Divine Other

“Seeking the Divine Other” Michael Gizzi

Good morning.  My name is Michael Gizzi. It has been a pleasure to become a member of this congregation in the last six months.  Bob and Susan offered to let me give a reflection on the interfaith work I am doing, which I want to share with you. Before I start, I thought a little background would help.

Prior to coming to New Covenant, I was a member, and elder, at First Presbyterian in Normal.   More than that, I have been very active in the work of the presbytery of great rivers.  I serve on the Visioning Council, and was a commissioner to the 221st General Assembly that met in Detroit last summer. But my work in interfaith issues, where I am the moderator of the Interfaith Coordinating Council – is relatively new.  

Let me start with two readings.  The first, from Luke, in Acts 10:27-28, 34.

As they continued to talk, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people. He said to them, “You all realize that it is forbidden for a Jew to associate or visit with outsiders. However, God has shown me that I should never call a person impure or unclean.” …  Peter said, “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him.

The second, is from the book The Dignity of Difference  by the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Lord Jonathan Sacks:  

I believe that we are being summoned by God to see in the human other a trace of the divine other. The test — so lamentably failed by the great powers of the twentieth century — is to see the divine presence in the face of a stranger; to heed the cry of those who are disempowered in this age of unprecedented powers; who are hungry and poor and ignorant and uneducated, whose human potential is being denied the chance to be expressed. That is the faith of Abraham and Sarah, from whom the great faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, trace their spiritual or actual ancestry. That is the faith of one who, though he called himself but dust and ashes, asked of God himself, ‘Shall the judge of all the earth not do justice?’ We are not gods, but we are summoned by God — to do His work of love and justice and compassion and peace.

There is power in both of these readings.  God shows no partiality.   Rabbi Sacks teaches us that God creates differences in people. It is in the one who is different where we see God. The human other is a divine other….and  the supreme religious challenge is to see God’s image in one who is not in our image.

It is through an awareness of interfaith advocacy and a desire to go beyond our sometimes narrow world views where we are able to seek the divine other.  Let me spend some time explaining how I came to appreciate the value and importance of this, and the need for interfaith work.

I think my appreciation for  interfaith issues began first as an out growth of my interest in the historical Jesus. Over the last five years, I devoured book after book from authors like Borg, Crossan, Patterson, Pagels, and King.  And it was a mere two years ago when I decided I was really interested in seeing what an actual passover seder meal was like.   We were doing a Christianized one at First Pres, but I wanted to see how Jews actually practiced this element of their faith.  So I asked a student who I knew was involved in the Hillel chapter on campus if they were doing a seder meal.   His eyes lit up “Yes!  Do you want to attend?   I said yes.

I attended that Seder meal here at the CRC.  It was a wonderful experience, watching these 30 or 40 students engage in a religious ritual, all on their own, with no rabbi, no  “adults”  – just them, with  only a  haggadah to guide them.   I saw, in the breaking of the bread, how Jesus most likely celebrated what we call the last supper. It was a valuable interfaith experience.  I’ll admit I also learned to appreciate good kosher wine, but that is a different story.

But it was a few weeks later, when I was caught by surprise, when my student asked me if I would serve as the advisor to Hillel.  I instantly said “No.  Absolutely not. Why would you want me to advise the Jewish Student Union?  You do know, I am a Presbyterian, and that there are a lot of Jewish faculty members who could do this?”   They were persistent.  I was persistent.  But eventually after they answered every possible question that I could ever ask, I agreed to do it for a year.  That was a decision I am glad I made.  I have met a great group of students, and have learned a lot about their beliefs and religious practices.  I also got to know Rabbi Lynn, and last winter she taught a great class on a Taste of Judaism at First Presbyterian Church.  I am now in my second year as their advisor, and am excited to watch these kids grow and build their student union.

Shortly after the Taste of Judaism class, I learned about a congregational study guide issued by an interest group within the Presbyterian Church.  I had been elected as a ruling elder commissioner to our Church’s national legislative body – the General Assembly, and I was taken-aback by the tone of this document issued by the Israel Palestine Mission Network.  The booklet, a 76 page full-color document was titled “Zionism Unsettled.”   It had generated an immediate negative response both within the Church and within the Jewish community across America.  I decided I wanted to see what this was about.  I obtained a copy and realized it wasn’t a study guide, it was a one-sided, polemic. I realized it defined the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a way that was very much driven by the agenda of the international Boycott-Divest-Sanctions movement.  The document was extremist and unbalanced in its views, and overly simplified a complex problem. I was disappointed to say the least.

Had it not been for my experiences with Hillel, and beginning to learn about Judaism, I don’t think I would have really engaged in the Israel-Palestine debate at GA.  It wasn’t my issue.   I wanted to go to GA to make sure marriage equality became a reality.  That was my passion.   But Zionism Unsettled angered me.   As a political scientist, I saw it as propaganda of the worst form.  I decided to do something about it.   Ultimately, I brought what is called a “commissioner’s resolution” to General Assembly seeking to have the GA declare that this document did not represent the views of the Church.

In doing so, I worked with a group of fellow-minded people from across the country, called Presbyterians for Middle East Peace. I  became involved in their work, and built support to craft a resolution that would play a small, but important part in the overall strategy at GA.   To my surprise, my resolution declaring that Zionism Unsettled does not represent the views of the PCUSA  was approved by the Middle East Committee, and was also approved on the consent agenda by the entire Assembly.   It was symbolic, but it actually was approved.   Two days later, after a long debate, the church also voted by a 7 vote margin, to divest from three companies that do business in Israel – including Caterpillar.

I was disappointed by the divestment vote, which I saw as short-sighted and divisive. As the Assembly wrapped up its work, several us began talking about how we could move forward in a positive way – how we could work to build relationships with Jews and Muslims back home.  How we could turn lemons, into lemonade.  I knew there was work to do, to repair damaged relationships.  I knew I would have to explain what happened to my Hillel students, and to rabbi Lynn.

When I returned home, I was determined that we would find a way to turn defeat into something positive.  Very quickly, it became clear that a group of us in the Presbytery of Great Rivers had similar views.   We were disappointed in the divestment vote for various reasons, but wanted to find a way to heal damage, build relationships, and develop interfaith dialogues, rather than create or exacerbate divisions. The efforts initially began in a decentralized way.  Throughout the presbytery, people began to reach out to the local Jewish community. Some folks met with local imams.  A group of us drove to Springfield to have lunch with the Jewish Federation. I met with Rabbi Lynn.  In September, I gave a sermon at the Temple. ​  Similar things occurred in Peoria and the Quad Cities.   Inspired by similar work going on in Chicago, we moved to have the presbytery establish an interfaith working group; a coordinating council to promote interfaith cooperation.

The new initiative is aimed at strengthening inter-faith relations, developing partnerships, promoting justice, and building relationships.  We are initially focusing on developing a Presbyterian, Jewish, and Muslim dialogue, and will bring together people, educate our members about issues, and reach out to Jewish and Muslim communities throughout the region.  We will co-sponsor events with inter-faith partners, bring speakers to address issues of mutual concern, and develop service projects bringing people together across faith lines. We intend to develop resources to equip our churches to understand the complex dynamics of the Middle East conflict, providing educational materials aimed to inform, but not indoctrinate.

It sometimes amazes me how things sometimes converge.  It was the same time that the interfaith effort was beginning to take shape when I learned about the Friends Forever program.  Had it not been for my experiences with Hillel, and with the General Assembly, I seriously doubt I would have given any thought whatsoever, to a program bringing a group of Israeli teens – Jews and Arabs – to the US for a two week intensive program.    BUT those things did happen, and when I learned about Friends Forever, it was as if lightbulbs went off in my head.    It was a program like this where true opportunities for peacemaking could occur – on a local level – on a face to face level.

I attended the service here where Friends Forever teens spoke.  Then two days later I attended an early morning breakfast.  At that event, I made it clear that I wanted to be a part of the local program that made this possible.   I met the coordinator, Roger, and the executive director of the program, Stephen.  Over the course of the week, I interacted with the teens on an almost daily basis.   I became their unofficial photographer, and the experience was truly wonderful.

Friends Forever did more than provide a tool, for me, it really helped me see the reason for interfaith work.   The interactions with Friends Forever, and with those teens, helped me see the ways we can all benefit from reaching out beyond the comfort zone of our own churches and faith framework. It was after I attended a luncheon presentation at the Bloomington Library by Rev Elyse Winger, the chaplain at IWU, that I began to see how this fit into the the theological reasons for interfaith interaction.   She quoted from Jonathan Sacks, summarizing his thesis that
“God creates differences in people. It is in the one who is different where we see God. The human other is a divine other…. the supreme religious challenge is to see God’s image in one who is not in our image,”
Those words “the supreme religious challenge is to see God’s image in one who is not in our image” are powerful.  When I re-read them, I can not help but think about those 10 teenagers from Haifa and Nazareth.  I see the young woman Samah in her Hijab, interacting with american teenagers, culturally different, but really the same. Her outward appearance and dress might look different — certainly appears foreign to me — but in many ways,when interacting with her, it is clear to me that It is in the one who is different where we see God.  I can’t help but think of a hot Saturday morning, as we were painting at Labyrinth Project in Bloomington.  She was covered in paint, and having the time of her life.  The kids were practically having paint wars.  She had her Hijab on, there was paint on it, but in watching her, it was easy to see the divine other. Never more so then when she was using a hose to try to clean paint out of the hair of a young Jewish woman, Dafna, who was covered in it, practically head to toe.   I also can’t help but think about the evening when a group of American teenagers joined them at Lake Bloomington;  they came together over 2 hours in something that can only be described as a kingdom moment.  At the end of the evening they took a group selfie using my son Nick’s iPhone, which I have immortalized into a coffee mug.   They weren’t Jew or Muslim or Christian.  They weren’t Israeli, Palestinian, or American.  They were people.  They were kids. They saw beyond cultural and religious differences.  It was an amazing experience.

In talking with people, I think there is interest in inter-faith initiatives, and I am hoping that some of you would be willing to join with me, and other people from churches here in Bloomington-Normal, to begin an interfaith dialogue with our Jewish and Muslim neighbors.  There is so much that we could learn from one another.  One of the things I value so much about working with ISU’s Hillel is that it has given me the opportunity to learn about things about Judaism that I never knew.  Perhaps we could come together and spend time learning about each other’s beliefs and values.    Look at how things are done in Jewish and Christian traditions.  Help each other understand the importance of and how we each celebrate the other’s Holy Days.  Remember, my first experience with Hillel was attending as a guest at a passover seder meal.  I see this as very valuable.  I saw the commonalities in the breaking of the bread in how I, as a Christian, experience communion.   Or when the Hillel students talk about their plans for the Holy Days and celebrations throughout the year, I am enriched, for example, by learning about what Sucot is.  I never heard of the word 2 years ago.

I still wonder at how all of this came together.  Attending a Seder meal pushed me to advise Hillel.   Hillel introduced me to the rabbi, who taught a wonderful class.   I attended GA, and came away with a passion about the middle east I never expected to have.  This pushed me towards an interest in interfaith.   That resulted in interactions with Friends Forever.   (It also, incidentally, introduced me to this congregation!)

But  Friends Forever also pushed me to go far beyond my comfort zone.  One day last September I had an epiphany.  ISU is very supportive of international experiences, and thinking globally.  Given everything I was interested in, why not get funds to go to Israel, and develop a study abroad program focused on the peace movement?  An idea turned into a conversation with the Dean and the president, which turned into a grant request, and next month, ISU will send me to Israel for 2 weeks, to do the planning work for a peace studies class. Given how little I enjoy being on an airplane for longer than a couple hours, this is even more impressive!

I will spend the first three nights in an Arab village, hosted by the Middle East Coordinator of Friends Forever.  Then I will spend 3 nights in a Kibbutz in Haifa, hosted by the Jewish teachers in Friends Forever.  I’ll interact with last year’s Friends Forever teens, and meet with this summer’s participants.  I’ll meet with groups and individuals engaged in peacemaking, Jew and Arab. I will visit Ramallah and the West Bank.   With Joe Grabill’s encouragement, I will visit with the mayors of Nazareth and Upper Nazareth to lay the possible groundwork for a sister-city program.  It all goes back to a simple request to attend a seder meal.

Upon my return from Israel, I hope to take the next steps in interfaith work on a local level– I want to organize a small group, bringing together christians and Jews here in Bloomington Normal; as well as one bringing together Christians and Muslims (I had the opportunity to attend Friday Prayer at the Islamic Center last summer, and am just as hopeful we can build relationships with the Muslim community in town.

I think we can work to better understand each other’s concerns; how Jews experience anti-semitism; how Christians can recognize the elements of anti-semitism in our church history, and can work together to over come it.  There are lots of possibilities.   And there is great need. If the events in Paris have shown anything, anti-semitism and islamaphobia are serious issues, not just abroad but here in the United States as well.

I invite you to join me, and others in Bloomington-Normal to come together in partnership to seek the divine other.

We can pass the microphone if you have questions, or if you have any examples from your own lives of how to experience the divine other.