Penn religious communities and individual members of a variety
of faith traditions have exhibited an extraordinary degree of
commitment to unity and to each other in the face of enormous
challenges since September 11. No less than 15 interfaith vigils,
dialogues, panels, symposiums and services have been organized
by Penn students since the horrors of early September 2001. The
language and rhetoric of a variety of faiths encouraged many,
even some who lay no claim to religious faith but who appreciated
the role of religious ritual in uniting us in our common commitment
to each other and in mourning the dead.
welcoming environment and active interfaith and intercultural
groups made it possible to move quickly and organize intellectually
honest panels and deeply moving services, but it was the rhetoric
of the language in each tradition that spoke to a broad social
vision that gained the assent of all who attended these events.
Among Penn interfaith groups and activities our strength lies
in a well established practice of mutual regard and respect for
each other as women and men of faith. This strength, born of the
willingness of so many in the Penn community to extend themselves
to others and beyond their own comfort zones, is central to the
quality of our relations and is one of the marks of this institution.
have struggled to maintain this practice of mutual respect and
regard over recent weeks. The bloody clashes in the Middle East
have strained some of our relationships and have left some of
us angry, afraid, and intensely anxious. On both sides of this
conflict several in the Penn community have family and close friends
who are at risk of their lives. Some of us are confused and disoriented
and all of us are intensely concerned. A few have made passionate,
harsh statements and outrageous charges about one side or the
other. Appropriately, Penn students have spoken out against verbal
antagonisms and hate speech. I join them in denouncing hate speech.
To be sure, there is much to be passionate about as we
look on, often feeling helpless, while this conflict rages on
and people die horrible deaths in a place that is holy to the
three Abrahamic traditions. Moreover, the outcome of this conflict
has implications for so many outside the communal and creedal
boundaries of these three religions. My hope is that at the very
least we will use our physical distance from the actual fighting
to strengthen our rhetorical language for unity, not division.
At its root, religion suggests "binding together." We all know
that there have been terrible examples throughout history in which
religion has been used to fracture and separate. At its best,
it has brought disparate parties and bitter enemies together to
strive for the beloved community. Religious language
and rhetoric are freighted with enormous power to provoke and
to engage; to belittle and to inspire; to dismiss and to embrace;
to curse and to bless. At Penn we have demonstrated as recently
as last semester that we can mine the most generous rhetoric and
capacious language of our various religious traditions to hold
each of us in our fragility and encourage each in hope. Our hope
is for that world envisioned by African American poet and author
Margaret Walker in her poem, For My People: "a world that
will hold all the people, all the faces, all the adams and eves
and their countless generations."
people of faith, I believe that if we save our most passionate
language for prayer, praise and promise-keeping it will tutor
us in the art of judicious and civil language in our public engagements.