First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

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When Faiths Collide, When Faiths Connect

July 10, 2016
Rev. Sandra Fees

Mystics like Rumi go so deeply into the spirituality of their own religion that they ultimately discover the place of connection where all existence is one, where two worlds are as one. This, for Rumi, is what it means to “belong to the beloved” and to feel the call of “breath breathing human being.” Being human, being part of the tribe of all human spirits, transcends the urge to divide into Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi, Zen.

But when faiths collide, when a deep divide wedges in the minds and hearts of people, the path to peace becomes uneasy, even treacherous. The ongoing conflict in the Middle East is such a divide. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict arouses strong feelings in this country and around the world, too. It also arouses some strong feelings within our religion. Those who have firm convictions can find it difficult to talk about the situation at all without getting embroiled in arguments.1

Twice this year the Palestinian occupation has become a significant focus of religious gatherings I have attended. The first was at an anti-racism conference led by African American religious progressives in February. At that conference, the human rights of Palestinians was linked with the Black Lives Matter movement worldwide. Parallels were drawn between Black and Latino experiences in this country and the Palestinian experience.

I learned about the shocking numbers of Palestinian children being killed every day, something I knew about but had not fully absorbed. I also began to come to a fuller realization that conflict in the Middle East, while most certainly a question of land, is also a matter of religion and ethnicity, which seems to get lost in the politicization of the conflict. Ninety-three percent of Palestinians are Sunni Muslims. I had to admit to myself that my knowledge was severely limited and shaped by media coverage or lack of it and also by my own discomfort with the conflict. I was not prepared for the strength of moral conviction expressed during that conference regarding the plight of Palestinians.

The second gathering was the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly, our annual gathering to conduct the business of our association. At the conference, just a few weeks ago, this religion took a step toward a deepened understanding and engagement on this issue. Delegates considered and voted on a resolution calling for the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) to refrain from purchasing stock in corporations that profit from the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The UUA is already screening out these companies, but there was a desire to bring greater attention to the human rights issues by bringing the resolution to a vote.  

I want to take a few minutes to share with you how the conversation and vote unfolded because it offers insight into addressing highly charged issues. The issue got raised at the very opening of the assembly, though it was not planned that way. A Rabbi and United Church of Christ Minister had been invited to offer greetings. The Rabbi, Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, took that opportunity to talk about the resolution, saying it would damage Unitarian Universalist-Jewish relations without helping Palestinian human rights.

He said, “actions like divestment and disengagement harden the hearts instead of bringing people together” and are “ultimately an effort to delegitimize the very existence of the state of Israel.” His words made me realize tensions were already high and the vote would be difficult. Some people felt he was out of line using that opportunity to influence delegates.

Two days later a panel discussion was held on the topic with a trained facilitator. Four panelists shared personal stories and opinions about the resolution.3 A Unitarian Universalist member of Jewish Voices for Peace of Central Ohio told how he had driven a Caterpillar tractor on a kibbutz next to the Gaza strip in 1957. There he saw poor Palestinian farmers and recognized the power imbalance. He supported the resolution. A lifelong UU and member of the board of Unitarian Universalists for Justice in the Middle East also supported the resolution. He is married to a Palestinian and has visited Israel and the occupied territories several times.

Opposing the resolution was a former moderator of the UUA whose parents were first-generation Americans. Her parents impressed on her the need for a Jewish homeland, where Jews would be safe from persecution. Also opposing was a UU minister and treasurer of UUs for Jewish Awareness who asked: “How do we find peace so both Jewish and Arab Israelis can live in peace?”

The following day delegates debated the resolution for over an hour. The panelists and delegates, pro and con, revealed just how tender an issue this is for Unitarian Universalists. We have a long history of positive ties with Jewish communities and Rabbis. Many Unitarian Universalists have a personal connection to Judaism. Some individuals have ethnic, cultural, or spiritual Jewish roots, and others have a Jewish partner or spouse. At the same time, our faith calls us to speak out against human rights violations wherever we find them.

Our social justice commitments are grounded in our values and theology, yet there are times when there are competing claims, as in this case. How can we be like the farmers in the Three Sabbaths story2 stepping up to plow, plant, and harvest for their neighbors when the interests of those neighbors seem to be at odds?

The vote of the assembly reflected the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian issue and our relationships. I know when it came time to vote, I found myself torn, knowing there was no completely right choice nor a completely wrong one. The resolution did not pass. Though it received a 54 percent vote, a two-thirds majority was required. I am not convinced that the main point is that the resolution failed. What is worthy of special attention, I think, is how this process of dialogue and story-telling opens a window into a new way of engaging controversial issues and decision-making.

The process illustrates the kind of dialogue that we need to be having more of. I mean we as Unitarian Universalists, and also we as religious people, and we as a nation, and we as a world. There need to be more opportunities to hear differing perspectives and voices and to allow ourselves to be enlightened and opened in that sharing. There needs to be more risk-taking.

As Frederick Steng wrote: “A dialogue by members of the world community which promotes peace requires risk.” Individuals who share stories take emotional risks, giving voice to the messiness and murkiness of our interdependent world and to their own pain. Individuals listening to the stories also take a risk. They risk having their hearts and minds broken open and changed. They risk having to live in a state of unknowing and discomfort and conflicted feelings and thoughts. There is the risk that people will get angry, that convictions become self-righteousness and develop into greater levels of conflict. Yet as Steng said, it is through dialogue that new insights can emerge, and the possibility of unexpected meaning and truth can begin to arise.

What will come of this dialogue related to Israeli-Palestinian relations? I do not know. I do know that the development and cultivation of interfaith competency is critical for peace among religions, among nations, among people everywhere. When faiths connect, rather than collide, there is a possibility for people of different religions to live side by side peacefully and cooperatively. The three neighboring farmers in the story of Three Sabbaths demonstrate this well. They were friends. They were not at war, nor did they merely have a “live and let live attitude.” They willingly and without even needing to be asked pitched in to help each other. They were attentive to each other’s needs. They respected the light that connects many faiths, beliefs, traditions and customs.

When faiths connect, the potential to heal the world is amplified. The world needs religions to work together inter-faithfully and to devote their attention to healing brokenness, not fostering disagreements. The issues being faced today are simply too big and too complex for any one group or religion to effectively tackle them alone. Working together amplifies the potential for success.

Tonya Wenger has already talked today about how we are bringing people of different faiths together in our congregation’s efforts in immigration justice and the Berks Detention Center. As we do so, it is important that we recognize that the growing international fear and hostility toward immigrants and refugees is making this work harder than ever and making the plight of immigrants more dire. What is going on around the world and in this country, among people of different religions and beliefs, is not unrelated. Worldwide reactions to Muslims is fueling xenophobia.

The recent attacks by ISIS against Muslims in Turkey, Bangladesh, Baghdad, and Saudi Arabia during Ramadan were not a coincidence. The attacks during Ramadan, the holy Muslim month of fasting and prayer, were intentionally timed, strategically organized. With a death toll that has risen to close to 300, Michael Kilo, a Syrian dissident, asks: “Where is the global outrage? Where was the outpouring that came after the same terrorist groups unleashed horror in Brussels and … Paris? In a supposedly globalized world, do nonwhites, non-Christians and non-Westerners count as fully human?” Kilo is a Christian.4

It truly feels that the soul of the world and the soul of America are at stake. In a multi-faith world, the religions of the world need to come together to “beat … swords into plowshares” and “spears into pruning hooks.” (Isaiah 2:4). Religion needs to be about the business of shaping a renewed vision of human community and strengthening the bonds of human kinship. Religion needs to uphold the vision of building a nobler world than we know today. Religious communities must be leaders and collaborators for nonviolence and racial justice.

These are troubling times. There are no easy answers, no easy fixes, no easy peace. This week was another heart wrenching reminder of just how much more work is needed in the world and here in this country. The interfaith community again gathered to mourn violence and heartache in Baton Rouge, in St. Paul, and in Dallas. People are afraid, angry, heartsick, grief-stricken, traumatized, bewildered, despairing. Two more black men – Alton Sterling and Philando Castile – killed this week by police officers. Twelve police officers and two civilians shot, five of the police officers killed, during what was to be a peaceful vigil for Sterling and Castile in Dallas. And there was more violence last night in Minnesota.

As people of faith, we are called to mourn. We are called to mourn. And we are called to move beyond despair and anger and to continue to serve with love and justice. We are called to holy and “constructive conversations” that might lead toward peace. We are called to build interfaith collaborations that might heal divisions. We are called to hope. We are called to hold onto hope for what the world might yet be - for all of us, every creed, every color, every kind.

Amen. Blessed be.


1 “Constructive Conversations about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” Public Conversations Project.
2 “Three Sabbaths.” One Hundred Wisdom Stories. Margaret Silf.
3 “In new model for difficult GA topics, panelists discuss divestment.” UU World Magazine.
4 “After Attacks on Muslims, Many Ask: Where Is the Outpouring?” Annie Barnard. 5 July 2016.