Many hesitate to engage in dialogue due to fear of the unknown
By Msgr. John Wynand Katende
"No one is an island", says poet John Donne. Human beings necessarily depend on one another. In today's pluralistic society, we are challenged to move out of our culture, religion and ideology to welcome and embrace those different from us. Dialogue is the way to go.
Dialogue is a conversation where people seek to enter into a relationship with others in spite of their differences. It must be based on openness, mutual respect and acceptance, understanding, trust, determination, patience, courage, prayer, etc. Dialogue is one of the remedies for conflicts/wars that destroy our society.
The episode of Jesus and the Samaritan woman, found in John's gospel 4:5-42, provides an excellent model of interfaith dialogue. Jesus initiated this dialogue to harmonize and heal the wounds of the past and to welcome Samaritans into the people of God. Jews had no dealings with Samaritans because the latter had at historically been in alliance with the Assyrians and Persians and intermarried with them. The Jewish law considered them unclean/outcasts. Jesus' move was, hence, risky.
Using her own feelings and psychological thoughts, Jesus captures the woman's attention to win her over. With great respect and love, Jesus helps the woman to know that he is not just a Jew. This approach leads the woman into openness to the dialogue. An encounter, which began on a superficial level, ends up on a profound spiritual level; a joint pilgrimage beyond Jacob's well to the well of the word of God.
Similarly, in our dealings with people, we need to remove the prejudices that blind us. "Without dialogue, the barriers of prejudice, suspicion and misunderstanding cannot be effectively removed", says Frederick Streng, scholar of religion. Jesus invites all to worship God in spirit and truth. It is a worship that goes beyond all rituals and localization and has interiority when the Holy Spirit moves men and women to call God "Father".
Indeed if people come together as friends and acknowledge their roots in God and their oneness in humanity, all other things become easy. The freedom that humanity yearns for, must become concrete in the structures that hold us captive and dehumanized. But we cannot be truly free unless we are prepared to face the truth from a bigger picture. "He/she who never visits thinks his/her mother is the only cook." states the Ganda proverb.
If pursued consistently, co-operation and friendship between peoples of different faiths and backgrounds can indeed bring justice and peace to the world. The Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue of the Catholic Church calls for dialogue in terms of life, action, theology. The dialogue of life is at work when people make an effort to live in a spirit of openness and neighborliness, sharing their joys and sufferings, their human struggles and predicaments.
In the dialogue of action, people work together to ensure that their community genuinely and concretely experiences integral development, liberation and a just society. Joint projects/actions, such as setting up schools, clinics, water projects, etc., can help to bring people together and also to uplift their human condition; for a just society.
Dialogue of theological exchange is carried out when theologians and experts from different religious groups make a common study/reflection on given issues. This helps them to appreciate each other's ways of searching for God and to engage Satan, the common enemy.
Unfortunately, many hesitate to engage in dialogue due to fear of the unknown, of conversion to another faith, of domination and of marginalization. Yet, Jesus calls upon us to dialogue in order to promote human dignity, equality, justice, peace and development,harmony and tolerance between individuals and groups in the society. The Lenten season is very opportune to apply inter-religious dialogue for a joint pilgrimage back to God.
The writer is a priest