At one point on my recent trip to the Middle East, a U.S. Army chaplain said to me with tears in his eyes, “We are at the beginning of something like the Protestant Reformation, and Father Nabil Haddad is like Martin Luther.”
Father Nabil Haddad is the Catholic priest who invited six of us to World Interfaith Harmony Week in Amman, Jordan, Feb. 1-7.
For several years now, Haddad has been working with Episcopal priest Bill Sachs, who convenes our interfaith group in Richmond, Virginia, and he and Bill agreed that it would be good for us to have this experience.
Apparently our group is something of a novelty – Muslims, Christians and Jews who not only “dialogue” about the serious business of interfaith relations, but who also eat together, travel together and sometimes, just for fun, bowl together.
Haddad wanted to see that for himself and also wanted his colleagues here in Jordan to see it, and so he invited us to his house for dinner.
Along with our delegation, Haddad had invited six U.S. Army chaplains he’s become acquainted with.
This was a surprise to us, but the chaplains turned out to be terrific guys and one of them identified himself to me as a Southern Baptist pastor from Washington state.
As we were getting to know each other, our conversation was interrupted by the news that the Jordanian pilot being held by ISIS had been executed, and in the most horrific way imaginable.
Someone asked Haddad if he would lead us in prayer, and we all stood and joined hands while he prayed for the family of this pilot, for the country of Jordan and for peace in the Middle East.
For the rest of the evening, this tragic news was the topic of conversation. We ate dinner with the television on, and at one point Haddad got a call asking if he could come and make an appearance on national television.
That’s when I got into a conversation with the chaplain who told me that Haddad was like Martin Luther.
It surprised me, coming from him, because in the course of conversation I learned that he was a Mormon, and I felt my spine stiffen just a little bit.
I can talk to Muslims and Jews, but here was someone who was not exactly “orthodox,” someone whose religion was just enough different from my own that all I could see were the differences and all I could feel was an urge to distance myself.
But I kept on talking with him. And then he said that remarkable thing, with tears in his eyes, and it made me look at him in a different way: as a fellow human being, certainly, but as someone who was also looking for peace in the world and between our warring religions. Like me.
That’s been my experience continuously on this trip, as I ride on the tour bus beside a Muslim imam, and talk with my Jewish rabbi roommate after the lights have gone out at night.
I’ve been seeing all the ways in which we are like each other on the human level, but also in our desire to see that day when all of God’s children can live in peace.
“When my Jordanian friends see you – Muslim, Christian, Jew – eating together, traveling together, laughing together … I think they are very jealous!” Haddad said. “You are setting an example for us.”
That doesn’t mean my interfaith group is trying to create “one world religion.” Not at all.
In fact, we are finding that the more passionately we embrace our own religious identities – as Christians, Jews and Muslims – the more we are able to respect and appreciate each other’s religions.
And what is central to each of them is a love for God and neighbor.
That’s what makes it clear that ISIS is not Islamic. When ISIS killed that Jordanian pilot (a faithful Muslim), it let the world know that its agenda is not Islam versus Christianity; its agenda is to gain control through fear, and it doesn’t care who it kills in order to achieve that goal.
When the imam who was traveling with us heard what ISIS had done to the Jordanian pilot, he said, “This is not Islam. The Quran does not allow this kind of killing.”
But suppose that instead of eyeing each other with suspicion the world’s religions joined hands and prayed – for the end of ISIS, the end of extremism, the end of fear?
That’s what we did in Haddad’s living room. I joined hands with a circle of friends that included a rabbi, an imam, a Catholic priest, a Baptist minister and a Mormon chaplain.
We prayed together for an end to the kind of violence and hatred that could do such a thing to another human being.
We did it in part because Haddad believes this is the only way to achieve peace in the world – for the many religions to stop arguing with each other and join hands in prayer to the one who would love to see his children come together in peace.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.