Recent events of the day are causing many of us to feel overwhelmed at by what’s going on in our country. The drumbeat of violence and hatred against our neighbors, our friends, perhaps even against our own community, shakes us to our core.
Certain public figures work very hard to divide this country into “us” and “them,” creating a daily struggle to cling to the positive values of compassion and civility that we need to thrive as a nation. For every dehumanizing action against a stranger or someone we view as different, many of us begin to wonder: “What has happened to the belief in basic American principles?”
At the local level, we are not immune to the rise in hate and mistrust. As a recent article in The Washington Post points out, “the number of hate crimes in the District rose sharply in 2018, nearly doubling the total attributed to bias in the city just two years earlier, according to city statistics.” Over the past three years, our region has seen houses of worship and religious centers desecrated, symbols of hate written on the walls of schools and other public buildings and an overall increase in fear and tension.
Yet, all major world religions are united in teaching the importance of welcoming and showing hospitality to strangers — acting kindly toward those who are not native to your community is considered an act of righteousness.
For example: Hindus view everything as permeated by God’s presence, so hospitality becomes an act of worship…(from Taitiriya Upanishad 1.11.2) Let a person never turn away a stranger from his house, that is the rule. Therefore a man should, by all means, gain much food, for good people say to the stranger: ‘There is enough food for you.” In Baha’i Tradition (selections from the writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha), amongst His Teachings is this that love and good faith must so dominate the human heart that men will regard the stranger as a familiar friend, the malefactor as one of their own, the alien even as a loved one, the enemy as a companion dear.
All three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, speak in parallel terms how strangers should be treated. The Hebrew Bible commands justice and love for strangers, including giving them food and clothing. Leviticus 19:34 The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt:
How can we use these values shared across our faith traditions as an antidote to the alarming trends in our society?
The Interfaith Council of Metropolitan Washington (IFC), suggests we can, in the words of the biblical Prophet Isaiah, become “healers of the breach” and leaders of those who would “release the bonds of the oppressed.” As members of diverse communities, we can also speak and act passionately with one voice, declaring our region as a “no hate zone.” We can stand together against those who wish to tear us apart and show our common humanity by supporting religious diversity and inclusion.
Finally, we can show up at public demonstrations of these values, such as our 14th annual Unity Walk Sept. 8 in northwest D.C. On that day, hundreds of people of all faiths and backgrounds will embrace the stranger — literally and figuratively — by helping those in need, through music and celebration, by visiting houses of worship, and via asking questions and having conversations. This celebration, and these actions, will help us become familiar with traditions and practices far different from our own.
One day of unity does not change the other 364 days of the year in which mistrust and suspicion may overwhelm us. But when we respond to one another by strengthening bonds among strangers, we create a society in which people of all religious backgrounds feel welcomed, respected, and appreciated for their shared values and for their diverse beliefs and practices.
Many of us were once strangers within our communities, even within our families and our current circle of friends. If for one day, we can start by welcoming each other rather than pushing each other away, we will be one step closer to our aspiration of demonstrating human solidarity instead of rejecting those of other faiths and ethnicities, of choosing love over fear.
Rabbi Gerry Serota is executive director of InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington.