Project aims to redefine religion
By Stephen Clark
Los Angeles Times
By Stephen Clark
The buttoned-down Episcopalian minister was the first to stand up and introduce himself. Then came a Jew wearing a yarmulke. Then a Palestinian Christian attired in black clericals. Next, a Muslim cloaked in an aqua hijab.
On and on they went, 50 people representing three faiths, their clothing a reminder of their differences but their presence a sign of unifying goals: to oppose the war in Iraq, change U.S. foreign policy and find common ground among three religions.
They gathered in a large meeting room at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Calif., recently as part of the Interfaith Peacemaking Project, a new initiative that aims to rally Christians, Jews and Muslims against the war. They began their work by critiquing a speech they heard the night before by James Carroll, an author, former Catholic priest and, now, antiwar activist.
Carroll was the first of three speakers scheduled for this year. Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and Iranian human rights attorney Shirin Ebadi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, are the other two. Their talks are intended to lay the groundwork for the peace initiative — and to prompt frank discussions among members of the three faiths all linked to the prophet Abraham.
"We're trying to start a new expression of what religion is about," said the Rev. George Regas, rector emeritus of All Saints and head of the project.
In his speech before 900 people packed into All Saints, Carroll blamed religious differences for conflict, contempt and violence, including the war in Iraq. But he said it is possible — and necessary — for religions to find common ground without compromising the integrity of their traditions.
"We are neighbors now," he said. "And as neighbors, we can no longer define ourselves by the absolutes of bygone eras.
"Peace among religions is the only way to peace."
Carroll called on each religion to abandon its supremacy stance and critique itself.
" 'My God is greater than your God.' No. 'Jihad vs. Crusade.' No — please, God, no," Carroll said to a standing ovation.
IN THE NAME OF PEACE
Responding to Carroll's lecture was a panel of three religious leaders that largely agreed with him and expanded on some of his points: Regas; Maher Hathout, senior adviser for the Muslim Public Affairs Council; and retired Rabbi Leonard Beerman. Connie Rice, a civil rights attorney, represented secular humanists.
The interfaith movement is not new. After Sept. 11, many interfaith groups around the country supported antiwar efforts or expressed solidarity with Muslims and Arab Americans.
One group that won attention for its efforts was the Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace, founded by Regas. It sponsored conferences and speakers, and helped coordinate antiwar marches in Southern California.
But observers say the group's status has diminished. Even Regas acknowledges that it lacks deep involvement from the Jewish and Muslim communities, making the coalition launched this week necessary.
"This is just another effort at a new level," Regas said.
Coalition leaders, who acknowledged that the antiwar efforts have lacked urgency and momentum, noted that the modern civil rights movement and the fight against the Vietnam War took years to gain national prominence. They believe their movement is finally taking off.
POLITICS AMID PRAYER
All Saints Church has built a reputation for its left-wing political activism, which has sometimes led to trouble. In 2004, on the eve of the presidential election, Regas delivered an antiwar sermon that triggered an investigation into the church's tax-exempt status by the Internal Revenue Service. No action has been taken.
Still, All Saints has not slowed its political pace.
The participants split up into groups, dissected Carroll's speech and bounced ideas off one another. The goal: Produce a draft of an interfaith charter, which will be sent to the 900 people who heard Carroll speak. Those people have until September to respond, when the next speaker's appearance is scheduled.
The 50 participants hope to complete the draft within nine months. The ultimate goal is to send the charter to faith communities across Los Angeles as a teaching tool.
The participants agreed that, besides the quest for peace, the doctrines of morality and forgiveness linked the three faiths. But they struggled to reconcile diverse viewpoints in their own religions and sometimes veered off into political and religious discussions that bore little relevance to the task at hand.
BELIEF AND COMPROMISE
Although the discussions remained largely polite and subdued, sparks occasionally flew. At the table where the mission statement was being written, the Rev. Ed Bacon, rector of All Saints, suggested saying that religious leaders were trying to reclaim their religions that had been hijacked.
"I'm not trying to reclaim religion. I'm trying to reclaim the discourse," said Hussam Ayloush, director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. He agreed that terrorists have received too much attention but didn't believe that Islam had been hijacked. "We just feel we don't have the same chance to express our views."
"I believe Christianity has been hijacked," Bacon shot back. "And they're in the White House."
Bacon and other participants were upbeat about the discussions and work so far. But the previous night offered a reminder that bridging theological gaps isn't easy.
"I have the same skepticism for organized religion that I do for organized crime," said Rice, the secular humanist.
She wondered how unity was possible when each religion believes in ancient texts that declare the supremacy of that faith's God. Throughout history, she said, such declarations have led to violence.