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AAi Seminars

AAi partners with world-class Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scholars to teach peacebuilding seminars to their respective communities in order build lasting bridges of peace, understanding, and cooperation. These seminars are designed to move participants from ignorance, insecurity, and suspicion to understanding, confidence, and respect along with a willingness to humbly unite side-by-side with members of the other religious community for cooperative service to the poor, suffering and marginalized.

Philosophy of Peacebuilding Education

AAi seminars are designed not to replace but complement a wide variety of faith-based, peacebuilding initiatives. Some excel in the science of conflict transformation but exclude thorough studies about the culture and faith of other religious communities. Others focus on the common ground shared between religions, while avoiding deeper issues of difference which often prove divisive. However, these differences often lie at the root of social division, disrespect, dehumanization, and even demonization. Many conclude the other is terribly mistaken about their interpretation or acceptance of sacred texts and prophets. Such conclusions are a powerful force to keep people ignorant about that community, especially when people fear that an empathetic presentation of their faith and culture may inadvertently encourage coreligionists toward syncretism, heresy, or even conversion. This fear often dismisses the value of interreligious learning and stigmatizes anything "interfaith"—activities that require an openness to learn from the very people others believe are terribly mistaken, or even deceived. As such, some don't even trust the other to speak honestly about their own religion. AAi offers an alternative approach.

Inter-religious learning works best when participants are secure enough in their own faith to not fear it will be jeopardized by the encounter. Effective inter-religious learning also requires a level of openness and humility often frowned upon by conservative religious communities. We therefore need an approach that will first help ground participants in their own religious traditions while preparing them to respond with both confidence and humility to the challenges they will face when dialoguing with faithful members of another religion. Furthermore, we must inculcate a level of security that enables participants to safely listen to members of the other religion without feeling threatened. This is necessary not only to learn from the exchange effectively, but also to experience the paradox of actually being inspired by members of another religion to be more faithful members of our own, what some call "holy envy" (i.e., admiring elements in another religious tradition that you wish could, in some way, be more reflected in your own).

AAi seminars are designed to begin this process by providing a safe environment where participants can learn about the faith and culture of Abrahamic neighbors from respected members of their own religious community, skilled at teaching their own sacred text, and able to speak the same faith-vernacular as their students. Because seminar leaders are insiders of the religious community they teach, participants can freely ask any question without inhibition or fear of sounding politically incorrect in interfaith environments. In addition to grounding participants in their own religious tradition while preparing them for inter-religious dialog, seminar leaders build respect for the faith and culture of the other by exposing unjust stereotypes and vast areas of common ground through helpful parallels with participants' own traditions and history.

Outsiders can at best only present a helpful introduction to another's religion, preparing students to continue learning through personal interaction and friendship with members of that religion. Nonetheless, this respectful introduction through a paradigm of peacebuilding often results in students gaining both the confidence and sensitivity to finally participate in inter-religious peacebuilding, without the fear and apprehension that once inhibited such engagement.


For example, when AAi teaches "Loving Muslim Neighbors" seminars to Christians in the United States, Islamophobia is often replaced by an openness to serve the poor alongside the Muslim community. This in turn results in the formation of friendships between members of both communities. Once Christians begin to learn about the Muslim community in a context of compassion and genuine friendship, they are better able to see how Islamophobic stereotypes have hindered their obedience to prophetic commands to love Muslim neighbors. Significant religious differences will remain, but proper understanding of the other can prevent perceptions of these differences from degenerating into disrespect and contempt. Personal experience with virtuous Muslim friends helps Christians refute disrespectful stereotypes that they will probably continue to hear in their own church community.

Clearly, the same approach is equally effective to refute anti-Semitism and anti-Christian hostilities. It's easy to disrespect those we do not know. Many need assistance crossing the social barriers that separate communities, especially when navigating through divisive complexities in theology and culture. AAi seminars provide this assistance in the safe environment of one's own community.

Nonetheless, the purpose of AAi seminars is not merely to inform people about the faith and culture of other Abrahamic communities, but also to sensitize them to matters of intense importance to the other in order to avoid offensive behavior and faux pas so easily committed by majority populations who are ignorant of minority sensitivities. Minimizing offense helps maximize peacebuilding opportunities. AAi seminars therefore function to orient and prepare Abrahamic communities to unite side-by-side with each other to pursue common goals together, for as Muqtedar Khan well stated:

"... most advocates of dialogue assume that conflict is a consequence of misunderstandings and therefore, dialogues can foster understanding and eliminate conflict. Perhaps just understanding the other might not be enough. Even inculcating respect for the other may not douse the fires of conflict. At the core of all conflicts are competing and incompatible interests that may have material as well as moral basis. Conflicts will dissipate when understanding is followed by the replacement of competing interests with common interest. In simple terms, it is not enough that we talk. We must find common goals to pursue together."

AAi seminars then are designed to help Jews, Christians and Muslims better understand each other so they can pursue a common goal together: obedience to divine commands to serve the poor, suffering, and marginalized. The sheer immensity of meeting human need is too great and complex for any one community to accomplish by itself. We need each other and are better together. AAi has been working to develop six core seminars from world-class scholars:

  1. Understanding Jewish Neighbors (taught by a Muslim to Muslims)
  2. Loving Jewish Neighbors (taught by a Christian to Christians)
  3. Understanding Christian Neighbors (taught by a Muslim to Muslims)
  4. Understanding Christian Neighbors (taught by a Jew to Jews)
  5. Understanding Muslim Neighbors (taught by a Jew to Jews)
  6. Loving Muslim Neighbors (taught by a Christian to Christians)

All seminars have the same objectives. Different titles reflect what is most "suitable" to respective communities. For example, "Loving neighbors" sounds "too Christian" to many American Jews and Muslims, so Jewish and Muslim seminar titles were changed accordingly. AAi encourages instructors to name their seminars according to what is most suitable for their own community.

Seminar Objectives

AAi understands that all seminar content will be determined by instructors, those most familiar with the unique needs of their community. Seminar objectives may, therefore, differ slightly. For example, unlike Christianity and Islam, most Jewish communities do not actively proselytize. Jewish seminars, therefore, may not need to address peacemaking and peacebreaking ways for Jews to advance their faith. Nonetheless, the following objectives are used for content development of all seminars, illustrated and illuminated with personal anecdotes and stories, and grounded in the authority of the instructor's own sacred Scriptures through numerous quotations so that students are not just informed about the other, but inspired to love and honor them in obedience to divine commands.

I. Knowing the Other
In the first 90 minutes, AAi seminars must provide students with the minimum they need to know about the faith and culture of the other community to avoid conflict or offense when collaborating with them in compassionate service to the poor. In other words, educate your community about the sensitivities of the other so they don't do or say awkward things that could cause conflict or offense. What could go wrong when a well-meaning person of your community (who's never had a friend from the other community) meets the other? What should your community know about the other to avoid such misunderstandings? Weave your answers to these questions into your coverage of the following objectives: 

  • Introduce students to the basic tenets and values of the other Abrahamic community with respectful parallels to our own sacred text, traditions, and history.
  • Because we all often compare our own community at its idyllic best to the other at its historic worst, describe the other at its best both with personal anecdotes and historical examples, exposing the shortsightedness and myopia of common but unfair stereotypes.
  • Gently help students see that disrespectful stereotypes about the other are equally true of our own community when we have been at our worst throughout both recent and distant history. Introduce students to the stories and narratives of the other who have often suffered incredible injustice perpetrated by people who share our (i.e., the student's) religious identity.
  • Sensitively help students see their faith and community through the eyes of the other. Include critical opinions of both present and historical belief and practice, then show how our own sacred text can be cited to support their criticisms.
  • Survey vast areas of common ground shared by both communities and rooted in our sacred texts.
  • Despite the fact our community has often failed to live up to our own ideals, share numerous examples of how the other community has lived up to our ideals, as commanded in our own sacred Scriptures.
  • Share stories to illustrate that true virtue exists among faithful members of the other community, who often demonstrate greater obedience to the teachings of our prophets than many active members of our own community.

II. Responding to the Other

  • After significant respect is built for both the faith and culture of the other in Part I, describe several major differences between our two religions, taking care to explain the reasonableness of their disagreement according to principles in our own Scriptures. Review related theological controversies in our own history. We can't disagree well until we understand the controversy in our own history.
  • Some people avoid interfaith dialogue because they are afraid they will be asked a popular question by the other that they don't know how to answer satisfactorily. Equip students with your winsome approach to responding to these difficult but frequently asked questions in a way that makes sense to the other. 
  • Demonstrate how some (though certainly not all) areas of significant disagreement between us can ironically prove to be areas of significant agreement after carefully comparing our sacred texts in their original linguistic, cultural, and historical context of meaning. By contrast, comparing translations of our texts often makes reconciling these differences extremely difficult. Comparing popular commentaries of our texts makes reconciling our differences impossible. In other words, challenge participants to see these areas of disagreement more closely to the way earliest readers of our Scriptures would have understood them before centuries of tradition and commentary contributed to today's practice and/or understanding.
  • Despite the inability of the other community to agree with us on matters of significant difference, explain the reasonableness of our traditions, why they developed as they did, and why they are worthy of continued affirmation.
  • Equip students with respectful ways to explain their traditions to the other when asked or challenged. Encourage humble dialog. Discourage debate.

III. Studying Scripture with the Other

  • Gently help students rethink sacred texts commonly presumed to mandate proselytism. Expose students to the teaching of respected scholars in your community who neither advocate proselytism, nor see it supported in those texts. Explain how these scholars interpret such verses, and how such an interpretation can transform your engagement with the other community.
  • Suggest helpful ways to study Scripture with members of the other community, which portions of our own sacred texts require special care, and how to avoid common misunderstandings that often occur. 
  • Challenge students to see that the kind of religion that pleases God according to our Scriptures is not only our best effort at correct belief, but also complete submission and obedience to divine commands to love neighbors and strangers, to care for orphans and widows, to serve the poor and suffering, and show kindness and grace even to those who are rude and offensive. Show students how this same truth is also wholly affirmed in the Scriptures of the other community, in addition to verses showing God's favor upon those who are humble and not proud. 
  • Given that our own theologians often disagree on important matters of theology, challenge students to win the respect of the other by being faithful and obedient to divine commandments we all share: practicing justice and righteousness with love and compassion, feeding the hungry, and serving the poor.
 

Post-Seminar Opportunities

Seminar graduates will be invited to collaborate with Abrahamic neighbors in local compassion events sponsored by their own congregation, not only to obey divine commands to serve the poor, suffering, and marginalized, but also to demonstrate to ourselves and a watching world that we can not only peacefully coexist, but we can unite to serve the common good.

 

 

Qualifications of Seminar Instructors

AAi seminar instructors must be:

  • Published scholars on matters of Jewish-Christian, Muslim-Jewish, or Christian-Muslim relations.
  • Peacemakers and experienced bridge-builders with another Abrahamic community, not polemicists, proselytizers, or debaters.
  • Experienced in teaching their own sacred texts and traditions to their own religious community.
  • Comfortable using exegetical tools to study their own Scriptures in their original language.
  • Academically able to design a course and lecture series.
  • Committed to serving God, humanity, and their own community.
  • Respectful of the great diversity and different opinions among other communities in their own religious tradition.
  • Close friends with numerous members of the other Abrahamic community.
  • Familiar with and deeply respectful of the sacred texts of the other religious community.
  • Able to affirm that their faith has personally been deepened by meaningful encounters with members of the other Abrahamic community.
  • Committed to AAi Values.

AAi's philosophy of peacebuilding education is an ethnographic approach to peacebuilding. Ethnographers are often outsiders striving to understand another's culture from an insider’s perspective. Once accomplished, an ethnographer can translate what appears to outsiders as “strange” behavior in ways the outsider can not only understand, but also respect. As such, good ethnography (i.e., translating culture and religious practice in ways outsiders can understand and respect) can promote intellectual empathy. For example, after non-Shi'ites read an ethnography on Shi’ite mourning rituals in India, they may finally understand and even respect why many Shi’ites annually mourn the martyrdom of Imam Hussain with such intensity. To be clear, intellectual empathy aims to promote understanding and respect, not necessarily agreement. Therefore, we certainly cannot expect non-Shiites to engage in similar mourning practices themselves.

When a person is skilled both at understanding the other ethnographically and teaching their own sacred text to their own faith community, they can not only obliterate many stereotypes their community has about the other, but they also can also inspire their community to honor and care for the other as their Scriptures command. By so doing, a community grows immensely in their understanding not only of their neighbor, but also of their own sacred texts. At the same time, they are inspired to become more faithful practitioners of their own religion as they submit to divine commandments to show kindness and compassion to people outside of their religious community with whom they have deep disagreements about important matters.
 

Interested?

Would you like to develop and teach such a peacebuilding seminar to your own community so they can better understand and honor Abrahamic neighbors, then successfully unite with them in collaborative compassion? AAi stands ready to assist you in this process, promote your seminar widely, and provide a grassroots vehicle for you to transform hearts and minds as your seminar graduates unite with other children of Abraham to serve the poor. Contact AAi for more info.

 

Revised 27 September 2019

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