Engaging Community beyond Dialogue

This article was written for Vantage Point July 2012 to address Christian leaders’ question on, “Leadership Styles that Work Today.”

This is the great new problem of mankind. We have inherited a large house, a great “world house” in which we have to live together – black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Moslem and Hindu – a family unduly separated in ideas, cultures, and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, we must somehow learn to live with each other in peace — Martin Luther King Jr. [1]

Today, the world’s interconnectivity breaks down traditional civilizational frontiers [2], and global citizens inevitably must embrace their co-dependency for human flourishing and peaceful coexistence. Many faith leaders have realized that loving one another, a common value of many faith traditions, is to be lived-out among adherents of various faiths; hence interfaith and ecumenical dialogues are in vogue.  Scholars of contemporary religion have suggested that the 21st century is the “interfaith dialogue century.” Jesus, however, calls his followers to love their neighbors like themselves, in a relationship that goes deeper than mere dialogue.

Dialogue is an entrance to a relationship, but by itself it cannot turn tolerance, or transform hostility into an engaged coexistence or genuinely loving relationship with the other.[3] Of course, having a mutually respecting dialogue among faith adherents is not antithetical to deepening a person’s relationship with God and with others.  Dialogue is an important beginning.

Many religious leaders acknowledge dialogue, if it is done in a loving and mutually respectful way, can be a form of spiritual discipline. And as faith is accessible to everyone, this form of spirituality can be embraced at all levels of society including grassroots movements.

Facilitating dialogue is a task that cannot be ignored by any faith leader. The exercise may involve the sharing of personal stories, self-reflection, unfolding shared meanings and multiples perspectives, negotiation of peace, resolving of conflicts, and etc. It is also important to note that dialogue differs from debate as the latter attempts to tell, sell, persuade, gain agreement on meaning, or to justify and defend assumptions.  The spiritual discipline of dialogue allows participants to think together and leads to greater relationship.

Kouzner and Posner in the book “The Truth about Leadership” wrote that one of the ten truths about leadership is that the best leaders are the best learners. Thus, effective leaders in a diversified community must be willing to learn what other Christians or non-Christians perceive of them, and to continuously improve their strengths and overcome their weaknesses. Ismail Al-Faruqi (1921-1986), a Muslim scholar and Palestinian writer, suggests an interesting and profound idea on dialogue by saying that dialogue leads to conversion, not to institutionalized religions, but to the truth.

Indeed, a person can not only learn about others, but also about his or her own faith and culture in every conversation with others. Miroslav Volf, a theologian and professor of Yale University, wrote that in every encounter between two people, seven are actually involved: you and I; my image of you and your image of me; my image of myself; your image of yourself; and God, who sees each individual truthfully [4].

Today, the concept of learning from others is becoming so well-received among faith leaders and religious scholars that many seminars and conferences are organized on this topic. For example, from 2000 to 2003, a series of five conferences, “What Do We Want the Others to Teach About Us,” was held in Jerusalem; Edmonton; Rome; Bamberg; and Connecticut through the collaboration of various universities [5].

The question that is yet to be answered is: How Christian leaders in a diversified community can effectively fulfill the second commandment that teaches the followers of Jesus to pursue a genuine and loving relationship with others?

The best answer can perhaps be drawn from the teaching of the Christianity’s first and greatest commandment: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength’ (NIV Mark 12:30). This scriptural commandment to love others is fulfilled through equal and holistic participation of cognitive, affective and behavioral effort. It happens when individuals’ common beliefs and behaviors converge into a shared and meaningful communal life, experienced while acknowledging and respecting the distinctiveness of each faith and culture.

Intellectual history demonstrates that the second commandment is wonderfully lived-out through many Christian-based community service initiatives. These organizations have also given wonderful opportunities to other like-minded faith adherents to grow in their spirituality. For example, the Salvation Army’s motto, “Heart to God, Hand to Man,” which was first advocated through the life of its founder William Booth (1829-1912), is embraced not only by its members but also by its volunteers who include non-Christians.

In the USA, a holistic approach in engaging a diversified community is articulated well by the Interfaith Youth Core’s vision of building a new world of equity by the use of hands, heads and hearts. Interestingly, Eboo Patel – the American Muslim who founded this organization – wrote that he discovered a desire “to touch a pure love” through the inspiring life of St. Jude’s Catholic Worker [6].

A professor at Chicago Theological Seminary, Patel spent a lot of time during his college years serving through the soup kitchen at Mary House in New York City, and even lived at the St. Francis House in Chicago. The collaboration between Patel and these Christians in caring for the marginalized is a wonderful example of a relationship that crosses cultural and religious boundaries while allowing participants to remain committed to their own faith traditions.

Faith leaders can also draw a meaningful lesson from the narrative of the relationship of Saint Francis of Assisi and Sultan al-Kamil of Egypt. This account is of the most significant chapters in the intellectual history of interfaith initiatives [7].

The main scene began in the midst of the Fifth Crusade (1213 to 1221) when, at great risk to themselves, St. Francis and Brother Illuminato approached the Muslims soldiers, declaring themselves to be “followers of Jesus” and asking to meet the Sultan as friends. St. Francis’s close imitation of Jesus’s life and his faithfulness towards the authentic values found in the gospel, including loving the enemies, displayed the humane side of Christians to the Sultan. Not only was the Sultan’s heart touched, but the crusaders and Muslim armies were shocked as well to witness St. Francis’s radical humility in being kind and loving to what considered hateful.

After the surrender of Damietta, Sultan Al-Kamil compassionately cared the Christians, e.g. feeding the war-weary Crusade leaders with a warm banquet reception, supplying food for the starving Christian soldiers that ensnared along the Nile, and providing a safe passage out of Egypt. In his book, Paul Moses argued on possible reasons that moved the Sultan to display kindness to Christian hostages. He also wrote that St. Francis would have attributed this to God’s grace and his belief in the values of engaging others peacefully [8]. In any case, the interfaith engagement changed the minds and hearts of those who had gone into the conflict with hatred.

One of the Crusade’s strategists, Oliver of Paderborn, wrote high praises in a letter to the Sultan in 1221.  The Sultan had earlier been regarded as a ‘cruel beast’ or ‘perfidious’ Muslim. Yet Oliver, being very moved by the Sultan’s kindness, closed his pro-crusade account in The Capture of Damietta with an extra-ordinary note:

“The Sultan was moved by such compassion toward us that for many days he freely revived and refreshed our whole multitude… Who cannot doubt that such kindness, mildness and mercy proceeded from God? Those whose parents, sons, and daughters, brothers and sisters we killed with various tortures, whose property scattered or whom we cast naked from their dwellings, refreshed us with their own food as we were dying of hunger, although we were in their dominion of power. And so with great sorrow and mourning we left the port of Damietta, according to our different nations, we separate to our everlasting disgrace” [The Capture of Damietta]

In conclusion, in a diversified community, men and women of God can no longer ignore the presence of their neighbors whose faith and cultural traditions are different from theirs. A spiritually healthy person is a contributing member of a society at large. Thus, good and effective faith leadership in today’s complex society must be able to bring faith adherents to genuinely engage others beyond mere tolerance.

This vision requires contemporary leaders to not only appreciate their own faith traditions, but also to understand other faith traditions and values, appreciating commonalities and respecting differences. Most faith traditions call their adherents to witness to others, and this calling can be done effectively by engaging hearts, heads and hands peacefully and lovingly. This active faith, however, should not be measured by the conversion or life transformation of others, since all work ultimately relies on God’s grace and time that no human can fathom.


[1] In the foreword of the book, “Building Interfaith Youth Movement: Beyond Dialogue to Action,” Professor Diana Eck stated that today’s USA generation is an ‘interfaith generation.’ Faith leaders need to question and comprehend the differences between interfaith and inter-religious life. The quote given in this paper is taken from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s writing “the world house,” in a book titled Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community. This era focused on inter-religious life, i.e. when religious institution and structure was the principal focus of faith leadership and life. This religious spirit was perhaps one of the core driving factors to bigotry and dehumanization in the USA in 1960s, as mentioned by M. Luther. It existed predominantly even when Christians religiously attended churches and observed their liturgies.

[2] Mario Apostolov rebuts Samuel Huntington theory on the idea of the clashes of the world according to its civilization by saying that after the cold war, the zone of contact between these civilizations is fuzzier. She commented that in the post-modernist view, each group is increasingly interrelated. Ref: Mario Apostolov, The Christian-Muslim Frontier: A Zone of contact, conflict or cooperation (New Tork: Routledge Curzon, 2004), 6-7

[3] Dr. Diana Eck of Pluralism Project at Harvard University explains that a surface level relationship in a diversified community is a form of “mere tolerance.” It is a deceptive virtue which enables coexistence but is not genuinely an “engaging relationship.” Interfaith dialogue that does not lead to genuine relationship could be another manifestation of mere tolerance and a scapegoat from thriving towards a sincere desire and action in loving neighbors. Ref: Diana Eck, “Is Our God Listening? Exclusivism, Inclusivism, Pluralism” In Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003), 192

[4] Miroslav Volf, “A Common Word for a Common Future,” in A Common Word: Muslims and Christians on Loving God and Neighbor, ed. Misroslav Volf, Ghazi bin Muhammad, and Melissa Yarrington (USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2010), 25-6

[5] Faith leaders who participated in the conferences were mainly of Abrahamic Faiths; Jewish, Christians and Muslims. Their papers were compiled in the book, “What Do We Want the Other to Teach About Us,” published by Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding of Sacred Heart University Press, Fairfield CT in 2006.

[6] Peace Work, “A Muslim at the Catholic Worker” by Eboo Patel. Ref: http://www.peaceworkmagazine.org/muslim-catholic-worker (accessed 1st May, 2012)

[7] St. Francis and the Sultan did not record in detail the accounts of  their contacts. Some of the historical accounts and biographies written on them are rather inaccurate as they were under the influenced of their religious and political life. Historically, the most well received account on their encounter was “The Major Legend of St. Francis” of St Bonaventure. This writing distorted Sultan al-Kamil’s character. In search of the truth, Paul Moses analyzed various biographies and historical documents on this event and uncovered the story in his book “The Saint and the Sultan.”

[8] Paul Moses, The Saint and the Sultan The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and St. Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace (New York: Double Day Religion, 2009), 176.

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