By Bishop Paul V. Marshall
[This is Bishop Paul Marshall's October 2008 column for secular newspapers throughout our 14 counties. It is published by The Morning Call, Allentown, on the first Saturday of every month. It usually appears also in ten additional papers. The combined circulation of papers that publish the column regularly is more than 400,000. More than 130 columns have been published over the past 12 years. If your paper does not publish the column and you would consider bringing it to the attention of the editor, please email Bill Lewellis.]
Britain’s Chief Rabbi spent an evening with 700 of us bishops of the Anglican Communion this summer. It was profoundly meaningful that such a thing should happen at all –– the event itself was a gift.
Beyond the humbling and reconciling nature of the event was the wisdom and grace of the remarks of Sir Jonathan Sacks. Everyone left enriched.
Keenly aware that I write this during the High Holy Days, I would like to reflect on two of his observations that speak directly to interfaith relations.
The first gift he gave us had to do with the covenant God made with Noah. As Genesis tells its version of the story of a cataclysmic flood, after Noah and his family survive the catastrophe, God promises that he will never again destroy life on the planet.
So far so good. We were all stunned, then, as Rabbi Sacks observed that humanity has not made a similar promise in return!
He is stunningly right. As a species we have not, as it were, agreed to meet God on his own terms. Religion itself and race, greed and the lust for power have wreaked havoc with human life and now threaten the habitability of earth itself.
Then there is the bomb. Since 1945 it is clear that we as a species possess the divine power to destroy creation –– but, unlike God, we cannot restore it.
Regardless of our philosophical or religious beliefs (or lack of them), our ultimate bond with one another is the predicament of potential destruction.
Rabbi Sacks’ second observation to Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, Muslims, Christians, and atheists is that, while we do not share a faith, we certainly share a fate. He calls on us to be keenly aware of the “covenant of fate” that binds our species –– in fact, all of life. Unless and until we honor the covenant of fate, the chaos will only deepen. Unless we find a way to band together, the planet and its inhabitants can indeed perish.
Christians are accustomed to speak of being caught up in “solidarities not of our own making.” Sir Jonathan’s concept of a covenant of fate is very much the same idea. It deserves ecumenical and interfaith attention. “Honoring the covenant of fate” may give us the common language we need.
This theme persisted throughout the evening. In conversation after his address, Rabbi Sacks was asked what solution he saw for the problems of the Middle East. He gave an answer that will perhaps disappoint zealots of every kind. It calls us all up short.
The rabbi told the story of his meeting with an Arab prince. He asked him how we might find peace in Israel/Palestine. The response he got has stayed with him: “We have only our tears.” Anywhere on the planet, he sees our only sane path in mutually-acknowledged tears,.
To what extent can humanity find solidarity in its tears? How would leadership function if it took tears into account? It would be foolish of me to enter into the current political debate about whether or not leaders ought ever to blink; but, regarding our tears, I am certain of our need to think, to think of the tears of the past and present, determined to avoid tears in the future. Whether we like it or not, we share a fate.
I hope I will always remain grateful for my experience of Sir Jonathan, and carry him very much in my mind as my neighbors celebrate their holy days.
[The Rt. Rev. Paul V. Marshall is bishop of the Diocese of Bethlehem, 14 counties of eastern and northeastern Pennsylvania. His recently published book, Messages in the Mall: Looking at Life in 600 Words or Less (Seabury), is a collection of ten years of his monthly columns for newspapers. Additional columns and sermons by Bishop Marshall are available at www.diobeth.org.]