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Muslim-Christian Dialogue is for the Birds

By Michael Trice


Twenty fifteen is a year for remembering massacres. This past July marked the twentieth summer since the summary executions in the municipality and town of Srebrenica, where over 8,000 Bosnian Muslims – mostly men and boys – were murdered during the Bosnian war. And April of 2015 marked a hundred years since the beginning of the episodic murders of over 800,000 Armenians. When one considers 8,000 Muslims, or 800,000 Armenians, the numbers confound any sensibility of moral trespass.

Hence we cordon off the reality with a warning moniker – Genocide. We remember the universal religious literature on fratricide and specifically Cain’s unbridled wrath and the response of an exasperated Almighty to the first murder: “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” Like the story of Cain and Abel, ancient literature and United Nations reports project onto the earth our own refusal to forget the bodies buried therein.

The Ilidža River in Bosnia – Photo: Wikipedia, BiHVolim

The Ilidža River in Bosnia – Photo: Wikipedia, BiHVolim

A priest friend recounted for me the story of a visit to a municipality shortly after the Bosnian war; the filaments of destruction remained in the air. During his visit, he spoke with a local man who told him about an area in the town filled with the bodies of the murdered. My friend asked how the man lived and found reasons for hope amidst the silence of death. ‘The birds are returning now,” the man replied, testifying to the experience of wildlife retreating from areas of conflict in the world.

This man spoke to his experience of the return of daily life, registered in the birds as small, consistent, and normalizing symbols of hope.

Returning Birds

In this time of remembering massacre, to state that Muslim-Christian dialogue is “for the birds” is to claim that the daily, consistent, normative signs of mutual hope are essential for public life today. At heart, this is why interreligious dialogue matters – society requires consistent signs of hope, like birds that constellate meaning in the branches above us. These living creatures affirm the essential and even sacred aspects of our humanity which are needed in the maelstrom of our shared civic spaces.

And yet we require new keys to the kingdom that excites our public imagination for the work of “interreligious dialogue” to be relevant today. In the mid-20th century, interreligious dialogue conjures up images of a quasi-professional convening of institutional representatives around square or rectangular tables. These individuals represented their religions in a way we don’t conceive of as authentic, admirable, or even useful today. In short, the representative paradigm does not hold the public imagination for tomorrow’s hope. No one is to blame; our assumptive set on the nature of religion in society has changed.

Think of this oft-cited adage of Dr. Hans Küng: “There will be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions.” We must not mistake poetic truisms for the hard prose of human experience. We know of conflicts that have very little to do with the truth of religion, even as they appeal to religious principles.

For instance, the realities of ISIS and Boko Haram are not fundamentally religious conflicts. Both are militaristic ideologies where religion is a foil for an often nostalgic and sentimentalized return to a purer form. In my own professional work on systemic cruelty in cross-cultural contexts, I suggest that the reasons for many current conflicts stem from perceived social and political abuses, or blatant posturing for control. In such cases, religion is a vehicle for amplifying abuse and for focusing resentment, yet veiled as righteousness. These conflicts seek to dislodge the moral conscience of their adherents, and precipitate the age-old story of horrible acts precipitated against others in the name of God.

Now, let’s think about this together: those who perpetuate violence in the name of religion find few friends outside their own tightly controlled group-think. These are the people with whom the world needs to dialogue most, but these are the least likely dialogue partners. When I’m right, and you’re wrong, there is nothing to talk about. What is religion to do? Interreligious dialogue assumes that well-intentioned Muslims and Christians desire to talk with one another. In fact, half of the value of interreligious dialogue resides in the good will of those who are willing to come to the table, long before they actually arrive. Socio-political ideologues posing in the name of religion are never good dialogue partners.

So what good is religion, and of what benefit is Muslim-Christian dialogue in particular, and interreligious dialogue in general? My personal response to this compound question begins in scripture. For Islam, every surah of the Quran attests to the beneficence and mercy of the Almighty. Without risking daily blasphemy, how can I conscientiously live contrary to the qualities of the divine, so explicit in scripture? For Islam and Christianity, the appeal to love God and neighbor is a foundational prose that guides human life. To show kindness, to care for the enemy, to seek shelter for the refugee, these and more are foundational scriptural admonitions that align in truth to what we can call a ‘faith instinct.’

A hummingbird feeds her nearly grown chicks. – Photo: Wikipedia, Wolfgang Wander

A hummingbird feeds her nearly grown chicks. – Photo: Wikipedia, Wolfgang Wander

Religion is constantly pointing to this as a shared condition of our humanity. Do you want to be a good Muslim or Christian? Live fully the often under-metabolized generosity that rises from gratitude to the Almighty who creates us. Generosity is a generative service of solidarity from yourself to the rest of creation. This core faith instinct is what has generated awareness of Islamic Zakat and Christian almsgiving, and indeed of whole moral systems that govern human life. All in all, dialogue begins here, at the seat of our humanity in gratitude and generosity.

Interreligious dialogue today must encounter our shared humanity. True dialogue is about encountering human beings and communities who are fully embodied, storied, and varied. It is from dialogic encounter, grounded in our shared humanity, where xenophobic or hateful stances – such as Islamophobia or Christophobia – can be confronted. These forms of fear and hate associated against Muslims or Christians begin by calling into question civil liberties and can extend to maiming, killing, destroying sacred texts and houses of worship, murder, and ultimately genocide. The response to fear must begin in our humanity, first. This is something to which Muslims and Christians must always appeal.

Hope is for the birds. The daily, consistent, resilient signs of life and trust, in colorful displays, are essential to our well-being on this planet. Muslims and Christians are in the remarkable position of speaking from the heart of sacred text and life, from a shared faith instinct that are realized through unique, complementary means. Dialogue matters, but hope will happen in encounter.