Polarization: The Problem and Possibility

"Let's face it, I'm right, and you are wrong! You are dangerously wrong!"

Rabbi Ted Falcon:

In the radically polarized society in which we live, discussion too frequently is replaced by shouting (whether written or verbal), threats, even violence. In a recent HuffPost op-ed, Rabbi Arthur Waskow criticized the position of the Catholic Church "for attacking the religious freedom of millions of American women and the religious freedom of American nuns" over contraception. Catholic League President Bill Donohue responded that it was no business of the Jews, and angrily concluded an e-mail to the rabbi, "Jews had better not make enemies of their Catholic friends since they have so few of them. Think about that the next time you feel compelled to attack my religion."

Conversation is impossible in any polarized situation where disagreement is perceived as treason. When each refuses to appreciate the legitimacy of the other, attacks always follow.

During the many years that we three faith leaders have worked together, we have realized that simply choosing one side or the other in a polarized situation will never help. We strive to find a belief system that brings us meaning, but when that religious or political belief system claims sole access to the truth, we are all in trouble.

We believe that our differences are purposeful, that even our polarizations can motivate us to understand our situation better. It's seldom as simple as one side actually being all right and the other all wrong. There is right and wrong in every position, just as there is good and not-so-good in every human being.

It's time to step out of the trance of polarization and begin talking with each other to understand and appreciate the essential dignity of every caring person, to perceive the multi-dimensionality of reality, and to explore paths that can better work for us all.

We're in this together. Our surrender to polarization dooms us; awakening beyond polarization is required for our survival.

Pastor Don Mackenzie:

As a Christian I reject belligerence and hatred. As a Christian I feel called (though not always capable of responding to the call) to meet hate with reconciling love.

My first reaction to the exchange was anger at Bill Donohue. I was very angry. His comments reflect the Christian repudiation of Judaism, something that has resulted in unbelievable violence and suffering. But then I felt a deep sadness and recognized two things.

I have my own need to be correct and have to monitor that constantly (and again, not always with success). The kinds of exchanges that are rooted in anger rarely lead to anything but more anger and deeper entrenchment.

Bill Donohue's response to Rabbi Waskow's concerns reflects a gap between Donohue's feelings and the teachings of Jesus. How do we interpret, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5:44) or "Love one another as I have loved you" (John 15:12b)? Both of these verses depend on a sense of unconditional love, loving without conditions. To do that we have to have a sense of ourselves that is inviolable and sustained by spiritual practices. Through spiritual practices we can be called back to the substance expressed by these two verses. And when we do have that, we have the possibility of opening our hearts to the life, the experiences and the beliefs of another person.

What if Arthur Waskow and Bill Donohue actually were able to get to know each other? Between them now there is a presumption of animosity as old as Christianity. Getting to know the other is the first important stage of interfaith dialogue.

Imam Jamal Rahman:

I would like to offer three insights.

The 13th century sage Rumi posed the following question: "If someone spits at the majesty of the Sky, does this stain the sky?" In fact the spit returns to the person! When our tradition is criticized, it is not religion that is bruised but our ego.

Sometimes our over-reaction stems from a hidden wound we are carrying. Criticism feels like salt rubbed into the wound.

This leads me into the second insight rooted in the Quran: "Behold, We have created you all out of a male and female, and have made you into nations and tribes so that you might come to know one another" (49:13). Our challenge today is to create an environment where we are able to listen, respect and connect with the other. It becomes easy to dehumanize the other when we do not know the other on a human level.

The third and most important insight is that men and women have not truly entered into this sacred dialogue. This is especially true in contemporary Muslim cultures. Men have not listened with their hearts to the pain and suffering of women caused by male domination, patriarchal bias and exclusive male interpretation of Scripture. The Prophet Muhammad said, "The rights of women are sacred. See that women are maintained in the rights attributed to them."

From Us All:

One of the most valuable aspects on interfaith dialogue is the promise it holds for penetrating the barriers that have separated us in order to discover unity amidst diversity, giving us that deep sense of the essential interconnectedness of all being. Such a sense can eclipse our polarization and take us toward greater healing and wholeness.

Pastor Don Mackenzie, Imam Jamal Rahman and Rabbi Ted Falcon -- now known as the Interfaith Amigos -- started working together after 9/11. Known for their unique blend of spiritual wisdom and humor, they openly address the usual taboos of interfaith dialogue -- the "awkward" parts of each tradition -- in order to create a more authentic conversation.