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2008 Melcher Book Award: Beyond Tolerance

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General Assembly 2009 Event 4048

After accepting the 2008 Melcher Book Award Saturday, Gustav Niebuhr said he wrote Beyond Tolerance: Searching for Interfaith Understanding in America for two purposes: to oppose religious stereotypes and to promote communication. The book focuses on "people who float beneath the media radar... and have worked hard at being creative in ways to bridge religious differences."

Rather than only repeating topics discussed in the book, Niebuhr began his talk by focusing on Neda Soltani, the young Iranian woman whose murder during a recent demonstration was captured on video and uploaded to YouTube. In this tragic event Niebuhr found this element of hope: Soltani has become, he said, "a powerful alternative symbol for the West of who Muslims are."

"We in the West may be on the verge of perceiving through the Iranian demonstrations and in the terrible death of a young woman there, that the world is more complex than we have so often been encouraged to think it is. There's more to humanity than a righteous us and an implacable, sin-soaked them."

Beyond Tolerance has its roots in another tragedy: the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Niebuhr said he had the plan of the book in mind, but had not yet started his research, when he watched the Twin Towers burn during his train commute from New Jersey to his job as a religion correspondent at the New York Times. A few days later a friend asked Niebuhr if people would become less religious after knowing that the towers had been bombed by religious fanatics. Niebuhr realized then that "the public idea of religion as a positive good had taken a terrible hit."

He began asking a different question: Now that people had seen how destructive the gap between religions could be, what positive actions would they take to bridge it? "People volunteered to stand guard outside mosques and Islamic schools. Non-Muslim women wore head scarves in solidarity with Muslim women in the United States. Neighbors volunteered to go shopping for Muslim families who feared leaving their homes. Bosses told Muslim employees to report any incidents of harassment on the job as it would not be tolerated. And out of these efforts, interfaith organizations were born."

Such peacemaking and community-building efforts, he came to see, were a "quiet counter-trend" which the major media rarely, if ever, considered as "newsworthy" as angry rhetoric and violent confrontations "because violence is easy to quantify and making peace is not. With violence you can count the bodies... but in peacemaking it is a different matter."

We barely even have a vocabulary for talking about such activities, Niebuhr realized. His book's title (which the publishers tried to change) comes from his conviction that tolerance is a very inadequate term. (He prefers engagement or hospitality.)

He takes hope from the fact that peacemakers like Gandhi or Martin Luther King are ultimately remembered after their critics are forgotten, and his book calls attention to individuals who had significant impacts that are not widely known. Perhaps the most significant of these is Jules Isaac, a Jew who researched Christian teachings about Jews while he was hiding from the Gestapo, and ultimately succeeded in changing the educational policy of the Catholic church and many Protestant denominations as well.

"Would you ever have put money," Niebuhr asked, "on a 60ish Jew on the run from the Gestapo in occupied France, staying alive for two years, managing to publish a book that would change the hearts and minds of Christians?"

Niebuhr closed his talk by reading a excerpt from late in his book, in which he wondered whether he and other New Yorkers had actually breathed in the ashes of those who burned in the Twin Towers. "If we did," he wrote, "what do we owe those people? Surely something more imaginative and more hopeful than a war on terror. They deserve a better monument, a monument dedicated to life and hope."

Reported by Doug Muder; edited by Jone Johnson Lewis.

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Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.

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