Friday, July 21, 2023

What Makes Us Great!

Perhaps you have seen some of the yard signs around Brookings that say: “Diversity Is What Makes Brookings Great.” A joint project of the Brookings Interfaith Council and the Brookings Human Rights Commission, the signs promote a point of view too often lost in the culture wars of our time.

We often forget in the heat of our arguments, that diversity is at the heart of our democracy. Without different parties with different opinions, convictions and proposals; in competition and ultimately negotiation, you have autocracy, not democracy. Today we teeter on the edge of a governing chasm, as some seem to prefer civil war to what they perceive as illegitimate governance. Autocracy seems alright with them, as long as it is their autocrat.

More fundamentally, we need to remember that diversity is the trademark of our existence. Diversity of life forms is crucial for life on this planet. Exit bats, enter more mosquitos. Exit trees, enter more carbon. Environmental balance is essential, and if we humans continue to tip the scales from one side to the other, the likelihood grows we will throw ourselves into an unpredictable future. 

It is high time we celebrated diversity as a country! According to a Pew Research Center study in 2014, the U.S. ranked 68th out of 232 countries and territories in religious diversity. Some religious scholars, who are more closely watching inter-religious development in this country, believe we are quickly moving up the ladder, with rungs missing here and there, as former President Trump tried to de-Muslim the country and limited immigration of anyone but white Europeans. We can and do learn so much from each other; from different religions, races, ethnicities and cultures! 

 Residents in South Dakota have a population right next door that can help us all expand our knowledge and worldview. It seems we are gradually hearing and learning more from our Lakota/Dakota/Nakota peoples. Yet there is so much more we could share and integrate. An example is in the realm of religion and the spiritual life. The decision to Sun Dance is normally a four year process; one year dancing for each direction. This is a physically, mentally, spiritually, life challenging commitment. I’m not sure I can think of anything quite like it in Christianity. What could Christians learn from this ritual of self sacrifice, so reminiscent in more modest ways of the sacrifice of their Savior. 

Since its origins, The Interfaith Council in Brookings has brought together people of many faiths and none: Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Baha’i, Buddhists, Native American Spirituality, Atheists, and Agnostics. All are welcome and participate in a process of exploring similarities and differences, recognizing the beauty and fullness in diversity.

Personally, as one who has taught World Religions, it is a treat to be able to call on friends who have been practicing a tradition all of their lives to share it with my class, rather than sharing my limited book knowledge. Diversity helps make a class great! Just ask my students!

More critical perhaps in our time, as the former President speaks about “civil war” at campaign talks in the southern U.S., and as the “white replacement theory” seems a mantra of conservative news and social media; more essential than ever is the importance and celebration of our racial diversity. 
I will be forever grateful for my African American mentor, Rev. Robert Polk, who helped a young South Dakota kid adapt to New York City and its racial and cultural diversity. I will always be indebted to my friends in India and the U.S., who have guided me through a bewildering and often overwhelming country and culture on numerous occasions. Then there are Mexican friends who have made that country feel like a second home to me, so much so I want this to be a second home for them.

Canada makes the top twenty when it comes to racially diverse countries in the world. We do a little bit better in the U.S. than Russia. Our racial make-up has changed some few percentage points in the last fifteen years. Let it be known that in the midst of a resurgence of intolerance in this country, I wish my voice to be loud and unequivocal.  Diversity is what makes Brookings, and the U.S., great!

Carl Kline

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