I don’t get many gifts this time of year (at least not until this month, when I have a birthday), but I got a letter this past week via snail mail – a letter with a real stamp on it, a rarity these days – which so moved and humbled me that I Googled the author, found her phone number (she still has a landline!) and called her with thanks and appreciation.
It was a most generous, wonderful year-end present, a well-articulated, welcome reaffirmation that in spite of all that is happening in this world, and in spite of the xenophobia and hate speech currently corrupting our Public Square, there are many Americans who embrace and celebrate the promise of this great country, recognizing that part of the promise is to embrace the richness of its pluralism and diversity.
Recognizing that we are made diverse peoples so that we may know each other – that we get to know each other by both challenging and embracing each other and, as described by Frederick Buechner, hopefully finding, after tears and confession, great laughter.
Her letter was distinguished by its tone, its openness, its recognition that we live in a complex, conflicted world that is challenged between the tensions of love and conflict, between moderation and mayhem, between the familiar and the unknown. She challenged me to write more about what is unknown, to make clear more of that which is hidden.
I welcome the dialogue; I aspire to meet her challenge.
Her letter began, perhaps more optimistically than I would’ve assumed, “You are educating us, making some sense of the unfathomable, (if there is any sense to be made at times) and giving us hope that somehow, if we can reach out to one another in understanding rather than in fear, we may yet figure this mess out.”
She reached out further: “I was not brought up with prejudice and have fought my whole life to value differences of race, ideology and culture as something intriguing to be explored. But I find that out of ignorance I make mistakes in reaching out and sometimes, my ignorance creates offense. I think that many people fail to reach out; to take a first step toward someone whom they consider to be different, or ‘other’ as you would put it (I believe) out of fear and ignorance.”
She took another step, and reached out even further.
She told me how, as she was wrapping Christmas presents for her family while watching Charlie Rose, she learned that this year Muslims and Christians, because of the convergence of dates between the hijra, Islamic calendar, and the Gregorian calendar, would be celebrating the births of their prophets a day apart – and, with that thought in mind, she went on to wonder if it was appropriate to wish me “Happy Prophet Muhammad’s Birthday!”
“Happy Prophet Muhammad’s Birthday!” It was a gift, especially welcome at a time when many other Americans are feeling free to express hateful, anti-Muslim sentiments. I was humbled, and her gesture and consideration brought to mind Krister Stendahl’s “Three Rules of Religious Understanding.”
Bishop Stendahl, once director of the Center for Religious Pluralism at Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute and later professor and professor emeritus at Harvard Divinity School, once articulated three rules in response to local opposition to the building of a Mormon temple in Stockholm by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – rules embraced by my correspondent:
1. “When trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.” Sounds so obvious, doesn’t it, but how little it’s practiced, whether in pews or news.
2. “Don’t compare your best to their worst.”
3. “Leave room for ‘holy envy,’ ” i.e., be open to recognizing elements in another religion that you might wish to emulate or further explore that might help you deepen your own understanding of your own religious tradition or faith.
It was she who recognized the elements; it was I who was being educated.
“Happy Birthday, Prophet Muhammad!” “Happy Birthday, Jesus!” Her letter, well-articulated, educated and simply framed, reflected the aspirations of our Founding Fathers, who argued, as did Virginia’s Richard Henry Lee, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, that, “True freedom embraces the Mahometan and Gentoo (Hindu) as well as the Christian religion.”
Her letter, educated and simply framed, reaffirmed the argument of Theophilus Parsons, one of the authors of the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution, that the Constitution was designed to ensure “the most ample of liberty of conscience” for “Deists, Mahometans, Jews and Christians.”
Her letter reaffirmed that where there is dialogue rather than demagoguery, where there is faith rather than fear and where there are questions rather than absolutes, there will be freedom, dignity, respect, opportunity and, hopefully, great laughter.
In one of the most remarkable documents written by a Founding Father – a letter that should be taught in every American classroom – George Washington wrote to the Jews of Rhode Island’s Touro Synagogue in 1790: “May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig-tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
Happy New Year!
This column appeared originally in the Concord Monitor.