The growing frequency of murders in Western culture presents a challenge for faith traditions, as does cultivating healthy conversations between students of different faiths.
The two topics were combined into a shared session Friday at the Parliament of the World’s Religions.
The Rev. Dr. Sonya Jones, who teaches comparative religions at the University of Kentucky, headed the seminar on killings. She told the story of Union College professor Sarah Hendrix, who along with her husband and 11-year-old daughter, were murdered by her 16-year-old son. Jones said the son snapped one day when his mother took away his computer and cell phone privileges.
While the recent shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon made national news, there are many mass murders that go unnoticed on a national or global level. There are mass shootings in the United States every two weeks, Jones said.
“Sarah’s death was not one of those high-profile murders that claims the national airways and turns into a horrific media event,” Jones said. “It was not a Columbine (High School); Aurora, Colorado (movie theater); Sandy Hook, Connecticut (elementary school); Charleston, South Carolina (black church) or Roseburg, Oregon. In terms of celebrities, Sarah Hendrix was laid to rest as an anonymous statistic, one of 88 to 92 people who are killed daily by guns in the United States.”
Noting the statistic released by CNN, she asked if there degrees of complicity in American society. The sale of “murderabilia” is common, with Charles Manson murderabilia selling best, but watching the evening news coverage of a murder could be complicity as well, Jones said.
She noted that the sixth commandment — “Thou shalt not kill”– is rarely, if ever, mentioned in the coverage. “What keeps us as a human race from killing if we no longer allow the old commandments and teachings to be instructive in our lives?” Jones asked.
Jones then opened the lecture to questions from the audience, and the consensus was that taking fame away from the killers would be most effective in honoring victims. The sheriff in Roseburg, Oregon refused to name the killer, but CNN reporters declared that identifying the killer is part of the media’s job. By training and asking reporters to report differently, the limelight is directed to victims and not killers, one audience member said.
Another consensus from the dialogue was that Americans are dropping bombs in war zones that are killing innocent people, like the recent airstrike that killed 19 at a Doctors Without Borders hospital. Because of America’s example of mass killings, people should not be surprised that others want in on the action, one participant said.
The second discussion explained the effectiveness of an interfaith program at Benedictine University. Rita George-Tvrtković and two of her students, Aneta Krzycka and Rana Lahham, described the school’s Catholic-Muslim dialogue group. Benedictine University is a Catholic school, but almost 30 percent of the student body is Muslim.
The interfaith group evolved over time, after presentations giving basic descriptions of students’ religious beliefs were presented in the beginning. This changed to reading scripture together as a group, and though the readings were not planned in advance, the connections and similarities were almost always made, George-Tvrtković said.
Often people present a scripture to represent their religions, much like people present themselves on a first date, George-Tvrtković said. In these interfaith dialogues, the students were able to move past this to build mutual trust and engage in more thought-provoking conversations. World affairs involving violence between Christians and Muslims were discussed, as were problematic scriptures.
Scriptures from the Bible telling women to be submissive and silent were discussed, along with scriptures from the Quran saying that God will put chains around people’s necks. “Because we know each other, we can talk about this,” George-Tvrtković said.
Rana Lahham told the story of a friend who had criticized Lahham’s Muslim faith in personal conversations. Lahham told the friend that the remarks weren’t appropriate, but this stunted conversations about religion. Recently, the friend has reached out again and they’re engaging in supportive dialogue on religions. Lahham said the interfaith group helped her get to that point.
She emphasized that people need to come with open minds and not with the intention to convince others of personal views.
Aneta Krzycka, originally from Poland, has been with the group for three years. She quoted Proverbs 27:17, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another,” to describe how the group works together. “God created diversity,” Krzycka said.
Dialogue, she said, lets people go beyond labels and identify the stories that make people who they are. Additionally, dialogue offers a more authentic face than media. With so many religions portrayed in a bad light through media, dialogue is necessary to break down those incorrect viewpoints.
“The conversations that come out of that dialogue are natural, they have an organic feel to them,” Krzycka said.
One participant was impressed with the discussion and excited to take the new knowledge back to her college. “It was presented incredibly well in a way that you could easily duplicate,” she said.
More Universe coverage of the Parliament of the World’s Religions: