The Wedding Party Recesses
How do we find a balance between tolerance and freedom? We seem to have a more and more difficult time doing that these days, and at no time is it more obvious than this time of year. As our nation tries to live out the ideal of separation of church and state, at one extreme people insist on a complete absence of any references to God, and at the other extreme people insist we are in danger of becoming a godless nation.
Most of us are caught in the middle. Even though the Pew Forum reports that 95% of adults in this country believe in God, we can’t seem to find a way to accept those who see God through different lenses than our own. One of the wisest comments I ever heard on the subject of accepting others came from a high school student who commented on the school where I taught at the time. She said, “We don’t have tolerance. We have acceptance. And that’s better.”
I think of her comment often when I hear the cacophony from the two extremes whose voices keep getting louder as they try to drown each other out. And I wish our society could find a way to become like Eric Whitacre’s virtual choirs—thousands of different voices that come together in a harmony that is more beautiful than the single voices could ever be alone.
We are a nation founded on religious freedom. But let’s face it, our founders were not seeking freedom for people of non-Christian faiths—they wanted freedom from Christians of other sects who tried to force their beliefs on the masses. But we have always been a nation that has adapted as our world has changed. And I really believe that we can do this if we begin to listen to each other.
My school system has a policy against classroom displays of religious holidays. And that’s as it should be. Students deserve to learn in a place that is free of the pressure to conform to any faith. But no one ever said that a teacher couldn’t wear a cross or a Christmas sweater, a Star of David or a yarmulke, a hijab or a turban. That’s tolerance. But it isn’t necessarily acceptance.
Over the weekend one of my colleagues, who is Greek Orthodox, celebrated the wedding of his niece with 160 family members and friends. Today at work, he described the wedding to me, telling me that in their faith, the couple does not say vows. They are quiet, knowing that spoken vows aren’t always kept. He described how the bride and groom wear wedding crowns that are steeped in tradition, and his voice caught as he described how the bride and groom wore the same crowns his parents had worn during their ceremony.
His experience also made me remember a Muslim colleague’s story about her arranged marriage—a very different narrative from the one people expect to hear. She describes a father who wanted his daughter to be educated and independent, and she says that she trusted her parents to make a better decision for her than she could make for herself. Her own daughters have her beautiful silken hair and brown eyes, but it’s unlikely that they will want their parents to choose their spouses. But she is happier in her marriage than many couples who’ve chosen their own partners.
I’ve been thinking a lot about these stories. Part of the reason they have stayed in my mind is that they’re so different from the traditions of my own faith. And that’s the power of story.
So what if we aimed for acceptance? What if we refused to let the extremists in all faiths and no faiths frighten us and shape the national conversation? What if we celebrate our differences and find joy in the belief systems of others?
What stories of the power of human faith and love can you tell?