I must share today that, despite the joy we all feel this morning, I’m often burdened with the sense that we just haven’t made enough progress in the more than 50 years since Reverend King left this world. Legal segregation has largely been eliminated, voting rights are clearly established in our statutes and diversity has been recognized as fundamental to good business and progressive education, but discrimination and racial prejudice in many forms still persists in our society. In a world where there’s still so much to be done to achieve Reverend King’s dream, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and pessimistic.
First, our political climate is one of the most divisive in recent memory. How can we make progress toward unity and understanding when we so often talk past one another from the comfort of our echo chambers?
Second, our country is led by a uniquely and sometimes startlingly coarse executive who regularly gives voice to racial and ethnic bigotry. How do we move forward positively from the rage and fear we feel after horrific events like those in Charlottesville, Charleston or Pittsburgh when members of our national leadership fail to condemn these tragedies?
Third, the obstacles we face are subtler than the ones the leaders of the Civil Rights Era sought to overcome a half-century ago. We are no longer confronting overt prejudice backed by law and policy; rather, we’re facing biases stemming from deeply embedded cultural stereotypes and social habits. How do we shift thinking that isn’t conscious or overt, without becoming the thought police?
When I ponder questions like these, it’s easy for me to feel powerless. But I’m not here with a message of despondency or defeat. Instead, I want to share with you my essential optimism for the future. A belief that humanity is fundamentally good and that, when we open our arms, there will be many others -- including those of different political stripes -- to return our embrace. I am certain that we can ease some of the polarization that has become entrenched across America, but it’s going to take faith and, perhaps more so, it’s going to take audacity. A willingness to step out of our comfort zones, a dedication to understanding other perspectives, and an unwavering insistence on the humanity of others.
First, we need to find opportunities to engage open-heartedly with people who are different from us and, in the right circumstances, even those we fear might dislike us. Reverend King once said: “People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.”
A second step we can take to turn the tide of polarization is to educate ourselves about and engage with ideas that feel uncomfortable. To undertake an honest effort to understand the perspectives held by others with whom we’re inclined to disagree. I’m not talking about condoning hatred and bigotry; I’m talking about working to understand viewpoints that are within the range of reasonable approaches to difficult policy problems.
To this end, I encourage each of us to learn more about Interfaith Philadelphia, an inspiring organization dedicated to promoting social harmony and inter-religious understanding, led by Beth Am’s own Abby Stamelman Hocky. Interfaith Philadelphia is sponsoring a “Year of Civil Conversations,” a program of grassroots dialogues on a range of topics that encourage us to share and listen across difference. Get trained as a civil conversation facilitator or participate in one of the live events Interfaith Philadelphia has scheduled through April. How different might our national dialogue be if each of us made a concerted effort to learn intentionally about perspectives and opinions that are different than ours?
Third, I submit that we need to actively support leaders who work to depolarize our communities, and reject messages from political and media figures that demonize large groups of our fellow citizens. I can disagree with a political leader without condemning the morality, motives or humanity of the individuals who may have voted for them. Former President Obama provided a welcomed example of this perspective in his heartfelt eulogy for the late Senator John McCain, a man with whom he had bitter political disagreements. In speaking of their mutual respect for each other, President Obama explained that “we never doubted the other man's sincerity or the other man's patriotism, or that when all was said and done, we were on the same team.” Each of us must carry forward President Obama’s and Senator McCain’s insistence on the basic goodness of others and reject intolerance, wherever it may come from.
Our faith communities are in a unique position -- especially when we work together -- to provide a platform for the types of interpersonal connections, civil conversations and affirmations of humanity that we need to revive in order to finish the work of Reverend King. In his words, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. [In fact,] Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.” Let’s each do our part to stop the spiral of destruction, disconnection and demonization. Let’s each be a source of light -- a source of positive energy for connection, dialogue and belief in the decency of others.