Thursday, July 26, 2007

People of Faith Share Much Common Ground


By: Jimmy Carter.

One of the most important things for all people to remember in these difficult times is that there are more compatibilities than differences among the major religions – at least concerning treatment of one another as individuals. The commonly professed commandments and commitments are to peace, humility, service, forgiveness, compassion, and generosity toward poor and suffering neighbors.

Also, according to the Islamic, Hebrew, and Christian scriptures, we are all spiritual descendants of Abraham, mutually blessed by his covenant with God. To questioning gentiles among early Christians, Saint Paul emphasized that, without any rejection of the Hebrews, this blessing flows from Abraham’s faith, and not the ties of race or blood.

One possible difference between religions is the apparent militancy of Islam compared to the Christian worship of the Prince of Peace. This might be seen as an inherent advantage if the principle were not so often abandoned or rejected by Christian believers.

There are some widely varying emphases within certain groups of Christians and Muslims in their definition of human rights, but neither faith is free from the oppression or derogation of others in the name of God. A notable example is the treatment of women.

In some Islamic societies, women are relegated by official religious laws to subservient positions in society where they must remain veiled, cannot operate an automobile or compete with men for a job, and often receive inferior if any education. In other more secular nations of the same faith, all of these restrictions are absent.

Within predominantly Christian societies, civil laws usually provide for equal treatment of women, while religious organizations are often the primary source of discrimination, which provides a justification for similar inequities within the secular world. Women are prohibited from serving as priests in Catholic and most Orthodox churches, and some Protestant denominations are even more discriminatory. Quoting selective Bible verses, for instance, the Southern Baptist Convention mandates that wives must be submissive to their husbands, that women cannot serve as military chaplains, pastors, or even deacons in a local congregation, and that it is improper for women to instruct men.

There is no clear or uniform distinction regarding human rights between Christian and Islamic societies. Adherents of both would be wise to heed the commandment to look first to our own shortcomings before harshly judging our neighbors. We must not demonize each other.Concerning democracy, there is a strong inclination in some Arab countries to avoid free and honest elections. Once again, however, there are notable exceptions. The world’s three largest democracies are India, the United States, and Indonesia – with populations that are predominately Hindu, Christian and Muslim. Also, the three democratic elections held among the Palestinian people have been completely open and fair.

Despite these basic compatibilities in moral values, human rights, and commitment to political freedom, increased feelings of distrust, fear, and animosity have arisen between Christians and Muslims during recent years. Stimulated by radical religious elements and exacerbated by demagogic political leaders, the result has been horrific acts of violence against civilians in the United States, Europe, Asia, and throughout the Middle East. There have been many causes of this violence, including efforts to impose fundamentalist Islamic law, the lack of tangible moves to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, and sectarian strife. Assuaging these kinds of violent motivations is within our human capabilities.

Unfortunately, few substantive efforts are now being made, even among religious leaders, to narrow the Islamic-Christian divide now that Pope John Paul II’s commitment to theological dialogue has apparently been abandoned.

The assessments of Muslim leaders in these ON FAITH essays can be a valuable contribution to better understanding of their religious beliefs among Christians, and perhaps even to some easing of tensions within the Islamic world. The other facets of reconciliation are obvious: an early end of the American occupation of Iraq and a strong and persistent effort by the international community to bring peace to the Holy Land.

A lack of mutual understanding of our religious faiths and an absence of common commitments to ease political tensions create a direct and increasing threat to world peace. Progress on these issues should be recognized as one of the major responsibilities of the international community.

Posted by Jimmy Carter on July 26, 2007 on NEWSWEEK ON FAITH.

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