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Tuesday, January 29, 2019

MLK Weekend Remarks at Zion Baptist Church: "Be the Light" | by Andrea Kahn-Kothmann

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.”  

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.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

A Year of Civil Conversations Religious Leader Reflections: “The Vitality of Ordinary Things" | by Rev. Jesse Garner

In a program first broadcast on April 12, 2018, Krista Tippett interviewed Michael Longley, a poet from Northern Ireland.  Although recorded live in 2016—in Belfast—the program was not aired until two years later to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement which had brought to an end the worst of the sectarian violence that had plagued that land for so many years.

The “Troubles” were the backdrop for much of Longley’s poetry, as they were for other Irish poets of the time, among them Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, but they were rarely the subject of his poetry, at least not directly.  No, the subject of his poetry was—in Tippett’s memorable phrase—“the vitality of ordinary things precisely in the face of what is hard and broken in life and society.”

Longley’s celebration of the “vitality of ordinary things” was (and is) his way of celebrating what is most human about us.  Those things that we are tempted to call the “little things” of “ordinary” life, things we do every day generally without much thought or appreciation.  Tasting a perfectly ripe strawberry, hearing the sound of a loved one’s voice, enjoying the beauty of a wild flower.  Little things to be sure, and easy to overlook, yet precisely those things in which our humanity persists even in the face of all that threatens in the world around us.

Which is why a “civil conversation” can itself be so valuable.  No, it is not a great achievement, nothing worthy of a trumpet fanfare or a Nobel prize.  Yet the simple act of two (or more) human beings sharing a moment, taking the time to connect, creating a community out of words, goes to the very heart of our humanity, the very heart of who we are.  Such an ordinary thing, such a great blessing.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

A Year of Civil Conversations Religious Leader Reflections: "Words Make Worlds" | by Rabbi Jill Maderer

Photo by Alexandra on Unsplash

Krista Tippett is constantly expanding my mind and soul to new meaning about theology and about humanity.  In her book, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery of Art of Living, here is what Tippett says in her second chapter called "Words: The Poetry of Creatures:"

"The words we use shape how we understand ourselves, how we interpret the world, how we treat others.  From Genesis to the aboriginal songlines of Australia, human beings have forever perceived that naming brings the essence of things into being.  The ancient rabbis understood books, texts, the very letters of certain words as living, breathing entities.  Words make worlds. 
We chose too small of a word in the decade of my birth -- tolerance -- to make the world we want to live in now.  We opened to the racial difference that had been there all along, separate but equal, and to a new infusion of religions, ethnicities, and values.  But tolerance doesn't welcome.  It allows, endures, indulges.  In the medical lexicon, it is about the limits of thriving in an unfavorable environment.  Tolerance was a baby step to make pluralism possible, and pluralism, like every ism, holds an illusion of control.  It doesn't ask us to care for the stranger.  It doesn't even invite us to know each other, to be curious, to be open to be moved or surprised by each other. 
Here are some words I love, words that describe presence rather than means towards an end: nourishing, edifying, redemptive, courageous, generous, winsome, adventurous, curious, tender.  ...I always rush to add qualifiers when I use the word civility -- words like muscular or adventurous -- because it can otherwise sound too nice, polite, and tame."
I think I find so powerful Tippett's qualification of the word civility because of the critical distinction between civil and polite. I believe the deepest truths and the most profound relationships are born out of difficult conversations.  For me, those are the most honest conversations because life is in fact, difficult.

And I so appreciate Tippett's list of the words she loves.  Her list is wonderful and evocative on its own.  And I also hear her favorite words list as an invitation to contemplate our own favorite words.  Consider: what words do you love?  What words help you to feel deeply, to see clearly, to open your heart or to challenge yourself?  What words move you to sense a more profound connection with others in this world?  May our own souls' poetry inspire us to greater meaning.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Cultivating Curiosity in 2019 | by Max Dugan

At the beginning of each Gregorian New Year I take the annual (re)birth as an opportunity to reflect on connections, habits, and feelings of the previous 365 days. Pondering the meaning and pull of interfaith work sits at the core of this meditation. Why do we continue to engage in this often challenging, discomforting, and humbling activity? Couldn’t my time be better spent elsewhere? Does anything we do really make a positive difference?

The answer bubbling to the surface in nascent 2019: the foundation of my interfaith work is curiosity. This just resonates. In general, there is something inherently harmful in social complacency. In this particular socio-political context, the value of empathy and active engagement with the other is more apparent than ever. And in my personal experience, satisfaction with one’s current awareness reduces the sacred joy that comes with connecting and learning about whoever sits across from you.

The anecdote that most perfectly exemplifies this ethic of curiosity is an experience I had with several religious leaders in West Chester. As our conversation came to close, I admitted that I was still learning about the respective religious traditions such that I considered myself a student of everyone else, including the young folks with whom I work. The far more experienced religious leaders made eye contact and chuckled. Perhaps noticing I was a bit embarrassed, the eldest among them replied “join the club!” Another added, “I swear, I learn something new every day, and it’s usually about something I am supposed to be the expert in.” I best remember the line: “pastoral work is the vocation of perpetual learning.”

Ibn ‘Arabi, the famed 12th and 13th century Sufi thinker, considered one of the greatest sins to be boredom because the world was such a profoundly interesting place that to look outside and go “meh” would have amounted to a betrayal of all the wonders of creation. Chew on that for a little. I see a parallel with my thinking about interfaith work: to disengage with others because we think we sufficiently understand them is to reject the profound joy inherent in learning about other perspectives.

As any past reflection must be accompanied by future resolution, here is mine: cultivate curiosity. Excitement to learn is not like a (non-rechargeable) battery that depletes without regrowth. Like a muscle, you develop curiosity. You work at it. Over time it grows more capable and durable. Somedays you overuse your curiosity muscle and need to rest up—the best curiosity athletes know that proper rest is essential to curiosity training! However I get there, interfaith work will be at the core of my curiosity regimen because curiosity is at the core of my interfaith work. Now, for the challenges and joys of the actual work.