A couple of weeks ago, November 5, 2011, the word went out by email that anti-Muslim organizations were planning to demonstrate at the gala of the Council for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Anaheim, California. It was a call to silent witness, a kind of wordless counter-demonstration to oppose the virulent hatred often shown on such occasions. Interfaith Witnesses was not demonstrating in favor of any particular individuals or organizations, but against the disease of bigotry that continues to threaten our society. This was also the eve of Eid al-Adha, the Islamic holiday celebrating Isaac’s redemption on the altar of sacrifice, and the Muslim participants of the gala were just concluding their fast. It seemed doubly offensive that people would be shouting insults at them on this occasion, without a friendly face to be seen.
When I drove past the corner where we were supposed to meet, there was a straggle of persons with flags and signs warning about terrorism. By the time I parked the car and returned, the action had moved to opposite the hotel. My group was also now stationed there.
As I approached, protesters noted my “Peace” T-shirt with condescension and challenged me, “Are you really an American?” When I answered yes, they pronounced me “disgusting.” Suddenly I came on our group, standing at the curb with a large banner, “Standing on the Side of Love,” which is the name of a public advocacy campaign by the Unitarian Universalist Association to defend the dignity of all persons. The UUs were well represented in this group, which at that time consisted of 5 women and one male priest in a wheelchair. Burly members of a motorcycle gang in colorful jackets stood surrounding them; in particular, one stood directly over the priest in the wheelchair. The women seemed quite distraught. Later I heard that the protesters had been grilling the priest on how a Christian could support Muslims and making comments to the women, such as, “Do you like to be raped?” I did not hear these comments, but the scene definitely looked intimidating.
The protesters were delivering their views by megaphone in the direction of the hotel and the arriving guests. The strategy of the counter-protest was to stand in “silent witness,” that is, say nothing and not respond to any provocations. They fulfilled this mission admirably.
Eventually our group disengaged from the other group and moved a short distance down the sidewalk. The protesters then left us in peace. The interesting thing is that neither of the two groups was there for its own pleasure. It was a blustery cold day, and I’m sure we all had better things to do on a Saturday afternoon. Both groups were there in service to a principle, taking a stand against something they considered extremely objectionable and dangerous to the society in which they lived. The protesters were showing loyalty to their country and to the Christian religion, as they understood it, both of which they considered under threat from Islam. In general, their group seemed to be made up of rough-hewn, crudely outspoken types, given to confrontation. They were standing up for what they believed in. I don’t think they grasped that their aggressive behavior toward women and a disabled man could seem cowardly.
The counter-protesters, on the other hand, were there to defend the ideal of an open, inclusive society, with mutual understanding across national, political, and confessional boundaries. I’m sure we all felt, also, that we were the true patriots, standing up for the vision of a large and broad America in which justice was to be upheld by the word and example of conscientious citizens. We were not all “Christians,” but it was not hard to see the Gospel subtext for a group of screaming accusers confronted by a silent defense.
I know from my days in the Soviet Union how easily such fine liberal sentiments as these can be manipulated by the cynical. There is danger in trying to be a “beautiful soul.” For this reason, I try to be hard-headed in judging a cause or an organization, and to admit my mistake if turns out that I have been wrong about something.
Later on, various friends and acquaintances of the group stopped by. One young woman was on her way to the gala and appeared in dazzling, elegant Muslim holiday dress. Full of good will and idealism, she was a breath of fresh air to disperse all the ugly impressions that had gathered.
Today’s readings speak of our waiting for God to appear. It is the start of Advent, so we are waiting for Christmas and the baby Jesus. In these readings, however, it is more the judgment of God that we want; we want our questions to be answered, and things to be put in their proper places.
O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at thy presence–
as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil–to make thy name known to thy adversaries, and that the nations might tremble at thy presence! (Isaiah 64:1-2)
Pending that judgment, we are in darkness.
But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. (Mark 13:24-25)
This passage evokes well the nausea of the present moment, when there seems to be no clear guiding light, only the clamor of angry voices. We wish to know the truth of what we should do, what we should defend and what attack, who are the true enemies and all the details of the true Cause. It would be a great comfort to relax in the company of those we know to be on the right side, agree with all their reasoning, act together with them in all things. Yet the principle that all persons’ dignity must be respected forbids that I should completely despise the opinion or worldview of others, even those very different in appearance and culture from me. This nausea, this suspension of judgment, is ours to live with for an indefinite time.