Rev. Dr. Joanna M. Adams discusses the plague of religious bigotry and the importance of hope
In a few weeks, the Jewish community around the world will celebrate Pesach, or Passover, a time for remembering the Lord’s mighty acts of liberation on behalf of the Hebrew people, who had endured the shackles of bondage for four hundred years. The Lord “passed over” the houses of the Jews, sparing their children during the last of the ten plagues, which had included, among six other menaces, frogs, flies, thunder and hail.
If I were asked to come up with ten modern day plagues, I could do so in a heartbeat, beginning with the quickly spreading epidemic of religious bigotry in our nation. The demonizing of followers of Islam, both American born and foreign born, and the proposed ban on entry to the United States of citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries top the list. So would the alarming number of anti-Semitic threats and incidents involving Jewish schools and community centers. I would also include extreme speech. When laced with vitriol, it poisons politics, public airways, and private conversation.
If we ever needed the Atlanta Interfaith Manifesto, we need it now. As the Lord, through Moses, intervened in the midst of terrible times, I believe that the Lord will act, is already acting through people of good will. Instead of becoming resigned to endure troubling times, you and I need to be out there, gigging the frogs of fear and swatting down the flies of mean-spirited fundamentalism. We need to speak out in our city, using our voices to thunder against injustice. We must be hail-makers, pounding into the ground the seedlings of hatred that are growing in our city and across the land.
Atlanta has been a beacon of light to the nation in the past. After all, this city was the birthplace of the great Moses of modern times, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As he led the south and indeed the entire United States to higher moral ground through the Civil Rights Movement, he thundered against injustice and called out purveyors of hate, but it was always to the end of replacing that hatred with civility and love. He was always a man of possibility, not negativity. In his honor, here are a few a few modern day possibilities (not plagues) that come to mind:
- Atlanta will build upon its good traditions of tolerance, mutual respect, and inclusion.
- We will not revert to the negative aspects of our past but instead will learn from them so as not to repeat them.
- We will in our neighborhoods and social networks, in our faith communities and in our common life refrain from contributing rhetorical negativity into the atmosphere.
- We will be always cognizant that people need to be lifted up and inspired, not made to feel belittled and discouraged.
- We will pray that the day will soon come when America will once again live up to its ideals of liberty and justice for all. (Note: no qualifiers attached to “all”).
- We will elect leaders who bring out the best in us, instead of pandering to our basest instincts.
- We look for ways to create zones of civil discourse and then ourselves initiate the conversations.
- We will align ourselves with the great moral teachings of the faith traditions to which we belong. In my case, I want to keep my life and values and treatment of others lined up with the way of Jesus who showed us what being human was meant to be and who embodied the universal love of God. Indeed, God must love diversity; otherwise, we would all be alike.
- Daily, we will take a deep drink from the fountain of hope as we plan what we can do to heal and build up. St. Augustine once wrote, “Hope has two daughters: anger and courage. Anger at what is and ought not to be and courage to make what ought to be come to be.” Hope has changed the world before and will do it again.
- We will work to improve our vision during these often dark and ominous times.
One day a great teacher asked his students, “How can one know when the night has ended and a new day has begun?”
One answered, “When you hear the rooster crow.”
Another said, “When you can see the silhouette of a tree against the horizon.”
“No,” the teacher answered. “It is when you can look into the face of a stranger and recognize him or her as your brother or sister. Only then can you know that a new day has begun.”
Preacher, educator, writer and community leader—the Rev. Dr. Joanna M. Adams continues to fill many roles since stepping down from her position as Morningside Presbyterian’s Senior Pastor and Head of Staff in January 2010. In January 2012, MPC was proud to honor Joanna as the church’s Pastor Emerita. One of her most recent endeavors is the blog Higher Ground, sponsored by The Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, in which Joanna, an imam, a rabbi and another noted Christian minister discuss issues, challenges, and successes while demonstrating how collaboration can create a strong community. Other Presbyterian churches Joanna served during her 30 years of ministry include Atlanta’s Central, Trinity, and North Decatur, and Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian.
A graduate of Columbia Theological Seminary, Joanna holds an honorary doctorate of divinity from Davidson College and also received the Alumni Association Medal of Honor from Emory and Columbia’s Distinguished Alumnus/ae Award. She currently chairs the boards of the presbytery’s New Church Development Commission and the Intown Collaborative Ministry. Among organizations she’s been instrumental in founding are the Our House preschool for children facing homelessness and the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, working for inclusion of all believers. Her adult children have followed her into the fields of education and theology and her husband Al is a distinguished Atlanta attorney.