Within days of returning from a peace-making mission to Nigeria, Yehezkel Landau of Hartford Seminary was reading about new outbreaks of violence in that strife-torn land.
Over the Christmas holiday — not long after he arrived home after 25 hours of travel — Christians and Muslims again clashed while religious leaders blamed government officials for using religion as a wedge.
Earlier, Landau had traveled to Africa as part of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, a New York-based international organization that works to bridge divisions between religions.
Landau went to Nigeria to stand with two men, Imam Muhammad Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye, former enemies and now partners in peace. Wuye and Ashafa had both led armed militias against one another. In the '90s, the men slowly reached through the smoke and ruins to form a friendship, and now they run Nigeria's much-lauded Interfaith Mediation Centre. They also figure prominently in Eliza Griswold's fabulous book, "The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam."
It is heady stuff, being a party to such crucial, cross-religious negotiations, and when the march to peace reverses itself, the disappointment is profound.
"They are still killing each other, so I guess I failed," said Landau.
But at age 60, he's been at this long enough to know that, as he says, history is a marathon. He also knows that the attitude of exclusivity among religions — that my God is better than yours — tends to move people toward absolutism, toward prejudice and a lack of respect for one another. Nigeria's street violence is an extreme example of that, but we have our own examples of one-upgodship here in this country.
Which makes me wonder: Who benefits when we shout at one another across the religious aisles in this country? If we're blaming one another for real and imagined slights, who, in the end, is benefiting? From what are we distracting ourselves? I tend to think most of these kinds of conflicts come down to economics, but who's making money off of this nonsense?
(I also tend to think that if we all went back to our holy texts, the arguments would be beside the point. But I've said that already.)
Landau, who has been at the seminary for nearly nine years, traveled to Nigeria with people from Pakistan and Sarajevo who've seen up close what happens when religion is used as a weapon. The Tanenbaum group appeared on Nigerian television four times, spreading the message of peace and the message that religion should not be exploited in political conflicts.
Landau, a Jew, took his shofar to Nigeria. He blew the horn in celebration of the country's 50th year of independence. Now, back home, he'll watch the news, stay in touch with his friends and pray. He knows more than most that it's the people on the ground — the imam, the pastor — who will make all the difference. He knows that the march will continue.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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