The recent brouhaha over both the New York mosque placement and the proposed Koran burning in Florida elevates a number of troubling issues that require urgent attention. (This post originally appeared on the Case Foundation blog ~ casefoundation.org)
First, extreme thinking seems to dominate so much of our public life and debate. Whether it be cable talk shows from both the left and the right or funders who demand ideological purity, this is not good for America. The hard edges of the extremes are fear driven. And with the ubiquitous news cycle, with unrelenting stories of suicide bombers and untold numbers of tragedies, we feel unsafe and at a huge inflection point in history. We grasp for saviors to deliver us and restore us to some time in history (like the 50s perhaps) where all was sweetness and light. Yet that is an illusion. One of my greatest concerns about America is that it is increasingly difficult to discuss any issue of substance in a gracious open manner. It seems weak and wrong today to come to a discussion with questions, openness and humility. How did we get here? ‘Pride comes before a fall.’ Friends, our greatest task must be to change ourselves first. This creates the preconditions for helping others. Strategies rooted in meanness and hate will fail. Reach out to others, hear their stories, despite their different religion, color or national origin. You might be pleasantly surprised; it will sound a lot like your own narrative.
I am also concerned about what happened over Pastor Jones from Gainesville who threatened to burn the Koran on 9-11 unless the mosque being built near Ground Zero was moved. How can a pastor, who previously had the ear of only 40 congregants, be in a position to wreak havoc on a global basis? Secretary Gates called Jones on Thursday imploring him to reconsider. General Patreaus likewise declared publically that this would be catastrophic. I am troubled that a misguided pastor could hold America hostage with the media who provided him with an enormous platform. Who will be the next nut case to put his gun to the nation’s head? The ability to garner attention and a mega phone in this manner without space for reasonable dissent is troubling.
Former Pakistani ambassador Akbar Ahmed and I started an initiative after 9-11 called the Buxton Initiative. Jean and Steve Case got behind our dream to create a ‘safe space’ where individuals (whether they were generals, diplomats, college students or faith and community-based leaders) of different faiths could meet eye to eye and learn to live with differences. This is a simple idea. It is not an idea about winning but one rooted in humility where all come to the table meeting on an intensely human level where we share our fears, longings and hopes for our families and nation. Where trust is established, anything, and I mean anything can be discussed. We hope to be one of those places where individuals of strong opinion yet goodwill can come together to listen, learn, love, laugh and at times weep. The robust discussions we have convened have been animated and at times even emotional yet always civil. We were likely one of the few tables where the Danish cartoon controversy could be discussed openly and constructively. How good is that?
I recall a statement by a former Senator from Vermont: “If we were to wake up one morning and find that we were all of the same religion, race and nationality, we’d find some other reason to hate each other by noon.” Yes, there does seem something in the human DNA which elevates differences, driving wedges between groups and individuals. This is born of insecurity and fear. Drawing on faith, we can love even our enemies. We have few options in a dangerous world, other than to create civil spaces for all to share openly with no fear of reprisal. If our various faiths don’t embolden us to think and act this way, loving and listening to our neighbors, why even pretend to be a believer? For in the end, that is what vital faith is all about. Isn’t it?
PathNorth and the Buxton Initiative are working to convene a round table discussion on these issues as well as further understanding and appreciation of various faiths. We will be sending more information soon.