Change is in the air. Despite the pervasive aura of fear, fed by images of destruction in the Middle East and the economic turmoil buffeting every family, there is an air of optimism, and not only in the United States, since a new American president has taken over. The Economist uses the word ‘optimism’ in the context of ‘America’s awesome power of self-renewal’.
Perhaps, as most commentators have pointed out, too many hopes are vested in his wisdom. No one person’s shoulders can support the challenges we all now face. But it was encouraging, for example, to see the way in forming his new administration President Obama reached out to others who come from different ideological points of view. Even appointing Bishop Gene Robinson to lead prayers at the opening of celebrations for his inauguration and pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation – two men as far apart as you can imagine on the issue of homosexuality, both making fine contributions - must make one wonder if something different is happening. In his inaugural speech the President specifically addressed the Muslim world: ‘We seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.’
I would like to look at 2009 as the year of reaching out to ‘the other’, a year of “we” rather than of ‘them’ and ‘us’. I was impressed by the words of a Muslim professor, Tariq Ramadan, who wrote last year, ‘Our societies are awaiting the emergence of the new “We”. A “We” that would bring together men and women, citizens of all religions, and those without religion, who would undertake together to resolve the contradictions of their society: the right to work, to housing, to respect, against racism and all forms of discrimination, all offences against human dignity.’
A Hindu professor, Rajmohan Gandhi, a grandson of the Mahatma, who has just become president of Initiatives of Change International says that President Obama’s election has awakened hope in the hearts of many people worldwide: ‘Humanity’s extremity can be a moment of great opportunity. Renewed awareness of the cost of greed and corruption can inspire new honesty and unselfishness in each of us. Our propensity to demonize “the other” can give way to fresh compassion.’
As a contribution towards developing the ‘we’ attitude and the ending of the demonization of others, I have a new book just published, No Enemy To Conquer – Forgiveness in An Unforgiving World. I am grateful to Publishers Weekly which describes it as ‘a persuasive argument for forgiveness as a practical tool for global survival’. The book has a foreword by a Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, and contains stories from around the world of men and women of different backgrounds - Jewish and Muslim, black and white, Protestant and Catholic - who refuse to stereotype others, even if they themselves have been the victims of cruelty at the hands of ‘the other’.
I describe the work of Muhammad Ashafa, a Muslim imam who was dedicated to the Islamization of Nigeria, and James Wuye, a pastor who was just as dedicated to its total evangelization, and are now called by Archbishop Rowan Williams ‘a model for Christian-Muslim relations’. I mention a Christian friend in North India who gave up a murderous plan of revenge for a family killing and said, ‘I realize that I have been too sensitive to how much others have hurt me and forgotten how much I have hurt others.’
Most of us will not have to face such dramatic challenges. But at this moment of opportunity each of us can play our part, in whatever small way we wish, to break through preconceptions of ‘the other’. In doing so, each of us can help make this the year of “We”.