Christmas is supposed to be a time of peace, love and goodwill to all, including those who do not celebrate the birth of Jesus as a High Holy Day. Unfortunately, the stress and commotion of the season too often results in many of us feeling more like the unrepentant Mr. Scrooge.
An Excelsior Lutheran church recently had some inclusive ideas on how all of us can find a more respectful civility in a unique program called “Finding Common Ground in Uncommon Times.”
It got started when a pastor’s vacation-time reading led him to a prominent Orthodox rabbi in New York City who had in 2007 penned a book entitled “You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right.”
One thing led to another and Rabbi Brad Hirshfield’s thoughts on finding faith without fanaticism found him with an attentive audience at the Rev. David Olson’s Mount Calvary Lutheran Church for a day of reflection and conversation.
Olson and his staff also included in the Sunday afternoon program other leaders whose thoughts on civility and faith were explored.
- Islamic Imam Tamin Saidi, a transplanted Afghan who has been settled in Minnesota the last 20 years and is a Sunday School teacher at the Islamic Center of Minnesota and a board member of Minnesota’s only Islamic School, Al Amal.
- Buddhist Christopher Hafner, whose own spiritual journey into interconnected and interdependent thinking led him to his priesthood; he is a teacher in the Soto Zen Buddhist tradition that allows a form of social and environmental engagement.
- Ann M. Svennungsten, the bishop of the Minneapolis Area Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church whose career has included a Moorhead pastorate, an interim college presidency at St. Olaf in Northfield and ecumenical and cultural research at St. John’s University in Collegeville.
Hirshfield, who told folks to call him Brad, was a Sunday pulpit guest and then the keynoter of the conference, which was held over a 3½-hour period in the afternoon, the last two hours devoted to a discussion among the four clerics.
A ‘religious fanatic’ in his youth
The three panelists, and many in the audience of 400, had read Hirshfield’s book in which he recounts his teen-age years in the 1980s as what he termed a “religious fanatic” who moved from his native Chicago to the West Bank city of Hebron in Israel, living in a settlement where he carried a Bible in one hand and a gun in the other.
“I felt absolutely sure of myself … that my way was the only way to live,” he told the assemblage.
All of that changed when Jewish settlers, who had been attacked, fired in retaliation into a school, killing two Palestinian children. Disillusioned, Hirshfeld returned to the United States, remaining an observant Jew, and began what led to his rabbinical studies — where he dug deep in exploring the “global forest,” not just the single tree.
In cross questioning, Hirschfield, a father of three daughters, explained his decision to become an Orthodox Jew as consistent with his worldview, but said he did so with both a curiosity for and understanding of how others view the world. His ministry has included being a noted national commentator in print, radio and TV.
Muslims ‘by no means a monolithic group’
Imam Saidi, whose grasp of the Old Testament rivaled that of Hirshfeld, cited the writings of Abraham and Mohammed to explain the Islamic view. Saidi explained that Islam is close to Christianity by believing in Jesus and agrees with Judaism by not worshiping Him. The world’s 1.67 billion Muslims are by “no means a monolithic group,” according the Imam, a father of three.
When asked by Bishop Svennungsten about the role of women in faith and society, Saidi held the view that, while women play many important roles, the “highest calling of a woman is as a mother.”
Hafner, the Buddhist priest, said his faith is based in the 2,500-year-old teachings of Siddhartha Guatama, who lived in India; Siddhartha became known as the “Awakened One” after a powerful enlightenment on suffering other insights into human existence. A father of three, Hafner is also a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine and a community faculty member of the Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota.
Bishop Svennungsten, a mother of three and something of a glass-ceiling breaker in the ELCA, was candid about her own church’s responsibility in policymaking, particularly the role to be played in support of the world’s poor.
Differing views, but no castigation
The three panelists who were not Christians all agreed that Jesus lived and walked the earth. There was explanation of differing views on theology but not one castigated another on issues of Middle East peace, homosexuality, abortion or the role of government in society, where there were differing views, to be sure. The discussion was all about acceptance, tolerance, peace, hope and the common wisdom of all religions.
A concluding remark to the panel referenced the “political invective” of the recent U.S. presidential election, suggesting that civil discourse should include elements consistent with what had been demonstrated by the panel. We should fully understand our purpose in what we are saying, avoid getting personal, adopt the long view of our two-way conversations, listen as much as we talk, and learn from role models who are able to stand up for their own opinions, diffuse anger in others and concede the validity of the opinions of those who do not agree with them.
The four panelists nodded in agreement.
Chuck Slocum [Chuck@WillistonGroup.Com] is president of The Williston Group, a management consulting firm. A Presbyterian elder and deacon, he moderated the afternoon discussion among the four religious leaders.
WANT TO ADD YOUR VOICE?
Write your reaction to this piece in the Comments area below. Or consider submitting your own Community Voices commentary; for information, email Susan Albright.