All this week, we’ve been exploring answers to the urgent question: What Do We Expect Our Religious Leaders to Say to Us?
This is such an important question with Pope Benedict XVI preparing to visit the U.S., the Dalai Lama heading to our shores as well — and news of protests and conflicts every day involving religious groups around the world.
Today, our weekly Conversation focuses on one of the true heroes among American religious leaders. He’s the Rev. Daniel Buttry, who circles the world for American Baptist Churches working toward peace and justice in the midst of some of the worst conflicts of our day. His official title is a mouthful: American Baptist International Ministries Global Service Missionary for Peace and Justice.
Here’s what that means: Dan parachutes into some of the most explosive situations in the world, trying to work with religious leaders in local communities to come up with positive resolutions to these sometimes deadly confrontations.
But let Dan introduce himself today. First, you can read about him via an occasional Blog he writes for American Baptist Churches’ missionary program. Founded in 1814, his sponsoring organization is the oldest Baptist missionary agency in the U.S.
This week, he spoke with me for ReadTheSpirit in a Lebanese-American cafe, which you’ll see in the background of our videos.
Click on the Video Screen below for a greeting from Dan — or, if your version of this story does not show a video screen, then you can Visit YouTube directly to see and hear this greeting from Dan Buttry.
In addition to his work in countries around the world, Dan is the creator and author of “Interfaith Heroes,” which is a book, a Web site and an ongoing peacemaking program. Each January, as part of ReadTheSpirit, we co-host a special 31-day series of stories about men and women who dared to cross traditional religious boundaries in search of peace. Dan’s the creative mind behind that book and the collection of those 31 stories.
Right now in the spring of 2008, we’re inviting readers to send us suggestions of heroes we should consider in the January 2009 observance of Interfaith Heroes Month. Now is the perfect time to send us your ideas!
Also — Dan has written an easy-to-use study guide, which is a part of the paperback version of “Interfaith Heroes.” We’re eager to hear from groups, as well, who are inspired to become a part of this project.
DAVID: Dan, now that we’ve come through the first year of Interfaith Heroes Month and we’ve been collecting feedback from readers, now, for a couple of months — one thing that I keep hearing from people is that it’s such a hopeful revelation — just realizing that there are so many people who’ve been heroes in this way down through the centuries.
DAN: Right. This isn’t a new thing. It’s right there in our traditions, if we just look for it.
DAVID: One person said to me, “It’s good to know it’s not just Bono out there doing these things,” referring to the U2 musician who has done a lot of things in recent years to try to bring people together.
DAN: Yeah! Bono’s certainly visible out there. But it’s important for people to realize that there are a lot of role models who have led the way — and not just in the last century but for many centuries.
DAVID: People do like the more contemporary stories that we published — like the short stories we published about Cardinal Lustiger and Howard Thurman and Etty Hillesum. But I think the single most frequently mentioned hero, as I’ve heard people talking about the stories that surprised them, was this ancient king in what is now Ethiopia — a Christian king — who saved Muslim refugees way back in the 7th Century. It was a daring thing for him to do — and perhaps we’d have had a much different history around the world if religious leaders had followed suit in the many centuries afterward.
DAN: I like that story, too.
DAVID: Tell us a little bit about why you started collecting these stories about Interfaith Heroes.
Click on the Video Screen below to hear Dan’s response. If your version of this story does not show a screen here, then Visit YouTube to watch this next short video featuring Dan Buttry.
DAVID: Dan, there’s a major conversation arising about religion this season — I’ve seen it in the pages of upcoming books this spring. I’ve heard it voices online. And this conversation, really, is a dramatic rethinking of what we expect to hear from our religious leaders.
Here’s one example: There’s a whole crop of books coming up this spring from evangelical writers telling their followers that the evangelical movement needs a bottom-up re-evaluation of where that movement is headed. A number of these very strong voices — showing up in new books this spring — are arguing that the evangelical movement has been compromised by its association with conservative politicians. They’re saying they’ve lost their way. And that’s just one example of the form this conversation is taking.
Another whole conversation is swirling around what it means to be Catholic. Another conversation is focusing on the question of what Protestants can learn from Catholics. There’s yet another conversation unfolding about what people from many different faiths can learn from the natural world around us.
But — I’ve got to tell you — one of the things that I’m seeing in these conversations is a widespread ignorance among so many people about any religious tradition but their own.
DAN: That’s true. That’s a big problem. Within evangelical churches, which I consider my own tradition, I think there are two parts that contribute to some of our ignorance about people of other faiths.
One is that we think that we don’t need to know about other people — because we want everyone to become Christians. We feel we have the faith and the truth that everyone else needs to embrace — so we don’t have to know about their faiths or their traditions as much as we need to share ours. If we do learn about them, it might be only so that we can find weak points and look for openings where we might move in and convince them to “hear the gospel,” as we would say it, and make them become Christians like us.
So, that’s one part of the problem. We may think that other religions just aren’t worth knowing about.
But there’s a way to interpret this issue where it’s not just an evangelical problem — but it’s really a much larger problem for every large group of people. In every country around the world, you have a mainstream that determines the overall culture. The mainstream has its interests universalized across the larger culture. That mainstream, in the U.S., would be religiously speaking Christians because of their numbers — and, at the moment, you could say that mainstream is evangelical Christians.
Fifty years ago, you might have said the mainstream was determined by mainlinr Christian denominations. Just listen to that phrase — “mainline denominations” — and it conveys this sense that they are the dominant group. The mainline churches have been declining in influence and the evangelical churches have been on the rise — so they’re now more of the mainstream in this country politically and socially and in so many other dimensions of U.S. life.
But in another country, you’ll find very different mainstreams. The mainstream in some countries might be Muslim. The mainstream might be Hindu. In Israel, it’s a Jewish mainstream — and not just Jewish but it’s the Orthodox Jewish mainstream that controls so many of the laws and practices that are played out in Israel.
So, one of the characteristics of any mainstream is that the mainstream tends to be clueless about experiences at the margins. You don’t need to know what’s happening in these margins to function just fine in the mainstream culture. So, as an evangelical, I don’t need to know what’s going on in Hinduism or what’s going on in Islam. I don’t need to know the different groups within Islam to function just fine in American culture.
It’s the margins — whoever they may be — who are keenly aware of these differences and they many times feel that pain of having their differences overlooked by the mainstream. Sometimes people in these margins may be in great pain. But they’re invisible to the mainstream.
One of the things that can often happen is that those of us in the mainstream — whatever the mainstream may be in a particular country — we define the margins as “NOT-mainstream.” We lump the margins together. So, you’re “white” or you’re “a person of color.” So, you’re “Christian” or “non-Christian.” In many cases, we don’t even name the margins. We just say they’re all not-mainstream.
This means that the people who live in the margins can develop very very strong senses of identities, while the mainstream is largely ignorant of this — and may even be ignorant of their own mainstream traditions! They’re functioning quite fine — no need to learn much at all. Life’s good.
These are sociological phenomena that are acted out in so many places.
DAVID: What you’re talking about here is much like that famous New Yorker Magazine cover of the United States that shows mostly New York City itself — then the rest of the United States is all compressed in the tiny little margins of the illustration. For New Yorkers, New York City is the mainstream — and all that really matters.
DAN: Yes, right. And there are other versions of those maps, too. There’s one that shows Boston as the center of the universe — and everything to the west of Boston as almost nothing.
DAVID: So, because of this —
DAN: — this myopic view of the universe is really what it is.
DAVID: So, when religious leaders are speaking — their messages may have consequences — may have major impacts on the margins — that they don’t even expect. They may be clueless, really, that something they’re saying will have a dramatic impact on other people within their own country — or in other parts of the world.
Let’s pick an example of another country. I’ve traveled in Indonesia as a journalist. You’ve traveled there many times in your peacemaking ministry. Indonesia is a mainstream Muslim country — but we find there that the Muslim majority is largely ignorant of how much oppression religious minorities sometimes experience in that country, right?
DAN: Right. In fact, in Indonesia, the government has five official categories of religion — and only five. And people have to identify their religion — but they’ve only got five choices. And the five are: Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Catholicism.
DAVID: Christianity and Catholicism — as two separate categories. That’s a problem right there.
DAN: Yes. Yes. And, there’s no Jewish category. No category for other faiths — so the Chinese minority has a very difficult time if they’re followers of Confucius, let’s say. What do they do?
The minority Chinese population who follow Confucian traditions — well, they’ve got to figure out whether they’re Buddhist or Christian or — Well, and think about Atheists! They’ve got to decide what category they’re going to pick. You have some really bizarre choices of categories.
I’ve talked with folks who are Chinese in Indonesia and they’ve told me this is really a bizarre problem for their community.
DAVID: Where all this leads, it seems to me, is that if we’re blissfully ignorant of the margins — it’s often the margins that sometimes wind up speaking back to us with explosive force.
DAN: Yeah, that’s the problem. The mainstream often remains clueless until so much pressure builds up in the margins that something dramatic happens.
You can see this in racial issues, as well. We saw this in the figure of Martin Luther King Jr., who of course was one of our Interfaith Heroes.
DAVID: In fact, that’s why Heroes Month is in January, because of the King holiday. He worked with people of many different faiths in his civil rights activism.
DAN: Yes, and part of the problem he faced was this white mainstream in America that basically said, “Hey, there’s no problem for black people. They’re all smiling. There’s nothing to even think about.”
Or, here’s another example of this problem of mainstream ignorance with people outside of our national mainstream — think back to 9/11. What was the immediate reaction after 9/11? What were people asking? They were asking: “Why do they hate us?”
That’s a clueless question. Most Americans have no idea why people hate us overseas. All you have to do is go overseas and stand in some other places in the world and there’s no doubt why people hate us. We many times are a great inspiration to the world — at our best we are an inspiration to the world — but we’ve also been striding around the world all too often like a bully — not only to our enemies, but even to our friends, if they don’t go along with us 100 percent with what we want.
I’m not justifying terrorism. I’m not justifying violence. What I’m trying to explain is how these explosive responses can take us completely by surprise — because, in the mainstream, we all too often think that we don’t need to pay any attention to the margins.
None of this justifies violence. None of this justifies some of these violent expressions from the margins. But it speaks to the importance of learning about the other people who live with us in this global community.
It isn’t good enough to live a clueless life. It’s dangerous. We need to learn about the other people living with us in our world.
FINALLY, if you want to get involved — here’s what Dan suggests. To view this final video, click on the video screen below. If there’s no screen in your version of this story, Visit YouTube to hear Dan’s final suggestions for getting involved in this Interfaith Heroes movement.
TELL US WHAT YOU THINK, PLEASE. In the online version of this story, you can click on the “Comment” link at the bottom of the story. Or you can Email me, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm.
OR, click on the “Digg” link below and add a very brief “digg” comment — even a phrase — to this story’s listing on Digg-It, which will tell even more folks worldwide that it’s worth reading: