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8 Principles of Interfaith Relations from President Obama

February 18, 2016

President Obama made two important back to back speeches that outlined his principles of interfaith relations: On February 3, 2016 at the Islamic Society of Baltimore and on February 4, 2016, at the National Prayer Breakfast.

The two speeches articulate a strong affirmation of SCUPE’s work: to educate people of faith and goodwill to love our neighbors: standing in solidarity, particularly with those who find themselves in the margins. The speeches come at a critical time when Islamophobia fueled by political rhetoric has become a serious concern.

The President’s words were eloquent. It is worth taking the time to watch the videos or read the transcripts (see below). I want to highlight several key principles that he articulates, so they become principles for our own engagement with our neighbors from other religions.

1. Relationship building requires visiting each other

The first step as in building any relationship is to visit each other and learn about each other. Unfamiliarity with our neighbors, their religions and cultures breeds distrust. The president sought to introduce the Muslim community to Americans who have never visited a mosque. “This is where families come to worship and express their love for God and each other,” he said. “There’s a school where teachers open young minds. Kids play baseball and football and basketball — boys and girls — I hear they’re pretty good. Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts meet, recite the Pledge of Allegiance here.”

2. Relationship requires learning about the others’ history

To those who are under the impression that Islam in America is a recent phenomenon, the President offered a history lesson. The mosque in Baltimore has been there for over 50 years and Islam has always been a part of the American social fabric. “Starting in colonial times, many of the slaves brought here from Africa were Muslim,” the President reminded us. America’s first mosque was built “surprisingly enough, in North Dakota,” he said, to audience laughter, “and America’s oldest surviving mosque is in Iowa. The first Islamic center in New York City was built in the 1890s.”

In a rebuke to those who have suggested to distort the history of religious freedom in this nation, he reminded us that the founders meant what they said when they said it applied to all religions, including Muslims, or Mahomatans as they were known then. Quoting Thomas Jefferson, he said that the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was designed to protect all faiths “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan.”

3. Relationship requires an appreciation of the other

The President went on to affirm the contributions of Muslim Americans to our nation. “Generations of Muslim Americans helped to build our nation,” he said. “They were part of the flow of immigrants who became farmers and merchants. Muslim Americans worked on Henry Ford’s assembly line, cranking out cars. A Muslim American designed the skyscrapers of Chicago.” He went on to say, “They’re our neighbors, the teachers who inspire our children, the doctors who we trust with our health. They’re scientists who win Nobel Prizes, young entrepreneurs who are creating new technologies that we use all the time. They’re the sports heroes we cheer for…”

Perhaps most poignantly, the President said, “Muslim Americans keep us safe. They’re our police and our firefighters. They’re in homeland security, in our intelligence community. They serve honorably in our armed forces — meaning they fight and bleed and die for our freedom. Some rest in Arlington National Cemetery.”

4. Relationship requires telling the truth

Sometimes dialogue partners not wanting to risk tensions, don’t tell the whole truth to each other.This superficiality often undermines relationships. Truth must be told and tensions confronted. This is what the President does next.

While the overwhelming majority of the world’s Muslims embrace Islam as a source of peace, it is undeniable that a small fraction of Muslims propagate a perverted interpretation of Islam. Groups like al Qaeda and ISIL are not the first extremists in history to misuse God’s name, he said, we’ve seen it before, across faiths. “But right now, there is an organized extremist element that draws selectively from Islamic texts, twists them in an attempt to justify their killing and their terror. They combine it with false claims that America and the West are at war with Islam. And this warped thinking that has found adherents around the world — including, as we saw, tragically, in Boston and Chattanooga and San Bernardino — is real. It’s there. And it creates tensions and pressure that disproportionately burden the overwhelming majority of law-abiding Muslim citizens.”

5. Relationships depend on living up to our core–theological principles and values

The President then offered a theological principle that is basic to Christianity, Islam and many other religions to which most people give intellectual assent, but find it very difficult to live up to: “We are all God’s children. We’re all born equal, with inherent dignity.” Although most people affirm this, they are often unable to live up to that principle. The preaching and teaching that goes on in most of our churches aren’t able to help people with this either, because those theologies come out of what SCUPE calls “received” theologies that are allied with power structures. Addressing this requires a theological humility that can come only through alternative theological models. SCUPE’s method of contextual learning is such an alternative.

He also offered an affirmation of a core value: the freedom of religion. “I’m speaking now to my fellow Christians who remain the majority in this country,” he said, “we have to understand an attack on one faith is an attack on all our faiths. And when any religious group is targeted, we all have a responsibility to speak up. And we have to reject a politics that seeks to manipulate prejudice or bias, and targets people because of religion.”

He went on to challenge religious leaders to speak up when Christians and Jews are targeted in other countries. “And just as faith leaders, including Muslims, must speak out when Christians are persecuted around the world, or when anti-Semitism is on the rise — because the fact is, that there are Christians who are targeted now in the Middle East, despite having been there for centuries, and there are Jews who’ve lived in places like France for centuries who now feel obliged to leave because they feel themselves under assault –sometimes by Muslims. We have to be consistent in condemning hateful rhetoric and violence against everyone. And that includes against Muslims here in the United States of America.”

6. Relationships offer a clear-headed understanding of our enemies

The President then cautioned us against reinforcing the ideas and the rhetoric of the terrorists themselves, which we are constantly in danger of doing. We can’t be at war with Islam, he said, because Islam is a part of who we are. “So the best way for us to fight terrorism is to deny these organizations legitimacy and to show that here in the United States of America, we do not suppress Islam; we celebrate and lift up the success of Muslim Americans. That’s how we show the lie that they’re trying to propagate. We shouldn’t play into terrorist propaganda. And we can’t suggest that Islam itself is at the root of the problem. That betrays our values. It alienates Muslim Americans…. That kind of mindset helps our enemies. It helps our enemies recruit. It makes us all less safe.”

7. Relationships help us overcome fear

The President articulated the next two principles the following day, in his address to the National Prayer Breakfast. He emphasized to his mostly Christian audience how to overcome fear, which debilitates many and hampers interfaith relationships. Basing his remarks on the biblical text from 2 Timothy 1:7: “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” For me,” he said, “and I know for so many of you, faith is the great cure for fear. Jesus is a good cure for fear. God gives believers the power, the love, the sound mind required to conquer any fear.”

He went on to extol the extraordinary virtues of congregations and faith communities in addressing global human needs as well as those that occur day to day. “And we’re driven to do this because we’re driven by the value that so many of our faiths teach us -– I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper. As Christians, we do this compelled by the Gospel of Jesus — the command to love God, and love one another…. And so, yes, like every person, there are times where I’m fearful. But my faith and, more importantly, the faith that I’ve seen in so many of you, the God I see in you, that makes me inevitably hopeful about our future. I have seen so many who know that God has not given us a spirit of fear. He has given us power, and love, and a sound mind.

8. Relationship requires solidarity

The most powerful part of the two speeches, worthy of extensive quote, was when he ended his remarks with two poignant stories of interfaith solidarity, one that includes Rami Nashashibi, the executive director of IMAN, a Muslim service agency located in the south side of Chicago.

A week ago, I spoke at a ceremony held at the Israeli Embassy for the first time, honoring the courage of people who saved Jews during the Holocaust. And one of the recipients was the grandson — or the son of an American soldier who had been captured by the Nazis. So a group of American soldiers are captured, and their captors ordered Jewish POWs to identify themselves. And one sergeant, a Christian named Roddie Edmonds, from Tennessee, ordered all American troops to report alongside them. They lined up in formation, approximately 200 of them, and the Nazi colonel said, “I asked only for the Jewish POWs,” and said, “These can’t all be Jewish.” And Master Sergeant Edmonds stood there and said, “We are all Jews.” And the colonel took out his pistol and held it to the Master Sergeant’s head and said, “Tell me who the Jews are.” And he repeated, “We are all Jews.” And faced with the choice of shooting all those soldiers, the Nazis relented. And so, through his moral clarity, through an act of faith, Sergeant Edmonds saved the lives of his Jewish brothers-in-arms.

A second story. Just yesterday, some of you may be aware I visited a mosque in Baltimore to let our Muslim-American brothers and sisters know that they, too, are Americans and welcome here. And there I met a Muslim-American named Rami Nashashibi, who runs a nonprofit working for social change in Chicago. And he forms coalitions with churches and Latino groups and African Americans in this poor neighborhood in Chicago. And he told me how the day after the tragedy in San Bernardino happened, he took his three young children to a playground in the Marquette Park neighborhood, and while they were out, the time came for one of the five daily prayers that are essential to the Muslim tradition. And on any other day, he told me, he would have immediately put his rug out on the grass right there and prayed.

But that day, he paused. He feared any unwelcome attention he might attract to himself and his children. And his seven year-old daughter asked him, “What are you doing, Dad? Isn’t it time to pray?” And he thought of all the times he had told her the story of the day that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rabbi Robert Marx, and 700 other people marched to that very same park, enduring hatred and bigotry, dodging rocks and bottles, and hateful words, in order to challenge Chicago housing segregation, and to ask America to live up to our highest ideals.

And so, at that moment, drawing from the courage of men of different religions, of a different time, Rami refused to teach his children to be afraid. Instead, he taught them to be a part of that legacy of faith and good conscience. “I want them to understand that sometimes faith will be tested,” he told me, “and that we will be asked to show immense courage, like others have before us, to make our city, our country, and our world a better reflection of all our ideals.” And he put down his rug and he prayed.

Some say the President should not be a theologian-in-chief. But sometimes he is. In these two speeches he has articulated eight principles of his public theology of interfaith relations. I think they are highly instructive for our educational purposes. He ended his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast with these powerful words:

Now, those two stories, they give me courage and they give me hope. And they instruct me in my own Christian faith. I can’t imagine a moment in which that young American sergeant expressed his Christianity more profoundly than when, confronted by his own death, he said “We are all Jews.” I can’t imagine a clearer expression of Jesus’s teachings. I can’t imagine a better expression of the peaceful spirit of Islam than when a Muslim father, filled with fear, drew from the example of a Baptist preacher and a Jewish rabbi to teach his children what God demands.

President Obama’s Speech at the Islamic Center of Baltimore — February 3, 2016

President Obama’s Speech at the National Prayer Breakfast — February 4, 2016