Bethesda congregation seeks interfaith reconciliation

[Washington Window] How do you respect another’s religious beliefs without betraying your own?

It’s a difficult question, and one that is increasingly compelling as religious fundamentalism fans the flames of war the world over.

In search of improved interfaith relationships in its own neighborhood, one church in the Diocese of Washington has turned to an 18th Century play for an answer.

For several years now, parishioners of Bethesda’s Church of the Redeemer have joined members of the local Islamic and Jewish communities to do readings of “Nathan the Wise,” and discuss the issues it raises.

The well-loved tale, by German author Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, is set in Jerusalem in 1192, during the time of Saladin, the great Muslim leader. Times were tense then, as now, between the three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

The play tells the story of Nathan, a Jewish merchant, who is summoned by Saladin to answer the question: “What is the one true religion?”

“The dilemma in the play – no one criticizes anyone’s faith and everyone remains true to his own faith – is the dilemma we’re facing in the world today,” said Redeemer’s rector, the Rev. Susan Burns.

Redeemer’s members began to meet with other faith communities after the events of Sept. 11, 2001. The catalyst came, Burns said, when the Muslim husband of a Christian parishioner wrote to thank her for a newsletter article she had written in which she asked her congregation to learn more about Islam. Soon after this exchange, the nearby Islamic Weekend School asked if it could adopt the church, and the church accepted the invitation.

“We started with a Thanksgiving gathering in 2001 and we kind of had a combination of our worship and their prayers,” Burns said. “It’s a national holiday, not a church holiday, per se, and it seemed like a time when we could come together.”

The combined congregations sang “America the Beautiful” and a hymn written for Sept. 11. Parishioners placed an oriental rug in the church, and members of the Muslim congregation aligned it with Mecca so they could say their prayers.

“We prayed together, which is something that is not in their usual process, but I think they were very moved that we wanted to pray with them,” Burns said.

In 2002, a Palestinian parishioner suggested a reading of “Nathan the Wise,” and Burns approached the rabbi of the Adat Shalom synagogue in Potomac, Md. with the idea.

Performances took place in May, 2002 at the church, and in Nov. 2002 at the synagogue. And after each reading, participants spoke about what the play meant to them.

“It gave people a way to gather around this issue of interfaith relations,” Burns said. “It gave them a way to be together to handle the stuff of the conflict without having to confront each other.”

While the seeds of tolerance took root in her congregation, Burns decided to seek a deeper understanding of the ties that bind the three religions by visiting Jerusalem.

She obtained a $30,000 grant through the National Clergy Renewal Program, and set off on sabbatical in July, returning to the parish on Oct. 17.

“I wanted to see the land. I wanted to see the people. I wanted to understand the scripture better from being in the land,” she said. “It’s a real place. It’s not the place we make up in our imagination when we read the story.”

And real places come with real problems.

In addition to experiencing the Jerusalem Jesus knew, Burns tried to find out what she could about the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

She was saddened by the ungodliness of some of the things she saw.

“There’s persecution and injustice all around, and each side sees itself as the victim and the other as the perpetrator,” she said. “I came away feeling really hopeless.”

In the West Bank, she witnessed the misery of those who live under the Israeli occupation and are unable to freely enter or leave the towns in which they live. She saw homes bulldozed by Israeli Army tanks and livelihoods disrupted.

“I saw how their lives were affected by the occupation,” she said. “People’s lives are so disrupted day to day to day and they feel hopeless, they just feel squeezed and hopeless. One thing that just really struck me was how much people in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, how much their energy is just sucked up by the structure, the institutions of the occupation.”

During her stay, she also visited Jewish families, including her own sister-in-law’s cousin in Tel Aviv, a mother who shared her anxiety about having a son in the Israeli Army.

Burns returned to this country eager to speak about what she has seen.

“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: may they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.” Psalm 122

“The question is how to be heard,” she said. “How to make the point that the situation in Israel and Palestine is untenable both for Palestinians and Israelis.”

Darkness hangs over the Holy Land, she said, yet there are significant points of light: One positive experience was her visit to the crippled children’s home of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, a Catholic organization that promotes human dignity and integrity.

Run by nuns and lay volunteers, the home cares for crippled children of all faiths who are often bed-ridden or severely brain damaged. They are all treated with love and tenderness, Burns said, regardless of their religion.

Another bright spot was her visit to Mount Sinai, where Moses received the 10 commandments. She began her ascent at 3 a.m. in order to reach the summit in time to see the desert sunrise.

“There were all kinds of people there,” she said: “Japanese tourists – Christians – having a service and singing, new age people who had come to worship the sun, Jews – all these different groups. It was quite amazing.”

Back in Bethesda, Burns plans to keep building on the relationships her church has started to foster with other faith communities.

As well as doing another reading of “Nathan the Wise,” she hopes to establish small interfaith dinner groups. People would meet in each other’s homes, “not necessarily to talk about the heavy issues, but to get to know each other as people,” she said.

She has suggested a book to the church reading circle: “Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations,” by Jonathan Sacks, an English rabbi who speaks about the reconciliation of religious hatred.

And she plans to take a group to Jerusalem some day, where the three faiths of Abraham struggle forward – inextricably intertwined, for better or for worse.

First appeared in Washington Window Vol. 72 No. 8, 2003 as

Abraham’s many sons

Local congregation seeks reconciliation