Moslems, Christians, and Jews in Conversation:
Forgiveness and Reconciliation in Each of the Three Faith Communities
Kerem Shalom, Concord
Interviewed November 13, 2003
Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer
Transcription sponsored by the Greeley Foundation.
Rev. John Lombard, minister of the Trinitarian Congregational Church — This is a wonderful evening to come together and explore important issues in our various faith traditions. On behalf of the Concord Clergy-Laity Group and in cooperation with The Alliance for Jewish-Christian-Moslim Understanding, I am truly pleased to welcome all of you to this special interfaith conversation on Forgiveness and Reconciliation in the world's three great religions.
Centuries ago William Penn observed that we can never be better for our religion if our neighbor be worst for it. It is in the spirit of mutual understanding of growth and grace, and of the common quest for peace and reconciliation before one God that all of us have gathered here this evening, while sadly religion continues to divide the world's peoples and appears at the root of so much violence, division and conflict. We know as a matter of faith and belief that religion at its best may be the only sure hope for bringing us together, transcending all the barriers and divisions that we erect for ourselves, and which separate us. Speaking some 25 years ago at the Harvard Divinity School, it was the Dahli Lama who declared that our religions have the power to bring us together. So that's the hope and that's the promise and that's why I believe we are all here this evening, and it truly will be a rich evening.
I want to acknowledge a special appreciation to the organizing committee for handling this program. They are Wright Salisbury, Margaret Stewart, Richard Nethercut, Kelli Kirshstein, Rev. Lynn Kerr, and Larry Frey. I also want to thank Kerem Shalom for their gracious hospitality both providing this wonderful space as well as for a few of us a wonderful supper beforehand. So Larry Frey, we thank you so much for that. I want to thank as well our opening chanters, Rhonda Doll, Rosalie Gerut, Dr. Naeem Rathore. You will hear from them very shortly. I want to express my particular pleasure in sharing the moderator responsibility with my colleague, Rev. Jenny Rankin, from The First Parish Church in Concord.
Our speakers this evening are three individuals that are held in the highest esteem by many of us in this religious community. They are: Father Austin Fleming of Our Lady Help of Christians in West Concord, Rabbi Michael Luckens of Kerem Shalom, and Miss Mary Lahaj of the Islamic Center of Boston. We are pleased to have you here to guide us on our journey this evening and to welcome all of you as participants. I hope you will find it rich and fruitful and above all appreciate the fact that we are one community tonight seeking common ground and common understanding around very important theological issues individually and collective.
Father Austin Fleming, pastor of Our Lady Help of Christian Catholic Church — As I thought about the title of these reflections, Forgiveness and Reconciliation in the Christian tradition, I realized it would be more appropriate to title it, Forgiveness and Reconciliation are the Christian tradition. Reconciliation is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian and at the heart of our tradition. Unfortunately, I can't make a great claim for how faithful Christians have been to the heart of the tradition. In fact, one could argue rather compellingly that at least in some times of history, Christianity has been more a history of divisions and grudge holding, and sometimes even outright war in the name of the tradition. So given that I had this snippet of time, I thought it would be good to try to get to the heart of the heart of things here with a little story from Luke's gospel, the story of the prodigal son.
Let me tell the story briefly for those who may not be familiar with it. A man had two sons. The younger son goes to his father and asks for half of his inheritance now. And the father gives it to him. The son runs off to the big city and spends everything on booze and questionable entertainment. He runs out of dough just as famine strikes the land. He's starving and finally hires himself out to a farm where his job is taking care of the pigs. After a while, he realizes that literally the pigs are eating better than he is. If this story were in a comic strip, in the next panel, you'd see this younger son slopping the hogs with a big lightbulb over his head. Kind of, I could have a V-8 moment. He comes to his senses, and he says, "The hired hands back at my father's farm have plenty to eat, and I'm sitting here eating leftovers from the pigpen. I'm going to go home and what am I going to tell my father? I will look really contrite and remorseful and I'll say ‘Father, I've sinned against God and against you and I no longer deserve to be called your son, treat me like one of your slaves.'" The next part I'm going to quote directly from Luke's gospel, "with that he set out for his father's house. While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him and was deeply moved. The father ran out to meet him, threw his arms around his neck, and kissed him. The son said to him, ‘Father I have sinned against God and against you, I no longer deserve to be called your son, treat me ..' But the father cuts him off. The father says to his slaves, "Quick, bring out the finest robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet. Take the fatted calf and kill it. Let us eat and celebrate because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life. He was lost and is found." Then the celebration began.
The prodigal son. The dictionary defines prodigal in two ways. One, the first one, exceedingly or recklessly wasteful, and two, extremely generous, lavish. Now it might seem at first glance that the son was prodigal in being exceedingly and recklessly wasteful and that the father was prodigal in being extremely generous and lavish. But the truth is that the father is so extremely generous and lavish for his forgiveness that he can be legitimately described as being recklessly wasteful with his mercy. In the parable here, the son is you and me and the father is God. The younger son was recklessly wasteful with his father's inheritance is met with his father's lavish and generous mercy.
The Christian tradition is that God is lavishly generous even recklessly wasteful with his mercy that God will not hold back his kindness from any who seek it. And that is because God's greatest desire is for intimacy with us, his children. Sin infringes on that intimacy and alienates our affection for God. God's constant desire is to repair, to reconcile the distance that sin creates. It is our tradition as Christians that we are called by God to be generously lavish in forgiving one another and in repairing and reconciling the division our sins create upon us. Forgiveness is first of all a gift from God to us. God expects us to share with each other. The quality of mercy is not strained. As Shakespeare said, "It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed. It blesseth him that gives and him that takes."
The story of the prodigal son picks up this theme in relating the response of the eldest. Remember the man had two sons. Well, the other one, and you may have one of these in your family, does everything right. Just what mom and dad always wanted him to do. He stayed home. He didn't ask for his inheritance. He worked hard. Now he hears that his brother is back and there is a big party going on in the main house because the son is here. He refuses to enter the house for the party. So the father comes out to him and invites the elder brother to consider that the only important reality is reconciliation, repairing the bonds that had been torn. Everything else, even arguments from "but I did what you told me", all that falls by the wayside. The other thing is that your brother was dead and his is alive again. He was lost and is found. Did the older brother go in? Luke doesn't tell us. If he didn't go in, then he has continued to carry the burden of his grudge. But the first person who is healed in forgiveness is not the offender, but the one who forgives and is able to lay down the burden of the offense.
For Christians the icon of this prodigal mercy is the willingness of Jesus to offer his life and his rising for the forgiveness of our sins. That is the sign for Christians of the extent and depth and the lavish generously of God's mercy for us. That God would give his only son so that we might have forgiveness. Jesus put it all in a few words on the night before he died to his friends, "Love one another as I have loved you." So the Christian tradition of forgiveness and reconciliation is a radical one. It calls us to lay down anything and everything in favor of forgiveness and reconciliation. Jesus says "To you who hear I say love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer him the other as well. Give to everyone who asks of you and from the one who takes what is yours, don't demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you. Love your enemies, do good to them. Lend expecting nothing in return then your reward will be great. For them you will be children of the most high, for he himself who is most high is kind to the ungrateful. Be merciful as your father in heaven is merciful. Stop judging and we will not be judged. Stop condemning and we will not be condemned. Forgive and we will be forgiven." That's ten versus from Luke's gospel. I didn't snatch those from different places. Jesus said all those things at the same time.
Talk about a sledgehammer approach to get a message to us. These are very difficult things to live by, difficult words to put into practice. They clearly paint the picture of the ideal. But these words are the ideal of a Christian tradition, and we are called to live to the measure of the ideal, even though we fail to do so. We don't lower the bar. We keep the bar just where it is and try over and over again to get there. Who am I supposed to forgive? Who do I need to forgive? How often do I need to forgive? Jesus says you have to forgive at least seven times seventy that is 490 times. But he means forever. It's just a figure of speech.
Doris Domley in Learning to Forgive writes forgiving is always and has always been an impractical, illogical and uncommon approach to life. Forgiving our enemies, doing good to those who hurt us, repaying evil with kindness, forgiveness is not instinctive. Most of the time it is very difficult and a time-consuming enterprise. Who do I need to forgive? The one who offends me, the one who lies to me, the one who cheats me, the one who hurts me, who abuses me, who defames me, who angers me, who breaks my heart, who steals from me, who betrays me, who forgets me, who puts me down, who leaves me out, who locks me in, who uses me, who attacks me, who judges me unjustly, who treats me unfairly, who mocks me, who scorns me, who takes advantage of me, who alienates me, who marginalizes me, who despises me, who has hurt me anonymously, who violates my innocence, who damages me, who tricks me, who takes me for granted, who threatens me, who denies any wrong done to me, who will not accept my forgiveness, who hurts the one I love? A decent start to a partial list. No one is outside God's forgiveness, which means no one can be outside my forgiveness.
Sometimes you need to spend a lifetime trying to forgive someone. And sometimes you get to the point where you just have to say and this is a good way to do it, Lord, I can't do it, so all I can do Lord is hand this person over to you, put this person in your hands, trusting that you will find a way to forgive him or her. God forgives us not because of the wrong we've done obviously, but because in spite of the wrong we have done, God sees something loveable in us. Forgiveness is trying to find what is loveable in the one who has hurt me. As I say, sometimes the hurt has been so great there is no way to see that. Then we hand that person over to God and say you're going to have to take care of this one Lord because it is too big for me. Because forgiveness is first of all a gift from God and he asks us to share it and helps us to share it. When we share it, we repair the divisions between us and there is hope for us to break bread together on our knees, drink wine together on our knees, to praise God together on our knees.
Rabbi Michael Luckens, rabbi of Kerem Shalom - The Genesis narrative begins with fratricide, Caine & Able, and the Book of Genesis ends with reconciliation, Joseph and his brothers, which clearly delivers the message of the Torah that the only answer to hostility and to oppression and to killing is to find a path that will lead to healing, reconciliation and peace. The story of Joseph is a story that is a very difficult one as I remember reading this as a kid in Hebrew school. Here is this young man, his father had given him a coat of many colors having given such gifts to his siblings. One day his siblings were out in the field working and Joseph goes out there and the brothers take a look at him and decide, "I don't know if we can live with this guy any more especially after he starts to interpret his dreams." His dreams of his own superiority over his brothers. So they sell him to slavery. Years later when they are reunited in Egypt, Joseph is able to transcend his anger, his bitterness, all that came before, to reach out to his brothers and embrace them. And to ensure that he bears no grudge against them, he even goes so far as to tell them that he sees God's hand. He sees a greater good in what they did because now he is elevated in the government of Egypt, a new job, a new life, a new family, so in a sense they helped him. I don't know how many of us could say those things having had that kind of experience.
In Jewish tradition, forgiveness is a healing ritual. When one says the traditional blessing upon getting into bed, there is also a traditional prayer book with a whole series of things one says. I'm going to read them. "I now forgive whoever has angered me or provoked me or has wronged me this day whether physically or financially, whether it is to my honor or to all that may belong to me, whether inadvertently or willingly, whether by mistake or intentionally, whether by word or by deed, whether in this incarnation or in any other incarnation, I forgive every human being and let no person be punished on my account. Help me to lie down in peace and to wake up in peace. Blessed are you who gives light to the whole world." Not easy words to say. I don't know that every night I could say those words, I don't know if I could say them once a week. I know that forgiveness is a process that does not mean forgetting. It means anger the wronged in its own time and place, and let it recede into the past, and that can take time, often a long time, for some a lifetime and for some, as Austin said, you need to put it into someone else's hands, the hands of a greater power.
Jewish tradition says something else about forgiveness. It says that besides our having the blessing to say that God has a blessing to say as well, and with that blessing according to the Rabbis is that God says to God's self, may my compassion overtake my justice. May my mercy overtake my ultimate judgment and so it is on a human level as well that we see God as going through the same process as we do. Two weeks ago I read a story in the Torah of Noah and the flood. How God takes a look at humankind and says, "I don't know if I made a mistake with this creation and perhaps its time to start anew. And so he asks Noah to build an ark and to gather two of every kind so that there can be propagation after the fact, and the whole earth is flooded with water until such time that the ark rests on dry land. But we've heard that Noah sends out a dove and the dove comes back with an olive branch in his mouth. A little later God says, "I will not do this again. In a sense I repent and here's the sign of my covenant with you, it's the rainbow." James Baldwin said, "No more fire, it's the rainbow time." The point being that if God can repent, if God can say may my compassion overtake my justice, if God can give the world a second chance, so should we, so should we.
The philosopher, teacher, rabbi Moses teaches that for sins for transgressions between people, God does not forgive. But it is for these that we must go to our fellow man and say "I'm sorry." Not just for something we're conscious of, and particularly around the Jewish high holidays, we've got to tell people who are the most important in our lives, our family, our friends, our co-workers, and we say, "I want to ask your forgiveness." It give them an opportunity to bring up something that may have been done intentionally or unintentionally of great and grievous hurt or of anyone, but it gives us all a chance to clear the slate and start the year with a clear slate.
So Moses says we need to do this and if he or she refuses to give forgiveness, we need to go back the second time, and a third time. And if after the third time he or she does not forgive, then they are the sinner. If we need to ask forgiveness of somebody who is dead, the tradition is to go to the cemetery to bring another nine people to form a quorum and there to ask forgiveness. So it is a process that does not end with another person's death.
Mary Lahaj, speaker for the Cambridge Mosque & the Islamic Center of Boston in Wayland, and a teacher of philosophy at Middlesex Community College — I'm highly qualified to speak about forgiveness. I spend most of my time in my life with my friends and family apologizing. I wanted to speak last because Islamic tradition is really a culmination of Judiaism and Christianity. There is really nothing new in Islam. Yet I sat here and listened to my brothers speaking from scriptures that are all affirmed in Koran and from prophets that are all affirmed in Koran. I was thrilled there are so many likenesses. I'm going to be speaking in a different language probably but you listen carefully and you'll hear that it is the same language of the one true God.
So why are we here? We're gathered in the name of God for an interfaith conversation and just because we're gathered in the name of God we could give blessings to them. But what can we really accomplish by our efforts? And what effect on our own town or our community, on our country, on the world? Is it just individual, personal effect or will it be far reaching?
Let me try to state the problem the way I see it. Our world is on a collision course. It is called the clash of civilization. This is a model that frames and defines the limits of our humanity at home and abroad. The clash is between us and them. The education is a familiar one, in order to feel good about ourselves we have to put them down. They have to be bad for us to know we are good. They have to be hateful for us to know that we are good. And so we are hated and resented by them. In this clash that informs even our government policy as well as our scholars, there is no place for forgiveness. We can't gain forgiveness and we can't get forgiveness. This is the prison of tit for tat -- endless conflict, addiction to violence, total disregard for justice and morality, a resignation of our humanity to the lowest common denominator, denial of God's noble and dignified role for us. God said according to prophet Muhammed, the prophet of the Psalms, that when he decreed creation, he pledged himself by writing in his book, "My mercy prevails over my wrath". Sound familiar?
For the Muslim there is no chosen race and there is no one who sacrificed his life for their sins. So the focus of salvation is on a forgiving God because we just have to be personally accountable for everything we do. The Koran encompasses the Old Testament and the New Testament as I said, as a culmination of this religion from God in exhortation, and I will read it to you, "The reward of evil is evil. But forgiveness is better."
It is my understanding of the Koran that Muslins believe it to be God's words. Humankind is created to yearn for mercy and justice both at the same time. So while we want to extract justice in this world from the wrongdoers, we want God to forgive us for everything and to turn the other cheek for our mistake. On the other hand while we admit that we do not want our court system to rely on the noble turning of the other cheek, we also realize we cannot live in a world that is unforgiving.
Why is forgiveness better? Why? Well, how forgiving with us is God? How patient with us is God? How merciful with us is God? We make mistakes, we repent, he forgives, we make mistakes, we repent, he forgives, and on and on. He gives us plenty to learn. He gives us time to repent. He gives us time to forgive. He gives us a lifetime. How patient is God with us.
So if God created man to be a reflection of his attributes and orders us to embody those attributes, then we have to ask ourselves what level of patience and tolerance and forgiveness should we strive for? What level? As much as we can give without compromising our principals or right. So if I have a relationship with God then I have to believe that God forgives me. Forgiving each other even forgiving our enemies is one of the most important Islamic teachings. The prophet Muhammed is an example. When prophet Muhammed returned to Mecca as a conquering hero with his followers, everyone in Mecca was scared to death of what he was going to do to them because they drove him out. They were going to kill him. They did kill his followers. They persecuted them for 13 years. They were his staunchest enemies and when he came back and conquered Mecca, and they say it is written in the history books, without a drop of blood. Here was this man the leader and the conqueror and he said to them, I will tell you what Joseph said to his brothers. Repent. You are free to go.
How much can a leader accomplish with that kind of magnanimity? He didn't have to force it into your head all that he has to do is forgive you.
I think it was Ghandi who said the weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong. So I think we said Joseph came back and he was elevated in his position. Muhammed came back and was elevated in his position and they were strong. So the weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong.
There is a model in the Koran in Islam that is far better than the clash of civilization, and I want to show you what we are doing here tonight is a part straight out of the Koran and it is counter to what we have in the world today. This is an organized act of people engagement. The Koran says and I paraphrase, "Oh, humankind, we created you from a single pair, a male and a female, and we made you into nations and tribes so that you would get to know each other." Not so that you would despise each other. Here we are getting to know each other which is the first step in any relationship. What other qualities characterize good relationships? Effort, we are here. Time, we planned to be here. Sincerity, we hope to leave here having learned something and met someone new. What are the others? Patience and tolerance with our friends and family. I don't think we expect to agree on everything. I don't think we even have to agree on everything. We only have to form new friends, get to know each other. We don't have to get married. It is engagement, peaceful engagement and respect for each other. So the Koran says that we can just agree on one thing that there is one God and we can put our differences aside and do good in the world. From our diverse traditions and points of views and experiences we can work to solve problems that likely seem to us to be overwhelming, but they are not overwhelming. Most importantly, we're getting to know each other and that instills trust. So you wonder what we are doing here? We are having an interfaith meeting, we're having a conversation, we planned to be here, we're still awake and that's good, and this is a process that we are involved in. You thought it was going to be the beginning and the end of something, but it's not. It's the beginning of something and it won't end and you chose to come here and that's why it won't end.
So the next step is that we start to build trust. Without trust people get divorced and they go their separate ways. With trust and respect we slowly feel safe with each other and we proceed to be honest with each other. Now we've left the world of religion, we are in the secular world. We've intersected the world in which we live and now we actually feel honest with each other and the next step is that we share our fears and our hopes and our dreams with each other. I can really tell you and you can really stand up and say we honestly want to preserve the existence of Israel, we honestly do. And I can say I honestly want to see justice for the Palestinians, I sincerely do. We want to ensure the safety of everyone, all the people whether they are in the Middle East or whether they are here in this country. These are not overwhelming problems once we realize that seeds of resolution begin at gatherings like this. You go from here and organize another gathering like this in your community. This is where understanding is increased. This is where respect is born.
This is not the clash of civilization. This is peaceful engagement getting to know one another. What we accomplish here is supremely important. We bring the true knowledge of our own selves and what we really want, to live in a better world and make a better world, a better community, a better country, a better world starts right here. Because we are America we will engage the world with our model. I don't exaggerate. This is the beginning of emotion and I have never been more hopeful in all my life because we have taken the first step thanks to people like Wright Salisbury. Through people engagement and getting to know one another, we move forward, we don't stand still as before, inert. And there is no limit to the problems we can solve once we agree that there is one God, whatever you think is God is good enough for me, just as long as we agree and continue to look at things that we are agreeing upon. How many similarities are there? I haven't said anything new. So there's no limit to the problems we can solve, what we do is strong and it is stressing our resolve. Faith is not the affirmation of some truth; faith is a lifetime of gratitude. We are strong in our trust and that allows us to be honest. We become strong in our understanding and that allows us to be respectful, and I will add that we are strong when we can totally admit how much we need forgiveness.
Question: Christians have always been a little exclusive, we think that our mythology is better than theirs, and we tell them theirs is no good, isn't it time that Christians recognize that God sent Muhammed, Buddha and Moses and other prophets?
Rabbi Luckens: Mary in her lovely talk said that God created a male and female and from the male and female came tribes and communities, and in the Jewish tradition a teaching about why it is that God actually created just one male and one female, Adam and Eve. First of all, the rabbis acknowledge that Adam and Eve were not Jewish, Christian or Buddist or anything, they were just one man and one woman, and the rabbis ask why one man and one woman, why not a thousand and a thousand, and the answer is because in the time to come when we look back we will see our common ancestry. Yes, it is one God who sends to you all these leaders, all these prophets, all these spokespeople, but the reality is which I think we've all been saying in similar words that we are all brothers and sisters and that we all need to look at our common ancestry.
Question: If Osama bin Laden was in the audience tonight, what would you say to him as to what your level of patience would be?
Father Fleming: I suppose it partly would depend upon if he wanted to talk to me, or would he and I or us agree to sit down in some peaceful engagement of conversation or not. I need as a Christian to stand by what I said tonight. One of the problems Christians have is that too often they don't start with what Jesus said, they start out with today's conflict and then work back and try to accommodate what Jesus said to the present circumstances. What that does is falsify the tradition. It's almost impossible to sit down and ponder it. But it is what Jesus said over and over again, and there are other places in the New Testament where he says that. That is his constant message. So I need to be faithful to what I said.
Rabbi Luckens: I would probably start with the words that Mary started with. I would say a word of welcome and try to start a conversation. I don't think the subject would be about forgiveness but would be for me anyway trying to dissipate some anger and try to understand a little bit.
Mary Lahaj: First of all I would say "I'm sorry, but off to The Hague with you." My understanding is that when Osama bin Laden faces God on that day, judgment is up to God. I don't know whether God will forgive him or his forgiveness is greater than his wrath, I don't know what God is going to do. But that's what I would do.
Question: Thank you so much for your words of inspiration. I'd like to ask a question about reconciliation. Father Fleming gave us a wonderful parable of the prodigal son and as he said, the reconciliation was quite clear between the father and son. But the older brother and his younger brother, the reconciliation was not so clear if at all. Following your words, Mary, of trusting, respecting, and of being honest, in your experiences could you think of specific examples in our world where this process of reconciliation has been given good start. We can think of several places but I would like to hear from you specific examples.
Mary Lahaj: Just let me back up a minute, there is something I really needed to clarify in our interfaith world and that is the understanding of what is written in the teachings of Jesus is extremely important, and that is the idea of turning the other cheek, this is as I said what we want from God when we face God. We can always remember that it is a forgiving God.
As far as experiencing reconciliation and seeing it in the real world, I think I understand your question and what it is you want me to bring up. First of all, since September 11 the Muslins have been made to feel or have felt somewhat responsible. I know lots of them feel responsible for what happened. The Muslins have had to stand in front of the crowds and take all of the hard questions. So when one day I was in the mosque and a man was introduced to me shortly after September 11, I think it was May, and he said "My name is Wright Salisbury and my son-in-law was in the plane that was flown into one of the World Trade towers". And he was in a mosque. I have to say I was so moved. He had moved from Texas to the Northeast to be with his daughter and I said, "How did you get from there to here? How did you do that? What kind of forgiveness is in your heart? What is going through your mind?" I think that really showed me, and I learned so much from that and I continue learn about forgiveness. Retribution, I don't know?
Question: What is the relationship between spiritual forgiveness and social righteousness and political justice?
Father Fleming: Well, I think the problem is that we think there is a difference. If we think there is a difference between them, there is something existent called spiritual forgiveness as opposed to forgiveness in the real world or something like that. Right away we still have a situation where we are allowed to do something on a spiritual level that doesn't somehow intersect with our real lives. Is it the duality that is going to negatively impact both fronts there? I just don't think there is some sort of spiritual forgiveness that isn't based in the real world.
Mary Lahaj: I interpret the question as a question on the role of religion and religious values. I think religion has a long history of playing the role of sustaining, maintaining, perpetuating these values for justice and morality. There's certainly liberation in theology that works toward this.
Question: In history there have been a lot of really awful things that happen and people that have perpetrated them, are there things or actions that are unforgiveable?
Rabbi Luckens: Your question reminds me of course of the Holocaust and I remember the story that Simon Weisenthal writes about in his book, The Sunflower, where a Nazi who is dying asks Weisenthal for forgiveness, and Weisenthal says that it's not up to him to forgive, it is up to those who are dead to forgive. There was a piece in the New York Times called "The Price of Forgiveness,"and one of the questions was about a company that had something to do years ago with cyclone B, the gas that was used in the gas chambers, and this company was about to offer some coating for the holocaust memorial which would offer protection against graffiti in Berlin. There was a big controversy as to whether they should be permitted to do that. I'll just read the last piece of this op-ed piece. "It is not German guilt that must be eternal, but the acceptance of moral responsibility." No matter how many years have passed since cyclone B was used to claim lives, and no matter how many other life protecting chemicals have replaced it, there are things that only the victims can forgive and they are not around, and there are only echoes of those victims in current stories like this one, echoes that from my perspective we need to respect and honor.
Father Fleming: My answer from a Christian viewpoint would be no, there is nothing that is unforgivable. I think the question gets covered by some little sneaking suspicions that we have that to forgive might somehow imply condoning the offense or to forgive would somehow be a denial of the hurt that occurred on the offending party, and that is not true. My tradition says that forgiveness is always available, that God's forgiveness precedes our desire for it, or asking for it, it is always available. There is this never ending storehouse of forgiveness which we can go to. That I as the offending party want to be forgiven. Not that God waits for me. I don't turn on or off God's mercy, but it is God giving it.
Mary Lahaj: I think there is some confusion about so many teachings of prophets of God and there is this high standard of forgiveness that we should always strive towards that end. There are two relationships as we all understand, our relationship to God and our relationship to our fellow human beings. So in the relationship to God it says in the Koran that there is something that is not forgiven by God and that is what they call "shirk" which is the concept to associate something as high as God, with God, in place of God. The opposite, the person who is the least God conscious as we've talked a little bit about, that would be the one committing "shirk" Again it's an ideal to strive toward always and in Islam, when you think of God before you do anything, before you give a speech, before you board a plane, before you start your car, before you cook your dinner, you say "in the name of God, the most merciful, the most mercy giving", that is an act of worship in Islam. It's thinking about God.
Before 9/11, I used to try to read the Koran and I would fall asleep because I guess I couldn't relate to everything in the Koran. Probably other people read their holy books and fall asleep too. I used to think where it would say and describe the transgressors of the world, the troublemakers of the world, I didn't really know anyone like that, not personally but history is full of them. Until September 11, and then I finally realized who these people are and it sort of put everything in perspective for me where I was afraid I wasn't going to be forgiven by God for all these countless things I still would say, I began to understand that there is another whole class if you will that the Koran addresses.
Rabbi Luckens: I'd just like to clarify something. I think I heard you say that in the Koran there is a concept called "shirk" and that means that those who do not believe are unforgiven.
Mary Lahaj: Not that they don't believe but don't think. The Koran teaches that our biggest sin is our forgetfulness, it's not thinking of God, it's having something more prominent, more important in our mind like our agenda to blow up the World Trade Center. That's shirk.
Rabbi Luckens: Can you be a part of the Muslin community and not believe in God?
Mary Lahaj: Your relationship with God is completely personal. A Muslin is not just a card-carrying, it's not a exclusive group. Muslim in the Koran means the one who submits to the will of God. So when you submit to the will of God, you are being Muslin. It's a state of mind, just like the opposite of shirk. Not submitting to God but giving in to your own agenda, your own desires, you want to kill somebody, you want to get revenge on somebody, you are not thinking about God. The Koran says that God is as close to you as your jugular vein and this puts you on alert that what's going on in your mind is God. And there are no interceptors, there's no clergy, there's no one between you and God. Again it is totally personal accountability and am I Muslin? I don't know, but God knows.
Question: Where do you place forgiveness when you just can't let go yet?
Father Fleming: For some people the process of forgiveness may be a lifelong process and they may go to their deaths not yet having been able to say, I forgive that person. But on the road and to say there is a road, to be able to say there is an issue of forgiveness here.
Rabbi Luckens: I think about the quote about going three times to that road. That is to say that just as the number used is a round number is not necessarily literal but the idea that there is a process and Austin says, it can take a lifetime or may it never happen. I know exactly what you're talking about.
Question: A few years back his holiness Pope John Paul II went to the prison to forgive the assassin that attempted to take his life. Now we're seeing something that is in diametric opposition to that mode of forgiveness, we see the suicide bombers and hear about them every day. We are now told that the advance of technology has made it only a matter of time before we're going to see what happened on 9/11 on a global scale. The solution we're told is that a new paradigm has to be made by all faiths. Are we willing to forfeit and perhaps divest ourselves of our wealth and perhaps even the integrity of our respective theologies to bring about world peace by pooling the wealth and perhaps even giving up the integrity of many of our beliefs in our three respective faith communities for the sake of world peace?
Father Fleming: I don't think that pooling resources would amount to much in the long run and tonight is an example that we don't need to give up our own, that in concert they can live amicably, peacefully and effectively.
Question: Would you say that most of the friction arises between a conservative or fundamentalist branch of each faith?
Mary Lajah: Conservative or fundamentalist is a problem of terminology here especially when it comes to Islam. We have to be very careful, am I a fundamentalist because I wear a head cover? Am I a conservative because I wear a head cover? We don't really know what we're asking or which group of people we can put these labels on because the labels are confusing, they're ever changing and often just misnomers. Having said that, I would just say that there are a lot of troublemakers in our world. There are extremists. If we have a banquet table and we are all asked to go up and fill our plates and we eat from our table and afterward I go into the bathroom and get rid of the food because I have some kind of problem. Is there something wrong with the food? Do we condemn the food? No, it's something wrong with the person. That's why I say terrorism has no religion. Fundamentalism — we would have to have a course on just exactly what that means. I think there are a lot of extremists who come to center stage and in the name of God are doing terrible things. We need to pool our resources and instead of being the silent majority of peace loving people no matter what are our religions, we need to keep meeting and keep making our group bigger and louder. We have to be louder than them. I don't see any other way.
Question: I'd just like to comment on Mary's rendition of the clash of civilization. Some people would say it's a clash of cultures that's causing the problem. I believe that cultures do have difficulty coming together. I personally live in a multi-cultural household and I'm purposefully putting myself into different cultures because I think that out of that comes the sense of humanity. I think most people do not ask out of vengeance whether it's the people acting against the Bosnians, or people acting against the Palestinians or acting against the Israelis, I think they really are acting out of the sense of lack of security. They really don't feel as though they can trust anyone so I would ask the panel what they would to increase the sense of security among the peoples who are causing the discomfort today? Personally I'm glad we are experiencing discomfort because it is going to help us address real problems.
Rabbi Luckens: I'm not sure I totally agree with your premise, that is today I think there is evil in the world and that there are people who are evil doers in the world. And there are people who massacre other people and kill and rape and plunder and do all these things. I don't try to find psychological reasons to make them feel more comfortable and to make them feel more at home in the world. Perhaps for some, but for others I think we need to be united as a community. I think we need to deal forcefully with those who want to kill others.
Mary Lahaj: You call it a lack of security, but there are a lot of scholars who believe that there is a swamp that we need to drain that has to do with a myriad of social problems that include poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, tyranny, none of these things are seeds of justice or hope. We eventually should be dealing with these problems.