Being There to Be Counted Isn’t the Only Thing That Counts

community in changing timesReflections on an Interfaith Solidarity Service

Yesterday, for two reasons, I attended an interfaith service held at First Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church of Columbus, Ohio, of which I have been an official member for about ten years. According to the organizers of the event:

“[T]he purpose of the event is to commemorate 9/11 as well as express solidarity with our Muslim sisters and brothers who have been subjected to a hate campaign lately, including calls to burn the Qur’an on 9/11. We want to send a strong interfaith message to our community that we stand for religious tolerance.”

I am really glad to have attended this service at “my” church. Indeed, I experienced my proudest moment over being a member. Moreover, I feel that a UU church may well be the only church where such a profoundly important and tearfully moving service could have been held. That’s because of one of the basic UU principles itself. UUs organize on the basis of responsibly agreed—and so, time- and context-dependent—covenant: a mutual promise for action toward agreed outcomes.

In contrast, most other religions, and particularly theistic religions like Islam and Christianity, organize on the basis of one or another creed—a set of beliefs believed so strongly that many of those who believe them come across as feeling that everyone else is bound by them too.

Based on my own sense of what being a UU means, I am not a “person of faith”. I hope that people who count those who attended this “interfaith” meeting will subtract at least one from that count. Rather, I am a person who has covenanted with other UUs to take action to support, among other things, respect of all living things. And it is my fondest hope that those who count bodies will count me in on that. I was in fact there, and I am very proud of the role our church played in organizing and holding it.

But, I attended the service in pursuit of my own two-fold purpose:

  • First, I felt an urgent need to express my personal rejection of the hate-mongering around Muslims-as-“others”, while refraining from constructing or in any way contributing to constructing even implicit rhetorical connections among the various actions and categories of action that are being “discussed” in public.
  • Second, I wanted to recall the victims of the 9/11 attacks, including especially those heroic rescue workers, whose sense of duty, in my view, drove them to attempt to rescue people from the “World Trade Center’s Towers”. My hope is that rescued people saw themselves as fortunate that they hadn’t yet off-shored their rescuers’ jobs.

After celebrating my one person’s contribution to our community’s rejection of bigotry, and after indulging myself in a bit of Uncle Charlie’s political economy, I found myself hoping that people would critically examine the substance of what was said. Specifically, I hoped that they would count as problematic the doctrinaire assertions that I heard uttered by at least one of the “people of faith” who addressed the service. After reading from his “Holy Book”, he had asserted repeatedly: “We are told that [X]”.

But who is the “we” whom he asserts “are told [X]”? Whom does he count? And how does he justify counting them? Especially in an “Interfaith” Service, how could he justify such assertions?

I can say clearly that if he intended me, Bob Letcher, to be part of his “we”, he most definitely failed. I was not “told” anything, not by what he read from his “Holy Book” (although his reading in that setting could itself be seen as a step, or even the start of a step, in a better direction); and not by his assertion of my having been “told”.

robert letcherIn the end, if mutual respect and solidarity are ever to be constructed “interfaithedly”, even the most ardent of believers will have to learn how to present what they see as The Truth as instead, Their Truth. And I hope that this particular speaker will learn the limits of assertion.

How about adopting the language common to those who follow Tao; namely, “Those who follow [religion Y] are told [X] by this reading”?

Robert A. Letcher, PhD

Robert A. Letcher, Ph.D describes himself as “an academic with a disability instead of a portfolio, a writer, and a Qigong practitioner who tries to help people learn”.

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