Close to 30 years ago, a number of city clergy got together representing the Abrahamic faiths (Muslim, Jewish, Christian) in response to an especially violent season. As I recall, among other tragedies catalyzing our meeting, another child was killed in a drive-by shooting. The relationship between cops and communities was raw, exacerbated by racial and religious tensions.
The diverse components of the New York City religious community were not well connected, and we felt the time was overripe to find friends across the aisle, as it were, or perhaps across the street. Parochialism was rampant. So, I became a founding board member of A Partnership of Faith in New York City, and now these decades later, one of its co-chairmen. We’re not a large group, but when need arises, we can gather a pretty good collection of congregational leaders.
By the time the terror of 9/11 struck, our friendship was already well-secured and that Tuesday night, 15 of us were on a conference call arranging an inter-religious prayer service two days later which attracted a standing-room-only crowd. Attendees observed Jews, Christians, and Muslims in affectionate embrace on the dais, praying for victims, respondents, and our shattered spirits, and for the sake of our common good. All were reminded that people of every faith tradition—and no identified faith—lost their lives in the conflagration and comprised the ranks of cops, firemen, and rescue workers who rushed to the scene without regard for their own well-being.
The following week, I got a call from a fellow Christian clergyman from another denomination asking if I knew any Muslims who might be willing to participate in a service commemorating 200 lives lost in our disaster from another nation. Why, yes, I did have a friend or two who could be called upon…
Unfortunately, tribalistic instincts have a powerful pull, revving the all-too-human predisposition for setting up the hard boundaries of “us and them.” These artificial boundaries tend to make us stupid. They separate us from the factual identities of the “others,” inciting fear based on inaccurate stereotypes rooted in prejudice. You likely sense these things bubbling in our cultural moment. That’s why I attended the “I Am a Muslim Too” rally last Sunday in Times Square, why The Partnership of Faith lent its name in co-sponsorship, why I am alert to the emergent and egregious examples of anti-Semitism cropping up around our nation (Are you aware of the security neighborhood synagogues deploy due to regular threats?), why I am strongly opposed to the recent executive order on refugees and immigration.
This is a time for us to reclaim the demanding logic that flows from Jesus’ command that we love one another as he has loved. We have to work against the natural tendency to hunker down into tribal enclaves, regularly asking God to help us grow into our better selves. I pray some version of this nearly every day.
I am very grateful that people representing so many different ethnicities and nationalities comprise our faith family. This helps keep our eyes on the prize of the heavenly call that has drawn us together in the first place. We need each other.