Thursday, September 12, 2013

Religion Without Borders

by guest blogger, Wendy Webber

Religion offers an opportunity for global cooperation beyond nationality.  I am not suggesting that national borders be erased.  By no means.  Equally, I’m not suggesting that a conversion to one global religion would end global conflict.  Beyond being unfeasible, a global religion would erase regional and individual differences which should be celebrated rather than deemphasized.  And the idea itself shuns the growing number of people who celebrate life without any religion whatsoever.  What I am suggesting is that religion already acts as a point of unity between geographically and culturally disparate peoples.

Let’s take Catholicism as an example.  Catholicism exists within but beyond nations.  Until recently, I’d only ever thought about how the Church operates in the United States, how the Church operates in Europe, how the Church operates in China—but not about how the Church is itself an association that unites people without reference to borders.  This is truly powerful in an effort to unite nations in peace.  Catholics of every nation are united to each other by their faith and united to their nations by their ethnic and national identity.  Catholics in Ireland, in Rwanda, in Canada, in Bahrain, in New Zealand, in Spain, and in South Korea all have vastly different cultural and national heritages, but they all go to church Sunday morning and hear the same mass.  Granted the languages are different and the homilies are unique, but the rituals and readings are the same.

The power inherent here is the opportunity for disparate peoples to meet each other as equals in their common humanity rather than antagonistically because of cultural or political differences.  An Iraqi Catholic and an American Catholic meet each other as fellow Catholics rather than as peoples in conflict.  But of course this is the easy part.  The hard part is expanding the bubble of perceived humanity.  The American Catholic needs to see not only the humanity in the Catholic part of his friend’s identity, but the humanity in the Iraqi part as well.  And vice versa.  Here is the true opportunity for peace—taking this new understanding to include the Iraqi people beyond his friend and help his fellow Americans see the same thing. 

Now let’s take Islam as another example—an example of religious unity already finding common ground beyond national and ethical borders.  In the United States, Muslims from many backgrounds, homelands, and cultures often live together in close quarters.  Muslims of differing nationalistic heritages are brought together by their shared Muslim heritage.  Even Sunnis and Shiites are next door neighbors and sometimes under the same roof.  Organizations like the Islamic Society of North America and Muslim Student Association have deemphasized differences between Sunnis and Shiites.  Though Sunnis are predominant in America, Shiites have risen to positions of power within and without the Muslim community even on occasion becoming the leaders of Sunni organizations.

However, since 9/11, more and more sectarian disputes have crossed the borders into the United States causing conflict where none previously existed.  American Muslims are in a unique position to contribute to peace in the Middle East.  Rather than import sectarian conflict, the challenge for American Muslims is to continue to promote sectarian pluralism.  The nature of living in a nation of immigrants positions Sunnis and Shiites in the United States with a great opportunity to promote sectarian pluralism—not only in America but in the entire Muslim world, in the religious world, and in the world. 

Sunnies and Shiites as well as Syrian Muslims, Algerian Muslims, and Chinese Muslims living in the Unites States by the very nature of their situation—a largely immigrant community in a largely immigrant nation—are required to practice religion without national borders.  This requirement provides the opportunity to expand this sectarian cooperation to the larger Muslim world.  Most religious people are not forced by circumstance into this kind of sectarian cooperation, but they can learn from it.  The Sunnies and Shiites in the United States live in a sectarian plural community that holds in it the opportunity to expand peace beyond national boarders.  The Iraqi and American Catholics too have an opportunity to cooperate for the good of the world at large.  Their religious unity can expand beyond borders to promote peace beyond religion.

With respect, curiosity, and humor, Wendy is actively engaged in nurturing not just interfaith, but interbelief dialogues and initiatives.  Wendy is currently circling the globe working on drinkable water and thinkable education with Pathfinders Project--a humanist service year.  She has a Masters of Arts in Religion from Yale Divinity School. Wendy is a published author whose writing can be found in Glossolalia and on her blog, The “H” Word.  She is a founding member of the Open Party—an atheist, agnostic, interfaith, and multi-faith group at Yale Divinity School that fosters inter-belief dialogue on and off campus as well as community service projects that include religious and nonreligious alike.

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