Nov. 17, 2002: Behind the Rhetoric, a Chance for Friendship

Once again, we find ourselves being threatened by those noted theologians, the al-Qaida, who are warning of future attacks on our country. Why? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s because we let women vote and wear lipstick. Even though we are approaching the holiday season with thoughts of “peace on earth and good will toward all men,” I find these scumbags and the people who tacitly support them real easy to dislike.

That is why I went to see my friend Dr. Gil Watson, senior minister at Northside Methodist Church in Atlanta and what God had in mind when he created preachers. Dr. Watson recently returned from an 11-day trip to Istanbul, Turkey, with a group composed primarily of Christian, Jewish and Muslim clergy from around the Atlanta area. I hoped he could tell me something he learned on his trip that would make me more Christ-like toward a bunch of jive-talking bullies who think planting bombs that kill innocent people will make them big shots in heaven.

The pilgrimage was the brainchild of The Rev. Wayne Smith, who helped create the Friendship Force during the administration of President Jimmy Carter. That program has been highly successful in promoting individual contacts between people around the world. His timing couldn’t be better to try and do the same thing with rabbis, pastors and Imams and see if our religions have anything in common before somebody gets blown off the face of the earth.

During their stay in Istanbul, conferees rotated roommates and seatmates – Jewish, Christian and Islamic – in order to get to know each other better. Each member of the clergy provided a religious service for the others and shared literature about their faith. For some strange reason, the Christian group provided their Jewish and Muslim colleagues “Brother to a Dragonfly,” a book about racial tension in the South. The book barely mentions Jesus Christ, who is the cornerstone of the Christian faith. It was not the book to use to teach other faiths about the basic tenets of Christianity. I suspect it merely confirmed the suspicions of the Muslim Imams on the trip, five of whom had been Southern Baptist before their conversion to Islam, that we are a bunch of racists. Whoever picked that book did the Christian faith a real disservice.

Gil Watson says he came away from the trip to Turkey with the realization that Jews and Muslims have a more common approach to expressing their faith than do Christians, who are all over the theological map – from Baptist fundamentalists to liberal Episcopalians to ritualistic Roman Catholics. Muslims pray five times a day whether they are in Oman or Ocilla. People of Jewish faith have standard worship services no matter where they may be in the world. Christians can’t even agree on all the words to the Lord’s Prayer.

Dr. Gil learned that Muslims still harbor resentment at Christians for the Crusades of the Middle Ages and the Jews feel that Christians tended to look the other way during the Nazi holocaust. I suspect most Christians are oblivious to both perspectives. They are too busy trying to get prayer in public schools.

The most heated discussions occurred between the Muslims and members of the Jewish delegation over Jerusalem. Dr. Gil found little compromise and a lot of emotion as these two groups debated to whom this land rightfully belongs. Both claim it as their own. As I listened to him describe the debates, I had a sense of overwhelming despair. Despite Wayne Smith’s best efforts and the clergy’s best intentions, this is an issue that seems to have no resolution, short of all-out war.

There was some good news. The attendees had the opportunity to see that behind the political and religious rhetoric were a group of ordinary human beings. They laughed together and cried together. Between debates and discussions, they talked about their families and their hopes for the future. It was a small step, but a critically important one. Dr. Watson says he plans to stay in touch with his new friends and to keep lines of communication open. I hope he will. While he is at it, maybe he can soften my heart toward jive-talking bullies.