New York's interfaith leaders have termed last summer the "Summer of Intolerance." Negative bloggers sparked a heated national debate about a Muslim-run community center in Lower Manhattan that went far beyond laws regarding private property and religious institutions and invoked two intolerable questions: can Muslims truly be American -- and if so, will Muslim Americans be treated as equal citizens?
The answer to both must be yes. They should also sound like rhetorical questions. Now a new program called "Our Better Angels" is working to make them so.
Our Better Angels is the brainchild of Rabbi Dr. Burton Visotzky, Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and the Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, President of Union Theological Seminary. Though conceived of by two giants of the ivory tower, it transcends academe and engages dozens of congregational leaders from New York's Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities.
The program will feature three senior scholars -- the programs founders, as well as Dr. Ingrid Mattson of Hartford Seminary -- and three emerging scholars -- Haroon Moghul, Kathryn Reklis, and Fran Snyder -- as facilitators for a group of 30 religious and community leaders who will become point-people for tolerance. Through their congregations and organizations, they will shepherd in new initiatives. Churches, synagogues, and mosques across the cities may find themselves brimming with new interfaith programming.
Yet Our Better Angels relates to religious leaders and academics as conveners. Interfaith programming will ultimately be aimed at religious communities and congregations and their members. It will reach from the heights of academic rigor to neighborhoods across New York.
Many such congregants-- as well as individuals who may not be affiliated with a religious tradition or organization -- packed St. Paul's Chapel in Lower Manhattan on Memorial Day to engage in the first Our Better Angels program. Serenaded by composers seeking to put music to New York's ongoing grief from 9/11, they left inspired to make sure that their city retained and strengthened its internal values even as it continued to mourn. It was the first of three such musical performances to come (the others are on June 6 and 13), accompanied also by public discussions about core issues of religious freedom and tolerance.
As New York -- and all of America -- approaches the tenth anniversary of 9/11 there are legitimate fears that Islamophobia may re-emerge as a response. Our Better Angels makes clear that passivity is an enabling factor. A better summer lies ahead if New Yorkers and their religious leaders make it so.