A Rabbi, a Buddhist, a Baptist, a Muslim, and a Baha’i Walk into a Synagogue . . .

Walking through the doors of the Cape Cod Synagogue last night, I couldn’t help but recall jokes about religious leaders with tacky punchlines. There were Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Baha’is, and people of various other spiritual persuasions, all coming together in a spirit of fellowship. 

If that sounds “feel-goody,” I assure you it was. Truly. It feels good to break down barriers and find unity among different belief systems. 

But we weren’t there just to feel good. That could have been accomplished with some general words of goodwill and an offering of universal prayers. 

Instead, the Cape Cod Interfaith Coalition chose to tackle a kraken in this gathering. The theme of the evening:“ONE NATION . . . Recovering Our Unity: A Non-Partisan Discussion on the Need for Civil Discourse in our Government.” 

Seriously? Religion AND politics? Generally a “not-so-feel-goody” combo, don’t you think? Pretty bold move. 

But the amazing thing? It really did feel good – healing, even – to talk about the problems plaguing our political system from various faith viewpoints. 

The Buddhist who welcomed us set a perfect tone for the evening, inviting us to remember that even if we find nothing else in common with our fellow humans, we all share the same space, the same breath. We breathe the same air. 

I love how simply the Buddhists can bring us back to home base. We are literally, physically, inside one another, in the air we breathe.

I won’t go through everything that was presented, but I’m a nerdy note-taker, so I’ll share what I recalled from my notes:

Larry Brown, a columnist for the Cape Cod Times, relayed some interesting thoughts on where we are right now in America. He came from a very political family, and he’s spoken to many older Americans about politics, and neither he nor they remember the political climate ever feeling quite this bad before. 

Extreme partisanship has extended into almost every area of our lives in unprecedented ways, and Larry offered four reasons for this: 
1) constant media exposure 
2) vast inequality in wealth concentration 
3) the deliberate courting of religious groups by political parties 
4) the fact that politicians feed off of our tendency towards tribalism

Larry’s wife worked with rape victims in Europe after the Yugoslav Wars, where some 75,000 women (mostly Muslim) were raped. He said people there would go up to his wife, knowing she was American, and say, “We had NO IDEA that we, as a people, were capable of doing the things we’ve done to each other. We’re good people. Tell your people – they probably think they’re good people, too. We really didn’t think it was possible for us to reach this level and treat each other this way.” 

Americans are not immune to sinking to the depths of inhumanity we see in countries torn by civil war. Our divisive, polarized political climate is dangerous. Larry said, “We can’t practice politics as a dark art and expect to arrive at a bright place.” I love that.

He said we mustn’t be resigned to political divisiveness. We must tell ourselves, over and over, “It doesn’t have to be this way.” We can choose for it to be different. We must spend time face-to-face with people with whom we disagree, and focus on bringing out the things we love most in each other instead of the things we fear most in each other. I love that, too.

Next, Rabbi David Freelund pointed out that in a culture obsessed with triumph, we’ve lost the art of losing. “Never give up,” is a mantra we often hear and think is a good thing. We no longer know how to lose an argument at all, much less with grace and humility.

He shared a story of Rabbi Eleazar from the Talmud, a cautionary tale about refusing to go with the majority rule. “Our sacred obligation is to form a consensus and move forward,” he said. Sometimes that means letting go of your attachment to winning, or being right, and supporting the majority – even when you disagree with it. 

We haven’t done such a good job of that in our government as of late.

He also pointed out a couple of things that California has done to their electoral processes to help quell partisan insanity. First, they made it so that districting is done by non-partisan means so that political parties can’t change the district boundaries and give themselves an advantage. Second, they made their primary elections non-partisan as well. All candidates get put on the primary ballot – no Democratic and Republican primaries. This naturally leads to more moderate candidates being elected, which, unless you’re an extremist, is a good thing. 

Next up was a Baptist Deacon, who offered a prayer and led us in song, with Rabbi David accompanying on the guitar. He explained how his participation in such a gathering did not betray his faith but rather strengthened it, as we respect and share one another’s spiritual journeys. Beautiful.

Knowing full well the Baha’i view of partisan politics (basically, avoid partisanship like the plague), I was curious to see what the Baha’i speaker, Judith Partelow, would share. First, she shared some words from the Baha’i writings admonishing governments to uphold justice for all and explaining how the extremes of wealth and poverty are a root cause of divisiveness and injustice. True that.

Then, in what felt like a soothing balm after examining America’s challenges, she shared some words of hope and prayer from ‘Abdu’l-Baha, describing the potential America has to be an example to the rest of the world: 

“This American nation is equipped and empowered to accomplish that which will adorn the pages of history . . . May this American democracy be the first nation to establish the foundation of international agreement. May it be the first nation to proclaim the unity of mankind. May it be the first to unfurl the standard of the Most Great Peace . . . May the inhabitants of this country rise from their present material attainment to such heights that heavenly illumination may stream from this center to all the peoples of the world.” 

America is not beyond hope. Love that, too.

The Muslim speaker, Mir Shuttari, described the tribalism, racism, and human indignity of Mecca 1400 years ago, and how Muhammad helped unite people by basically taking them back to the original teachings of Abraham. One God. One people. Unity. Dr. Shuttari then took us back to the original teachings of our forefathers about the importance of maintaining our union, sharing a warning from Alexander Hamilton about what would happen if we allow the knot of our union to be severed. 

Then another gentleman, Wayne Tooker, described the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Politically, they were mortal enemies. They wrote hundreds of letters back and forth, vehemently-yet-respectfully disagreeing with one another. Though they were political enemies, they ultimately became close friends. Their political views didn’t keep them apart; in fact, the very act of civil political discourse may have been what bonded them. 

Wayne also described, as a global traveler, a broader perspective on politics in general. It’s not about left vs. right, he proposed, but about incumbancy vs. who’s trying to take the fort. It’s about power – who has it and who wants it. 

He then took consciousness down to a personal level and pointed out our tendency towards wanting a “team.” When we don’t feel good about ourselves, we find people who are shouting in the direction we think is to blame for our (or society’s) problems, and gather behind them. In that tribal-like grouping, we feel part of something. It feels good to be part of a team. 

But that tribal/team mentality is a large part of what causes divisiveness in our political system. And because it’s a natural way to win votes, politicians capitalize on our tendency to form tribes and teams with partisanship. We have to be aware of our desire to form teams and tribes, be aware of when we’re doing it, and be aware that THIS – more than any issue on any platform –  is what ultimately divides us. 

Finally, Steve Cordry pointed out that gatherings like this one – with people from different beliefs coming together with respect and humility – are key to transforming our society. 

He compared this gathering to an imaginal cell in a caterpillar. Imaginal cells hold the DNA for the butterfly. But the caterpillar’s body doesn’t recognize those cells when they start forming, so the immune system attacks them. But the imaginal cells keep coming, link together, and get stronger. Eventually the caterpillar’s body gives up and perishes in the fight, and the butterfly emerges triumphant – practically unrecognizable from its former state. LOVE. THAT.

In this small gathering on this smallish island in this small state, big things were happening last night. A Rabbi, a Buddhist, a Baptist, a Muslim, a Baha’i, and a bunch of others walked into a synagogue to talk politics . . . and the unlikely punchline was unity. 

On any scale, true unity in diversity is a beautiful thing to behold. I felt honored and humbled. The hope radiating from such a gathering has the power to inspire even the most disheartened and cynical among us. 

And that’s no joke.

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Annie writes about life, motherhood, world issues, beautiful places, and anything else that tickles her brain. On good days, she enjoys juggling life with her husband and homeschooling her children. On bad days, she binges on chocolate chips and dreams of traveling the world alone.

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