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from the Secretary General

Hello

by Robert L. Stern

When I was a kid they told me that “Eskimos” greet each other by rubbing noses. How peculiar, I thought, why don’t they shake hands?

Older, but no wiser, I learned that American “Indians” greet each other by holding up one hand, palm out, saying “How.” How peculiar, I thought, why don’t they shake hands?

Much later, I came to know that Japanese greet each other by bowing one to the other, that French men (and Arabs) kiss one another on both cheeks and that in India hands are joined in front, as though in prayer, with a slight inclination of the head by way of saying hello.

How peculiar, I then thought, that I was taught to clasp right hands and jerkily move them up and down once or twice by way of greeting — an old tradition that showed that I held no weapon!

Naturally, in my youthful, blissful ignorance, I never questioned greeting the Lord in church by genuflecting on one knee — traditional Western court style. But it certainly seemed odd that in Byzantine churches one reverenced the Lord by bowing so low as to touch the floor — traditional Eastern court style.

And, an altar server kissing hats and hands, rings and books was the most normal thing in the world — my world, that is!

The first moral of these little examples is don’t misunderstand and be put off by superficial, cultural differences. There are limitless different ways of expressing the same good intentions and the same good will.

Another, positive moral of the examples is the importance of respect for cultural differences and of recognition and understanding of the good intentions and the good will that underlies them.

I was deeply struck and deeply moved by the 13 October 2007 open letter to the heads and leaders of Christian churches by 138 Muslim scholars, jurists and religious leaders.

Painfully aware of the increasing and increasingly deadly misunderstandings between Muslims and Christians, they explained that the most important words we have from the prophet Muhammad are consonant with those from Moses and Jesus.

Notwithstanding differences among Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic and Arabic — and in spite of the stylistic differences of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy books — there is a substantial core to their teachings that is the same.

Since God is one, it should be so.

If the one God sends different messengers to different people in different times and different places, then the messages cannot contradict each other. If it seems so, the fault lies with us. It must be due to our human failings, prejudices, misinterpretations and misunderstandings.

Are there real and substantial differences in belief among Jews, Christians and Muslim? Of a certainty. But as our Muslim brothers and sisters affirm, there are fundamental, real and substantial commonalities, too.

When Jesus once was asked by a teacher of the law of Moses what was the greatest commandment of the law, he named two:

Love God with all your heart, soul and mind and love your neighbor as yourself. Jews believe it. Christians believe it. Muslims believe it, too.

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Msgr. Archimandrite Robert L. Stern



Tags: Cultural Identity Christian-Muslim relations