By Robert Montgomery
LEARNING TO CARE FOR EACH OTHER IN MIDDLE TENNESSEE
Until recently becoming the executive director of Religions for Peace-USA, Robert Montgomery directed the Faith and Culture Center in Nashville, Tennessee. Its mission is to build community and work to foster greater understanding and appreciation of Middle Tennessee’s diverse faith traditions and cultures. Its vision is to transform its local community into one where all people embrace humility, understanding, respect, empathy, and compassion.
FCC’s primary project is Our Muslim Neighbor, a pilot effort of a national initiative of Religions for Peace USA. The program seeks to convene individuals from varied backgrounds and perspectives to engage in public diplomacy, media training, and interfaith education in order to create a social climate that renders anti-Islamic sentiments immoral and unacceptable. The following speech was delivered by Rev. Montgomery at a recent Our Muslim Neighbor conference.
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There is a bold vision at the foundation of Faith and Culture Center and the Our Muslim Neighbor Initiative. It’s a vision that did not at all begin with us. We are simply seeking to live it in our time and place. The vision is an ancient and always urgent one: We human beings, despite all our past tragedies and conflicts, always, always are given the greater capacity to genuinely care about each other and learn to live with each other in peace.
There are undoubtedly many people who would laugh at such a vision and claim that the very fabric of human life is unending conflict in which only the strongest or perhaps the most vicious survive. Flowing from this premise is every sort of fear, hatred and violence, often justified by the reality of inevitable wars and unsolvable differences, which ironically enough, are conducted in the name of peace, sometimes even in the name of God and religion.
Faith and Culture Center and the Our Muslim Neighbor Initiative instead turn toward the voices that have called us to something higher than fighting and hating each other that have brought human beings through our despair and agonies to the highest values we humans claim to believe.
“We have not sent you except as a mercy to mankind.”
“God has showed you, O human, what is good, and what the LORD requires of you:
to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
“Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”
These are words from the very core of the great Abrahamic faiths. These values of learning to love neighbor and living lives of compassion and kindness are found in religions and cultures around the world. They, of course, rely upon powers and values that cannot be enforced or seized at the point of a gun – they rely on the willingness and the courage of human beings to embrace them and live by them.
And yet, these represent the great hope for human life to survive at all in a world increasingly filled with enormous power to destroy and kill each other.
Religion or politics without mercy is bound to produce horror, oppression, cruelty, death and rage, against human beings and God. Our worst human stories are always found here, regardless of how heroic they were alleged to be at the time.
Religion or politics without justice is bound to lie, cheat, steal without conscience, and empty every great spiritual value of its real meaning. So many of the conflicts of the world are held in place by religion and politics that refuses to acknowledge the humanity and dignity of others different in some way from ourselves.
Today, elements of far too many of the world’s religions and cultures are turning our great spiritual beliefs and values into little more than rallying cries for aggression, slander, violence, war, and the dishonoring and even death of people whom God and life placed here to be neighbors to one another.
Islamophobia and bigotry toward Muslims is one of these evils around the world, but strongly present here in the United States and in the Middle Tennessee area. Claiming to speak in the name of Christianity or Judaism or American patriotism, some among us blame local innocent people for all the evils they see in the world.
Ironically, but not surprisingly, those very evils that prompt Islamophobic responses are perpetrated by people who also blame innocent people for the evils they believe they see in the world. Our religions warn us about just such self-justifying evil in religious clothing.
Any action that seeks to harm another person, in body, mind, or spirit, is evil, and we humans have every reason to stand up to it and resist it. Our religions generally understand that there is a right to self-defense, and a right and an obligation to stand up for the defenseless and oppressed. And we humans have innumerable resources within our reach to overcome fear and turn back violence and evil. Some of the great gifts to humanity are the different resources for peacemaking and justice-making that each of our faiths and cultures bring with them into the world.
FCC and OMN are signs and signals that this power for a better world, these resources for building genuine relationships of friendship, mercy and justice are very much alive and at work among us. The bold vision that inspires us has inspired great movements around the world for as long as the world has existed, and this is simply our time and our moment to participate in that great history, legacy and destiny.
Such a movement has always involved typical people with the courage to be genuinely themselves as their highest values call them to trust something greater than their fears or their narrow personal and societal views of others. Just as there is one earth, there truly is only one humanity, and we humans are surely meant not to deny or ignore or destroy each other or this fragile planet we share. We are surely meant to make the world a place where humble faith, bold mercy, and courageous justice among us all as neighbors flourish in all their beauty.