Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Community Dinner Unites Faiths in Common Values

Sister Liz Walker of Deloraine Ward made history on Friday 14 November by hosting the community's first interfaith dinner to celebrate International Tolerance Day (16 November). Over 60 people from around the Meander Valley representing a broad range of faiths gathered at the Deloraine Primary School hall dressed in religious or cultural attire and bringing dishes reflective of their culture.

The tone of the evening was set by a special video presentation on religious freedom. In the spirit of that video's message it was inspiring to see Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and others sharing tables, breaking bread together and mingling in a spirit of friendship and mutual respect. Theological differences were set aside in favour of a celebration of common values.


The purpose of the evening was to help community members learn about the diverse faiths represented in the region and to explore values that were of common importance. This was accomplished by a number presentations from representatives of different faith traditions including Christianity, Buddhism, Baha'i, Hinduism and Islam (which was presented by an Imam from Melbourne who had travelled to Deloraine especially for the event). Shari, an interfaith minister from Launceston, spoke on valuing all religious systems and she was followed by LDS stake president Lionel Walters who offered some closing remarks (attached below).

All attendees were uplifted by the presentations and unified by common values of faith, family and religious freedom. Many commented afterward that there was a special spirit at the gathering that continued to be felt as they continued on to their regular worship services over the weekend.

Sister Walker, who has been a volunteer religion columnist for the Meander Valley Gazette since its first edition and has written articles about many of the faiths in the community, was commended by speakers and participants for her efforts in organising the pioneering event. One couple commented, "You have lifted tolerance to a completely new level, not just talking about it, but doing it."

Click here to learn more about the importance of religious freedom and interfaith dialogue.



Remarks by President Lionel Walters, Devonport Australia Stake President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:

I am honoured to be with you this evening and am humbled by this opportunity to offer some concluding remarks at this historic interfaith dinner. I am a lifelong Christian and currently serve as the stake president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Northern Tasmania.

Let me first recognise our host and chief instigator for this unique event. Liz Walker is a remarkable woman. Although she has deeply held beliefs of her own, she recognises beauty and goodness in all belief systems and has been an effective advocate for all faiths through her articles published in the Meander Valley Gazette and by organising this wonderful evening.

Liz is a member of our congregation but she is first and foremost a member of the human family and of this community. I am quick to point out that her efforts to encourage a dialogue between the diverse faiths in our community have not been directed by her Church but have been motivated by her personal faith in the inherent good of faith itself.

This spiritual maturity is sadly lacking among many of the faithful who dogmatically hold to the notion that “it’s my way or the highway” and forget the great commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves. While we may not agree on the source and effects of ultimate truth, we surely can have respect for the beliefs of others and seek to work together to pursue common goals and improve the society in which we live. Cardinal George Pell expressed it this way:
Cooperation between the different [religious] communities should be natural to us, not just because of a common interest in preserving religious freedom and the freedom to present [religious] teaching, but also because of our shared commitment to a free society and respecting the rights of others. (1)
To this end, let me say on behalf of all of us here tonight, thank you, Liz, for leading the way and helping us to come together as people of diverse faiths to explore and celebrate our common values.

Tonight I wish to direct my remarks to three common values, each of which can contribute to a rich expression of the Two Great Commandments to love God and our neighbour; namely faith, family and religious freedom.

Faith

First, faith. I recently read about a Chinese economist who visited the United States of America to study democracy but who in the course of his study made an unexpected discovery. The economist described what he learned in this way: “In your past, most Americans attended a church or synagogue every week. When you were there, from your youngest years, you were taught that you should voluntarily obey the law; that you should respect other people’s property, and not steal it. You were taught never to lie, and to respect the life and freedom of others the same as your own. [People] followed these rules because they had come to believe that even if the police didn’t catch them when they broke a law, God would catch them. Democracy works because most people most of the time voluntarily obey your laws.” (2)

Otherwise stated, faith compels us to do good for others. Of course I do not suggest that religious people have a monopoly on goodness because such is clearly not the case, but studies conducted overseas and in progress in Australia suggest that religiously observant citizens tend as a group to be more generous and civically-minded neighbors. For example, more than 90 percent of those who attend weekly worship services donate to charity, and nearly 70 percent volunteer for charitable causes. These outcomes are irrespective of any particular brand of religious faith, but rather stem from an active belief in Something or Someone beyond ourselves that teaches us to love our neighbour and live moral lives. (3) Mere cultural “enlightenment” is insufficient to produce universal and sustainable good.

To illustrate and conclude this point, I quote from Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of Great Britain. He said:
You read Jane Austen [and] you put it back on the shelf and it makes no further demand of you until you feel like reading it again. But you read a sacred text and you put it back on the shelf [and] it’s still making a demand of you. It is saying this is a truth to be lived. ... That is the difference between religion and culture. ... Unless you hear a command [or] an obligation that comes from beyond you, you will not be able to generate sustainable, [actionable faith]. (4)
Family

Next, family. Just as religious faith is at the foundation of most free, peaceful modern societies, faith also has the power to fortify families. Sacred texts teach about the obligations of marriage and the privilege of having children, for example the Bible counsels husbands to “love [their] wives even as Christ loved the church” and describes children as “an heritage of the Lord.” Whether you subscribe to this particular religious text or not, the principle that marriage and children are of immeasurable value to a stable society cannot be denied. And yet, occurrences in our modern, “enlightened” society of divorce, elective abortions, abuse and neglect are frequent and disheartening.

Rabbi Sacks identified “the individualism of the consumer age” as being at the heart of this malaise affecting the family and proposes religion as the most powerful antidote. Movements over the last hundred years touting causes such as “equal rights” and “political correctness” have achieved much good in providing basic freedoms and civil rights to individuals. Too often, however, instead of raising the moral standard to provide equality these movements have standardised the lowest common denominator resulting in increased promiscuity, no-fault divorce and, perhaps most destructively, the fear or imposed incompetence of parents (in favour of institutional experts) to teach, correct or discipline their children.

Religion in and of itself is not a silver bullet that will stem this tide of broken homes, but faith of the quality I described previously--that is, faith which is deeply held and actively practiced--provides a framework for rescuing families one at a time. Let me share an example which may resonate with you in the context of your own faith tradition. Last Sunday I met with a young man who with his family had recently joined our church. He told me how he had always believed in God but he didn’t always live up to that belief. As a result he had done some things in his life that had distanced himself from God and from his partner and children. As is our custom, after marrying and joining the church he was soon given opportunities to serve his fellow congregants, a process which had the effect of deepening his own faith and love for his family. In describing how his newfound belief and church service had affected his relationship with his wife and young sons he said, “it just makes me want to be better for them!”

Religious Freedom

Finally, religious freedom. This term does not simply refer to the freedom to practice our beliefs in our homes and churches, but it also incorporates the freedom of individuals to make decisions of conscience in the public square. One key protection of this freedom is the separation of church and state. In recent years the media has brought to our attention the plight of faithful people around the world of all religions whose deeply held beliefs are outlawed and who have become the subject of severe persecution. For many in this situation, the act of faith in defiance of state-instituted opposition means a literal sacrifice of their lives. I know that many of you have seen or even experienced at close range this horrifying oppression and the damage it can cause to individuals, families and societies. Let me be plain: religious faith can never justify or excuse the persecution of others, even when we don’t agree. Freedom of religion promotes exactly the opposite.

Modern media has also accentuated the behaviour of religious extremists who through their wilful and immoral misapplication of faith bring shame to honourable religious communities. Even in our own free society we occasionally hear misinformed judgements and insults leveled against an entire culture because of the actions of a foolish few. In this media-saturated climate, activists seeking to justify or legalise subjective moral positions often do so by ridiculing the faithful or by citing the uncivil behaviour of the extremist minority in an effort to discredit the entire cause of religion. Ironically in their efforts to ban religious belief from influencing public decision-making they are actually seeking to impose their own brand of belief upon the public conscience, the enforcement of which may, in later years, resemble the chaos and unrest seen in the nations that I referred to earlier.

On the subject of public discourse, Elder Dallin H. Oaks of our church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles recently taught:

We should all follow the gospel teachings to love our neighbor and avoid contention. ... We should love all people, be good listeners, and show concern for their sincere beliefs. Though we may disagree, we should not be disagreeable. ... When our positions do not prevail, we should accept unfavorable results graciously and practice civility with our adversaries. In any event, we should be persons of goodwill toward all, rejecting persecution of any kind, including persecution based on race, ethnicity, religious belief or nonbelief, and differences in sexual orientation. (5)
Conclusion

We are truly blessed to live in a nation that protects religious freedom by maintaining the separation of church and state while at the same time valuing and promoting the free expression of religious belief. Faith and religious freedom are embedded in the foundations of our society, and the peaceful application of these principles continues to be a blessing and a strength to our nation. It is therefore incumbent upon us as people of faith to stand in defence of all that is virtuous and good in our society, beginning with the many beautiful religions whose teachings encourage love of God and neighbour and whose fruits include happy families and peaceful communities.

To round out this point, and to summarise my hope for our community of believers, let me paraphrase a statement from Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University, which was immortalised in his letter to Christians entitled “A Common Word Between Us and You”:
Justice and freedom of religion are a crucial part of love of the neighbour. Thus in obedience to [our holy texts], we invite people of all faiths to come together with us on the basis of what is common to us, which is also what is most essential to our faith and practice: the Two Commandments of love. (6)
I am deeply grateful for the Christian faith that has blessed me from my childhood and to which I believe I owe my life. Everything good that has come to me, including my dear wife and our precious children, and any modest contributions I have been able to make in the lives of people around me, have come as a direct result of my choice to believe and to act upon that belief. I express my sincere admiration and respect for each one of you gathered here tonight and for the faith traditions you represent. That your faith will continue to bless and sustain you as my faith has done for me is my sincere prayer.

References:
  1. George Cardinal Pell - annual lecture on religious freedom at the University of Notre Dame Australia School of Law, 22 August 2013
  2. Clayton M. Christensen, “The Importance of Asking the Right Questions” (commencement speech, Southern New Hampshire University, Manchester, N.H., May 16, 2009).
  3. Arthur C. Brooks, “Religious Faith and Charitable Giving,” Policy Review (October 2003). Similar statistics are found in the “Faith Matters Survey 2006,” as cited in American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.
  4. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, from The New York Times, “The Moral Animal”, 23 December 2012
  5. Dallin H. Oaks, "Loving Others and Living with Differences," in October 2014 General Conference
  6. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University, from “A Common Word Between Us and You”