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Thursday, September 20, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Embracing alternatives to our fear and anger

Special to The Times

The terrible events of the past week include a significant challenge to one of the great tenets of American democracy, the commitment to religious freedom. Religious leaders, people of faith and all those who describe themselves as spiritual have an opportunity to provide a hope-filled alternative to those who seek to divide us and to enflame religious hatred.

Throughout the past week, houses of worship have been filled to capacity with people praying, expressing the yearning to be in sacred space and to be together with other people. It has been an unprecedented expression of the need for community and to attempt to put the horror of the attacks into a larger spiritual perspective. Faith communities have shone brightly, offering solace, hope and prayers for peace and justice. In spite of this, something seems to be deeply wrong in our collective soul.

This something is heard in the voices who proclaim that God has allowed or condoned such an attack on America. It is seen in the actions of those attacking mosques. It is felt by Americans who look "foreign" and are fearful of the anti-immigrant rhetoric of hate. It was experienced in the apprehensiveness of those celebrating Rosh Hashanah, wondering if attacks on synagogues will increase.

Not even one incident of such hatred should ever be acceptable. The Jewish, Muslim and Christian traditions share a deep reverence for justice and compassion. They are each marked by care for others. Each of our traditions speaks of hope, faith and love. As an antidote to the religious hatreds and acts of violence and war supposedly justified in the name of religion in other parts other world, Americans have been relatively free of such a scourge.

The hatreds being expressed in our nation provide an opportunity: All people of faith can commit to actions that will take us beyond being a land free of the religious scourges of hatred known elsewhere. It is an opportunity to be in inter-religious dialogue and to find ways to celebrate the things we hold in common.

Over this past week, I have heard many people say to me, "I wish I knew more about Islam." People wanting to know more than stereotypes about Christianity, Buddhism or Judaism should utter similar words. Far from being a sign of weakness, knowledge about other faith traditions is a sign of deep strength and love for one's own tradition.

Last night, people in the Seattle area witnessed the richness of our varied religious traditions and expressed hope for greater understanding, tolerance and cooperation between people of different faiths. Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders gathered at St. Mark's Cathedral on Capitol Hill in prayers for peace and for unity between people of faith. From there, they proceeded by candlelight to St. James Cathedral for a service that expressed the same hope and yearning. Religious leaders involved in last night's event share a common hope for the soul of our city and the sort of American democracy and society we yearn for.

Our American context makes this poignant. We are a nation to which many of the first European settlers came in search of religious freedom. At our best, this freedom has been a defining strength of America and our democracy. This unique strength is deeply connected to being a nation of immigrants.

For those of us who are more recent immigrants, we love this land because of its promised ideals and freedom. To allow hate-mongers to sow division on the basis of religion, place of birth or color of skin is to allow the greatness of America to be compromised. It should be resisted with every available resource.

As our nation seeks justice from those who committed the heinous acts of last week, the fervor of battle will inflame "us versus them" rhetoric and emotions. For many people of faith, such expressions are anathema because religion seeks peace with justice and reconciliation, and imagines a new world where "the wolf shall lie down with the lamb." The religious imagination invites us into a world not of our making, but of God's, in which "swords are turned into ploughshares." Even for many people of faith, it is a difficult invitation to enter into.

American history is replete with examples of religious groups that have wanted America to be a theocratic nation. This longing of some to see us as a nation pursuing, and thereby implicitly knowing, the will of God is frightening to most people of faith. The history of the world is littered with nations that have pursued such destructive paths in the imagined certainty of God's name.

Voices who speak about last week's attack being a sign of God's displeasure convey a deep arrogance in presuming to know the will of God in the affairs of a nation, to say nothing of the hateful, destructive God they imagine. The claiming of Divine authority and certainty can be measured against whether it serves to promote the agenda of those making such proclamations. When it does, it should serve as a warning sign because the Divine way most often challenges and takes us beyond our comfort zone or personal agenda.

The events of the past week invite Americans, and especially those who describe ourselves as religious, beyond personal or narrow religious agendas. The opportunity for people of faith and goodwill in this time of national mourning is one of imagining an America in which we can honor and know the richness of religious traditions that are not our own. It is a concrete way of affirming our commitment to religious freedom.

It is also an opportunity to remind our selves and our nation that our strength is not in attacking one another, but delighting in the richness of our diversity.

Robert V. Taylor is dean of St. Mark's Cathedral on Capitol Hill and president of the U.S. Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation.

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