Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Dignity of Difference

One our all-time favorite podcasts is called On Being, and is designed to "draw out the intellectual and spiritual content of religion that should nourish our common life, but that is often obscured precisely when religion enters the news."

One recent, particularly interesting program, titled "The Dignity of Difference," revolved around an interview with Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the (British) Commonwealth. In it, Rabbi Sacks passionately (and thoughtfully) contemplates how religious persons can learn to honor the dignity of social, religious, and political differences of others in an increasingly globalized world while remaining true to their own beliefs.

What follows is a rough synthesis of some of the most intriguing (and convicting) ideas and examples that struck me (Aaron) as I listened:

"The most powerful faith in the modern world will be the faith most powerfully opposed to the modern world...religion is a great power, and anything that powerful can be a force for good or (God forbid) for evil. But it's certainly fraught and dangerous and needs great wisdom and...great gentleness...

"It seems to me that one of the things we most fear is the stranger. And at most times in most of human history human beings have lived among people pretty much the same as themselves. Today, certainly in Europe, and perhaps even in America, you can walk down the average Main Street and you will encounter more anthropological diversity than an eighteenth-century traveler would have encountered in a lifetime!  

"So you really have this huge problem with diversity, and you then go back and read the Bible and something hits you, which is that we're very familiar with the two great commands of love: 'Love God with all your heart, soul and all your might, and love your neighbor as yourself.' 

"But the one command reiterated more than any other in the Mosaic, 'Love the stranger. For you were once strangers in Egypt.' Or to put it in a contemporary way: 'Love the stranger because to him, you're a stranger.' And this sense that we are enlarged by the people who are different from us, we are not threatened by them, that needs cultivated (and can be cultivated) and would lead us to see the twenty-first century as full of blessing, not full of fear...

"(We are) discovering what the great traditions of wisdom were saying three or four thousand years ago. We now know that it is doing good to others, a network of strong and supportive relationships, and a sense that one's life is worthwhile are the three greatest determinants of happiness. And you know, somehow or other, against our will sometimes, we are being thrust back to these ancient and very noble and beautiful truths...

"The thing that really for me changed the world...was standing at Ground Zero...together with the Archbishop of Canterbury and religious leaders throughout the world, and we were looking at this wreckage, the sheer harm that hate can do, and yet at the same time here we all were in friendship, fellowship, and shared prayer. And I just saw how clearly...those are the terms of the equation: do we go that way or do we go this?

"The extraordinary thing we now know, thanks to Crick & Watson's discovery of DNA and the decoding of the human and other genomes is that all life -everything- you know, over three millions species of life, all have the same source! We've all come from a single source! Everything that lives has its genetic code written in the same alphabet. Unity creates diversity...Think of one God creating this extraordinary number of ways -the 6,800 languages that are actually spoken- don't think there's only one language with which we can speak to God! 

"The Bible is saying to us the whole time, 'Don't think that God is as simple as you are! He is in places you would never expect him to be!'...(It's as if God is saying) 'Don't think you can predict me. I am a God who is going to surprise you.'...Don't think that we can confine God into our categories. God is bigger than religion.

"I sum it up, the Jewish imperative, very simply...and it has been like this since the days of Abraham. 'To be true to your faith, and a blessing to others regardless of their faith.'

"Here is the way we resolve these arguments (about denominational differences)...'On all matters that affect us as Jews regardless of our religious differences, we will work together regardless of our religious differences. On all matters that touch on our religious differences, we will agree to differ but with respect.' 

"Moral relativism seems to be the most tolerant form of morality; 'You do what you want to do and I will do what I want to do.' However, it actually leads to enormous intolerance, because if there is no objective standard of morality, how am I going to show I'm right? When that happens, it is the loudest, angriest, rudest voice that wins...

"Isaiah comes along and delivers his prophecies and they're so particular to that faith, that place, that time, and yet I call Isaiah the "Poet Laureate of Hope" the height of Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream' speech...there he is quoting verbatim two lines from Isaiah chapter 40...'Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.' 

"I doubt whether Isaiah, twenty-seven centuries ago in the Middle East, could envisage that one day black civil rights activists would be moved by his words. But it's the particularity of Isaiah that spoke to Martin Luther King. That's how we are as a's the authentic, the unique, the different that makes us feel enriched when we encounter it...

" a very important service that takes place not in the synagogue, but at home. We tell the story of how our ancestors were slaves, but we don't just tell the story. We reenact it. We eat the bread of affliction. We taste the bitter herbs of slavery. We drink four cups of the wine of freedom. And we hand that story on to our children and that is universal. That speaks to anyone who knows what it is to be a slave and all who needs to know what it feels like to be a slave so that they can be active in fighting the cause of people who are oppressed.

"(The Feast of Tabernacles) is when we recall the 40-year journey through the wilderness when the Israelites had no homes...they were living in tents or shacks. So for seven days, we leave the comfort of home. We build a shack with only leaves for a roof, so we're exposed to the heat by day and the cold by night, and we just understand for seven days what it is to be homeless. Now how many of us, you know, in the West know what it feels like to be homeless? But we need to feel what it's like to be homeless because there are a billion people on the face of this planet who are pretty near as it gets to being homeless.

"The greatest single antidote to violence is conversation, speaking our fears, listening to the fears of others, and in that sharing of vulnerabilities, discovering a genesis of hope."

Amen! Amen!!

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