I may not agree with what you believe, but I will fight for your right to believe it.
This past weekend, I attended the Islamic Society of North America convention along with 30 other emerging religious leaders. Our group convened as part of the Shoulder to Shoulder campaign, an interfaith organization dedicated to ending anti-Muslim sentiment. While I’ve always maintained a commitment to religious diversity in my work and education, this was the first time I was the religious minority. But ideologically, I still found myself comfortable in the majority as session after session confronted social justice issues important to the Muslim community.
Throughout the weekend as I listened to stories about what it means to be a Muslim-American, I thought harder about what it means to fight for someone else’s right to believe. In our interreligious circles we talk about going beyond tolerance to embrace and engage those who are different, and ultimately to respect and understand their belief system or worldview.
But what happens when someone’s belief system and worldview is so fundamentally different than my own? What if it contradicts my Truth, my understanding of justice, or my understanding of God’s will? Am I still called to embrace and engage them, respect and learn from them?
I say yes. Engagement doesn’t mean endorsement.
On a campus like Emory, we live in a progressive, forward-thinking bubble. I’ve seen it amongst many of my classmates in the Candler School of Theology. The classrooms we inhabit and our educational circles become safe places to be liberal, idealistic, and sometimes even a little radical. When we do so, our conversations become “us,” the enlightened ones, against “them,” the unenlightened.
But what happens when we go back out into the world, beyond our bubble, only to be confronted with the harsh reality of hate, or worse – ambivalence? Our socially engaged selves look upon our opponents as less enlightened than we are, more biased, less open minded. less capable of accepting others. They aren’t worth engaging, they aren’t worthy of our understanding, and we can barely even tolerate them on our Facebook feeds.
“We think our enemies are idiots, and that’s a problem,” writes Adam Waytz of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Business. In his Washington Post article, Waytz writes about the “lesser minds problem.” In short, Waytz argues that “The greatest journey that no amount of technology can ever overcome is one of psychological distance—the distance between two minds.” The problem is that when we see others as mindless, we dehumanize them.
Ultimately, we love diversity that agrees with us. Though my non-Christian friends might have a different name for God or different ideas about the significance of Jesus or pray differently, we largely agree ideologically because we are bred in the same liberal academic environment. It’s okay that you don’t look like me, dress like me, pray like me, or think about God like me…but once you start to disagree with me on same-sex marriage, immigration, Israel/Palestine, or other social justice issues, I no longer find you worthy of my time.
We lose out on true ideological diversity if we try to quiet the voices that don’t believe the “right way.” Doing so violates the ethics of a diverse community. I suggest that at Emory we create safe spaces where we can meet each other across the most extreme lines: beyond religious identity, beyond race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation. I suggest that we meet in a place where we put humanity above ideology.
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other” doesn’t make any sense.
So, where can we meet?