What will a book about social harmony and bridge-building need to include to be considered a worthy contribution in challenging and divisive times? How will it supplement the efforts of interfaith and interideological initiatives across the country? How can I make sure I am not wasting people’s time?
Those were some of the questions I returned to again and again as I wrote Co-Human Harmony: Using Our Shared Humanity to Bridge Divides, which was published on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, January 21, 2019, and here are some of the answers I came up with.
I was listening to a Dr. King tribute show on NPR last Thursday on my way back from a planning committee meeting for the Annual Friendship and Dialogue Dinner that will be hosted by Dialogue Institute Austin. Funnily enough, one of my Muslim friends there had told me a story of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and how he’d told people, who’d to travel for hours to Mecca to pray with him, that the traveling time could be used for contemplation and prayer and was really a blessing in disguise. That turned out to be true for me on my hour-long drive back home. Listening to stories of Dr. King was both uplifting and inspiring.
The interviewees on the radio program had all known Dr. King personally. Of the things they said and stories they recounted, one struck me as particularly relevant to our times.
A Spiritual Malady That Must Be Avoided
It was Dr. King’s refusal to harbor feelings of anger and hatred, even when justified, which got my attention. According to a close friend, who had also read through most of Dr. King’s unpublished sermons, this was a reoccurring theme in the reverend’s life. He believed that destructive emotions, however deserving, were a spiritual malady that did more harm to the one harboring them than to those who the emotions were directed at.
When I tell people what we are working on at Harmony Interfaith Initiative—how we aim to support and supplement social harmony and bridge-building efforts in every way we can—they respond in one of two ways, either by saying, “that’s wonderful,” (more common) or by saying, “do you think that’s even possible?” (a sentiment that is sometimes delivered in a more direct and less supportive way).
To be fair, asking if social harmony is even possible is a rational question. One look at the news or someone’s social media feed can convince just about anyone that society is strapped in a jet-engine-car speeding down the highway to hell. Wondering whether social harmony is achievable or whether there is any precedent for it in history is entirely reasonable.
Gandhi's Response to Critiques of Nonviolence
To answer that question, allow me to defer to Mohandas K. Gandhi. The following quote appears in my new book, Co-Human Harmony: Using Our Shared Humanity to Bridge Divides, and shows how he responded when asked about the feasibility of nonviolence:
Is there more divisiveness in the world now than at any other time in history? That’s a question that is nearly impossible to answer. That said, most people we talk to feel that divisiveness of all sorts—be it political, theological, racial, or personal—has become a sustained part of their everyday life, even if they don’t want to participate in it. The question then becomes: How do people respond to such sustained divisiveness?
An Array of Responses to Acrimony
The following is a sample of common responses:
by Kenneth G. Palmer
Often times we become entrenched in our own distinct, doctrinal philosophies that we end up becoming fixated on how that is translated into a dialogue, peripherally fomenting an ecumenical understanding of specific convictions and how it relates to our neighboring communities. For monotheistic religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam, there are three particular doctrines of “work” which enables its adherents to not only grow in their spirituality, but likewise, those very tenets will unequivocally benefit the community around them. When we strive to become better people, the results are clear, we change, and our relationships do as well. Friendships strengthen and our community’s needs are met with tangible solutions that develop into deeper relationships, encouraging others to do the same.
Anger is an interesting emotion. It can move a person to action or, if it becomes a sustained feeling, be a force of destruction from the inside out. In truth, anger can’t be suppressed completely. Even the most advanced spiritual masters admit to succumbing to the emotion from time to time. Therefore, anger is best utilized in a sprinting fashion, by allowing short bursts to move one to action, followed by a period of recovery.
But what are we to do if the outside world seems continually angry? How are we to respond to sustained emotional attacks that would under normal circumstances be rare and evoke an appropriate amount of anger?
Under those conditions, most people don’t fare very well. They either try to match the intensity of the anger they perceive as being pointed at them or try to numb themselves to the emotion with food, alcohol or drugs.
Outrage is Not Sustainable
If you mix anger, fear, and discontent with a dash of other emotions, you get outrage. In recent years, we, as a society, have experienced one wave of outrage after another. Even when justified, outrage is not a sustainable emotion. The reason is simple. Outrage is so enervating that it is bound to evaporate. It cannot be sustained for any length of time. Even when a person has every reason to be outraged, the feeling will dissipate because it will, eventually, cause exhaustion. I know that many people are greeting the New Year with less energy than they are used to for exactly that reason.
Love equals relationships. To experience love you must be in a relationship, either with yourself, your lover, your spouse, your children, your friends, your family, nature, the universe or your creator, to name a few of the most common love relationships.
The Glue That Holds Us Together
Love has been named the glue that holds people together. Some even say that it holds the universe together. A child that receives no touch and no love when newly born can actually wither away and die. Love is the most spoken about, written about, sung about and in other ways expressed feeling in the world.
Many Types of Love
Anyone speaking of love must realize that there are many types of love. There is the excitement at the beginning of a relationship (closely related to the second human need for excitement and sex), a mothers love for her child, the love of a married couple, the love for a friend, the masters love for his student, Gods love for his children and so on.
Here are three distinct types of love:
Religion has a spotty track record. I’ll be the first to admit that. It has been, and in many cases still is, used as an excuse to brainwash, exclude, shame or condemn people—sometimes all at once—and there is no denying that atrocities have been committed in the name of religion.
But… religion has also shown itself to be exceptionally valuable, both personally and culturally. It has produced a number of outstanding people, been a guiding light for peace and unity, created beautiful communities all around the globe, given purpose and meaning to millions, and encouraged people to tend to their spiritual side, to name a few.
Music Appreciation and Religion
Comparative religion author, Huston Smith, once said that religion was like music. He said that despite the fact that the world had, on average, produced more bad music than good music, music appreciation classes spent very little time on listening to bad music, that most music appreciation was about listening to, or, in some cases, learning to appreciate, good music.
There is a significant difference between interfaith and interspirituality. Interfaith is about working towards harmony and finding ways to co-exist despite ideological differences. Interspirituality is an exploration that can unveil the few strands of experience that the religions of the world share.
Keep these differences in mind and try to spot which is which while you read the following quotes. They appear in chronological order, based on the birth years of their authors.
In The World’s Religions, Huston Smith wrote: “We can define theology as the systematization of thoughts about the symbols that religious experience gives rise to.”
Take a moment to think about that sentence.
I did. It stuck with me. In fact, I thought about it so much that it became the basis for an interfaith model that I created.
For clarity, it is helpful to reverse engineer Smith’s sentence.
Ergo: Experience is the starting point, theology is the outcome.
Why is that important? Because, most of us define religions by customs, rituals, and stories, not by their spiritual underpinnings, and, as a result, religious and spiritual experiences get pushed to the side.
Hunger for Direct Experiences
Today, people hunger for direct experiences like never before. They want peace of mind, genuine feelings of love and compassion, a deepened sense of empathy, a feeling of being calm in the storm, and much more. With this in mind, why don’t more religious institutions focus on experience?
In his masterpiece, The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James proposes an answer. According to James, a prophet’s journey usually begins with a religious experience. If the prophet starts to preach based on that experience, he is promptly labeled a madman. If, however, the theology spreads, it is labeled as heresy. Finally, if the theology survives persecution, it becomes orthodoxy. At that point, according to James, its days of “inwardness” are over, because orthodoxy effectively stops “all later bubblings of the fountain from which in purer days it drew its own supply of inspiration.”
Forgiveness is an internal process of letting go. The one who forgives refuses to allow destructive emotions to live rent-free in his or her head and stops wishing for a better past. True forgiveness is about reclaiming control of one’s own emotions.
When someone forgives, he or she is neither condoning behavior nor reconnecting automatically with the perpetrator. I emphasize this, because many people erroneously think that when they forgive they are saying that what happened was okay and now they have to be best friends with the person and/or organization that they are forgiving.
People can internally forgive by letting go of destructive emotions that are eating them up from the inside, they can free themselves from the hate and anger that are consuming them, but, at the same time, they can be strongly opposed to the behavior that hurt them, seek justice or reparations, and refuse to reconnect with the persons or organizations at fault, all while being emotionally free and tempered.
When I was in my early twenties I quit smoking. It was a filthy habit that I’d picked up when I was twelve years old and in my teens I had been responsible for introducing cigarettes to a number of people.
After I quit, I felt badly about that. I knew that I couldn’t go back in time and fix what I had done, so I decided to do something for the future.
My approach to quitting had been successful, so I started sharing the technique with others. That led to ten years of smoking cessation seminars and books in both Icelandic and English. I also teamed up with a public health organization and started giving smoking prevention lectures in schools.
That Feeling When You Are Not Welcome
Have you ever walked into a room and felt that you were not welcome? That’s how I felt just about every time I walked into a room full of students and was introduced as the smoking prevention guy.
Instead of being discouraged, I took it as a challenge and spiced up my approach.
I got better and better at captivating attention and engaging young adults in dialogue about the importance of living life fully (one of the things I emphasized). I swung between being adversarial (“I don’t care if you die because we’ll all die”) and inspirational (“you only get one life and it’s the quality that counts.”).
I gained attention and got along well with the adults who liked my approach, which meant that I got booked in dozens of schools every year. However, even as I got better at presenting the material, I never captured everyone’s attention.
In pagan times, people gave thanks to different gods for varying aspects of their lives, for example by giving thanks to the sun god for sustaining life and the rain god for watering their crops. Being at the mercy of natural forces, people saw gods at play in every aspect of their lives.
All that changed with the advent of the one God of Judaism. One formidable God replaced an assembly of characters, making it so that all thanks and petitions were aimed in one direction.
In modern times, can we do both and be grateful to the web of life while also thanking the creator and sustainer of life?
Here is a little thought experiment to test that theory. I am sitting at my desk and noticing the things around me. I wonder, should I go straight to the source in gratitude for my chair, my computer, my table, my pens, my whiteboard, and so on? Wouldn’t I be cutting out individual parts of creation, the people who made all these things I am enjoying and the elements from which they are made? If I truly appreciate creation, shouldn’t I be thankful for all of it?
Shouldn’t I be thankful for the natural elements from which these things on my desk were made, most of which I cannot name?
Shouldn’t I be thankful to the miners who dug up these materials, the people who transported and processed them, the designers and engineers who created my computer, and the software programmers who wrote the code that allows me to type at lightning speed while listening to my favorite classical music at the same time?
How far back should I go? The creation of the Earth? The Big Bang? Further?
When I take time to appreciate the role that all of creation plays in this moment—from the origins of the universe to the creation of the elements to all the people who have done mental and physical work to create my surroundings—it becomes crystal clear to me that everything is connected to everything else. It is impossible to ever be alone in this world.
Based on my little thought experiment, it’s clear to me that it’s both possible and feasible to combine methods of gratitude. I can be thankful for individual parts of creation while also appreciating the creative and sustaining force behind all of it.
I am a big proponent of the Golden Rule. “Treat others as you want to be treated” is a sentiment that is found in some form in all religions. Jesus went further that most when he usurped all other commandments and told his followers to love God and love their neighbors as they would themselves—a tall order indeed.
The difficulty becomes apparent when we take a step back and ask what needs to happen before we can follow the Golden Rule. The dilemma can be boiled down to a single question: Do we love ourselves enough to want to be treated well and are we willing to extend that care to others?
Not Always Loving
I have not always been a model citizen. In all honesty, I have gone through periods in my life where I earned the pun on my name (Hi, I’m Gudjon, used to be Bad-John). But in hindsight, I can safely say that when I hurt other people, it usually went hand in hand with low self-esteem.
For example, I went through several years as a young adult when I was being bullied. During that time, I went out of my way to make sure others felt as miserable as I did. Later in life, I was in a relationship where I was loved but felt that I wasn’t worthy of love and sabotaged the relationship. And currently, even on my best days, I have moments where I look in the mirror and feel ‘less than’ and that affects my interactions with others.
From what I have seen and heard during my years on this Earth, I am not alone. It seems that most (if not all) of us go through periods where we do not love ourselves and feel that we should not be treated well. That gives some of us (not all) internal permission to treat others badly. When my daughter was nine, she wisely said that she tries to keep it to herself when she is feeling bad and not lash out at others to make them feel bad.
Words are the means by which we communicate. They point to things, emotions, and ideas. They help us understand each other. Words only come into being when two or more people have the same or similar experience and need to be able to talk about it. But through use, the meaning of words changes, and sometimes it is important to revisit the original intent to better understand.
Socrates reportedly said that he never wrote anything down because then he couldn’t be the steward of his words; he wanted to be present to guide people towards the real meaning of what he was saying. Although his premise still holds true, writing nevertheless one of the best means of communications we have, and in writing, as in religion, words matter.
In this article, I want to explore four examples from Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity.
In the wake of the midterm elections in the USA, we asked Dr. Willerton, who was a participant in one of our courses last summer, to send us an outline for his course called The Politics of Happiness. From what we gather, this is the only political science course in the USA that focuses intently on the relationship between politics and happiness. It is offered through the School of Government and Public Policy at the University of Arizona. Here is what he sent us:
The Pursuit of Happiness
Our one-semester course focuses on human well-being through an inter-disciplinary, comparative cross-national examination of more than nine countries. Beginning with the United States, the first country to set as a goal the pursuit of happiness, and continuing to Sweden, with its emphasis on community and social justice, we consider numerous political, social, economic, and cultural factors that affect human happiness and well-being.
During our fifteen weeks together, among other topics, we examine gender issues in France, issues of tolerance and the rights of sexual orientation minorities in the Netherlands, and the dilemmas of nationalism in the historically complex relations between the German-speaking and Central-East European Jewish civilizations. After considering the politics of sectarianism in religiously diverse Lebanon, we analyze the “Russian soul” and an evolving post-Soviet Russia, and we evaluate the challenges of modernization in fast-changing China. Our course ends in the remote Himalayan country of Bhutan which, since 1972, has promoted Gross National Happiness, an initiative grounded in good governance, economic development, preservation of the environment, and the safeguarding of the family and the country’s unique culture.
I am old enough to remember when the Internet was new. The spiritual community had high hopes. “The Internet is going to be like a big city, where diversity will become the new normal and usher in an age of understanding and compassion,” my friends said. “Yes, the Internet will be like the coastal town where Gandhi grew up, where the temple priests read equally from the Bible, Quran, and the Bhagavad Gita,” I responded.
But that’s not how it has turned out, is it? In fact, some suggest that hate has won the Internet. Extremist groups, many of which had almost become extinct, now thrive. Anyone who expresses his or her opinion online is likely to get trolled by haters. And many react viscerally to other people’s ideas, otherizing each other in the process.
While I don’t think that hate has won (yet), the trend seems to be going in the wrong direction. In this article, I want to examine two ideas that partially explain why the Internet has become so divisive.
We pray in the name of all traditions.
May we practice our faith with sincerity,
increase our capacity for love,
and unveil the peaceful essence we seek.
May our faith transmute anger into action,
melt away hatred with love,
and spur us to serve the poor, sick, and old.
May our strong attraction to one path,
not create repulsion for other paths.
May we allow other people to foster their beliefs,
even when we think they are wrong.
May we remember that we all belong to one human race,
that ideologies and theologies are only a part of who we are,
and that we all share traits that make us human.
May we honor diversity when appropriate,
celebrate unity when we see it,
and find ways to work together.
May we learn to disagree without being disagreeable,
sow the seeds of peace when we encounter hostility,
and rejoice in friendliness wherever we find it.
We ask for strength to overcome prejudices,
clarity to see our biases,
and courage to act justly in the face of injustice.
by Amy Giddon
When I went to the Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan this summer, I was treated to a charming and random act of kindness. As soon as I purchased museum admission, my friend and I were presented with mysterious folded and sealed letters. I opened my letter and was delighted to find a unique and thoughtful note: “Please enjoy the entire museum. Start from the top and work your way down. Smile today. Be the reason someone else smiles today. Enjoy!”
I was intrigued as to what prompted my new friend Gia to spend time on this gesture of kindness for a person she didn’t know, and whose reaction she wouldn’t see. I soon found out. Rounding the corner, I came across an invitation to write a letter of my own.
This invitation spoke of the “karmic ripples” one can create by participating in this delightful act of kindness. Having been touched by Gia, I paid it forward, and felt like an integral link in a chain of visitors, connected across time and experience.
It was a small but uplifting moment. It can be hard to feel positive these days, which often feel divisive, even dehumanizing.
It seems like we’re stuck in an unending chain of negativity. We’re more polarized than ever and a splintered news media entrenches us further. Social media algorithms ensure our existing views are reinforced. When we venture out of our social media bunkers we can find ourselves in conversation threads that bring out the worst in us, sending us back to our tribe and perpetuating our distrust of others.
That unexpected pay-it-forward experience at the Rubin Museum reestablished my feeling of interconnectedness. I knew that this experience made me feel good, and I wondered, can random acts of kindness jolt us out of an us-vs-them mentality and restore our faith in humanity?
The Psychological Benefits that Come with Random Acts of Kindness
Science supports that these little acts of kindness can have a big emotional impact. The ripples are real. Whether a giver, a receiver, or even simply an observer of a kindness, we are positively impacted both individually and collectively.
My fellow Americans,
I think it is time we talked. Not argued, but talked, you know, like adults do when they attempt to resolve their differences. Before we do, though, I believe that we need to make some adjustments to our approach. To assist with that process, allow me reference three ideas we use here at Harmony Interfaith Initiative, each of them addressing major points in regards to dialogue and reconciliation.
The Human Persona and The Ideological Persona
Padraig O’Malley, who was a facilitator during the Northern Ireland peace process, made the case that each human being has two personas, the ideological persona and the human persona. He pointed out that the only way to dehumanize the other is to see him or her only in terms of ideology and forget their humanity.
Think about that for a moment. Whenever we use an ideological label to describe a person, we fall into the trap of dehumanizing. It’s a great way to polarize, but a lousy way to live and can only lead to further divisions and hostilities.
Based on O’Malley’s concept, the first step towards dialogue is to remember that we are human and that the person on the other side of the discussion is also human, not merely a Christian or a Muslim, a conservative or a liberal, a snowflake or a gun rights activist, a climate warrior or a climate denier. Those are ideological stances people have taken, not something they are born with.
In our work at Harmony Interfaith Initiative, we are constantly reaching out to people and offering them our services. As one would expect, we get mixed responses. I’ve personally been surprised by one repeated response that I had not anticipated. In hindsight, maybe I should have seen it coming.
Here is what the gist of the response sounds like: “We are in complete harmony with each other here at the [church, temple, synagogue, spiritual center] and would welcome any and all to come and be with us. We see no need to engage in interfaith efforts at this time.” Reading between the lines, one can interpret the response this way: “We are okay. It’s them, not us.”
Maybe that is at the heart of the problem. No one thinks that they are to blame. Few are willing to accept responsibility and try to bridge divides. Think about it. Liberals think that conservatives are to blame for the ill will that exists between them, and Conservatives think Liberals are to blame. Christians think that Muslims are to blame and vice versa. The list goes on. Even interfaith activists think that those who refuse to participate are to blame.
We Are All Involved
In his interreligious principles, Dr. Leonard J. Swidler, points out that those who engage in interfaith dialogue need to be, “minimally self-critical of both themselves and their own religious or ideological traditions.”
by Larry Visser
Harmony. Dignity. Compassion. Civility. Forgiveness. Reconciliation. Words to live by. Words to heal by. How good it is to hear voices near and far proclaim such words in a world in which they seem so under siege and out of style.
I have long been a person who reacts, as many do, with a sense of moral outrage to divisiveness, prejudice, selfishness, and extremism. Nevertheless, I have mostly sat by passively, hoping for better things to come. But in recent times "better things" seem to be growing more and more scarce. The tides of change seem to be accelerating in the wrong direction.
Polarized When Anonymous
Some time ago I reached a point where a voice within my heart could no longer be silenced. If I was not in some way part of a solution, I was part of the problem. I began reading. I started with Desmond Tutu’s The Book of Forgiving. That led me to Donna Hicks’ Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict. I continued reading similar works and discovering web sites like this one that offered solutions and told stories of changed lives.
Early in my research I settled on a model that made sense to me and that seemed within my reach to implement. It assumes that dissimilar or opposing groups are most likely to become polarized when they are most anonymous to each other. I can only violate someone’s dignity if I first make him less than human in my mind. The seeds of acrimony grow where people are lumped into stereotypes, where they are misunderstood, where they are demonized.
To the extent this is true, an effective antidote may be found in breaking through the anonymity. I began to make plans to bring people from opposite sides of divides together in face-to-face, small group meetings where each person has a name and a face and a story about how they came to be the way they are. In an effort to brand the concept, I began to call it Dignity Dialogues. Mind you, I branded it only as a way to refer to the model, not with any thought of making it a business.
Human beings have a tendency to place other human beings on a pedestal. We look for examples of perfection and hold them up in contrast with the fallibility of the rest of us. Perfection is the ideal, the aspiration, the pinnacle. We long for it. And yet, more often than not, it turns out to be a mirage, a form of wishful thinking.
It's a story as old as time. A portrait of perfection is toppled when someone gets close enough to the person in question to see the truth (which is that some people are better than others, but none of us are truly perfect or infallible). An old Indian aphorism exemplifies this when it tells us that spiritual masters are like fire. If you are too far away, you get no heat. If you come too close, you get burned.
For most of us, if not all, perfection is not in the cards. But progress is. And we can all strive to be better.
Why Choose Progress?
Encouraging people to choose progress over perfection has become a staple in psychology, especially in cognitive behavioral therapy. In his landmark book, Feeling Good, one of the pioneers of CBT, David D. Burns wrote:
“Aim for success, not perfection. Never give up your right to be wrong, because then you will lose the ability to learn new things and move forward with your life. Remember that fear always lurks behind perfectionism. Confronting your fears and allowing yourself the right to be human can, paradoxically, make yourself a happier and more productive person.”
Happier and more productive. That sounds like a recipe for creating harmony from within.
Setting Ourselves Up for Failure
If this is true about individuals, isn’t it doubly true about groups? Aren’t we setting ourselves up for failure by aiming for perfect interactions or expecting too much from each other?
In fields such as interfaith work, community bridge building and social harmony, we cannot allow ourselves to be tempted by perfection. If we are expecting flawlessness, we will fail to see progress. For example:
In my line work, I am fortunate enough to cross paths with great people that are doing important work all around the globe, from South Africa to Great Britain, Canada to India, Texas to Minneapolis, and beyond.
All the people I communicate with at this level are working actively towards social harmony. For one reason or another, they have realized that social harmony is the cornerstone of society. Instead of seeing it as something nice or pleasant, they see it as imperative, in the same category as food, roads, education, and healthcare.
Seeing the Shadow or Being Whipped
An ancient parable tells us that a wise horse moves when he sees the shadow of the whip, while a foolish horse needs to be whipped every step of the way. The people I work with have seen the shadow that social discord is creating.
Last summer, I facilitated a course with nearly three hundred people from over twenty countries. More than half of them attended the course because they recognized the signs of division and acrimony as potentially dangerous. All of them wanted to learn strategies to push against the forces of friction and work towards social harmony.
Sadly, many in the larger population refuse to see the shadows of the ‘whips’ that are being cast all around them. Like the foolish horse, they are waiting for the whip to crack on their backside before they move a muscle. By then it may be too late.
by Lawrence L. Schwartz
When religion is based on fear, not Love,
You cannot feel that God's within,
You're stuck with the fear of "that God above,"
And spend your days in dreading "sin,"
You feel threatened that folks outside
Will obscure the "divine truth" from others,
And cannot see it's not they who hide,
The Oneness you share with all sisters and brothers,
You cling to verses in a book,
And dare not go within yourself,
You cannot take that deeper look,
When you put the book up on the shelf,
The darkest fears then make you tell,
All sorts of lies you think are real,
You'd rather say, "Kill the infidel!"
Than see inside behind your zeal,
Plowing Heaven under, creating "hell,"
You run from what you cannot feel,
And while obsessed with hatred and killing,
Far from the Truth behind your chapter and verse,
Seeing only difference in those unwilling
To follow your way, you make things worse.
Be a guest blogger
Our Vision and Primary Goals
We are an educational and social good interfaith organization. We provide people with access to strategies, methods, and ideas that promote social harmony and enable bridge-building across divides. We use the term interfaith broadly to mean 'a strong belief in someone or something' and focus on improving interrelations between people who have different worldviews. Our primary goals are to remind people of our shared humanity and to support new and ongoing efforts.
Subscribe to our newsletter to stay in touch. You can also connect with us on social media.
©Harmony Interfaith Initiative
Registered in Hays County, Texas
Founded in 2018
Connect With Us