At the center of Religions for Peace USA is a living network of relationships among people of different religions and cultures. Some understanding or experience of “relationship” likely lies at the very core of religion and spirituality—this transforming sense that we are connected to more than just our individual experience and existence, even if we never join a religious community officially. It is also this experience of relationship that makes Religions for Peace USA have any life and value beyond what we could have on our own. These relationships enrich us by transforming the way we see one another, and to some degree how we see ourselves and our own commitments.
And so, naturally, building relationships among people at whatever level or location brings them together is also at the heart of what RFPUSA does out in the world around us. After meeting one another, it simply seems the normal way to live—so much so, that at times we may forget just how much this seemingly simple reality of relationship is at the core of the conflict and pain we seek to heal.
However, we sometimes do get stark reminders of the basic challenge that simply building relationships brings, even before we engage in any of the issues that divide people. This happens with frequency, for example, in our work to build relationships in areas where we have a particular concern to address the growth of Islamophobia and hostility toward Muslims. Some of the people we meet who are the most fearful, distrustful and hostile toward Muslims will admit that they don’t know any Muslims. What’s more, when we invite them simply to meet for a conversation with a Muslim or two, they flatly refuse. Some simply can’t manage the fear that they have built up in themselves, but a surprising number give this direct answer, “If I meet with them, it might change me.”
These words always pull up short those of us who now cherish our multi-religious relationships. But to be fair, the people who plead, “it might change me,” are actually saying something significant—and they are revealing some of the chasm that our work seeks to bridge, while also shining a light on some of the hope that can do that.
Because the truth is that all genuine relationships of peace do in fact change us. So, we must always hope, or the joy, decency, faithfulness and beauty of human life are gone with them. But a central question of human life today is no longer whether we will be in contact with each other but whether we will enter some kind of peaceful relationships with each other or not.
Clearly, much of the politics of the world today—and at times some of the most vocal religious language—is aimed at driving people apart, instinctively trying to re-create a time when we humans of different languages, cultures and religions were more separated from each other, often by sheer geography. But as any quick look will reveal, those days, to whatever degree they existed in any location are long past.
So now what is both most distressing for us in our work with people is that the crippling and indiscriminate fear and hostility that so many people have toward whole groups of other people is so misplaced, as anyone who has entered a peaceful relationship with some from a different background can attest. And then it is excruciating all around when violent words or actions erupt because someone is afraid that the very presence of those different from themselves means that their world is crashing down. The long list of horrendous, vicious, irrational, inhuman and immoral words and actions that have we have all endured just in 2016 is an indication of just how impossible some people believe that relationships of peace are.
Yes, relationships do change us. But I don’t know of any instance where anyone inside RFPUSA has changed their religion because of their relationship with other people of different religions. Still, it has changed us all into better people, and given us deeper insights into our own faiths as we have come to see and respect one another more humanly, truthfully and spiritually.
These relationships are crucial because they ask for everyone involved to bring forward our best selves – they bring out and deepen our truest selves rather than diminishing or masking them.
And so, at the very same time, in the very face of so much misdirected fear and hostility, there is still great reason to hope that they can be overcome and we can take the time and energy they steal from us to turn and face the urgent work in front of us all. But it will take some modestly deeper confidence that relationships of peace are indeed possible and that we actually extend ourselves toward them.
Many will rightly note that relationships alone will not solve the deep conflicts and problems we face: from the misuse and injustices of political and economic power, to the planet’s alarming climate changes to the unmistakable differences of religion and culture that will continue to exist. But it is also true that we will not solve any of our problems without them.
Genuine relationships of peace that open our eyes to the humanity and hopes of one another are surely also an unmistakable part of how we find common ground from which to move forward together, even with our differences and disagreements. Intentional, authentic relationships of peace fill out our vision of the world, without forcing us to change, except as our own deepest values lead us to do so.
It’s fine to say that relationship-building is then just a first step. It can feel like a big step for any of us at first, which looks so small in hindsight. But the path that it opens for us all is one with the potential for increasing awareness, truth and hope, even while it will reveal to us the struggles and often the pain that are real and present among us. To enter the future together with humility but without crippling fear and anger, despite our personal differences and our shared global challenges, seems a worthwhile goal for all of us on any day. It is also a goal that we humans clearly need to get on with.
The future is not waiting.
Neither should we.
Executive Director Robert Montgomery