Full Text: “Faith in the Commons” – Second Annual Scarboro Missions Lecture in Interreligious Dialogue

 

 

It was a full house on the evening of Thursday, February 13th at the Fraser Centre for Practical Theology‘s Second Annual Scarboro Missions Lecture in Interreligious Dialogue.

Delivered by author and activist Dr. Mary Jo Leddy on the topic “Faith in the Commons: Becoming Neighbours Includes the Personal and Political”, the talk was followed by responses from two notable figures in interreligious dialogue. As co-chairs of the Canadian Association of Jews and Muslims, we were pleased to welcome the perspectives of Dr. Barbara Landau and Mr. Shahid Akhtar to this discussion.

What follows is a condensed version of each part of the evening’s proceedings. Texts have been condensed from their original forms due to space considerations.

 

 

 

 

 

“Faith in the Commons: Becoming Neighbours Includes the Personal and the Political”

 

Dr. Leddy began by reminding us of the parable of the Good Samaritan, and that the Salvadoran Jesuit theologian Jon Sobrino has referred to this parable as “The Constitution of the Church”.  I have also and often thought of this parable as “The Constitution of Romero House”, she said.

For the past thirty years I have lived in a little neighbourhood in the west end of Toronto, in a house with refugees who are my neighbours. Our little community (now four houses) began in an act of faith and of hope that strangers could become neighbours. Our most practical affirmation of this hope was the decision not to have any locks on the inside doors or the house. There was one lock on the front door of the houses and we all had keys to that lock.

This evening I would like to share a few things that we at Romero House have learned through this time together. This evening, I look forward to learning more, once again, from my friends and colleagues Shahid Akhtar and Barbara Landau.

Together we have something to say that is as simple as it is urgent and often neglected. It is neglected by politicians, by professors, by artists and workers, by religious people – we are summoned to become neighbours. Not friends, not enemies but neighbours. This is an ancient and ever fresh commandment in every religion: love your neighbour.

 

Who is my neighbour?

 

The lawyer asked this question, we ask this question.

Jesus did not answer this question but he deepened the question, widened the question. He told the story of the good Samaritan. Throughout history, his response has had many and various interpretations.

In some theology classes, here at Regis and elsewhere, we have discussed whether the neighbour is already the one beside me, or the one I chose to draw near to? Was Jesus instructing us to pay attention to the one who is already near to us or to make a choice to draw near to the one who had been distant in my mind and heart and imagination?

The whole ecumenical movement and the interfaith sensibility has come to life through the often painful awareness of what can happen when we do not see, when we pass by those who are wounded by animosity, who are attacked because they are of a different faith or race or gender. The powerful surge towards justice has taken on new life as we have become aware of those who are poor, whose poverty renders them invisible and of no account by the bookkeepers and accountants of the global economic order.

Who is my neighbour? This may be the one who is so close to me that I can take them for granted. This may be the one with whom I have nothing in common – except the road.

Over the last thirty years a certain insight has shaped my interpretation of this parable: the Samaritan and the wounded one shared the same road. And they knew they shared the same road… The road that separated them was also a place of meeting. They became neighbours on the road.

 

The Experience of Romero House

 

Let me explain: When we (the community of Romero House) purchased a house on a small street in a no-name neighbourhood in the west end of Toronto, it was meant to be a place of welcome for refugees who had newly arrived in Canada. All of our energies were so focused on welcoming these newcomers that we barely noticed the people living in the other houses on the street. But they noticed us! Especially they noticed the women who wore a hijab! Suspicion of these refugees gathered steam and finally exploded when we filed an application at City Hall to renovate our garage so we could store furniture there. The neighbours that we had not noticed became visible and audible in their efforts to stop this renovation: “It will be 10 stories high, it will house prostitutes and drug dealers.” The hostility was so intense that we decided to withdraw our application to renovate the garage. We even began to wonder whether we would have to withdraw from the neighbourhood.

However, over a period of five years and a thousand acts of kindness, we settled into the street and discovered what it meant to become neighbours. We did not become best friends, all lovey-dovey with the people on the street but we discovered a way of being together that was good. A neighbourhood began to develop: not through big meetings, not because of community organizers and the like. We became neighbours as we bought and shared a snowblower together. (and the snowblower was parked in our garage!)  We became neighbours when we planned a street party together.

After the crisis with the garage I had great doubts that we could welcome newcomers to such a hostile environment. The peace between us was fragile . I wondered what we could ever hold in common – we had no shared history, no shared language, culture or religion, no common economic or educational background. On this one little street we faced the challenges that face us as a country…in the midst of great diversity what can we hold in common?

Then I saw a reality so simple that it was easy to take for granted: What we shared in common was the street, the space in between us that no one owned, but all of us were responsible for.

 

The “Common Good”

 

Being responsible for the street meant keeping the sidewalks shoveled, making sure there was enough gas for the snow blower, taking out the garbage, planting gardens for all to see, attending meetings about speed bumps and stop signs, contributing to the little local libraries, the little bird house boxes on poles with a door (with no locks!) which opened onto books that someone had donated. In the little local library on our street books were exchanged, some offering books and others taking books —  for free, for all.

The street was not private property. The houses were owned by someone, but not the street. The street was not owned by anyone, but it was the responsibility of everyone.

Most political and social theories today tend to miss the obvious fact of the importance of the street and all the in-between spaces where individuals meet and greet each other, where they interact in ways that are different from the realm of the personal or the political.

In contemporary feminist thought there is the maxim that the personal is the political. No one quite knows how this maxim originated but suffice it to say that it represented this substantial insight — that much of what had been labelled “personal problems” of women were in fact symptoms of problems caused by the social and economic and class and race realities of the political world.

The personal is the political–this is an important insight. However it does not recognize a third reality, the in-between reality present in the street, present along the road – the in-between space which is the space of “neighbourliness”.

Throughout the history of Christian theology this in-between space, this world that was shared, was often referred to as “the common good”. This concept was foundational for Christian social thinking. I have discovered that in spite of its foundational significance there are actually very few articulations of this “common good”.

As Reform theologian, Max Stackhouse, summarized this situation : “Even when humans do not agree universally on the idea of the common good and do not experience truly universal common bonds, we still cannot escape the demands of justice that call us to account – that call us to keep on trying to realize the common good.” (p.g 260 In Search of the Common Good)

I am now convinced that “neighbourliness” is the way that sustains faith and hope in the common good.

As I have pondered the simple “commons” of the street, I have learned that there is an important resurgence of interest and thinking in the common good.  The learning commons, environmental thinking that emphasizes the earth itself as the very large and real commons that we share, the water, the air that we hold in common.

These are the realities that all of us share, none of us own but all are responsible for.

Living on this little street helped me to imagine a common good that would help us live together as good neighbours. To live with a sense of being responsible for a world that none of us own but all of us are responsible for – means that we  can and must  bear with our differences without feeling that we have to be the same. We Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, all good people – we share an earth in common.

 

The Practice of Being a Good Neighbour

 

Living as a good neighbour involves a set of skills, or a set of  what the ethicians call “virtues”  that are simple and yet uncommonly wise.

On the one hand, we have relationships with those who are nearest and dearest – families, friends, lovers, communities of commitment and purpose. These are personal relationships. On the other hand, we have relationships that involve social roles and commitments, jobs, interests, issues. These relationships can be more temporary, less defining but more demanding at times. This is the political or the public world.

However, there are other relationships that I would call neighbourly.

Let me return to our little street:

Over the years Romero House has been sustained by the generosity of many volunteers and by energy and enthusiasm and generosity of young interns/workers who give a year or two of service to living with refugees. It is an often exciting experience for us to live with and draw near to refugees from other cultures and experiences. Yet we are challenged, every day, as to how to relate to the refugees in ways that are caring and consistent. It is a real challenge and I have realized how very few social models we have about how to be a good neighbour. I see how we can become worn out from being too caring, too close, too personal.  We can sometimes turn to working on issues and causes because it is too difficult to bear with our neighbours. They and we need to find a way of living between the personal and the political.

So, in closing, I return to the parable of the Good Samaritan: I see that the Samaritan noticed the man by the side of the road. More importantly, he noticed and he did something: he brought the man to the inn, he washed his wounds and left him in the care of another. He did not stay with the wounded man – nevertheless he made sure that someone else did stay. He did not treat the wounded man as a relative or as a social cause. He treated the wounded man as a neighbour – someone near who was not necessarily dear.

We need neighbours. Sometimes these neighbours can become friends, but just being a neighbour is good enough.

The neighbour is close enough to notice.
The neighbour is close enough to care.
The neighbour is close enough to respond.
The neighbour can be responsible in a more distant but determined way.
The neighbour knows there are other neighbours who care, trusts that there are other neighbours who will notice, believes that we are all on the road to God.

The one by the side of the road summons us to become neighbours.

Here I am, the wounded one whispers. I have been waiting for you.

The neighbour could be you, could be me, could be us.

 

 

Response – Dr. Barbara Landau

Dr. Barbara Landau is a psychologist, lawyer, mediator, trainer, and co-Chair of the Canadian Association of Jews and Muslims. In 2012, Dr. Landau was given the Dr. Vara P. Singh Award by the Women’s Intercutural Network for outstanding community service. 

 

Mary Jo explores the parable of the Good Samaritan, and uses Romero House and the street shared by the community as her window to explore “What is a neighbour”? What are the expectations and responsibilities for diverse inhabitants who live “near” but are not “dear”? I plan to focus on some of the obstacles to ‘neighbourliness’ in interfaith and cross-cultural relationships – especially where there is a history of tension.

My starting point is the Good Samaritan – someone who took the time to assist a vulnerable stranger – with no motive of self-interest, no judgement, no fear for his security, no precondition that the person share his beliefs, or culture; no financial ‘means’ test, or resume to show he was ‘worthy’ of care.  The person was suffering, his needs were being overlooked – and the Good Samaritan took action!

This parable – even the adjective, ‘The “GOOD” Samaritan’ –– suggests a positive role model. So, I wondered – why isn’t everyone a ‘Good Samaritan’?  What are the risks – or barriers we face when we open ourselves to strangers or the vulnerable? 

 

Barriers to Being Neighbours: Value Judgments, Fears, Insecurities

 

First, we make judgements about ‘the stranger’ that let us off the hook – even encourage us ‘to walk on by’.  We apply the philosophy that “Bad things happen to bad people”, so the stranger’s adversity is deserved. We petition against half-way houses, and use ‘NIMBY’ as a rationale – why? Because such strangers fuel our personal insecurity.

Another barrier is that we feel overwhelmed by the needs we see. We assume that our actions will be inadequate. So, we defer to government. It is THEIR responsibility! We hug Greta Thunberg publicly for voicing our concern that climate change is a crisis. We agree with her that “Our House is on FIRE”! But when government responds, we vote to throw out those who take action. We cry “IRRESPONSIBLE MONEY MANAGERS” and “HOW DARE YOU RAISE OUR TAXES”!  Why? Because even those who benefit from such actions, are afraid that they may suffer – and become the stranger at the side of the road.

Tonight, I want to look at a third reason why we hesitate to take action or speak out on behalf of others. This barrier impacts me – and my guess is that it affects most of us. This barrier is the fear of social condemnation! This leads us to self censor.  We fear being ostracized – or seen as a ‘traitor’ within our own community for outreach to a different identity group, whose personal and/or political views – are assumed to be in conflict with our group. The allegation that you are “sleeping with the enemy” acts like a tranquilizing dart that paralyses our ‘Good Samaritan’ instincts.

How many in this room have experienced social pressure to restrict your circle of ‘neighbours’? How many have had 2nd thoughts about including someone outside your traditional circle? Or hesitated to speak out on behalf of a group, when prejudice impacted their community? If ’the other’ is from a group that is critical of, or in conflict with, our own, there is a double barrier.

First, there is social pressure to avoid being suspected of disloyalty to our “Identity group”. So, excluding a potentially disruptive voice, is a safe option. Second, our learned prejudices and recordings come into play. We assume that ‘THEY’ are against us and wish us harm. Therefore, THEY do not merit our empathy. Yet we see ourselves as INDIVIDUALS of goodwill, who, but for the hostility of ‘the other’, would reach out. Of course, we do not look in the mirror to see that our group is often seen as hostile by ‘the other’.

We choose the path that shields us from conflict, but at some cost. We lose the opportunity to understand the impact we have on each other. We also lose the benefit of increasing our circle of empathetic allies.

 

The Example of Post-9/11 Canada

 

As the news of September 11th  flooded our air waves, young Muslim school children were told “Go home to your country of origin!” As if our Canadian way of life was threatened by these children!

Instantly, the attack on the World Trade Centre triggered Islamophobia. Muslims were suddenly distrusted and labelled the ‘enemy’. Anyone who reached out, or advocated on their behalf, was seen as ‘naïve’ at best, or a ‘collaborator’, at worst.

My thoughts went immediately to a Muslim man, Shahid Akhtar, who had attended my Conflict Resolution course. He introduced himself as having created “The Canadian Association of Jews and Muslims”. As a Jew, I identified with the vulnerability of being the target of racism, and wondered about the impact on him.  I called Shahid and learned that suddenly being Muslim was outside the circle of being a ‘Canadian’. To be Muslim was to be “a stranger”, and any social restraints on prejudice were removed.

I recognized that we might both face criticism for any neighbourly outreach. Muslims and Jews have a varied history – especially in the Middle East. So, I invited a few trusted members of my community to stand with me, and suggested that Shahid gather a few trusted supporters. We met with a shared experience of being targets of racism. Together we created a joint, heart-felt, Peace Statement that we presented at the September 11th rally at City Hall. And the rest is history… we formed a lifetime coalition, as trusted allies.

The next step was bringing together leaders of our faith communities, face to face – as neighbours, in my home. Our goal was to turn the political into the personal by building a base of interfaith friendship. Sadly, we experienced fear and social pressure from some Jewish faith leaders. The concern was that they would have to defend the right of Israel to exist, and face antisemitic views. I was asked to provide a list of all invited Muslims, so they could be pre-screened to ensure the safety of the Jewish participants.

Clearly, it was assumed that I was aligned with potential critics of my identity group. I believed this was an opportunity to model the benefits of neighbourliness by joining together in our common struggle against antisemitism and Islamophobia. When I suggested that Shahid be given a list of the Jewish participants so he could pre-screen them, the demand was withdrawn – but a caution was sent to the invited Jewish leaders.

Happily, several invitees swallowed their fears – and risked social criticism for attending a meeting with the other. They came away with the seeds of a shared “Children of Abraham” initiative. For the next 8 years we held a “Weekend of Twinning” each October. One Synagogue and one Mosque partnered with each other and planned programs to learn about each other’s faith, feed the hungry, speak out about domestic violence, address whether organ donations were ‘kosher’ and ‘halal’, and re-enact imagined conversations between Abraham’s sons, Isaac and Ishmael, as well as his 2 wives, Sarah and Hagar, etc.

Our focus was more on the personal than the political, as a strategy for building trust. We learned that to solidify our role as neighbours, we need to listen and understand – but not necessarily agree with, each other’s historic perspective.

 

Conclusion

 

The sense of walking a line and being ‘suspect’ within our communities never goes away. Recently, the line has shifted in favour of celebrating our personal relationships, and raising our voices together whenever either group experiences a tragedy – or a discriminatory policy, such as restrictions on wearing faith symbols in Quebec.

The most moving evidence of the change in Jewish-Muslim relationships, was the warmly welcomed decision to create Rings of Peace around Mosques on a Friday during Jum’ah prayers, after the 2017 massacre at a Quebec Mosque. The Muslim community immediately reciprocated when several Jews were assassinated at the Pittsburgh, Tree of Life Synagogue in 2018. The response to these tragedies was lightyears removed from September 11th. It was instant, it carried no baggage of social criticism. Instead it generated enormous warmth, and a feeling that safety comes from standing together as allies.

Looking more broadly at all Canadians, we take pride in our diversity. We celebrated as Good Samaritans when we opened our hearts to Vietnamese Boat People, to Come from Away passengers, and to Syrian refugees. But these flashes of goodwill stand in contrast to the ongoing eruptions of racism, denial of human rights or equality, and cries to limit immigration, that still leave many feeling like outsiders – like the stranger who was passed by. Sadly, there is a growing nostalgia for a homogeneous definition of who is included in our national identity. This recipe for becoming “Great Again” is spreading across many countries, and sadly, has infected parts of Canada.

Who do we include in our definition of “Commons”? How broad is our definition of “Neighbour”? What are the risks and what are the rewards? What are the strategies we can adopt if our goal is to open the Commons to allies, and what are the boundaries we can agree on, for who is welcome and who is NOT?

I thank Mary Jo for opening this most important conversation. Just as the Parable raised many unanswered questions, I leave you with some welcome examples of progress, and a task for each of us to ponder and act on for ourselves.

 

Response – Mr. Shahid Akhtar

Shahid Akhtar is an alternative dispute resolution practitioner and president of Conciliators Without Borders. He is the author of The 7Cs Compass for Conflict Resolution—A Practical Guide for Real Alternative Dispute Resolution” and co-founder/co-Chair of the Canadian Association of Jews and Muslims.

 

Mary Jo started with the Parable of the Good Samaritan and how each of us imagines  it could be played out in our own lives.  This applicability is the essence of not only the parable, but her entire message. Dr. Leddy’s speech is a call to action, a clarion call, loud and clear.  It calls us to apply what we heard today to our lives to make a difference, no matter how small.

My involvement in the interfaith work with my neighbors in Canada started with “fake news”.  Yes, believe it or not, there was Fake News before Trump.   I don’t know if any of you remembers the cover story in the Time Magazine, after the first Intifada in Palestine, in the early 90s.  It showed a young Arab man in a Kafiyya holding a Kalashnikov.  The Caption asked, “Islam, should we be afraid?”  It was a statement masquerading as a question.  It implied, “ Yes, we should be afraid.”

It was a shameless attempt at demonizing Muslims, especially in the context of Israel-Palestine conflict. The West, led by America, needed an enemy after the downfall of Soviet Union.  Islam readily obliged.  I and a Jewish colleague at work  wondered if there was anything we could do about it.

We searched the libraries for an organization we could join.  We found there were many bilateral groups  like Jews and Christians, Israelis and Palestinians,  Muslims and Christians and Arabs and Jews.  But we couldn’t find any that was dedicated to bilateral Jewish-Muslim relations.  So, we did the next best thing. We created the first bilateral organization dedicated to promoting Jewish-Muslim Interaction:  Canadian Association of Jews and Muslims,  CAJM. We met regularly in synagogues, mosques and at homes. Some who attended our meetings, or learned about us,  created similar groups in their communities.  Today, globally, there are hundreds of such bilateral Muslim-Jewish organizations.

And then 9/11 Happened.

 

The Day After 9/11

 

I should make a confession:  I am not a very religious person.  Theology, devotedness, piety, or ritual observation is not my forte. Yet I discovered after 9/11 that regardless of how observant a Muslim I may or may not have been,  for the immigration officer at the border, I was a Muslim. For the law enforcement, I was a Muslim.  For the white supremacist, I was a Muslim.

So, the very next day after 9/11,  as I went for a walk  during lunch hour (just a couple of blocks away from here), I saw three young, executive looking men, in suits and with briefcases,  walking menacingly towards me. They blocked my path. The one in the centre pointed at me and in a voice filled with hate yelled “OSAMA!“.  (Jokingly) You can see how much I resemble him. As you have no doubt noticed, I am seven feet tall;  I have a long beard and I never leave home without my turban.

I could understand if they were yelling at me because of my brown skin, but my faith was not written on my forehead.  Nobody bothered to ask me.  Just stereotyping was more than enough.

I couldn’t resist.  I too pointed at him and said, “Hi, Timothy”.  The memory of the Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh was still fresh in people’s minds.  His companions laughed and teased this blue eyed, blonde haired, young man, and the situation was diffused.

It didn’t bother me much at that time.  But I had a delayed realization of fear.  I knew that a political event had impacted my life in a very personal way.  Suddenly I was given an identity based on religion.  I was being told that I did not belong in the neighborhood because of my faith.  For the first time, I was afraid of my neighbors.  I knew that against blind stereotyping there was no defense.

The personal had become political. But in a perverse way, based on my assumed religion, for me it  had also become theological.  Not that I was immune from discrimination before 9/11; I had faced my share of it.   But it was almost always my brown skin, my ethnic background, the geographical region I came from.  Never my religion.

For the first time I noticed that in my wider neighborhood,  the Geo-Politics had morphed into Theo-Politics.  Theology had become the new normal defining criteria against which I was judged.

And it is with this  background – that I want to respond to some other points Mary Jo raised:  What is the Common Good?  What is our obligation? What can we do?

 

The Common Good

 

It is said that spirituality has questions, but religion has only answers.  Sacred texts contain some of the most beautiful commands along with some of the most frightening.    As an Institution. you can be the leaders in questioning some of the inherited texts.

Religious scholars should realize that extremists and zealots  can use these commands to spread hatred.  No matter on what authority, the commands to kill men, women and children just because they belong to a different tribe, group or nation, is as  wrong today as it was yesterday and will be tomorrow. As someone said, “If Bible tells us to love our neighbors and our enemies, it is probably because they are sometimes one and the same people.”

Jewish-Muslim Relations are often determined here by what is happening In Israel and Palestine. Applying the neighborhood concept to global conflicts, diplomatic disputes, military conquests and occupations, we should remember, that if we want peace, and co-existence as neighbors, then we have to acknowledge the neighborhood we live in and accept that we belong there. 

Common good  for the inhabitants of the common space also demands that  if you are situated in the middle east, you should not consider yourself as a part of Europe.

You can never live in a neighborly and peaceful way unless  you conciliate with the fact of  where you happen to be. Otherwise you will look down upon your neighbor and consider them inferior.  This can only lead to resentment and hatred.  You can rewrite History, but you cannot re-write Geography. You are where you are.

Obligations to the Common Good

In these fast changing times,  I strongly feel that if we just maintain status quo then we are condoning what is wrong with the world.  There are actions we can take here and now, as individuals, today, tonight.

One of the most powerful tools we are blessed with is our voice.   We must not ever be afraid to raise our voice for justice and harmony, for our neighborhood,  for our shared humanity.

In our personal and collective capacity, we  can raise our voice to say that no political or religious leader has the right to interpret the holy texts to justify, say, the genocide of  Rohingyas in Burma and oppression of Kashmiris, Palestinians, Yemenis, and the Indigenous people.

We must avoid like plague to be selective in our outrage.  If names have to be named, then we should name them. We should take a stand against the arrogance of power.  For peace and harmony in our neighborhood, we can open our hearts, our minds, our mosques, our synagogues and  our homes to welcome those we have considered the Other.

In my work in conflict resolution and interfaith fields I have learned  that in looking after our best interests is not selfish but most altruistic.  I use an exercise called WIMBI: What’s In My Best Interest.  This allows us to see the best interests of those we encounter.  Their interests become ours.  We then fully appreciate what is best for us and our neighbors, whether they are on our street, in our city, country, continent, or the world.

As Mary Jo said, even if you cannot do everything, as a good neighbor you can DO SOMETHING. Doing that “something” makes us a better person, it enriches our lives, it fulfills the purpose for our creation.   For this I am better off.  You are better off. We are all better off.

And for this insight from her, I thank Mary Jo.  Thank you all. God bless.