By Mary Stadnyk | Associate Editor
Affixed to the red tablecloth on the table in the community room of St. Ann Parish, Lawrenceville, was a display of variations of the word “Peace” – “Pacem,” “Paz,” “Salam,” “Shalom,” “Frieden” and “Paix.”
The display not only caught the attention of the 110 people attending an evening of interreligious dialogue Feb. 14, it also represented the theme of promoting peace.
“The more we learn about people, cultures, faiths, and the more we learn about the teachings of peace in our faith traditions, the more we can become God-like,” said Martha Andrade-Dousdebes, a member of St. Ann Parish who initiated a panel discussion of different faiths with Trinitarian Father Gerard Lynch, pastor, and Gary Maccaroni, parish pastoral associate.
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Co-sponsored by St. Ann Parish and the Coalition for Peace Action – a grassroots citizens’ organization that brings together people of all ages, backgrounds, professions and political persuasions around three goals: global abolition of nuclear weapons, a peace economy and a halt to weapons trafficking at home and abroad – the panel discussion featured Mercer County faith leaders representing three Abrahamic traditions: Jewish, Christian and Muslim. Rabbi Benjamin Adler from Adath Israel Congregation, Lawrenceville, the Rev. Robert Moore, president of Princeton Coalition for Peace Action, and Imam Sohaib Sultan, Muslim Life coordinator and chaplain in Princeton University, each were invited to share perspectives on his religious background and experience in serving a community of faith.
Andrade-Dousdebes stressed the importance of people of various faiths connecting with each other and ridding “ourselves of the fear we have of others.
“Fear paralyzes love and keeps us from reaching out to those in most need of love,” she said. “Therefore, anything I can do to accomplish peace through dialogue and prayer, I am open to God’s invitation to work for it.”
The evening opened with a greeting by Father Lynch, who said, “We are here to listen to each other.”
In welcoming remarks, Andrade-Dousdebes noted that the day marked the feast of St. Valentine and how in her native Ecuador, the feast is celebrated as a day of friendship.
“Here we are, to promote peace and to celebrate friendship,” she said.
In opening his talk on “Confronting Diversity,” Rabbi Adler simply asked the audience, “How do we create peace?” given it is “such an abstract idea, so far away from being tangible.”
He then referred to the Torah, which states that peace is the reward for following God’s commandments.
“When we follow God’s ways we are rewarded with peace,” he said. “For us Jews, God’s ways are the mitzvoth, the commandments, the set of expectations for life, how to live in the world.”
Rabbi Adler marveled at having people of different backgrounds come together to emphasize commonality and how a true breakthrough happens when differences are confronted.
“When people meet on the battlefield, they may be on different sides, but they agree that violence is the solution,” he said. “When people advocating for peace meet, they agree that peace is the answer but may ignore the real and fundamental differences of the other side.”
The rabbi shared his own experience of traveling with a group to Bethlehem when he was in rabbinical school.
“The point [of the visit] was to meet Palestinians and just talk,” he said. “We weren’t going to solve any problems, just listen. It was an amazing experience, but not because I discovered the other side was so different in things that mattered. We were similar as human beings but so different in our cherished beliefs and opinions.”
“I hope that even as we celebrate diversity and look for commonalities, we also confront our differences and are honest with ourselves and each other,” he said. “We cannot afford in our day to sit only amongst people who agree with us. I pray that we have the courage to challenge ourselves to seek out truths on the other side.”
Before giving a brief historical overview of peace in Christian tradition, Rev. Moore noted that the word “peace” occurs some 334 times in the Old and New Testaments, adding how pleased he was that the evening’s dialogue was designed to focus on peacemaking in “our respective traditions.”
Peace, he said, “is not some vague idea or far-away hope for the future, but is a challenge of actively making peace now.”
Rev. Moore recounted how Christians in the first three centuries, including those who were apostles and had walked with Jesus, were deeply committed to peace.
“But no Christian writer in those first three centuries advocated for Christian participation in war or violence,” he said. “Christianity was a minority, a counter-cultural religion, and Christians were marginalized and even persecuted.”
In the fourth century, he continued, Constantine legalized and mainstreamed Christianity, and it was during that time the Just War Theory emerged. The Just War Theory, which has origins in Christian theology, is a doctrine containing a series of criteria that must be met in order to ensure that war is morally justifiable. Its seven principals take into account: last resort, legitimate authority, just cause, probability of success, right intention, proportionality and civilian causalities.
“Unfortunately and shamefully, Christians also embraced holy war doctrines at various times,” he said. “They justified war and killing to not only defend their faith but to force it on others.”
Rev. Moore pointed out there are some weapons or wars that inherently can’t meet the Just War criteria, and that “just war never stopped or restrained a war,” referring to the bombing of cities in World War II and the war in Iraq.
“We need that persistent, proactive peacemaking advocates on an interfaith basis now more than ever,” he said. “I invite you to be active, not only in your own faith tradition but on multi-faith and interfaith bases.”
In his presentation, Imam Sultan stated that he understood why so much violence and rebellion stems from that population. “It’s [the Muslim] viewpoint that when Muslim countries are invaded and people are killed, their sense of dignity is desecrated,” he said, emphasizing that while he had an understanding of Muslim acts of violence, he did not condone them.
The Imam noted the citations in the Quran that pertain to teachings about loving the enemy and sharing peace with people then noted that Islam also recognizes the Just War concept based strictly on the premises of self-defense, preventing exile and defending people from religious persecution.
“When we talk about peace, we need to use our moral imagination and picture those we fight now to be as close and potential friends,” he said.
Eager To Learn
The evening closed with a meditation in which all participants were asked to stand, place their hand over their heart and imagine living in a world of peace. The participants then joined in singing “Peace Is Flowing Like a River.”
Participant and St. Ann parishioner Kathy Ravenel said she attended the dialogue because although she is familiar with the Jewish customs and faith, she wanted to learn more about the Islamic customs and Muslim religion. She was also reminded about how “we want to find our commonality,” she said, noting that education can help “put civility back into civilization.”
Andrade-Dousdebes said she found it moving to see the participants eager to learn more about the topic of peace. “I realized how important it is to come together to work for peace and justice.”
“The Gospel calls us to stand for truth and peace regardless of the status quo,” she said, adding that Pope Francis has become the prophetic voice of today’s times.
“Let’s follow the Pope’s leadership and listen to the words of Scriptures and the Quran. Let’s learn from each other. Let’s come together to study peace, which is living a life in its fullness by giving and receiving mutually in love, compassion and mercy.”