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Address by Dr Heidi Hadsell, at Al Azhar University

Address by Dr Heidi Hadsell, president of Hartford Seminary, Connecticut, United States, at Al Azhar University, 26 April 2017.

26 April 2017

This speech is also available in Arabic (pdf 248 KB)

Dr Heidi Hadsell, president of Hartford Seminary, Connecticut, United States

I will briefly discuss three ways leaders can promote citizenship and co-existence from a Christian perspective, one that is also influenced by my academic field which is Christian Ethics, and by my many years as President of a seminary that has a large program in the study of Islam and Muslim Christian relations, and a student body that is 40% Muslim. I have grouped my thoughts under the categories of  vision, values and virtues, and bridge building.


“ Without vision the people perish.” Proverbs 29:18

Christians view human life in this world in part as preparation for the next, but life also is a gift from God to be enjoyed and embraced, and improved upon when and where it is necessary. This is to say that Christians understand human life in the light of and in response to God’s vision for humanity and all of creation. For many reasons we often fail to live life according to God’s vision and it is part of our task as  Christians  to see and  to understand the distance between life as we often live it and life as it should be lived as God intends.   We are pulled forward, compelled to move ahead generation after generation, motivated in part by our awareness that part of our vocation is to help bring into being the various facets of God’s vision of the fullness of life for all of humanity and all of creation.  This means that Christians can never let go of the vision of what could be and should be, in order to simply live in the world as it is given.

God’s vision of what should be in our human social world has been described and understood in many ways. The moral nature of the vision includes a shared sense of the dignity of every being; just relations within communities and between communities and peoples; the recognition of the intrinsic worth of every human being so that all human beings are viewed as ends in themselves, created by God, and not as means to an end. Nature also is endowed with intrinsic worth  and its protection from  our own human greed and carelessness is part of our  human vocation.

The role of the leader in relation to God’s vision of the fullness of all of life, is to lay out the vision and keep it before the people so that they see and understand both the vision and their own role as participants in its realization. The leader reminds people of God’s vision, calls them back to God’s vision, keeps the clarity of the vision before them, and shows the way towards the faithfulness of choices of institutions and people to the vision God lays before us. It is in relation to God’s vision of who we should be and how we should relate to others and to all of creation, that people understand the meaning and the purpose of the tasks of citizenship and of life itself. It is also according to the understanding of God’s vision that the various tasks of building relationships of co-existence and friendship between communities are most meaningful both in and of themselves, and because they are contributing to the realization of God’s vision of the fullness of life for all of humanity and all of creation.

Values and Virtues

Religious leaders are critically important sources for guidance on the values and virtues that help shape human beings and help guide our participation in human communities and the building of relationships between human communities.

Leaders serve others in part by helping them translate the content of faith into moral action guided by religious values. This translation of faith into values that guide life in concrete circumstances is not always easy and Christians do not always agree on what living in the light of one’s faith means in concrete moments and circumstances. Indeed vigorous discussion is the norm. In general, the Christian tradition has a positive perspective on the role of governing institutions and authorities that give order and continuity to human social and economic life, and meaning to the concept of citizenship. Thus order in society is generally considered far preferable to disorder and chaos, and responsible authority is considered preferable to anarchy.  For some Christian traditions, order is so important that the duty of the Christian citizen is to obey the governing authorities regardless of the ways they may misuse their authority.  For other Christian traditions, the duty of the Christian citizen and Christian leaders to obey the governing authority is only valid until the authority requires obedience in ways that are antithetical to central Christian moral teachings.  At this point the duty of the Christian citizen shifts from that of obedience of authority and becomes one of disobedience of laws that Christians cannot in good conscience obey, or when possible, participation in efforts to change those laws.

In the Reformed tradition, which is the tradition from which I come, but also in many traditions of Christianity we remember in various ways and learn from the moments in history of the resistance of some of our leaders who spoke out against practices they identified as practices no Christian could engage in with good conscience. We also remember those who, shaped by their faith, contributed greatly to the civic communities to which they belonged.

Religious leaders not only help with the complex and often difficult necessity of translating faith into action, and helping make abstract moral principles concrete as they are applied to life, they also are moral models for their people.  All religions have core moral virtues that they expect leaders to embody and through being themselves good examples they expect leaders to teach others to practice these moral virtues. Jesus is of course for Christians the primary example of moral leadership through his teaching, but also and importantly through his character and the ways he exemplified  moral virtues, as he interacted with those around him, and faced many severe challenges and temptations. In this way Jesus, like very good leader teaches both by what they do, but also and equally importantly by who they are, which relates directly to the moral virtues they embody.

While one can list many virtues Christians hold dear, the Christian tradition teaches that the greatest of the virtues are faith, hope and love.   While these are virtues that every Christian is meant to practice, they are certainly also virtues especially important for religious leaders who must embody them as the essence of their leadership – being faithful in all they do and think and teach, demonstrating hope which comes directly from the certainty of and the trust in the sovereignty of God, even when circumstances of life do not seem hopeful,  and showing love for  God through love for humanity in general and in particular  for those they lead,  and especially, according to Christian teachings, the lowest and least among us.

Through the embodiment and practice of such virtues and the teaching of the values of the Christian faith, leaders help their followers to not only be faithful Christians but also to take seriously the obligations and privileges of citizenship, for it is through service to others that one lives the closest to who God intends us to be. And it is through love of the other that one reaches across boundaries that divide human communities and creates relationships of mutual respect and friendship.

Bridge Building

As the Qur’an so eloquently states in Surah #49, Verse 13, “God made you into nations and tribes so that ye could know each other.”

As we read in Christian scripture, through his own concrete actions and teachings, over and over again, Jesus encourages his followers to go beyond their own communities, beyond the human divisions of all kinds  that were prevalent at the time,  in order to build relationships of reciprocity and mutual respect with those on the other side of the divisions and boundaries, either because of tribe or social status or  disease, or religion, or political divisions or gender.  This insistence on the crossing of boundaries between human communities and within them is one of Jesus’ central themes, and he returns to it over and over again.  The ability to lead a community of believers is, as Jesus demonstrates, not enough for faithful leadership. The leader must also be able to look beyond the barriers, beyond the borders, beyond the divisions between and within communities and discern the shared humanity, the dignity, the decency of those outside the community.

This crossing of boundaries, this reaching out to the other is certainly one of the most difficult tasks of  religious leadership. People in groups are often wary of those in other groups, and feel most comfortable staying within their own groups. Difference is more often than not something people fear not something people think that they can enjoy or learn from.  When insecure, people are comforted by high fences and walls and are not eager for doors or windows.  Communities seek and respond to leaders who reinforce their own sense of themselves as a group, and people often do not want to be challenged by their leaders to reciprocal, respectful relationships with people outside their group, community, or comfort zone.

And yet this capacity to cross borders and boundaries, including especially the boundaries of religious communities, has surely been one of the most important attributes of leadership in the histories of our communities and remains so today. For without the capacity to see commonalities in the other, and to cross boundaries to build relationship with the other, one cannot construct peaceful interactions and co-existence between peoples of different communities.

People in religious communities often fear that crossing boundaries and relating appreciatively with those from other religious communities will somehow change their faith or dilute it in some way.  It is the responsibility of religious leaders many of whom have themselves had the opportunity to interact with and get to know other leaders from other communities, to help their own people see and understand that the crossing of boundaries in appropriate ways for friendship and cooperation with other communities does not mean changing one’s faith or diluting it, but rather living out one’s faith, being faithful, being true to one’s faith in ways that God intends.

Just down the street from where I live is a big Congregational church. As one walks or drives by that church one sees today a big sign in the front that says “We love and welcome and stand with our Muslim neighbors.”  One can see these signs or similar signs on the front of many churches in the United States today.  These signs are protests against the new immigration policies of the USA government. But they are also and importantly an indication that the leaders in those congregations have done and are doing their best to help their members understand that this reaching out to Muslims or others, is not a threat to their Christian faith, but rather an integral part of it.  They reach out not in spite of their own Christian faith but because of it.

I am president of a graduate school – Hartford Seminary  - which has been a leader in Christian Muslim relations for more than 100 years.  And yet still today, I and our faculty and students, 40% of whom are Muslim, spend considerable time and energy helping our publics understand that through interaction and study together our students do not become less Muslim or less Christian, but actually   the gaining knowledge and appreciation of the other faith helps them become more knowledgeable about and more deeply proud of their own faith tradition.

I think our leaders in friendship and interaction with each other can,  and should,  share experiences,  encourage each other and help each other be the best possible leaders they can be. Our faith traditions are distinct and different, but the qualities of a good religious leader are very similar across our traditions.