The Common Ground of Interfaith Nonviolence

Before moving to New Mexico, I served as director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the largest, interfaith peace organization in the United States. Once, I called a meeting of all the leaders of the various religious fellowships. For several days, we gathered to share our stories, exchange our vision of peace, and plan new ways to pursue disarmament and justice together. We were Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Native Americans, Bahai, Baptists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Catholics, Methodists and Mennonites.
I will never forget those days. More than a conference or a meeting, it was a spiritual experience. As peace activists and seekers from various religious traditions, we sat around a table as friends sharing a similar spiritual journey to peace. We discovered that we stood on the common ground of nonviolence. To the delight of everyone, each religious activist explained how nonviolence was at the core of their tradition. We also heard how each one shares the same struggle to claim nonviolence in the face of massive opposition–within their own community.
Muslims explained that “Islam” means peace, that they are required to live at peace with others. Buddhists spoke of the way of compassion and respect toward all living beings. Jews spoke of the vision of Shalom, and Isaiah’s call that we “beat swords into plowshares” and “study war no more.” We Christians confessed that Jesus is nonviolent, that he called us to love our enemies, that he blessed peacemakers, that his last words before his martyrdom were “Put down the sword,” and that his first words after his resurrection were ” Peace be with you!”
I remember apologizing to the group for the failure of Christians to practice the nonviolence of Jesus, for Christian crusades past and present, for the heresy of the just war theory, and “Christian” government leaders who wage war and stockpile nuclear weapons in the name of the nonviolent Jesus.
In response, every one confessed that their own tradition had also failed the summons of faith-based nonviolence. I was especially struck by the Buddhist leaders who said that Buddhists were some of the most violent people in the world, that the massacre of thousands of people in Sri Lanka in recent years, has been led by Buddhists in the name of Buddha, often by monks. (On other occasions, Thich Nhat Hanh and I have discussed this failure among our people, even though the vision of nonviolence is so clear in our respective traditions.) I realized then that we had all failed the wisdom of nonviolence.
But what was so heartening was the discovery that nonviolence is at the core of every religion, regardless of what the world says, or what religious bigotry, fundamentalism and misconceptions have bred. At the heart of each major religion is the vision of peace, the ideal of a reconciled humanity, the way of compassion and love and justice, the fundamental truth of nonviolence.
Mahatma Gandhi was the first to point toward interfaith nonviolence. He broke new ground in so many ways, from fighting segregation in South Africa through satyagraha and nonviolent resistance, to leading a peaceful revolution against British imperialism in India. But he saw early on the equality of the world’s religions because of the common ground of nonviolence. He later professed a vow of tolerance toward all religions and openness to the truth of nonviolence within each religion.
Recently, I published a collection of Gandhi’s spiritual writings on nonviolence. Over the last few years, I read the entire 95 volumes of his collected writings, an amazing experience in itself. I was delighted to see the progress in his spiritual journey, as he formed a community ashram of nonviolence in South Africa and decided to hold morning and evening communal, contemplative prayer services.
When he moved to India, and saw again the deep hostility between Hindus and Muslims, he made interfaith nonviolence the core of his daily worship. Each day when his community gathered for prayer, they read excerpts from the Hindu and Muslim scriptures, from the Sermon on the Mount and the Hebrew Bible. Then, they sat in silence for forty five minutes. They concluded usually with a hymn about the all-inclusive love that reconciles everyone, the love even for one’s enemies. Forty years of interfaith, contemplative prayer transformed him into a universal spirit, as all the major religious scriptures hope for all of us.
To the end, however, his interfaith nonviolence was a scandal. In January 1948, during the last four weeks of his life, he held an open prayer service every night in New Delhi at the Birla House. He received daily death threats, and one night, during the interfaith prayer service, a bomb went off, just missing Gandhi. Finally, on January 30th, as he walked toward that interfaith prayer service, peacefully, carefully, mindfully walking the way of nonviolence, he was shot and killed by a Hindu fundamentalist, angered by his association with Muslims.
Gandhi was preparing to host a gathering of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation at the time of his death. Peacemakers of all faiths, including peace movement leaders from the U.S., were planning to fly to his ashram in October, 1948 to spend a week with Gandhi discussing interfaith nonviolence.
“Religions are different roads converging to the same point,” Gandhi once wrote. “What does it matter that we take different roads, so long as we reach the same goal?. I believe that, if only we could all read the scriptures of different faiths, we should find that they are at bottom all one and were all helpful to one another.. There will be no lasting peace on earth unless we learn not merely to tolerate but even to respect other faiths as our own.”
As we learn from each others religion, Gandhi discovered, we can help each other deepen in the faith of our own personal tradition. His critique of organized Christianity–that it rejected the nonviolence of Jesus and has become an imperial religion based on the Roman empire–has helped innumerable Christians return to the core teachings of Jesus, beginning with the Sermon on the Mount. The Baptist Martin Luther King, Jr. testified that the Hindu Gandhi helped him more than anyone else to follow Christ.
Gandhi teaches us that we share a common spirituality of nonviolence. That leads me to conclude that nonviolence is a key to understanding not only the religious, social, political, economic and spiritual dimensions of life, but what it means to be human. Contrary to what most people think, I believe we were created to live nonviolently, to be at peace with one another and creation, and that it is possible for the whole human race to live together nonviolently. Indeed, it is our only hope if we are to survive.
The challenge therefore is to practice the contemplative, active and prophetic nonviolence at the core of our respective traditions. For Christians, that means sitting daily with the God of peace, allowing God to disarm our hearts, letting God use us as instruments of God’s disarming love, loving even our enemies, and taking up the cross of nonviolent resistance to injustice, as Jesus did.
If we can each plumb the depths of nonviolence in our religious traditions, we will unleash the contemplative springs of nonviolence within us and peace will blossom among us.
If we dare open our hearts to the wisdom of nonviolence in other religious traditions, as Gandhi did, we will discover that not only should religion not be a cause of war and division, it can be the a healing path toward unity, reconciliation, and global disarmament.
If we can appreciate the spiritualities of nonviolence flowing from other religions, we will deepen our own particular spirituality of nonviolence.
For the last twenty years, I have experienced the deepest multicultural and interfaith connections through my work in the peace movement. I have developed many friendships across cultural and religious boundaries because of our shared vision of nonviolence. This interfaith peacemaking sprang from the civil rights movement, when Dr. King called religious leaders to march with him to Selma. The friendship modeled between Dr. King, Rabbi Abraham Heschel and Thich Nhat Hanh still bears good fruit in our world and exemplifies the journey we must all make.
As the world hangs on the brink of nuclear and environmental destruction, as we wage war in the name of religion, we need to explore the religious roots of nonviolence, just as Gandhi did. Perhaps then, we will hear the call to disarm, to embrace one another as sisters and brothers, and welcome the gift of peace that has been already given.