“In a world increasingly inclined towards self-interest, we can see the rebirth of some of the noblest human instincts as reflected in numerous cultures and religions,” writes Faisal Bin Muuammar, secretary general of the King Abdullah Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue in Vienna.
The organization, co-sponsored by Saudi Arabia, Austria, Spain and the Holy See, engages multiple religious communities in its role as a multinational leader in interfaith dialogue.
To alter our divided, often contentious world, however, the interfaith movement must encourage more than conversing across the boundaries of religious difference.
In international conferences, university seminars, local organizations or online chatrooms, interfaith dialogue can promote mutual understanding, respect and friendship.
These are “noble human instincts” indeed, yet they fall short if they do not promote interfaith cooperation and collaboration to meet a challenge we all experience, regardless of our religious identity.
Why is cooperation and collaboration helpful, even required, for addressing problems that confront us? Because a joint effort just makes practical sense.
The more people who can work together on solutions the better the potential outcome.
While an individual or small group solution might be effective, there is likely greater success when many responders with differing perspectives are contributing.
This indisputable wisdom is expressed in the ancient text: “And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:12). We can do more together than we can do alone.
More to the point, why should that cooperation and collaboration involve people of different religions? Because we are interdependent rather than independent.
Many troubles that threaten to overwhelm us are indiscriminate. Storms do not target people based upon their religion or ideology. Neither do drought and starvation. Or pandemics.
In such terrifying times, let us remember we are all members of the same human family, sharing a common home, the planet Earth, and living in relationship in the global village.
As the novel coronavirus has spread around the world, it has not discriminated based upon ethnicity, language, age or social status. Religious and ideological identity have also not shielded people from infection and death.
Nonetheless, because of people’s diverse religious and ideological commitments, many are inspired to care for their families, neighbors, friends and even strangers.
As a Christian, I am grateful for how Christians in my community and around the world are responding to human needs during this pandemic.
Unable to gather face to face, evangelical pastors broadcast and live-stream worship from empty sanctuaries to their scattered congregations. Catholic priests offer parishioners absolution for sins at drive-up confessionals.
Pentecostals reach out their hands toward congregants in cars to pray for the healing of their quarantined loved ones.
Anglican rectors guide their flocks through the Eucharist sacrament as they participate from their own homes.
Mainline Protestants use benevolence funds to aid those who cannot pay bills or buy groceries because of lost employment.
My own Baptist church – First Baptist Church in Abilene, Texas – is emboldening its children’s ministers to suggest ways to calm the fears of children, enabling its professional clinicians to provide telephone counseling to anxious or lonely adults, encouraging its musicians to use the arts to soothe and refresh those whose spirits are frazzled, empowering its social ministries team to discover creative ways to continue improving the lives of the poor and homeless while enlisting its pastoral leaders to deliver sermons and prayers that bring hope amid turmoil.
Even so, Christians and churches cannot meet all the needs caused by the pandemic on our own.
We must join with and learn from those who practice other religious ways, or no religion at all, as we collectively face this global disaster.
We must do this because it makes practical sense, and we are all interdependent in the human family.
Having seemingly passed the peak of its own COVID-19 crisis, China is now reaching out to other peoples – as it did for Italy, when “on March 12, a Chinese aircraft landed in Rome carrying nine medical experts and 31 tons of medical supplies, including intensive care unit equipment, medical protective equipment and antiviral drugs,” according to a Foreign Policy Insider report.
Yet, religion was not a determining factor, as Chinese officials were perhaps atheists influenced from their youth by Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, while Italians are primarily Catholic Christians.
Likewise, there are many examples of local or regional assistance that model how people of multiple faiths are responding.
There is the striking photograph of Jewish and Muslim paramedics praying outside their van, one first responder facing Jerusalem and the other Mecca.
National proclamations, summed up in an Al-Jazeera headline, “Saudi bans Umrah pilgrimage, Iran cancels Friday prayers and Singapore Muslims are urged to bring own mats to mosques,” reveal how several nations have addressed religions gatherings.
In Myanmar, the secretary of the Religious Affairs Council has offered a thousand mosques and Muslim schools as emergency hospitals for fighting the illness.
India has ordered its 1.3 billion Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh and Jain citizens to observe a total lockdown.
Here, in our own national epicenter, India Today reports that “the Sikh Center of New York prepared more than 30,000 home-cooked meals for Americans in self-isolation amid the novel coronavirus outbreak.”
These stories, it seems to me, demonstrate conclusively why interfaith matters, and why dialogue must lead to joint action for the sake of humankind.
The COVID-19 pandemic crosses all boundaries, so we join with others to plan, pray and work for solutions. We pledge our energies to cultivate and express the noblest human instincts.
For people of the Christian faith, that must certainly mean cooperating and collaborating with followers of other religions to defeat this evil. May the one God help us all.
Editor’s note: This is the first article in a series focused on interfaith engagement.