COMMENTARY: God’s Chorus Has Many Diverse Voices

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c. 2005 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) Standing discreetly in back, I watch the last 20 minutes of my 13-year-old son’s orchestra rehearsal. Here is what I see:

I see boys and girls ranging in age from 8 to 16, several different ethnic backgrounds, different schools, different levels of talent and concentration _ all bending their efforts to a single piece of music.

The difference that counts involves violins, violas, cellos and basses. They make different sounds, and their sounds together can make beautiful music. Whether the violin is played by a 9-year-old girl of Chinese ancestry or a 13-year-old Caucasian boy matters less than what the composer intended when he divided his musical vision into several parts.

Imagine how different history would have been if the descendants of Abraham had stopped feeling threatened by and hostile toward each other, if they hadn’t divided into competing religions that have devoted two millennia to slaughtering each other.

Imagine Jew and Gentile, Christian and Muslim, Israeli and Syrian, Bosnian and Serb all respecting each other as different forms of one great act of blessing. Imagine the intricate and hate-driven subdivisions within each sect _ Shiite and Sunni, Protestant and Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Reformed _ giving way to the shared delight of playing someone else’s music.

Of all the promises that God made, perhaps the most lamentable in its failure is the promise to Abraham: “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” A more accurate prediction would have been: “Shared ancestry won’t prevent your claimants from waging endless war on each other and cursing the lands they occupy.”

What went wrong? Some have argued that the music is written that way, that non-Jew has no place at the table, or that non-Christian is barred from God’s delight. But that isn’t true. Scripture calls for oneness, tolerance and love, not for barriers and exclusion. So does common sense. What God of all creation would end up being a partisan for one sect?

Some have argued that religion is tied to local conditions, that God inevitably appears as a projection of local culture, ethnicity and politics, and therefore the wars between nations, races and classes will always have a religious component. That has a measure of truth in practice. Religion is routinely deployed as a weapon in human conflicts. But that clearly isn’t what God wants. The three major Abrahamic religions all portray a God of peace and justice.

I remember being in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar during the holy season of Ramadan and reading a newspaper column about the tenets of Islam. The underlying vision was remarkably similar to that of Christianity. If we took the time to play the music before us, as it were, I think we would find surprising beauty coming from our respective instruments.

We have so much to learn from each other, if only we could get beyond the hostilities and misunderstandings. During that Qatar visit, for example, I came to a new understanding of Islamic modest attire, as being, in that context at least, a declaration of personal worth, not a sign of oppression. To her surprise, a female colleague came to a similar understanding. Stereotypes fell away.

I remember a similar delight in respect years ago when our children attended a Jewish preschool, and we happily kept kosher in the lunches we sent. One day another dad and I _ he a rabbi, myself a priest _ showed children the “tools of our trade,” as it were _ bread, wine, Bible, shawl _ and realized how much we had in common.

Such appreciation doesn’t “water down” or “mongrelize” our faith in God. It might offend religious warriors who make careers of encouraging hatred. But God, like a composer, has a vision of beauty coming from many voices joining together. By knowing what unique sound another instrument makes, we are better able to play our own instrument with harmony in mind.

MO/JL RNS END

(Tom Ehrich is a writer and computer consultant, managing large-scale database implementations. His forthcoming book, “Just Wondering, Jesus: 100 Questions People Want to Ask,” will be published by Morehouse Publishing. An Episcopal priest, he lives in Durham, N.C. His Web site is http://www.onajourney.org.)

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