When one is part of the dominant culture, it is easy to believe that everyone else shares your perspectives and expectations. When I first began to encounter people from other religious traditions and communities some 30 years ago, I was delighted by the conversations and dialogue that took place. I found myself being opened up and stretched by these relationships, and wondered why others were not interested in, or even opposed to, interreligious conversations.
In a recent article in the Jerusalem Post, Israel Singer, Chairman of the World Jewish Congress, writes that he always found interreligious dialogue “suspect.” His study of the “disputations” of the Middle Ages and the admonitions of his own religious leaders suggested that dialogue with Christians could not be trusted. Under the guise of such “conversation” lay the desire to discredit, attack and humiliate Jewish people.
For many years, that was certainly the case. And so it should be no surprise in these days that people from religious traditions other than Christianity might well be suspicious that there is some covert agenda in efforts to build new relationships across long-standing divides. Those of us in the dominant culture need to come to terms with how our culture, tradition, and customs have served for so long to suppress, marginalize and, yes, even destroy our neighbors.I seems to me that for those who have been part of the dominant culture, one of the first steps toward genuine dialogue is to learn how to listen. We are used to being in charge, in setting the terms of the debate, in defining the terms. What is required now is the ability to keep silent, to suspend judgment, to listen with appreciation to what others have to say to us.
The occasion for Singer”s article was a recent gathering of Catholics and Jews under the sponsorship of the World Jewish Congress. He goes on to describe the slow but steady progress over the past 50 years in relationships between the Catholic Church and the Jewish Community. There is much work still to do, but with patience, perseverance, and a commitment to listening to one another, new relationships are forged and new possibilities emerge.