What Two 9/11 Anniversaries Can Teach Us About The Role Of Religion

Swami Vivekananda, seated second from right, at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, Sept. 11, 1893, in Chicago. Also on stage are Virchand Gandhi, seated from left, Hewivitarne Dharmapala, Vivekananda and possibly G. Bonet Maury -- Creative Commons.

(RNS) — We are approaching the September anniversary of an event that illustrated the power of religion in the world, one so influential that it altered our view of entire religious communities, and changed the way faith groups relate to one another.

I speak of Sept. 11, 1893, the day Swami Vivekananda, a Hindu monk who had come to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago as a delegate to the first Parliament of the World’s Religions, gave a speech to an audience of 7,000, in a space that is now the Art Institute of Chicago. He became a sensation and helped to introduce Hindu philosophy, as well as yoga, to the United States.

That day Vivekananda spoke of the value of religious tolerance, articulated a Hindu theology of interfaith cooperation and invited his colleagues of other faiths to do the same. He ended his speech by praying for the end of “all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between people wending their way to the same goal.”

We are, of course, approaching the anniversary of another 9/11, one that shaped the world we live in now, one that had all the qualities that Vivekananda sought to rid us of — fanaticism, persecution, uncharitable feelings.

Al-Qaida and the Taliban showed us that faith can be a bomb of destruction. Islamophobes in the United States showed that faith can be a barrier of division. But in our post-9/11/2001 world, we can see patterns that are more in line with Vivekananda’s vision of faith as a bridge of cooperation.

Some of this happened at the level of global leaders. Tony Blair founded his Faith Foundation, aimed at interfaith understanding. Madeleine Albright wrote a book called “The Mighty and the Almighty,” which made the case for greater capacity within the United States government for positively engaging diverse religious actors. The Clinton Global Initiative had a religion track. The governments of Turkey and Spain launched an Alliance of Civilizations.

Swami Vivekananda in Chicago during the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Sept. 1893. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

Swami Vivekananda in Chicago during the Parliament of the World’s Religions in September 1893. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

 

It was in this contested environment that the organization I lead, Interfaith Youth Core, grew into a civic force in the United States. When I started the organization in 1998 with the idea of inspiring young people to be interfaith leaders through social action projects, few people paid attention.

After 9/11/2001, the phone didn’t stop ringing. Colleges were interested in starting interfaith student councils and for-credit courses. Communities wanted to host Days of Interfaith Service. Houses of worship wanted to do youth exchanges. Foundations and philanthropists were interested in funding these programs, and the media wanted to tell the story.

Yet I think of these initiatives as representing the spirit of 9/11/1893. As we commemorate the 20th  anniversary of 9/11/2001, as we mourn the terrible loss of life, as we celebrate the heroic first responders, we should commit ourselves more fully to the vision of that earlier 9/11.

We should recognize that our religious diversity can be a force for good.

No one should be scapegoated for actions that other human beings committed simply because they share a skin color, a language or a religion. The terrorists of all faiths actually belong to one faith — the faith of terrorism.

It is time for the United States to live into the vision of being a truly multifaith nation. We are not a Judeo-Christian country; we are interfaith America, the most religiously diverse nation in human history and the most religiously devout nation in the Western Hemisphere.

Faith can be a bridge of cooperation, but bridges don’t fall from the sky, people build them. And when we build those bridges of cooperation between different faiths, we build a world that is worthy of the highest ideals of all of our faith.

It is a vision beautifully expressed by the Chicagoan Charles Bonney in the concluding statement of the 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions: “From now on, the great religions of the world will make war no longer on each other, and instead on the giant ills that afflict humankind.”

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

more from IFYC

One third of Americans don’t identify as Christian. IFYC VP Amber Hacker explains how to offer a more equitable approach to time off.
"I want to do the work of a theologian that takes seriously reading Black texts as sacred texts and Black life as sacred history," Stewart said.
Pope Francis has turned Twitter into a prophetic medium. It is his way of getting the Gospel message out to the world.
The Duniverse, as some fans call it, is heavily influenced by ecology and sociology — as well as imagery from the Islamic world and the Middle East.
The gathering was one stop on a spiritual convoy to San Francisco, where a court will hear an appeal the group has filed to keep land in Arizona from being transferred to a mining company.
University leaders say they will use the gift to fund new faculty positions and build laboratories. Calvin is affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church, a small denomination based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Our top 10 religion stories ask: Can college kids get along? Does "Midnight Mass" respect religion? And is there a Torah of Ted Lasso?
The expansion is fueled by concerns over political polarization on college campuses, an infusion of funds from foundations interested in bridge-building, and a merger with IFYC, which has a track record facilitating interfaith engagement.
The home temple, or puja mandir, has been part of Hindu culture for centuries. Even for those who are not very religious, it can be a space for meditation and reflection.
Feeling broken and betrayed by God after her son Beau died, the First Lady said her spirits lifted inside a Baptist church. "I felt for the first time that there was a path for my recovering my faith."
Applications open October 1, and grants are available to educators doing important work that engages religious diversity to combat systemic racism, inside and outside the classroom.
On loan from the Library of Congress, the historic English-language Quran, printed in London in 1764, will be the first object in a display that honors U.S. founding principles.
Ancient rabbis imagined the great chain of tradition, that went from generation to generation, as a ball that is tossed, playfully, from teacher to student. Is there a "Lasso Torah" inside a television show about a fish-out-of-water Midwestern football coach?
Studies show houses of worship have provided solace during the pandemic, but companies across the U.S. are struggling to respond to requests for religious exemptions to vaccine mandates.
Catholics leaders have urged vaccination to "protect the most vulnerable," and studies show this outreach is helping improve vaccination rates among Latino Catholics.
Across the country, people from all political divides, faiths and walks of life are coming together to help resettle Afghan refugees arriving at the borders.
The first episode of “Home Sweet Home,” which DuVernay said prioritizes curiosity over conflict, features the Wixx family — a “super queer” Black couple with three children.
Each week, we share our top 10 religion stories from journals, news sites, podcasts and magazines.
Dr. Abel Gomez: "If we’re talking about interfaith work and we want to expand the ability of communities to practice their religious ceremonies, I ask my students: if we think about the experience of Native people under the occupation of the United States, do they actually have religious freedom?"
The Fisk Jubilee Singers, based at the historically Black university founded by the abolitionist American Missionary Association and later tied to the United Church of Christ, started traveling 150 years ago on Oct. 6, 1871.
The last several months have been catastrophic for Haiti. The Aug. 14 earthquake left more than 2,200 people dead, followed by Tropical Depression Grace two days later. The country’s political sector has been in disarray & over 22,000 people have officially died during the pandemic.

The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.