"Among the implications of religious interdependence is that we each depend upon the 'other' to know us as we would like to be known. We are therefore the keepers of one another's image. In the village of a thousand people, there is no way we can avoid facing up to the need for basic education about our neighbors. Yet as most of us look down the roster of religious communities in this village, we note how little, even now, we understand one another. What are the five pillars of Islam and what do they mean to a Muslim? Who was the Buddha—a man or a god? What does it mean for the Jewish people to speak of being 'chosen'? Why do Christians speak of eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ? We can scarcely address the problems that beset the world without first tackling the basic ignorance, the fear, and the misunderstanding that separate us from one another.
"Remember the claim of John Henry Barrows that the Parliament of Religions would be 'the first school of comparative religions, wherein devout men of all faiths may speak for themselves without hindrance, without criticism, and without compromise, and tell what they believe and why they believe it.' That even in 1893 did indeed give impetus to the academic study of religion in American colleges and universities, but the public schools in the United States still lag far behind in being able to teach basic world religions as part of the social studies and history curriculum; other countries do better and do worse, but nowhere is our basic religious knowledge up to the level of our basic knowledge of mathematics or biology. Gandhi called the Sympathetic study of the World's religions a 'sacred duty': 'I hold that it is the duty of every cultured man or woman to read sympathetically the scriptures of the world. If we are to respect others' religions as we would have them to respect our own, a friendly study of the world's religions is a sacred duty.'
"The knowledge of one another's traditions is not simply to inform our curiosity about the beliefs or customs of our neighbors. People of every religious tradition depend upon one another fairly and accurately. We are the keepers of one another's image. This is one of the most critical aspects of our interdependence and it is a sacred trust. We all depend upon one another not to tell lies, not to spread hatred, not to purvey a sensational or distorted image of one another. We all depend upon one another to correct those lies and distortions when they are made. There is no community that can do this entirely for itself. There is no amount of public vigilance and no amount of propaganda that can enable Christians, Muslims, or Buddhists to portray themselves as they would like to be understood.
"In 1966, the Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel delivered an address entitled 'No Religion Is an Island,' in which he outlined the implications of our religious interdependence: 'The religions of the world are no more self-sufficient, no more independent, no more isolated than individuals or nations. Energies, experiences and ideas that come to life outside the boundaries of a particular religion or all religions continue to challenge and to affect every religion. Horizons are wider, dangers are greater . . .No religion is an island. We are all involved with one another. Spiritual betrayal on the part of one of us affects the faith of all of us.' Spiritual betrayal may take many forms, but perhaps the most common is simply an inattention to hurt and defamation when it affects the image and well-being of another community. Such common daily betrayals have enabled the purveyors of hatred to ignite the fires of the pogrom, 'ethnic cleansing,' and the Holocaust.
"Whether we like it or not, all of us bear witness to each other in an interdependent world. For those of us in the traditions of Moses, the commandment not to bear false witness against our neighbors is at stake every time we speak of our neighbors. We bear false witness against our neighbors because we do not know them. Or we bear false witness because we think it puts us in a better light to do so. We are tempted to compare the most refined aspects of our own tradition with the most crude aspects of the other. But the problem is that our testimonies about one another are reciprocal. If Muslims are dependent upon Christians for a faithful image of their tradition, Christians are also dependent upon Muslims for the kind of image of Christianity that is presented in Muslim schools and mosque-based education programs.
"Not only are we all keepers of one another's image, we are also guardians of one another's rights. In one critical sense the village of a thousand people is misleading. No village is quite like it. No religious tradition is a majority everywhere, and no tradition a minority everywhere. We are all minorities somewhere, with the vulnerabilities and defensiveness that minority status might entail. And we are majorities somewhere, with the insensitivities, the presumption, and the power that goes with it. There are Muslim minorities in Europe and North America concerned about the rights of Muslims in public schools, city councils, and penal institutions; there are Christian minorities in the Sudan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan concerned about the consequences for them if the governments establish Islamic shari'a as the normative law of the land. There are Hindu minorities in Fiji and Malaysia, Buddhist minorities in Russia and France. Human rights and religious liberty cannot be guarded in one place and disregarded in another.
"An important step in recognizing this kind of interdependence is being able to speak out when a religious tradition not one's own has been attacked or distorted. Taking offense when one's own rights have been attacked is expected. Groups like the Anti-Defamation League of the B'nai B'rith are formed explicitly to guard the well-being of the community in the public arena. But what is the context in which people and communities speak out for the rights of peoples of other faiths when there is a violation or offense? Why should it be the burden of Jews alone to speak out if a Roman Catholic convent is build right on the border of Auschwitz or if the nation of Islam publishes an accusatory tract on Jewish complicity in black oppression? Why should Muslims have to be the first to speak out if a mosque is threatened or attacked with arson of if a newspaper publishes an article portraying Muslims as fanatical? Why should we think it primarily the Hindu community that is hurt if a temple is desecrated or its divine images broken? Being able to free the hurt of one another and to speak out on behalf of one another is one of the great spiritual challenges of an interdependent world.
"At 1987 WCC consultation in New Delhi on 'Religious Identity in a Multireligious Society,' people of three religious traditions spoke of the urgent need of this kind of mutual guardianship in the South Asian situation. It goes without saying that communities will try to protect their own civil, religious, and human rights. On this they agreed. But Sri Lankan theologian Wesley Ariarajah asks, 'How can we have solidarity across religious barriers? It is sad that there has been no Buddhist group fighting for the rights of Tamils in Sri Lanka, and no Tamils speaking out for the Sinhalese.' Veena Das, a Hindu professor at Delhi University, made a similar point. 'In the riots of November 1984, after Mrs. Gandhi's assassination, the violence and killing unleashed upon Sikhs and was not simply an offense to the Sikhs, but an offense to us all.' Mohinder Sign, a Sikh, said it too: 'When we look in the paper and see, as we do daily, that 20 or 25 people killed today in violence in the Punjab, we must not say that they were Sikhs or they were Hindus. We must not simply scan the list of victims and breathe a sigh of relief that our relatives, our kin.'
"Being keepers of one another's image and guardians of one another's rights are not roles that we as religious communities can either accept or reject. They are assigned by the very nature of our world and we perform them, either well or badly, either with neglect or vigilance."