Observing the 10th Anniversary of 9/11 by Sharing Faith

By Phil Haslanger 07-05-2011

The email came just a few days before two Jewish rabbis and two Muslim friends joined two of us Christian ministers for a Sunday morning service. This service was part of a national event called Faith Shared.

The concept of the event was straightforward. Just a few months before the nation observes the 10th anniversary of the horrifying attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, two groups -- the Interfaith Alliance and Human Rights First -- invited people around the country "to create an environment of mutual understanding and respect for each other's faith traditions" by joining Christians, Muslims and Jews together on Sunday morning, June 26.

That's what we did at the church I serve just outside Madison, Wisconsin -- Fitchburg Memorial United Church of Christ.

The very idea that Christians, Muslims, and Jews would join together to share their distinctive prayers and sacred texts and then talk about them with one another might not seem all that threatening. Yet it upset some of my fellow Christians who hold deep suspicions of Islam.

"Here are some Bible verses where God's Word says flat out what you guys are doing is wrong!" the email I received a few days before the service warned as it listed 14 verses to underscore the point. "Wake up, please! They [are] just trying to sneak their way into our churches to do away with Christians and our Jesus!"

On Facebook, postings accused Christian churches who participate in this of "apostasy" (a total desertion of one's religion), of having no idea of what the Bible says, of ushering in a one-world religion, of hastening or reflecting the End of Days -- that time of tribulation before Christ returns that shows up in conversations about the end of the world.

Whew.

There's no doubt that over the centuries, each of these significant religious traditions have had periods of fatal animosity as well as times of wonderful collaboration.

There's no doubt that there are differences in their understandings of a divine being, of the role of significant religious figures that appear in their sacred texts, of the religious imperative for expansion or consolidation and of how faith and society ought to interact.

There are even differences within each faith tradition on those subjects.

I think that's why it is particularly important for people in all three traditions to do just what we and others did at the end of June -- hear how each other understands God and the stories and what they mean for our lives.

We may not agree, but one of the things we found in our gathering is that we can hear each other without feeling threatened, we can laugh together, we can share common concerns raised in our own distinctive forms of prayer.

Our gathering in Fitchburg was not as elegant as the ones at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., or the Cathedral Church of St. John Divine in New York City, but the depth of the exchange was every bit as meaningful.

We talked about the troubling story of the Jewish prophet Abraham -- a common ancestral figure in all three faith traditions -- hearing God ask him to sacrifice his only son. It is a story that can be interpreted as one of absolute faith and trust in God -- or of someone who is willing to kill for God. The more fanatical interpretations of stories like this are precisely what get us into trouble.

So hearing the Muslim call to prayer at the beginning, ending with a blessing from the Jewish priest Aaron that both Jews and Christians share at the end, joining voices in the prayer Jesus taught his followers all created a space where divergent voices could be heard and people still could be true to their own beliefs.

That's not a sign of the End of Days -- it's a sign of a world where people have a chance of living together in respect for their fundamental dignity as human beings.

Phil Haslanger is pastor at Memorial United Church of Christ in Fitchburg, Wisconsin. phaslanger@gmail.com. to learn more, visit the Faith Shared website.

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