In case you thought that every evil consequence of guns, mental illness and cruelty had been wrung from the Newtown tragedy, you might not be prepared for the blast of religious intolerance it provoked as well.
The headline was, if not shocking, then saddening: “A Lutheran pastor who participated in an interfaith prayer service in Newtown, Conn., in the days after the Sandy Hook massacre has apologized after being criticized by the leader of his denomination for violating its prohibition against joint worship with other religions.” The Rev. Rob Morris explained that he in no way intended (one is tempted to say “god forbid”) to suggest the validity of other faiths by praying alongside them for the souls of murdered children.
Have we made so little progress? Do we still love faith traditions more than we love God? I know that in each tradition there are those who object to praying along with others. After all, to pray with someone is to suggest – horror of horrors – that their tradition too might have validity, that God might be multilingual. Well do I remember when Bailey Smith, then president of the Southern Baptists said, “God doesn’t hear the prayers of Jews.” Of course if you have forgotten the name Bailey Smith, maybe God does hear our prayers after all.
There is no reason to make God so small. Traditions do not all agree with one another. Surely there are false doctrines. But is there really only one path to the ultimate reality? When there are endless ways to each terrestrial point, why should one believe that there is only one way to the supernatural? The spiritual imperialists have had their day. It is time for traditions to acknowledge, in the now honored fashion of the presidential interfaith prayer breakfast, that we are a mosaic, and we do not enrich ourselves by punching out all the other tiles in the frame.
“To those who believe that I have endorsed false teaching, I assure you that was not my intent, and I give you my unreserved apologies,” Rev. Morris wrote in his apology. He insisted he had devoted many hours to educating his flock about the falsity of the teachings of other faiths. In other words, to those disturbed members of his flock who thought their spiritual leader might be suggesting that some feather of insight had inadvertently wafted along the historical breeze in the direction of Muslims, he was quick to assure them that no, Lutherans still had all the truth.
I would like to think that Rev. Morris prayed in good conscience and apologized in bad conscience. That somewhere he knows how partial is each individual’s grasp of ultimate truth and how essential it is that we listen to one another and respect one another. When faiths cannot stand arm in arm over the grave of children, God weeps.