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Standing up to religious prejudice

Acts of religious intolerance that have been carried out in North America in recent weeks compel me to join with those of other faiths in speaking out against religious bigotry.

In recent weeks there have been 69 bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers in 27 states. In Missouri, 170 graves in a Jewish Cemetery were vandalized.

In Quebec City (Canada) six people were killed and 19 wounded in an attack on a Muslim mosque. In our own country, arson recently destroyed a mosque in Victoria Texas. Across the country groups are forming in the name of national security that actively seek to root out Muslims in political leadership and throw seditionist suspicions on all Muslims. Leaders of these groups identify as Christians and frame their activities as a spiritual battle between good and evil.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there has been an alarming spike in hate crimes over the past few months, many of them with religious overtones. This has led Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League to conclude that “We are in a volatile and fast-growing threat environment.”

To the credit of the American people, the large majority reject religious bigotry and many are standing up to it. In late January people turned out by the hundreds to form a human chain to protect Muslim young people taking part in the Texas Muslim Capital Day in Austin. Likewise, thousands of people turned out in response to an executive order that banned the entry of individuals into the United States from seven predominantly Muslim countries and temporarily blocked the resettlement of refugees in our country. Most recently Ivanka Trump, a Jewish convert, tweeted: “America is a nation built on religious tolerance. We must protect our houses of worship and religious centers.”

This kind of support for religious minorities in America is a result, in large part, of the proliferation of interfaith efforts that have taken root since the end of World War II. Lack of religious diversity here in the Mid-Ohio Valley has provided little opportunity for interfaith interactions, but this is changing. Not only are there more international students at Marietta College and the Marietta Bible College, but the area is also attracting more foreign-born professionals, particularly medical personnel. A quick perusal of the Medical Directory included in a recent Marietta Times indicates that there are over 50 foreign-born doctors in our community. These doctors and their families are making Marietta their permanent home. Thus, every week people are meeting together for Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist worship as well as Christian worship.

The Marietta community now has an opportunity to begin interfaith dialogue and interfaith service projects. Indeed efforts have begun. An Interfaith Dialogue Planning Group has been meeting for the past six months. A course on Interfaith Dialogue will be offered through the Learning in Retirement program next fall. The culmination of the course will be a visit by “The Interfaith Amigos” a Christian Minister, a Jewish Rabbi and a Muslim Imam. In addition a bus trip to the Arab-American museum in Dearborn, Michigan is being planned.

The benefits of interfaith encounters are twofold. People who listen to one another respectfully find that there is common ground on which friendship and service to others can be built, thus eliminating enmity and suspicion. Moreover, learning about and appreciating the practices of other faiths actually helps persons understand and appreciate their own faith more. As comparative religion author and commentator Karen Armstrong has said, “Learning about other religions allows us to look at our own faith in a different light and bring us back to what religion can be.”

One of the most significant issues of our time is how we respond to religious pluralism. Indeed, some maintain that we will survive only if we learn to treat ourselves, our neighbors, and our planet with greater wisdom, compassion, and caring. “Our situation is so severe that any ideology that does not promote a sense of global understanding and global appreciation of each other is failing the test of time,” warns Ms. Armstrong. “Religion must be a force for harmony in the world. We must apply the Golden Rule globally. We must move beyond tolerance to appreciation.”

To this end, Ms. Armstrong is promoting a Charter of Compassion. The Charter reminds us that “the principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and put another there, and to honor the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.” For more on the Charter of Compassion see charterforcompassion.org.

Any act born out of hatred, disdain or contempt of others is contrary to the true teachings of all religions. We must all stand up to religious prejudice, move beyond suspicion, learn more about other traditions, acknowledge failures on the part of our own tradition, and grow spiritually. I invite the whole Marietta community to join me in this quest.

About the author (shorten as needed)

Dr. Mary Jeanette “MJ” Ebenhack holds degrees in ministry and Christian education from the School of Theology, Claremont and Princeton Theological Seminary. She has been involved in nonprofit work everywhere she has lived including Fullerton, Calif., Bridgewater VA, Ithaca, N.Y., Rochester, N.Y., and now Marietta.

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