Extremism is explored at conference

February 02, 1993|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Staff Writer

Jewish, Protestant and Roman Catholic representatives seemed to agree on every social issue raised at an interfaith conference in Baltimore yesterday -- before the president of the College of Notre Dame of Maryland sounded a caution about "extremism."

After a morning of speeches and discussions that put all the panelists on the side of more religious activism to combat bigotry, theological misunderstandings, racism, sexism, poverty and abuse of the environment, one of the several hundred participants at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation asked this question:

"How do we address the intolerance of extremists in each of our religious traditions?"

Maryland House of Delegates member Dolores Kelly, who is a professor of English and speech at Coppin State College, represented Protestantism on the panel.

"You can't outshout them," she said.

Dr. Kelly said that "we have to recognize there are extremists in all of our faith traditions" because "no religion is perfect," and she urged efforts to convert or frustrate extremists with good example, with models of tolerance.

"Sometimes that is insufficient," she conceded. "Then you have to be explicit" in strong condemnations of extremism.

But Sister Rosemarie Nassif, the Notre Dame president representing Catholicism on the panel, sounded a warning. "We have to be careful about who we define as extremists," she said.

"I try to at least listen to positions that may seem extreme to me. Sometimes, the extremists are the prophets in our midst, challenging us to change. I wouldn't want us to simply write off all the people we might define as extremists."

Rabbi Joel Zaiman of Chizuk Amuno Congregation, a spokesman for Judaism, said, "One of the reasons extremists bother us is that they are addressing issues we don't have answers to."

Asserting that dangerous religious extremists "are still in the minority," Rabbi Zaiman suggested wider and deeper involvement in the religious mainstream as a way of lessening the impact of extremists.

"However, there are extremists with whom we can't do business," Rabbi Zaiman cautioned.

"They may be few, but we must be careful and concerned about them."

Rabbi Murray Saltzman of the host synagogue, the moderator for this discussion, said he felt impelled to get in a last word on extremism.

"It is a dangerous nucleus, small as it may be," he said. "We must take it seriously. I would call evil -- evil -- anyone who would demean, negate or compromise the dignity or rights of any human being."

The subject of the 33rd annual Interfaith Institute sponsored by the Sisterhood of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, 7401 Park Heights Ave., was "The Challenge of Peace and the Role of Religion in a Time of Change."

The keynote speaker was Rabbi Emeritus Eugene Lipman of Temple Sinai in Washington, co-author of "Justice and Judaism -- The Work of Social Action."

He called organized religion "a respectable aspect of American life" -- exemplified by politicians "invoking the deity in the last paragraph of their speeches" -- and declared: "I believe we should be striving to be less respectable and more relevant, more potent."

Urging an end to "ducking behind silence or platitudes" when economic questions are raised, he said the "core concern" of religion today must be "human beings who are hungry for bread and more. Our thrust must be more earthly."

Sister Rosemarie said, "Our God has many religions. No religion has a monopoly on the truth."

She called on people of all faiths to "expect to find God in the unexpected, in the most bizarre surprises."

Affirming the commonality of religious experience, Rabbi Zaiman said, "The propensity for evil is in all of us."

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