“There are three aspects of dialogue. First is to understand each other and build trust by finding out about each other's faith. Then we can begin to address the social, justice and peace concerns in our local communities, our nations or the world. Dialogue helps us to deal with the complexity of the issues, such as poverty, violence, racism, or marginalization. Then we bring the wisdom from our traditions as well as the knowledge from our leaders to the politicians and general public. Thirdly we work together to build a better work – action together always increases interfaith understanding and respect,” he told IQNA in an interview.
Brice Balme is an ordained Mennonite minister and has worked in chaplaincy for many years, especially with people who are marginalized, in Denver, Colorado, and in Kitchener, Ontario. He was a co-pastor at First Mennonite Church, in Kitchener, for 17 years.
Following is the full text of the interview:
Q: In today's world, and in spite of great human progress in various scientific fields, there is more spiritual emptiness than ever before. Do you think that religion can once again fill the spiritual void of today's man?
A: Unfortunately, there is an unnecessary gap between religion and science which began centuries ago, but has increased the tension through the Enlightenment. Religion – especially Christianity - then tried to regulate or control science. Now some in the scientific and secular world do not understand faith, religion or spirituality. There are also people who’ve been alienated or abused by religion and a few religious leaders. They see it as a negative force in our world.
On the other hand, medicine and counselling is more and more aware of how important spirituality is for the health of individuals and families. Humans live best when they are grounded in ideals, beliefs, and values – those generally come from a spiritual tradition, even secular humanism. The university where I have taught is working to connect spirituality to health care. There is a presumption that religious leaders and chaplains may proselytize individuals, but our role is to help them to understand and deepen their values, ideals, beliefs, so that they can heal physically, emotionally, and mentally.
Q: Why is it that most people cannot understand and follow the message of peace and friendship of Jesus Christ (AS)?
A: Why concentrate on the negative? There are many people in our world who follow their faith into ways of peace, contentment, community building, and justice. In interfaith discussion, it is important to see how similar we are. For example, all religions have the “Golden Rule” embedded in their understanding of ethics and faith.
Some authors have been quite prominent about atheism or negative about religion. These authors as well as their followers and others who have had negative experiences with religion have been reported by the media. As people of faith, we need to walk with individuals who are troubled by religion without trying to convert them. Some also lose faith when encountering difficult experiences, such as family violence, abuse or trauma. Many of us chaplains, ministers, and teachers are walking with them as they allow. More honest and healing conversations are needed in our world.
Q: How do you think Christians and followers of other religions (such as Muslims and Jews) can engage in interfaith dialogue to address the social problems of Europe and the United States today?
A: Interfaith dialogue – including Abrahamic faiths – is happening more and more. There are three aspects of dialogue. First is to understand each other and build trust by finding out about each other's faith. Then we can begin to address the social, justice and peace concerns in our local communities, our nations or the world. Dialogue helps us to deal with the complexity of the issues, such as poverty, violence, racism, or marginalization. Then we bring the wisdom from our traditions as well as the knowledge from our leaders to the politicians and general public. Thirdly we work together to build a better work – action together always increases interfaith understanding and respect.
Perhaps we have not been public enough about our concerns and actions. Many of us are thankful for Pope Francis and agree with his statements on ecology and justice. Other leaders are voicing their concerns. Perhaps we need to publicize them more and hope the media will pick up these messages of respect for all humans.
Q: What is the reason that some followers of religions go to extremism against the message of peace and friendship of their religion? How can extremism in different religions be confronted?
A: Faith and spirituality are not simplistic, nor "black and white." Some people want unambiguous answers to their questions. Some want a more authoritarian leader. Some people are deeply troubled by the situations of oppression and suffering in various parts of the world. They then move toward extremist solutions. Unfortunately they also proof-text scriptures and their leaders pick out passages to support their positions. For most of us, faith is not that simple and we have questions which demand deep reflection and understanding.
Q: What is the role of places of worship such as churches and mosques in promoting humanitarian issues and altruism in communities?
A: As communities of faith follow the traditions and scriptures, we work for the health and vitality of our cities and countries as well as the world. We are altruistic. I am constantly involved in faith-based organizations which are working to eliminate poverty, homelessness, hunger, war, and hatred. Moses [AS], Jesus [AS], and Mohammad [PBUH] taught us to love our neighbor and to see our neighbor’s health as important as our own.
In my city, the vast majority of health care and social services organizations began through faith communities. Religious groups are part of advocacy for a healthier city ... especially the elimination of poverty and homelessness
Q: What is the relationship between Christians and followers of other religions like Muslims in your country (Canada)? How do you think mutual respect between followers of different religions can be expanded?
A: My own region/ city has gone from 2% people who are recognizably different in 1979 to 25% today. This includes people of different faiths as well as different ethnicities. Our Interfaith Grand River and many other organizations are working hard to welcome immigrants and refugees to our community. We have set up organizations – many funded by faith groups – to help people settle and belong as residents and neighbors. We are more and more cosmopolitan – with people from throughout the world. Therefore our task is to build institutions that respect everyone and help all people understand and respect the differences among us. It is not easy work, but it is deeply satisfying.
Interview by Mohammad Hassan Goodarzi