A new narrative

The malicious and intentional spreading of an offensive, anti-Muslim video. The murder of an American ambassador. Protests around the world. Hate crimes against mosques in the U.S.

All of these events seem to further solidify the already-entrenched narrative about Muslim-Christian relations—that Muslims and Christians are in a “clash of civilizations,” fundamentally at odds, and hell-bent on the destruction of the other. The images we see on CNN, and the headlines we read in the morning paper, point to an inherent battle between the world’s two largest religious groups.

But another, more subtle, yet more powerful, narrative exists. One I’ve tried to share often on my blog. I was reminded of it again tonight, first at a banquet celebrating the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Fitr (which was last month) and second at Catholic Mass.

The banquet, hosted by the university’s president and attended by diverse leaders on campus, began with the maghrib, or sunset, prayer. As the Muslims lined up in their rows, and rabbis, Jesuits, and other non-Muslims bowed their heads in reverence, I looked over to find one of Georgetown’s Franciscan priests in the prayer line with the other Muslims, bending and placing his head on the floor. I was so moved by the message that this Franciscan’s participation sent—that his belief in God, and his vocation as a priest, doesn’t preclude him from worshipping with those who are different. It actually calls for it.

At the end of the prayer, the university imam spoke to the congregation about the meaning of the Arabic word for prayer, salah, which literally means, “reaching out and connecting.” He discussed the importance of reaching out not only to God, but also to those around us.

This “reaching out” continued through dinner, as we met new people and shared stories. I was lucky enough to sit next to Georgetown’s first Jewish chaplain, a rabbi who retired a few years back. He told me of his time working in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements; how he was a Freedom Rider and met Martin Luther King and Malcolm X; and that he studied under Abraham Joshua Heschel, who famously said of the March on Washington: “I felt like my feet were praying.” I was not only amazed at the compassionate action of this man, but also by the fact that our conversation quickly transitioned into a discussion about how we miss cheap falafel in the Middle East.

He also spoke to me about his concern for the declining numbers of Jesuits. He began rattling off statistics about how many Jesuits were in the Maryland province when he began at Georgetown in the sixties, compared to today. As he finished his shpeal, I realized that I wasn’t talking to a Jesuit concerned about this decline, but a rabbi. He cares about Catholic clergy just as much as those in his own tradition.

After mingling with Muslim friends I hadn’t seen since before I went abroad, I went to Mass, where the reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians stressed that we are all parts of Christ’s one body. In the homily, the priest discussed the intersection of diversity, complementarity, and dependence—that in our diversity we complement one another, and more importantly help one another when we are in need.

I couldn’t help but think of the following passage from the Qur’an, which Georgetown’s president had read shortly before at the banquet:

“If God had willed, He would have made you one religious community, but [He intended] to test you in what He has given you; so race one another in good deeds.” Just as in Paul’s letter, the Qur’an speaks of God’s desire for diversity, complementary, and dependence.

And I thought of the sweetest thing that a Muslim friend said to me as we left the dinner—how he and others had missed me, and how a hole had been left, when I was abroad. I was struck by the kindness of his words, but also the greater truth that they held.

A truth that must become the new narrative about interreligious relations: that without one of us, there is a gaping hole. When one part of the body is missing—whether it be the rabbi, the Catholic girl, or the Muslim boy—we cannot move or act. We cannot “pray with our feet” and race together in the game of doing good works on our common planet.

At a loss

When I arrived back to my apartment late on Tuesday night, the eleventh anniversary of September 11, 2001, I opened my laptop to find a burning, bright orange image of a man stoking fire and a New York Times headline reading, “Anger Over a Film Fuels Anti-American Attacks in Libya and Egypt.”

As I read on about the violent demonstrations in Cairo and in Benghazi, and as I watched the offensive, bigoted video that apparently sparked these riots, my stomach began to drop.

I was at a loss for words, didn’t know what to say or even think.

How could this be happening? And why the hell was it happening on September 11th?  And what can I do that will ever, in some way, pull us out of this cycle of bigotry and violence?

Over the past week, as I’ve thought about how to comment on these unraveling events and answer these questions, no clear explanation or response has been easy to find.  Instead, I keep coming back to the place I was just before I opened my laptop to discover this terrible news—in Copley Crypt Chapel at Georgetown.

“I wish you didn’t…” said the Jesuit priest who was giving the homily at the nightly 10pm Mass.  About thirty of us, mostly students, were seated in a semi-circle in the small, arched space, where faint gold light rests on the curved walls.  The stained glass windows, depicting the martyrdoms of North American Jesuits like Jean de Brebeuf, let in only darkness from outside.

“I wish you didn’t live in this time, this era, where things are so hard and unclear. I wish you were graduating at a time like the one when I did—when walls were falling down and a man was released from jail to lead his country.” Our priest graduated from Georgetown in the nineties, optimistic that the Cold War had ended and that Nelson Mandela was free.  Things seemed to be looking up—and then 9/11 happened.

“But you are living in this new, troubled world.  And our world needs you.”  He was crying, and I began to cry, too.  On the anniversary of 9/11, I’m always reminded how much my life, my passions, and my career have been shaped by that event and what’s happened after.

Our priest then spoke of the group of us gathered there for Mass, about the difference we must make.

And it was then that I became completely overwhelmed by the good that will be done (and is already being done) by the thirty-some people sitting with me.  To my right and left sat two of my closest friends, who have dedicated their lives to address two of our generation’s most pressing issues: migration and climate change.  I thought of others in the room, and my friends who weren’t there, who are going into education and business, medicine and healthcare, just to name a few.  My eyes welled over not just with amazement at my friends’ love and self-sacrifice, but also with a heavy sadness at the challenges we face and the suffering experienced by those with whom we walk in solidarity.

The priest concluded his homily, explaining why we come to Mass.  He said that it’s not inside the academic buildings on campus where we can be transformed to make the difference our world needs.

“It’s right here, with Jesus,” he said.

The crucifix in Copley Crypt Chapel at Georgetown.

I’ve come to learn that becoming closer to God doesn’t mean becoming happier or even more at peace.  It means coming face-to-face with, and even entering, suffering.  Jesus was at his best on the cross, and in order for me to be a better, more loving human, I have to meet him there, both in nightly Mass and in the work I do during the other 23 hours of my day.

The loving Catholic community and the time of prayer that helps orient me toward a more Cross-centered life are the reasons I continue going to nightly Mass at Georgetown.  But I wouldn’t even be there in the first place were it not for the group of believers on the other side of the chapel wall—the Georgetown Muslim community.  While the Catholics are participating in the nightly 10pm Mass, the Muslim students are completing their nightly 10pm isha prayer in the musallah next door. Over the past three years, I’ve witnessed my Muslim friends’ devotion to prayer, and it’s made me want to have the same commitment to my own prayer life. That’s why I decided to become more active in my own Catholic community, and to make nightly Mass a regular part of my day during my senior year.

As I sort through and begin writing about these confusing, troubling “eleventh anniversary” events, which mark a new low in the downward spiral of Muslim-Christian tensions, I remember the good that will be done by those on both sides of the chapel wall, and the support we will provide one another as we take up our crosses.

When it seems that violence and bigotry will win out, the passionate commitment of these Catholic and Muslim communities remind me of the quiet, Arabic words that echo from the musallah into the chapel every evening: God is greater.