Community and Peace

WILL an hour of quiet come to my community this Holy Week?

This, in America, is a citizen's question, not just a religionist's question.

Society is cluttered, the week nonstop. Families scatter in the hunt for jobs. Seniors migrate to the Sun Belt, further erasing family and community focus.

America, too, is moving toward universalism; it is gathering in microcosm the world's racial, ethnic, and religious groups. Individuals can choose among the various religions - or elect a martial-arts or some other mental discipline, or ignore such matters.

Many remember when a quiet would come to an entire community this week. In my Midwest neighborhood, a Good Friday service would be held in the local movie house, and Protestant and Catholic, mainstream and evangelistic congregations would gather. The city would all but shut down, anticipating the sunrise services Easter morning.

I sensed, however, even as a boy, that powerful, resistant feelings also underlay the week's events. The melting pot brought together people with widely different cultural traditions. Youths easily came and went among an array of congregation and family Holy Week traditions. The effects were a dilution of community religious observance and resort to a more individual search for meaning.

The Rev. John Stendahl of the Lutheran Church of the Newtons, near Boston, recalls "a kind of hushed awe" that would settle in his boyhood community on Good Friday. He says he does not know how broad was "the social, demographic" compass of that phenomenon and how much was "an individual expression of my own family and circumstances." His father is Krister Stendahl, the Harvard Divinity School theologian and onetime Bishop of Stockholm. The younger Stendahl tells how his family would gather stones and moss and bits of wood and create a miniature scene showing Gethsemene, Golgotha, and the tomb, whose seal of red wax would be broken Easter morning. "It was not until I was older that I learned of the uglier traditions of some Christians who would take revenge on whatever Jews they could find," he adds.

Susannah Heschel writes of how the writings of her late father, the Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel, were reflected in the spirit and practices of his family and community. Her memoir introduces a collection of her father's essays, "Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity," to be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux this June. It also appears in the latest issue of the magazine Tikkun.

Both theologians had their hours of trial - Stendahl for advocating the ordination of women in the 1950s, and Heschel for defending civil rights for blacks and attending the Second Vatican Council. Both were charged with heresy for seeking actively to align their lives as citizens, theologians, and community and family members.

Respect for multireligious expression in America must be further advanced each Holy Week. Heschel could write: "Jewish-Christian relations have improved beautifully. There is certainly a new atmosphere and increasing mutual esteem." But more work remains to be done there, as among the Christian denominations - and for most Americans the Muslim faith is territory unknown. Tikkun's editors include a supplement with "concrete political" topics for citizen religionists to discuss at Seder dinners this Passover week. "We cannot be satisfied with spiritual liberation that leaves the political and social inequalities of the world in place, the suffering of others unchanged," they write.

Maybe the hour of quiet is something we await and must be ready to earn.

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