This has not been a good year for how three major religions — Judaism, Christianity, Islam — have contributed to peace and cooperation...
This has not been a good year for how three major religions — Judaism, Christianity, Islam — have contributed to peace and cooperation among peoples.
The war in Iraq and conflict between Israel and its Lebanese and Palestinian neighbors are sparked and exacerbated by conflict between these religions or factions within. Africa is brutalized by mass killings and starvation linked to religious intolerance. Anti-Semitism is on the rise everywhere. The rights of Muslims in our country are threatened. Christians flee the Middle East and are persecuted elsewhere. The pope sets aflame Muslim sensitivity.
In our own city, a hate crime kills and wounds persons working for the Jewish Federation. Even our recent elections bear the scars of religious animosity.
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No, this has not been a good year for how the world’s main monotheistic religions have worked together for peace and justice, much less for love.
Christmas and the holy seasons of Islam and Judaism offer us an opportunity to look afresh at what could unite us and what could make us act humbly and healingly as true sisters and brothers of one another, daughters and sons of one God. If we started with the births of Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, we might celebrate a season not of one but of three cribs. Their births in these three cribs might get us behind our differences and our dogmas to our human vulnerability and to our need for compassion for one another, for ourselves and for all.
The crib of Jesus was a manger, a feeding trough. He was born homeless and vulnerable. The newborn Moses was placed in a reed basket and set afloat in the Nile because male children in his ethnic tribe were being killed. He was enslaved and endangered. Muhammad was born to a newly widowed mother and was taken from his crib to be raised by a Bedouin tribe; he knew of no guardian for any extended period of time in his childhood. He was an orphan, vulnerable.
Is it a coincidence that the three persons at the origins of Judaism, Christianity and Islam had their own origins in these three cribs of slavery, homelessness and orphanhood? Revelation, religious doctrine, rituals and structured communities come rushing in upon these vulnerable births, as they must because these religions, though they share much, are distinct and different. Each religion in its elaboration calls for almost adamant adherence. What might happen to us as religious adherents if we paid more attention to our common, very humble origins — babies born in vulnerability? Might that help to heal our divisions, awaken our humanity, and impel us to compassion, peace and justice?
The truth of the matter, the common revelation from the three cribs, is not only that Moses, Jesus and Muhammad were born vulnerable, but so have we all been. We do not lose human vulnerability no matter how protected, well-off, faith-filled or saved we become. If we started and stayed with this common, equally true-of-all-of-us human vulnerability, could it become the crib or cradle of a new religious solidarity to end war, to eradicate hunger and poverty, and to respect all persons and their inalienable rights?
This insight and hope came to me in a remarkable way recently. A student of social work at Seattle University asked for an appointment with me for half an hour. It turned out it was the most important half hour of my year and it has given new meaning to this Christmas for me. The student’s name is Khaled. He brought me an olive-wood cross from Bethlehem. Khaled, who is 31, was born and raised on the edge of Bethlehem, where the angels are thought to have appeared at night to shepherds when Jesus was born in the crib nearby. Khaled’s mother’s family traces its roots in that same place back before the time of Jesus!
Khaled is a Christian and an Arab, living among Muslims in the state of Israel. All three religions come together in him. Khaled lost his right arm as a young teenager when it got caught in a machine in a neighborhood bakery where he worked. His broad smile is marked and deepened and softened by suffering. I wondered as I looked at him whether this was what Jesus really looked like when he was 31, rather than like the images I have grown up with.
What is Khaled all about and why did he come to see me? He has given his life over to caring for and to building a little school for traumatized children — of any religion — in Bethlehem. He wanted me to know that that is why he’s studying social work. The compassion he developed from his own suffering and vulnerability embraces children in his town who are traumatized by violence, by family members killed, by the destruction of their homes.
For Khaled — in whom Judaism, Christianity and Islam come together in a unique way and in the special place of Bethlehem — life’s work is all about traumatized children, doing what he can for them from what faith and life and education have made of him.
Isn’t that what it is all about for all of us — or at least could be — in this Christmas and holy season of Christians, Jews, Muslims and all?
We are all born vulnerable and remain vulnerable. Not only the children of Bethlehem are traumatized, but because of what we all experience in our world, we are all traumatized children, everywhere.
This Christmas of three cribs could help us change next year into a year of compassion for one another and for ourselves. I offer my thanks for blessing this Christmas to Moses, Jesus, Muhammad … and Khaled.
The Rev. Stephen V. Sundborg, S.J., is president of Seattle University.