Given the violence and conflicts that take place in different parts of the world over religious issues, it seems that establishing dialogue between elders and followers of different religions is a necessary step of the time.
IQNA has reached out to Rev. Mark Lukens, the pastor of the Bethany Congregational Church, in East Rockaway, New York and a compliance officer for Camp Venture, Inc., a nonprofit organization that serves persons with developmental disabilities in Nanuet, NY.
Raised in a multi-religious, multicultural community by parents whose Christian faith made them advocates for social justice, his activism began as a child involved in the movements for civil rights and in the opposition to the war in Vietnam. He has written numerous articles and op-ed pieces for newspapers, magazines and scholarly journals on topics ranging from the rights of the disabled, religious liberty and the constitution.
Here is the full text of the interview with Rev. Mark Lukens:
IQNA: In today's world, it seems that despite the scientific advances in human life, religious differences in regions such as Africa or India still cause wars and tensions between different societies. What do you think is the root of religious tensions in today's world?
Lukens: I believe many of these religious tensions are really about competition for shrinking resources and for control of the political agenda in many nations. We see the Sahara expanding, for instance, due to climate change and other factors, which is forcing northern, largely Muslim, tribes and groups into competition for resources with southern, largely Christian and indigenous religious groups in sub-Saharan Africa. The conflicts are wrapped in religious language but they are as much about water and food as religion.
Religious identity also makes a convenient cover for conflicts over societal influence, institutions etc., which are really political power struggles. Resentments are whipped up by political leaders and would be political leaders in service of their own agendas and once these resentments are let “out of the box,” they take on a life of their own.
Finally, I think much of the religious tensions in the world have to do with the deepening gulf between the haves and the have-nots. Poverty and hopelessness breed anger and violence and when there is discrimination and extreme inequality based in religion, religious identity again becomes a means of distinguishing “us” from “them.”
IQNA: What are the teachings of Christ (pbuh) about coexistence between human beings and how do you think these teachings can be used to reduce religious tensions among people?
Lukens: Christ taught that the greatest of all commandments were to love God with all of one’s being and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Jesus told us that, “in this lies all the law and the prophets.” In other words, our living our love for one another transcends religious and cultural barriers, and which enables us to collaborate and cooperate with one another.
Jesus gave us an example of reaching out to people from other cultures and faiths and crossed cultural barriers to embrace and address human need. That is what he calls us to. Here where I live, we have multi-faith councils to address our issues and needs and also to help us to understand and work together. Jesus’s teachings of non-violence are the means by which we accomplish those things.
IQNA: Unfortunately, in recent years, we have witnessed some people misuse their freedom of expression and insulting divine prophets such as Jesus Christ (PBUH) and Muhammad (PBUH). What do you think is the purpose of these people and how can these people be dealt with?
Lukens: I think they are angry and not without cause at the difference between the teachings of our faiths and the practice of those faiths among their fellow human beings. I think legitimate criticisms need to be addressed and illegitimate ones ignored.
People have a right to their feelings, even if we don’t agree. What we do to deal with these people is by showing them how wrong they are with our open hands and good work. One year in Florida, a pastor threatened to burn 3000 copies of the Qur’an to protest 911. The Islamic Center of Long Island collected 3000lbs of food for the poor as a response and Churches and Synagogues pitched in to help. That’s how we address the despisers of religion.
IQNA: Some Christmas traditions, such as setting up a Christmas tree, are very popular in many countries, even in non-Christian countries. What is the root of decorating and making a Christmas tree and what does it have to do with the birth of Jesus (pbuh)?
Lukens: Christmas trees were originally a Teutonic pagan symbol which was adopted as part of the adoption of Christianity by Germanic peoples in Europe. The evergreen symbolize eternal life and so it lent itself to a celebration of the birth of the Messiah in the midst of winter. But the trees and the decorations are cultural symbols more than religious ones.
IQNA: Christians and Muslims have the most followers among the world's religions. How do you think the followers of these two great religions can coexist?
Lukens: I think our best chance for harmony lies in the teachings of our respective faiths, both of which call us to, as the prophet Micah said, “do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.” Al-Islam, as my Muslim friends have told me is a religion of peace, justice, compassion, and Christianity teaches us to love God with all of our being and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We have strayed, I think from the teachings of our faiths when we find ourselves in competition or in conflict.
The Lord calls us to treat each other as the beloved children of God and to recognize that when we do not, we are failing in our love and obedience to God. 1 John 4 tells us that the one who does not know love does not know God because God is love. It is, I believe our sacred obligation to reach out to one another and seek not just coexistence but the kind of harmony, respect and mutuality that God calls all of God’s people to. We work together very well here on Long Island because we see our shared values as well as our differences and because we respect and esteem each other.
IQNA: What is the relationship between Christians and Muslims in your region?
Lukens: Our relationships are very good, especially considering that this is a very diverse area of the country with many new immigrants of many faiths living in a very densely populated area. I am part of the Interfaith Institute of the Islamic Center of Long Island, was with the Interfaith Alliance of Long Island for many years. These are groups dedicated to interfaith understanding and in promoting constructive voices in the public square and they are only a few of the organized as well as informal interfaith relationships here in Long Island.
We have very good relationships between our many houses of worship and we are always working to improve them. Having said that, we also have a troubling persistence of incidents of hate speech and vandalism etc. especially around certain triggers. However, the work of our faith leaders is always to promote respect and peace, whether they are rabbis, ministers, imams, priests or other spiritual leaders.
IQNA: What is your wish for the new year?
Lukens: My wish is for God’s people of every faith to come together in the spirit of our faiths and to devote ourselves to finding justice and peace together.
Interview by Mohammad Hassan Goodarzi