Each month at the InterFaith Council’s “Learning and Latte,” people of diverse traditions gather to discuss religion, culture, politics – and often current events. Last Tuesday our thoughts naturally turned to the horrific shooting in Tucson. Though that was not a religious attack, it echoed the increasingly vitriolic, even violent quality of what passes for civic discourse in our country. And so we came soon to the Civility Issue. We wondered what we could do, as people of faith, to foster a more respectful, peaceful, civil quality of conversation. This weekend, when we celebrate the life and ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is a particularly apt time to ask this question.
Some may ask, can religion be a force for non-violence, when religious affiliations, passions and wars are the stated causes of so many armed conflicts? Many of the world’s largest religious systems have bloody histories, and much of the violence in our world today is fueled by religiously-motivated hatred, bigotry, vengeance and fear. But religious thought has also been a crucial source of pacifist and non-violent approaches to conflict resolution. The teachings of Christ about sacrificial love inspired the Hindu Mahatma Gandhi to develop his philosophy of non-violent resistance. He in turn inspired the Baptist Martin Luther King, Jr., in his battle for civil rights.
In our own day, Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi is a visible symbol of peaceful resistance to brutal oppression. Despite her father’s assassination, she steadfastly refuses to seek retribution, devoting herself to bringing about justice by democratic means. She draws on non-violent teachings in her own Theravada Buddhism, as well as the examples of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu have also met bitter injustice with transformative non-violence, and they continue to work behind the scenes in many world conflicts (www.theelders.org). These are people whose nonviolent actions – and non-actions – have continued to ripple around the world and across time.
These days, our world seems to be undergoing a retreat from moderation and a movement toward extremism. We see it in our political systems, and even more murderously in other parts of the world. Sufism, highly popular as the most moderate of Islamic sects, faces violence by hardliners in Pakistan, Iran and elsewhere. The recent bombing of a Coptic church in Cairo prompted Egyptians to fear that growing religious extremism between Muslims and Christians threatens to undermine their stability. This year will mark the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, when religious extremism inflicted the greatest wound upon us as Americans.
We can choose to meet such extremism in kind, ratcheting up the rhetoric and the violence, as many are doing. Or we can redirect our energy into transformative action that builds on values we all claim to profess. Religious people especially need to visibly “align our values with our actions,” as President Obama said in his speech last Wednesday. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs has issued a “Statement on Civility.” Jim Wallis, the progressive evangelical (yes, it’s possible…) leader of the Sojourners community, has invited Christian leaders to sign a “Pledge for Peace and Civility.” Stamford’s Rabbi Joshua Hammerman suggests perhaps we establish some metrics and issue “Civility Ratings” to political figures.
Civility is actually quite a low standard, as is tolerance – we “tolerate” Brussels sprouts (my bias…). A higher calling is mutual understanding, which can lead to respect and even reverence. I invite my religious colleagues in Southwestern Connecticut to take the lead in setting such a tone locally. I call on our political leaders, educators and journalists to do the same, as well as all who are engaged in public discourse, whether in letters to the editor, in town-hall meetings, or in private conversation.
People of religious conviction have a great role to play in calling us from the margins into the center. We can take the lead in blurring the lines between “blue” and “red,” “liberal” and “reactionary.” We can stop demonizing those with whom we disagree, and model a humility that knows when to speak out, and when to stay quiet, even in the face of untruth and distortion. We can refuse to label anyone as a “them,” and look rather at the real person standing before us.
Martin Luther King, Jr., in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, said, “Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”
A person regarded with love often becomes more lovable. People of faith, who proclaim the love of God, need above all to demonstrate and embody love. Love is not a flimsy thing of flowers and chocolate. The Hebrew scriptures say that love is stronger than death. As any parent or partner will tell you, love is difficult, risky, and powerful.
On this anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr., who embodied the sacrificial love that gives itself away for the life of the Other, I call us beyond civility, to love; love that has the courage to see the “other” as innately precious,bearing dignity as a fellow child of God. King modeled this kind of dangerous love. We can too.
Learn more about the InterFaith Council of Southwestern Connecticut at www.interfaithcouncil.org. “Learning and Latte” takes place the second Tuesday of each month at Cosi Restaurant, 1209 High Ridge Road at Merritt Parkway Exit 35 in Stamford.
The Rev. Kate Heichler is president of the InterFaith Council of Southwestern Connecticut, and pastor of the Church of Christ the Healer in Stamford.