What We Can Do about ISIS

Father NabilAt one point on my recent trip to the Middle East an Army chaplain said to me with tears in his eyes, “We are at the beginning of something like the Protestant Reformation, and Father Nabil Haddad is like Martin Luther.”

Father Nabil Haddad is the Catholic priest who invited six of us to World Interfaith Harmony Week in Amman, February 1-7. For several years now Father Nabil has been working with Episcopal priest Bill Sachs, who convenes our interfaith group in Richmond, and he and Bill agreed that it would be good for us to have this experience. Apparently our group is something of a novelty–Muslims, Christians, and Jews who not only “dialogue” about the serious business of interfaith relations, but who also eat together, travel together, and sometimes, just for fun, bowl together. Father Nabil wanted to see that for himself, and also wanted his colleagues here in Jordan to see it.

And so he invited us to his house for dinner, where we were greeted by his wife and adult children (“Wait a minute. Wife and children? Didn’t you say he was a Catholic priest?” Yes, he is. A Melkite Catholic priest, which is closer to Greek Orthodox than Roman Catholic, and yet in full communion with the worldwide Catholic Church). His children were perfect hosts (I got the feeling they’d had some practice), and his wife had cooked the entire meal we enjoyed, and we enjoyed it entirely.

Along with our delegation Nabil had invited a half-dozen US Army chaplains he’s become acquainted with. This was a surprise to us, but we’re learning that with Father Nabil you have to be ready for almost anything. The chaplains turned out to be terrific guys and one of them identified himself to me as a Southern Baptist pastor from Washington state.

As we were getting to know each other our conversation was interrupted by the news that the Jordanian pilot being held by ISIS had been executed, and in the most horrific way imaginable. Someone asked Father Nabil if he would lead us in prayer, and we all stood and joined hands while he prayed for the family of this pilot, and for the country of Jordan, and for peace in the Middle East.

For the rest of the evening this tragic news was the topic of conversation. We ate dinner with the television on, and at one point Father Nabil got a call asking if he could come and make an appearance on national television. That’s when I got into a conversation with the chaplain who told me that Nabil was like Martin Luther.

It surprised me, coming from him, because in the course of conversation I learned that he was a Mormon, and I felt my spine stiffen just a little bit. I can talk to Muslims and Jews. I can even talk to Episcopalians (smile). But here was someone who was not exactly “orthodox,” if you know what I mean: someone whose religion was just enough different from my own that all I could see were the differences and all I could feel was an urge to distance myself.

But I stayed with it. I kept on talking with him. And then he said that remarkable thing, with tears in his eyes, and it made me look at him in a different way: as a fellow human being, certainly, but as someone who was also looking for peace in the world and between our warring religions.

Like me.

That’s been my experience over and over on this trip, as I ride on the tour bus beside a Muslim imam, and talk with my Jewish rabbi roommate after the lights have gone out at night: I’ve been seeing all the ways in which we are like each other on the human level, but also in our desire to see that day when all of God’s children can live in peace. Father Nabil said, “When my Jordanian friends see you–Muslim, Christian, Jew–eating together, traveling together, laughing together…I think they are very jealous! You are setting an example for us.” That doesn’t mean my interfaith group is trying to create “one world religion.” Not at all. In fact we are finding that the more passionately we embrace our own religious identities–as Christians, Jews, and Muslims–the more we are able to respect and appreciate each other’s religions. And what is central to each of them is a love for God and neighbor.

Which makes it clear that ISIS is not Islamic.

When ISIS killed that Jordanian pilot (a faithful Muslim) it let the world know that its agenda is not Islam vs. Christianity; its agenda is to gain control through fear, and it doesn’t care who it kills in order to achieve that goal.*  But suppose that instead of eyeing each other with suspicion the world’s religions joined hands and prayed–for the end of ISIS, the end of extremism, the end of fear?

That’s what we did in Father Nabil’s living room. I joined hands with a circle of friends that included a rabbi, an imam, a Catholic priest, a Baptist minister, and a Mormon chaplain, and we prayed together for an end to the kind of violence and hatred that could do such a thing to another human being. We did it in part because Father Nabil believes this is the only way to achieve peace in the world–for the many religions to stop arguing with each other and join hands in prayer to the One who would love to see his children come together…

…in peace.

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*When Ammar Amonette, the imam who was traveling with us, heard what ISIS had done to the Jordanian pilot he said, “This is not Islam.  The Quran does not allow this kind of killing.”

KOH2RVA: Day 65

This afternoon I’m headed to Roanoke for the annual meeting of the Baptist General Association of Virginia—our state convention. It’s going to be an interesting meeting, and I’m sure I’ll have something to blog about tomorrow and the next day, but I’m not leaving until this afternoon and it’s because I’m having lunch with these guys.

These are some of the religious leaders in the interfaith group I meet with from time to time. In the top photograph you see Nathan Elmore (left), a Baptist campus minister at VCU; next to him is Imam Ammar Amonette, from the Islamic Center of Virginia; and on the right is Imad Damaj, President and founder of the Virginia Muslim Coalition for Public Affairs. In the bottom photo you can see Rabbi Ben Romer on the left, from Congregation Or Ami; Wallace Adams-Riley in the middle, Rector of Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church; and on the right Bill Sachs, Executive Director of the Center for Interfaith Reconciliation. Bill is the one who calls us together on occasion to have lunch and talk about what we might do for the good of the city.

I’m becoming more and more convinced that if we want to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, we have to learn to get along with each other, and I mean all of us: people of different races, people of different classes, and people of different religions. I like the way Imad Damaj said it, especially after the events of September 11, 2001, made many people suspicious of Muslims.  He said: “We have a new reality [in Richmond], and we either have to choose between being an inclusive, open place to all, or to continue in the lines of divisions and anxieties and intolerance that bring the worst out in us.” He added: “I think this diversity we have is going to bring out the best in us.”

That’s why, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, this group hosted a city-wide forum where we talked about the possibility of something more than “interfaith dialogue,” where people discuss the similarities and differences in their religions in an effort to promote understanding; we talked about “interfaith friendship,” where people of different religions try to break down the barriers that divide them and build bridges of genuine trust.

At one of our recent meetings I remembered a conversation I had with a man in one of my former churches who told me he wasn’t a racist, that he had “a lot of friends” who were black. “Do you ever have any of them over for dinner?” I asked, “because that’s what friends do: they eat together.”  And so I’m going to postpone my departure for Roanoke long enough to have lunch with an imam, a rabbi, and a priest (sounds like the beginning of a joke, doesn’t it?). I’m doing it because we’re trying to do much more than understand each other’s religions: we’re trying to become friends.

This is a different way of bringing heaven to earth than some would choose–where you convert everybody to your way of thinking and get rid of anybody who doesn’t look like you–but people have tried that way before and it didn’t work.  Remember the Crusades?  The Spanish Inquisition?  The Third Reich?

I’m willing to give this way a try.

Lunch with the Imam

hummus-280bI had lunch with the Imam on Monday.  That’s not his given name, but it’s what the others at the table—two members of his congregation—were calling him.  They sat on either side of him, nodding respectfully in his direction whenever they mentioned that “the Imam” had said this or that, or that we might want to ask “the Imam.”  I was having lunch with him at the invitation of one of our newer members, who is interested in interfaith dialogue and who thought a get-acquainted meeting with his pastor and the local imam might be a good idea.  I thought it would too, and only partly because we were having lunch at a Middle Eastern restaurant with an all-you-can-eat buffet.

The Imam himself—Ammar Amonette—looked nothing like I had imagined: fair-haired and fair-skinned with a rambling beard that reminded me of something I might have seen among the Pennsylvania Dutch.  It turns out he is of French Huguenot ancestry, and has lived in several of these United States including South Carolina where, as a boy, he developed a southern accent so strong his northern relatives couldn’t understand him.  These days his accent is hard to place, but perhaps only because as a U.S. Army brat he has lived “literally, all over the world,” and as a student of Islam was in Mecca for twelve years. 

I was impressed by his understanding of Christianity, right down to the various Baptist denominations.  I was impressed by his familiarity with technology (not only the cell phone he pulled out to reply to a text message, but his You Tube videos I discovered when I got back to the office).  And I was impressed by his ability to listen thoughtfully to someone from another faith tradition without criticizing or condemning.   As the meal wound down toward the dessert course it seemed that we were having true interfaith dialogue.

I shared the story of the time I had asked a Muslim woman from the Gambia, “What do you love about your religion?”  Her name was Badjie.  She was the assigned caregiver for one of my elderly members in DC.  We had talked many times in the past, but I had never asked her about being Muslim.  “So, Badjie, what do you love about your religion?” I asked, and she said, “I love the emphasis on forgiveness.” 

“Forgiveness?” I asked, wondering if I had heard her correctly.  Forgiveness was not the word that came to mind when I thought of Islam.

“Oh, yes!” she said.  “Forgiveness is very important to Muslims.” 

“To Christians too!” I said, and for the next thirty minutes or so that was what we talked about: the way forgiveness is emphasized by our respective faith traditions.  When it was time to go I turned to my parishioner, Jeannette, and offered to say a prayer with her and then I turned to Badjie and asked if she would like to join us.  She said yes and we all joined hands. Just before I closed my eyes to pray I looked down and saw Jeannette’s pale, frail hand in mine, mine in Badjie’s, and Badjie’s strong, dark hand in Jeannette’s. I don’t think you could have found three more different people on the planet, but there we were, all of us children of God, holding each other’s hands and bowing our heads to offer up a prayer.

I will never forget that moment.

That’s the promise of interfaith dialogue, and that’s why I agreed to have lunch with the Imam on Monday.  I had this hope that if we talked long enough and listened long enough we might come to that place where, in spite of profound differences in the way we understand God, we would recognize each other as his children. 

And who knows where we might go from there?