“And among his wonders is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the diversity of your tongues and colors: for in this, behold, there are messages indeed for all who are possessed of (innate) knowledge!” Qur’an 30:22 (Asad).
I was handing over $40 to the cashier for my groceries when I heard, “What’re you writing about this week?”
I turned to the gentleman standing behind me.
“I’m a fan of your column.”
“Thank you. I’m not sure what I’m writing next. Tell me, why do you like my column?”
“Because it’s about diversity — about things I don’t know.”
Wow, I thought, this guy I’ve never seen before, today at Market Basket on Christmas Eve, gets it. Intuitively, he knows I’m not a threat or out to change his way of life.
He knows that knowing about each other enhances our security, our prosperity, our children’s futures. He knows that pluralism and diversity are value-added in our lives, not zero-sum. He gets it — and I realized, as we chatted, that he had just given me a lovely New Year’s gift.
Living in Unity: Value-Added
Last weekend I received a 500-word e-mail that read in part, “Your obsession with what you call ‘the Other’ (whatever that is supposed to be), with what you call ‘white privilege,’ with being a Muslim and with supposed racism everywhere you look actually leads me to believe that you are the one who is a racist.”
It continued, “I do not wish to receive a response to this or start a dialogue with you, so if it occurs to you to answer me please don’t. I am just stating my opinion of your comment in the faint hope that you might think twice before making any further statements about what Jesus would do.”
I thought twice, as instructed … and wrote back: “Courtesy requires me to answer. I hope this response gets read but to me writing it is more important than knowing it gets read. I want to thank you for taking the time to read my columns and to write in response. Even though you don’t agree with my views I believe that any exchange of opinion is of value — that is how we each get to know each other.
Happy New Year.”
In response, I received: “I see that you sent me an unwanted response. Deleted unread, as will be any other messages from you. Not getting into a useless discussion.”
Not getting into a useless discussion?
Sadly, I thought, this person I don’t know, whom I’ve never met, who doesn’t recognize the Other, doesn’t get it.
Zero-Sum wants me to think twice — but gets to think only once in return — or not at all!
I thought a third time and welcomed that exchange as a gift — reassurance of the value of what I’m doing, of speaking, in my voice, about a corner of the world, part of prophet Isaiah’s world, that Zero-Sum can’t embrace.
Through Isaiah we are instructed, “To loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke.” Isaiah 58:6 (NRSV).
To free the oppressed we must remove blinders that blur our vision.
Today, some blindly try to construct soothing, self-satisfying narratives while at the same time denying the Other: a narrative that confuses the difference between our desire for Unity — and unification.
Trusting in tradition and memory of the past, deniers believe that the ultimate goal, expressed and desired, is unification within American Exceptionalism, under the banner of freedom, justice and the pursuit of happiness. Under that banner they reject pluralism and diversity. They see the world through their desire for unification and miss the power and beauty of what Unity demands.
First, we must realize that we can’t mimic the source of all life that is Unity, which is One, which is beyond our understanding. Even saying God is One is limiting God to a Being. But language is often all that we have, and we must accept our limitations as any finite being must when talking about the Infinite. Yet even in our limitation, we desire to be part of God’s call for a relationship, as God always beckons us to be close.
So how do we do this?
Not by hoping for or living under a banner of unification, but rather to live in the delight of Unity. What does this look like? For example, in Islam the Qur’an suggests that we can look to creation as a starting point and see that Creation demands diversity to be, to exist, to survive: Without diversity life could not exist. So the great irony is that we all can experience the Unity of God’s grace by supporting our diversity, which sometimes, if not often, is not easy, but it’s diversity that leads to life — to justice, to happiness.
“Behold, We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know each other.” Qur’an 49:13 (Asad).
As Americans we celebrate, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…”
We are also endowed by our Creator with reason, with the ability to recognize that intellectual inquiry, dissent, and differences of opinion, based on humanity’s unique attribute of reason, is essential to sustain human progress. As prophet Muhammad said, “The differences of opinion among the learned men of my community are (an outcome of) divine grace.”
While our ability to differ intellectually from one another raises humanity above all other beings, it doesn’t protect us from the overweening arrogance of those who refuse to honor the gifts that bind us all, who demand the homogeneity of unification and deny the beauty of Unity.
While it is reason, “Which enables us to distinguish the true from the false,” those who falsely use reason to attack diversity, to deny climate change and evolution, for example, reject the distinguishing gift we have been given through grace.
When asked, “Will you not, then, use your reason?” it is a moral and ethical imperative, regardless of faith, to answer affirmatively — to live in Unity — to embrace all which is verifiable by human reason through the power of intellect.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.