Dancing in the Earthquake

Published on FPIF, by Arthur Waskow, November 7, 2007.

Every religious community in the world is now living through a profound crisis, an eruption of God, a world-wide earthquake brought on by modernity in every life-dimension: political, economic, sexual, ecological, military, cultural, biological. In traditional communities, new religious outlooks are being born. Believers are coming to new understandings of what the world came from and is moving toward, what aspects of the world are holy and what are either ordinary or demonic, what symbols and metaphors and practices are sacred.

Under the crust of old assumptions and behaviors toward the Middle East, new visions are stirring. They are beginning to affect policy. These new responses can be roughly categorized as either “restoration” or “renewal,” and both responses emerge within the boundaries of the traditional communities Restoration is an attempt to find some anchoring point in the past. It often involves the rejection and attempted suppression of such aspects of modernity as the equality of women. And the efforts in each traditional community to restore a remembered past often lead to bitter attacks on other traditions that modernity has so rudely interjected into its life. In the maelstrom of the Middle East, this often means the sanctification of outright violence by several communities.


Renewal is an attempt to draw some new wisdom from modernity and integrate it into the wisdom from the past. It often includes efforts to affirm points of friendly connection with other traditions, even affirming that they have truth value. It often promotes cooperative policy alliances between the renewalist energies of different communities.

The internal struggles in each community between these contradictory responses – bitter attack on or connective alliance with the other communities –have important effects on the Middle East policies of the religious communities, and therefore on the Middle East policies of the U.S. government …

… Multireligious Solidarity: In a broader sense, the future holds open the question of new kinds of multireligious alliances among Jews, Christians, and Muslims to bring about change in U.S. policy toward the Middle East. Precisely because the obvious counter-tugs of religious beliefs and ethnic loyalties make such alliances difficult, the fact that such actions have happened at all might offer some promise.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, not only was there unprecedented governmental interference in Muslim religious life, there were also myriad small acts of multireligious solidarity as Jews and Christians reached out to protect Muslims from attack. Multireligious statements began to appear criticizing U.S. policy toward Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Shared observances of the sacred seasons of the three Abrahamic faith sprang up. Interfaith groups that had emerged after World War II and the Holocaust to bring Jews and Christians together began to open up to Muslims as well.

The possibility of such interfaith and multireligious action – especially on the heavily freighted symbolic, religious, and ethnic issues of the Middle East – is one aspect of the religious renewal. Can the three Abrahamic faiths transform their relationships with each other in ways none of them would have been willing to do before? Does that require reassessing and reinterpreting the teachings and practices each tradition inherits from the past?

There are two radically different ways of responding to the worldwide earthquake that moves the ground beneath our feet. One way is to grasp at some pillar of past certainty that we hope can help us live through the quake and subdue its energy, so as to make it possible once again to walk, to march, in the path that we remember.

The other is to learn to dance in an earthquake. In that dance, all our old versions of dancing will have to be reworked. No pattern of steps that we knew before will keep us upright and graceful as the ground shakes beneath us. Dancing in the earthquake – renewing rather than restoring our traditions and communities – may well be necessary if religious life in America is to shape a new official policy toward the land from which our three major religions emerged – the Middle East. (full text).

(Rabbi Arthur Waskow is the director of The Shalom Center, a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus, and author of many books on Jewish thought and practice and on U.S. foreign and military policy. Most recently, he co-authored with Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister and Sufi Murshid Saadi Shakur Chisti, The Tent of Abraham: Stories of Hope and Peace for Jews, Christians, and Muslims (Beacon, 2006). For more articles in the Religion and Foreign Policy strategic focus, visit FPIF, or its homepage).

Comments are closed.