Teach People To Work Through Differences, Not Ignore Them | Sojourners

Teach People To Work Through Differences, Not Ignore Them

Why interfaith engagement must move beyond bridge-building.
Illustration by Matt Chase

FOR MANY INVOLVED in interfaith engagement, the goal is to seek common ground and values. The assumption is that differences are the source of conflict and peace is predicated on seeing each other as having more in common than different. This is a framing I hear again and again. It is certainly a necessary first step for communities that have narrow ranges of engagement with one another. For instance, it is powerful to watch students in my interfaith classes at Christian seminaries recognize how Islam and Christianity share a reverence for Christ.

But there are reasons we need to move beyond this mere appreciation of commonalities between religious traditions as the foundation for interreligious engagement.

Episodic empathy. Students and community leaders often develop a profound empathy when they engage with another tradition. However, if we don’t teach tools for navigating difference between communities, the empathy can become narrowly tied to the limited episodes of encounter, which are often facilitated by third parties. Does this empathy move from an affect of appreciation in that moment into an operationalized form of engagement across difference? When a crisis occurs and there is a rise in hatred, does the mere “common ground” approach promote behavior of deep allyship for when a community is targeted for hate and violence?

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