The world is a hard place. Too many hours in front of the 24-hour News Networks and one can feel desolate in the face of Sisyphean problems in the world. ISIS in Iraq. Boko Haram in Nigeria. The Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. Strife between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar. Israel and Palestine on the whole. How do we hold on to hope when the world seems to be crying out that interreligious peace is a hopeless task?
William Sloane Coffin wrote, “While I am not optimistic, I am hopeful…hope as opposed to cynicism & despair, is the sole precondition for a new and better life, and hope arouses, as nothing else can arouse, the passion for the possible.” Holding on to that hope, nurturing it and growing it, is fundamentally important in engaging in interfaith work. Especially when we are working to transform conflict and create stability where instability and violence have held sway, we must find creative ways of fostering hope.
What ways can we nurture hope that go beyond a single religious tradition? As a Christian, my hope is nurtured by a relationship with Jesus. But that won’t jive with my broad interfaith community. How do we nurture hope while also building a cohesive community? Can it be done? Where do we begin?
When talking with a friend recently, we agreed that art has the power to draw people together across religious, cultural, and socio-economic dividers. Art can be an equalizing space where each individual brings her or his own values into their reflection on the art. As the daughter of an art professor, I know the power of art to strike us on a deep, subconscious level. Art can speak the un-uttered words scrawled across the deepest recesses of our hearts. And art can invite us to re-imagine ourselves, our situations, our internal narratives.
Thinking about the power of art to reach beyond an individual experience, my friend suggested that one way to nurture hope was a nation-wide art project. He referenced the AIDS Quilt that has become a public display of support and solidarity for those who have been lost to the epidemic over the years. In the 1980s, when people infected with the HIV virus were literally dying in the streets, the AIDS Quilt was a massive public art project which brought people together. It united people in a visual display that remembered the lives of those who were lost to this horrific disease. The Quilt wasn’t a single-event like a concert or theatrical production. It wasn’t from a single church or group, but was truly a communal effort to create a visual reminder – a visual mapping of this tragic history –that invites us into remembrance and unites us in our struggle against this disease.
How can a similar folk art project be used to galvanize the American community against acts of religiously motivated violence? How can we say “Enough!” and work together for a visual representation of our unity? Art is not a cure, but it is a focal point. Art can offer us a critique of our lived experience. Art can offer a pause, a moment of reflection. Art can motivate and inspire. Art can remind us of what makes us most human.
I don’t have an answer. I offer this suggestion to my colleagues who work to nurture the hope of a more stable, sustainable, and just world in the midst of conflict and coercion. What kind of mass art-project would your community be willing to take part in to stand up against religiously motivated violence? What part does art play in your religious, spiritual and philosophical communities? And, can art be a tool for unification across division?
Image used by permission By National Institutes of Health [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons