In toxic time, hope can be the solid ground we can stand on

Severely tried in the months since Oct. 7, the interfaith community still looks to the promise of future flourishing.

Demonstrators calling for peace in Israel and the Gaza Strip gathered Oct. 16, 2023, in front of the White House. The group was primarily organized by the groups If Not Now and Jewish Voice for Peace. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

(RNS) — Calls for hope in times like these can seem like toxic positivity — or like a slur. Urging hope seems to ignore charred bodies in a kibbutz and bombed refugee camps, to mock victims of hate crimes, to disregard the failed peace agreements and war machines that crisscross the sky.

At the Shoulder to Shoulder Campaign, we have worked for 13 years to counter the rhetoric and policies that demonize American Muslims and others perceived to be Muslim — Arab, Palestinian, Sikh and South Asian Americans. Our coalition draws people of faith and goodwill beyond the Muslim community, primarily Christians and Jews, to take responsibility and take action to counter anti-Muslim discrimination.

Our coalition is diverse, spanning the political and theological spectrum, requiring us to meet communities where they are, holding space and creating plans for their next steps, whether that be lobbying Congress, advocating for inclusive school holiday calendars, caring for recent immigrants and refugees, or having meals and conversations with Muslim neighbors. 

Interfaith groups in the United States like ours have too often avoided discussions of Israel and Palestine, choosing to go quiet or pause programs as violence erupts in the Middle East. In recent years and now with the sheer violence and division of the past seven months, many involved in interfaith engagement have felt this stance was untenable. We and others in our space know that in this moment we have a choice between giving up all hope, stopping all of our work and conversations, or continuing to fumble together toward some future we can barely, if ever, see.

We’re choosing to find strength in a different kind of hope, one that keeps us connected to our deepest ideals and each other. In the last seven months, our team has had countless one-on-one calls and meetings with Muslim, Christian, Jewish and interfaith leaders, organizations and congregations. Our conversations have included people in small interfaith coalitions in rural communities, large interfaith organizations in big cities, corporations, universities, and parents desperate for ways to address the rise in bullying at K-12 schools.

These conversations went something like this: An organization or faith leader would reach out, looking for guidance on how to counter the sharp rise in anti-Muslim discrimination, while also addressing the rise in anti-Jewish discrimination. Some made or shared statements condemning the horrific violence of Hamas and were quickly made aware of how the statements were sometimes playing into well-rehearsed Islamophobic tropes.

Others condemned the horrific violence and bombardment of Gaza’s civilians and communities, only to hear that those statements sometimes played into well-rehearsed anti-Jewish tropes. Many felt caught between a swiftly changing landscape and communities believed to be friends.

Most of us had difficulty detangling the geopolitical dynamics from the religious drivers of this moment. It has been bewildering to decouple religious and cultural identities from support for particular governments, armed groups and political parties. As we, interfaith and community leaders, held space for historical trauma, current fears and systemic injustice, we were also experiencing grief, anger and helplessness as the news on the ground grew darker: Hostages were not freed, nor was Gaza spared bombardment.

Many communities have questioned whether interfaith relationships and coalitions were even real. Some decided not to host their annual interfaith iftars; others decided to retreat from engaging, focusing on internal communal needs, which are important to address.

Which brings me back to what hope means, and what it does in our lives. In my tradition’s Christian and Hebrew Scriptures, hope is concrete — something we stand on, and something that can be ripped away in a disaster, like the roots of a tree in a storm. These Scriptures were written by and about people who repeatedly had everything taken away, who looked at the setting sun certain that this would be their last day. For many of them, it was.

From these Scriptures I’ve learned that when the ground has fallen out from under us, hope, as recorded by our ancestors, is something we practice. As the activist Mariame Kaba says, hope is a discipline. This is the hope our ancestors testified to amid hopelessness. 

To make way for a practice of hope to grow, we have helped guide individuals and organizational leaders to shift from public statements to private conversations, to tend to relationships with people from different political and theological perspectives and to create space for those with shared identities to process generational trauma and dehumanizing narratives. Communal care like this is foundational when powers and principalities are warring around us and between us.

We have seen Christians and Jews give dates and flowers to Muslims in Ramadan. Muslims invite Jews and Christians to iftars in their homes for intimate conversations. People of all faiths gather in silent, prayerful vigil to mourn together in a shared search for peace and to work shoulder to shoulder against discrimination.

What we’ve learned from leaders around the country is that practicing hope means caring for every life lost in violence. It means showing up in grief, joy and anger. It means grounding the struggle for dignity, justice and liberation in the hope for a future in which oppressor and oppressed are liberated from the cycles of oppression. It is to call out anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim narratives and policies with equal force. It is to make visible the threads of hope that connect every person to a future with everyone at the table. 

To build this future, we need this practice of hope. We must continue to reach out to our neighbors, elected leaders and faith leaders of every tradition.

Those who want to participate in this practice of hope should call elected officials to demand a nonviolent and permanent resolution to the current violence and demand that our budgets reflect life, not death, funding humanitarian aid, not more weapons. We should demand that security not be dependent on oppression. We need to learn more about anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish tropes and how to counter them effectively.

We should also support peaceful student protesters who deserve every right to demonstrate and advocate for institutional divestment from war. We should support creating spaces of safety on campuses for people who disagree, without the use of armed police.

More personally, we need to reach out to neighbors, friends and colleagues who are directly impacted in this moment, including Palestinians, Israelis, Arabs, Jews and Muslims. Even saying “I’m thinking about you and your family” can begin a connection based on mutual care. 

We know this practice transforms the world because we have witnessed it in people who, against all odds, changed the trajectory of their communities. One iftar, or one cup of tea, will not counter anti-Muslim or anti-Jewish discrimination, but we cannot hope to address our joint concerns if we’re strangers to each other.

We’ve learned from the despair of our communities, ancestors, saints and martyrs that hope is anything but hollow. In fact, interfaith relationships are the fruits of equally hopeless times past, when interfaith and community leaders in the civil rights and labor movements worked together. From those leaders and from our Scriptures we’ve learned that hope is the promise of a future full of life, love and dignity. Hope is the ground beneath our feet that keeps us planting, reaping, building and growing.

Rev. Cassandra Lawrence. Photo courtesy Shoulder to Shoulder Campaign

The Rev. Cassandra Lawrence. Photo courtesy of Shoulder to Shoulder Campaign

Hope is our connection to the promises of a God who sits in the ash heap with Job, a God who cares for the elderly and the orphan when everything has been lost. Hope is the practice and the thread that connects us to a future we cannot see when all hope is lost. So we must keep on reaching out and fumbling forward together, searching for the threads of dignity, equity and justice that will lead us toward communities of mutual flourishing and belonging.

(The Rev. Cassandra Lawrence, a United Methodist provisional deacon, is director of strategic communications for the Shoulder to Shoulder Campaign: Standing With American Muslims, Advancing American Ideals, a multifaith coalition committed to countering anti-Muslim discrimination and violence in the U.S. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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