I feel that interfaith outreach is crucial. Unfortunately, there are people, even in this day and age, who feel that discriminating against others on the basis of religion is acceptable. For all of the advances that humanity has made, there's still much work to be done in terms of promoting understanding among the world's religions. Society has made incredible progress, but it's a mockery of that progress when people squabble like pre-school children over religious differences. Instead of using religion to elevate the world, there are those who use it as a force of division and intolerance. When religion is used to tear people down rather than to build them up, something has gone terribly wrong.
A lack of understanding and cooperation can even arise even within one's own religion. I remember visiting a certain church when I was a child. The church had a rack full of gospel tracts, and on that rack were pamphlets bashing other Christian denominations. They felt that it was okay to make malicious comments about fellow Christians. Even from my vantage point as a kid, I felt embarrassed for them. I don't have any problem with theological debate, as long as it's conducted in a civilized manner. But treating other people as if they're enemies just because they hold different beliefs does nothing whatsoever to promote peace. Spreading strife in the name of religion is something that should have been overcome centuries ago, yet it still persists today.
It's easy to criticize other belief systems when you don't understand them. One of the goals of interfaith events is to promote understanding across religious and cultural lines. During my youth, I was told "facts" about other religions that turned out to be completely false. I discovered those statements were false by speaking directly with practitioners of other beliefs, by doing research, and by visiting their services. If someone makes a claim about something I'm interested in — and I'm definitely interested in religion — I'll often seek further information. Don't just accept someone's word at face value. Do your own homework. It might save you the embarrassment of spreading bad information even further.
Imagine the benefits that could befall any community if the time wasted on trashing other people's beliefs were turned toward building up our towns, neighborhoods and schools. Even a half-hour sermon knocking other religious groups could, instead, turn into a half-hour of examining ways to unite and provide a better community for everyone.
While I was writing this column, Chris Stevens, U.S. ambassador to Libya, along with three staff members, was killed in a protest by Muslims over an anti-Islamic film. In response, the U.S. is now sending military counter-terrorism forces to that country. If you need a contemporary example of religious-related violence, look no further. Tension over religion has the potential to spark bloodshed. There are now people calling for the bombing of Libya in retaliation.
I'm belatedly seeing this snippet of news from ABC about something that happened this summer in Michigan:
"Christian protesters traveled across the country to Dearborn, Mich., where they taunted attendees and even held a severed pig’s head for three days at the annual Arab International Festival. The protests turned violent Sunday, and by the end of the day as many as 10 people facing disorderly conduct or assault charges, according to ABC News Detroit affiliate WXYZ. 'You’re going to burn in hell,' a missionary reportedly yelled at a group of Arab-American boys."
Despite this sad state of affairs, it's refreshing to know that there is hope. Yes, negative things are happening in the name of religion. Rumors, accusations and violence seem to be flying in every direction. But next week in Panama City, one group will be doing its part to counteract negativity on a local scale and demonstrate that people of different beliefs can, indeed, cooperate. Also, I just received word of an interfaith picnic at the Spiritual Enrichment Center in Dothan, Ala., on Sept. 23.
When interfaith events come to the area, please consider supporting them. It's time to leave ignorance and violence behind. Let's work together to promote peace, regardless of religious beliefs.