Illegal. Nazi. Migrant. Refugee. N****r. Terrorist.
Heard of read any of these descriptions recently? I have. A lot.
It seems that now more than ever, communication is breaking down. Name calling and labeling – which many times incites violence – seems to be a norm, especially here in the United States. As a peacebuilder, I’m consistently perplexed about this and I wonder how, or if, this lack of civil communication will shift to a more positive vibe. The air is frenetic with intolerance. The question is, What can we do about it – as individuals and collectively?
I recently had a group of people come at me and insinuate that I couldn’t possibly stand up for and advocate for Muslims because of my relationship with Elie Wiesel. This group wondered how I can do the work I do because I call Elie Wiesel my “mentor.” My first reaction to this was, You’ve got to be kidding? Especially because the people expressing this concern hadn’t even met me face to face, yet. But, then, I had to step back and see it through their eyes – and I came to the conclusion that their perception of me was based on fear and how I, a Christian woman, could possibly advocate for those from any other faith tradition and most importantly, do that with integrity.
Two of the most important things I learned from Elie Wiesel were, how to listen – I mean, really listen – and the other was from what he wrote to me in a letter after I asked several questions and was hoping he’d give me some answers. His response to my queries? “It is the questions that are important. Sometimes there are no answers.” Wise words I still think about even today.
I have written about Elie Wiesel before, and I have shared that we often didn’t agree, mostly about Israel and Palestine – at all. The great thing about these challenges that faced both of us, in and out of the classroom, is that we remained civil. We looked past that which could have easily shed any sense of civility and compatibility, and we saw the whole person in each other. Of course I disagreed with Professor Wiesel and his stance on Palestine. However, that doesn’t mean I still didn’t appreciate him, that I still couldn’t learn from him, and most importantly, that I didn’t respect him. In fact, as much as I didn’t agree with him, I respected him more for being true to himself.
Yet, I was angered that his truth harmed others. I shared that with him one day, His response? “I am sorry that angers you. I don’t mean to cause harm to anyone, you know this. I love Israel, you know this as well. I am contradictory. God knows this more than any.” He paused after this and we just sat in silence. It was in these moments that I had to simply let things be. Even if I didn’t like it. More, it was in that silence in his office at Boston University that day where I thought, I love that God has brought this man into my life to teach me how to be – even when I am in a quandary over some of the things he says and believes.
I have encountered many others that I didn’t agree with, and was seriously appalled by their responses in our conversations. The self-proclaimed Zionist in Israel that told me that Palestine is not a place and Palestinians don’t exist. The Palestinian man who was raised in a refugee camp in Bethlehem who called anyone and everyone that is Jewish a “Zionist racist.” The Muslim man in India that told me women are worthless and deserve no place in society, “… because they are, as the Qur’an and Bible states, below men in every way possible.” The Christian Evangelical that told me that Muslims are “… heathens and as a Christian yourself, you are going to hell if you continue down the path you’re on, Karen.” The Hindu Priest that told me, “… Muslims are dirty. Why bother trying to work with them?” The Buddhist Monk that told me that Christianity has never done the world a bit of good. I could go on and on…
These encounters were exhausting, frustrating, and many times, I just wanted to get up and walk out of the room. However, the beauty of these exchanges is that I stayed. I stayed and listened to that which I did not agree with and was, at times, so taken aback by the vitriol, I not only didn’t respond, but, I had no idea how to respond.
I think this is where all of humanity is right now – we just don’t know how to respond, so, we spew hatred, anger and words that hurt. Because we are fearful, angry and intolerant. It is much easier to dehumanize those that make us raging mad, than to engage with them and try to understand.
I understand that my path is not one that everyone can take. I am lucky enough to say that all of my encounters (positive and negative), with people all over the world, have led me to be so incredibly comfortable with uncomfortable conversations. I know how to fully engage with not only “the other,” but with almost everyone – in a constructive and, at times, humbling and honest manner.
Mind you, this doesn’t mean I walk away calm and collected after listening to difficult ideologies, dogmatic beliefs, and exclusive theologies. On the contrary, those difficult conversations have enraged me and left me incensed. On the other hand, learning to listen to the un-listenable, has empowered me. These conversations have enabled me to be a better human and a more compassionate person. They have prepared me to take on almost anything I read, see, or hear. Words that others will cringe with and that many would simply respond with more vitriol, leave me walking away and understanding more about humans, what we believe, and why.
I wish we were more tolerant. I wish we would stop and think before we respond. I wish we would take the time to understand – even when we feel we can’t. I wish we would stop labeling, name calling, and adding more hatred to this already hate-filled world.
I wish we would listen more.
It’s almost comical – having people come at me with concern over my relationship with Elie Wiesel and question how I could possibly advocate for Muslims (or the Palestinian plight), because of my relationship with him. The reality is, not only am I probably one of the strongest advocates for Muslims in the United States, but one of the best Interfaith Activists as well. All thanks to my Mentor, Elie Wiesel.
Gnaw on that a bit.
Karen Leslie Hernandez is a theologian and interfaith activist. With a focus in Christian-Muslim understanding, as well as religious fundamentalism and extremism, Karen is the only theologian who is a Latina and a United Methodist doing this type of theological work in the US. She has published with several media outlets including the Women’s United Nations Report Network, The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue/Studies, the Interfaith Observer, and she is the only Christian to have published an ongoing Op-Ed Column with OnIslam out of Cairo, Egypt. Some of her past gigs include designing and teaching an Interfaith Dialogue workshop with Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, as well as spending three years working with United Religions Initiative in several different positions. As an Over-Achiever, Karen has not one, but two theological master’s degrees – one from Andover Newton Theological School, the other from Boston University School of Theology. She did her BA at Wellesley College. Karen currently lives in San Francisco, works at St Anthony’s, teaches workshops throughout the Bay Area, is an Ambassador with Parliament of the World’s Religions, is pursuing her Doctor of Ministry at Claremont School of Theology, and she is also a certified domestic violence advocate.