Cambridge, MA. The New York Times for Monday, October 13 caught my eye three times over with items of sadness that pertain to interreligious relations, interreligious thinking. On the front page, one article talked about the campaign dedicated to spreading the rumor that Barack Obama is a Muslim. A second front-page story recounted the ongoing violence against Christians in Orissa, and efforts to “reconvert” Christians to Hinduism. Inside, a third report narrated recent violence against the tiny Christian minority in Iraq, in the town of Mosul.
Each story is of course a world unto itself, and each case requires a different kind of analysis. But among other things, they all show us how ignorant people can be of other people and their religions and, in these cases at least, the apparent unwillingness — rooted in ignorance — even to imagine properly the religious worlds of others. The campaign against Barack Obama may be nothing but a deliberate effort to confuse voters — since Mr. Obama is a lifelong Christian — but it also bears with it the unexamined presupposition that there is something wrong with being a Muslim, or that it would be bad for the United States to have a Muslim president. (See my earlier reflection on this theme.) The violence in Orissa is certainly not simply a matter of misunderstanding, but there is a duty — not just now, when the fires are burning — but as a regular part of life, for people who live as neighbors to understand the faith and practices of those neighbors. Majorities in particular are obliged to learn from religious minorities, not just tolerating, to some extent, their existence. The same applies to the situation in Iraq. It is very good for communities to live without fighting, but it is not enough, since such a “peace” today may erupt in warfare tomorrow. It is necessary to keep banishing ignorance by learning from one another, allowing the ideas, images, practices of our neighbors to enter deep inside us, so that we will find it very hard, perhaps impossible, to treat the other as a stranger, threat, or enemy.
Yes, it is also obvious that no amount of book-learning guarantees that ill-will and violence and lying will not occur. Sin is not reducible to ignorance. But since we can learn, and can open our minds, it becomes culpable ignorance not to keep learning about one another. If Christians and Hindus and Muslims — in these stories — knew more of one another’s traditions in detail and close up, we would surely be more disposed to respect one another and resist the sin of interreligious animosity.
Of course, this applies to the people we read about in the newspapers, but it applies as well to us when we may be tempted to judge those we are reading about, “as if” we understood how they think, what they believe. If we are Christians, in particular, we have much to learn from our Hindu and Muslim neighbors, and we need not to judge them on the basis of the violence of the few.