Rabbi, Bishop and Islamic
Scholar Honored for Work in Interfaith Dialogue
By Jonathan Hayden
his book The Dignity of Difference, Chief Rabbi of the United
Kingdom Jonathan Sacks says that there is a dire need for
religious leaders to take part in conversation. There are
questions that must be answered if we are to avoid a “Clash
of Civilizations.” “Can we live together? Can
we make space for one another? Can we overcome long histories
of estrangement and bitterness?” He goes on to ask,
“Can we recognize God’s image in one who is
not in my image?” The world is faced with a “supreme
challenge”, says Sacks.
At least three men have stepped up to the challenge to answer
these questions that have been ignored for too long. Senior
Rabbi Bruce Lustig, Bishop John Chane and Dr. Akbar Ahmed
have started a dialogue between the Abrahamic faiths that
started in simple friendship. Ahmed says that this is the
most important ingredient to a successful dialogue, “Dialogue
with out friendship is just conversation, empty words”.
left to right:The Reverend Clark Lobenstine, HE Ambassador
Fahmy, Dr. Akbar Ahmed, Bishop John Chane and Senior
Rabbi Bruce Lustig
three met when Lustig’s wife Amy introduced herself
to Ahmed, then to Rabbi Lustig at a dinner in 2002. Shortly
thereafter, the Rabbi and the Bishop met at a neighborhood
gathering. The Rabbi then invited both over for a dinner
at his home, and the three instantly connected. Their friendship
was born and has been nurtured ever since. They have made
many public appearances to educate, encourage and offer
a paradigm to their ever-growing flock. But, it is important
to note that this is not for show. They meet regularly in
private to advise each other, find a common ground between
their respective religions, and, equally as important, to
embrace their differences. They have been able to see each
other’s religions in a whole new way, and in turn
grown deeper in their faith without compromising. As Sacks
says, dialogue is “not a threat to our identity but
a call to a moral and spiritual generosity”.
To each of them, the dialogue is something bigger than themselves.
They each feel they are called to participate and that God,
in a way, ordained the dialogue and their friendship. Ahmed
believes that the three of them are “called to this
discussion to bring our hopes to the table and challenge
each other to realize them.”
Chane paints a picture of a world in need of dialogue, “Now
more than ever, such work is essential in a world too often
defined by vindictive violence, religious hegemony, and
an utter disrespect for human life”. He goes on to
speak of their friendship as “a work that attempts
to build the bridges that can connect these three great
world religions to the dialogue that must occur if we as
God’s sons and daughters can ever hope to live in
peace and harmony.”
“Bruce, Akbar and I represent the dreamers and visionaries
of our global community who witness to the love and acceptance
of the God of Abraham as we experience that God through
Isaac, Ishmael, Moses and Jesus”, says Chane. He says
that although there are some who are afraid dialogue with
someone of a different faith means that you compromise you
own faith, “Nothing could be farther from the truth.
By coming to know each other more fully, we have come to
know and respect each others religious traditions and practices
and have found our own pathways to God strengthened and
our commitments to our own religious traditions re-affirmed.”
In February, Dr. Ahmed was honored at a special Evensong,
held at the National Cathedral. He has described this as
the highlight of his career. In his speech, the Rabbi spoke
of their relationship being an “I-Thou” relationship.
In an “I-Thou” relationship, Lustig says, “We
are transformed. We see the divinity in the other and the
other is changed forever as well…God is present”.
Earlier this month, they were invited to engage in a dialogue
in front of a nationally televised audience on C-SPAN’s
Close Up hosted by John Milewski. The session had 200 students,
who had traveled form the Muslim World, asking questions
to the three panelists about US policy, conflict between
the faiths and general public affairs. Educators around
the country will use it as a teaching tool.
What is amazing is that after these public dialogues, the
love that is so obvious between the three spreads throughout
the crowd. It is beautiful to see the example set by the
three. After watching these engaging speakers it is not
uncommon to see men and women from all different faiths
with tears in their eyes, embracing each other, regretting
the failures of the past, vowing to continue dialogue and
hoping for next generation.
So, it was only natural that when the Interfaith Conference
of Greater Washington decided to give its First Annual Interfaith
Bridge Builders Award on June 14 that they chose the three
close friends and leaders. Ambassador Nabil Fahmy, who has
been involved in a dialogue along with Dr. Ahmed, was also
honored for his commitment to the cause. Nearly three hundred
people showed up at The Egyptian Embassy to honor the eminent
scholars. Not only the ”Abrahamic” faiths, but
also many others were represented at the event. Ambassador
Fahmy welcomed everyone and spoke of the importance of dialogue.
Rev. Bob Norris, head of the Royal Poinciana Chapel in Palm
Beach flew in from Florida just to make the presentation
to Dr. Ahmed. The two had first become acquainted when Rev.
Norris invited Ahmed to be the first Muslim to speak in
his church. The messages of the speakers were, as usual,
well received by the audience.
The large number of attendees is impressive, but when you
take into account that this was a fundraiser and people
were paying to come and see these men, it is remarkable.
It speaks to the thirst for leadership, the desire for peace
and the fears for the future. Muslims, Jews, Christian,
Sikhs, Hindus, Zoroastrians amongst others could be seen
milling around the beautiful Embassy affectionately talking,
trading business cards, ultimately embracing the dialogue.
On this evening, the dreams of the three honorees were realized.
In a time where religions are unfairly defined by the extremists,
what role can moderate leaders play in healing the world
of its brokenness due to the fighting? To some, religion
itself is the problem. These three men would disagree. As
Bishop Chane has said, “Religion is not a problem,
individuals are the problem.” These leaders see a
return to their respective religious traditions as the answer.
Their hope is in the common set of values between the religions
– compassion, justice, human solidarity and respect
for one another.
Christians, Jews and Muslims are commanded to love one another
(Matthew 19:19, Leviticus 19:18, Surah 49:13). As it’s
most basic, this dialogue allows them to do just that. The
fundamental outgrowth of the dialogue is that it makes them
better followers of their own faith. It is much easier to
love someone when you know what they look like, when you
have been in their house, eaten at their table. This is
a gift that they have given to each other and allowed others
to see and emulate.
Chane sums it up best when he says of the three, “We
are brothers on a journey. For me, it is the hope of the