Rabbi Peter S. Berg answers the question, “Why is the Atlanta Interfaith Manifesto Important?”

Thoughts From Rabbi Peter S. Berg, Senior Rabbi at The Temple

When I think about my predecessors, the rabbis who came before me at The Temple, I realize that I am standing on the shoulders of giants. In 1957, a year before our own Temple was bombed, eighty white ministers in Atlanta publicly endorsed what has been referred to as the Ministers’ Manifesto, denouncing racial segregation. The statement was published in the Atlanta papers and subsequently the New York Times. Rabbi Jacob M. Rothschild, our rabbi, was instrumental in the writing of that manifesto. He knew then what we know today – that religious leaders must stand up to bigotry and hatred.

We live in challenging times. The need for interfaith support and cooperation is as important today as it ever has been. We all have strong feelings about the major issues of the day: the environment, the rights of minorities, safety and security, peace in the Middle East. Those who are wise realize that there are legitimate arguments on the other side, even if we disagree. Our lives are a balancing act between excessive modesty and excessive self-confidence. Sometimes, we feel our presence is too important to this world, and sometimes we feel our lives are no more important than anyone else’s.

When the scale tips towards arrogance, we risk becoming intolerant. Like most of us, I worry these days about fundamentalism – the belief that there is only one way. This does not mean we shouldn’t have strong faith. I am passionate about my faith. But, when that passion leads one to believe that there is only one way, only one truth, inevitably violence and death will follow.

The worst and most powerful idols we have today are not made of stone and wood. They are made of ideas. Is single-minded fanaticism a necessity for passion or can we have a multilingual view of God – the idea that God is not exhausted from a singular religious path? I’d like to believe that it is possible that Islam, Christianity, and Judaism could know of a God who speaks Arabic on Fridays, Hebrew on Saturdays, and Latin on Sundays.

Any ideology that embraces only self-importance violates human rights and leads to disastrous outcomes. Those claiming to be sole owners of wisdom terrorize us every single day. We live in a world that is threatened by those who are blind to the beauty of pluralism, who despise the idea of tolerance for other religions and ways of life, who have absolutely no faith in the rules of fair play. Our ancestor’s abhorred idolatry because they knew that nobody owns spiritual truth.

The challenge of American democracy today is the same challenge religious Americans face. This is the reason for the 2016 Atlanta Interfaith Manifesto: to fashion a way that incompatible faith assertions can still talk with each other and still learn from one another. What is needed most in our world is to speak to our neighbors of different faiths – not with authority – but with reasoning; not with quotation – but with common ground.

Religion is still the logical grounding for our democracy, but we must learn to speak to one another in ways that we can each hear, in words that allow for learning and growth and even disagreement. This task is, in no small part, the last, greatest hope in our humanity.

In Jewish tradition, we have over seventy names and attributes for God. One of them is Adonai Tzilcha – “God is your shadow.” How can God be a shadow, a mere image cast on the ground, created by our own image? If you stand bent over, then the shadow of God will be contracted and shriveled, but if your stand straight, the shadow will expand and grow mightily. In our community, when we stand with outstretched arms, God will be elevated and enlarged in our lives. God is reflected in our actions. Don’t think that only we live in God’s shadow, act as if God lives in ours.

Bill Clarkson answers the question, “Why is the Atlanta Interfaith Manifesto Important?”

Thoughts From Bill Clarkson, Atlanta Interfaith Manifesto steering committee member

I have been a life-long Episcopalian, baptized as a child, confirmed at age 12, and ordained priest in 1973. My entire career has largely been in education—teacher, coach, chaplain, administrator, and then Headmaster of two independent schools.

In the sacrament of Baptism (the Episcopal Book of Common prayer), deep and abiding promises are made, restated in Confirmation, and again in Ordination to the Priesthood. Two of the questions and responsive promises have always stood out for me:

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

Answer/Promise: I will with God’s help!

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

I will with God’s help.

My career position before retirement was in leading a large Christian school in the South, which over time had moved past a religiously restrictive hiring policy to welcoming persons of all faiths in whatever position they might have in the school. I had occasion one year to hire a wonderful and experienced Muslim woman to co-teach a second grade class. There was immediate resistance from the initial co-teacher (“I can’t work with a Muslim; I’m a Christian and this is a Christian school”), and from a few parents (Christian): “I don’t want my child in a classroom with a Muslim”). Immediately, another teacher stepped forward and said, “I would be honored to have her as a partner in the classroom.” From that point on, the Muslim teacher was loved and embraced by the community, her colleagues, and especially the children. It has remained so over many years.

Now in the heated atmosphere of growing religious bigotry and rising incidents of hate crimes toward Muslims in this country, a handwritten letter has been sent to numerous mosques around the country, a letter that has gone viral over the news and social media. The text is as follows:

“To the children of Satan,

You Muslims are a vile and filthy people. Your mothers are whores and your fathers are dogs. You are evil. You worship the devil. But your day of reckoning has arrived.

There’s a new sheriff in town—President Donald Trump. He’s going to cleanse America and make it shine again. And he is going to start with you Muslims. He’s going to do to you Muslims what Hitler did to the Jews. You Muslims would be wise to pack your bags and get out of Dodge.

This is a great time for Patriotic Americans. Long live President Trump and God bless the USA.”

                                                            “Americans for a Better Way”

I wonder, and I cannot begin to imagine how sad, discouraged, and frightened that Muslim teacher and her family must feel; nor can I imagine what the millions of deeply religious, kind, and loving Muslim U.S. citizens must be feeling—surely the same sadness, discouragement, and fear.

I pray that President-Elect Trump and his administration strongly denounce such a threat and do everything possible to aggressively prosecute religious hate crimes.

For my part, I will continue to do whatever I can to stand up publicly in support of the Atlanta Interfaith Manifesto, and more importantly, to abide by the Baptismal Covenant.

Bill Clarkson is the former headmaster of The Westminster Schools and current Practice Group Leader at Carney, Sandoe & Associates. Before joining Westminster, Bill was Head of the Potomac School in McLean, Virginia. An Episcopal priest, he has also worked in parish ministry and pastoral counseling.

Bill serves on several Boards, including the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, the Rabun Gap Nacoochee School, The FUGEES FAMILY, the R. Howard Dobbs, Jr. Foundation, and the Wilbur and Hilda Glenn Family Foundation.

Tom Glenn answers the question, “Why is the Atlanta Interfaith Manifesto important?”

Thoughts From Tom Glenn, Chair of The Wilbur and Hilda Glenn Family Foundation

I was not particularly political in my younger days.  The Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and a long list of human rights issues were rather tangential to my young, unsophisticated mind.  With advancing age and some semblance of maturation, I began to wish I had been more aware of social justice issues in my earlier years.  Joining others concerned about religious bigotry was a good start, but I had no idea at the time that the topic would soon invade the consciousness of so many Americans.

Published in two Atlanta papers in September of 2016, the Atlanta Interfaith Manifesto denounces religious bigotry and encourages interfaith cooperation.  It is the work of approximately 30 concerned individuals who began conversations in January of 2015, well before we could have predicted ensuing events that would threaten one of our most cherished freedoms.

The Manifesto’s call for “respect and accommodation for diverse religious and secular identities” does not encourage agreeing with or even learning about someone else’s religion or philosophical position.  But it reasserts Americans’ centuries old desire to pursue their various faiths with impunity.  Such freedom was undoubtedly on the minds of the brave souls in those frail little ships that sailed across the Atlantic long before the United States, the Constitution, or the First Amendment were envisioned.

At times, life’s challenges can become so daunting that our faith is all we have left to keep us going.  We should have the freedom to cling to that faith without being maligned.  Though such freedom was envisioned more than four hundred years ago, it remains a dream to many.

During the nineteenth century, Mormons were brutally victimized by an extermination order (Missouri Executive Order 44).  During John Kennedy’s campaign for the Presidency, Protestant leaders railed against the notion of a Catholic in the White House.  Bigotry against Jews continues, and there is now a regrettable increase of anti-Semitic activity on college campuses.  The outpouring of anti-Muslim rhetoric since 9/11 is yet another unfortunate example of our country’s darker side.  All of these examples of bigotry speak to the importance of the Atlanta Interfaith Manifesto, but I believe there is an even more compelling reason to confront the issue.

Fear of the unknown arouses our protective instincts and heightens our sensitivity to change, making us easy prey to those seizing such opportunities to support their political intentions.  According to Robert P. Jones’ The End of White Christian America, 2008 was the last year on record when Protestants as a whole represented a majority of the United States, and by 2014, the religiously unaffiliated made up 22% of the U.S. population.  Changes in both demographics and religious affiliations are taking place much faster than previously predicted, and the potential for exploiting fear increases with them.  If there was ever a time for us to learn how to get along with each other, it’s now.

In the coming months, others involved with crafting the Atlanta Interfaith Manifesto will be offering their views on why the Manifesto is important through website posts similar to this one.  These impressive thought leaders inspire me, and I urge you to read what they have to say.

I am no longer a college student of the turbulent sixties, but I find myself in an atmosphere reminiscent of those days when there was much to fear and dread.  It is my hope that through interfaith cooperation, we can live in peace and harmony as we become a more diverse nation.

If you feel so compelled, I invite you to sign the Atlanta Interfaith Manifesto to show your support for religious cooperation and tolerance.