Change the World? Change the Conversation!


Copyright © Mmaxer/Shutterstock

Copyright © Mmaxer/Shutterstock

by Robert V. Thompson

Approximately 7,000 people attended the 1993 Parliament of World Religions in Chicago.  In one workshop, the presenter was a Sikh separatist. He argued vehemently against the Hindus, saying that Sikhs should have their own state in India. He became strident, and (not surprisingly) a Hindu fundamentalist in the room reacted angrily. The atmosphere became charged with hostility and fear. The security people locked the doors as the conflict intensified, and many of those attending the workshop became fearful for their own safety.

But then a small group of Native American Indians began drumming. A handful of Buddhist monks joined in with chanting while others began singing or reciting their scriptures. People spontaneously joined hands and formed a circle while making their own music and offering  prayers until this symphony of celebration drowned out the conflict.  From the seeds of their drumming, chanting, and action, the spirit in the whole room grew from anxiety and fear to hope and joy.

At every level, community consists of conversations.

If you want to change a community, change the conversation. Whatever the community – family, faith community, neighbourhood, or nation – the words we choose and the language we use become the building blocks that give structure to our worldview and how we live together. And although it is true that every community consists of conversations, those conversations that define our communities are not limited to words.

The civil rights movement was undeniably one of the big conversation changers in American history. When Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, when activists integrated lunch counters, when freedom riders blazed new southern trails – all of these folks were by word and deed changing the public conversation.

In his famous “I have a dream” speech, Martin Luther King powerfully articulated the changing American conversation. In that famous speech he changed the conversation from “racism is the problem” to “let’s dream the dream” of human unity, the beloved community.

Dr. King knew that focusing on our deficits is not the way to inspire hearts and minds.  Sooner or later we’ve got to move from being obsessed with our nightmares to living ourselves into new dreams. Problems do require solutions. But the transformation of human community is about shifting our focus from problem solving to imagining the possibilities.

Problem solving is akin to filling potholes on the road – and it’s good to fill potholes. Believe me, as someone who lived in Chicago for 30 years, I appreciate the necessity of filling the potholes on the road. But the challenge and promise of interfaith engagement is not so much how to fix the road but rather how to build a new road together.

Anyone who has been involved in the interfaith movement knows that all religions are not the same. The five pillars of Islam are completely different from the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. The doctrine of the trinity in Christianity is very different from the multiple manifestations of Brahmin through the Hindu gods and goddesses. The Torah in Judaism is a completely different text than the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of Sikhs.

However, this I believe – the world’s religious and spiritual traditions are derived from a unified source. In his book The Mystic Heart, the late Brother Wayne Teasdale coined the term interspirituality as way of envisioning a new road. This interspiritual perspective at once celebrates diversity while proclaiming our innate unity.

Consider a prism of light. When a pure beam of light is broken apart or refracted through a prism, the pure light appears as a rainbow spectrum of color. Beautiful colors, each of them unique and distinctive – yet they all come from the same, one, pure beam of light.

Multiple faiths, multiple colours: but if we look deeply into the colour of each of the world’s faiths we are able to see our deep unity – the one light beam – beneath a multitude of differences.

A number of years ago I learned  (and this fascinated me) that almost all of the world’s religious and spiritual traditions share the conviction that the ultimate litmus test for ethical behavior is what is popularly known as the Golden Rule. In Christianity this is known as “Love your neighbor as yourself. Whatsoever you want others to do to you, do to others.”

In Islam it goes like this: No one is truly a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself.

From Judaism there is this version: What is hateful to you, do not to others. That is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary.

The ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism carries this teaching: Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.

From the Buddhist tradition we read these words: Compare oneself to others in such terms as, just as I am, so are they, just as they are, so am I.

From Hinduism the Mahabharata offers this teaching: One should not behave towards others in a way that is disagreeable to oneself. This is the essence of morality.

Here is a Wiccan version: And if it harm none, do what thou wilt.

That this ethic exists in at least 21 of the world’s religious and spiritual traditions points to a universal interspiritual truth: There is a deep unity among our multiple faiths that the Ethic of Reciprocity is our shared Golden Rule.

If you want to change any community, begin by changing the conversation. Mahatma Gandhi once said: “You must watch my life, how I live, eat, sit, talk, behave in general. The sum total of all those within me is my real religion.”

Gandhi reminds us that when the rubber hits the road, no matter what we think, no matter what we say we believe, how we live is our real religion. It’s our conversation.

Perhaps if enough of us believed this, our world would change significantly.

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Categories: Featured, Interfaith, Leadership, Peace, Peace, Justice, and Equality, People, Religion, Robert V. Thompson, World

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