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‘A Common Word’ in the News

Opinion: What divides us as important as what unites us

The recent media firestorm over Ann Coulter’s comments on whether or not the Jewish people require “perfection” follows the predictable pattern. Like Captain Renault in the movie Casablanca, the hosts of various news programs professed themselves “shocked, shocked” to discover that Coulter had said something hateful. (Meredith Viera on “The Today Show” being a particularly egregious example.) This was despite the fact that only a few days earlier, Ann Coulter had appeared on these same programs promoting her most recent book, a collection of many hateful things she has said.

I don’t know what Ann Coulter believes about the Jews’ place in salvation history. Based on the transcript of what she and her interviewer said as they talked past each other, I don’t know what she believes about Christianity even. Her spoken words, when reproduced in print, were grammatical and theological nonsense.

What disturbs me is not what Coulter did or did not say. I am disturbed that this is what public discourse looks like in America.

Let me hasten to add that this is not a call for a “return to civility.” Such civility, even if it did once exist, did nothing but mask real and significant differences that separate us, while protecting the interests of those in power.

What plagues us is not a lack of civility but a lack of knowledge. To put it simply, we are too ignorant of one another, and often of ourselves, to converse at any serious level. And we are too lazy to do anything about it. The news cycles of NBC, CNN, Fox, et al, reinforce this ignorance and sloth.

At the other end of the spectrum is the recently expressed opinion of President Bush that we all worship the same God. I suppose we do politicians an injustice by paying any attention at all to their theological opinions, but such seemingly benign expressions of tolerance and inclusiveness do nothing to negotiate the serious work that must be done if real understanding is to be achieved.

Recently the President hosted an Iftaar dinner at the White House to signal the end of Ramadan. I commend him for attempting to include Muslim Americans. But since President Bush had not fasted for the month of Ramadan, in what sense might the meal he shared be called Iftaar? It was certainly a friendly gesture, but just as surely one devoid of any real meaning.

This is why the recent appeal to the leaders of the various Christian churches from a group of Islamic scholars and leaders (“A Common Word Between Us and You”) will come to nothing. The appeals to some putatively common foundational principles, such as love of God and love of neighbor, are as pointless as they are well intentioned. If we have so much in common, why have we spent so many centuries at each other’s throats? What divides is as important as what unites us, and understanding that requires effort, patience and time. It can’t be wedged in between commercials.

If we Baptists are divided between ourselves, and if Christ’s church is divided within herself, what common word do we imagine will draw Christians, Jews and Muslims together?

Let me present a more modest proposal. To quote John Prine, “Blow up your TV” — figuratively at least. Don’t imagine that the talking heads on it are experts or that the disembodied voices of talk radio represent real conversation. Next make sure you know your own tradition. Study is always hard work, but at least you’ll own your knowledge.

Finally, find someone of another faith and talk, not only about those comforting commonalities but about those dangerous differences. Who knows? It might really be the start of something.

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– Beth Newman is a professor of theology and ethics at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. bnewman@btsr.edu

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