I just returned from the 2011 meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative. It is an amazing gathering that brings together heads of state, some of the richest people in the world, people in the field of entertainment and the arts, along with the movers and shakers in the world of the media. It was with great anticipation that I attended the session that dealt with interfaith dialogues. I was hopeful that I could gain some direction as to how I, as a Red Letter Christian, could facilitate constructive discussions across religious lines.
At this seminar, I found that there were bright and gracious people from most of the major religions of our time. There was a strong representation of Muslims, Jews and Christians. While other religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism had limited representation, there were enough present that their voices could be heard.
Those at the gathering represented the voices of moderation from these various religious traditions, and that was the problem. By the end of the meeting, I had the sense that we could all stand together, holding hands in a circle, and sing "Kum Ba Yah." There was a good feeling and sense that we were all committed to encouraging a better understanding across religious lines, and also committed to finding ways to work together to create a world marked by peace and harmony, on the one hand, and an end of oppression and poverty, on the other. The unacknowledged elephant in the room was that the problem was not with the various segments of religious communities that were there represented. The problem was (and we are reluctant to talk about it) that in each of these religious traditions there are fundamentalist extremists who will settle for nothing less than the annihilation of those whom they believe to be competitors in the marketplace of religious ideas and forms of worship.
Christianity isn't the only group that has fundamentalists. We are well aware that in every one of the religious traditions there are extremists groups, and little was said as to how to establish communications with these groups so as to facilitate non-destructive modes of behavior that would leave room for deep commitments to the core beliefs of the respective faith traditions, while finding common ground wherein a unified humanity could be established. There was a failure to see that in today's world, the voices of moderation are becoming fewer and fewer, while extremist groups are growing in size and are flexing more and more political muscle. It should be obvious to those of us who are Christians that the reality is that attendance and membership for mainline churches is in rapid decline, whereas fundamentalist churches are growing in size and significance. It is also obvious that similar tendencies are evident in other religions. It is imperative in a world in which religion is increasingly the basis of militaristic conflict that communication be established with the growing sectors of fundamentalist communities so that a dialogue that creates understanding and respect for those who differ becomes an ongoing reality.
Among the issues that were not discussed, but should have been discussed, is the fact that in several Muslim countries, such as Malaysia, interfaith dialogue has become impossible. Muslims are allowed to share their faith with Christians, but Christians are not allowed to share their faith with Muslims. If Christians dare to do this, they risk their lives. There is even the possibility of capital punishment in sharing one's beliefs with Muslims. Little was said about what each group of moderates in that room would be able to do to diminish the extremism in their respective religions.
What is especially important is addressing the question of how religion can be enforced through political means and what can be done to create a political environment that, on the one hand, acknowledges the role of religion in society, while on the other hand does not impose one religion on the populace at the expense of all others.
It has been said that people never do evil with more enthusiasm than when they do it in the name of God. Samuel Huntington, the Harvard political scientist, predicted that unless something is done about the problem which I have cited, the 21st century will be marked by religious wars and, because of the instruments of war that are now available, will be the most deadly and ferocious of all time.
I am looking for suggestions on what we can do about extremists within our own society. They cannot be ignored. Edmund Burke once said that all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. It is important that people with deep commitments to their own spiritual traditions figure out ways of connecting with the extremists within their faith orientations and get the discussion going as to what love and justice require for their religious brothers and sisters and those brothers and sisters in other traditions.