Address to the “Unity with Diversity” Program

Islamic Center, East Lansing, Michigan, September 29, 2010

Shalom Aleichem/salaam aleikum. This week we observe Sukkot. A sukkah is a fragile hut providing minimal shelter. In our evening prayers, we say ufros aleinu sukkat shlomecha, “spread over us the sukkah of Your peace.” To quote Rabbi Arthur Waskow: “Why not a fortress of peace, or a castle, or a temple, or a tower? Why not something sturdier, hard-shelled, invulnerable—won’t that get us more peace, more security, as we sleep? The wisdom of the prayer is that in fact all human beings do live in a vulnerable ‘sukkah,’ and we can achieve true peace and security if we all recognize that and share our vulnerability with each other—neither in fear and hiding, nor by threat and attack.”

Rabbi Waskow touched upon three key points for us. First, we are vulnerable. Just one troubled soul, one book, and one match can remind us how vulnerable we are. Second, we are not alone. We are all together in the same vulnerable sukkah, and together we can achieve true peace and security. And third, we can learn from the Islamic Center how to respond to attack—not fighting fear and hiding with fear and hiding; not responding to threat and attack with threat and attack; but with restraint, tolerance, and forgiveness, sending the message: Learn, don’t burn.

Yet the desecration of the Quran poses a dilemma. We recognize the wisdom of playing down isolated incidents of harassment, not to fuel the flames of attention seekers. Still, bookburning has horrific resonances for us. As Heinrich Heine said, “Those who begin by burning books will end by burning people.” To burn the Quran, the Bible, the Torah, the Bhagavad Gita, or the Diamond Sutra is to pollute the earth with smoke that smothers all that is good and sacred.

Unity with diversity does not mean that we all are one. We are divided on fundamental issues: abortion, same-sex marriage, and most tragically, the struggle between Israel and the Palestinians. On the one hand, we need to be on guard so that shrill voices among politicians and the media, fanning the flames of divisiveness, do not distract us from our work together for peace, justice, and tolerance. On the other hand, our community can be a beacon of light for the rest of the country, recognized not for Quran burning, but for constructive engagement, mutual respect, and shared learning among those with the courage to disagree and dialogue together.

After the 9/11 attacks, this community came together to speak out against Islamophobia and mourn the tragic loss of life. When the Nazis rallied at the capitol, Mayor Bernero organized a “Celebration of Diversity” at Eastern High School, leaving the Nazis alone downtown to hurl their venom at each other. And two years ago, Palestinian filmmaker Yaser Aladam, impressed by the spirit of religious co-existence in Greater Lansing, produced a documentary featuring the Islamic Center, University Lutheran Church, and Congregation Kehillat Israel, screened in Israel and the Palestinian Territories as an inspiration to end the cycle of hatred and violence.

We will continue together to feed the hungry and build houses for the homeless. Let us also take up the call of “Learn, not burn.” We may burn in our souls from past hurts. Let us instead learn about our respective traditions. Let’s build trusting friendships firm enough to withstand the difficult questions. Let’s learn to say “I feel this” rather than “You are that.” And let the sukkah of God’s peace spread out over all of us, our mosques, synagogues, churches, and temples. Aleikum salaam/Aleichem shalom.