The earth is the home to over 7 billion people speaking over 6,500 languages. Yet, despite this diversity of culture and heritage, human behaviors are remarkably similar, as we are driven by a small number of universal concerns. We concern ourselves with our health and the wellbeing of our families; we fear death; and we are in constant need of sustenance and human contact. Throughout history, our insecurities around each of these concerns have given rise to over 4,000 religions.
While every religion may be different, each strives to provide its followers with comfort in response to the uncertainty, fear and tribulation of the human condition. Unfortunately, history, culture and politics have blinded humanity to the fact that people are people regardless of their faith, and over the course of millennia, rigid ideologies have become significant barriers to seeing our universal commonalities.
Today, every faith and political system has followers (on the right and the left) whose rigidity obstructs civil discourse. Rather than being forces for progress and innovation, fanatical religious convictions and inflexible political ideologies can become impediments to the cooperation and conciliation that is essential in the establishment of a peaceful and harmonious society. These voices represent a serious threat to the human capacity to engage others with curiosity and empathy. By infusing the public sector with fear and suspicion, they provoke a mindset resistant to compromise and change.
Yet, as loud as these rigid ideological voices may be, it is important to remember that the vast majority of the world’s population is not staunchly ideological. Most people in the world simply wish for harmonious, peaceful cooperation with their neighbors and their kin.
Two components that are needed to re-establish healthy civil discourse are dialogue and shared sweat equity. We need to find ways to hear each other despite our differences. We need to find projects that demand our collective sweat and ingenuity as we strive to address the challenges that confront us. We need to see each other as people with similar hopes and needs, and we must find ways to build trust without compromising our values.
In May, I was invited to be a part of a peace conference in Abu Dhabi called, “Religions Promoting Peace Through Trust and Partnership.” The goal of this conference was to counter fanatical religious narratives by building bridges of understanding, respect and peace across and within the religious communities of the world. Under the vision and leadership of Sheik Abd’Allah Bin Bayyah, this conference sought to nurture seeds of peace through cooperation, mutual respect and open, honest dialogue. At the heart of the Sheik’s vision is the belief that all religions must look within their respective traditions to find resources that promote peace.
To that end, an imam, a rabbi and a minister (this is not joke) from 10 cities throughout the United States were invited to Abu Dhabi to work together on creating a partnership to expand efforts of cooperation, broaden the reaches of multi-faith interaction, and deepen the levels of trust among Christians, Jews and Muslims. For three very full days, these delegations of clergy devoted themselves to generating programs for their respective cities.
Our Houston delegation for this American Caravan for Peace consisted of Imam Danny Hernandez from the Pearland Islamic Center, Reverend Steve Bezner of Houston Northwest Church and me. The three of us returned from this remarkable conference with a collective mission which includes a threefold plan.
In the months to come, we are committed to getting to know each other and our families. We have learned that building bridges of trust demands a level of intimacy that comes from the shared experiences of everyday life. Our next level of engagement will involve bringing our communities together. This will take place in our houses of worship and in a number of shared “mitzvah” projects. Finally, we have committed ourselves to expanding the reach of this global initiative for peace by involving additional mosques, synagogues and churches throughout the City of Houston.
At the heart of this noble endeavor is a desire to restore civil discourse. It is our hope that our encounters will help to diminish the fear and angst that seem to permeate society today. We hope that honest conversations about our values and our lives will help us see and understand that our commonalities far exceed our differences. Finally, it is our hope that our time together will enable us to find ways to engage those with conflicting beliefs with a willingness to listen and a sense of mutual respect.