I encourage you to read the exchange of letters between President George Washington and Moses Seixas, the warden of the Hebrew Congregation in Newport Rhode Island in 1790. Washington was scheduled to visit Newport, and this leader of the Jewish community writes to welcome him.
In addition to welcoming Washington, Seixas is obviously concerned about the well-being of the Jewish community in this new country and therefore wants to affirm his understanding of the inclusive nature of this new country. He writes, “Deprived as we have hitherto been of the invaluable rights of free citizens, we now…behold a Government…which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance—but generously affording to All liberty of conscience, and immunities of citizenship—deeming every one, of whatever nation, tongue, or language equal parts of the great governmental machine.” Four days later Washington responded: “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
Along with our countries founding documents, these words proclaim the dream that is America. The dream of a country where in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. people would be judged by the “content of their character,” not the color of their skin, or their religious affiliation, or their ethnic background. Of course, most dreams are not easily realized. Even as he spoke these words, bigotry was being sanctioned in the slavery that Washington and many others supported. Bigotry has a long history in this country. Bigotry was sanctioned and persecution assisted when Native Americans were slaughtered and removed from their land. Bigotry was sanctioned when the Japanese were interred during WWII. In our own time, we see bigoted behavior directed to gays and lesbians, Muslims, Jews, and immigrants.
A primary calling of the church in the United States is to work with other citizens of whatever faith, or no faith at all, to help fulfill the dream of an America that "gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance." This dream is deeply rooted in the biblical vision of a world in which people from all nations shall come together and live a disarmed life governed by God’s ways (Is 2: 2-4). The radical nature of this dream means it will always be under threat. The challenge of welcoming “the other” has a history as long as humanity has been around. We do not easily embrace what we don’t know, and very often we scapegoat those who are not like us. People of faith must resist any attempts to demean or marginalize any group of people.
We must also be diligent about getting to know our neighbors. Beginning Wednesday evening February 22, St. Timothy’s, the Clifton Mosque, and the Hindu Temple in Eastgate, will host an Interfaith Dialogue series over the course of four or five Wednesdays. This series is a way for people from different faith traditions to get to know each other. It is a way to celebrate the diversity which is at the core of our country. It is a way to move one step closer to fulfilling the dream of the prophets and our founding fathers. I hope you will join us.