Love Kindness. Do Justice. Change the World ... Right Now!
Love Kindness. Do Justice. Change the World ... Right Now!
Perhaps it was inevitable that the violent, shocking and tragic acts of 9/11 provoked two broad and contradictory sets of reactions among American Christians, each of which has persisted to this day, and perhaps even hardened. These reactions represent different readings of Islam yes, and they also represent different readings of Christian theology and ethics, scripture and history and they reveal fissures within Christianity itself.
On the one hand the shock of 9/11 served to open many American Christian eyes to the religion of Islam and to the realities of more than a billion Muslims around the world, as well as to American Muslim communities spread throughout the United States. The newfound ability to literally see and to engage Islam and Muslims often for the first time, also opened eyes to the other world religions that have taken root in the United States in the last 50 years, making the USA a home to many religions beyond Christianity and Judaism. Along with Islam, other faith communities have become more visible, and many American Christians have come to value their presence as religious conversation partners and members of their civic communities. The proliferation of inter-religious councils in towns and cities across the United States, many of which take the place of what once were Christian councils, is a testament to how so many American Christians have embraced the opportunity to learn about the religious other, and to learn to see themselves as one religious presence and voice among many in the USA. Many Christians also have seized the opportunity not just to get to know others, but to learn to see themselves and their own tradition in the light of that new knowledge. They have found this journey to be one that deepens and enriches their understanding of their own Christian faith.
On the other hand, of course, there are Christians who have received the violence of 9/11 as a declaration of religious war between all Muslims and Christians and thus have sought to treat Muslims as enemies and to denigrate and condemn Islam as a religion, and Muslims as practitioners of Islam. These Christians often see little advantage to the end of Christian hegemony in the United States. Rather, they continue to seek ways to defend and to reassert Christian cultural and religious (and often even political) dominance wherever possible.
At Hartford Seminary, as in other places, we have lived these ten years and continue to live them in relation to both of these sets of reactions. On the one hand, the Seminary is and has been a major reference for many religious groups and civic groups who seek to get to know Islam and to develop relationships with Muslims and those who also seek guidance from within the Christian tradition about the construction of peaceful relationships with other religions and with the secular world. Similarly, the Seminary is an important reference for Muslims who seek to get to know Christianity as well as deepen their knowledge of Islam, many of whom will be important actors in the on-going development of Islam on American soil that is authentic, faithful and also sensitive to its wider cultural context.
Also, in the last 10 years Hartford Seminary has become if not accustomed to, at least not surprised by, finding itself a target for hate mongers who view dialogue with and education about Islam as an anathema. And over these years, regrettably, many of our Muslim faculty have been the target of often virulent anti-Muslim sentiment and campaigns that intend to spread hatred and suspicion.
Sadly I don’t expect this to change any time soon. Nor do I expect that either Christians or Muslims, or other religions for that matter, will ever again live in the illusion that their worlds are separate or irrelevant to each other. These are after all, lived religions, their ideas, their values, their theologies, are carried by people who also live within and interact with and help shape, as they are shaped by, cultures and languages and histories, and political ideologies. Indeed one of the important learnings since 9/11 is just how important the lived elements of religion are. It is not just the received ideas and doctrines, which are the storehouses we draw upon for wisdom and guidance, but also the ways we live our religions. Indeed our life lived across boundaries in search of solidarity and friendship outside our religious comfort zones helps illumine moral capacities and wisdom within our traditions that we might never have glimpsed before.
Underneath this on-going and often conflict ridden drama within American Christianity and within the American society, proceeds the more quiet and steady work of thousands and thousands of American Muslims, who, with a little help from their friends - religious and civic - beyond the Muslim community, are going about (and have been doing so since well before 9/11) the various facets of establishing Islam in the United States as an American religion, with its habits, practices and institutions, and its own ways of contributing to the wider society. No doubt the events of 9/11 and the insecurity that the reaction to these events provoked in American Muslim communities, added impetus and urgency to this work; work which is an important and lasting part of the story of the last ten years. At the end of the day, if this foundational work manages not to be too disrupted by the extreme edges of our religions or politics, it will, aided by old fashioned American values like freedom of religion and tolerance of diversity, result in an American Islam that will, indeed already does, contribute to and enhance the common life of all of us.
These reflections suggest a set of tasks for American Christians and others who seek to build constructive and mutual relationships with others in the United States who are Muslim. These tasks include:
Finally, it is clear that 9/11 has put religion back in the public square and loosened inhibitions about mixing religion and politics. Indeed, some political actors draw upon religion precisely because it has proved to be so motivating, so potent and because it is so available to irresponsible public discourse. Religious people of all stripes need to reject together the unscrupulous and manipulative political use of religious ideas and values that undermine responsible political life and de-value and distort our religious ideas and values. If not we risk nurturing within our midst the very hatred and fanaticism that gave us 9/11.