Most of us have faced situations in life when we are confused and unsure about how to proceed. We have wondered: “What is my duty in these circumstances?” Often we just muddle through the confusion and use whatever justifications the mind can think up to determine the best course of action. What if we yearned for scriptural guidance in this matter? Do our ancient books have any useful insights that may help us figure out what our duty is?
Arjuna had a duty-related dilemma on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, as we read in the Gītā. Thrust into a war with people who Arjuna saw as his own, he was confused about the right course of action. He sought Krishna’s counsel. Krishna’s advice to Arjuna was simple: Do your duty. Krishna went so far as to say that it was better to die doing one’s own duty, even if imperfectly, than to attempt to do someone else’s duty, however perfectly (3.35, 18.47).
The word that Krishna used repeatedly for “one’s own duty” was svadharma, literally, “my dharma” (2.31, 2.33, 3.35, 18.47). Derived from the root dhṛ, “to hold” or “to support,” dharma covers a large canvas, so it is difficult to find a one-word translation of it in English. Depending on the context, dharma can be translated as duty, virtue, justice, and even religion. In order to understand svadharma, we must first learn a little about dharma as duty.
A good starting point in the examination of dharma is to know that it can be divided broadly into two categories: generic (sādhāraṇa) and specific (viśeṣa). As the name suggests, generic dharma is meant for all. It includes virtues like non-injury (ahiṁsā), forbearance (kṣamā), sense-control (indriya-nigraha), compassion (dayā), charity (dāna), purity (śauca), truthfulness (satya), austerity (tapas). Everyone is expected to develop these qualities. The generic dharma is universal. It is dharma for all. It is dharma as virtue.
Dharma as Duty
Everyone has a specific dharma as well. This is dharma as duty. This usually includes duties associated with one’s stage of life (āśrama) and one’s position (varṇa) in the community. In the early stages of Indian society, there were said to be four stages in life: the student stage (brahmacarya), the married stage (gārhasthya), the retired stage (vānaprasthya), and the hermit stage (sannyāsa).
In our times, these have largely been reduced to three: the first part of life is the student stage, usually under the care of one’s parents. Then comes the married stage, when one launches into a career and starts one’s family. Finally, the retired stage, when it’s time to retire as the children grow up and start their own families. A few among those in the retired stage may eventually become hermits without taking formal monastic vows. Those who do take formal vows usually begin early in life, often during or immediately after the student stage. Every one of these stages has its own special set of duties called āśrama dharma.
In the student stage, for instance, the primary duty is to study. But students are at the same time also sons or daughters, so they have duties toward their parents as well. In the married stage, more duties are added—such as the duty towards the spouse and the children—and some of the old duties continue, the duty toward one’s aging parents, for instance. In this way, every new stage adds more duties while retaining a few from the earlier stages. The only exception to this is the last stage. Those who are in the hermit stage are exempt from all the earlier duties, but they have a special set of duties associated with the monastic life.
As to one’s duty toward the community (varṇa dharma), four fields in community life became the focus of attention early on: religion, administration, commerce, and service. Every community needed scholars and priests (brāhmaṇa), administrators and warriors (kṣatriya), farmers and traders (vaiśya), and help of nonspecialist workers (śūdra). Every one of these positions had a set of duties assigned to it. The nuts and bolts of this system evolved over a period of time, the natural way social structures have always taken shape.
How were the positions determined for community members? On the basis of the qualities (guṇa) they possessed to do the work (karma) that was required (Gītā 4.13). While this was a logical way to fulfill the needs of a community, it couldn’t have been easy centuries ago to implement it in practice. In many ways the world then was unimaginably different from the world today. For starters, these ancient communities were mostly isolated from one another and therefore had to be self-sufficient. Travel was rare and, in the absence of any meaningful mode of transport, didn’t take people far from their homes. Almost everyone grew up, worked, married, raised children, retired, and died in the area where they were born.
There were no schools to go to for professional training. The only way healing could be learnt, for instance, was as an apprentice to a physician (vaidya). The village physician’s assistant would usually be his own son, who would grow up and, when his father retired, take his place. There was no guarantee that the physician’s son was the best candidate for the job or even had interest in it. But he didn’t have much freedom to choose some other career. If there was only one physician in the village and he died, the community couldn’t go without a physician just because the apprentice wasn’t interested in the job. Similar was the situation for other skills and trades needed for an efficient functioning of the community. There were exceptions in extraordinary circumstances, but they were rare.
It clearly wasn’t an ideal situation, but there didn’t seem to be any better alternative. The idea was good but the infrastructure was not congenial. That is how these work-related obligations came to be inherited and stayed within the family, not so much earned through merit. Over the years, the positions hardened and came to be determined by birth (jāti) and identified by the work the people did. Swami Vivekananda referred to the arrangement as “a hereditary trade guild” (CW, 5. 311) and “a social institution” (CW, 1. 22). Fully aware of how it was being portrayed, Swamiji emphasized that it was a mistake to view it as “a religious institution” (CW, 2. 515, 5. 22). The varṇas are mentioned by name in the Puruṣa-sūkta of the Ṛgveda (10.90) and in the Gītā (4.13, 18.41-44), but that doesn’t make the social system that adopted the varṇa nomenclature a religious institution, any more than the many references to slaves and slavery in the Bible make that a religious institution.
What the groupings in the Indian society led to was a situation that pitted heredity against merit. People claimed a position because of heredity, which determined the work they did. In many instances, there were perhaps others who were better suited to the position because they had the qualities essential for it. But such people did not always get the job even when they yearned for it. Heredity and work were easier to identify objectively than interest and aptitude. The result was that one’s family affiliation and the inherited work became the socially accepted markers of one’s position and responsibility.
To be sure, qualities were not ignored. They were often recognized and utilized, but they could not dislodge the primacy of heredity. In the Mahabharata, for instance, Vidura was by birth a śūdra and maintained that position socially but, because he had qualities identified with the position of brāhmaṇa, functioned as a much-respected advisor to the king. On the other hand, Droṇa, who was a brāhmaṇa by birth, was skilled in archery and taught military arts, work that was associated with the kṣatriya position. These were not exceptions. It was not unusual to have one position claimed by birth and another earned through merit or imposed by circumstances. This has continued to be the case, though hereditary positions are increasingly becoming irrelevant now.
The original system was designed for a fair distribution of responsibility among community members. Every form of work that met the social need was necessary and important. There wasn’t any inbuilt sense of one work being higher or superior to any other work. There was no sense of hierarchy. The work was not meant to be an end in itself. It was a means. It could bestow bliss in heaven after death or, when done as yoga, it could lead to spiritual liberation (mokṣa). Every form of work, so long as it did not violate moral and ethical principles, had the ability to give us the highest (Gītā 18.45-46). It didn’t therefore matter what work people did, so long as they remained true to dharma as virtue.
In practice, though, things didn’t work out quite so ideally. We don’t know how long it was before hierarchies arose with everyone claiming themselves to be superior to others and hence more important than others. The problem was what it has always been throughout human history—greed and selfishness. What had begun primarily as an equitable distribution of duties for social upkeep changed over time into a politicized preservation of privilege for the powerful. The history of the world repeatedly shows us that we human beings are adept in the art of transforming anything good into something awful.
Every form of responsibility brings power and, along with it, the desperate desire to preserve privilege. The priests had knowledge gathered from ancient books and they used fear of retribution in the afterlife to keep the rest under their thumb. The warriors brandished the power of weapons and no one dared to refuse whatever they asked for. The traders used their commercial might to control and subdue others. The workers bore the greatest brunt, being oppressed in one way or another by the priests, the warriors and the traders. Eventually they too found their voice and discovered their own strength in numbers and used it to good effect through strikes and protests.
Not all of these things happened at the same time and to the same degree. Also, not everyone misused their positions. Some were indeed good and responsible people, but many others were not. At different times and in different communities, one or the other of these four power centers dominated and tried to control the rest. The emphasis shifted from duty (dharma) to rights (adhikāra). Duty required us to give our time, energy and skills. Rights were about receiving more power, more privilege. No wonder duties were ignored and there was a rush for rights, a trend that continues to this day, not only in the Indian society but also in the rest of the world.
The constitutions of democratic nations the world over list different kinds of rights that citizens have. It will be difficult to find any mention of duties. How can there be any rights without the corresponding duties? When President Kennedy said at his inauguration in 1961: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” he was hoping that his fellow Americans would redirect their attention to duties, not simply remain fixated on rights.
The world today is radically different from what it was in those ancient days centuries ago when the social order in India was evolving. The constraints of those early communities no longer exist. No longer is one community isolated from another to the extent it was in the past. On the contrary, we are more connected than ever—in person through easy jet travel and virtually via the internet. Global trade and commerce have not only brought people together but also made it possible to shop for talents and skills in every part of the world.
Oddly enough, the original intent of the varṇa-system to have responsibilities divided in a community on the basis of merit is easier to implement now than it was then. If a certain skillset is missing, we can now import it from elsewhere—or outsource the work some place else when possible. Today’s businesses try to employ the best talents suited for the job, for that’s the key to success and profits. Merit has a better chance today than it had in the past. Because a lot more choices are available, it is easier now to choose our careers and pursue our interests. There is more freedom in social matters than ever before. It would seem that things are finally falling in place. If you feel that this scenario looks too rosy to be true, you are right. It does represent truth, but only a half-truth.
The other half isn’t pretty. We have come far from the isolated but mostly homogeneous communities of the past to the closely connected but increasingly diverse world of the present. Inevitably, hurdles have cropped up. Merit is still recognized, but before it can assert itself, it has to battle the compulsions of poverty and the forces of racism, antisemitism, nationalism, and fundamentalism. These have spawned different kinds of power centers in societies the world over, keeping communities internally divided. The claims of merit take a backseat when a person is not of the right color or the right nationality or the right religion. More important than the needs of the community are the preservation of privilege of the group in power. The “group in power” is the dominant caste of the time.
When India came under the thousand-year rule of people from beyond its borders, its social structure had already undergone a sea change. The society was no longer being nourished by dharma as duty. Dharma did not disappear but it became weak. The masses were being controlled by those who had usurped power and privilege. Swami Vivekananda was unsparing in his condemnation of those who exploited the situation to their own advantage. The shell of the original system survived but its soul had vanished. This did more harm than good to the health of the community—and was one of the major reasons why India could not defend itself from external aggressions.
Arriving in India in 1498, the Portuguese were the first to apply the word “caste” (from Portuguese, casta) to the hereditary groupings in Indian society. Throughout history, the powerful—in India’s case, the colonial masters—have always had the privilege of defining and stereotyping the less powerful. Thanks to the Portuguese and then the British, the word “caste” got indelibly associated with India. Because the varṇa system by then had become a caricature of its original plan, “caste” remained as a taint on the Indian society and, oddly, also on Hinduism, the religion that majority of Indians practice. It is difficult to find today a textbook or a chapter on Hinduism that doesn’t treat caste as if it were the defining part of the tradition.
Isabel Wilkerson points out in her insightful study, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (2020), that the problems in today’s America—especially the ones faced by the black community—are better understood through the lens of caste than racism. A system of artificially constructed hierarchies exists not only in America but throughout the world and, even though it may not always be called by its true name “caste,” it continues to be the major cause of social discontent and suffering. The system takes different forms and manifests in different ways, discriminating against people on the basis of ancestry, color, class, faith, nature of work, and sexual orientation. The word “caste” may have been employed extensively with regard to the Indian society, but it is not merely an Indian problem. It is a global problem.
We have seen that the era in which the varṇa system emerged in India has long passed. The social arrangement, whatever good it may have achieved in the early days, fizzled out with the passage of time due to selfishness and greed. There was no conscious and collective effort to modify or revise the social structure periodically to keep in step with the rapidly evolving society. All social institutions that stagnate tend toward chaos and corruption. Reformers in every generation tried to stem the slide, but their efforts were clearly not enough. All of this has made the system untenable today and irrelevant to most Indians, especially those living in urban areas.
How does it still manage to survive? It has not survived in its original form obviously. What survives now is the empty shell that bestows privilege on the powerful and keeps the less powerful suppressed through political maneuverings. The underprivileged are nevertheless lulled into clinging to their group identities by the crumbs of “benefits” doled out to them by their political patrons. Each of these “castes” has become a special interest group and is kept alive by community leaders as “vote banks” to strengthen their political clout. The phenomenon is not limited to Indian politics. The caste structure in different guises exists all over the world and shows similar manipulations by the people in power.
So, what is “my duty”?
Keeping all of the above in mind, it’s time to ask: Does the Gītā teaching regarding dharma as duty have any relevance in the 21st century? How can I be sure that I am truly following “my dharma” (svadharma)? What is my dharma in today’s changed world?
As we have seen, “my dharma” includes two sets of primary responsibilities: one, depending on the stage of my life (student, family, retirement, monastic), and two, depending on my skills and work for the community. A group of ancient books called Dharma Śāstras deals with duties at different stages of life (āśrama dharma). These books haven’t been updated for centuries, so their practical utility is limited. They are generally of interest to theologians or to those who study history of religion. For the rest of us, no books are really needed. Common sense would be more than enough, if it is accompanied by a firm determination to follow dharma as virtue.
What is my varṇa dharma? Let us return to the Gītā idea (4.13) of varṇa dharma being determined by the qualities (guṇa) required to do every work (karma). In Arjuna’s case, he was a kṣatriya because he had the requisite qualities, not merely because he was born in a kṣatriya family. He was the preeminent archer of his time. Krishna reminded Arjuna that his varṇa dharma required of him to vanquish the oppressors and uphold justice (2.31, 11.33). Overwhelmed by his filial attachment to members of his family who were on the opposite side, Arjuna wanted to give everything up and live on alms (2.5), a monastic lifestyle for which he wasn’t qualified yet. His knowledge of who he was and where his duty lay got clouded by his confusion.
That is precisely the kind of confusion that can come upon me if I lack self-knowledge—“self” with the lowercase “s”—meaning, plain simple knowledge of who I am at this moment. In order to know myself, I should look within to examine what my inherent talents and qualities are. It is not easy to look at oneself objectively and assess one’s worth. Some amount of ego reduction is necessary in order to be able to do that well. Done clumsily, people either underestimate themselves or grossly exaggerate their worth.
Armed with the knowledge of my strengths and my weaknesses, my skills and my interests, I can choose my career and decide what else I should do in life. If my self-assessment is accurate, my varṇa dharma becomes obvious. If I am lucky, I’ll find the kind of work I love and am good at. All I need to do then is to work hard, be sincere and attentive. That will bring me joy and other rewards. I can also help those around me find work and activities that fit their profile and interests. The secret of happiness is to make others happy, especially those in my immediate circle. I cannot be happy if everyone around me is unhappy.
It’s also possible that, for whatever reason, I may not find the work that I love or the work I am qualified for. I may then have to settle for something less interesting. The work I am saddled with may not feel to be my svadharma at all. I may feel that my merit is not being recognized. When that happens, it is easy to feel frustrated and angry. But it doesn’t really help. When such impulses go unchecked, they can lead me into doing things that produce even more suffering. I need to find other ways to deal with my situation. One practical way is to do what work I can for the present while looking out for opportunities to do what truly matches my skills and aspirations. Patience and perseverance have never hurt anyone and usually are rewarded sooner or later.
Who wouldn’t want a work that is enjoyable and fulfilling? What if I am not so lucky to get it even after trying my best? If I am a devotee or a spiritual seeker, I will then view whatever work becomes mine as something that God wants me to do. I’ll remind myself that God has put me in this situation for a reason. It’s necessary for me to learn some lessons in life that I haven’t learnt yet. No matter how boring or uninspiring, I’ll try to do the work to the best of my ability, as skillfully as I can, in a spirit of karma yoga, recognizing that doing the work in this manner is my svadharma now. All of this applies not only to the work I do to earn my livelihood but also to every other activity of mine.
The truth is that when we do something in the spirit of karma yoga, it somehow becomes meaningful and joyful even if it wasn’t something we were originally thrilled about. Not many realize that all work is really done by God. This is not recognized because the ego gets in the way and appropriates all agency to itself. If we succeed in minimizing—and then eliminating—the ego, we will know that all efforts are powered by God, who pervades everything and everyone. Every duty stops being “duty” when done as karma yoga, it becomes a form of worship, and leads to perfection and spiritual freedom (Gītā 18.46).
We don’t know if there will ever be a time when everyone in the world will realize this. It sure feels unlikely. Be that as it may, no power in the world can stop me from thinking that every work that makes me unselfish is my duty. Every work that is powered through love and kindness is my duty. Every work that is based on truth is my duty. Every work done in a spirit of worship is my duty. Not only should I think this way, I should also live this way day after day, month after month, year after year. If I do this, nothing else matters. If I don’t do this, what does my life matter?
The Islamic Society of Framingham
The Islamic Center of Boston, Wayland
Islamic Masumeem Center of New England, Hopkinton
To our dear neighbors in faith,
To our utter horror we woke to the news, as you had, to the horrific killing and wounding of worshipers in houses of God in Christchurch in New Zealand. The hate that mustered these killings is sadly experienced in many places in the world today, including our own nation, the United States. They express themselves through the wounds of Islamophobia, antisemitism, overt racism, and xenophobia.
In recent months our own communities have not been immune to some form of this social hatred toward our neighbors and friends. As clergy of Holliston, we stand with you and for you in this most grevious time. We offer our prayer to God as he holds our grief and fear in these challenging times.
We also offer our hands and our hearts with the hope that together we can heal these wounds of hate in our own communities, and together with others, throughout our nation and world. We want to reach out to you in this difficult time and together say that we utterly condemn these murderous actions and pledge to work in bringing all of our religious and nonreligious communities together in dialogue and cooperation.
The use of social media as a tool of terrorism cannot be overlooked. The heinous nature of the original attack is only compounded by the use of social media to spread further fear and terror in its wake. The use of social media, and the connection to online hate speech groups, is a clear reminder to us that violent extremists of all stripes are using social media to spread hate speech, and incitement to violence. We must do more in our communities to combat online hate and religious bias.
We extend our heartfelt condolences to the families and friends of those killed and wounded in New Zealand, as we do so with you and your communities in the Metrowest area, and throughout the country. "Give glad tidings to those who patiently endure, who say when afflicted with a calamity: "To Allah we belong and to Him we return." They are those on whom (descend) blessings and mercy from their Lord, and they are the ones who receive guidance." (Surah Baqarah; 2:155-157)
Rev. Bonnie Steinroeder
Rev. Mark Peterson
Rabbi Steve Edleman-Blank
Fr. Carl Chudy
Rev. Sarah Robbins-Cole
Rabbi Jennifer Rudin
Mr. Hussam Syed
Mr. Larry Maloney
METROWEST INTERFAITH DIALOGUE PROJECT
By Larry Maloney
Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive,” wrote CS Lewis, one of the last century’s most noted Christian writers.
Yet few people will ever encounter the daunting forgiveness challenge that Simon Wiesenthal, the famous Nazi hunter, faced during his imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp. Witnessing the deaths of his fellow Jewish prisoners on an almost daily basis, the young Wiesenthal one day finds himself face to face with a dying SS soldier who asks Simon’s forgiveness for the Nazi trooper’s role in the slaughter of 300 Jews in a Russian town.
Wiesenthal recalls that incident and his personal struggle with the question of forgiveness in The Sunflower, a book that has become central to Holocaust studies since it was first published in 1976. The book asks readers what they would have done in Simon’s place and includes perspectives from 40 commentators, including well-known theologians, writers, professors, as well as Holocaust survivors.
On February 24, more than 30 Metrowest residents added their own views on The Sunflower’s key questions in a community book discussion and dinner hosted by Holliston’s First Congregational Church. The gathering was sponsored by the Metrowest Interfaith Dialogue Project (MIDP), launched in 2017 by Holliston clergy and the Islamic Society of Framingham to promote understanding and cooperation among people of diverse faiths. The group also reaches out to non-believers and to those who are not affiliated with any religious congregation.
After a potluck supper, participants broke up into four groups to discuss the book, as well as their own opinions on forgiveness. Leading the discussions were four Holliston clergy: Rev. Bonnie Steinroeder, senior minister at the First Congregational Church, Rabbi Steven Edelman-Blank of Temple Beth Torah, Rev. Carl Chudy of Our Lady of Fatima Shrine, and the Rev. Mark Peterson, pastor of Christ the King Lutheran Church. Helping to lead Muslim participants in the discussion was Hussam Syed from the Islamic Society of Framingham.
As the groups tackled the many issues raised by the book, some common questions surfaced:
• Is one justified in forgiving someone on behalf of victims who cannot speak for themselves?
• Can we forgive without also forgetting?
• What are the necessary requirements of true repentance?
• How culpable are those who remain silent in the face of wrongdoing?
• For believers, what role does God play in human-to-human forgiveness?
• How do different religious faiths –Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism – view forgiveness. Commentators from all these faiths give their perspectives in The Sunflower.
Not surprisingly, many of the issues raised by this thought-provoking book remain unresolved in the minds of many readers. Yet participants in the Metrowest event seemed to agree with several of the book’s commentators on one important conclusion: the act of forgiving, no matter how difficult and painful, can remove great burdens not only from the wrong-doer but also from the one who has been hurt.
(Larry Maloney is a freelance writer in Ashland, MA)
Metrowest Interfaith Dialogue Project
hollistoninterfaith.org | email@example.com | Holliston, MA
November 17, 2018
Not long ago the news of a fifth-grade child in Hemenway school in Framingham, who was the victim of a hate crime based on her faith and the faith of her family devastated us all. This is an issue that is not new in our country, unfortunately, and one that we of different faith and non-faith traditions need always to be vigilant for.
We pray for this child and her family and all our Muslim neighbors, near and far, who may struggle for acceptance in these fractious times. In many ways this act also symbolizes all of the acts of bias and violence against all those who are Muslim, Jewish, African American, immigrant and others in these recent years particularly.
Last October 27th, we held our first interfaith event at Temple Beth Torah on the very afternoon of the anti-Semitic shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Unexpectedly we moved to Jewish prayers of mourning, and even though the circumstances were quite difficult, the opportunity for our non-Jewish neighbors to support our Jewish friends at such a time was indeed was what neighbors of faith must do.
The attack on this child was not born in a vacuum, but part of a culture of prejudice where hate is learned, even by children. Our commitment to interfaith dialogue is to join others in support to this child and her family, but also to encourage opportunities where peoples of different faith traditions can come together in friendship, seeking common ground and holding our differences together in respect and curiosity.
This is not only a demand of the best of each of our faiths, but this is also the stuff of nation building, starting in our communities.
Shalom | Peace | Salam
Rev. Bonnie Steinroeder – First Congregational Church, Holliston | Fr. Carl Chudy – Our Lady of Fatima Shrine, Holliston | Rabbi Steve Edelman-Blank – Temple Beth Torah | Rev. Mark Peterson – Christ the King Lutheran Church, Holliston | Rabbi Jennifer Rudin – Simcha Services, Holliston | Shaheen Aktar – Islamic Society of Boston | Hussam Syed – Islamic Society of Framingham
This is one of many examples of the need for peoples of all faiths to come together, along with our secular brothers and sisters. It is in secular structures that we all can gather equally and consolidate the power to heal the earth that is in all of our hands. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section. What does your faith tradition say to the challenges of global climate change today?
by Larry Maloney
On the very day that a gunman killed 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, a group of Metrowest residents gathered at Holliston’s Temple Beth Torah for an event dedicated to promoting understanding and cooperation among people of diverse religious faiths.
Entitled “Listening and Loving: Honoring Our Diversity as Multifaith Neighbors,” the two- day event, held at the temple on Oct. 27 and Our Lady of Fatima Shrine on Oct. 28, was the first such gathering sponsored by the Metrowest Interfaith Dialogue Project, launched in 2017 by Holliston clergy.
The conference drew more than 50 participants each day in what organizers hope will be a continuing series of events that will draw people from a mix of religious faiths, as well as those with no religious affiliation.
United in grief. Even before conference participants could begin the planned agenda, Rabbi Steven Edelman-Blank of Temple Beth Torah led prayers for the Pittsburgh victims and recalled the valuable mentoring he received years ago at the Tree of Life synagogue. “I would not be a rabbi today, were it not for my experience there,” he said.
Rabbi Edelman-Blank noted that anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. rose nearly 60 percent in 2017, the largest single-year increase ever recorded by the Anti-Defamation League. The FBI has designated the Pittsburgh shooting a hate crime. “We mourn the victims, and we worry about our country,” said the rabbi.
Another of the conference’s organizers, Rev. Carl Chudy of Holliston’s Fatima Shrine, said: “We can all bring comfort and consolation to our Jewish neighbors. Interfaith dialogue is more important now than ever before. People of faith can be part of the leaven of peace so sorely needed in the world today.”
During the two-day conference, attendees engaged in several activities designed to build bridges between people of diverse religious backgrounds. These included:
Others observed that many congregations are caught up in more pressing matters, such as declining membership that has caused financial pressures and prompted closings and consolidations. Data from Middlesex County shows that the number of residents who say they are affiliated with a religious denomination declined by 24% from 2000 to 2010, while those with no religious faith increased by 137% in the same period.
Even so, “Loving and Listening” participants clearly viewed the conference as a springboard for more interfaith dialogue. “I loved the warmth and friendship that I felt all around me,” said Verna Hobson of the First Congregational Church. “We are all God’s children, and we have much in common. If there should be further meetings of this sort, I would certainly plan to attend.”
The conference ended with attendees suggesting ideas for future interfaith activities. These included: joint prayer gatherings, such as the interfaith Thanksgiving service scheduled for November 18 at the First Congregational Church. Among other ideas: book clubs, youth volunteer days, open houses, and workshops on addiction and other concerns.
Said Hussam Syed from the Islamic Society of Framingham: “Our problems, goals, aspirations and many of our beliefs are the same. When we get to know each other, we can move beyond mere respect and can be more efficient in reaching out to others, especially the poor and needy.”
(Larry Maloney is an Ashland-based freelance writer. For more information on the Metrowest Interfaith Dialogue Project, contact Rev. Carl Chudy at (508) 429-2144, email: (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Verna Hobson from First Congregational Church wanted to share this beautiful poem for our interfaith gathering. Take a look.
God made of one family the people on earth.
He loves us all dearly; we all have much worth.
We all have one Father, Creator and King,
To love and adore, for whom our hearts sing.
Allegiance to God should be our first goal,
For more than all else, He treasures each soul.
A lesson important that everyone learn –
God’s love is a gift, not something we earn.
He’s made of one blood every person we see;
True brothers and sisters therefore must we be.
While skin colors vary, each beautiful tone
Gives lovely appearance to the one who does own
The red or the yellow, the white or the black –
No skimping on beauty does any race lack.
And if you will notice, with truly great flair
He coordinates skin with the eyes and the hair,
So that all are attractive and carefully made,
Whatever the color, whatever the shade.
Each face and each finger distinctive, unique –
No two are alike, though afar we should seek.
Every person is special, God wants us to know;
And He values each greatly, from head down to toe.
By caring for all, with His love very real,
He sets true example of how we should feel.
We must offer respect to each person we meet –
To push away one is to make incomplete
The family of God, since one Father we share.
Let us show love to all, and to none give despair.
If we view every person as God’s precious child,
We will find all are wanted and will show none reviled.
Our caring means sharing our clothing and food,
And helping another to shelter her brood.
Compassion and kindness to all we must show,
As helping and caring will let others grow.
Since living requires each person to work,
And idleness weakens the one who would shirk,
Then a meaningful job every person desires,
Whether tending a farm, or stoking home fires.
Insofar as we’re able, let us pass on a skill,
That will help others lose their desire to kill.
For each useful endeavor at a task that is learned
Gives hope to the doer and esteem justly earned.
And with each success, and a job that’s well done,
A happier future for all is begun.
For when people are fed, and good health is the norm,
And all live in comfort and out of the storm,
Then peace can begin, and contentment can reign,
And jealousies cease causing sickness and pain.
So we thank Thee, dear God, for each sister and brother.
Keep us mindful of Thee as we help one another.
Bind our hearts in true friendship, make false boundaries flee.
Help us ease others’ burdens, from all hatreds set free.
With Thy light on our path, and our faces aglow,
May we then become beacons to all whom we know.
Then, one family of God as we circle this earth,
Hand-in-hand, heart-to-heart, all will know their true worth!
Verna S. Hobson
November 29, 2004
Copyright © 2005
Judeo-Christian was a myth that served a purpose. It’s time to write the next chapter.
By Eboo Patel
October 18, 2018
Here is how I’ve been opening my speeches on college campuses lately: Did you know that when the Mayflower Pilgrims arrived on the Atlantic seaboard and dusted off Plymouth Rock, they found the words ‘Judeo-Christian America’ etched on it?
I will pause for a moment, taking in the "Oh wow" stares of twenty-year-olds who excelled on standardized tests, and then I will slowly shake my head and allow a knowing smile to climb onto my face.
Sometimes there will be a chuckle from the crowd, but I like it most when students view this gambit as a challenge rather than a joke, when they lean forward in their seats and give me looks that say, ‘Ok buddy, now you’ve got me. So tell me, where did 'Judeo-Christian America' come from? This better be interesting."
And it is. "Judeo-Christian America" was created by a group of interfaith leaders who founded an organization called the National Conference of Christians and Jews (NCCJ) in the late 1920s as a response to the anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism of the KKK.
The leaders of the NCCJ believed that the Protestant nation narrative needed to be expanded to include the growing numbers of Jews and Catholics in the United States. To accomplish their goal, they created a term that has become so woven into the American story that we forget that someone at some point made it up. "Judeo-Christian America" is a civic invention, and a genius one at that. The history is beautifully recounted in Kevin Schultz’s book, Tri-Faith America’.
Why do so many students in the room look like they believe me (or at least like they want to) when I tell my little Plymouth Rock story? The answer is simple: no one, not in high school or in college, has told them the real story.
In fact, outside of the obligatory references to the First Amendment, no educator has talked to them much about one of the great achievements of American civilization – the creation of a religiously diverse democracy.
There is data that underscores the important difference that colleges can make regarding how students engage with religious diversity. The findings of the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudanal Survey (IDEALS), co-led by Alyssa Rockenbach, Matt Mayhew, and IFYC survey show that students come to campus interested in learning about religious diversity issues, and that incorporating religious diversity education into first-year orientation and creating interfaith course sequences or minors are particularly impactful for achieving higher appreciative attitudes towards diverse identities and increased pluralism orientation.
That’s important, because while the civic invention "Judeo-Christian America" did good work for 80-some years, we now live in a nation with appreciable numbers of Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, Baha’I’s, Jains, atheists, seekers and more, and in a moment where the forces of religious prejudice are on the rise.
We need a new national narrative that directly combats prejudice and proactively welcomes the contributions of these various groups to the American Table.
The person who writes that narrative might well be a twenty-year-old student on a college campus right now.
Taken from the blog, Inside Higher Ed in a special blog series on Diversity in America.