Whenever there is a human tragedy, national or local, Americans of faith come together to express their sympathy and show solidarity with victims and their families. Usually during such gatherings, clergy lead people in prayer.
After the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, President Obama went to a vigil hosted by an interfaith clergy association at the local high school. In attendance were clergy from various Christian denominations, and representatives of Islam, Judaism, and the Bahai faith.
Among the clergy was the Rev. Rob Morris, pastor at Christ the King Lutheran Church in Newtown. Then the Lutheran version of hell broke lose.
The pastor was publicly reprimanded by the Rev. Matthew Harrison, president of Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod for taking part in the interfaith service. The church prohibits its pastors from participating in services with other faiths.
In the opening remarks at the vigil, the Rev. Matt Crebbin, representing Newtown Congregational Church, made it clear that the religious leaders present were not endorsing one another. Still, Reverend Harrison said that the presence of prayers and religious readings made the Newtown vigil a joint worship.
He further said that Reverend Morris’ participation offended members of his denomination. The offending Reverend Morris dutifully apologized.
It is not the first time the synod has shown such intolerance. Soon after 9/11, an interfaith service called Prayer for America was held in New York’s Yankee Stadium.
David Benke, a Lutheran pastor, participated. He was suspended by the dispute resolution panel of the synod, even though he had prior permission from the then-president of the synod.
Many major religions carry a Himalaya-size chip of superiority on their shoulders. Each religion thinks it has the answer to life in this world and a way to secure life in the hereafter.
One wonders what goes through the minds of religious leaders when they gather at interfaith powwows. They profess equality while holding hands, but sing a different tune to their flocks back in their churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples. Unless one is a hypocrite, it is not possible to be equal and superior at the same time.
Some of my Christian friends tell me that proselytizing is an integral part of their faith. Therefore, it may not be possible for most Christians to accord equality to other religions.
While this might be a formidable barrier for some, it has not prevented most believing men and women of all religions from using the age-old concepts of faith and reason, and moving forward from the unattainable goal of painting the entire world in one color. All they have to do is to come down from their celestial high horses.
In the past eight years, a group of Toledo-area Catholics and Muslims have been meeting informally to learn from each other and to understand each other’s faiths. Called Peace and Justice, the group meets in private homes and in religious institutions.
There is no attempt to proselytize. No one has walked away from his or her faith. Participants have developed friendships that transcend religious cubbyholes.
In the same spirit are people of the cloth in Toledo who, instead of preaching the gospel of exclusion, practice inclusiveness. There is no better example than the Rev. James Bacik, retired pastor of Corpus Christi University Parish. He set an example of openness and inclusiveness.
He preached acceptance of others. He has been a good friend and a great teacher.
The Rev. Ed Heilman of Park Congregational United Church of Christ also has used his voice and his pen to preach the gospel of inclusiveness.
While dyed-in-the-wool purists in every faith tradition want to raise walls of exclusivity around them and their faiths, it still comes as a surprise that the synod would have such a negative attitude toward other faiths.
For a religion to remain relevant, it has to be flexible to adapt to the world outside the rarefied confines of its own sanctuaries. That does not mean religions should lose their identity, and morph into entities that are not true to their spirit.
In a truly pluralistic society, religions, just as people, have to be considered equal. Therein lies a lesson for all of us — including Lutherans.
Dr. S. Amjad Hussain is a retired Toledo surgeon whose column appears every other week in The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org