This address was given as part of morning prayers at Harvard University's Memorial Church on November 28, 2001. Reprinted with permission of the author and the Pluralism Project.

The scripture lesson is from Paul's letter to the Romans, chapters 12 & 13. "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly, never be conceited. Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all.... Owe to no one anything but to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law."

A few days ago, the burning of a Sikh religious center, Gobind Sadan, in upstate New York near Syracuse even made the Bozeman Daily Chronicle in my Montana hometown, where I was visiting for Thanksgiving. Ralph Singh, an old friend in the interfaith movement and one of the founders of the North American Interfaith Network, had worked to create this Sikh community. After the arson attack, Ralph described the outpouring of support and love. "Complete strangers were offering money to help rebuild the shrine, saying this is not the America they stood for, veterans saying this is not the America they fought for, and clergy offering support and even their sanctuaries for the community to hold services." He went on to say, "This provides us the opportunity to help rebuild and repair the overall community, to rebuild the sense of love and compassion that will triumph over the hatred in our society. Out of that love, the building in its time will also be rebuilt."

Ralph's public witness as a Sikh, a follower of Baba Virsa Singh in India, was very much in line with Jesus' message summarized in Romans by Paul: Live in harmony and peace with one another, repay no one evil for evil. It is a lesson that streams like living water through the whole of the New Testament and through the sacred teachings of many religious communities. It is easy enough to affirm when things are going well, but something that tests us deeply when trouble or persecution comes our way.

When President Clinton proposed the Hate Crimes legislation two years ago, he said: "Our diversity is a godsend for us and the world of the twenty-first century. But it is also the potential for the old, haunting demons that are hard to root out of the human spirit." The last two and a half months have been filled with incidents like last week's arson of the Sikh center in Syracuse. A new spate of hate crimes has swept the nation, providing chilling evidence of those old, haunting demons. But at the same time, an unprecedented spirit of outreach, lovingkindness, and mutual support has swept the nation as well. It all makes us wonder, where are we on the question of repaying evil with evil? How are we doing as a people in living peaceably with all, as far as it depends upon us?

In the few days following September 11, there was a spate of ugly incidents of revenge taken against what the perpetrators must have felt was an enemy in our midst. They were directed against people who seemed "different," people of many religious traditions. A brick wrapped with messages of hatred shattered the windows of an Islamic bookstore in Alexandria, Virginia; a furious man drove his car through the plate glass doors of the elegant mosque in Cleveland; someone fired a rifle and pierced the stained glass dome of the mosque in Toledo, and a firebomb landed in the mosque in Denton, Texas.

Sikhs were targeted because of their turbans; there were dozens of incidents -- a Sikh attacked with a baseball bat, a Sikh shot with a paint-ball gun, a Sikh hauled off an Amtrak train in Providence, handcuffed, and charged with carrying a concealed weapon, his ceremonial kirpan. Hindus also experienced a new wave of suspicion: a Hindu temple in suburban Chicago and another in New Jersey were vandalized. And there were murders too, adding to the Sept. 11 death toll: Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh shot in his gas station/convenience store in Mesa, Arizona; Wakar Hassan Choudhry, a Pakistani Muslim killed in his store in Pleasant Grove, Texas; Adel Karas, a Coptic Christian who had fled Egypt twenty years ago, shot in his shop in San Gabriel, California.

But the big story of these months cannot be seen in the acts of violence and ignorant revenge. I believe it is another story: the insistence in each and every case that this is not who we are -- as Americans and as people of faith. The Palestinian bookstore owner in Alexandria, frightened by the bricks, the shattered glass and the ugly messages, soon discovered hundreds of supportive neighbors he had never known as they delivered dozens of bouquets of flowers, scores of cards and messages of both sorrow and support. In Toledo, as Chereffe Kadri, the woman president of the Islamic community told it, "That small hole created such a huge outpouring of support for our Islamic community in Toledo. A Christian radio station. YES-FM contacted me wanting to do something. They called out on the airwaves for people to come together at our center to hold hands, to ring our mosque, to pray for our protection. We expected 300 people, and thought that would be enough to circle the mosque, but 2000 people showed up!" And in Mesa, Arizona hundreds of people visited the gas station where Balbir Singh Sodhi had been shot, and thousands of people who had never met him or any other Sikh came to the civic center for a public memorial service. People who had known nothing about Sikhism or the neighbors in their midst now knew.

These are the stories we need to hear and to tell as we work to claim our faith, as people of faith, in a multireligious America. And we need to know that as our huge bombers were leaving an airforce base in Missouri to fly non-stop to Afghanistan, mosques all over America were holding open-houses, inviting neighbors in to share their faith in the face of a wave of Islamophobia; Sikhs too were reaching out to the rest of us, like the Sikhs in Shawnee, Kansas who held an information session in front of their gurdwara, handing out Coca-Colas and American flags, combating intolerance with outreach. The turnout was heartening. More than 3000 people visited the mosque in Denver and held a vigil. In Austin, Texas, hundreds showed up, Jews and Christians. Said Anne Randolph, a Christian, interviewed by the Austin American-Statesman, "the time of not getting to know each other is over."

These are the times in which our faith becomes very basic, the granite hard rock on which we stand: "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. So far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all. Love one another; for those who loves their neighbors have fulfilled the law."
Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus