The play of faith and interfaith became center stage on the very day that America was celebrating Dr. King's legacy when Alabama's governor, Robert Bentley, said, "Anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I'm telling you, you're not my brother and you're not my sister, and I want to be your brother". These words highlight the continuing chasm of understanding between faith traditions in the USA.
Albeit two days later, Gov. Bentley apologized and vowed to work for people of all faiths and colors. Most Hindu Americans are pleased with this apology and hope the governor will take concrete steps to not only understand but respect and work collaboratively with the diverse and pluralistic reality of today's America. Hindu Americans are ready and willing to assist in building communities.
Many Hindu leaders who I spoke with expressed their concerns over the governor's statements.
Ved Chaudhary said, "Whatever may be one's personal belief or religious affiliation, a Governor or political leader must understand and accept their responsibility to treat equally well all people in their jurisdiction irrespective of their religious affiliation, and speak and act accordingly."
And Dr. Siva Subramanian commented, "A governor represents, after the election, the entire State and all the people within including Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, nonbelievers and others. United States of America stand for democracy and pluralism and the First Amendment clearly forbids any government official from establishing or promoting any one religion. He can not govern as a representative of one denomination of a religion. We are indeed glad that he has retracted that statement but could have been even more clear and explicit about the apology. I hope this will provide opportunities for intense interfaith dialogue and collaborative service projects in Alabama and rest of USA. This can be a great opportunity to bring together people of diverse faiths in our increasingly pluralistic country"
While, on the advice of his political mentors, Gov. Bentley has offered apology for his comments, it remains to be seen from his actions whether this fervor in his heart continues to dominate his future speeches and decisions in the same way as it did in his inaugural address.
At such occasions, the importance of interfaith collaboration to increase mutual understanding becomes most evident. It is only through the coming together of diverse faith traditions, bringing an awareness of the pluralistic reality of today's America, that the tendency of such leaders who favor their own faith tradition only, and rail against all others, can be changed.
This month, many Hindu Americans are serving through "ShantiSeva," a program to promote peace and respect among all faiths through seva (community service), and doing collaborative interfaith service through our UtsavSeva (FestivalSeva) initiative.
In our tradition, Vedic Hindu scriptures clearly state all faith traditions should be treated with equal respect (Sarva Dharma Sam Bhava) and we are striving to do so.
Can we , Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, believers, non-believers -- all -- come together to make this value a reality in the pluralistic mosaic of America? Can each one of us become agents of change that Dr. Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi propagated?
Yes, we can!!!
And these are the values that the inclusive, pluralistic America I believe in stands for.