The Power of Words: Curses, Blessings and Interfaith Dialogue
A Response to Anti-Christian Violence in India and Pakistan
In several separate incidences, at least 22 people were killed and over 100 wounded in India as protests erupted over the threatened burning of the Quran in the United States to commemorate 9/11. The New York Times reported that in Tangmarg, Kashmir, more than 20,000 people participated in a violent protest that started with throwing stones and escalated to setting fire to a Christian missionary school. Kashmir police fired on demonstrators a few days later, killing four people and wounding 30. Hundreds of people from neighboring villages poured into Kashmir in anger over the deaths, burning down government buildings. The Times reported that protesters chanted, "Down with Quran desecrators."
Pakistan has also seen reactionary violence. Mathews George Chunakara, director of international affairs for the World Council of Churches, confirmed that three churches in Peshawar Diocese of the Church in Pakistan were burned in the area near the border with Afghanistan. More information can be found at the Church of Pakistan';s website.
Throwing of stones, burning of buildings and threats of an intimidating mob--in some ways this violence experienced in India and Pakistan is similar to the violence early Christians experienced. Paul';s guidance in his letter to the Christians in Rome is relevant as we think about our understanding of and reaction to this hostility. In the midst of tension and conflict in the Roman empire, it was likely surprising to Paul';s readers that he writes, "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them ... do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all" (Romans 12:14, 17, NRSV). Yet we can be confident that Paul';s words are not a mistake, since we are urged to transform situations of escalating violence into opportunities for love and peace throughout the Bible (see, for example, Matthew 5:38-48).
Violence into Peace
How can we transform violence into peaceful reconciliation? In Romans, Paul suggests blessing those who hurt us instead of cursing them and resisting the temptation to repay evil. By mentioning blessings and curses Paul acknowledges the power of our words, and by mentioning repaying evil Paul recognizes the power of our actions. Just as we can use our words and actions to break others, we can make use of our words and actions to create and maintain peace.
We know what cursing others looks like and what it leads to. In the weeks leading up to the ninth anniversary of 9/11, a Florida man';s highly publicized threat to publically burn the Quran caused sadness and anger throughout religious communities around the world. Many faith-based organizations and even President Obama responded to the man';s threat by asking him to reconsider his plans. The Christian Conference of Asia issued multiple statements expressing its solidarity with its Muslim neighbors against the threatened Quran burning. Though this man eventually changed his plans, the damage was done. The world responded to the highly offensive threat.
Religious leaders who came out against the threatened burning were prophetic when they said that the Florida man';s demonstration of hatred would lead to more violence around the world. In an National Council of Churches News Service Op-Ed, Dr. Antonious Kireopoulos wrote, "It will not be the likes of [Florida man] who feel the backlash for such reprehensible behavior but Christians in other places whose only sin is that they--at least in name only--share the same faith with an extremist in Florida." Indeed, this is what came to pass in India and Pakistan.
The words we say can be heard on the other side of the world. What we say locally has an effect globally. In turn, we have the opportunity to hear the words of people on the other side of the world. Given increases in mobility and the ever more interconnected global economy, locally we have neighbors from diverse backgrounds who can offer different perspectives.
So how do these changes in technology and demographics affect how we bless those who are different or perceived as threatening? One way we can create opportunities for love and peace is through interfaith dialogue. Interfaith dialogue is supported by United Methodist Resolution ¶3142, "Called to Be Neighbors and Witnesses," from The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church, which states,
The intent in developing interreligious relationships is not to amalgamate all faiths into one religion ... To engage in interreligious dialogue is neither to endorse nor to deny the faith of other people. In dialogue we mutually seek insight into the wisdom of other traditions, and we hope to overcome our fears and misapprehensions. Far from requiring a lessening of commitment to Christ, effective dialogue is only possible when one';s own faith is strong and may ultimately serve to deepen or extend it.
Engaging in interfaith dialogue is a way to follow Paul';s guidance and to bless those who are different from us, those who threaten us and even those who we feel persecute us (and be blessed by them in return).
Even if we are persecuted, we must remember Paul';s words to not repay evil with evil. Resolution ¶3422, "Resisting Hate, Fear, and Scapegoating, and Transforming the Context of Hate in the United States," from the Book of Resolutions states, "The United Methodist Church reaffirms its historical commitment opposing acts of hate, hate speech, and violence in both church and society. The church commits itself to redouble its efforts to speak out against hate crimes and work to transform the context of fear and hate that gives permission to these acts, naming and challenging the culture that perpetuates it." One way to "transform the context of fear and hate" is through interfaith dialogue.
Blessing Those Who Curse Us
Are we confident enough to bless those who curse us? Are we confident enough to end cycles of violence, as Jesus, Paul and members of the early church did? Are we confident enough to enter into religious dialogue? The world is changing--migration, the global economy, and technological advances in communication are creating new possibilities for peace and love. We have seen in the Bible that God works through many different people and situations. Is interreligious dialogue a way God might be working for love and peace today? Do we have faith that God can work for peace through our active involvement in interreligious dialogue? The book Creating Interfaith Community by Jacob and Glory Dharmaraj (2003) quotes a John Wesley sermon about 1 Corinthians 13:
I am thoroughly persuaded that where Paul is here directly speaking of is the love of our neighbor. ... And this love sweetly constrains him [the Christian] to love every child of man with the love which is here spoken of ... a love of benevolence--of tender good-will to all the souls that God has made. (p. 45)
Can we take Wesley seriously as changes in the world make it more and more possible to actually be able to love every child? Perhaps we can start with blessing others through engaging in interfaith dialogue.