Constitution lays path for coexistence

Sunday, December 27, 1998

For millions of American Jews, Christians, and Muslims, this month of bombs and impeachment is also a time for renewal of faith and hope.

By accident of the calendar, Hanukkah, Christmas and Ramadan — simultaneous affirmations of intervention in human history by the God of the Bible — overlap this December.

The familiar stories are woven into the fabric of many lives. Hanukkah dates back to events during the second century B.C.E. After a small Jewish army defeated massive Greek-Syrian forces, the victors entered the Holy Temple to find only enough oil to fuel the Eternal Light for a single day. Miraculously, the oil lasted eight days, allowing time to obtain additional supplies. To commemorate this miracle, Jews light a menorah candle each evening for the eight days of Hanukkah.

Christmas has so shaped history that our shared calendar dates all time from the Bethlehem Nativity. Though sometimes obscured and trivialized by the shopping-mall Christmas, the birth of Jesus is received by the faithful as the miraculous incarnation of God as man.

Less known to many Americans, but vitally important to millions of Muslims in this country and throughout the world, is the holy month of Ramadan. Because the Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar, Ramadan falls during different seasons. This year it's in December-January.

Each day of the month, from dawn to dusk, Muslims abstain from eating or drinking. Fasting (sawm), the fourth pillar of Islam, is a time of reflection, repentance and renewal of faith. During Ramadan, Muslims commemorate what is called the “Night of Power and Excellence,” the night when they believe that the Prophet Muhammad first received God's revelation.

All three celebrations point to the same God — the God of Abraham — but interpret God's revelation in very different ways. From the time of the Crusades until today, conflicts in the Middle East among the three “Peoples of the Book” have resembled fights among members of a divided family, with each branch claiming to know the true will of the father. Family fights such as these are the most painful and difficult to resolve.

In light of their differences — and the tragedies of their history — how is it possible that in America the children of Abraham co-exist in peace? The answer lies in another celebration that marked the 15th of this month: the 207th anniversary of the adoption of the First Amendment. The remarkable success of the First Amendment's religious-liberty principles — call it a civic miracle — has enabled people of all faiths and none to live with even the deepest of differences.

Religious convictions matter; they matter ultimately to a great many Americans. In fact, what divides us is often deeper than what unites us. But the civic agreement represented by the First Amendment enables us to negotiate our divisions without destroying the fabric of our life together as citizens of a single nation.

Hanukkah, Christmas, Ramadan — all are celebrated here in peace. With George Washington, who wrote to the Hebrew congregation in Rhode Island more than 200 years ago, let us pray that it may always be so:

“May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.”