Right Speech

I write this at a time of escalating violence in Israel and Gaza. This is not the place to discuss the violence. But this is a time to discuss why I created this blog.

This blog considers questions of religious difference and identity. I describe religious identity as a good thing, and religious difference as a catalyst for personal and spiritual growth. But the violence in Israel and Gaza is the product of religious difference, at least in part.  Some believe that religious difference leads to religious war. This is not my point of view, but now is a time to seriously consider that point of view.

I would like to view interfaith dialog as an anti-war effort. It is a commonplace notion that dialog leads to peace. But dialog can end in deadly violence; nothing prevents this. I would like to argue that it’s more difficult to seek the destruction of an enemy once one has engaged the enemy in dialog. But I’ve had occasion here to examine the dialog from major Jewish-Christian disputations during the Middle Ages, as well as that accompanying modern-day Christian efforts to proselytize Jews, and such dialog did and does not promote peace.

So I’m tempted to argue that dialog promotes peace when it is the “right” kind of dialog. I might argue that the “right” kind of dialog is one that celebrates diversity, promotes tolerance and teaches the value of difference. But others might argue that the “right” kind of dialog is the one that seeks truth, or is aimed at some other worthy goal. Moreover, agreement on the “right” kind of dialog itself requires dialog. I suspect that when two people agree in advance on what kind of dialog is “right”, they also agree in advance on other fundamental issues. Such people are not likely to come to blows in the first place. If what we seek is a peace-promoting dialog between two potential combatants, we must proceed with the dialog even without agreement on what kind of dialog is “right”.

As much as I wish it were otherwise, I have no grand plan for how to talk our way to peace.

But I have one tactic in mind: continue the dialog. I’ve already admitted, dialog can end in violence. This being the case, we might avoid violence by not ending the dialog. Sure, it is possible for war to continue while peace talks drag on. But peace talks can lead to peace; the end of peace talks inevitably leads to war.

And I have one strategy in mind: promote mutual understanding. I hope we’re less likely to wage war on people we’ve come to know. But at least let’s understand our enemies. Let’s understand when a rocket fired in this direction will produce the deterrence we seek, or when a rocket fired in the other direction will affect morale in the way we seek.

You may wonder why I discuss these matters here, on a blog devoted to Jewish-Christian dialog. Jews and Christians are at peace today – in fact, we enjoy today what may well be the most favorable relationship in 2,000 years of shared history. But the Jewish-Christian relationship has not always been so friendly. The current Jewish-Christian relationship is the product of many years of difficult dialog, and at the outset there was no assurance that the dialog would bear fruit – just as there is no assurance that the Christian-Jewish relationship will continue to be a positive one.

When we speak here, we affirm our desire for lasting Christian-Jewish peace. We affirm that religious difference does not inevitably lead to war. We demonstrate that our difference is not complete, that we share in common many of the same values and a similar desire to connect to the sacred and divine. The Christian-Jewish dialog may also serve as a source of hope for all those who engage in Jewish-Muslim dialog – some in the very heart of Jewish-Muslim hostility.

The conflict in Israel and Gaza is a reminder of what we have at stake when we talk across a religious divide.

  • Stephaniebarbe Hammer

    a beautiful post. The late Hans Georg Gadamer, who, among other things, was a devoted fan of dialogue, observed:
    “We cannot understand without wanting to understand, that is, without wanting to let something be said…Understanding does not occur when we try to intercept what someone wants to say to us by claiming we already know it.”

    You have pointed out the cruciality of that first step — of wanting to engage the person whom one does not understand in conversation, so that one might understand her or him a little bit better.

  • Grier J

    Thank you for posting this, and starting a conversation. I used to think this was true, that dialog leads to understanding and (hopefully) agreement; but when it comes to groups or governments, and only the top level is able to engage in dialog, and one side of that tier has as its single goal the destruction of the other…how can it ever be resolved? The majority of people are unable to participate in the dialog process on a large scale, yet they are the ones who suffer.

    Once upon a time, I thought no one genuinely wanted to cause harm to another if he had his needs met in other ways, but I see too much hatred for its own sake these days. Where’s the incentive for harmony and cooperation when what’s rewarded is power and might? What we need is an app for peace. If someone can make money off it, it will probably happen.

    • lbehrendt

      Grier, the kinds of conversation that can take place here are not the kinds that lead to cease-fires, or truces, or any short-term outcome that can affect the conflict on the ground. You are right, such things are not negotiated by the likes of you or me. Moreover, even it were possible to blog our way to conflict resolution, I must be mindful of the purpose for which I’ve invited people here for conversation.

      This blog is based on my conviction that the conversation is important. Possibly I hold that conviction as a matter of faith, but in this post I tried to articulate a rational basis for that conviction. I was determined to express this basis in a small way — it also being my conviction (possibly another article of faith) that all things positive result from the accumulation of small things. But also, I’ve grown to distrust the sweeping pronouncement, and the reduction of complex matters to unchangeable essentials.

      I’m not an optimist by nature. Human history is a gruesome thing. Against this vast and bleak picture I offer something small and uncertain: dialog as a force for good. Perhaps what is good about dialog is not the dialog itself, but our willingness to engage in it. Each time we engage the other in dialog, there’s the possibility of a valuable moment — if not an “aha!” moment, then at least a “hmm” moment. I cannot promise that such moments will be frequent — but it may make a difference if we simply seek to experience the value of such moments.

      This is one of the many ways that people like you and me are important. What value do you affirm in your encounter with the other? Where do you experience this value? Might this value be experienced here, and affirmed here?

      • GrierJ

        Sorry if I misunderstood the purpose of your post. I’m just feeling frustrated with big conflicts that I have no control over. I don’t mind an in-person discussion with someone who holds a different view on a core issue, but very few people are willing to have an honest exchange because they can’t tolerate the discomfort (I had a lot of that with the recent elections). In my little sphere, many of the people I know only want to interact with people who agree with their worldview. I find online discussion much more treacherous and difficult than in-person. It’s easy to misunderstand and hard to identify tone.

        • lbehrendt

          Grier, I don’t think you misunderstood. I feel frustrated, too, and this site is not the only place where I express my frustration.

          I agree, few people are willing to have an honest exchange of different points of view. I think you’re right, we cannot seem to tolerate the dissonance that accompanies dialog across any divide. That’s one of the things I’m trying to accomplish here: to get people to talk across the divide. At minimum, such discussion should be “tolerable”, particularly if the alternative is social and political polarization, or even war. But to be honest, I’m hoping to set up an atmosphere here that is more than merely “tolerable”. I’ve experienced insight, growth, even joy, in some of my conversations across the divide. It may be too ambitious a goal, but that’s what I’d like to experience here, and share here.

          You’re right, discussion online is difficult. I think that part of the reason why people don’t enjoy discussions across the divide is because such discussions are difficult, too. It is part of my goal here, not merely to engage in interfaith dialog, but to learn how to conduct such dialog. I sense that such dialog requires the mastery of a certain skill set, one that goes beyond common courtesy and even mutual respect. The catch is that in order to acquire the skills, or even to identify what they are, we have to begin the dialog with the skills we’ve got.

          Thanks for braving the discussion, to be willing to tolerate the discomfort in an effort to understand and be understood. My sense of things is that your effort is more important to the resolution of big conflicts than you and I will ever know.

  • Niccolo Donzella

    I am sickened by the violence, the threat of violence, and what it must do to the people who live in it. Not sure the divide is solely religious, although it presents that way.
    The idea of dialogue brings to mind that hapless U.S. congressman, whose name I don’t recall, who asked, during the 1967 war, why the Jews and Muslims couldn’t sit down together like good Christians and work it all out. You just don’t know where to start.

    • lbehrendt

      Niccolo, agreed. The divide is not solely religious. But at minimum, religion is a force that helps maintains the divide. As religious folk, we have to consider how religion enters into the process of maintaining conflict and seeking peace. If we’re not firmly on the side of peace, if we’re not a force for peace, then we have to reconsider the whole enterprise.

      As for Jews and Muslims making peace like “good Christians”, I’d be all for it if it might work.

      • Niccolo Donzella

        On the subject of religion maintaing the divide, I am very interested in having your views on Jews and Islam, a subject I know nothing about.

        BTW, I think what you are doing on this site is of real value. A mitzvah. So I am poking around and jumping in, if that’s OK.

        • lbehrendt

          A mitzvah? Wow. Thanks.

          I have no expertise or even special knowledge on Jewish-Muslim relations. For most of Islamic history, Jews and Muslims have (in general) gotten along reasonably well, and (again looking at this same stretch of time) far better than Jews have gotten along with Christians. Islam has a regard for “people of the book”, including Jews and Christians. In Islamic countries, Jews had an official status — in exchange for paying a tax, Jews enjoyed a considerable freedom of religion and had many rights. Islam influenced Judaism in positive ways, particularly in Jewish philosophy and poetry.

          Beyond making these very general statements, I’m just not the right person to describe this history. It has taken me many years of study in Christianity to get to the point where I had the nerve to start this blog, and even in this area I can barely keep my head above water.

          Keep poking around and jumping in! That’s what this is here for. Bring a date if you like!

          • Niccolo Donzella

            Yes, a mitzvah. Keep going.

            If Jews and Muslims have gotten along reasonably well, and better than Jews and Christians, what is the religious divide? I guess I am more persuaded that this is a political and ideological divide, but I don’t have the knowledge base to articulate why.

            • lbehrendt

              Niccolo, I think your question is better than any answer that I can offer. Why should there be religious conflict when the two religions in question are so similar? Indeed!

              It seems that we’re able to make a large divide out of small religious differences. Christians have killed other Christians over the differences between, say, Protestantism and Catholicism. Way back in the day when I was at college at Berkeley, the Maoists and Trotskyites used to come to blows in Sproul Plaza.

              You’re also right that there’s more involved here than just religion. We would not have a conflict if the only cause for the conflict was religious. But if what we’re trying to do is make peace when there is war, then religion can serve as an obstacle if it accentuates difference. We are told that the folks on the other side aren’t like us, they don’t value the same things, etc. My response is that religion needs to be a force for peace, or else I question the reason for my commitment to religion.