A Reflection on Supremacy and the Interfaith Movement

No religion or nation or ethnicity or culture, it seems, has an exclusive lock on it.

And victimized groups are everywhere: Tibetans, Ukrainians, citizens of cities in Europe: Paris, Nice, Brussels, Istanbul, Barcelona; Dalits in India, Muslims in too many locations, Indigenous peoples across the globe, Black Lives in the United States and often elsewhere. Charlottesville.

Ethnic and religious minorities: Jews, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus,, Zoroastrians, Pagans, Buddhists, the Baha’i…

You get the point — and chances are, you feel the point.

Maybe it is something built into human nature, this predisposition or inclination to make the self, or the group with which the self identifies, superior to others. Or could it be a defense mechanism to fend off feeling of inferiority? I always find it difficult to discern what actually motivates some people to elevate their sense of superiority over others.

We do know that it isn’t limited to the individual person or to small groups. It can have the sense of a movement that can attract sometimes only a few but highly dedicated followers, and at other times draw in a much larger number of disciples to its cause. And once its premises are granted, even implicitly, we know that supremacy movements can weave rationales that have their own internal and compelling logics.

But however small or large, however rational or irrational, however weak or strong, those who order and give meaning to their lives based upon supremacy are dangerous – dangerous to those who, in their eyes, are inferior or different, dangerous to the wider company in which they live, dangerous to their own religious, national, ethnic, and cultural entities, dangerous it turns out to themselves.

Earlier generations across the world have had to deal with this “supremacy challenge” in their own way, distinctive to their own time and location, and with whatever resources available to them. They’ve been sometimes more, sometimes less, successful.

Now it is our turn, and not just in one place in the world but many.

Will the outcomes be any different this time? Do we have the resources available to be more successful in our time than in the past?

I certainly don’t want to over-promise, but I do want to suggest that the interfaith movements across the globe could provide a new resource for challenging the re-emergence of supremacy crusades.

Why?

First, because at the heart of our endeavors, these interfaith movements eschew supremacy in religion and in other dimensions of human existence. We find ways to affirm particular identities without claiming that anyone of those identities is superior to or supreme over all the others. We commit ourselves to better understanding each other and actually working cooperatively with one another. That is to say, we have a self-understanding that is opposite to the supremacists.

(I want to claim here that we can even say that we aren’t superior to the supremacists because we’re willing to listen and try to understand their declarations of superiority. But, yes, I grant that this is a tricky issue: how we avoid being supremacists ourselves.)

Second, because we draw on what we understand to be the best of each of our own traditions and find similarities and convergences that reinforce our steps and strides toward mutual understanding and cooperation. We find, for example, shared directives about the respect for life itself, for inclusive justice, for tolerance, for solidarity between and among members of the human community, and for a strong sense of interdependence throughout the human and natural world.

Third, because when we find that this harmony is possible amidst our diversity, we as interfaith movements can also move toward collective action on behalf of a common good.

That’s exactly where, I want to suggest, we could provide a new resource for engaging contemporary instances of the “supremacy challenge.”

I say “could” rather than “have already” or “are ready now” to meet this “supremacy challenge.”

True, there have been instances of it happening in the past and probably happening now. Think of Gandhi, and King, and Kagawa, and Mandela and the non-violent movements they led.

But what I have in mind is something larger, more massive, more ready to act wherever and whenever the supremacists strike.

To get to that state of readiness, however, will require that all of us in the interfaith movements get well prepared to be interventionists into situations in which the supremacists are ready to provoke hatred and violence, disruption and disarray, injury and, yes, death.

This may involve inviting supremacist groups to the table for at least conversation in the hope of changing minds and planned actions. Not likely, I grant, but it is worth holding out the rare possibility.

More likely, these interfaith movements can bring their collective voices and actions to the places where the supremacists are endangering both religious and civic values, disrupting neighborhoods and communities, and threatening human life.

We’ve got work to do, we non-supremacists who identify ourselves as people of conscience, guided by our commitments to our faiths and our interfaith solidarity.
 

Comments

Thanks, Larry, for a very insightful and urgent take on the problem of claims of supremacy. All the more urgent in light of Jeanine Hill Fletcher's recent book THE SIN OF WHITE SUPREMACY: CHRISTIANITY, RACISM, AND RELIGIOUS DIVERSITY IN AMERICA, in which she lays out how White Supremacy is rooted in Christian Supremacy. But as Hill-Fletcher also make clear, claims of Christian supremacy are rooted in the New Testament! -- And I think it is broadly true that this is the case for many religious traditions -- their sacred texts themselves contains assertions that God or the Ultimate is found only or fully in one's own religion. Thus, for the interfaith movement to truly carry out its program of anti-supremacy, as you encourage, the individual traditions will have to confront, I think, the roots of supremacy in their own texts and history. At least, so it seems to me.

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