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A woman named Hannah was walking through a marketplace in Jerusalem. Suddenly the forty year old woman of eight heard someone shouting ‘Terrorist! Arab!’ A young Arab man ran past her and was tackled by a man right at her feet. Adnan al-Afandi, age twenty-one, a young Muslim extremist had stabbed a thirteen year old Jewish boy. The crowd closed in. Hannah felt something terrible was about to happen. Someone fired a shot. Without thinking, she threw herself atop the young Arab to protect him. The crowd was shocked. They spit on her, they kicked her, cursed her, called her ‘Arab lover! Traitor!’ and worse. Hannah stayed put until the police took Al-Afandi into custody. In the weeks that followed, her action were fiercely debated in Israel…she violated every taboo… she agreed to go on television with the mother of the boy who had been stabbed by this extremist. ‘How could you protect him?’ the mother screamed. Hannah replied ‘I gave him sanctuary as a human being – as a child of God – and now I must explain myself?’ (Adapted from A House of Hope by John Buehrens and Rebecca Parker)
Today we stand at a cross road of pluralism. This is the end of the high holy days of Judaism, Rosh Hanna and Yom Kippur has ended. We sense the struggle of Palestinians for statehood, for the Rohingya for survival, and African Americans for equal rights if not reparations. Layers upon layers of identity create frictions of differing world views, greased from one to the next by the media, politics and cold civil war that has broken out across our country. This story about a Jewish woman saving an Arab extremist’s life, illustrates how painful our world has become. The debacles over the burning of the Koran, despite a worldwide out pouring of tolerance and restraint shows us just how powerful identities can be and how difficult it can be to find a middle ground. The six decade struggle between Israelis and Palestinians is the longest running example of the ugly side of pluralism.
The sad news is that this will not get any easier. With the speed of media transmission and the demise of news reporting to the blogs of political position staking, we are in a world of agony. What will save us? How can we help save this world? And closer to home how can we find the good in our own lives when it is so hard to see.
I have been struggling with this question for many years. All my professional life I have believed that we could dismantle fears through understanding and dialogue. I founded an interfaith alliance after the attacks of 9/11. I have invited Muslims to preach in my pulpits. I partnered with a Pentecostal minister to achieve civil rights in housing and employment. I have initiated discussion groups with Christians, Jews and Muslims. I have done all this, and while I and those who participate feel good about that work, I have to say honestly that I am not sure it has made much difference. What I found is that inclusive pluralism does not necessarily lead to meaningful social change. Increasingly, I found myself frustrated with the reluctance of inter-faith organizations to work together towards practical change (such as feeding the hungry) much less political change (such as taking a policy stand on hunger). The dialogue we encouraged seemed to keep us safe from our differences as long as it was wrapped in the mantle of respect. These inter-faith organizations shied away from action because to do so would be to offend the other or, even worse, to risk censure by the religious authorities these good meaning people had to report to.
The result of this was a disappointment and a retreat for me. Not only did I begin to disengage from inter-faith work, but I stopped trying to involve my congregations in that work. Something, fortunately, has changed. I realized it gradually over the last several years but most especially in recent months. What I see now is that we have blinders on our eyes to the good that does exist around us. That there are thousands of stories like this one which are never reported on. And even more importantly there are millions of organizations around the world in what Paul Hawkins called a “Blessed Unrest”, that are standing up to the intolerance of one for another. Something more is happening. We cannot see it because we are being consumed by what isn’t working rather than what it is.
There is a generational shift occurring right around us. I believe we must acknowledge that shift and be a part of it or we will fade into mediocrity as a church. The prevailing theology of fundamentalism is there is only one way: One mountain, one path. Those of you who are older than me are more inclusive of other religions, like most mainline churches: One mountain, many paths but our path is best. My generation is more pluralistic, believing that we may not have the best path towards ultimate meaning: One mountain, many paths, take your pick. The generation of my children, are “radical pluralists”; willing to engage from multiple faith perspectives: Many mountains, many paths, all good. Our role as a congregation must be not to hold stubbornly to what we once were (you are welcome but here is how we do things) to helping us shift to what our more progressive children, some of whom come to this church as their parents once did, call “many kinds of welcomes”. It’s not just that one size fits all here. One worship service where we all come together, only guarantees some will not feel welcome. Rather we will need to create, in addition to our main service, smaller worship opportunities; pagan circles, Buddhist meditation, even bible study. But even more important than that is how we can partner with people who are agonizingly different than us. UUs working alongside members of a fundamentalist church.
The name for this paradigm shift what William Connolly calls “agonistic respect”, centered on social action towards the most vulnerable in our community. “Agonism implies a deep respect and concern for the other; indeed, the Greek agon refers most directly to an athletic contest oriented …the importance of the struggle itself.” (Wikipedia)
Agonistic Respect. Agonizing as in agony. Respect as in accepting the other people as people. When the Jewish mother threw herself on the Arab murderer, that was agonizing respect! Protecting your enemy from an unjust death. But if a Jewish mother can do that, how hard would it be to build a home with someone who believes you are going to hell.
You see, the reason we do this is because the alternative is untenable. We can stay in here for the next seventy years being comfortable with who we are as religious liberals, attracting and surrounding ourselves with other religious liberals. Or we can be truly liberal: we can make an effort to work alongside others who are different than who we are. We can offer worship and community activities for those who are different than who we are.
Where talking fails to promote a radical pluralism in this post modern age, perhaps acting will. In Connolly’s words: “…Agonistic respect is a cardinal virtue of deep pluralism.” We might actually learn more about what we truly believe, not in discussion groups, but in action groups. This is where our social justice ministry comes in. Hundreds if not all of us have participated in this work, some more hands on such as reading books to kids at the Beardsley School and others in sharing the plate. I think what we don’t often see is how these good works multiply when others join us or, more rightly when we join others. Joining others, getting out of the way, becoming followers and not leaders is something we are working on here. It’s not easy for us as people of privilege. We are used to having the answers but those answers are not often what people in need want. It may come as a surprise but we may actually not know what is best. Can you hear me? Maybe we need to shut up and just show up in order to see the good we normally cannot see.
One of my greatest insights recently was that I have been measuring our success with the wrong yard stick. I have been trying to create a common theology from which our action can emerge, when what is needed is to engage in a common action through which theological understanding can emerge. This is where the good often hides. The kind of trust that comes from working together breaks down the barriers that exclusivist doctrines have erected. By encouraging you to act with people of different, even agonistic faith positions, we will not only broaden our own religious understanding, but encourage those of other faiths to broaden theirs.
Perhaps even more importantly such multi-faith action will move us towards relevancy with the next generation of radical religious pluralists. Rather than arguing or even acting from within a doctrine, such multi-faith social justice orientations might open doors of understanding and deepen our faith. The Christian proclamation “That if you want peace work for justice” can just as easily be understood by the Buddhist understanding “That if you want justice work for peace”. 
True pluralism, the truly good, might actually be more likely among religious liberals if they engaged in multi-faith justice making which actually compelled them to live out their beliefs in the company of others who might challenge those beliefs. In Connolly’s words: “This is where…we…can become productive. You cultivate your faith in the company of others in the first instance.” And when you truly understand the other you soften the edges of your differences. I am not saying we are all the same anymore. We are different in more and more ways all the time. Where before we could unite under the banner of say America or Unitarian Universalist, I realize now that our pluralism has overtaken those identities. They are not enough to hold us together. When I talk with you about what you need, what I am seeing is that people are less concerned with Unitarian Universalism and more concerned with their own church. The downside of so much diversity is a tendency to segregate into smaller groups.
What will hold us together beyond our increasing pluralism is a respect of the other as our own. The generations that will follow us will not have the ability to unite us all in a brotherhood of man. But they will have the time to take on projects together that help people in need.
Focusing on the good in the world can sometimes lead to a myopic view of whatever cause you hold most dear. All too often some of our desires to stop global warming, save refugees, end racism become a sort of puritan cause. As Voltaire famously observed “often the perfect is the enemy of the good”. Can’t what we do, be good enough?
Our religion then, this congregation, will, in my humble opinion, have to be less concerned about what we believe and more concerned about what we do. And lest we forget, the good we cannot see also lives in our ordinary lives. In the comfort of ordinary talk; How are you?, the Weather, your family. That chatting we do is not useless and small talk but what the poet Craig Barnes calls minor poetry[i]. Which is why major poetry, the kind that gets written and spoken, is so vital in helping us see the good in the world. This is what Frank Hall knew and what I have come to increasingly appreciate. The good we cannot see is often embedded in the poetry we need to say. We live in a world full of pains and wrongs, we are often ambivalent about the mystery of life and death, but when we hold up the good we see into others and they see into us, we free ourselves to live life with purpose. Seeing the good requires practicing beauty in the face of pain. After a shelling of Sarajevo Bosnia in 1992 when dozens of people who were in line to buy bread where killed in the town square, the principal cellist for the Sarajevo Opera, Vedran Smailovic donned his concert formals, took his cello and sat in the rubble strewn square playing so that people would come out of their homes, their agony, to buy bread again. Seeing the good is more than just being polite, it involves us loving those who need our love the most. As St. Francis of Assisi was fond of saying “Preach the gospel always; when necessary, use words.” May we go and do likewise.
 William E. Connolly, Pluralism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005).123
 William E .Connolly, Pluralism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005).125
 Paul F. Knitter, Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian (Oxford, England: Oneworld Publications, 2009). 200-212
 William E. Connolly, Pluralism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005).31
[i] M. Craig Barnes The Pastor as Minor Poet (Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans Publishing, 2009)