Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori was clearly out of her element Friday night as she participated in the Tri-Faith Initiative's Dinner in Abraham's Tent: "Conversations on Peace". The Nebraska-based Tri-Faith Initiative is a partnership of the three great Abrahamic faiths --- Judaism, Christianity and Islam --- dedicated to building a multi-faith campus which would include separate houses of worship - an Islamic mosque, a Jewish synagogue, and a Christian church, as well as a joint education center.
The evening of shared prayer, breaking bread together and conversation was held at the Qwest Center. The Tri-Faith Initiative is co-sponsored by Omaha's Temple Israel, the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska, and the American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture in Omaha.
Moderator Mark Pelavin introduced the three participants in the post-dinner religious discussion on peace, describing them as "the most distinguished, most influential and most controversial leaders in American religious life today."
Jefferts Schori was the first religious leader to be introduced. Pelavin opined that the current presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church had taken a very unusual path to the Presiding Bishop's Office. "You are the first presiding bishop to hold a Ph.D. in oceanography," the moderator noted. This revelation brought a round of nervous laughter from the audience.
Pelavin also highlighted the fact that the presiding bishop is an accomplished pilot, apparently as a perquisite to her latest vocation. He made no mention of her lack of a serious theological education for the job as Presiding Bishop.
"Coming to the priesthood relatively late in life after becoming an accomplished pilot, you placed yourself squarely in the middle of the most complicated and controversial issues of the hour," Pelavin commented as he introduced Jefferts Schori.
The Episcopal Church's chief pastor shared the dais with Rabbi Peter S. Knobel, the immediate past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the rabbinical arm of the largest branch of American Judaism. He has had more than 30-years congregational experience in the Reformed Jewish tradition. He is currently the senior rabbi at the 800-family Beth Emit Synagogue in the Chicago suburb of Evanston. He earned a PhD in philosophy from Yale.
The other member sharing the stage with Jefferts Schori and Rabbi Knobel was Canadian-born Dr. Ingrid Mattson, the first female president of the Islamic Society of North America. She earned her PhD in Islamic studies at the University of Chicago and is director of the MacDonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, and the founder of the Islamic Chaplaincy Program. For the past 10 years she has been Professor of Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.
Both women are converts from Roman Catholicism and the first females to break through the stained glass ceiling in their respective religious organizations.
Each participant was asked the same set of questions.
Jefferts Schori offered bland, shallow answers speaking in a non-expressive flat voice containing no animation.
She also presented a very masculine image. She was attired in black trousers with a matching black blazer over a fuchsia-colored clerical shirt devoid of a pectoral cross. There was very little to distinguish her attire from that of Rabbi Knobel, who also wore a black suit with a white shirt and a patterned dark fuchsia tie.
At one point, Rabbi Knobel stumbled over Jefferts Schori's double last name.In a stage whisper, she asked him to call her "Bishop Katharine."
When asked about her understanding of world peace, the Jefferts Schori presented the classic Episcopal Church's social justice mantra that everyone should not only have enough to eat, but have enough for a feast.
"My vision of peace really comes out of our Biblical tradition of the vision of 'Shalom' as the 'Dream of God'," she said. "Shalom meaning more than the absence of war."
"We should hold each other precious as we attempt to create a world of justice, peace and compassion," Rabbi Knobel told Bishop Katharine.
"A person who is not at peace with self and at peace with God cannot bring justice," explained Dr. Mattson. "There is no justice without peace."
"There are ways to bring justice in an unjust world," the Islamic professor said. "The world we live in will always be broken ..."
Dr. Mattson, by contrast appeared very feminine in her fully cut ivory white skirt and dark rose-colored blouse. Her head was surrounded by a pink hijab accented with red, blue and green geometric designs.
Each of the American religious leaders shares a commonality with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Islam and Judaism share a common kinship with the Old Testament prophet -- Abraham, the "Father of Many Nations" including the Israelis and the Arabs. The Jews and the Islamists intersect at Abraham, their patriarchal father. The Christians and the Jews intersect in Jerusalem. New Testament Christianity flows out of Old Testament Judaism. Both faith expressions use Old Testament writings as a part of its Holy Writ.
Since the evening was a celebration of the overlapping Abrahamic connections, the religious leaders were asked who Abraham was.
Dr. Mattson saw him as a builder who built a house of worship for others. "He built the Kabba - the place of sacred worship in Mecca -- with his son [Ishmael] and moved on," she explained.
Rabbi Knobel reported that Abraham was bold enough to "speak truth to power".
"Abraham challenged God -- the Ultimate Power in the world," he continued. "We in the faith communities -- we the inheritors of Abraham's tradition -- need to be able to speak 'truth to power' asking that those powers do justice."
Jefferts Schori said Abraham offered his wife Sarah to the king rather than get in trouble himself.
"However imperfect we are, however wrong our choices," the Episcopal leader said, "God has a mission for each of us."
The presiding bishop's left her statement hanging. She did not flesh it out. One was left waiting and wanting more. It did not come.
The moderator paraphrased one of Rabbi Knobel's sermons where he said the voice of the religious leader must rise above the din of the demagogic rhetoric of divisiveness, hatred and self-righteous certainty. "We must interpret the Divine Will by outrageous acts of compassion."
He then asked Jefferts Schori, "Where in the world today do you see the urgent need for outrageous acts of compassion?"
"Most everywhere I look," she deadpanned. Her answer was met with groans.
She then skipped around various American political issues saying the economic crisis has its roots in greed, broken immigration laws and exclusivist immigration policies. "We need to find a way to build justice in the way we accept newcomers," she concluded.
Picking up on the commonality of human suffering, Dr. Mattson said "There is so much suffering in the world," and recounted what she has been reading about the Dalai Lama. "Humans have so many occasions for suffering. Why do we need to use our religion to add to those troubles?"
"One can speak truth to power by lifting up the causes of the disenfranchised without necessarily providing the solution," said Knobel.
"It is the responsibility of religious leadership to remind our country that the problem of racism is still endemic. The fact that an African-American [Obama] can achieve the highest office in the land does not mean that racial prejudice does not exist.
"There are a number of issues religious leaders can speak out on with clarity of purpose, yet be open to possible solutions whether they come from the left or the right or the middle of the political spectrum."
"Our religious people need to remind those people in our communities that they also are the power," said Mattson.
Jefferts Schori said that she works with the Episcopal clergy in helping their congregations become politically informed voters. "If we are going to be effective whole human beings in the fullest sense it includes acting in the civic realm and using the power of individual voices and votes to achieve significant and lasting change in the way our society is structured."
Pelavin, an attorney and the director of the Commission of Interreligious Affairs and the associate director of Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and a Washington lobbyist, threw open for discussion one of Schori's sermons on reconciliation.
"All Christians are baptized in a mission dedicated to reconciling the world to God and to each other in Christ," he quoted. "Reconciliation means to take counsel together. It means spending time in conversation to begin to see the image of God in one who as been at a distance."
"This term 'reconciliation' seems to be a specifically Christian one," the moderator explained.
"Reconciliation is to bring people together," the Rabbi responded explaining his understanding of forgiveness. "...to look into the 'face of the other', and to see in the 'face of the other' myself. If I see in the 'face of the other' myself there is no other way for me to treat him other than precious."
"This link between faith and love for the other is very frightening. It is easy for us to justify ourselves and think we are good believers as long as we say our prayers and we follow all the rules," Mattson explained. "Our path to God is through our relationship with each other."
"God will not forgive you for violating the rights of another human being until that person does," she said, explaining Islamic law.
"It is exactly the same in our tradition," the rabbi pointed out. "God does not forgive the sins we commit against the other unless we reconcile with the other."
Part of the Tri-Faith event was a common multicultural and ecumenical worship experience. The prayerful experience included the traditional Friday night Shabbat (the welcoming of the Sabbath); an Episcopal Evensong; and Muslim Evening Prayer.
Jefferts Schori found herself vulnerable in the shared worship experience by the unfamiliar worship styles, foreign languages raised in prayer, and being in an unfamiliar space.
"It was an immensely enriching experience, when we are able to get out of our own way enough to let God enter in, in a new way," she later reported.
Mattson said it is important to understand the time and the place where one's faith is experienced and practiced. That Islam is practiced differently in America than it is in other parts of the world does not lessen the spirituality of the faith.
"There is a tendency of Americans to believe we know the right way. The problems are the same. The language is different and the ways of approaching the problems are different," said Knobel.
The Rabbi said he felt that in learning from one other's wisdom common problems could be solved.
On the tensions in the Middle East, it was apparent that both Knobel and Mattson understood the situation better than Jefferts Schori, largely because they are intimately connected to the region and its tensions through their respective religions.
Mattson said that ignorance of religious facts and history and the reality of the situation cloud the understanding of the political issues at hand. "It is a holy place. There are many dimensions to place and space. There are political, economic, social and spiritual issues." She said that if each dimension were taken and solved on its own merit, work on the shared spiritual space would be possible.
Knobel said he would like to see two separate states. "There needs to be a viable, safe and secure Israel and a viable and a safe and secure Palestine." He said that there are two things holding back lasting peace in the area - fear and a lack of brave and courageous moral leadership from people who are willing to risk everything to bring about reconciliation.
The American Jewish leader remembered those who were willing to put their lives on the line to help secure peace, including Arafat, Gandhi, and even Martin Luther King in this country.
He said that if the Israelis and the Palestinians could together in their common Abrahamic brotherhood, they could solve their political, economic, social and religious differences in his lifetime and bring about lasting peace in the Middle East.
Jefferts Schori did not address the issue directly, focusing more on the United States and seeing an American initiative as the solution to a very complicated and ancient religious problem half a world away in the desert sands of the Middle East.
"I think initiatives like this one in Omaha (the Tri-Faith Initiative) can change the things on the ground here in the United States. When Americans believe that it is possible for Jews and Christians and Muslims to live together in peace, in their very own community, they can begin to challenge their legislators to make that a reality in the broader society."
---Mary Ann Mueller is a journalist living in Texas. She is a regular contributor to VirtueOnline