Hope for the Hateful (us)

I saw something amazing today, but before I can actually tell you what it is, you need to know some background information.

Siraj Wahhaj, a supposedly controversial speaker, spoke at venue near me recently. Months before his visit, I received numerous emails claiming that Wahhaj is an “extremely controversial speaker,” and that I should consider petitioning the decision to allow him to speak.

When I arrived at the event, I could tell that there was going to be some ugly things happening. The topic: Islam in America. White Americans sporting American flag t-shirts, bibles, and Korans sat next to “Muslim people” wearing traditional dress. Anxiety gripped me as the man who introduced the speaker explicitly recognized that nasty comments were going to be made and noted that interruptions may result in the disruptor being asked to leave.

The speaker finally began his speech.

Immediately, a woman raised her hand. She then stood up. She then began reciting the pledge of allegiance. I never thought I’d experience the pledge being recited in a context that made it obnoxious, but today I did.

This woman, for me, confirmed all of my suspicions about people. We are often hateful, prejudiced, and, even worse, we think we’re being entirely rational while we engage in hateful actions. The woman eventually sat down, and my cynical view of people took a back seat as I listened to the speaker talk.

He was articulate. He was genuine. He was intelligent. He was funny. He was an American who liked the New York Knicks. He wanted to show that religious intolerance does not belong to the religion of Islam. He wanted to contribute something to American society.

On a subconscious level, I thought that none of this would matter. People would still be hateful and vindictive no matter what came out of his mouth. And this subconscious thought bears a striking resemblance to something a pastor of mine pointed out in a sermon, “The problem with us is that we don’t believe that people can change.”

But change is God’s business. Transformation is what God does for kicks. (Is failing to believe that people change tantamount to failing to believe in God?) Today, I got to believe that people can change, and thus, that God is up to something.

Today, I got to see God work through an Imam, and I saw an angry, attacking individual, nod her head in approval to a speaker after he articulately explained his goals as a Muslim. (He wasn’t here to blow up any buildings or take over the country.) Understanding happened. Hate gave way to respect, and that’s one step in the direction of love. Maybe it really is the case that true love never fails.

I didn’t actually talk to the woman after the presentation, so it may same a little gullible to believe that those positive gestures indicated that something deep was going on inside of her.

But its a bit gullible only if its not un-gullible to believe that people don’t change.

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