Lecture series explores religion in a pluralistic society


COLUMBIA — In Luke’s Gospel, a scholar of the law asked Jesus “Who is my neighbor?” in an attempt to put limits on the command to love thy neighbor as oneself. Through the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus makes it clear that “neighbor” means everyone.

More than 2,000 years later, the organizers of the Solomon-Tenenbaum/Bernadin Lectures posed the question again to a group of scholars, Christian, Jewish, and Moslem gathered at the University of South Carolina for the talk, “Strangers and Neighbors: What Does Faith Require of Us?”

The event was timely with the recent tragedy of Sept. 11 and the increasing violence in the Middle East stirring within many people a desire to understand “why?” Rabbi Elliot Dorff from the University of Judaism in Los Angeles; Mary Boys, Ph.D., from the Union Theological Seminary; and Muzammil Siddiqi, Ph.D., conveyed a Jewish, Christian and Muslim perspective sprinkled with their own opinions on what being a good neighbor in a pluralistic society means today.

Dorff said that the American Constitution is a “good entry point” and a model for religious harmony because it emphasizes justice. “People come with different endowments but are equal under the law,” he said.

He feels that if people would “stretch and try to understand through the lenses of others,” there would be less offensive language and a more thoughtful interpretation of Divine revelation by all.

Siddiqi, who has served on several interreligious organizations like the other speakers, continued on the theme. “Variety is not a curse, but a blessing that should be respected and enjoyed,” he said. “Races and tribes were created by God so they would know each other not despise each other.”

Boys focused on history as a means to understanding each other. All three speakers gave some explanation for the existing hostility with mild finger-pointing, some of it self-directed.

The subtitle to the lecture, “Reaching Across the Lines of Faith to Dispel Misunderstanding” took light when the audience was allowed to dispel their misconceptions about the represented religions. One man asked Siddiqi about the so-called “religious martyrs” of Sept. 11.

“They are not martyrs. Martyr means to bare witness to the faith. A martyr does not kill innocent people and civilians. They take suffering on themselves and are not suicidal,” he answered.

The speakers collectively agreed that people sometimes use religion for political gain, twisting scriptural meanings and in some cases, ignore the teachings all together both contributing to misunderstanding and violence. They also acknowledged that education and forgiveness would play a major role in restoring peace.

“One must be worthy of forgiveness, by saying sorry, making restitution and to stop the offensive behavior,” said Dorff. The Moslems according to Siddiqi share similar criteria, making a distinction between the Divine forgiveness and human forgiveness. (Christians, modeling from Christ on the cross, are called to forgive as God forgives.)

Each speaker pointed out the injustice in the world that makes love difficult for his or her faith community. They gave suggestions on how to improve the harmony of the “global neighborhood.” Yet at the conclusion of the program, the answer to “Strangers and Neighbors: What Does Faith Require of Us?” remains as challenging today as it has always been for people of faith.