We gathered after sunset, a mid-spring eve, a week after Pesach and Easter, in the month of Ramadan. I looked around at a table of fifteen university students, mouths stuffed with food, noses sniffing the coffee being passed around as a gourmet experience, eyes alight with laughter. Some heads covered with scarves. One with a yarmulke. Skin of every shade. Cultures and nations, languages and religions, and non-religious too, various sexual and gender identities, immigrant and native born. A table of joy — and unlikeness.
Like the land of unlikeness we live in.
Like the world after Babel, when biblical legend holds that the heavenly host spun humans out into many cultures and languages. The ancient, jagged story found in the book of Genesis in the Hebrew Scriptures tells of humans seeking oneness through building a grand tower to heaven, and so they are scattered from one to many. Modern interpretations wonder if the story helps us see what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls, “the danger of a single story.” What if the divine will or just good sense says there should be divisions and tribes among us?
The revelation of the Quran, in Surah Al-Hujurat, extends this logic, in a passage I have often heard quoted by Muslim friends: “Human beings, we created you all from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another.” In this telling, difference certainly is sacred, and is no less than an impetus to seek each other with mutual curiosity.
Jesus, too, taught his followers to learn from neighbors who were unlike them. The famous parable of the Good Samaritan, often interpreted as a call to help those in need no matter what, ends with Jesus imploring a fellow Jew and expert in the law to learn how to be a neighbor from one of “those people,” a Samaritan, who was the wrong kind of religious and ethnically impure. The point of the parable is a call to both help and learn from others, as Luke 10:37 says, “Go and do likewise.”
"MUTUALITY HAS NEVER BEEN THE WHOLE STORY. NATURE AND HUMANITY HAVE CONFLICTUAL AND DESTRUCTIVE DIVERSITY TOO...MUTUALITY IS NOT OUR UTOPIAN PAST OR FUTURE. IT IS SOMETHING WE MUST CHOOSE."
Our land of unlikeness far outdates humanity, of course. Biodiversity branched out exponentially from single cells to, for instance, trees. Trees have been at the work of cooperative diversity for a bit, according to Forest Ecologist Suzanne Simard, who “showed conclusively that different trees — and even different tree species — are involved in a constant exchange of resources and information via underground fungal networks.” She calls them social creatures and notes that birch, fir and ponderosa trees, among others, work together, with some trees “mothering” others, sharing resources in mutuality.
Have I buried the lede? I am supposed to be writing about what went wrong. Do not let me paint too rosy a picture. I do not have much hope for all of this. Imagine me waving my arms around at, well, everything. Some days it feels like we are goners, for sure.
See, mutuality has never been the whole story. Nature and humanity have conflictual and destructive diversity too. Trees will poison each other and starve saplings of light. Humans enact not just individual acts of violence against each other, but whole systems of supremacy which harm anyone relegated to lower rungs of whichever caste system is in power. Supremacies weaponize our unlikeness, turning us against each other, convincing us we must change or defeat each other. Mutuality is not our utopian past or future. It is only something we can choose. Will we be the trees who share nutrients?
In our daily work at the University of North Florida InterFaith Center, we try to be these trees, offering each other the nutrients of interfaith friendship. As a professional, I get to be a mother tree, nurturing younger ones. But the students equally do this work, and mostly from an entry level, like any person might. They foster a safe space, where people are respected in their identities, but also a brave space where we can engage more difficult fractures in our differences. They are willing to learn from those unlike them. They take diversity as an opportunity to learn from and with each other. Some are not religious, but others find their religious identities strengthening, not against but for their neighbor, due to how these friendships nurture them. They can develop and find ways to take pride in their group identities, proud as Christians, Jews, Muslims, and non-religious, among all their other differences, and that is alright, because we are not all the same.
"IT IS OK TO START SMALL. ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS INVITE UNUSUAL GUESTS TO YOUR TABLE."
It is worth saying our table of unlikeness does not identify itself as liberal or conservative or moderate. Some view it as liberal or woke, but we use phrases like, mutual curiosity, respectful disagreement, and guarding each other’s dignity. While our table welcomes those who come from a variety of backgrounds, at this stage of these students’ lives they nearly all identify with a moderate or liberal label. We also do not have anyone on the leadership who identifies as evangelical Christian, though we have in the past. We could be defensive about that, yet the students repeatedly say, “We need more people, more differences at the table. And that includes conservatives, it includes evangelicals.” This is a full circle, since evangelicals were part of helping establish the InterFaith Center over a decade ago. Our story and our table is already bigger than it looks at this particular moment. And it will be better with more unlikeness.
I invite all of us to seek tables of unlikeness. It is ok to start small. All you have to do is invite unusual guests to your table. Think about the people in your life who are acquaintances and friends, who you could reasonably invite over for a meal, who have different social identities than you. Do not think of this as tokenizing and do not use people. Rather, consider how this can be an opportunity to build friendships where you might not have before. At the table, you will have a chance to learn from each other’s lives.
Make tables that bridge race, culture, religion, politics, gender and sexual identity, and engage not with judgement but with mutual curiosity. In your many stories, in your diversity, may you come to know one another and learn what you never could have without each other.
In this world of unlikeness, imagine what we could build, one table at a time.
Matt Hartley is an Associate Director of the Interfaith Center at University of North Florida. @rmatthartley