Thank you so much for inviting me to speak with you today. I am extremely impressed with Trinity Valley School, and its commitment to academic excellence and the education of the whole person as a member of the global community, as we, humans, are not just intellectual beings but spiritual beings, and we are not just citizens of Fort Worth or Texas, but of the world.
I’ve been asked to share my thoughts with you on the growing Interfaith movement. I will be referring to this movement throughout the lecture as Interfaith dialogue, Interfaith cooperation, and pluralism. Essentially, these three terms are synonymous. But before I go into specifically defining those terms, I would like to retell two stories that Eboo Patel shares in his book titled Acts of Faith. Patel founded the Interfaith Youth Core which helps high schools and colleges create multi-faith communities. He is an official advisor to the president through the Whitehouse office of interfaith and neighbor partnerships. Patel is an Indian-American Muslim.
The first story is this: A man named Eric Rudolph sits in court and pleads guilty. But he is not sorry. He’s not sorry for the nail bomb that he detonated at the Women’s Heath Clinic in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed a police officer and left a nurse injured. He’s not sorry for the bomb at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta that killed one, injured dozens and sent shock waves of fear through the global community. He’s not sorry for his hateful letter stating, “We declare and will wage total war on the ungodly, communist regime in New York and you legislative bureaucratic lackeys in Washington,” signed “The Army of God.” He’s not sorry for defiling the Holy Bible by writing “bomb” in the margin of his copy.
In fact, Rudolph is proud and defiant. He lectures the judge on the righteousness of his actions. He states that abortion, homosexuality, and all hints of “global socialism” still need to be “ruthlessly opposed.” He does this in the name of Christianity, quoting from the New Testament:”I have fought the food fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.”
The judge sentenced Rudolph to life in prison, compared him to the Nazis, and said that he was shocked at Rudolph’s lack of remorse. But many others felt a twitch of pride.
Eric Rudolph might have been a loner, but he did not act alone. He was produced by a movement and encouraged by a culture. In the woods of western North Carolina, where Rudolph evaded federal agents for five years, people cheered him on, helped him hide, made T-shirts that said Run Rudolph Run. The day he was finally caught, a woman from the area was quoted as saying “Rudolph’s a Christian, I’m a Christian… Those are our values. These are our woods.”
Of all the information published about Rudolph, one sentence is very telling: Rudolph wrote an essay denying the Holocaust when he was in high school. How does a teenager come to hold such a view?
The answer is simple: people taught him. Eric Rudolph was always in trouble and never quite fit in. His father died when he was young. His mother followed men who preached a theology of hate. Eric was soon drawing Nazi symbols in his schoolbooks. Then a pastor named Dan Gayman assumed a fatherly relationship with Eric, enrolled him in hatemongering Christian Identity youth programs. Gayman taught Rudolph that the Bible was the history of the Aryan whites and that the Jews were the spawn of Satan and part of a tribe called “the mud people.” He taught Rudolph that the world was nearing a final struggle between God’s people and Satan’s servants and it was up to the Aryans to ensure victory for the right race. Rudolph carved swastikas into this mother’s living room furniture. Under the tutelage of Gayman and other radical preachers, Eric Rudolph’s hate did what hate always does: it spread.
The second story is about the middle School students in Whitwell, TN. These students are giving tours of one of the most profound Holocaust memorials anywhere in the world: A German railcar that was used to transport Jews to Auschwitz. The young people ask guests to imagine how it might feel to be one of the eighty Jews packed into that tight space, as the train took them to torture and death. They explain that the railcar is filled with millions of paperclips, each one a symbol of a Jew murdered by the Nazis. One student says that to see a paper clip now is to think of a soul. The sign at the entrance of the memorial reads: ”We ask you to pause and reflect on the evil of intolerance and hatred.” The sign on the way out states: “What can I do to spread the message of love and tolerance these children have demonstrated with this memorial?”
One Whitwell student tour guide, about to graduate from eighth grade, reflects, “In the future, when I come back and see it, knowing that I was here to do this, it will be not just a memory, but kind of like in your heart, that you’ve changed the way that people think about other people.”
Whitwell is a town of fewer than two thousand residents, located outside Chattanooga in the coal mining region of southeastern Tennessee, about a hundred miles from where the Ku Klux Klan was born. It has two traffic lights and a whole lot of God Bless America signs. The mines closed thirty years ago, leaving the region even poorer than it was before. You can count the number of black and Latino families on two hands. There aren’t any Catholics, Jews, or Muslims.
Why would white protestant kids in a poor region with a history of prejudice care so much about educating people about Judaism? The answer is simple: people taught them. The principal of Whitwell Middle School, Linda Hooper, wanted the students in her school to learn about cultures and people who are different from themselves. “Our children, they are respectful; they are thoughtful; they are caring. But they are pretty much homogeneous. When we come up to someone who is not like us, we don’t have a clue.”
She sent a teacher to a diversity conference, and he came back with the idea of a holocaust education project. “This was our need,” Hooper said.
Over the next several years, the students at Whitwell studied that horrible time, met with Holocaust survivors, learned about the rich tradition of Judaism, and taught all the people they touched about the powerful role that young people can play in advocating for pluralism.
Lena Gitter, a ninety-five-year-old Holocaust survivor, heard about the project and wrote the students a letter, it reads: “I witnessed what intolerance and indifference can lead to. I am thankful that late in life I can see and hear that the teaching of pluralism is alive and well and bears fruit. When you ask youth, they will do the right thing. With tears in my eyes, I bow my head before you. Shalom.”
Eric Rudolph and the young people of Whitwell are two very different responses to one of the most important questions of our time: in a world of passionate religiosity and intense interaction, how will people from different faith backgrounds engage one another? Rudolph responded to people who were different by building bombs of destruction. The students of Whitwell responded to diversity by building bridges of understanding. Rudolph is a religious totalitarian. The students of Whitwell are religious pluralist. They are on different sides of the faith line.
One hundred years ago, the great African-American scholar W.E.B. Dubois famously said. “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” The twenty-first century will be shaped by the question of the faith line. On one side of the faith line are the religious totalitarians. Their conviction is that only one interpretation of one religion is a legitimate way of being, believing, and belonging on earth. Everyone else needs to be bullied, or converted, or condemned, or killed.
On the other side of the faith line are the religious pluralists, who hold that people believing in different creeds and belonging to different communities need to learn to live together. Religious pluralism is neither mere coexistence, nor forced consensus. It is a form of proactive cooperation that affirms the identity of the unique religious traditions while emphasizing that the well being of each and all depends on the health of the whole. It is the belief that the common good is best served when each community has a chance to make its unique contribution.
We all have to answer this question of the 21st century: Will I be part of the interfaith movement for pluralism and cooperation?
For me, answering this faith line question has been my deepest passion. My story begins in 1984 when I attended preschool at the Jewish Community Center in Columbus, Ohio. My parents were both Protestant Christians and I was baptized Presbyterian as an infant. However, my earliest memories of school were with Jewish children and teachers. We prayed in Hebrew, ate latkas and cholla, and learned the Jewish traditions. At the same time, I attended Church and Sunday school where I was learning Christian stories and praying to Jesus. While I didn’t fully realize it till many years later, from the very beginning of my life, my parents thought it important that I learn the ways of the interfaith movement. This deeply shaped my identity and foreshadowed my present vocation as an ordained Presbyterian minister who works as a college chaplain with the Interfaith community at TCU.
Now, my journey in becoming an advocate for interfaith cooperation wasn’t always a smooth one. There were times in my life when I would treat people of other religions with disrespect and even prejudice. There was a certain time in high school, when I was struggling with growing up and the difficulties of being a teenager. I was trying to fit in and claim my power in the world.
That’s when the influence of the other side of the faith line, the totalitarian side, took hold of my life. In an arrogant tone, I told my Jewish friend, a friend that I met in preschool at the Jewish Center that he was going to hell. I said, “Nate, you know you and your relatives are going to hell. Jesus is the only way. I pray everyday that God will have mercy on you.” When he heard those powerful words come out of my mouth, he looked at me with disbelief and tears rolled down his cheeks. “I never thought you would be like them,” he replied. It took months for our friendship to recover. Just like Eric Rudolph, I had learned this way of behaving from others in school. I co-opted religion to bully my friend.
There is nothing wrong with a Christian who believes Jesus is the only way, that’s what makes Christianity unique and beautiful. But the problem with my treatment of Nate was not my Christian identity, but how I used religion to bully and disrespect him. My motivation was not honest sharing of my beliefs out of love and respect of his uniqueness, which is a hallmark of interfaith cooperation. Rather, out of insecurity, I was trying to feel better about myself by putting him down. Out of the confusion of growing up and trying to figure out life, it was much easier to build up my ego by treating him as less than human. I was comforted to know that at least my friend Nate was a worse off than me. There is a feeling of power, of belonging, of identity, when you dehumanize other groups of people. Very similar to how gangs work, this ideology makes you feel safe and right and powerful. It gives you your identity. And eventually this way of treating others turns into a posture of hatred, of building bombs instead of bridges—like Eric Rudolph in our opening story.
Like I said before, there is nothing wrong in believing that Jesus is God or that Mohammed is prophet. Many people who do interfaith dialogue believe the particularities of their religion, but in doing so they also respect other’s beliefs and views. They listen and leave room for mystery. It’s easy to love someone who is the same, but the real challenge is loving someone who is different. If you respect their humanity and their dignity, treat them with an open mind and heart, and engage them in deep meaningful conversations–this is where the magic of interfaith cooperation happens. Eboo Patel wrote in his book, that “the heart of even the most ardent religious believer will provide more accurate clues to his or her behavior that the theology of his or her faith.” It is the heart that matters when we relate to the diversity of fellow humans, it is our heart that matters when we cooperate to make the world better for us all.
One of the main tasks of upper school is finding your identity. Discovering who you are, what you believe, and how you will act in response. But this task is quite difficult and confusing. There are so many influences in our culture, so many people and groups that compete for our attention and for our commitment. And the task of developing your religious identity may be the most difficult task of all because it carries with it questions of death, afterlife, meaning, truth, and morality. These are the very deepest questions of our existence. When we attend to these questions, we have so much to gain and so much to lose. There is this unparalleled power and weight associated with this journey.
It could have gone either way for me in high school. I could have continued down the path towards bigotry that I flirted with in my interactions with my Jewish friend, Nate. But thankfully, with the help of many mentors, I followed the path of Interfaith cooperation. And it has changed my life forever. It has become my passion and my life’s work.
It’s no mistake that most of my heroes are deeply religious people who have both stayed true to their own religious identity, and at the same time, they have cooperated with those of different religions to make the world better. Martin Luther King, Jr., a Baptist minister, held hands with Abraham Heschel, a Jewish Rabbi, in the march from Selma to Montgomery during the civil rights movement. Mahatma Gandhi stated that Hindu-Muslim unity was just as important to him as a free India. A quotation from the Dalai Lama reads, “My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.”
Even locally, here in Fort Worth at a coffeehouse, the former pastor of McKinney Bible Church would meet with a rabbi from a local Jewish synagogue for deep conversation on faith and religion. The pastor and the rabbi shared a common bond, not of the same religious beliefs, but deep faith. Their passion for their own unique tradition is what brought them together.
Thomas Merton, a 20th Century Catholic monk and spiritual writer, said that the deeper and more mature your faith is in a particular tradition, the more you will be able to appreciate the depth and beauty of religions other than your own.
Let me debunk a myth of interfaith cooperation: Some people are suspicious of doing interfaith dialogue because they are worried of losing their own particular religious identity. They are worried that by deeply sharing with the religious other, they will either be converted or their faith will become watered down. But this isn’t true. Actually, the opposite is true. By talking to people of other faiths, one’s own faith background is strengthened and deepened.
For example, at TCU, the Muslim students are dedicated to their prayer life. They come into our multifaith prayer room 5 times a day to pray. And when I dialogue with them about it, it doesn’t make me want to pray Muslim prayers and abandon my Christian identity, rather it leads me to want to pray Christian prayers in a deeper and more meaningful way. And through the process, I have learned about another religion which breaks down dangerous stereotypes and prejudice, and I have gotten to know a person of another religion more deeply, building trust and respect. Just think of the transformation that would take place in our society if everyone began talking to people of other faiths in an open and loving way?
You might also be thinking, what about the call to spread our religions throughout the world? In my faith, Christianity, this is known as evangelism or the Great Commission. Doesn’t interfaith cooperation and dialogue discourage spreading the good news of the gospel? Well, the answer is no. Actually interfaith cooperation encourages telling the story of your religion to others. I am invited to share the good news of my Christianity! But rather than force others to agree with me, I am reminded to treat others with respect and be open to learning about their beliefs. While we may disagree about which faith is better, about theology or doctrine, we can agree that we must work together to spread love and kindness throughout the world. And isn’t that the heart of my Christian faith, to be Jesus Christ’s hands and feet in the world, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and healing the sick?
As you know, I serve as the Associate Chaplain at Texas Christian University where I help to create a campus community of interfaith cooperation.
But you may be asking yourself, I thought Texas Christian University was a Christian school, why would it support the exploration and cultivation of many different faiths? You wouldn’t be alone. Many students that come to TCU are surprised that TCU isn’t more specifically Christian. I often hear students say, that the ‘letter C’ in TCU has disappeared. I also hear people say that the University prefers to be known as the acronym TCU instead of the full name Texas Christian University. I guess they hope people will forget what the ‘letter C’ represents. But when I have conversations like these, I remind our community members that we are a Christian University, started by the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), to carry out a Christian mission in education. The mission is not to force our students to practice as Christians, nor is it to remove religious experience totally from campus life in order to avoid the complexities of pluralism, but rather, our mission is to respect and nurture each individual’s search for religious identity. Our Christian institution feels that the richest environment for education is a multi-faith environment. It is because TCU is a Christian school that we value diversity and pluralism. It is because TCU is Christian that we respect, empathize, and remain open to other’s unique faith expressions, because we too have our own unique faith background.
Texas Christian University’s mission statement is: “To educate individuals to think and act as ethical leaders and responsible citizens in the global community.” Since our global community is so religiously diverse and since religion is such a powerful guide for so many people’s lives around the world, we believe at TCU, that in order for our students to be leaders in the global community, we must promote interfaith cooperation. We must educate our students about the various world religions and explore how we all can work together. This is so important for America’s educational institutions that the government has recently encouraged presidents of colleges and universities around the country to make interfaith cooperation central to their respective mission statements.
I am the staff advisor for the Interfaith Community at TCU which is an organization made up of students from many different faith backgrounds, students that are seeking a tradition, and students that have no faith. The mission of the group is to spread awareness about interfaith cooperation, educating campus about the many faith traditions, doing service projects, and advocating for social justice by teaming up with non-profit organizations, like the Tarrant Area Food Bank and Amnesty International. Recently, we just held our big event to raise awareness of interfaith cooperation and religious diversity on campus. We called the event TCU Coexists. At the event, we invited non-Muslim students and staff to wear hijabs, the traditional Muslim head scarf for women, as an act of solidarity. We held Buddhist meditation and played Hindu music. We invited people to decorate pots and plant seeds for secular humanist environmental sustainability. We raised awareness about Jewish holidays and Christian denominations. And we invited people to sign the pledge to coexist on campus. I invite you to watch a short video of our students that we interviewed at the event…(video clip).
So what about some practical thoughts on how to further a climate of interfaith dialogue and pluralism? In thinking about these practical suggestions, I’ve borrowed some inspiration from an article written by Victor Kazanjian, chaplain at Wellesley College.
My first thought is this: Ultimately, this is about education, not religion. We should ask the question, how does religion and spirituality enhance the education of our students? The first step is to begin having that conversation with each other. Questions that students at Wellesley College asked the community were:
“I am a scholar and I am spiritual. Are these two parts of one person? Or am I two people separated from myself by the split in education between mind and spirit?”
Another student asked: “Why must I leave the religious part of myself outside the door of my classes, only to enter and encounter writings of those who were inspired by their religious faith?”
And a third wondered: “How can I understand the role that religion plays in the world around me, if I do not have the opportunity to understand the role that religion plays in the life of my classmates?”
The fourth said: “In terms of my religion, I am invisible. My professors, they look at me, see the color of my skin and think they know my story. I am African-American and I am Jewish. How can they see me, if they do not know me? And how can they teach me, if they do not see me?”
For my second thought, I believe a community must be willing to move beyond tolerance. Tolerance of religious difference doesn’t require people to love, support, and dialogue with those that are different, rather tolerance just means that we will merely put up with each other. Stopping at mere tolerance keeps us isolated, and prohibits the transformation and growth that interfaith cooperation can create in a community.
My third thought is: since our society, and our high schools, have many years of Christian embedded structure and privilege, whether these are explicit or more invisible, moving towards a multi-faith learning environment will make some people unhappy. Even at a non-sectarian school such as Trinity Valley, there are some subtle Christian structures of privilege apparent, such as class letting out for winter break during Christmas, while class is in session during Jewish Chanukah, Muslim Ramadan, and other high-holidays. We, Christians, that have held privilege as the dominant religion culturally, much of this privilege being invisible to us to us, will feel a sense of loss and pain as we lose that privilege. It’s not going to feel good, and some people will oppose the change. But moving to a more pluralistic environment is something that must be done, so being aware of this grief felt by the Christians, is necessary for the community to negotiate the transition.
My last thought is that by including everyone at the table, there will be more food for everyone. The search for meaning and wisdom in the educational institutions needs to be a multi-faith search, where all diversity is valued, where the depth of religious and spiritual experience is brought together with scholarly inquiry.spanspanspanspan