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COMMENTARY: My Town’s Bishop Really Rocks!

c. 2003 Religion News Service (Professor Akbar S. Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C., is author most recently of “Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World,” published by Polity Press.) (UNDATED) Sept. 11 challenged every American in different ways. For Christians the challenge was perhaps even […]

c. 2003 Religion News Service

(Professor Akbar S. Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C., is author most recently of “Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World,” published by Polity Press.)

(UNDATED) Sept. 11 challenged every American in different ways.

For Christians the challenge was perhaps even deeper than for others. How to respond to the murder and mayhem on that day and yet maintain the spirit of compassion and tolerance Jesus embodies; how best to move toward a world that will reflect harmony rather than conflict and hatred.

The Rev. John Chane, the new bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, had barely taken over his important charge when he was confronted with these questions. Fortunately for him, his diocese and his nation, Bishop Chane brought his learning, good sense and above all his love and understanding of our common humanity to bear on the answers.

The bishop, 59, has been a priest for 30 years. He is the quintessential child of the 1960s _ a time of social change and the promise of possibilities.

It was the social activism of the Episcopal Church that attracted Chane to Christianity. On a cold Christmas morning in 1966, touring with a rock ‘n’ roll band, in a rundown hotel room in Bucyrus, Ohio, the bishop experienced what he calls “his very own Christmas miracle.” Exhausted and alone, he began to read the Gideon Bible provided by the hotel. He never looked back.

The range of the bishop’s activity is driven by his sense of the urgency facing global society. As the head of the National Cathedral, one of the grandest and most recognized buildings in the capital of the United States, Chane has a unique platform to be seen and heard.

I’ve had the privilege of seeing him in action in a variety of settings.

In May, for example, I was among a crowd of mostly Episcopalians who turned out for an event showcasing the bishop as a rock and roll musician where he and his band, the Chane Gang, performed to an enthusiastic crowd. I saw him reaching out across the generations through music, which has always helped him in his spiritual journey.

T-shirts with “My Bishop Rocks!” were selling like hotcakes.

On another level and in a different setting, he consciously launched an initiative to reach out to other communities and faiths. He was responding to the important initiative taken by Rabbi Bruce Lustig of the Hebrew Washington Congregation when he organized the First Abraham Summit in October last year.

Chane, for his part, as host of the Annual Clergy Conference _ a retreat that brings together over a hundred clergy, spouses and diocesan staff _ broke with tradition and organized an interfaith discussion. I had the privilege of being invited to speak about Islam. Lustig was invited to talk about Judaism.

We spoke of the common Abrahamic vision that we shared. We were aware of the differences but also aware of what was common. In the light of the conflict shaping global society, the need for dialogue and understanding was even more urgent.

I was the only Muslim present, the first Muslim ever at the Annual Clergy Conference. Yet the bishop’s affectionate and generous introduction the evening before created an atmosphere of goodwill for me. It turned strangers into friends.

On June 10, the three of us once again shared a panel _ this time at the National Press Club on the topic “Religion After Sept. 11: A Dialogue Among Followers of Islam, Christianity and Judaism.”

Significant theological advances are being made in the dialogue about the Abrahamic faiths _ Judaism, Christianity and Islam _ and Chane has clearly identified Islam as part of the Abrahamic faiths. With this clear positioning, dialogue and understanding are possible.

It is well to keep in mind that many Americans are becoming aware of Islam for the first time in their lives. Many are not aware it is part of the Abrahamic faiths and all three religions believe in the same God, although they may worship Him in their own ways.

Some prominent religious leaders have publicly denounced Islam as “a very wicked and evil religion.” The God of Islam, they have announced, is not the God of Christianity. These hurtful _ and incorrect _ remarks have caused anger and dismay in the Muslim world. As a result, America’s efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Muslim peoples have been damaged.

It is in this context that Chane’s understanding of the Abrahamic theological landscape assumes even greater significance. The bishop has summed it up with his usual clarity: “It should come as no surprise that Judaism, Christianity and Islam are engaged in fruitful, dialogic relationships. All three are descendant of one common ancestor, Abraham.

“It was through Abraham that Isaac gave birth to Judaism and its offshoot, Christianity. Ishmael, the son of Hagar was the source of life for Islam. All three monotheistic religions, like offshoots of one great river, lead to one God. And we should celebrate our common heritage, rather than look for ways that divide us.”

Chane is helping Christianity rediscover its essential message of compassion and tolerance. At the same time, he is also helping America to recover its great mission in the world community of nations.

Contemplating the range of his activity and the depth of his thought, I understood, as someone who lives in the diocese of Washington, why his parishioners believe “My Bishop Rocks!”

DEA END AHMED