Faiths can build bridges of understanding, BJC’s Walker tells Harvard audience

Exercising rights demands responsibility and respect, says the head of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.

By Marv Knox

Rights, responsibility and respect provide the infrastructure for bridges of understanding between faith groups, Baptist religious-liberty advocate Brent Walker stressed in a symposium at Harvard University May 1.

Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, joined a Jewish rabbi and a Muslim academic in the inaugural event sponsored by the Loeb Initiative on Religious Freedom in Cambridge, Mass.

Other panelists were Angela Buchdahl, senior rabbi at Central Synagogue in New York, and Yasir Qadhi, dean of academic affairs at the Al Maghrib Institute, a worldwide Islamic education organization.

Brent Harvard Symposium video still cropModerator Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Harvard professor, asked panelists to describe the role of faith institutions in building bridges of understanding.

Faith bridges rely upon “the three Rs of civic engagement — rights, responsibility and respect,” Walker explained. “All three of these are important and must go together.”

Christians, Jews and Muslims “all believe we got our right of religious liberty from God,” Walker said, noting other faiths tend to agree, and even many nonreligious people see personal faith or nonfaith as an individual right.

“We must take care to exercise responsibility” for faith and its exercise, he added.

A key for Christian understanding of faith responsibility is found in the fifth chapter of the New Testament book of Galatians, he said: “St. Paul affirms our freedom in Christ, but we must not use it for self-indulgence, but to serve one another. The rights we want for ourselves, we must afford to others.”

Exercising respect then enables people of faith to relate positively toward people who embrace other faith or no faith, Walker said.

The practice of respect can be characterized in an adage: “We must have a hard core and soft edges,” he explained. “We need not give up our core beliefs. … But insofar as we bump up against others, [we must] maintain a soft edge.”

In terms of practical application, the Baptist Joint Committee regularly participates in coalitions and civic advocacy groups on Capitol Hill, Walker noted. Those groups set aside their differences to work on behalf of a principle they share — religious liberty for all.

“We can go slowly. Take one step at a time,” he said. “We don’t have to agree on everything for us to work together on one thing.”

Unfortunately, “the groups that most need interfaith dialogue are typically the least involved in such efforts,” Qadhi reported. Like-minded groups get together and marvel at the similarity of their views, but the anti-toleration groups are “loudly absent.”

Civic leaders can serve as conduits for communication by calling representatives from various faiths together to focus on common needs, he urged.

For example, the mosques in Memphis, Tenn., where he lives have reached out for dialogue with the large Christian churches, which have not responded. “But what if the mayor had called us together?” he asked.

But when groups get together, they shouldn’t pretend they’re the same, Qadhi added.

“At some point, we need to move beyond the positive platitudes and concentrate on the very real differences” between faith groups, he stressed. “At some point, each of us believes in the exceptionalism of our faith tradition or else we would not be an adherent of that tradition.”

He told about a pastor who concluded his part in an interfaith gathering by saying he loves all the participants, and therefore must present the Christian gospel to them. The next morning, a rabbi called the imam to apologize for the pastor.

“I was not offended,” Qadhi recalled. “After he [the pastor] has told me he thinks I’m going to hell, he actually can have a conversation with me on another topic.”

Buchdahl observed faith communities possess the staying power for building relationship bridges and maintaining communication.

“Faith communities take the long view,” she said. “We have timeless traditions, ancient wisdom. We will stay the course beyond the election cycle or one particular leader’s role.”

People of faith can build upon an innate human desire to make progress together, she added, noting she has “a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature.”

“Most people really want to do good in the world,” she said. “Sometimes, we lose sight of that, and we need the reminders that rituals and holidays offer us.”

Also, faith communities need to remember “organized people equals power,” she added.

Many community organizations do “wonderful work,” but membership merely implies paying dues, attending meetings and receiving a newsletter, Buchdahl said. She contrasted that with membership in a church, synagogue or mosque.

“Faith communities are centers of relationship,” and when relationships are organized, things happen.