Saturday, May 29, 2021

Religious and Racial Dialogue: A Means of Reconciliation or a Bromide?

     By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

Dialogue groups are often created to discuss and reconcile those racial and religious issues that fester into political conflict.  Meetings are held and reports are issued, but often they are superficial bromides--that is, trite or unoriginal ideas intended to soothe or placate.  Unless racial and religious dialogue results in new personal relationships it produces little reconciliation.

Black Lives Matter gained prominence advocating the need for police reform after the killing of George Floyd last year.  It has since expanded its activities to ending institutional racism and promoting reparations for slavery; and it has gone global, recently asserting that the latest Israeli-Palestinian violence is based on racism analogous to police brutality in America.

The interminable violence in the Middle East is based more on regional religious and political differences than on race.  Dialogue is a critical component to reconcile conflicts in both religion and race; but BLM has compromised its original purpose of police reform by promoting other controversial racial  issues that focus on economic entitlements for Blacks.

Civil rights laws are a first priority to prohibit religious and racial discrimination; then dialogue groups can focus on improving religious and racial relationships to foster better  understanding and reconciliation.  Political remedies that give preferences to a particular religion or race only worsen relations and preclude any meaningful reconciliation.

For dialogue on religious and racial differences to be effective, it must change personal relationships among participants; otherwise it’s mere window dressing and doesn’t result in meaningful reconciliation.  Talk is cheap in dialogue groups unless the dialogue promotes reconciliation; otherwise it does little more than allow the posturing of its participants.

Reconciliation requires changing our negative attitudes about those of other religions and races.  It should be based on the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, including those neighbors of other races and religions; and that’s a common word of faith of Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.

It’s past time for police reform legislation, but BLM advocacy of other contentious racial issues, such as reparations for slavery and advocacy of Palestinian rights in the Middle East conflict distract from police reform in the U.S.  The interminable Middle East conflict between Jews and Palestinians requires an international political solution.  Dialogue over their conflicting claims in the Holy Land is important, but is no substitute for international diplomacy.      

Dialogue will not by itself reconcile religious and racial differences, but it can help resolve contentious differences with strangers if it leads to new relationships with them.  God's will is that we are reconciled with those not like us by loving them as we love ourselves.  That’s God’s truth and not a mere political bromide.


Sean Sullivan and Cleve Wooten have reported that “Black Lives Matter activists recently took to the streets of Indianapolis to protest for Palestinians.  In Congress, a lawmaker who cut her teeth as a Black Lives Matter organizer and who has compared her clashes with police to those faced by Palestinians tweeted Friday, “A cease-fire ends the bombardment — not the violence.”

And during the height of the recent Gaza hostilities, the official Black Lives Matter organization called for “Palestinian liberation,” six years after the group’s early leaders took a trip to the Middle East that planted the seeds for the current alliance.

Black Lives Matter, which has grown into a potent political force amid a national reckoning on race, has responded forcefully to the violence in the Mideast to extend its reach into foreign policy, pressing the Democratic Party to adopt a dramatically different approach to the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Whatever the aftermath of the violence in the region, it has starkly changed the Israeli-Palestinian debate in the United States, shifting it for many liberals from a tangled dispute over ancient, often-confusing claims to the far more familiar turf of police brutality and racial conflict.

“We understand that the liberation of Black people in the United States is tied to the liberation of Black people all over the world, and tied to the liberation of oppressed people all over the world,” said Melina Abdullah, co-founder of the Los Angeles chapter of Black Lives Matter. “Being in solidarity with the Palestinian people is something that’s been part of our work as Black Lives Matter for almost as long as we’ve been an organization.”

 The tensions reflect the striking success of Black activists in shifting the Democratic Party’s frame of reference over the past year on a range of issues, so that racial justice undergirds the debate on everything from climate change to health care to tax cuts. The eruption in Gaza marks the extension of that shift into the international arena. 

Black Lives Matter activists say an alliance with Palestinians is natural, since, as they see it, Israeli police are brutalizing Palestinians much like American officers mistreat unarmed Black people and protesters.

Now that a cease-fire has been declared, however, it’s less clear that Black Lives Matter activists and their allies can coalesce around a set of demands that will drive the Mideast debate in the coming months.

Some critics of Israel support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, for example, while others are sharply opposed. And while some favor imposing conditions on Israel in exchange for U.S. aid, agreement is elusive on what those conditions should be.

And questions remain about whether prominent Democrats will distance themselves from Black Lives Matter activists if those activists continue to make outspoken statements on the Mideast.

After BLM tweeted support for Palestinians, the BDS National Committee responded: “Thank you for your solidarity. From Ferguson to Palestine, our struggles against racism, white supremacy and for a just world are united!”  See

In Enough Bromides, Thomas Albert Howard has observed that “even as violence tied to religious identity still assails us in the daily news, we live in a booming heyday for interreligious dialogue. From a historical perspective, this phenomenon is remarkable, a noteworthy departure from the more isolationist and skeptical postures that faith traditions have exhibited toward one another in the past. For those involved, “dialogue” has become an umbrella term, signifying a wide range of peaceful exchanges, gatherings, and collaborations involving two or more religious traditions. At such events the consensus is that different faith traditions ought to get along and make the world a better place.

It is hard to disagree with such a goal, and, indeed, one finds much that is commendable in the current interfaith scene. But it is also a movement facing fundamental challenges and criticisms. The criticisms are best understood after surveying several recent developments. Together, these suggest that the jury is still out on the shape and future of interreligious dialogue. There is reason for both hope and concern.

Peter Ochs, who teaches at the University of Virginia, was tired of the parliament-style approach to interreligious dialogue that was in vogue for much of the twentieth century. This approach saw the mission of interreligious dialogue as issuing high-minded statements about peace while privileging a distinctively Western taxonomy of the “great world religions.” Deciding that something different was needed, Ochs launched the Scriptural Reasoning Project, which brings together Jews, Christians, and Muslims in deliberately small groups to read and discuss one another’s sacred texts. This format aims to work against the widespread canard that all religions teach basically the same thing. The mutual reading exercises invite participants not to downplay differences but to aim for “better quality disagreement” in an atmosphere of mutual respect. This method has its own society and its own journal (Journal of Scriptural Reasoning).

Chicago’s Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), founded in 2002, is a pioneer in inspiring young people with the ability of interfaith dialogue to nurture civil society and healthy pluralism. “Interfaith cooperation does not depend upon shared political, theological, and spiritual perspectives,” IFYC’s founder, Eboo Patel, insists. “People who engage in interfaith cooperation may disagree on such matters. The goal of interfaith leadership is to find ways to bring people together to build relationships, learn about each other, and participate in common action despite such differences.” Patel is also a critic of parliament-style dialogue, but he wants members of various faith communities to work together to increase “social capital” and sustain the virtues and practices necessary for self-government.

“What distinguishes the monastic approach to interreligious dialogue,” the organization’s secretary general, William Skudlarek, OSB, told me, “is an emphasis on hospitality and spiritual experience. Almost all events take place in monasteries, and the schedule is built around the liturgical horarium of the monastic community. In meetings with Buddhists, ample time is provided for common meditation. In meetings with Muslims, their times of prayer are also included in the schedule.”

Beyond interreligious studies, interreligious dialogue has given rise to another academic field: comparative theology. In contradistinction to dialogue proper and comparative religion (which strives for a more neutral approach), comparative theology insists that the theologian work from the standpoint of a particular tradition, but develop his or her thoughts in close conversation with another tradition. According to Harvard Divinity School’s Francis Clooney, SJ, comparative theology “marks acts of faith seeking understanding which are rooted in a particular faith tradition but which, from that foundation, venture into learning from one or more other faith traditions.” While novel in some respects, such an approach has venerable precedents in figures such as Thomas Aquinas and Maimonides, both of whom drew insights from all three Abrahamic traditions.

Intent on finding common ground, many dialogues have eschewed candidly discussing religious differences and settled for what the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has called “conversations of colorless compromise” [or bromides], which eventuate in “superficial joint declarations.” In many respects, this is an understandable goal, motivated by a desire to avoid the vitriolic polemics of the past. But perhaps an over-correction has now occurred. In a desire to arrive at tranquility, peace, not truth, has too often become the only goal of dialogue, and the (often unspoken) rules of dialogue work to reinforce this. But perhaps the time is ripe to retrieve an older Platonic sense of dialogue, in which mutual truth-seeking is the primary concern.

At the very least, boosters of dialogue should admit the downsides of producing, in the words of Cardinal Avery Dulles, “statements so diluted and broad that they become functionally meaningless [bromides].” Such an approach often rests on the debatable assumption that conflicts among “world religions” constitute the biggest impediment to global peace. To quote lines made famous by the late German Catholic theologian Hans Küng: “No peace among the nations without peace among the religions. No peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions. No dialogue between the religions without investigation of the foundation of the religions.” Of course, conflicts between large religious traditions—say, between Christianity and Islam—have been a source of violence in the past. But it is harder than one might think to isolate religion as the principal cause of conflict, because differences of religion are almost always connected to ethnic, political, linguistic, economic, and geographical differences.

The fact that Muslims and Christians might get along in Seattle or Toronto but not in Sarajevo or Cairo suggests that far more than religious difference alone is at work in putatively religious conflicts. A comparable point is developed by William T. Cavanaugh in his book The Myth of Religious Violence (2009), where he argues that the category of “religious violence,” viewed in historical perspective, has insidiously drawn attention away from the more pervasive and enduring violence caused by the modern secular nation-state.

The key fault-lines have less to do with religious divisions per se than with social and political divisions expressed in a religious idiom. In recent decades, one also observes conflicts within particular traditions between anti-modern traditionalists and pro-modern reformers. In many respects, we might today be witnessing the globalization of the kind of “culture war” that the sociologist James Davison Hunter has explored in contemporary America. In Hunter’s analysis, the deepest disagreements in American society were no longer between Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, as had historically been the case, but between conservatives within these traditions (whom Hunter calls “the Orthodox”) and their more latitudinarian co-religionists (whom he calls “the Progressives”). In other words, the key fault-lines have less to do with religious divisions per se than with social and political divisions expressed in a religious idiom.

Ironically, interfaith dialogue itself has often produced internecine divisions within particular faith communities, divisions that fall roughly along “orthodox” and “progressive” lines. This is easy to see in the cases of Christianity and Judaism: progressive voices within these communities have strongly championed interreligious dialogue, whereas more conservative voices have worried that it will lead down a slippery slope toward relativism or feel-good syncretism. Interfaith ventures often fail, as Robert Wuthnow has noted, “because of opposition from other religious groups in the [same] religious community.” Today, the regnant ethos governing interreligious dialogue, especially in the academy, is that of pluralism—an ethos heartily embraced by progressives.

Interfaith engagement that self-selects—that attracts only those who are most open to it in the first place—profoundly misconstrues the reason for interfaith dialogue.

Whatever the future may bring, one can safely predict that it will not be wholly secular, as various prophets of modernity once predicted. Indeed, as Britain’s recently deceased Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written: “great responsibility now lies with the world’s religious communities. Against expectations, they have emerged in the twenty-first century as key forces in a global age.” Insofar as interfaith dialogue can rise to address challenges and learn from criticisms as it continues to bring different religious communities together, it too can be a force for good, helping to shoulder this weighty responsibility.”  See  


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