Baccalaureate Address by Dr. Eboo Patel, founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago, May 15, 2005
A New City on a Hill
Bismillah Ar-Rahman Ar-Rahim.I first stepped foot on this beautiful campus nine years ago. About a week after my own graduation from the University of Illinois. I was beginning a three-month road trip across the country well armed by $500 in my bank account a head full of radical spangles and two stern warnings from my mother: don’t crash the Oldsmobile, and you better get a good job when you return home. She’s here; there might be a third stern warning forthcoming after this.
I remember that time as being so open to the world, so alive to possibility. I don’t know if there is any time when a young person, or any person, is so open to what could be than in the weeks immediately following graduation. There is a great line in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, “It’s so wonderful to be at the beginning again when the whole world feels new.” It’s in that spirit that I talk to you this afternoon.
I want to begin by taking you to my hometown, Chicago, where there is one of the most hopeful walks in America. If you move into the grand entranceway of the Art Institute and continue on the lower level, you find yourself in a dimly lit corridor displaying the various instruments that the human family has used to shed its own blood across the centuries. It is a dark walk through the swords and spears, the ancient slingshots, medieval armor, rifles and pistols. But if you continue forward a different color begins to emerge: the azure possibility of the human future as displayed in Marc Chagall’s America Windows. Mounted on those panels are symbols of freedom and welcome, work and worship, song and study, of hope of what this world could be.
Every generation either moves us closer to the azure of possibility or it adds more darkness.
A century ago, the great Penn scholar W.E.B. Du Bois said: “The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line.” His words were so prescient. After the blood of postcolonial movements and civil rights struggles, unfortunately the challenge of racial equality is still with us.
But the Class of 2005 is coming of age at the dawn of a new century, which may well be dominated by a different line—the faith line. From Central Africa to the Middle East, from Northern Ireland to South Asia, people from different religious backgrounds are murdering each other in the name of God. Too often the fighting, the killing and the dying are done by young people not much older than this class.
From the early days of this nation, Americans have always had a sense that the eyes of the world were upon us. When John Winthrop sailed across the Atlantic he committed to building a “city on a hill” that would be a model for the world. America has always imagined that city with a steeple in the center, symbolizing the key role that religion has played in the life of this republic since its inception. Inspiring both good and bad, both slave drivers and freedom fighters, both war mongers and peacemakers.
This distinctive religiosity did not escape the many foreign observers who tried to unravel the American story. In fact the British writer G.K. Chesterton several generations ago observed, “America is a nation with the soul of a church.”
That observation is only partially true today. The most religiously devout nation in the west is now the most religiously diverse nation in the world. Our city on a hill may still have a steeple in the center, but that steeple is now surrounded by the Hebrew script of Jewish synagogues, by the minarets of Muslim Mosques, by the intricate carvings of Hindu Temples, by the chanting of Buddhist sanghas.
What spirit will characterize this new American city on a hill? Will we succumb to the suspicion, hatred and violence that characterizes inter religious relations in so much of the world? Or will we build an entity that shines like the Chagall Windows, and offer it to the world as a model of inter religious cooperation? If we are to achieve the latter possibility, we shall have to focus far more attention on questions of religious diversity.
There are many places in our society where people from particular religious groups gather to talk about religion. These include synagogues, mosques, temples, sanghas, churches, and their related religious organization. There are increasing numbers of spaces where people from diverse religions gather—universities, schools, neighborhoods, companies, YMCAs. But there are precious few spaces where people from different religions come together to directly engage building bridges across religious differences. And that’s dangerous. The cornerstone of a diverse society is as Michael Walzer said, “Is relationships between diverse communities and at the same time maintaining a common life.”
I can tell you about the danger of this from my personal experience. When I was a high school student in the western suburbs of Chicago, the kids I ate lunch with in high school included a Hindu, a Jew, a Mormon, a Lutheran and a Catholic. We were all devout to a degree, but we never talked about religion. So somebody might say at the lunch table, “I’m not eating today,” or “I’m not eating a certain type of food today,” or “I can’t eat for the next month.” Nobody ever asked any questions about that. Somebody might say, “I can’t play basketball this weekend because of some prayer thing.” But nobody ever asked any questions. This probably relieved all of us. None of us had a language of religion in which to articulate our particular faith in a pluralist public square. If anybody asked me why I was fasting, my answer would have been, “my mama told me I had to.”
Back then I thought little about the dangers lurking within this absence. But that danger was brought to the forefront a couple of years after graduation.
My best friend from high school, a Jew named Ariel, reminded me of a time that both of us would rather have not happened. There were a group of thugs in our high school who took to scrawling anti-Semitic slurs on classroom desks, shouting obscene comments in the hallways. I did not confront their bigotry. I did not comfort my friend. I averted my eyes, and I avoided Ariel, because I could not stand to face him.
In this conversation, he shared with me in no uncertain terms how scared he was to come to school on those days, and his utter loneliness because his friends had abandoned him. His articulation of his suffering and my complicity is perhaps the single most humiliating experience in my life. My silence was a betrayal. Betrayal of the very meaning of friendship; betrayal of depths of Islam, which calls upon Muslims to be courageously compassionate in the face of injustice; betrayal of the fabric of America, which asks of its citizens to protect the bridges of pluralism when other people try to destroy them.
Because of that personal story, and because of what we read every day in the New York Times, and the Chicago Tribune, and the Philadelphia Inquirer, I started a nonprofit organization called the Interfaith Youth Core. We bring young people from different faith communities together to do common projects. We teach them a language of articulating their particular faith in a pluralist public square. The first lesson is that it is a religious duty to protect and defend those who are under threat. We quote to our young people the great words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who told Christians in Nazi Germany: “Those who do not speak out for the Jews do not deserve to sing Gregorian chants.”
For too long, religion has been left out of the diversity discussion in America. I think we ignore it at our own peril. The repercussions of violence in Belfast and Bombay and Baghdad has not yet had serious repercussions in Boston, but we might not be so lucky for so long.
Still, I have faith that the destiny of this nation lies in a different direction. Harvard Professor Diana Eck uses the metaphor of jazz for the possibility of America’s diversity: distinct instruments playing music together, each of them holding their own while being together, creating in a clear structure something anew, all of them taking a turn as the lead, confident that the others will back them. I know exactly what she’s saying. I was listening to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme as I wrote this.
The American possibility is most clearly illustrated in the life of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who took his commitment to nonviolence from an Indian Hindu, who marched arm in arm in Selma with a Hasidic Jew, who nominated a Vietnamese Buddhist for the Nobel Peace Prize. Something in his eyes allowed him to see the beating heart of all religious traditions, and he preached: “The Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist understanding of ultimate reality ... is that love is the unifying principle of life.”
I see this vision in our great religious poets. The Muslim poet Ibn Arabi, who said:
My heart has grown capable of taking on all forms
A pasture for gazelles
A convent for the Christian
A table for the Torah
Ka’ba for the pilgrim
A temple for idols
My religion is love.
Whichever way its
Caravan turns is the
Path that I follow.
I see it in the words of the great Jewish poet Yehuda Amichai, who says:
Half the people in the world
Love the other half,
Half the people
Hate the other half.
Am I because of this half and that half …
Camouflage my love with worries
I feel it in the depths of the work of William Blake who writes:
We are put on earth a little space that we may
learn to bear the beams of love.
I hear it in the voice of his holiness the Dali lama, when he says that his religion is kindness. I see it in the example of Mahatma Gandhi, who used his time in a South African prison to hand-make sandals for the man who ordered his imprisonment.
In America we have the opportunity to give concrete utterance to that possibility. That happens here at the University of Pennsylvania where the new president Amy Gutmann says that relationships across diverse boundaries are an ethical imperative. It happens with the religious student organizations on campus under the guidance of my friend and mentor the Reverend William Gipson, who throughout the academic year organizes interfaith programs. I was blessed to be invited by Anjun Cheerna and other members of the Muslim Students Association to participate in their interfaith project in the fall. On a crisp Sunday afternoon I found myself cleaning a children’s playground with about 100 students from the University of Pennsylvania representing the range of America’s religious diversity. I spent a lot of my time that afternoon with a young Orthodox Jew from Washington D.C. and I asked him “Why did you come to this program?” He said: “This is what Judaism’s about, and this is what America’s about.”
The South African writer, Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coatzee once wrote, “All creatures come into the world with the memory of justice.” Now in the American tradition, memory is not good enough. We want the reality of justice. We want the kingdom on earth. It was not an abstract notion of love that moved Martin King to martyrdom, it was the concrete hope of the beloved community—Christian and Muslim, Jewish and Hindu, Buddhist and Baha’i working together to make of this old world a new world. Jane Addams did not just dream a “cathedral of humanity.” She built it.
The raw materials of the American new city on a hill are love and courage and hope. These are God-given natural resources, and they occur in abundance in the souls of recent college graduates. The more you use them, the deeper you will find the reserves, and the more likely you are to attract a community of like-minded people. Think about what happened when Dorothy Day risked her love and her courage and her hope, she built one of the most powerful movements of the 20th century, the Catholic Worker.
Class of 2005, architects of a new American city on a hill, go forth build us a shining jewel, and remember the line of James Baldwin: “If we (in America) ... do not falter in our duty now, we may be able to ... achieve our country, and change the history of the world.”
Almanac, Vol. 51, No. 33, May 24, 2005