Religion as the Voice of Reason

I sent the following essay to the local paper who published it a week later:

The recent attack on a place of worship last weekend is the latest example of knee-jerk, shallow thinking that’s behind so much prejudice and violence in the world. Unfortunately, such shallow thinking carries into and is promoted by social media’s open marketplace of ideas that often circulates negative stereotypes about religions.

And for the past 50-some years, some religious congregations have organized as forces for social change using political means. This has created a sense that religions have been the causes of division and even violence. But on closer examination, it isn’t religious teachings but political thinking that propels people of any philosophy to resort to extreme means to fight for what they believe to be desirable in society.

To underscore this, people of faith are quietly emerging with powerful new approaches to addressing social ills, i.e., bringing together people of all faith traditions to unite together according to religious teachings all share.

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker of Colleysville, Texas apparently shares this perspective—he has hosted Muslims at his synagogue and orchestrated interfaith dialogue in his town. Rabbi Gary Zola, a professor at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, said Cytron-Walker had the ability to connect with people. In fact, he wanted to serve somewhere without a large population of Jews in order to reach out to others as part of his desire to make the world a better place. For example, Rabbi Charlie and members of his congregation Beth Israel celebrated Iftar dinners during Ramadan with Muslim neighbors.

With that same spirit, Rabbi Charlie acted out of charity and with kindness on a January Saturday before Shabbat services to welcome Malik Akram, a British-Pakistani, into the synagogue who knocked at the entrance. The Rabbi made him tea to which Akram responded by telling him and three others to get on their knees and hold them hostage at gun-point for 11 hours, seeing this as a way to publicize his wish to free a Pakistani prisoner held in a near-by prison. As Yair Rosenberg says in the Jan. 19, 2022 Atlantic that Jews are a frequent target because they “play a sinister symbolic role in the imagination of so many that bears no resemblance to their lived existence.”

Although the attack was specifically anti-Semitic, such a violent attack on a place of worship joins the long list of similar attacks in recent years on other synagogues as well mosques and churches, Similarly, American Muslims and their mosques, as well as Sikhs mistaken for Muslims,  are frequent targets of hate and violence. People of many faiths are perceived as symbols of hate rather than havens of peace and love, a view rooted in media stories referring to violent groups as “religions”, because they claim to be, often by confusing fanaticism with religion. Indeed, a criticism often hurled at religions is that they’ve long been the cause of conflict that inspires war, a notion that relies on a superficial view of religion. Such shallow thinking extends even into the U.S. Congress where Ilhan Omar is continually vilified because of her Islamic faith.

But now people of all faith traditions are coming together in a unified force of compassion and justice based on a shared love of the One God, putting such erroneous notions to rest, with the force of wise, spiritually-based responses to rampant violence and hate. EquaSion in Cincinnati is among the strongest interfaith groups in the US, visibly demonstrating that religions — far from fitting any stereotype as causes of violence — ought to be regarded not as targets of hate but as voices of reason. EquaSion has grown during the past five years, especially since organizing its first Cincinnati Festival of Faiths, into a strong interfaith coalition representing twelve world religions as well as more than seventy faith-based social and charitable organizations. We continue to develop ways to learn about each other personally and collectively, by worshipping, collaborating, socializing and even singing together and have become a model that’s attracting attention from people in other cities who want to do something similar.

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