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On September 20th, Pope Francis joined thousands of pilgrims in Assisi for the World Day of Prayer for Peace. This event commemorated the 30th anniversary of the gathering that brought together pilgrims from all over the globe and invited the world’s religions to join their hearts, minds, and hands in becoming peacemakers. At that gathering in 1986, Pope John Paul II highlighted the “common nature, a common origin and a common destiny” of all people and called for collaboration between individuals and nations to forge common ground in a shared aspiration for peace. John Paul II urged that this work be undertaken through prayer, humility, and “a commitment to serve all.” He also acknowledged that Christians are required to complete acts of penance for the sins of omission and commission that have kept them from answering the call to be peacemakers in the world.
Pope Francis echoed these sentiments and spoke of the need “to bring about encounters through dialogue, and to oppose every form of violence and abuse of religion which seeks to justify war and terrorism.” In what seems to be a denunciation of the ideology of ISIS, Francis continued by stating: “We recognize the need to pray constantly for peace, because prayer protects the world and enlightens it. God’s name is peace. The one who calls upon God’s name to justify terrorism, violence and war does not follow God’s path. War in the name of religion becomes a war against religion itself. With firm resolve, therefore, let us reiterate that violence and terrorism are opposed to an authentic religious spirit.”
Francis emphasized the need for “a greater commitment to eradicating the underlying causes of conflicts: poverty, injustice and inequality, the exploitation of and contempt for human life.” Despite these large-scale problems, the pope called on each and all to take up the practices of praying for peace, encountering others with respect, and joining in dialogue. “Everyone,” Francis insisted, “can be an artisan of peace.”
Francis’ words speak to the desires of so many people today who long for peace (or, as the hashtag goes, #ThirstforPeace). His call to be peacemakers resonates through Scripture, from the Beatitudes (Mt 5:9) to the apostle Paul’s description of what it means to be Christian as being “ambassadors of Christ,” charged with “the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:17-21). Discipleship pivots on the work of peace-making—healing wounds, restoring right-relationship, and forging unity across diversity—continuing to heed the Jewish teaching (in the Mishnah) that holds followers of Yahweh accountable for the work of tikkun olam, “to repair the world.”
This is a vision for love-as-solidarity: an inclusive love that transcends the interpersonal sphere to cultivate social integration and social cohesion by overcoming differences of age and ability, sex and gender, race and ethnicity, class and creed. It is a call to realize the kinship of our shared humanity, not just in the sense of “common denominators” but the reality of our interdependence. As Mother Teresa observed long ago, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
This sense of belonging needs to overcome impulses to fear the other and create distance between various groups. This is especially true for Christians in their view of Muslims, as evidenced by the distrust and even disdain that has been growing for the followers of Islam in the United States.
A recent poll conducted by Georgetown University found only 14% of Catholics hold a favorable view of Muslims and that 45% of Catholics believe Islam encourages violence more than other religions. Not too long ago, it was reported that a quarter of Americans wouldn’t want a Muslim living next door.
Certainly these views are being shaped by horrific acts of terror in places like Paris, Brussels, Beirut, and New York (with many more taking place with greater frequency in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Turkey). While it is true that Christians are being persecuted and even killed by Muslims in a number of contexts, from Africa to the Middle East to India, it is both ignorant and unjust to conflate the actions of a select few clinging to a demented interpretation of the Qur’an with all followers of Islam. In the case of ISIS, its 100,000 members represent a tiny fraction (0.00625%) of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims.
Muslim leaders have been vociferous in condemning violence in the name of their religion. In fact, 70,000 Muslim clerics denounced ISIS specifically and terrorism in general at a gathering in India in December 2015. In countries with large Muslim populations, views of ISIS are “overwhelmingly negative” according to the Pew Research Center: in Lebanon 100% of respondents reported an unfavorable view of ISIS, a position shared by 94% in Jordan, 79% in Indonesia, and 73% in Turkey.
To be clear, ISIS’ ideology cannot be justified by the Qur’an, which clearly denounces killing (5:2, 6:151) and rebukes those who would use force to spread Islam (10:99, 3:159). These facts have done little to calm the widespread fears of Muslims and refugees from the Middle East. Instead, fear is being fueled by the xenophobia of some political figures in the US. Even after being criticized by Cardinal Dolan of New York, presidential candidate Donald Trump hasn’t softened on his nativism. Last December, Trump advocated for a “total and complete ban on Muslims entering the United States.” Despite the fact that Pope Francis has called out this kind of rhetoric, not enough has been done to debunk and denounce such bigotry. This intolerance isn’t reserved for a select few; just a year ago, barely half of Republicans thought Islam should be legal in the U.S.
To paint a picture of all Muslims (or migrants) as dangerous is the height of myopia. It mistakenly casts them as “other,” denies the dignity of these persons, the sanctity of their consciences, and the credibility of their faith. The Muslim faith, it must be noted, hinges on the same Abrahamic tradition of Judaism and Christianity. Islam teaches that God is a God of peace, mercy, and compassion. The Qur’an depicts Jesus as a pious, obedient, and favored servant of God. Mary, Jesus’ mother, is the only woman named in the Qur’an and in a hadith (traditional saying), Mary is listed as one of the four spiritually perfected women of the world. Christians are called “nearest among them in love to the [Muslim] believers” (5:82). Jews and Christians are promised an eternal reward in paradise (2:62, 5:69).
Theologically, it is imperative to state this outright: the God of Christianity is the God of Judaism who is also the God of Islam. We are brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of the Most Holy Mystery we call God, Yahweh, or Allah. This is the very point of “A Common Word,” a 2008 document that demonstrates the shared heritage of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faith (through the command to love God and neighbor, for example). “A Common Word” is also a living document in that it serves as an ongoing commitment to ecumenism through the practice of shared prayer, dialogue, and relationship-building. “A Common Word” was originally supported by Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis has continued to make Christian-Muslim relations a priority, as shown by his visit to pray in the Blue Mosque in Istanbul in November 2014.
As the opening lines of “A Common Word” state, “Muslims and Christians together make up well over half of the world’s population. Without peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world. The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians.”
This plea for shared prayer and joint dialogue in a spirit of solidarity cannot remain at the theoretical level. And even with all the energy and hope generated by the World Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi, this work cannot be restricted to summits for religious leaders or zealous pilgrims. We have to take seriously Pope Francis’ claim that “everyone can be an artisan of peace.”
In his remarks at Assisi, Pope Francis repeated a familiar theme, denouncing the “paganism of indifference.” But the answer to indifference isn’t just tolerance; peace requires more than tolerance. To merely tolerate the existence of another person or group is insufficient for the demands of right-relationship and the common good. 90 years ago, the philosopher John Dewey criticized the “live and let live” ethos that enervates social responsibility and leads to the “eclipse of the public.” What is to stop “live and let live” from becoming “live and let die”? Peace is not just avoiding conflict. Peace is the fullness of life in right-relationships, expressed in freedom so that all can flourish.
Christians have a responsibility to protect freedom—and not just their own freedom. The very foundation of Catholic social teaching rests on the belief that every human person, made in the “image and likeness of God,” possesses innate dignity, and this dignity translates to certain rights and responsibilities. The most basic right is freedom. Freedom comes with rights of non-interference (freedom from constraints) but cannot be realized without it being used to participate in shared life. Freedom implies more than autonomy; it leads to collaboration in mutual responsibility. Freedom requires that no individual or group be marginalized or denied full access to participation in shared life; it invites engagement with others through dialogue and cooperation. Freedom is betrayed by prejudiced attitudes and exclusionary practices that perpetuate unjust inequalities and social divisions. Freedom will not be realized by merely “tolerating” the existence of others; it demands that we stand up for those whose dignity and rights are being ignored or denied. Freedom is a call to practice ever-more-inclusive solidarity. Freedom is the first step to peace.
In this moment, that first step means looking for ways that Christians and Muslims can come together in mutual respect and responsibility to commit to the kind of freedom that leads to the flourishing of all. The path forward to mutual understanding and respect requires a more robust approach to religious education, including religious literacy. If only 14% of Catholics hold a favorable view of Muslims, that is an indictment of widespread ignorance of the teachings of Islam or the practices of Muslims all over the globe (oriented around the 5 pillars of belief, worship, fasting, almsgiving, and pilgrimage).
As “artisans of peace” this means working on the individual and interpersonal levels to overcome bigotry and fear, dismantling barriers that marginalize and exclude, and embracing opportunities for dialogue and cooperation. It means learning about the other by taking up a social location that immerses oneself in otherness. It means taking up the practice of hospitality—making room for the other—in a way that follows Jesus’ own inclusive example to bring people together across social barriers to share fellowship with outsiders and the outcast (e.g., Mt 9:10-13, Lk 5:30, and Lk 14:12-14). To share freedom and peace is to share and extend God’s welcome to all.