XXII ANNUAL EPP GROUP INTERCULTURAL DIALOGUE WITH CHURCHES AND RELIGIOUS INSTITUTIONS “Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together”
Religion is the path for the search of the self, a perspective that allows many of us to make sense of our world.
In our Abrahamic family, it was our forefather Abraham who taught us that there is so much to be found beyond the comfort of our homes, the security of the nation or ideology of the creed we were born into. Abraham dared to ask challenging questions and strove to understand that there was something greater than all of us.
The Midrash relates that his questions were not taken lightly. Challenging authority and the status-quo was severely punished, but Abraham didn’t just look for comfort and stability, he dared to listen to that voice, the call of God to “Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you (“Lech lecha meartzecha, mimoladtecha umibeit abicha.”)
This is the call that brings us together today. We are daring to ask what we can do differently so the world of tomorrow can become a bit more peaceful? How can we, for once, bring awareness that the divine image is not reflected in the success of my own group but in the face and heart of each and every human being?
To follow the tradition of Abraham one must go beyond maintaining institutions that praise him: it means doing what Abraham did and honoring him by following his example.
There is an old Jewish saying that “Understanding the disease is half of the cure.”
If we truly want to develop a better coexistence between groups of humans, we have to assess the past shortcomings honestly and wisely and learn from our mistakes.
Understanding past problems may require courage of Abrahamic proportions, but the good news is that just by doing so, sincerely and intelligently, brings us halfway closer to the solution.
We all strive for freedom; we all want to unshackle ourselves from the yoke of history.
Let me share a personal anecdote. For a long time now, I have been pondering and searching references of the word “Truth” in Biblical and rabbinical references.
What I found was that – almost always – the word is used as a synonym of: sustainability, loyalty, the everlasting. Let me give you a few examples:
When the Torah speaks of the attributes of God, it says:
Erech Apaim verav Chesed Veemet “Slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness”. The latter should be interpreted as trust that just behaviors would be rewarded and that we would be held accountable for our moral failures.
In the book of Esther: Mordechai and Queen Esther sent letters to recount the defeat of Haman. In the end of the book it calls their message as: Divrei Shalom Veemet (“Words of peace and truth”) Does this mean that the story is actually true? The correct translation would be:
Words of everlasting peace. The book is saying that this treaty, signed with the ring of the Persian king, should end the conflict and open an era of lasting peace.
Every morning in our prayers, we use the words:
Emet Veyatziv (“True and stable and correct this is to us”). At night we say: Emet Veemuna kol zot, again as synonyms, “truth and faithfulness all this is to us…”
I wonder if this can present a little window for us to understand how each group viewed itself as the guardian of the truth.
There is a clear perceived tribal supremacy in each one of the religious groups. It goes along the lines of: “If I am right you must be wrong, or only my way is the only right way…”
Would it be possible to keep preserving our truth without losing sight of its outcomes? If we give room to each other’s perceptions, we can achieve sustainability for all of us. It can in fact lead us to an Emet Veshalom – “everlasting peace.”
(Note that both words Emet and Shalom are names which are attributed to God (in all Abrahamic traditions). It is the manifestation of God which enlightens us to reach a compromise. The Talmud considers compromise to be greater than justice, as both sides are heard, and their concerns considered)
Each religious group has mechanisms that allow it to preserve the boundaries of the group. It guarantees loyalty, lasting affiliation, and allows for an elaboration of a sustainable group strategy.
Sociologists explain that the empathy of a single person is limited to about 100 individuals. It is therefore natural that we all want to manage our resources by reserving them for people we identify as being inside our social circles, to be distinguished from those outside by marking the limits of the circle.
I will certainly not be able to save an entire city with my loaf of bread so why spend energy and blame myself for the thousands if not millions of people for whom I cannot help anyway?
Marking the group is not just an understandable human behavior, it is an intrinsic part of our human nature.
Human groups, since time immemorial, have been forming tribes with fixed loyalties and rituals to reaffirm their boundaries.
In short, we persist in our comfort zone where we interact with like-minded people who confirm and reconfirm our views. Where is the other in all this? This plain primitive human instinct, not spiritual or divine.
As Polish journalist Richard Kapuscinski argued in his book The Other: “This behavior belongs to our sedentary nature”. There is nothing glorious or heroic or about being closed minded.
I am not suggesting that we must merge into one frictionless, homogenous religion or culture. We must acknowledge human nature but strive to do better.
Perhaps the origins of inter-group conflict should be sought in our efforts to maintain the same tribe mechanics in a world which was becoming increasingly globalized: what works for a small family business may not work for a multinational company.
The good news is that human empathy is extensible: we can expand it to millions of people that we’ve never met. We actually do this all the time, we feel commonality with people who share the same nationality, religion or love for a football team. Europe, as imperfect as you may think it is, is a good case in point: achieving compromises and learning from others allows it to sustain all the building blocks of the union.
While we can understand the group and institutional dynamics, we should always recognize that these mechanisms are there to help people achieve spiritual growth and worship God. Put differently, institutions shouldn’t be there to use people and the name of God for their own worship.
We cannot erase history and change human nature overnight, but if we all accept that this is the direction, we need to take in order to make God proud of His children, then, like Abraham, we need to undertake this journey together!
Numerous remarkable actions around the world indicate that we are, indeed, moving in this direction. We are taking firm steps towards a better world, but let’s be ready, build strength, and support each other as the journey may be a long one.
Respecting the other for who he or she is, assisting in the freedom of belief, or absence of it:
This is spiritual. This is the way we recognize and honor the divine image.
The Chasidim of Eastern Europe used to say that the true love of God is the love of your Fellow man.
That is certainly what Abraham would do.
But today, what can we do? Here and now.
I wish that this simple, but profound idea that all humans are created in the image of God, that life is sacred, were not discussed only in meetings between religious leaders. I wish it were taught and rediscovered in every home, every religious school, or Sunday school, and in our very communities. Each one of us can be a teacher: in our own language and using our own words.
May we all have Abraham’s courage to hear the divine call to bring “True and Sustainable Peace.”