We gather here today, as interfaith leaders from around South Carolina, to celebrate the Governor McMaster’s Proclamation of January, 2019 as Interfaith Harmony Month. We look forward to January (and to 2019), with great anticipation, as we continue to build relationships founded in dignity and respect across religious lines.
Why is such a proclamation worth celebrating? Perhaps we might acknowledge with greater clarity the importance of interfaith harmony month by contrasting it with its opposite – let’s call it, ‘Interfaith disharmony month.’ What might an interfaith disharmony month look like?
When Aisha is minding her own business walking down the street, and someone walks past her and throws hot coffee on her, because she is wearing a Hijab! Clearly that’s a deplorable act – an incidence of gross disharmony based on religious identity. That’s interfaith disharmony.
When Eli is pushed over by a group of kids in the school playground because of his religious head covering! that’s disharmony. When others see Eli on the ground and laugh at him! – that’s disharmony. When those who think what has just happened to Eli is dreadful, but choose to stay silent, perhaps due to their own fear, that’s interfaith disharmony.
When Stephen tells an offensive joke to his work colleagues about Abdul, that’s interfaith disharmony. When a colleague calls Stephen out for being offensive, and Stephen claims he was only joking, that too is disharmony.
When Esther has her artwork – a beautiful picture of a Menorah – scribbled over and ripped at school, that’s disharmony. When images of swastikas are scribbled inside a University campus building, that’s interfaith disharmony.
When Valerie, a Greek Orthodox Christian is told to ‘go home where she came from’, even though her family have lived in Columbia for generations, that’s interfaith disharmony.
When Rik is penalized for missing a test at school because he was celebrating Diwali, a special festival within his family’s religious tradition, that’s interfaith disharmony.
When Jessica tries to serve a man in a local cafe, and he gets irritated and walks out saying, “I’m going to go somewhere where they understand English”! that’s disharmony.
When Mary goes to school during the month of Ramadan, but no-one at school takes the time or the interest to even acknowledge that this is a special season for Muslims, that’s interfaith disharmony.
When Bikram is spat on for being Muslim, even though he is a member of the Sikh tradition, well, that’s ignorant – and it’s also interfaith disharmony.
When Henry thinks his ‘tolerance’ is enough, and is unwilling to have his stereotypes challenged through a personal encounter with someone from a different religious tradition! that’s interfaith disharmony.
When we show complete disinterest and apathy of the religious diversity around us, that’s interfaith disharmony.
Interfaith Disharmony is failing to ‘see’ each other; failing to acknowledge or give attention to the reality that we orient around religion in different ways. During interfaith disharmony month, we would choose not to come together in the midst of a crisis – not to show our solidarity with others – not to tend to those in need or facing trauma – remaining silent because we choose to see it is someone else’s problem. No vigils. No show of comfort. No solidarity. No love. No hope. No interfaith harmony.
I am so glad that we are not here to celebrate interfaith disharmony month, which sounds deplorable, doesn’t it? I’m glad that such a month would not be stamped with a Governor’s seal of approval.
Sadly, though, when we don’t ‘see’ ourselves as a diverse religious community – when we don’t acknowledge or pay attention to the reality of diversity that makes up our State – inadvertently or not – intended or not – we may actually perpetuate disharmony rather than harmony. And we are all too aware of the bad fruit of disharmony, which so often leads to hate crimes, violence and war.
So what are we celebrating today when we say Interfaith Harmony month?
Well, by ‘interfaith’ – we acknowledge that South Carolina is a state of many faiths and traditions, and has been for a very long time. We acknowledge that religious diversity is a fact – and yet, perhaps, the more important question is – how well we get on with one another?
We answer that important question by adding the word ‘harmony’ to interfaith harmony month. This is intentional work, showcasing the vibrancy of our religious and spiritual diversity in a myriad of ways throughout the month of January. The many events and gatherings scheduled across the State allow folks to ‘see’ each other in dignity and respect, challenging the disharmony by modeling something far more enriching and wholesome.
Thomas Jefferson, in his Notes on the State of Virginia, stated that, quote: ‘it does me no injury to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.’ Because we orient around religion differently does not mean that we cannot work together to build strong, healthy communities.
Despite our differences, because of our differences, we form a rich mosaic within this, our very democracy, recognizing and building on the constitutional affirmation of religious freedom for all, not just the few, in human dignity and respect.
And now, without further ado, I call upon Jim Taylor, newly elected Secretary of IPSC, to read the Governor’s proclamation of January as Interfaith Harmony Month.