Alexander Pope, taking his cue from the Roman poet Juvenal, knew what a crazy month August could be. In The Dunciad the end of civilization occurs in August, coinciding with the rise of the “dog star” Sirius:
Now flam’d the Dog Star’s unpropitious ray,
Smote ev’ry brain, and wither’d every bay [poet];
Sick was the sun, the owl forsook his bow’r.
The moon-struck prophet felt the madding hour.
Last August, you may recall, Tea Partiers were disrupting community meetings across the land (although there were plenty of untelevised peaceful meetings, one should add). This summer there seems to be a contest about which minority group should get blasted most by our moon-struck prophets. Gays and lesbians who want to be married? Illegal immigrant mothers supposedly having “anchor babies”? American Muslims building a cultural center in the vicinity of Ground Zero?
Each of these is talked about in apocalyptic terms that have no relationship with empirical reality. Hysterical symbolism trumps substance, and I’d be tempted to blame it all on the dog days of August if it didn’t seem to be occurring year-round.
Let’s take the Islamic center that is to be built in the vicinity of Ground Zero. It doesn’t matter to Newt Gringrich or Sarah Palin that the Muslims establishing the Cordoba Institute have nothing to do with Al Qaeda. It doesn’t matter that most American Muslims, and most Muslims worldwide, abhor terrorism. It doesn’t matter that, to fight terrorism, we must work closely with Muslims, at home as well as abroad. Gringrich, like Osama Bin Laden, appears to want a holy war between Christians and Muslims. Or at any rate, he sees demonizing Muslims as a way to put himself in the spotlight.
A special paranoia award, by the way, goes to Rep. Louis Gohmert (R.-Texas), who has figured out a way to combine two of the three scapegoated groups: Muslim mothers, he said, will give birth to anchor babies who will function as terrorist sleeper cells. This led to a humorous piece in the Washington Post by Alexandra Petri pointing out that, given how it’s tough enough for mothers in this country to persuade their children to become bankers, what makes us think they’ll have any more success persuading them to become terrorists?
Now all Gohmert has to do is figure out how to get gays and lesbians into the equation. Then the intolerant right can combine against one common enemy rather than having to divide its energies.
In contrast to grouping together those that we can hate, I offer up today a vision of grouping together different religions and celebrating them. One who regularly did so was the 13th century Muslim poet Rumi. To set up how impressive he was, I offer by way of contrast a brief account of the origins of religious toleration in the United States.
I live in what some historians regard as the birthplace of American religious freedom. The Maryland Toleration Act was signed into law by the English Catholic rulers of St. Mary’s City (home of St. Mary’s College of Maryland) in 1649, in large part to protect themselves from English Protestants. But though the principles would go on to be adopted by other colonies and become incorporated into the first amendment of the American Constitution, it was a limited law. It applied only to Christians, not to other faiths, and only to Christians who believed in the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost). It condemned to death anyone who denied the divinity of Jesus.
Some 400 years earlier, by contrast, Rumi imagines Jews, Christians and Muslims dancing together. The following passage is from his poem “Strange Gathering”:
The man holds up a tambourine
And an entire musical mode comes
into the air! Prepare to travel,
tie the pack, open out the flag.
John the Baptist and David and
Joseph are turning somesaults!
Jesus and Moses watch Gabriel by
the door casting spells. Abraham
looks lost in his longing, holding
a sword over Ishmael AND Issac.
They bow down. Muhammad says to
God, “My true brothers are those
who believe, though they do not
see me. I wish I could SEE them.”
Rumi, incidentally, is impressed with Christianity and has a wonderful poem about Christian absolution. I share it to show that it is possible to step beyond the bounds of hostile exclusivism and enter into the vision of another religion:
A Christian goes to his priest and tells a year’s worth of
sin: fornication, meanness,
hypocrisy. He wants to be forgiven, and he hears the
priest’s absolving as grace.
The priest himself may have no experience of that mercy,
but the Christian’s imagination
gives it to him. Love and imagination do many things. They
conjure up a sweetheart’s form,
so that you can speak to it. “Do you love me?” A
mother beside the new grave
of her son says things she never said when he was alive. The
ground there seems to have
intelligence. She lays her face on the fresh earth, giving
her love as never before.
Days and weeks go by. Grief for the dead diminishes. Soon
there is nothing but
oblivion at the grave site. Let your teacher be love itself,
not someone with a white
beard. In the state of fana*, love without form says, I am
the source of sober clarity
and drunken excitement. You have loved my reflection in forms
so well that now there’s
no mediating . When a Christian longs to be forgiven
the priest disappears
in that longing. Water flows out of the ground over a stone.
No one calls it a stone
anymore. It’s the pure substance pouring over it, a
spring. These forms we’re
in are like bowls. They acquire value from what pours
through to serve as nourishment;
then they’re washed and put away for the next use.
*fana is the ecstatic state of union with the divine
If we allow ourselves to be led by those who hate and fear, we will reap a whirlwind. Fortunately, that is not our only option. We can listen to what is best in other people and other religions, whether it be Muslims seeking union with God or Latina immigrants nurturing their babies or lesbian and gay couples seeking to honor their love and commitment through holy ceremony.
The great faiths all contend that light will overcome darkness. Let’s step beyond pessimism and live as though we believed this.