Author Archives: commonword

2022 Dialogue: “Drawing the Circle Bigger”

For the past nine years, ACWAB has played a quiet but impactful role in our community in getting Christians and Muslims face to face in a non-threatening environment for conversation.  In a time when it has come to our corporate attention that our communities are fragmented and we have a real problem with islamophobia, we have found face to face interactions between Muslims and Christians are effective in building peaceful, respectful and loving relationships between differing faiths.

We invite you and interested community members to join us this year in our annual Dialogue Event on October 29, 2022, 10:00am -2:00pm.  The venue this year will be Sacred Heart First People’s Church.  

You can get tickets at Eventbrite here for both in-person or on Zoom. You can also spread the word by inviting your friends on Facebook.

We look forward to coming together as diverse and harmonious communities on October 29th!

You can also learn about our Past Events.

2021 Dialogue: “Does Faith Matter?”

For the past eight years, ACWAB has played a quiet but impactful role in our community in getting Christians and Muslims face to face in a non-threatening environment for conversation.  In a time when it has come to our corporate attention that our communities are fragmented and we have a real problem with islamophobia, we have found face to face interactions between Muslims and Christians are effective in building peaceful, respectful and loving relationships between differing faiths.

We invite you and interested community members to join us this year in our annual Dialogue Event on October 30, 2021, 9:30am -1:00pm.  The venue for the in person component this year will be Al Rashid Mosque.  There is a zoom option to join.  Either way, participants will be welcomed and given an opportunity to interact on the topic of “Does Faith Matter?”  We will hear from four (younger) individuals from both faith traditions, followed by facilitated table discussions on this topic. 

You and your community members are invited to register for this event and share with their friends and contacts at the following link: https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/christian-muslim-dialogue-does-faith-matter-tickets-167364097521

We look forward to coming together as diverse and harmonious communities on October 30th!

An October 31st Invitation to Christian Muslim Dialogue

by Donna Entz- Mennonite Christian

“Ashura” was commemorated on August 30, the culmination of 10 days of mourning in the Muslim Shia community. The martydom of the family of the prophet in Karbala, Iraq, in the year of 680, was carried out by a despicable leader of the fledgling Muslim movement. The grandson, Imam Husayn, took a stand against this corruption and is therefore honoured for his willingness to die in self-sacrifice. The details of Ashura story: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Af_6RMIuGSQ                 

As I watched the sorrowful livestream at a local mosque, where I have often visited, my heart reflected that today our times are no better – still “so much wrong and so much injustice”.  With sudden astonishment,  I recognized the words as a modern Christian song by John Bell from the Iona community.  It was a surprise  to experience the same emotional tone in the song about Jesus’ death as I had in the Muslim event.  The lyrics continued the Ashura theme, calling us to follow Jesus who took a stand against injustice.  In fact that common vision for justice had brought us together in advocacy for the Occupied Palestinian Territory.  I sent the song to these Muslim friends, and though it also highlighted deep theological differences, Dr Masoud Shadnam, chose these words to post to social media: 

“So much wrong and so much injustice,

so you shouldered a wooden cross.

Now, like you, my best dreams are shattered;

all I know is the weight of loss.

No fine song, no impressive music

can attempt to relieve my heart;

in this hour I am called to grieving,

lest no other will play this part.”

 John Bell’s song: https://youtu.be/qPZIGtN-L9c

Commonalities and connections are often experienced  at informal and formal Interfaith Dialogues.  My Mennonite-shaped reaction has often been to want to build ongoing connections among the participants.  In “A Common Word Alberta” a unique form of dialogue has emerged, where the majority of the time together is spent not in listening to presenters, but in sharing with those around a table (and in today’s Zoom world, break-out rooms). Our style of dialogue has been officially promoted among Canadian Lutherans and Anglicans, now also.  

Dialogues are where both faith communities give verbal  testimony to their understanding and experiences of faith. I remember the year that a Moravian pastor shared many stories about Jesus and how he related with respect and care to people of all kinds.  My heart leapt  for joy to think that so many Muslims were introduced to these stories, so important in my life. It was also around a table at a Dialogue that a Turkish friend shared her heart’s grief of the suffering women in her home country.  Our combined communities shared her pain. These interactions are a common thread between my decades of work as a Witness worker in Burkina Faso and my years of work here in Edmonton  through Mennonite Church Alberta. 

Our  Christian Muslim Dialogue will have an online component this year. That means that folks from all across Canada can participate in these same experiences. For details – and to register for the October 31 – event, go to: http://acwalberta.ca/

A Quaker-Jewish Perspective on Ethics and Halachah

Robert Kirchner

Topics addressed: theological grounding of ethics, relation to halachah, comparison of Jewish and Quaker approaches.

1. What is Havayah?

I begin by attempting to formulate a personal understanding (coherent, I hope) of ethics and its relation to theology. I’m not a trained philosopher nor a theologian; perhaps my thoughts on these topics are obvious and/or easily discredited. Indulge me please as I try to work this out for myself.

Studying organic gardening triggered a mystical response in me. Soil, I learned, is not an inert substance: it’s a living community, a complex ecosystem of growing and decaying vegetation, arthropods, nematodes, bacteria, fungi, as well as sand, silt, clay, water and air. The soil fauna and microbes constantly break down dead vegetation, making the nutrients within it available to the living plants, while feeding themselves other fauna, and storing extra nutrients in the form of humus. I felt radical amazement at how these billions of microbes in a foot of topsoil have richly interdependent relationships, with each other and with the plants and microorganisms that grow among them, permitting them to thrive, and how all of life, including us, emerges from this dense symbiotic network, cycling nutrients and energy among living things, as one organism dies, and another grows from its remains.

So what can we call this web of rich interdependence, these relations of parts to each other and to the whole? I want an word that not only objectively describes the phenomenon, but also recognizes and does justice to the radical amazement that it provokes. I want to call this phenomenon ‘love’. If we understand love not primarily as an emotion, but as actions of caring for another, of mutual aid, I don’t think it is at all far-fetched to say that the soil food web, including both living things and inorganic materials, massively exhibits love.

Now, let’s move from microcosm to macrocosm, from a bit of soil to the whole universe. I understand God, or (to use a friendlier term) Havayah1, to be the sacredness immanent within the universe. She could also characterized as the אחד2 of the universe. And just as in a bit of soil, the relation of all the parts to one another, and to the underlying אחד, is also massive love, now on a macrocosmic scale.

‘God is love’: so says a certain first-century Jewish text, 1 John 4:7 (though this text was excluded from the canon of Rabbinic Judaism). I don’t know whether there are comparable statements within the Rabbinic canon, or in subsequent Jewish literature. I do recall Rabbi Arthur Green asserting that love is the fundamental value underlying Judaism, notwithstanding the common misconception that this idea that Christianity has exclusive ownership of this idea, and that Jews are thereby preempted from saying the same thing.

2. Havayah and ethics.

There are at least two distinct senses in which we use the terms ‘good’ and its opposite, ‘evil’ or ‘bad’. ‘Good and bad’ can refer to things that I like or don’t like, respectively, or that humans collectively like or don’t like in general. A comfortable chair is good; stomach cancer is bad. Good and bad, in this usage, have nothing to do with ethics. In this sense, we can say that Havayah creates both good and evil, as in Isaiah 45: 7, for She is what underlies reality — all of reality — whether we like it or not.

In the realm of human ethics, however, my starting place is Hannah Arendt’s observation, ‘the banality of evil’. That is, evil (in the ethical sense) is fundamentally a manifestation of prosaic human stupidity, a failure of imagination, a lack of emotional intelligence, that prevents human moral agents from apprehending their connection to others, of thereby feeling compassion for their suffering, or of giving sufficient attention to the consequences of their actions (or inactions) toward others. Conversely, good (in the ethical sense) is action (or inaction) toward others which is fully informed by and imbued with an attitude of love. Love, awareness of connection, action that accords with such awareness — these are the very essence of Havayah. When humans, in our banality, act in ways that are contrary to love, we are living at cross-purposes to Havayah, to the spirit of the universe Herself, we are denying the sacred, cutting ourselves off from Her. I thus ground my ethics firmly in my theology, but without appealing to a personal God who issues commandments, nor punishments nor rewards therefor.

3. Ethics, halachah3, and Quaker testimonies.

However, merely saying, ‘act in accordance with love’, is insufficient practical guidance in many cases. Our limited human intelligence, our lack of awareness of others’ needs, our failure to consider complex consequences of our actions, may all result in harm rather than aid. Moreover, the demands of compassion toward others must be balanced against the need to care for ourselves, not to mention our finite attentions. For all these reasons, our individual capacity to do good, in actual practice, may be significantly enhanced when the principle of love is supplemented with the collective wisdom of a community, developed over time, as to how to apply that principle in specific cases, or even broad classes of cases. Hence the utility of notions such as halachah and Torah.

It occurs to me that Quakers have a somewhat analogous notion, the Testimonies. These are broad principles or values – formulated variously as

  • Simplicity
  • Truth
  • Equality
  • Peace

(acronym STEP), or

  • Simplicity
  • Peace
  • Integrity
  • Community
  • Equality,
  • (and more recently, Sustainability)

(acronym SPICE(S)).

These Testimonies are still highly general, far from the specificity of typical halachic rules. But each Testimony derives from concrete actions that early Quakers felt ‘led by the Spirit’ (i.e. commanded by God) to take, contrary to contemporary social norms and laws. The Testimony of Peace is a generalization of Friends’4 early collective leading to refuse to participate in warfare; and that decision has been reaffirmed by every subsequent generation of Quakers. Similarly, the Testimony of Equality is a generalization of Friends’ early refusal to show deference to their social ‘betters’, and their recognition that women could minister as well as men; and this Testimony was reaffirmed and extended further when we came to oppose slavery and accompanying theories of racial superiority. So each of these Testimonies has a kernel of historic specificity, of concrete application, which still obtains, as well as a penumbra of extensions.

Quakers, like other mystical movements, emphasize personal direct experience of God. But in discerning how we should act in the world, Friends’ focus on individual experience is tempered by our collective decision-making process. An individual may experience a ‘leading’ to do something, but if it somehow reflects on Friends generally or requires support from other Friends, the leading must be ‘tested’ by the whole Meeting. If the Meeting ‘unites’ with the leading, it becomes part of Quaker practice, perhaps just for that local Meeting; or if other Meetings adopt it as well, the practice may come to be adopted among Quakers more broadly. These decisions are recorded in minutes of the Meeting. In practice, Friends rarely consult minutes from more than a few years ago, and tend to rely more on the memories of long-term members. Friends do not study past decisions the way Jews study the Talmud. Perhaps we ought to.

I don’t have much further to say about halachah at this point, being still largely ignorant of the field. But I am encouraged by this discovery of certain parallels between halachah and Quaker practice, and this motivates me to learn more about it.

These parallels should not be overstated, though. One obvious difference is that Quaker decisions are reached by the whole Meeting, whereas halachic decision-making, Orthodox or Reform, is restricted to those with specialized training, the rabbis.

I close with a lament that both Reform Judaism and Liberal Quakerism, in modern times, have largely abdicated the field to individualism. At a time when our communities urgently need to be collectively discussing and strategizing about how to resist and overcome capitalist injustice and environmental disaster, we are instead left more or less to our own devices; the surrounding culture insists, and we have acquiesced, that it is a matter of individual choice how we earn our livelihoods, how we get our food, how we travel, etc., though all of these ‘personal’ decisions have huge collective impacts. I value personal autonomy – I don’t wish to move to an arrangement where every personal decision needs to be approved by a committee – but we can’t effectively challenge the status quo so long as we each make all of our decisions in isolation.

1Havayah (הויה) means ‘existence’ in Hebrew. It is sometimes used in liberal Jewish circles as an alternative to Adonai, to refer to God. The word is etymologically related to the ineffable Biblical name of God, it is a permutation of the same four Hebrew letters, and it is of feminine gender.

2Eḥad, ‘one’.

3Halachah (הלכה) means Jewish law, literally ‘[way of] walking’.

4I use ‘Quaker’ and ‘Friend’ interchangeably.

What I learned from Ramadan

Randolph Haluza-DeLay

(Published in Canadian Mennonite, May 6, 2020)

We were in the midst of the Christian season of Lent as I wrote this. Shortly after Lent ended and Easter came, Muslims began the season of Ramadan. The month-long period of daily fasting launched on April 23. The couple of years I have observed the season of Ramadan have been of stunning benefit for my Christian faith.

Ramadan is a time of spiritual reflection and heightened devotion for Muslims. This period of 29 or 30 days—the dates change every year, following the lunar calendar of 13 months—is marked by fasting, prayer, self-examination and community. The fasting is most well-known, just as giving up something for Lent is what most people understand about the Christian season. Each fasting period lasts from just before sunup to just after sundown. Believers are to refrain from food, any sort of drink, intimate relations, tobacco and other impurities, and are encouraged to give more to charity. 

Ramadan fell across the summer solstice in the year that I fasted; the longest days of the Canadian year are long indeed! Fasting is not unusual for me, or for many other Christians. But abstaining from water or any other drink made this fast much more strenuous in effort.

The rigour of the Ramadan fast was my first lesson. The discipline reduced my energy and concentration, so it provided appreciation for what Muslim co-workers and fellow Canadians may be experiencing for a full month. It also reminded me that, as a Christian, my holy days are holidays and I do not need to take vacation time to practise my religion.

Most Muslims break the fast each day with family, friends or fellow congregants in the iftar meal. My second lesson was that the daily fast was far more difficult because I had no one to celebrate each day with. The difficult things are easier when family or others share the journey. 

In another year, I was to be at a month-long gathering of Christian scholars during Ramadan. Fasting would be awkward, so I decided to pray five times a day. This is another pillar of Muslim religious practice. Some liturgical and contemplative Christian traditions also set several specific times at which to pray the “divine office” that may include matins, midmorning prayer, vespers and so on. For Muslims, the five times are set according to the arc of the sun across the daily sky. The specificity of the time reminds the faithful that God comes first, before any of the activities we might be engaged in. This attitude, and frequent prayer, would be something that Christians would value, I thought.

Two lessons also occurred that year. The first was the inconvenience posed by regular times for prayer, even among fellow believers! I set reminder alarms for lunch, and at morning and afternoon tea breaks, in addition to the early-morning and late-day times. But the days fluctuated enough to make these alarms disruptive. God interrupts our lives!

The second lesson was how wonderful this practice was for producing a sense of closeness to God. For several months afterward, I kept the routine, and now I am flabbergasted as to why I did not continue. 

Lent and Ramadan are “disruptions” in the regularity of life. They interrupt the normal everydayness in which habits form without conscious reflection, and life becomes taken for granted. Like bumps in the road that, when driving late at night, disrupt the sleepy autopilot, we need these disruptor moments in our faith lives. 

Randolph Haluza-DeLay participates in several Christian-Muslim dialogue groups in Edmonton and co-taught a course with a Muslim theologian at The King’s University called Engaging Islam as Interfaith Encounter.

Interfaith During COVID-19

By Naz Qureshi 

I was speaking to an older employee of mine this morning who advised me regretfully that she had been looking forward to Easter services and because of the pandemic , unfortunately would have to miss them. I asked her what denomination of Christianity she belonged to and informed her there were several online Church services taking place. She advised me that she was Catholic and within minutes I sent her a link with all the upcoming Catholic services in the city. She is aware that I am a Muslim, and was touched, saying that was very kind. I wished her well and felt good about being able to provide my employee with a way to participate in her worship because it meant so much to her to do so; to connect with the Divine Oneness the way she knew how to. Suddenly, I noticed the music I had playing in the background. It was a contemporary Jewish religious singer that a Jewish friend had emailed me that very morning. It was sent as a token of light in these times of isolation and uncertainty. While I understood none of the Hebrew words, it was that small act of kindness that had touched me and I was listening to it in that very moment while I worked. In that tiny, precious moment, the ‘paying it forward’, those small acts of consideration came full circle. I leaned back in my chair and I smiled at the realization of how blessed I was to not only witness, but be an active participant in the children of Abraham giving and receiving in harmony to one another.