ENID, Okla. — Members of at least six congregations of the Christian and Jewish faiths gathered at St. Stephen AME Church Monday evening for an ecumenical service in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. and his enduring legacy.
The service, hosted by St. Stephen AME and St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, featured an address by Rabbi Vered Harris, from Temple B’nai Israel in Oklahoma City, on “Stepping Into Fear.”
Seating in the small church was filled almost to capacity with members from St. Stephen AME and St. Matthew’s, Temple B’nai Israel and at least three other local Christian congregations.
Harris said she sought to honor the work and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. by tackling the issue of fear from a religious perspective.
“It seems to me that many of us fear people who are different,” Harris said, “different in how they look, what they believe or where they come from.”
This drives us, Harris said, into a dichotomy of beliefs, in which we think others who do not agree with us must be wrong, in order for us to be right.
“If I’m right and you’re different, that does not mean you must be wrong,” Harris said. “Acceptance of multiple truths is really important for diversity.”
That acceptance can be hard for some, Harris said, especially when it surrounds questions of faith, because of “a fear that somehow your truth might put mine into question.”
“There are amongst us those who genuinely believe there is only one right way to God,” she said, “and I find that fearful.”
Harris said we all can learn to uphold our own beliefs, without the need to deny or denigrate others’ beliefs.
“Lifting up our own traditions does not mean we are putting down others,” Harris said. “As Dr. King lifted up Christianity as a source of hope, it encouraged others to look for truths in our own traditions.
“Multiple ways of looking at truth does not need to scare us,” she said. “In fact, opening the gate to step beyond the fence of fear can help us to heal this world.”
Speaking to the necessity to not only tolerate but embrace those we perceive as different, Harris quoted from a portion of King’s 1957 “Loving Your Enemies” sermon: “‘We must discover the power of love — the power, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that we will be able to make of this old world a new world. We will be able to make men better. Love is the only way.'”
“Dr. King challenged us to love our enemies with the religious conviction that our love will frustrate them,” Harris said, “and then in time perhaps provide redemption for those who are bitter and not loving in the ways of God.”
Loving our enemies doesn’t mean simply giving a pass to those who act in hateful or hurtful ways, Harris said, especially those who actively wish to hurt or discriminate against others.
She said in all cases love in the religious sense is “a balance of justice and mercy appropriate to the circumstances we face.”
“Love without justice is like parenting without rules,” Harris said. “‘Anything goes’ isn’t love. The right measure of justice is part of the expression of love.
“When we are actually threatened, whether that’s a risk to our physical safety, our dignity or our civil rights, our fear may be a red flag to injustice,” Harris said, “and to love we must demand justice … with a measure of mercy that can perhaps only be measured by the victim.”
On the other hand, when fear of others stems from perceived differences, and not a real threat, Harris said we must err on the side of mercy.
“When the way someone is different than me is based on their immutable characteristics — race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical abilities — either I am afraid of them or they are afraid me because we are different … we are to remember loving also means mercy with an appropriate assurance of justice,” she said.
Harris said it is a natural human condition to fear those who appear different than ourselves, but said “a religious life is to go beyond what is human.”
“A religious life is about reaching out to humanity, diverse humanity, created in the image of the divine,” she said.
When we learn to truly love ourselves, without insecurity, Harris said it opens us up to love others — both those like us, and those who are different — and to “reach for God and love.”
“Reaching up to God to hold our hand is a valuable dimension of being able to step into our fear,” Harris said, “and extend Dr. King’s legacy, to love, to demand justice and mercy, to make a difference for ourselves and others and to celebrate the diversity that God loves.”
While Harris framed her talk within the context of faith, she said in a brief interview with the News & Eagle afterward there is common ground among all humanity that carries King’s message both within and without the faith community.
“The difference between people who have faith and those who don’t is where we get our hope,” Harris said. “People without faith still have hope, and it’s on the faith community to realize people who are not religious still have a source of hope, and we need to respect that.”
Likewise, she said people outside the faith community can “help build a bridge by realizing, for people within the faith community, our source of hope is called God.”
As with other perceived differences, Harris said it’s important to look beyond questions of faith or no faith, and find common ground in hope for progress toward a better world.
“We don’t have to call our source of hope the same thing,” Harris said, “for us to recognize that with hope — whatever we call it — humanity can be better.”