Neighbors In A Multi-Faith World

Mark S. Hurst and Nathan Hobby – 02/07/13

Jan. 26 is Australia Day, the equivalent of the American Fourth of July holiday. Over the Australia Day weekend the Anabaptist Association of Australia and New Zealand (AAANZ) held its biennial conference in Sydney with the theme “From Pieces to Peace: More Than Just Neighbours in a Multi-faith World.”

Photo: Johnny Huckle, Australian Aboriginal singer performs at AAANZ. Photo by Doug Sewell.

More than just a talkfest about interfaith issues, the planners hoped for a weekend where participants would experience interfaith community. Speakers were invited representing different faiths—Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhist. Two Australian Aboriginal guests shared their perspective as well.

The conference began with a traditional Aboriginal acknowledgement of place and country led by Ray Minniecon, an Aboriginal pastor and leader of a number of programs including World Vision Australia’s Indigenous program. Minniecon has spoken about indigenous issues at local, national and international forums. He reminded those gathered that Aboriginals call Australia Day, Invasion Day.

In a controversial comparison, he said, “Think what it was like for Jewish people in Germany during the Nazi regime.” It is a day for mourning and not celebration for the original inhabitants of Australia.

Speakers Dave Andrews, who is involved in interfaith conversations, and Nora Amath, chairperson of Australian Muslim Advocates for the Rights of All Humanity. Photo by Doug Sewell.

Dave Andrews gave the first presentation of the weekend entitled “The Anabaptist Tradition and Peaceful Christlike Interfaith Conversations.”

Andrews, his wife Ange, and their family, have lived and worked in intentional communities with marginalised groups of people in Australia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal for more than thirty years. He now lives in a large joint household with his wife, children, grandchildren and others in an inner city community called the Waiters Union in Brisbane, Australia. Interfaith conversations have kept Dave busy in recent years.

In his talk, Andrews addressed many of the questions Christians raise when thinking about relating to people of other faiths.  “Isn’t our task to convert others?”  “No” he said, “Conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit.  Our task is to be a witness.”

Andrews quoted Matthew 23:15 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.”  Jesus wanted his followers to produce disciples who were witnesses—salt and light in their world.

The response to Andrews’ talk came from Nora Amath, Chairperson of Australian Muslim Advocates for the Rights of All Humanity. Amath works regularly with Dave in interfaith work. She told some of her family’s story. They were from an indigenous group in Viet Nam that was forced to flee the country and ended up as refugees. Eventually she made her way to the United States and later Australia.

“The challenge in interfaith conversation is to establish ‘safe places’ where we can hear each other.”

She stressed that “love of neighbor” was central in Islam as well as Christianity. When asked what it is about Islam that feeds her she said, “My life revolves around prayer.  I schedule my day around worship of God.”

Rabbi Zalman Kastel joined the conversation. He is from the Lubavitch Hasidic tradition of Judaism and works with Together for Humanity, a not-for-profit organization that is helping schools, organizations and communities to respond effectively to differences of culture and belief.

Matt Anslow, TEAR Australia’s Young Adults Coordinator, and Rabbi Zalman Kastel. Both spoke at the conference. Photo by Doug Sewell.

They do this by bringing students, teachers, and those in the community into contact with people from diverse backgrounds in an open, supportive and enjoyable setting to inspire interest, empathy, and understanding as well as questioning existing prejudices; encouraging greater appreciation of others as people.

Rabbi Zalman called the conference participants to “walk into the sea” in multi-faith relationships trusting God as the people of Israel did when facing the Red Sea. Zalman approaches interfaith conversations firmly committed to his own religion and he noted that while in the past people killed each other over differences, today, unfortunately, we pretend they don’t matter.

Later, in a response to a question, he remarked that there is a high price to relativism. To another question about the authority of the Bible—a key question for many Christians—he said that he saw the (Hebrew) Bible as the ‘literal Word of God,’ particularly the first five books with the prophets as a kind of inspired interpretation.

What he meant by this, however, was possibly different from evangelicals; he placed himself in the line of the Pharisees who were willing to take on rabbinic interpretation as opposed to the more literalist Sadducees.

Jarrod McKenna, a member of AAANZ and part of the Christian Engagement Team at World Vision Australia, shared on “An Anabaptist Vision For Being More Than Just Neighbours.” He told interfaith stories from his work in Western Australia and increasingly outside Australia.

Matt Anslow, TEAR Australia’s Young Adults Coordinator, presented an excellent Bible study entitled “A (Recovering) Racist’s Reading of Matthew 15:21-28.”

His presentation grew out of his PhD study of the Gospel of Matthew and drew on the work of the scholar Grant LeMarquand.

He believes the story about a “Canaanite woman” in Matthew 15 is a reversal of the destruction of the seven nations in Deuteronomy 7.

“Even Jesus is forced to deal with the racism of his day. He is forced to make space for the other; spurred on by the challenge of the other,” he said.

Kyinzom Tsering, a Tibetan Buddhist woman, joined the other speakers in an afternoon roundtable forum entitled “Love of the Other.” Moderated by AAANZ president Doug Sewell, each of the speakers responded to questions from conference participants.

AAANZ holds these bi-national conferences every two years on long weekends (holiday weekends) and often uses the Monday morning session for a time to do some dreaming. It is one of the few opportunities members have to meet face-to-face and discuss the future of Anabaptism Down Under. This year’s discussion was full of talk about going home and building one-on-one relationships with people from other faith traditions.

Plans were discussed for the 2015 conference in a year when Australia will be celebrating 100 years of the Anzac Tradition, the national founding myth coming out of Australia’s role in World War 1. Conference participants agreed that an Anabaptist response was needed to this national celebration of war.

There were fifty conference delegates from four states of Australia and from New Zealand. Conference talks will be featured in the next issue of ON THE ROAD, AAANZ”s quarterly journal. Recordings of several talks are available now at the AAANZ website

1 Comment »

  1. sanjitagnihotri says:

    I particularly like Dave’s observation-‘Out task is to be a witness.Conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit’.Also,I was surprised to know that Nora Amath is a woman.Women bring with them their sensitivity to human concerns,which make them best suited for dialogue.One more comment:The choice to convert to any faith should be a personal decision.Even the Holy Spirit should not say,’I choose you’ without the person’s consent.That is true free will.


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