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Rev. Meg Riley Headshot

Teaching Fear, Teaching Faith

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The Jewish New Year falls, this year, at the same time that American families of all faiths experience the new year: it is back-to-school season. Teachers are now trying to get the attention of kids to the front of the room, while parents wave happily, finally, at the backs of buses.

While the schools may be closing in on sentence structure and multiplying fractions, the ancient task of teaching our children who and what to fear and who or what to trust is primarily done at home. Like it or not, we are our children's moral authority.

This week, the main-stage-of-fear media frenzy has been about Quran burnings planned for September 11 in Florida by Rev. Terry Jones, a preacher with 50 people in his church and some pretty bizarre views. Much more important is the survey that says that two thirds of Americans believe it is in appropriate for Muslims to have a community center anywhere near Ground Zero. These are not people who have stated that Cologne, Germany is "a city of Hell founded by Nero's mother" or beaten children with metal rods. Unlike Terry Jones, they are reasonable people trying to say, in a reasonable voice, what is good for our country.

My social media sites are full of friends decrying anti-Muslim sentiment, planning interfaith vigils to commemorate September 11 that include Muslim leadership and voices, lamenting the nasty turn of the nation towards bigotry and exclusion. I'm right there with them. But one sub-theme that I frequently detect in these posts, with which I have to take issue, is that "they" -- the anti-Muslim Americans -- are full of fear whereas "we" -- those who celebrate and welcome all kinds of diversity including religious into our country -- are not.

The truth is, I am terrified for our country right now. I am terrified of intolerant religious zealots, be they Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or anyone else who believes that those who disagree with them are so wrong that they don't deserve to exist. But more profoundly, I am terrified not only of book-burners but also of the majority of Americans who don't think the First Amendment matters. And I am sure I am teaching that fear to my daughter in conscious and unconscious ways.

It is not enough for my daughter to hear me decry "stupid people" who seem impervious to facts, or more importantly, who disagree with our family's views on religion and culture. If she is to perpetuate anything different from the desire to annihilate those who disagree with her, I must help her hold our disagreements in a different way. That means that I must find a way not to demonize or hate fundamentalists myself, realizing that to do so is to perpetuate a worldview that leads to demonization and destruction of people, but I do get to be afraid. My fear, I believe, is grounded in history and experience. And I do have a responsibility to hold my fear within the larger field of my faith, and to maintain a faith that is wider and deeper than fear.

How to do this? No small feat. Religious institutions are full of people who simply don't want to talk about differences, who want to smooth them over and ignore them in the name of unity. We simply must find a way to talk through differences -- not shouting at one another like pundits who espouse different viewpoints, but listening. Deeply and openly listening. And we must each find spiritual practices that open us to forces of love and healing that are bigger than fear, over and over again.

I grew up Unitarian Universalist in West Virginia -- surely a stranger in a strange land! When my Baptists neighbors told me that I was going to hell because I didn't accept Jesus Christ as my Savior, and taunted me with exactly how torturous eternity would be for me, my mother repeatedly counseled me back to center. "Think how awful for them that they believe in a God who would create such a cruel place!" she would comfort me, as I came home blubbering again. "Imagine not knowing that God is bigger than that!" She was building my spiritual field.

So, as I face the neighborhood bullies writ large in our culture, I must provide the same kind of comfort and counsel to those around me that my mother offered to me. There have to be some adults in the room here. There have to be some religious people who understand that what is holy, which some call God, is big enough to hold Allah and Jesus, Muhammad and Moses, Vishnu and Buddha. We have to trust that there is a spirit in the universe bigger than our fear. And that spirit is what we need to cultivate in our children.

May this holy time bring about willingness to name and face our fears, and to speak openly with our neighbors about them. The conversation about Quran burners is a place to start, but it is not the place where healing is to be found. The deeper conversation is about what kind of nation we want to be, and to create together.