Five clergy leaders commune on faith, love, and humanity.
Written and photographed by Karim Shamsi-Basha
As we reflect on all the good things our faith brings us, especially during the holiday season, we must transcend labels. How much do we have in common? Should the paths we seek to understand God coalesce to create a peaceful existence?
How can we, as people of different faiths, live in peace and harmony on this tiny and fragile planet? Can a Buddhist, a Jew, a Muslim, a Christian, and a Hindu put away their differences—and if so, how? Religion has been associated with much violence and war, from the Crusades to the Holocaust, from the Ottoman Empire to England and Ireland, from the Lebanese civil war to Pakistan and India, and from Israel and Palestine to ISIS.
But does humanity transcend labels?
I spoke with five clergy men and women from different backgrounds, and I asked them the same question: “As people from different faiths, what should we do to put away our differences and promote peace and acceptance?” Their answers will blow you away. You will see that humanity does transcend labels in the hidden crevices of our existence. Some might say that it does in theory. What do you say we take that theory and make it our mission this December? Our children will thank us.
Losel Maitri Tibetan Buddhist Center
Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and Buddhists all believe in God the creator. We are all brothers and sisters, and we’re all sons and daughters of God. If you believe that sincerely and honestly, then there is no way to kill, because you’d be killing your brother or your sister. The Dalai Lama says, “We are all the same human being,” and we all want happiness and not suffering.
Of course there are different religions, but that is secondary. We are all humans. People forget that and only emphasize the secondary label: black, white, religious, not religious. If we focus on the first label—human—then there is no room for violence.
The real cause of all this man-made suffering is our own negative emotions like anger, hate, ignorance, and selfishness. There are so many weapons and guns. But without a finger on the trigger, the gun will not work. When you kill an enemy, you are only creating more enemies. That’s why His Holiness [the Dalai Lama] always says, “Violence does not cure violence.”
We must teach the value and power of nonviolence and of truth. Through dialogue and mutual respect, there is no room for negative emotions. Cherishing only yourself is the source of suffering. Other beings are the source of happiness and love.
We are all one family, and we are all related. It all goes back to one thing: One God created all of us. He created all of us in his image. It says that in our scriptures, right at the very beginning.
Knowledge, education, and communication bring us to understanding and acceptance. The opposite of knowledge is ignorance. When you merely believe in stereotypes and labels, it would be like how we say in Hebrew, “hating without cause.”
Some in this world dislike an entire people based on the actions of a few. If we knew more about each other, things would be better. We just need to take the time and energy to educate ourselves about others and their beliefs. It’s not us and them, it’s just us. Interfaith dialogue is a key to promote knowledge and understanding. Religion and faith are living and breathing things.
I still remember when the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were hit by those planes; within 24 hours we all came together as an interfaith community and put together a service for the greater Birmingham area. Take the time to learn and ask questions about other faiths. You might not understand, but you must love.
Birmingham Islamic Society
We need to realize the real cause for war and violence is not only religion, it is also political and social oppression. We need to increase our dialogue with each other.
I sat recently with Christian leaders at Children’s Hospital to discuss the welfare of children. There was a mutual and interfaith agreement that religious leaders of the community should do things together. There are alarming statistics in Alabama of childhood poverty, abuse, and neglect. As a community we can work together to change the system, the haves and the have nots. Religious leaders need to stand out and speak the words of Jesus, speak the words of Mohammed, speak the words of Moses. We as religious leaders need to not water down our commitment to Jesus, our commitment to Islam, or our commitment to Judaism.
Muslims have a big public relations problem. They need to get out of their cocoons and reach out. The Birmingham Islamic Society and the schools and churches in Hoover are involved in a program called Hoover Helps. We stand side by side with our Christian and Jewish brothers and sisters and prepare food for the hungry. This is mandated by my faith; it’s not an option.
Don’t judge any community by what you see in the media—visit a mosque, meet a Muslim. We will have theological differences and different ideas about salvation, but in this world we must strive to live in peace and love.
Trinity United Methodist Church
When I look in the scriptures and the historic creeds, and use my ability to reason and think about my own experiences, I am led to believe that Jesus is who he said he was. That He is God’s son in flesh. But when I look at the ministry of Jesus and the greater Biblical witness, I also believe that God is the source of all goodness, and that He is at work in the lives of those who have different traditions.
When people say that Jesus is the way the truth and the life, and that no one comes to the Father except by him, I don’t think that passage means that God is not at work outside of the Christian faith. I don’t see Jesus putting labels on people. I see Jesus taking the labels off. It is important to recognize that God’s grace is for the whole world. John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world”—not just white and not just Anglo-Saxon and not just Protestant.
Jesus didn’t speak English, and I don’t have his skin tone, yet I am adopted as one of God’s children. My Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu brothers and sisters are all fellow children of God. They are people deemed worthy of Christ’s offering.
The writings of pastor Dr. Joe Morgan inspired me to come to this conclusion: “The God of creation pours out His Spirit upon this world so we have the power to live with joy, to serve others with love, and to die with hope.” One of my favorite verses is from Matthew 8, where Jesus says to an outsider, a Centurion, “I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” Do not judge others; love them.
Hindu Temple of Birmingham
Humans have always said, “My religion is right; everyone else’s in wrong.” They forget that God is one, and that He created this entire world. Some people are kind, some are aggressive, but many have anger, hatred, and violence. God said love each other and be kind. Hindus believe that the kind of food you eat results in the kind of behavior you exhibit. Hinduism requires a vegetarian diet, which promotes peace, kindness, and love. Simple foods promote pure behavior.
We should not only think about ourselves—me, mine, and I. We are all one family, but many preach without practicing. Instead of preaching, do the right thing—be a helping hand, do good things for needy people. If they need food, give them food; if they need clothes, give them clothes. Practice what you preach. Do the “Seva” (good deeds). Love people, be a shoulder they can cry on. If you do the Seva, then everyone is going to do it, and this world will be a beautiful place.
You cannot put a price on life, and human birth is the greatest life. Use it for the right purpose. Everyone talks about changing the world. We need to be introspective. Our hearts needs to be pure, and our minds needs to be pure. First improve yourself, then the world can change. Find your weakness. Remove the negative and focus on the positive.
Everyone belongs to me and I belong to everyone. The whole world is my family and I belong to the whole world. “Samarpen” (give yourself to your neighbor), be one with the universe. We are all brothers and sisters.
Thanks to these five faith leaders for sharing their hearts and their minds. Their lucidity of expression and fertility of thought will drive us to transcend labels and quest the virtues of humanity. And it will implore us to love others.
May you have the most charitable holiday season.