Reflections on the morning of Dec. 25, 2016

Sun, 01/01/2017 - 6:45am
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Waking this morning to Christmas and the first day of Chanukah 2016, there is sunlight streaming through all the windows of our home in a cozy neighborhood on this tiny island off the coast of Rhode Island.

Sunlight falls onto the struggling plants in my southeasterly bay window.  It also falls through my Chanukah window: it’s the one with the streamers, the dreidle cutouts and Happy Chanukah message posted as greetings to my Block Island world.

When we light the Menorah, which is situated at that window, however, I feel that the illumination of the little candles goes further than just into our immediate neighborhood. It is my conviction that our impulse to “light up the darkness” — to send rays of hope across the night  —are joined with those of our friends and neighbors, Christians, Muslims, others. All of us share dreams that peace and justice may yet find wings and spread throughout the world.

Who are these dreamers?

Who are those of us who so dream? Indeed, most of us. Often we define ourselves by the religions we have grown up in, or the value systems nurtured by our families. These are among the potent influences that inform our faith.

At times, we have derided each other or stood by as others have targeted our neighbors because of our and their faiths. Human history is littered with the carnage resulting from those kinds of actions, at times inactions, or indifference. 

The political framework within the countries we grow up in also fosters our dreams. Ours is a democracy, which schools us in principles of fairness and inclusion. Being an American also teaches us to be vigilant and make certain that voices of hatred do not whip up our fears and uncertainties so much that they launch us into an era of xenophobia and bigotry.

To direct these at others — neighbors, citizens who are different, victims made homeless by war — is to fly in the face of our shared values. 

Ties of ethical monotheism

While there are those who cast aspersions on Islam as a terrorist organization masquerading as a religion, we must not be misdirected by lies: Islam is one of three major Abrahamic religions.

Islam is intimately tied to Christianity and Judaism, through acknowledgement of the role of Abraham, the patriarch, who is credited with establishing “ethical monotheism.” Abraham is seen as “the first to link individual belief and worship in... one G-d to social values and responsibilities.” 

As movements toward exclusivity and prejudice invade our public spaces, it seems more important than ever to establish the common roots of our humanity. Rather than pointing disparaging fingers at groups or individuals, it is time to unite behind those common values.

Most of us, whether religious or secular in our outlooks, support the imperatives of working for the community, protecting the rights of all to worship freely and promoting social justice throughout our society. These have historically been shared principles no matter what our political affiliation.   

If, as the Declaration of Independence bids us, we must promote “the common good,” then we must also hold our leaders to the standard of always telling the truth. We must make certain that our personal freedoms do not depend on encroaching on the freedoms of others. And we need to be part of a responsible, ongoing and vital opposition that is a requisite part of a healthy democracy.

An indispensable opposition

As renowned 20th century American journalist Walter Lippmann reminds us, the voice of an opposition is “indispensable.”

He writes, “The compelling reason why, if liberty of opinion did not exist, we should have to invent it, why it will eventually have to be restored in all civilized countries where it is now suppressed, is that we must protect the right of our opponents to speak because we must hear what they have to say.”

Lippmann urges us to keep a vital dialogue alive. He refers to Socrates and his “unexamined life,” noting it is “unfit to be lived by man. This is the virtue of liberty... When men are brought face to face with their opponents, forced to listen and learn and mend their ideas, they cease to be children and savages and begin to live like civilized men. Then only is freedom a reality...”

He adds, “The democratic system cannot be operated without effective opposition... The opposition is indispensable.”

So it is in this last week of 2016, as we, at our window, light one more candle each night, we join ourselves to mankind’s collective dream of peace and justice. However, these are not dreams for one season, nor will they be achieved by wishing.

Rather we must make round-the-clock commitments to protect each other with all of our differences and our planet with all of its vulnerabilities. We must make every effort in our power to make our voices heard — in order to keep truth and our democracy alive.