example for all of us.
Or perhaps, in the same attitude, we need to “do small things with great love” as Mother Teresa of Calcutta has said. Some of these things need to be carried through diplomats and legislators. Other things can be done locally by local citizens. Events like this can bring into focus the issues confronting the very notion of human rights, but without local acts, no matter how small, reflective of our higher ideals, events like this will echo a hollow ring rather than a call for human rights.
In this light, I read an article from the Wausau Daily Herald this morning. Here is an excerpt:
MCMILLAN -- When members of the Islamic Society of Central Wisconsin arrived at their mosque for noon prayers Saturday, a message awaited them.
It was the day after a story was published in Gannett Central Wisconsin newspapers about local Muslim reactions to the national political battles that have swirled around the religion. The hand-written placard worshippers found had a peace sign and a heart drawn on it, and the message, "You have friends in Marshfield." It was next to a pot of yellow mums.
The affirming message was appreciated.
Dr. Rezwan Islam of Wausau said he believes the sign and flowers "speaks to the country in which we live, the openness and free will of the people."
So, we need to stand with those who are persecuted, chastised or worse, due to their faith tradition, no matter how strange their beliefs or culture seem to us, no matter if they are in the majority in other places in the world where they are free to practice and live out their faith. However, this needs to balanced with a deeper understanding of our own religious traditions – a deeper look without the blinders of fear, but with open eyes and hearts that will guide us and direct us to the highest ideals we can practice and live out in this world – respecting the diversity that God’s mercy allows us in the most fundamental of human rights, grounded in each and every one of our free will decisions.
Peace be with you.
And peace be with us all.