On October 8, On Being host Krista Tippett moderated a conversation between poet Natasha Tretheway and interfaith activist Eboo Patel. Held on the eve of the second presidential debate, the theme was “Religion and Conceptions of the Common Good.” Together, the speakers took the long view of how to live beyond this election cycle, mining questions of identity, race, and justice. “What is our work now?” Tippett asked. Where will the country be after November 8?
The conversation was convened by the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, which publishes this journal, as part of its series “Danforth Dialogues: Envisioning the Future of Religion and Politics in America.” It was held on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis, which hosted the town hall presidential debate the next day. A video of the conversation is available on the center’s website. The corresponding episode of On Being is now online. The conversation below has been edited slightly for length and clarity.
Krista Tippett, host: These are two very different leaders here with me today. So this is going to be interesting and fun. And thinking about religion and the common good, that as the theme of this conversation, as I delved into the two of you, I started thinking that this is really more about religion and the art and science of the common good.
“The science of the interfaith triangle” is the kind of language that Eboo Patel uses to describe some of what he works with and the project that he founded and leads, the Interfaith Youth Core, which Robert Putnam has called “the most successful interfaith movement in the U.S.” And I’m sure that’s right.
Natasha Trethewey is not a religious figure, but she is one of our foremost poets, a Pulitzer Prize winner, a former poet laureate of the United States, and she works in a medium which she has described as a corrective to the trivialized corrosive language of public life in our time. Poetry, in her words, is “the sacred language that allows us to connect across time and space, across all the things in everyday life that separate us and would destroy us.”
Natasha is also a child of two parents of different races. Eboo is a child of immigrants. And so they also each embody an experience and an intelligence about some of our most fraught human places that are haunting and shaping our political life right now. And I want to just ask you both briefly as we start if you would just trace the beginnings, the roots in your life of what the connection between religion and common life might be. And Eboo, I wonder if you would start with that.
Eboo Patel: Sure. It’s fun to be back on a college campus because so many of my changes happened in college. I say to students all the time—there’s a great line by the French writer Marcel Proust that the true journey of discovery is not in finding new landscapes; it’s in developing new eyes. And it’s on a college campus that I developed new eyes.
And first, it was eyes of anger around race, identity, diversity issues. I was an anger-fueled activist. And I came very, very close to the edge of burnout. Until one day, somebody said to me, “Have you ever heard of Dorothy Day?” And I found in Dorothy Day this most luminous, simple, cosmic language of justice, which was basically, if you are a Christian, you ought to live the way Christ lived.
And it turned out that there was a house of hospitality, a Catholic worker house, in Champaign-Urbana where I went to school. And I went there one Sunday evening. And it was qualitatively different than any other social service agency I’d even been in. It wasn’t an agency; it was a community.
And the thing that struck me most, I think, about Dorothy Day and her work was she wasn’t particularly impressed with herself. She felt like, if you see yourself as a Christian, this is what you do. And of course, I’m not a Christian. I’m a Muslim.
Tippett: Right. And did that encounter with Dorothy Day and her approach to faith—that was also kind of a path for you back into grappling with where that notion of service lies in your Islamic identity.
Patel: It was my first step on kind of a larger interfaith spiritual journey. And of course, the one that I got to last was Islam.
Patel: I’ll finish the story off by saying—I go to India in the summer of 1998. This is four years after I’ve heard of Dorothy Day. And I wake up one day, and there’s a woman in my grandmother’s home who doesn’t look like she’s part of the family, extended family, or part of the household help.
And I say to my grandmother, “Mama, who is this woman?” And my grandmother says, “Well, we don’t know her real name. Her father and uncle are abusing her, so we’ve taken her in. The leader of the local Muslim prayer house has brought her here.” And my grandmother padded over to the cupboard, and she brought a shoebox. And she opened it up, and there were dozens and dozens of Polaroids, pictures of all of these women over the swath of India, over the course of 50 years that she had brought into her home. And I’m going through these Polaroids, and she’d written on the back, “Helped this one get her teeth fixed.” “Helped this one go to beauty school.” “Helped this one get a marriage.” “This one owns a cake shop in Hyderabad.”
I’m looking through all of these, and I’m like, “Mama, why do you do this?” And she’s like, “I’m a Muslim. This is what we do.” And it was this kind of same Dorothy-Day sense of—you see the light on the path, and you walk the path, and you’re not especially impressed with yourself. And I still, to this day, understand that as the heart of the religious ethic.
Tippett: Natasha, religion and the common good.
Natasha Trethewey: Well, I suppose that it begins, for me, because I’m a poet, in language itself. And it took me a long time to realize that, to realize that I was making the connections between our language, the language of poetry, religion, and the common good. It happened when I was working on a book of mine called Beyond Katrina. It’s a meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Trethewey: That’s right.
Tippett: It’s a beautiful book.
Trethewey: Thank you. It’s, of course, about the aftermath of the hurricane on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and my family history and connection to it. And as I was writing the book—and I’ve seen this in my poems too—but it wasn’t until writing that book that I saw how much of the language that comes to me is the language of religion, the language of religious rites. And that struck me as odd because I—though I was raised in the Baptist church, I think of myself as a secular humanist.
And so what I discovered is that when a word like the word “liturgy” comes to me, a word that, of course, connects us to the various ceremonies that would take place in various faiths, that in the original Greek the word simply meant one’s public duty undertaken as a citizen in service to the state.
So, the idea of in service to the common good comes from something secular, but it is also deeply connected to something that we do in our faith. And so, from there, I began to think about all those different words that arise sort of unbidden because, I suppose, of my own training and my own thinking about language. Even my name, Natasha, shares the prefix with words like “natal,” “nativity,” and “national.” They go together.
Tippett: Mm. Yes, I think you have chapters in that book and poems with titles like “Witness” and—is “Communion” one of them? “Prodigal.” [laughs]
Trethewey: All of those titles. There’s “Exegesis.” All of those titles are about ways of thinking about both the connection to religion, but also that secular part that has a lot to do with what Eboo said, and that is about justice. It seemed to me that the language of poetry and what I’m interested in, like the language of religion, is about justice, empathy, bearing witness.
Tippett: So a hallmark of our current political moment and our cultural moment is the race conversation, that I think we mostly talk about the race conversation when we talk about how we don’t know how to talk about it. But we know our need of it. It was interesting to be thinking about the two of you and also to be reflecting on how each of you, in your own way, has a stake in that, but also embodies the reality that the very meaning of race is evolving so rapidly even as we seek to grapple with it more fully.
So Natasha, you’ve said that you describe yourself, as you believe President Obama does, as both black and biracial. And when your African-American mother married your white father, they were breaking the law, the law of Mississippi where they lived in 1965, and worried that you would be despised in parts of society.
Tippett: And I know you’ve reflected on that a lot in this era in which we have had a black and biracial president.
Trethewey: Yes, it is one of those things that, sadly, is ongoing for us, as you say. My parents got married in 1965 and had to go to Ohio to do so. And this was two years before the Loving decision. And so it was illegal, not only in Mississippi, but in 20 other states in the nation.
Tippett: The Loving decision was the couple who finally overturned the law.
Trethewey: That’s right. The Lovings in Virginia.
Tippett: And their name happened to be Loving, which is so amazing.
Trethewey: Loving, which I love. Yes.
Trethewey: You can’t beat that.
Tippett: You can’t.
Trethewey: But I’ve often talked about this, that sometimes the worst things seem to disappear, but really, they just get buried. And so, in the late ‘90s in the state of Alabama, that’s the time that they finally put to a vote of the people whether or not the anti-miscegenation statute should be removed from the Constitution. And even though it finally was, 42 percent of the voting population in the state voted that it should remain so that at least it could be said symbolically that parents like mine shouldn’t be able to marry legally or people like me be born legally. That wasn’t very long ago.
Tippett: And it hasn’t all been resolved because we had a biracial president.
Trethewey: No. No, in many ways, some of the worst things that seemed to have gone underground have resurfaced.
Tippett: Eboo, it was interesting for me to read that, when you had your children, who are here today, these lovely young gentlemen…
Patel: Pay attention, Zayd.
Tippett: …that your mother worried that you hadn’t given them American names, which I won’t—was that code for them having the names that sounded foreign, even Muslim?
Patel: Right. Now, Zayd and Khalil are beautiful Muslim-American names. But this was—Khalil was born in 2010. Three months later, we had this absolute circus madness around Cordoba House, otherwise known as the Ground Zero Mosque. And it was the first time in my mother’s, I don’t know, 40 years in America that she’s been afraid of praying in Arabic, saying “Bismillah” in restaurants, having grandsons with Muslim-sounding names.
Tippett: We had dinner a couple months ago. And you shared your reaction to the kind of toxic language and sentiment around Muslims that’s surfaced up in parts of this campaign. What I was struck by is the real compassion that you were bringing to that human pain and fear that express themselves as anger. And I wonder if you’d just talk to us a little bit about that.
Patel: So, I guess there’s a couple parts of this, right? So number one, part of what this election has done for me is to open the curtain on 50 percent of America that I haven’t thought much about. That makes me a bad citizen. That doesn’t mean the way that a swath of my fellow citizens is expressing their understanding of their life circumstance is healthy. But to recognize that I hadn’t thought about huge swaths of this country is on me.
And I think about this a lot, actually. So, what if somebody were to come up to me and tap me on the shoulder one day and say, “Hey, man. All of your facility and language, your ability to strategically plan, give talks, facilitate meetings, that economy is gone. Sorry.”
And so, what if you’re coming up at a certain time in history, and the story is, “Look, if you graduate high school, you play football, you don’t commit a felony, you have a job right over there. And here are the four steps on the ladder of that job. And you keep your nose clean and play well, by your mid 50s, here’s the role you’ll be in.” And then, “poof!” That’s gone.
Tippett: And it’s gone for your children too.
Patel: And it’s gone for your children. I had spent zero time thinking about that circumstance until about 18 months ago. I’m a huge Springsteen fan. I think I just saw him on the River Tour. “I got Mary pregnant. And man that was all she wrote. And for my 18th birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat.” In 1980, that was written as a lament. Now it’s a dream, right?
Tippett: It’s an unachievable dream for many…
Patel: It’s unachievable—and how can I not feel for that? And how can I not recognize that, although my name is a little weird, and my color attracts double looks in some places, that I’m at the center of the culture, and that I—that’s a lot of luck. And to cultivate some sort of empathy for people who were once at the center of the culture and aren’t anymore, I feel like that’s a part of the gift that poetry has given me. And that’s part of the requirements of American citizenship.
Tippett: Natasha, I’m curious about how you how you think about that. And you said—and maybe I should invite you to draw that out some more—that there’s this paradoxical sense, but maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. Maybe it’s the way human beings are, that on the one hand, we achieved this sign of progress, of racial progress, but it’s also surfaced—or at least it’s been part of surfacing—a lot of terrible amount of unfinished work. So say some more about how you see that, but also how you think about this dynamic Eboo is describing.
Trethewey: Well, I’m glad you made the point again about poetry because I find that maybe I have spent a great deal of time thinking about the various populations across the country because poetry is a thing that asks us to do that. It asks us always to learn something about ourselves through the intimate, unique experience of another. The voice speaking to us in a poem—and those voices are often people who are very different from us.
What I think about as I think about the people who are frustrated about their opportunities, where their lives are going, what seems to have been lost, is that we’re a nation in which, for the longest time, so much of being able to be in a position where you had all those things depended on keeping other people from having them.
And that’s the sad thing about it, that we can be both empathetic to people who feel like they are losing something, but part of what they are losing is the fact that other people are gaining equal opportunity and equal rights.
Tippett: And lest it seems that we have strayed from the topic of religion and the common good, I think we’re right in the middle of it. I think Senator Danforth, in all his career, as he’s talked about what it means to bring your whole self as a person of faith into the political sphere, has to do with how we wield the love commandment. However imperfectly, we will always live according to it. And so, one way to talk about this is we have not loved others. We have not kept children safe, which is the primary thing that love does.
And to that point, Eboo, compassion is absolutely at the heart of every single one of our traditions. But I think—one of the things I think you also started to realize as a teenager and a student is that, while you and your fellow—your peers in a Chicago—was it a suburban high school?
Tippett: Were very articulate about all of the different aspects of your identity, racial, ethnic, gender, these same people had an impoverished vocabulary about religious identity. And an implication of that is, obviously, we have that impoverished vocabulary and an impoverished ability to carry it into our lives. That is going to inhibit whether something like compassion can manifest in common life.
So, I wonder—in this work you’ve done of equipping young people with that vocabulary, how does that nuance expand the way they are present to these challenges of our time, of otherness, of doing something more than just tolerating otherness?
Patel: So, the way I think about it now is, for me, the large frame question is, what does it mean to nurture a healthy religiously diverse democracy? And if I think about each of those terms, what’s a democracy? It’s not just a place where you elect your representatives. A democracy is a place where you can make personal convictions public. You can make them public in politics, you can make them public in civil society, et cetera. Right? Diversity is not just the differences you like; diversity is the differences you don’t like.
Patel: Diversity is the disagreements, right?
Tippett: And actually, I think that’s something—as much as we celebrated diversity and had this virtue of tolerance after the ‘60s, that piece we’re just now learning, right?
Patel: Oh, well, I mean, everywhere in my kids elementary school — “multiculturalism is our strength and diversity is beautiful” stuff. And I’m like, “Oh, yeah.” Well, that’s the egg rolls and samosas version of diversity, right?
Patel: That’s the “everything tastes good.” And look—you ought to get that when you’re 8. And we didn’t have that when I was a kid. And the samosas that my mother packed in my lunch, I would look at them—I’m like, “Mom, first you name me Eboo…”
Patel: “And now you’re going to put this—do you know what happens to me at school when you do this?” So, it is a step forward.
Tippett: Yeah. It’s a baby step.
Patel: It’s a big step.
Patel: So, if you add religion to a diverse democracy, and if you understand religion per Tillich as “ultimate concerns,” you have a society in which people are invited to make their personal convictions on matters of ultimate concern public, knowing that their neighbor has a different definition of “justice” than they do. Justice is another term that we assume everybody has the same definition of. My new line to 20-year-olds who look very chastised when I say this on campuses is, “If everybody in the room that you’re in has the same definition of ‘justice’ that you do—I don’t care how many colors, or genders, or sexual preferences, or religions are in that room—it’s not a diverse room.” Part of the definition of “diversity” is the recognition there are diverse understandings of justice.
So, in that situation, what does healthy look like? And my quick take on that is healthy is a society in which people who orient around religion differently can disagree on some fundamental things and work together on other fundamental things. And in my mind, the most dangerous trend in our society right now is what Andrew Sullivan calls the “scalping” trend, which is if you disagree with me on one fundamental thing—and I’m going to recognize that these things are fundamental—matters of the Middle East, same-sex marriage, abortion —they are fundamental— let’s not say that they’re marginal at all—but if you disagree with me on that, I will neutralize our entire relationship, and I will take your scalp and hang it on my wall as a trophy to make sure that everybody else who has that opinion knows that I’m coming for them.
And I just — how do you have a society in which people who disagree on where to draw the line in the Middle East will perform heart surgery together, or serve on the PTA together? Isn’t that what a diverse democracy is? And it feels to me like the central thing that we do is nurture that ethic of a half-full cup of, “I will disagree with you on this set of things and continue to work with you on this other set of things.”
Tippett: I’d love to hear how you think about — I mean, this is such an important critique of how we interact with each other, but also about how we use language. And you must be watching that as well. And I wonder how you watch that with your perspective as a poet.
Trethewey: Well, you’re going to watch me think through this one.
Tippett: Good. That’s what we like.
Trethewey: I was thinking that what Eboo was saying was exactly right. But for a moment, I longed to be standing in front of my OED with my little magnifying glass so that I could look up that word “justice” again.
Because there is a part of me, I suppose, that wants to believe that there is a kind of justice that could treat everyone right. That could treat everyone equally the way that they deserve. But the idea that words that I believe so much in—I believe so much in the power of words—that somehow could get twisted or changed or applied in all sorts of troubling ways. It’s going to sound like I’m going back to this, but this is the example that I think of as I think about the word “justice.”
It goes back to that word “empathy.” And hearing a few years ago many people—after listening to the president call on us as citizens to empathize with other people, there were actually people who said they did not want to empathize. And I think that that’s the thing that seems to separate us from the animals. And people did—although my dog seems to empathize with me.
Trethewey: At least I think she is. But seriously—that we wouldn’t want to do that. It just made me think, “Well, that’s really horrible. Why wouldn’t you want to do that?” It never occurred to me to think that whatever they think “empathizing” means is something they wouldn’t want to do, just as we might think of the word “justice” as a different thing.
Tippett: I wonder if “want” is the right word, you know? I mean, I interviewed a couple of months ago the Civil Rights leader and veteran Ruby Sales. We talked about what she sees as a spiritual crisis of white America, which kind of comes back to what we were talking about a minute ago. And I think that the empathy she mustered was that people are so afraid, and so beaten down, and so—and this is not just white people—and so fearful that I think. Some of the things we’re learning on our scientific frontier is that our brains won’t go—that we have to create conditions for empathy and compassion to feel safe for each other. It’s a terrible thought that we have to—right? That it’s not just natural and intuitive.
Tippett: But it’s not — and I think instinctive. It’s not always even biologically instinctive.
Patel: One of the ways my life changed in college was William Raspberry who wrote for The Washington Post. So, when I was 19 or 20—and I was a fire breathing dragon at this time. You couldn’t come within 50 feet of me without getting long lectures on people of color, consciousness, and socialism. My dad damned near kicked me out of the house at one point. He said to me, “If you give me one more lecture about being bourgeois, you can find some other bourgeois dad to pay your bourgeois college tuition.”
Patel: William Raspberry writes a column in which he says, “The smartest people I know secretly believe both sides of the issue.” And that was so striking to me. Because I was—the way I viewed the world at that point was, “I’m the smart one. You all are the dumb ones. My job is to figure out how to make you smart.” And the definition of “smart” was you thought like me.
Tippett: Or how to make you see things my way, which is smart.
Patel: Yeah, exactly, right? And this notion of William Raspberry, who was, generally speaking, a progressive columnist was like—look, the smartest people I know choose the pro-life side and understand that there’s something else at stake. The smartest people I know are against the death penalty and understand that people who might be in favor aren’t crazy, that there’s a set of values, something at stake there.
I wanted to say one thing very briefly on this matter of justice. And I actually—my sense is actually justice and empathy, they’re in the Venn diagram. There’s a shaded area. But the more empathy one has and the more diversity one is in, the more one recognizes different definitions of justice. So, here’s my moment to this. Eight or 10 years ago, I’m speaking on a college campus, and I happened to be speaking with a man named Nechirvan Barzani, who was introduced to me as an Iraqi leader and as a good multicultural against the Bush administration progressive.
My first instinct was to apologize to him for, quote, “the unjust war in Iraq.” And he looks at me, and he kind of shakes his head. And I think his English isn’t great, and so I repeat what I said. And I said…
Patel: This is a great insight into the mind of the Manichean, right? You don’t understand me because your English isn’t great, not because you disagree with me.
Patel: I said, “I want to apologize on behalf of the American people.”
Patel: All 320 million—for the unjust war in Iraq. And he looked at me, and he said, “I’m a Kurd. The only unjust thing about the war in Iraq is you didn’t do it 20 years ago.” And I thought to myself, how ridiculous that I didn’t even imagine that. And I mean, of course, this is over the next several years that I kind of unpacked this in my head. But how narrow a world did I live in that I thought that this was—now, I still believe the Iraq war was unjust, but I do think that Nechirvan Barzani’s position, after having tens, hundreds of thousands of his people killed by Saddam Hussein’s chemical warfare, that his position is not a reasonable definition of justice?
And what strikes me in reflection is, how come I didn’t imagine that? How come I didn’t play with the figure of Nechirvan Barzani in my mind in the dialogue? How is it that I had such a black-and-white vision of justice in the world? I think that that is a problem in the hyper-diverse, 325-million jazz of a nation in which we live.
In my mind, you don’t have a diverse democracy, you don’t have America, unless people are willing to say, “I am able to disagree with you on this set of things, and you will see me on the other side of the picket line on those things. And I will try to defeat your candidate at the polls. And we will find other things to do together.”
Tippett: Natasha, I just want to read something you wrote that’s very beautiful that I think speaks again about the art, the sacred language of poetry in this collective task.
“Poetry allows us to reckon with our troubled past and to imagine the better, more just society that we must continue each day to build. It evokes in us ‘the better angels of our nature,’ eliciting our most humane impulses to engage the humanity of others through the projection of our own emotional knowledge, our empathetic understanding—the best knowledge we have for dealing with each other. And deal with each other we must. I have faith in poetry’s ability to help us do so, to wield its ennobling influence on us, and to save us—perhaps not as a nation, but one life at a time.”
Trethewey: The last two words of what you just read — that you didn’t read — the last two were “like mine.”
Tippett: Yeah. I know. I didn’t read that. I’m glad you added that.
Tippett: One life at a time, like yours.
Trethewey: Like mine. I remember listening to a minister at a funeral saying, “Do not grieve as others grieve.” And the message was about the solace that awaited us in heaven in the afterlife. And I was deeply grieving. And it was almost a message to me that somehow, because that wasn’t my faith, that’s why I was grieving, because I wasn’t a believer and that there was nothing for me because of that. But I am a believer in something else. I am a believer in the human capacity for justice, the human capacity to do right, the human capacity to address and correct the wrongs of the past. One of the ways that we do it—the idea in Auden’s poem is that poetry makes nothing happen, but of course, it makes so much happen.
It’s a way that we listen to each other when it is hard to listen to each other. As Eboo points out, it’s hard to want to listen to diversity if diversity isn’t the good stuff. It’s the stuff that makes us different. But I think, also, it helps us to contend with what has been right and what has been wrong. And I think, to go back to this idea of justice, I try to get my head around the idea that there were people, for example—and this is an easy example, but I think you’ll know what I mean—who believed that lynching was justice.
Trethewey: But that’s extra-legal. That’s outside the law. That’s not justice. Not justice to me. Not justice, I imagine, to people sitting in this room too. So do we say the lynchers just had a different idea of justice, or do we say the lynchers were wrong?
Tippett: And I think the other question is, how do we come into relationship with the lynchers? Or maybe not the lynchers but the people right around them who haven’t quite made that move to violence.
Trethewey: Well, I mean, I feel like we’ve seen a lot of that—the Faith in Politics Institute and the pilgrimage that John Lewis takes this diverse group of people on every year.
Tippett: Right, where we first met a couple of years ago.
Trethewey: Exactly. He believes, and a lot of people who share his belief is that—love. He believes that by loving the lynchers, you can bring them to love, you can bring them to justice. I’d like to also bring them to knowledge. I’d like them to be educated about the law, about the Constitution. But I think that the way you get them is to love them, to empathize with them.
Trethewey: It doesn’t mean condoning anything.
Tippett: Right. And I also don’t think it means love as this feeling. And it’s not romantic. It’s a form of love.
Trethewey: It’s empathy.
Tippett: It’s a practical form of love. In fact, it’s like the agape of the New Testament.
Patel: They should also go to jail.
Trethewey: That too.
Tippett: They should go to jail too.
Patel: I mean, you can do both.
Trethewey: And that’s justice.
Tippett: Yeah, right.
Trethewey: That’s justice.
Tippett: So, I think we’ve circled to this—to the big open question of how to live beyond this election, right? What is our work now? And I’m really much more concerned about November 9 and beyond that than I am about November 8. Because whatever happens, whoever wins, all of this turmoil is still going to be with us. And it’s really a human drama, a human crisis that has fueled political events.
I really think, for all that is so hard right now, part of the reason it’s so hard is we talked about the early days of just all being in the room, and being so proud of that, was a baby step of pluralism. And now we’re getting into kind of—do we become mature, right? Do we get out of adolescence, and do we really figure out what this means to be. I remember the great Civil Rights leader Vincent Harding, who wrote King’s Vietnam speech and helped create the philosophy of non-violence from the Mennonite Center in Atlanta, said to me, “This business of being a multiracial, multiethnic, multireligious democratic society, we’ve only been doing this for 50 years. We are a developing nation at this.” Which is not the way we think about ourselves, but that’s really what we’re describing here.
Patel: What I loved about Vincent is he would open his speeches by saying, “I live in a country that does not yet exist.” And you could hear the possibility for cynicism, right? And like, go ahead and list the sins and mistakes. And instead, he spends the next 45 minutes willing that promise into existence, and I found that so inspiring. We just celebrated in Chicago the commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s—the 50th anniversary of his fair housing march in Chicago. And it was an ugly moment in Chicago and American history. Seven hundred peaceful marchers, 5,000 people from the community showing up to spit, throw bricks, hurl racial epithets. A brick hits King in the head, he goes down on one knee, blood drips. He gets back up, and he keeps marching.
My family and I, we went to the 50th anniversary commemoration. And I’m rereading Taylor Branch’s chapter from that time. And Taylor Branch points out this moment: So a couple days after King gets hit with the brick, they come and do the march again, of course, because that’s what King did. And King breaks free from his security, and he goes to one of these ethnic whites on the sidewalk throwing bottles and spitting, and he says, “You are too smart and good-looking to be so full of hate.” I mean, I find that so remarkable.
So not everybody is touched by God the way that King is, but the thing that I think about—when it comes to greatness like that is King knows that after the Civil Rights Act, after the election of a black president, after whatever it might be, he still has to live with that kid. You can’t expel that kid from the nation. For every stitch of hate you put in the fabric, you have to unstitch and you have to restitch in a different way later, right? So King is getting ahead of that. Now, my line is far south of getting hit in the head with a brick, but I think that that points to something remarkable. Do people change by getting yelled at? Or do people change by saying “Hey, man, I thought you were up here. Why don’t you rise to that?”
Tippett: That idea of living in a country that no longer exists, or that does not yet exist, I think, gets at this notion of narrative. Like, the narrative, the story we tell—it’s not just what exists, what is real and what is not; it’s what we privilege in the story we tell of our time, which I think does not call us to be our best selves or make that seem very possible.
And I think, Natasha, this is so—I think this notion of narrative in your book Beyond Katrina, which you called a meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the one that’s full of liturgy, you talk about physical landscapes, and the landscape of cultural memory, and emotional knowledge that gets passed down and inherited and passed through families, and all these ways we know who we are.
Eboo, something I’m really aware of now is there’s all this anti-Muslim sentiment that’s just there again, right? I mean, it’s never gone away since 9/11, but it’s resurfaced. And yet, at the same time, since 9/11, all over this country, there are Muslims and Christians and other members of the community in relationships that—nobody had thought about doing that before. And that narrative is true as well as the frightening things we read in the newspaper. I don’t know what my question is, but…
Tippett: This notion of narrative—and let’s end on this—talk about your sense of how we can talk to ourselves about ourselves, and the importance of that, and the content of that moving beyond this election.
Trethewey: Well, I was just thinking about two things. One, a line from Rumi, “The wound is the place where the light enters you.” We are so deeply wounded right now that part of the story that we can begin to tell ourselves is that we are so fully open for light to enter us now because we are so deeply wounded. The stories are always different. The stories that we need to tell ourselves as individuals or as parts of groups often are in contention with each other. And yet, it has been my belief for a long time that, to tell a fuller version of American history, a fuller version of our stories as natives and immigrants of the United States, that all the stories have to be told. It’s an aggregate of our narratives.
And that in the aggregate, in knowing more about the stories that are often erased or buried or forgotten, we tell a fuller version of American history that’s owned by all of us and, I think, can benefit all of us. There’s no benefit for us to not know certain stories or to not tell each other certain stories. There is not a single story, but the aggregate of our stories. And in that kind of telling, we get toward a larger shared truth about the differences of our stories, but collective.
Tippett: A more whole story.
Tippett: So, Eboo, religion, common good, and the narratives we live by.
Patel: I think that there are surface narratives, and there’s a lot of ugliness at our surface right now. And I think that there are deeper narratives. And I’m actually very hopeful about the long-term trajectory of things. I’ll just take a Muslim example. In June 2016, four or five months ago, Muhammad Ali, maybe the most prominent Muslim figure in American history, passes away. And he literally gets a state funeral. I mean, it’s carried for, like, two and a half hours on ESPN and CNN. Former presidents speak, et cetera, et cetera. And Muhammad Ali is celebrated for a range of things, but in part, he is celebrated for an Islamic conviction to not go to war. He refuses to go to the Vietnam War, he goes to the Supreme Court, and he wins his conscientious objector case based on being a Muslim.
Ok. He’s celebrated, in part, for that. This is not hidden. Two months later, Khizr Khan upends the political race by saying that his son, Humayun Khan, dies as a captain in Iraq who gave his life for his company. And both of these figures are welcomed, if you will, as American Muslim archetypes. And it seems—that’s a deep narrative, right? I mean, I don’t think that a lot of people are walking around with that hyper-salient, but…
Tippett: No, it’s a whole different way to tell that story that’s been told and retold.
Patel: When a community—when people in a community are allowed to be complex like that, you can be celebrated for your courage, your Islamic courage, for not going to war, you can be celebrated for your Islamic courage for going to war. And it happens two months apart. And it’s a lot of the same people celebrating both. It just means that this new community, like Catholics before, and Jews before, and Mormons before—frankly, all of us set up by African-Americans. African-Americans were the original community who said, “Oh, by the way, we exist, too.” James Baldwin: “I did not enter in chains. I am one of the first people in this country. I built this country.”
This notion of—you expand the nation to welcome multiple contributors. We see that happening right now, I think, in a deep narrative way with American Muslims. I want to kind of end my little part with something that I was rereading today that reminds me of you, Krista, actually. Somebody named—a great radio host named Norman Corwin, who was kind of the Krista Tippett of his time, if you will…
Patel: …these beautiful radio productions. He’s got this line that I say to a lot of 20-year-olds on campuses. “Post proofs that brotherhood is not so wild a dream that those who profit by postponing it pretend.” That’s your job, right? Post that proof. Just do that. That is a religious act, however small it might be. Just post your proof that brotherhood, sisterhood, empathy, solidarity, is not so wild a dream that these other people think it might be.
Tippett: Thank you, Eboo Patel and Natasha Trethewey.
Tippett: Special thanks this week to Marie Griffith, Leslie Davis, Debra Kennard, Jeff Allen, A.J. Bockelman, and all of the fantastic staff at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.
Staff: On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Bethanie Mann, Selena Carlson, Brendan Stermer, and Ross Feehan.
Eboo Patel is the founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core. His books include Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America and Interfaith Leadership: A Primer.
Natasha Trethewey was the 19th U.S. Poet Laureate. She is the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University. Her books include Domestic Work, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Native Guard, and Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Krista Tippett is the host of the Peabody Award-winning On Being radio show and podcast, and author of the recent New York Times-bestselling Becoming Wise about nurturing moral imagination in individual and common life.