We Still haven’t Given Peace a Chance
by Fr. Tom Bonacci, CP
(this article was just featured in the September edition of ”110 degrees”, a local California magazine.)
My own involvement with the Interfaith Peace Project began three days before 9/11 at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s Carlow University. We subsequently used the fallen towers as a grim case study to explore how things can go so wrong with religion. Now located around the San Francisco Bay area, the Interfaith Peace Project is committed to the cause of creating attitudes and environments that will foster the development of peace among adherents of various religious traditions
We are confronting the disturbing reality of people using their particular faith position as justification for criticizing, condemning, and even violently opposing people with whom they disagree. Steven Weinberg, a Nobel Prize-winning American physicist, made the uncomfortable observation that…
With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.
We have come to realize that the people who identify too tightly with their particular faith traditions become the source of religious warfare. Such people take it personally when anyone attacks or even fails to embrace the teachings of Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, Joseph Smith, or whichever prophet they’ve committed themselves to. Any sign of disrespect for their particular prophet leads to feelings ranging from disdain to murderous rage.
On the other hand, the majority of members in each of the faith communities may be devout, but they are living in the real world and value peace above any dogma. They are willing to approach religious issues with an attitude of cooperation rather than confrontation towards those who disagree with their religious convictions. At the extremes, it’s the difference between someone like Osama bin Laden and Mahatma Gandhi.
Understanding that Leads to Peace
We are convinced that there can be no world peace without religious peace, and that religious peace will only be possible when religious people learn to appreciate views from other traditions than their own. The walls of distrust and hatred, that members of various religious traditions erect against each other, are always founded upon ignorance. If we only will take the time to learn about each other’s faith — read the scriptures and examine the religious symbols belonging to traditions outside our own — then our emerging understanding will inevitably bring the walls of that ignorance tumbling down.
Therefore, the mission of the Interfaith Peace Project is to provide cross-religious experiences, learning opportunities, and interpersonal encounters that will bring about the kind of appreciation that otherwise would remain restricted mostly to people with the time and energy to attend formal classes in the comparative religion department of some institution of higher learning.
The learning and change, that we are working to create, only takes place on a personal level. The fact is that Catholicism will never interact with Judaism; Catholics must learn to fellowship with Jews. Islam will never achieve rapprochement with Christianity; Muslims and Christians need to be able to sit down together. We’re bringing individuals together from various faith traditions, providing opportunities for them to learn from and about each other’s faith, thus creating understandings that lead to mutual acceptance.
The Peace Project does not attempt to create a common faith; we believe that each religious community has traditions that anybody of good will can honor. We attempt, rather, to raise interfaith consciousness — not seeking to identify doctrines or traditions that various religions hold in common, but instead to learn about distinctive teachings without feeling the need to oppose them, to regard them as being unworthy, or in need of being corrected. We can learn from each other without feeling any need either to judge or to imitate one another. At the very least people can learn to say, “I don’t agree with your religious convictions, but I acknowledge that your beliefs are as important to you as mine are to me.” Any rational human being should easily attain to this minimal level of tolerance, but the ideal is to come to a point where we come to respect and appreciate those differences — like the various ingredients and spices in a cake, each contributing its own taste to the whole.
A Day for Peace
The Interfaith Peace Project has sponsored various activities commemorating The United Nations International Day of Peace, which has been celebrated every September 21 since 1981. The underlying vision is to encourage people to spend 24 hours during which they might practice serenity in everything they do or think. Each of us on that day seeks to have peace, to practice peace, and to remain peaceful. The founder of the International Day of Peace, George De Angelo, spoke a word of hope that we all echo: “If we can keep peace for twenty-four hours, we can be peaceful for a lifetime!”
We don’t intend to focus upon programs, but some religious and even secular programming will take place that day — all of them seeking to create peace by encouraging justice. In these ways we are joining with hundreds of thousands of people around the world who are promoting festivals, programs, seminars, and other activities in order to bring peace to the forefront of our consciousness on September 21.
The actual date falls on Tuesday this year so we will move the observances and celebrations to the preceding Sunday, September 19, at which time we will provide people with messages, materials, and attitudes that will equip them to then spend the 21st in genuine peaceful attitudes, actions, and reflections. This year we will gather at the local parish of St. Ignatius Church, beginning on Saturday the 18th. Attendees will be able to visit tables displaying sacred scriptures and religious symbols from various faith traditions. Sufi, Sik, Jewish, Islam, Latter Day Saints, United Church of Christ, and Seventh Day Adventist groups will be cooperating in this. We’re also hoping to be joined by Hindus and Native Americans.
Exposure to these various religions will help people to understand, and even to savor the religious devotion of each of the particular traditions. The events of the day will center on a gentle interfaith service culminating in our planting of a peace pole that will be dedicated to all the people, to all the world, and to all of us. People will be able to touch the pole symbolically connecting themselves to the prayer for peace. A candlelight ceremony will focus attention on the tables. People will be given time to browse the tables at leisure. Throughout the night, they will be able to spend quiet time among the scriptures, books, and symbols of religious faith. The contact will develop internal awareness of the power and significance of various religious traditions, promoting peace through understanding.
We are planning an interfaith prayer vigil that weekend, inviting people to spend a half-hour praying for peace. The official prayer time will begin following the Saturday evening service, ending with the first service on Sunday. These prayer vigils are weather proof. During inclement weather, people experience the romantic transition of coming out of the rain into the dry, warm place of prayer; during clear weather they can pray for peace under the stars of heaven, if they wish.
Local religious communities will provide examples of traditional music including singing, drumming, and dancing. We hope to have a Native American dance group begin the celebration. The purpose of the music is not to entertain, but to inspire listeners to worship. During the night watches, members of the Taizé community will lead in a particular form of musical chants that employs repetition punctuated by lengthy periods of silence. The Latter-Day Saints will have musical groups, and the Seventh Day Adventists will sponsor a praise group. The Walnut Creek Sufi Reoriented group will bring an interactive dancing and singing celebration. Sufi Reoriented has as its mission the renewal of the heart and turning away from all else but God. Sufi Reoriented music is reported to be an unforgettable experience as the singers create a sense of the divine both through their music and appearance.
Our approach to peace appeals to an area of interfaith spirituality that lies within each of us — an innate surmise lurking at the depth of our being that the Universe has a friendly face, which is the face of God according to whatever particular theology we use to embody that understanding. The “friendliness” of the universe becomes more obvious as we grow to accept C.S. Lewis’ bold assertion:
More and more clearly one sees how much of ones’ philosophy and religion are mere talk: the boldest hope is that concealed somewhere within it there is some seed however small of the real thing.