By Jennifer Schrock
A few months ago I attended a lecture by Eboo Patel, the founder and president of the Interfaith Youth Core. I also read his book, Interfaith Leadership: A Primer. I had never thought of myself as an interfaith leader before, but while processing the encounter with Patel, it struck me that this is an important identity for all of us who care about the creation.
For one thing, protecting our shared planet is one of the central tasks we need to accomplish with people who span a wide range of beliefs and habits. For another, there are plenty of opportunities for “interfaith” encounters within the diversity of the Christian tradition. Even if we live in communities with few synagogues, mosques or temples, we’ve all probably had the experience of visiting a friend’s church and thinking, “I felt like they were from another religion.”
In the above book, Patel describes four kinds of knowledge that interfaith leaders need to have. What would the points below look like translated into tending the planet? Let’s imagine:
Interfaith leaders need what Patel calls appreciative knowledge. That means they actively seek out the beautiful, the admirable, the life giving in other religious traditions, rather than focusing on deficits or problems.
Do Mennonites interested in creation care know what the Evangelical Action Network has accomplished? Have we read Ibrahim Abdul Matin’s book, Green Deen on how the Islamic tradition goes about caring for the earth? Are we up on what Francis of Assisi taught and how this fuels environmentally minded Catholics? The former has worked tirelessly for clean energy, emphasizing the effects of mercury pollution from power plants on the unborn. From Matin, we learn that the Saudi Arabian government has issued a fatwah permitting water recycling at the holy mosques of Mecca and Medina, setting an example that other mosques might follow. From St. Francis, we might begin to understand the links between poverty and a broken relationship with the land.
Secondly, Patel says that leaders need a theology of interfaith cooperation. He means that most worldviews contain building blocks that provide “a rationale for positive relationships with people who orient around religion differently.” Now is a good time to reclaim those stories and teachings in light of our current circumstances. In the case of creation care, we might note that our Bible begins not with Abraham as God’s chosen, but with a creation story that includes the whole planet. Genesis 1-11 highlights our shared task as caretakers of the earth and—through a series of genealogies– the genetic connection between all human beings.
Third, Patel calls us to ground ourselves in the history of interfaith cooperation. Some people assume that religion can only be a source of conflict. On the contrary, there is a rich tradition of people who espouse different worldviews working together. What have “green” people from different backgrounds accomplished together? I think of Interfaith Power and Light, a nonprofit that supports people of faith working against climate change. I recall stories I’ve heard about encounters at the People’s Climate March in 2014 and United Nations climate change conferences.
Lastly, we need to find shared values despite differences. Patel calls for “commonality without pretense of sameness.” Here, we need go no further than our own MCCN network with its mix of gardeners and activists, thrifty homemakers and tech-savvy scientists to find both shared values and divergent ones.
It is easier to tolerate difference in a distant cousin (say a Hindu) than in close relatives (those Mennonites who don’t believe in climate change/those Mennonites who insist on protesting pipelines.) Claiming the identity of “interfaith leader” will not only open us up to interesting new ideas and possibilities; it can also help us to respect the diversity we find in our own sheepfold.