Was recently involved in an interfaith discussion on the topic of Faith and Violence. The starting point was of course the usual : religious wars, terrorism, in the local and foreign context. So it was fascinating to me of course, when the discussion took an unexpected but yet very relevant turn.
My group expanded the concept of what ‘violence’ was in the course of discussion, when a participant introduced her work engaging religious leaders on the issue of marital rape, and how some people believed marital rape should not be criminalised because religious texts gave the right for spouses to demand/force sex. Another participant then shared, very emotionally, her experience of being abused physically and sexually by her ex-husband in the course of forcing her to go to church (she is a Muslim). Someone spoke from the Hindu faith and using Ghandi as an example, said that the concept of non-violence applies to the ‘strong’ — in that the ‘strong’ should refrain from retaliating against the ‘weak’. He explained that if a ‘weaker’ party did not retaliate against a ‘strong’ party, it was usually because the ‘strong’ party was bullying the weaker one —- this ‘non-violence’ would not be one of choice but simply being a victim. Everyone agreed with this view, and thought that witnesses to such bullying who were apathatic and did not help/stand up against the bully, can be considered being part of the violence as well. This stemmed from teachings of most religions to help the weak and oppressed.
The group viewed violence not in black & white terms — violence or non-violence — but as a continuum where riots/terrorism/physical violence was on the most serious extreme end. On the mildest end, the seed of violence is the belief that one is always right and others are always wrong. Along this continuum would be forced conversions, prevention of family members from practising their faith, incidents eg. AWARE, Rony Tan’s videos, fights over carpark space at places of worship, forcing people to fight in wars people did not agree with, etc
So as you can see, it was very enlightening a discussion for me
If a particular school of wisdom has been passed down through hundreds or thousands of years of humanity, I would be inclined to believe that there must be something about it worth learning. It’s like your youtube number of viewers, right? If 23 million people have viewed a video, there’s likely to be something about it worth watching? So I suppose it must be the same with religions. Religions here being taken as schools of wisdom that has gone viral, has been ‘viewed’ and ‘favourited’ and ‘shared’ through thousands of years. And of course, one hopes that after all this time, the crap has been lost and only the wisdom been distilled and viral-ised.
It’s in this spirit that I’ve recently got together with a few friends to discuss these different schools of religion. With one group of Christian friends, we’ve come together to discuss what Christianity really entails, what’s the parts that are adulterated by culture, politics, economics etc etc. Not your usual Bible-flipping or songs-singing cell group. With another group of friends, these Buddhists, we’ve come together to discuss what various concepts of Buddhism really mean in a tangible fashion, eg ‘does Non-Attachment make one less involved in things that others claim we should be passionate about? How does Non-Attachment work in relationships? What do anything if everything is impermanent?’ It’s all fascinating! With the Singapore Humanism Meetup group, it’s yet another bunch of friends discussing how to live an ethical life, or other topics like education, sexual ethics, death etc from a humanistic, atheistic point of view. In a more organized fashion, I’ve also been involved in interfaith dialogue groups hosted by different faith institutions and facilitated by trained interfaith dialogue facilitators. Last year I had the privilege of undergoing this training, and have since facilitated quite a few dialogues. These dialogues are great opportunities to hear from so many faith perspectives in one single session, on topics such as evil, death, the mundane life, to topics such as politics, violence, sports. Recently a few friends involved in different areas of community work got together to organize a dialogue between faith communities and LGBT communities (http://benjamincheah.wordpress.com/2010/08/01/bridging-worlds/ ) which I’ll blog more on soon.
The beauty – and quality – of such dialogues are only as good as the participants. A lot of critical, questioning dialogues have traditionally been taking place only amongst religions leaders or academics. Amongst the common folk, it’s usually a one-way absorption of the “right” teachings from a leader or book. I think I must have been born with the genes that prevent me from just sitting down and absorbing without questioning. Just can’t do that. These dialogues and conversations I’m involved in are attended by people from all walks of life (ok, almost. It tends to be attended more by professionals than blue-collar). We’ve got journalists, scientists, engineers, educators, bankers, economists, lawyers, doctors and of course your religious leaders too. Each one brings with them to the conversation a whole school of secular wisdom. Everyone’s views are equally authoritative/unauthoritative and valid/invalid as the religious leaders’. The religious leader doesn’t “teach” the religious teaching, but rather, offers his/her own perspective as someone tasked to teach others. What we get is a potluck buffet spread of all the different schools of wisdom, and the accompanying condiments of criticisms to each. You get to taste every one, yet you’re not forced to eat any one. It’s beautiful.
Until very recently, such home-based informal religious groups were not regulated by any authorities. Anyone was free to form such groups and teach/preach at home (tho’ are cell groups an ‘illegal gathering’?? hmmm!) However, due to the growing concern of extremist teachings, only a MUIS-certified religious teacher can teach/preach, even within informal groups. I’m not sure if similar regulations have been put in place for other religions, but I’ve not heard of them. How does one balance religious freedom, independence from State control, versus public safety from potential terrorist cells? Tricky one, and perhaps a great topic for discussion next! =)
I received a comment asking what I think LGBT groups would want in and out of a faith-LGBT dialogue.
Before I impose my own 2-cents worth on everybody, I’ll like to invite you, my readers, to give your views?
So to everybody out there : LGBT, straight, health-freaks, conservatives,liberals, Christians, Buddhists, (all other religions), humanists etc etc
May I invite you to generously share your views on all or some of these questions please:
1. What do you think should be the objective(s) of a constructive LGBT-Faith dialogue ?
(eg, To change the minds of the ‘other’ camp? To clear up factual misconceptions? To show that we’re all humans and can be friends? To negotiate positive terms of engagements?)
2. What are some specific items you’ll like to include in this dialogue?
(eg, medical perspectives of sexuality? the laws of different countries? history? doctrine? etc)
3. Who do you think should be present at the dialogue?
(eg. doctors? lawyers? children? christians? people of different faiths? etc?)
4. I respect your anonymity. However, perhaps you could share the perspective/angle you’re coming from, and tell us, What would you like people to know about you?
(eg. how you feel? struggles you had growing up? etc)
5. What would you like to learn through this dialogue? or learn ABOUT through this dialogue?
6. Would you participate in this dialogue? why/why not? In what capacity?
(eg. as a dialogue participant? as a facilitator? as a factual info provider? as an audience? etc)
7. What are the necessary preconditions needed for a successful, constructive dialogue?
(eg. What attitudes? What safeguards? etc)
8. Any other thoughts you’ll like to share, or hear from others, on LGBT-faith dialogues?
I’m really looking forward to hear your thoughts, ideas, opinions.
If anyone would like to organise anything, feel free to share too, I’ll be happy to be involved/help in anyway I can!