Chapter 2: Interfaith Dialogue: Towards Building New Communities, by Hans Ucko

Ethical Issues in the Struggles for Justice
by Daniel Chetti and M.P. Joseph

Chapter 2: Interfaith Dialogue: Towards Building New Communities, by Hans Ucko

(Hans Ucko is on the staff of the Dialogue Unit of the World Council of Churches, Geneva.)


Consideration of ethical issues is or should be a continuing concern for any Church. Changes in relation to production, political organization, ideological struggles continue to raise a number of questions for which the traditional theological and ethical repertoire of the confessional churches may have little or nothing ready-made to say. The ecumenical movement has therefore in many ways come to serve as a vehicle for common reflection on the challenge of contemporary ethical issues. This continued reflection has, in fact, become an intrinsic part of the ecumenical movement. Ethical considerations remain an ongoing obligation. As time goes by and circumstances change, we continue to need mentors, guides, philosophers, teachers, prophets, who raise questions and challenge established systems. We are dependent on them to enable us to confront reality and the complexity of our world, not as a problem to overcome but as a condition to life itself. There are many in the ecumenical movement, who in this respect have contributed to this ongoing discussion on the significance of Christian witness and ethical considerations. Among those, the ecumenical movement recognizes with gratitude the contribution of K. C. Abraham. It is an honor to share some reflections on the topic of ethics in this setting.

Religion and philosophy as agents fostering ethical considerations must at the same time also reckon with their in built inclination to congeal in perspectives, which allow the living tradition to harden. Renewal is therefore necessary as tonus firmus in both religion and philosophy. But breaking up is hard to do, though necessary if God is not to be reduced only to the God of our fathers and mothers. The God of our fathers and mothers, the God of our traditions is to be our God today, which is not an affirmation of relativism, but of aggiornamento. The semper reformanda should not become a peg for the history of reformation but serve as a calling into questions of that which has just been adopted and accepted as a rule. This implies an awareness of the choice as an ever present condition of being human.

Sören Kierkegaard reacted against Hegel’s seemingly impenetrable system by raising the existential ethical concern, the problem of choice. Theological and philosophical systems such as Hegel’s run the risk of obscuring this crucial problem by making it seem an objective matter capable of a universal solution, rather than a subjective one that each person must confront. As time continues to enfold the complexities of life itself, it becomes ever more apparent that old models do not always suffice. Both the ascetic saint and the detached sage, exalted in various hagiographies as the true beacons for humanity, may in the final analysis in themselves prove to be poor human models, because they are, in spite of their perfection, incomplete human beings, static and unchanging. Ordinary human imperfection on the other hand has an inbuilt aspiration, prodding us to continue searching, probing, questioning. There are many ways of expressing this thrust towards a semper reformanda or a permanent revolution.

The following anecdote wants to illustrate that the question is superior to the answer. There was once a little boy in the Polish town of Lublin, who came running out from his Talmud class shouting, "Is there anyone who has any good questions? I have a good answer!" A good answer may be, but still cheaper than the good question, because the good question leads on, continues. There is no end to it. One question stimulates another question. In the same vein, Wittgenstein said that philosophy must end, where it begins, in bewilderment or may be rather in confusion. In bewilderment instead of a grasp, the uncertain choice instead of the unquestionable forward march is of course threatening. One prefers not exposing oneself to incertitude and unknowing and become vulnerable. "Wondering is a mode of human being. But wondering may just be sheer wandering, moving aimlessly, roaming, rambling. Channeling our wondering into the form of a question is the imposition of a pattern and a procedure upon the mind," says Abraham Joshua Heschel and continues: "To know that a question is an answer in disguise is a minimum of wisdom."1

Propositions, answers, proclamations may come across as strong, safe and reliable also in ethical considerations. The wisdom of the question seems less responsible. It is open to vulnerability. The wisdom of vulnerability is however a good biblical insight (1 Cor. 1), it is also part of human experience as, e.g., in the pregnant formulation by Chuang Tzu:

The tree on the mountain height is its own enemy.

The grease that feeds the light devours itself.

The cinnamon tree is edible: so it is cut down?

The lacquer tree is profitable: so they maim it.

Every man knows how useful it is to be useful

No one seems to know

How useful it is to be useless.2

"No man is an island." Also, ethical considerations underline the interrelationship. A vis-à-vis, whether another human being or creation itself, is always required. Martin Buber taught us through his philosophy of dialogue an existentialism centered on the direct, mutual relationship, the "I-Thou," in which each person confirms the other as of unique value. The ‘I’ is accomplished in relationship with the Thou’. Life is, in itself, an encounter. The importance of interrelationships, in ideas as well as in other phenomena, is the only truly effective tool for our journey through life. It creates a mutual responsibility between I and Thou. I am responsible for Thou in reciprocity, where I will be Thou and Thou will be I. There is an ethical interrelationship, where someone having the possibility of confronting the transgression of the other and for various reasons neglects to do so, actually will be held responsible in his or her place. "Whoever can stop. . . the people of his city from sinning, but does not . . . is held responsible for the sins of the people of his city. If he can stop the whole world from sinning, and does not, he is held responsible for the sins of the world."3

If I am not accountable and answerable for myself, what am I and have I then not really ceased to be I? This interrelationship is even more complex than the I being at time the Thou and the Thou at time the I. There is an ever changing asymmetry built into the relationship of the I and the Thou. It is important that the Thou, the other remains other, i.e., different from the I. The other is not as other only my alter ego. The other is the he or she and I am not, never can be and never should be. The other is as other important for me in my journey through life, in my pilgrim’s progress. It is of utmost importance that we remain distinct, different from each other. This is the only guarantee that I have against my becoming self-contained, self-supporting, self-sufficient, full of answers. The other needs to remain other in his or her integrity to make me realize that I don’t hold the entire truth, that I need the other in order to fathom more. I need the other as other for my formation as a human being. I am not helped by the other becoming me, confirming me. There is an existential need for an interrelationship, where I am not Thou, an insight, which is essential for continuation, for keeping on, pursuing, prodding, questioning. "If I am I" said the Rabbi of Kotzk, "because I am I, and you are you because you are you, then I am I and you are you. But if I am I because you are you, and you are you because I am I, then I am not land you are not you."

"We have just religion enough to make us hate, but not enough to make us love another" wrote Jonathan Swift.4 He may be pressing his point, but it seems as if religious language is more specific articulating the role, place, needs, concerns of its own people and is if anything rather general when addressing the other as significant other. It seems to be in the nature of religions to be mainly preoccupied with themselves and the people adhering to them through rites and beliefs. The main thrust in every religion seems to be to concentrate on their own tribe, followers, believers. The other is either passed over in silence or without distinction looked upon as the stranger, the foreigner, the pagan, the one who is different, the outsider and the threat, the unbeliever, the one to be ministered to, the object for mission. The horizon of each religion seems limited to the world-view of its own people. It uses its own yardstick to measure the entire world. This may have worked well as long as each religion was content with living each in its own confined place. The limited interaction with the other did not require changed parameters or perspectives. Today we live in a different world, where people of different religious traditions live together side by side. This holds true also for places and countries, which since time immemorial have been religiously plural. Religious plurality is in itself no guarantee that religious traditions will create space for the other.

The very fact that every society today is or has become religiously plural demonstrates to each and everyone that there are parallel and competing claims how to interpret the conditions of life. There is no longer any possibility of emulating the ostrich and getting away with it. Each religion may in itself have universal aspirations and claims, expressed in many and sometimes almost contradictory ways. Where Christianity and Islam are very articulate as to their universal validity and as the only way for the entire humanity, the other world religions display in different ways a similar penchant for monopoly. There may, according to the Hindu world-view, be room for every religion but only as long as the stage remains the Hindu pantheon.

The dream of Judaism is about the day when "ten men from nations of every language shall take hold of a Jew, grasping his garment and saying, "Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you" (Zech. 8:23). One is of course entitled to maintain the hope that all the others will one day realize the ultimate truth of one’s religion and be converted, see the light or realize the truth. It seems intrinsic to religious discourse to have the other-rather confirming my own choice, whether it is now or in the eschaton, than providing space for the integrity of the other. And yet, we know, particularly in our time that religious plurality seems here to stay. How do we deal with the insight that the whole world will probably not become Christian or Muslim or...? Is it a problem, a defeat for our religion or do we discover that the interrelationship of people of different religious traditions is of benefit for our life as human beings in this global village? Could the continuous dialogue on ethical issues between people of different religious traditions building new communities bring about a sustainable world?

Religion as the means of well-being for a community and thus for each individual, who has a role in that community, requires a common understanding between like-minded involving faith in a creed, obedience to a moral code set down in sacred Scriptures or participation in a cult. Religion is not only a set of ideas for the individual but requires an interpersonal relationship with the other. But religion does not end with a relation between an I and a Thou. It requires a community of believers, of like-minded. "The community’ said Abraham Halevi Kook, "must first find itself within itself; then it must find itself in all of humanity." Community-building is something basically human and is probably more fundamental than anything else. "No man is an island." Every human being needs to relate to the other and to others, a community.

But the community is more than ever before threatened with fragmentation. There are in many ways and in many places obstacles and threats to the well-being of the human community. The human community and creation itself are exposed to and are part of an environment in which destructive forces threaten to undermine life. The human community is frustrated and impeded through pervading patriarchy, caste and class systems in society, through institutionalized and bureaucratic power-structures of religious organizations and communities and through compliancy towards rampant capitalism and consumerism, acquiescent to unchecked individualism and a culture of competition. Religions continue to play an ambiguous role in many political, social and economic conflicts in our world. Religious fundamentalism and its equivalence in many of the religious traditions today hinder the formation of a new community. There is a tendency towards monocultures threatening the mosaic of religious plurality and an open human community. It is in such an unmerciful environment that destructive and violent forces, hatred and lust for power, emerge and take over. Although different from each other and functioning on various levels, psychological, socio-political, economic or cultural, they are all intertwined and are obstacles to the development and well-being of the human community. There is a need to take a stand against the exploitative dominance and destructive character of the present free market policy. The changing economic system requires an ethical evaluation of the practice of charity and the meaning of solidarity in support of developing countries, a sharing of resources paving the way for equality and self-reliance in the human community. The human community is today, as maybe never before, confronted with the choice as an ever present and ominous condition that may have a bearing on the future of life and creation itself. "I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live . . ." (Deut. 30:19). It seems to us as if these words bear a particular meaning in our time.

And yet almost as a counter-movement to the continuing fragmentation of many societies in our world today, there seems to be a quest for community in different and sometimes also contradictory ways. Barriers of religion are sometimes broken down and new bonds of solidarity and constructive building together emerge. In situations of common threats new partnerships come forth and common ethical considerations evolve. Transforming visions and possibilities of an enhanced humanity within an ethos of mutual responsibility and accountability can develop in the quest for a new human community. There seems to be some room for the insight that that which we can do together, we should not do separately.

There are, in the midst of fragmentation, signs of a changing society in the context of religious plurality, where people of different religious traditions are instrumental in building new communities and where interreligious dialogue promotes a new understanding of the other. What emerges is not one human community, but a community of communities. which is neither a paradigm of a super-community, nor a ‘kingdom’ of dominance and hegemony. The community of communities is not an entity in and by itself. but relational and open. It has no boundaries, but exists as an organic relationship, spontaneous and creative.

People of different faiths have specific and distinctive contributions to make to the new community, provided they are given space for their own integrity and identity. One of the "commandments" of interreligious dialogue has been the insistence that everyone has the right to define him/herself. No one should be the object of the other. We are interchangeably subject and object, I and Thou. There are possibilities to build new communities provided we are willing to accept others as others. The context of plurality obliges an openness that goes beyond our own confines.

People of different religious traditions are today experiencing a changed world, where they discover the interconnectedness between religions. This is important in order that people of different religions be not obsessed with themselves in self-sufficiency and self-containment. We need to discover that we, although we can and should live a full life in the realm of our own religious tradition, may be enriched and helped by the other to discover unknown depths in our own religious traditions. Each religion can be a teacher to the other, providing ethical suggestions for common learning growth, as a prophet challenging the other, as a mystic intriguing the other, shedding new light, hinting at new directions, provoking the other to a breaking up from that which has become congealed and hardened.

We are far from having exhausted our own traditions as sources for our ethical considerations. But we may need to have new light to discover it. Through interfaith dialogue we are led into the very center of our own being and given keys that open doors we had never known existed before. This is a profound outcome of interreligious dialogue: the unexpected discovery about oneself! French historian Fernand Braudel once wrote to a French student, who was about to leave Paris for one year’s studies in London: "Living in London for one year does not automatically imply that you will know England very well. But in comparison, in the light of the many surprises that you will have, you will suddenly have understood some of the deepest and most original features of France, those you did not know before and could not learn in any other way."5

We live today in a culture of war, which has made it increasingly important that our religious traditions contribute to generating social change towards peace. We may as Christians think that the notion of peace has sufficiently penetrated the life and history of the Church to secure a satisfactory ethical basis for Christian conflict resolution, a peace ministry or to carry out the World Council of Churches’ "Program to Overcome Violence" and that the Church, therefore, is not pressed for other alternatives. And yet it is exactly in such a situation, that the Church needs the other, needs another reading of that which is so well known. May be it is precisely in a situation of abundance of Christian ethical considerations on peace that the interaction with the other can offer new dimensions and insights. In this latter part of the essay, I would like to highlight a few Jewish leanings about peace as a possible contribution to an enriched Christian discourse on the same topic. We share the major part of the Bible with the Jewish people, but remain nevertheless strangers to each other. The Old Testament is part of the Christian Bible and yet it is as if Jews and Christians read different books. Whereas Christians traditionally have tended to read the Old Testament as "salvation history" Jews have looked upon the same books as part of their patrimony, their history and their identity. The Old Testament tells a story, which is a history of a people, a history to learn from or to forget. It is the story of having neighboring states and being obliged to relate to them one way or the other. It is a history of waging war, terrible bloodshed and long and strenuous attempts towards peace. In this history there is little room for any spiritualization. Traditional Christian reading may not primarily have used the Old Testament as an experience of what it means to live in a world of war and peace. For our ethical considerations on peace, peace-ministry, conflict resolution, Christians may profit from reading the Old Testament, our Holy Scripture, as a witness to the experience of a people in war and peace with other nations and as a reflection on what peace requires of the community.

The word shalom has gained coinage in Christian discourse. It is well known that shalom is not peace as in absence of war and that it is not a static notion. Shalom is the positive enjoyment of physical, economic and social well-being. Shalom is not only an ideal to attain in days to come or in a spiritualized realm. It is important that religion does not allow its otherworldly concerns to anaesthetize people to the reality of the global dangers. In a secular age when people are exercising their freedom not to follow blindly religious authority, people of religion must begin taking risks for peace. The very meaning of shalom suggests that there is no shalom without an effort. The very root of shalom has to do with shalem, to pay. Peace is costly and requires sacrifices. It is not sufficient to love peace. It requires more. "Depart from evil, and do good; Seek peace, and pursue it" (Ps. 34:14), and "Be like the followers of Aaron: love peace and pursue it." 6 The mere talking about peace is not enough. "For the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest everyone deals falsely. They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace" (Jer. 6:13-14). It is equally wrong to engage in wishful visions of peace, where none exists. "Prophesy against the prophets of Israel, who are prophesying; say to those who prophesy out of their own imagination: ‘Hear the word of Lord!’ They have envisioned falsehood and lying divination; they say, ‘Says the Lord’, when the Lord has not sent them. They have misled my people, saying, ‘Peace,’ when there is no peace" (Ezek. 13:2ff).

Another aspect of shalom is that it gives room for difference. President Woodrow Wilson hinted at the same in an address to the Senate in 1917: "It must be a peace without victory. . . . Only a peace between equals can last." The Jewish liturgy and the daily prayer for peace, "Let there be peace on earth as it is in heaven" highlights this perspective. The rabbis asked, "how is then, peace in heaven, since it is to be model for peace on earth?" It became imperative for the rabbis to find out about the quality of peace in heaven. What is the substance of the heavenly peace? They found the answer in the word for ‘heaven’, which in Hebrew in shamayim. The rabbis construed that two words were hidden in shamayim, two words which are each other’s absolute opposites: esh, ‘fire’ and mayim, ‘water’. Peace in heaven is then the living together in unity and communion of two opposites, fire and water. Water doesn’t quench fire. Fire doesn’t make the water vaporize. Fire and water are reconciled. One does not defeat the other. There is no separation between fire and water. There is true reconciliation.

The ambiguity of victory over one’s enemies is reflected in a midrash on Ex. 15. The Egyptians are drowning in the sea. Of course there was reason for jubilation -- the people were finally liberated. And the enemy was no more. But the Israelites were saved through the death of the Egyptians! The angels, wanting to join Moses and the Israelites in their song of praise to the Lord, saw that the Lord was neither singing nor did he look pleased. They asked him why. God answered, "How can I sing when the work of my hands is drowning in the sea?" The midrash rejoins here texts in the Old Testament and in the Jewish tradition, which are attentive to the risks of a cult of the nation and the temptation to a mythology on the Ûbermensch. It is in the history book of the Jewish people that we read sobering verses like "Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage" (Isa. 19:25) or ‘Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel? says the Lord. Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?" (Amos 9:7). It is also in this context that the rabbis wanted to make sure that there should be no room chauvinism, "Because of the mipnei darkei shalom (ways of peace), we support the non-Jewish poor along with the poor of Israel, and visit the non-Jewish sick along with the sick of Israel and bury the non-Jewish dead with the dead of Israel. . . ." 7 and similar texts in the Old Testament and in the Jewish tradition show that ample space is given for self-criticism.

Shalom has precedence over truth. Peace is, in certain instances, more important than telling the whole truth. The sages illustrated the waiving of truth in the interests of peace by contrasting the characters of Moses the prophet with his brother Aaron the priest:

If two persons had quarreled with each other Aaron would go and sit with one of them and say to him: "Son, do you know how your friend is taking it? He is breaking his heart and tearing his garment and saying, Woe is me, how can I look my friend in the face. I am ashamed on his account because it was I who misbehaved towards him." Aaron would sit with him until he dispelled the resentment from his heart. Then Aaron would go and sit with the other one and say to him: "Son, do you know how your friend is taking it? He is breaking his heart and tearing his garment and saying, Woe is me, how can I look my friend in the face. I am ashamed on his account because it was I who misbehaved towards him." Aaron would sit with him until he dispelled the resentment from his heart. And when they met they embraced and kissed each other. This is why "they wept for Aaron thirty days, even all the house of Israel" (Numbers 20:29). Whereas with regard to Moses, who rebuked them with harsh words, it is stated: "and the children of Israel wept for Moses" (Deut. 34:8).8

Another example is the so-called Divine emendation of Sarah’s actual words, when God addressed Abraham. Sarah had said laughing within herself: "After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?" (Gen. 18:12). But this is how it was reported to Abraham by God: "Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?"’ (Gen. 18:13). The sages commented that God, for the sake of peace in the family and for Abraham not to be offended, altered the words of Sarah. "Great is peace, seeing that for its sake even God modified the truth."9

By the examples above taken from the Jewish reading of the Old Testament regarding ethical considerations towards peace and reconciliation, it is evident that there are learnings from the encounter with people of other religious traditions. In this way interfaith dialogue is a fundamental part of our Christian service within community. It is a possibility of reflecting together, learning from each other and of growing together for the sake of our community. To enter into dialogue requires an opening of the mind and heart to others. It is in a culture of dialogue that we are enabled to build the new communities that the world requires.



1. Abraham Joshua Heschel, Who is Man? (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1965), p. 12.

2. Thomas Merton. The Way of Chuang Tze (New York: New Directions, 1965), p. 59.

3. Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 54b.

4. Jonathan Swift, Thought on Various Subjects; from Miscellanies, 1711.

5. Fernand Braudel. Ecrits sur l’historie. Ed. Flammarion, Paris, p. 59.

6. Pirke Avoth 5,12.

7. Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Gittin 61a.

8. Avot DeRabbi Nathan 12 in Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Shemot (Exodus) (Jerusalem: The World Zionist Organization, Dept. For Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora, 1978). pp. 438-39;

9. Yevamot 65b to Gen. 18:12-13 and Talmud Yerushalmi, Peah I.