Today’s political and social climate in the world and in the United States seems to accentuates disagreement in thoughts and ideologies, give rise to disunity, create a sense of fear and insecurity, and in some cases even loss of human life and destruction. Chaos and confusion are reaching such intensity that they are affecting the fundamental structure of society; uprooting its time-honored constitutions and institutions; destroying the bonds of human relationships; and driving its inhabitants away from their homes as refugees. To counter these forces, significant productive and constructive energy will be required to sustain human societies. One way to look at our community, country, and the world for a path forward is to practice the concept of Unity in Diversity. The American Diversity Report provides an effective avenue for meaningful discourse on the subject.
It was an honor to share my perspective as a Jew and diversity professional at Chattanooga’s MLK interfaith service commemorating The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. My passion for diversity is a legacy from my father, a US World War II military intelligence officer whose letters describing Nazi Germany reside in Cincinnati’s American Jewish Archives. Having dedicated decades to tikkun olam, Hebrew for ‘repair of the world,’ I resonate deeply to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel words, “Racism is man’s gravest threat to man – the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason.”
One year ago, Chattanooga was traumatized by Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez. After shooting at a recruiting center, he drove to a U.S. Navy Reserve Center and opened fire again. Before he was killed by police in a gunfight, four marines and a navy sailor were killed. The FBI determined that the shootings were inspired by terrorist propaganda. Chattanooga responded with memorials across the area and an interfaith service that was memorable, inclusive, and high-profile in a city with little interfaith infrastructure.
The traffic was fierce on Martin Luther King Boulevard as people flocked to the community-wide interfaith service at Mount Olivet Baptist Church. Olivet, had grown from humble beginning in the 1920s to one of the city’s largest African-American churches. Yet, the church was packed, overflowing with elected officials, police officers and FBI, military veterans, and media among the diverse crowd of Black & White, Christians, Jews, and Muslim. Together, we prayed over the loss of four marines and a wounded sailor, who would die just hours later. We prayed over the trauma to our entire community inflicted by lone gunman, Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez.
Two events taking place in one venue occurred in the community of Plymouth, MN on Friday, July 10, 2015. As Muslims are witnessing the last few days of the fasting month of Ramadan, an “Interfaith Iftar”, or fast-breaking meal, and a “Night of Power” event joined forces to host 300 people, a mix of different faiths, ages and backgrounds, in the heart of the local mosque, North West Islamic Community Center (NWICC).
I recently had the privilege of interviewing Morehouse College’s 11th president, Dr. John Silvanus Wilson, Jr. We explored his background in both religion and education, his experience in universities and government, and his plans for Morehouse’s future. A deeply religious man, Dr. Wilson’s faith has been the driving force behind his many achievements. Writing this article, I drew on my own interfaith experience in Chicago as a member of its Black-Jewish dialogue and coordinator of Black-Jewish Seminarians Conferences for the American Jewish Committee. The Black-Jewish dialogue lost steam over the years, but remains strong at Morehouse.
Religion today provides more sensational headlines and political debate topics; more inspiration to make a difference and more despair about the future than it has in decades. Few issues are more emotional than religion and few issues are more relevant today to peace and prosperity. Are faithful followers ready to confront the challenge of religious pluralism? Can we find ways to come together for the sake of our communities? Yes, I’ve learned that it’s possible, but only if we “Harmonize NOT Homogenize.” Here’s how I discovered that truism, and why I’m choosing to share my story now.
The 1974 Vatican document on Catholic-Jewish Relations is primarily known for its emphasis on the need for Catholics to come to understand Jews as they define themselves or, in other words, to refrain from creating what I would call “straw Jews.” The 1985 document focused its attention on the correct presentation of Jews and Judaism in Catholic religious education and preaching. The 1998 document on the Holocaust emphasized the importance of Holocaust education and tried to come to grips with Catholic responsibility during the Shoah. On the latter point some, including myself, have judged it incomplete even though it moved in the right direction on the question of Catholic collaboration with the Nazi effort at Jewish annihilation. Beyond the actual points made in these Vatican statements they helped immeasurably in creating a positive ethos for constructive scholarly work on the question on the part of theologians biblical exegetes.
“A Third Way” conference, small but fervent in participation, was recently held in Chattanooga, TN. The main point and goal of the conference was this: How do we have a strong Christian identity that is also benevolent to others? So many times “tolerance” goes along with a weak identity, weak loyalty to a tradition. On the other hand, people who are really strong in their beliefs can sometimes behave in hostile ways (or perceived hostile ways) to outsiders. The idea for the conference was that there was a “third way”—a way to have a strong identity that is generous and benevolent to outsiders.
Despite an increase in lawsuits related to religious expression and workplace discrimination, religious diversity is an area of Diversity & Inclusion often missing from leadership development. The silence is due to lack of exposure and to fear, perhaps well-founded, that religious diversity training may actually increase animosity in the workplace, rather than build bridges. Given the recent Supreme Court ruling sanctioning public prayer as an American tradition, a tradition that has often been Christian, the role of diverse religions in the US is increasingly murky and contentious.