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Ecumenical and Interreligious Dialogue is a Respect Life Issue

 

Have you ever paused to consider that dialogue between people of different Christian and non-Christian religious traditions is actually a way to respect life itself?

Respect Life Month

Every October, the U.S. Catholic Church celebrates Respect Life month.

People of other faith tradition are certainly welcome to join in the prayer, events and simply the focus of attention that such a commemoration brings.

Setting aside a time to reflect deeply on the dignity of life calls us to consider all the ways that human life is disrespected, disregarded and simply ended in our culture. Certainly, we can point to certain key issues where human life is threatened in direct ways, such as abortion, war, the death penalty, assisted suicide and others.

Diagnosis: Throwaway Culture

But the more we reflect, we come to understand what Pope John Paul II so often said: We live in a “culture of death” where life is simply treated like unwanted junk mail that we throwaway without a second thought.

Even those certain issues have their roots in many seemingly benign activities that over time bear really terrible fruit. What I mean is: When someone chooses to cross the line and do an extreme action such as killing another human being, that action did not simply happen in isolation. There were undoubtedly many years of slow and steady dehumanizing words, inferences and actions that paved the way, unfortunately, for this terrible action. 

A person who ends another person’s life crosses a line, but all of society should reflect on ways we all may have some responsibility for what we did to take that person right up to the line, so to speak. Yes, every individual is responsible for her or his own actions–but none of us lives in a vacuum. We are constantly being influenced by those around us, and this is especially true for the youth. Advertisers and political propagandists bombard us constantly with images and ideas, and it does affect what we do. Otherwise, there would be no advertising industry and political campaigns would focus on issues rather than images, but we see that’s not the case.

Virtually every Christian tradition affirms that all human life is created by God with God-given dignity–that means all life, all the time, everywhere. That message is bursting forth on nearly every page of the Bible (this link has some choice passages to consider). Yet, in our fallen world we humans put dividers where God has not put any.

Both consciously and unconsciously, we humans start deciding that some people are more important than others and that only certain people deserve special consideration. We convince ourselves there are reasons for this (using inaccurate generalizations) even when our faith informs us that this is not the case.

Treatment:  Dialogue, A Necessary Tonic

One of the best ways to resist the throwaway culture that disregards life is to dialogue with other people. And by “dialogue” I do not mean just a random conversation, however nice that may be. I mean to truly encounter the person in a relationship of equality, respect and peace.  It means taking a genuine interest in another person and being truly open to what another person has to offer.

Real dialogue with another person is a profound act of defiance of our culture of death. To truly dialogue with someone that means you respect this person in her or his full God-given dignity. It is an attempt to understand the person on his or her own terms–to get to know them as they truly are, not based on what others have said about them. It is a way to get past the labels and to encounter the true person. It is a way to ultimately establish peace.

Labels

Labels enforce the throwaway culture. We have all heard comments such as these:

“Oh, that person is just a criminal, so I don’t have to respect him.”

“They are just a bunch of Muslims, so we should be afraid of them.”

“That (African-American) kid is just a thug, keep him at a distance.”

“They are just a bunch of liberals (or conservatives)–not worth our time hearing what they have to say.”

“People are mistreated in detention? They are just illegals, so they must deserve it.”

Any time the word “just” is used to describe a group of people, you know the throwaway culture is in full operation, i.e. “they are just Muslims.”

On top of that, we often attach other descriptors that are unfair, such as “terrorist Muslims” or “criminal immigrants” or “thug” when we are referring to African-American males, but almost always those broad-based descriptors are neither fair nor accurate.

Encounter: The Way of Jesus

To truly encounter another person in her or his full humanity is to do what Jesus did time and time again throughout his earthly ministry as reported in the Gospels. He continued to treat every single person with full respect, including–and perhaps especially–those that the rest of society wanted to disregard: The hated Samaritans… the unwed mother… the adulterer… the diseased or mentally ill… even the slimy tax collector. People often asked Jesus “Why are you bothering with such-and-such a person?” Jesus always went past their imaginary walls and encountered the person.

In doing this, Jesus gave us a model to follow.

In Their Own Words

Jesus did not always agree with every single thing that every person did–and neither should we. We can and should maintain our principles. But that should never stop us from truly encountering another person as respectfully as Jesus did. We should hear their perspective in their own words before we decide that we disagree with them. Let people tell their own story. Honor that. Let them describe themselves and assign their own labels for themselves. Let us truly value each and every person and what they have to say.

I would go as far as to say we should never judge the actions of a group of people until we have worked hard to get to know its members and hear them describe their circumstances in their own words. That includes immigrants, Muslims, Middle Easterners, criminals, unwed mothers, everyone.

And then in a relationship of true equality, let us share our story with them.

The Use, Misuse and Non-Use of Religious Labels

Religious labels are very often used to cause this division and misunderstandings. What comes to mind when you hear the following words: Muslims, Jews, Catholics, evangelicals, pagans…. with each of those terms, I bet we immediately have images, definitions and even fears that immediately pop into our minds. These imagines impact the decisions we make when our nation chooses to go to war with certain nations. It impacts the decisions voters make in regards to our criminal justice system, in particular the death penalty.

In the case of the Islamic and Jewish faiths, religious labels are often used to justify violence. You see actions of terrorism when Jewish synagogues have been attacked here in the U.S. by hate groups or individuals and when our nation goes to war with a “Muslim nation.”

Violence is also justified by refusing to acknowledge the religious faith of people. For example, I do not recall a single news article that tells us about the “Christians at the southern border.” NEVER. I have been following the news on immigration for many years and I never have I seen this stated boldly or directly.

Yet, virtually every immigrant, refugee and asylum seeker at the southern border–who is being cruelly detained and their families separated by current border enforcement methods–can all be described as evangelical, Pentecostal or Catholic Christians. Calling them “Christians” would increase sympathy for them which is no doubt why we ever hear them described this way.

But when it comes time to wage war with a Middle Eastern country, suddenly all we hear is that this is a “Muslim nation.” That is because the public has been programmed to attach negative connotations to Muslims which decrease empathy for them.

Conclusion

Whenever I have set labels aside and have truly tried to imitate Jesus and encounter people on their own terms, I have immediately discovered that these labels were unfair, incomplete and often downright wrong. By talking to a Muslim man and hearing his story, I am re-affirming my faith in the God of all who created everyone with dignity. I am taking back control of my life and my thoughts from the forces of marketing, propaganda and prejudice. I am making my own decisions rather than being swayed by clever spin campaigns. I am re-affirming that my faith comes first and my politics come second–always. And perhaps most importantly: I am respecting life.

Visit Frank Lesko’s website here.

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