Summer Autumn 2012 issue cover


Choosing Words over Bullets

Cover illustration by Heads of State. Cover design by Point Five Design.

By R. Gustav Niebuhr

I mean this essay’s title to speak to a fundamental challenge of our time.1 It also paraphrases the concluding statement of a book—a very short book, which I received under circumstances that rendered it memorable. “Choosing words over bullets” came to me as a statement many years after I first read it, as I tried to frame the basic lesson of research that would become my book, Beyond Tolerance.

As a journalist—my profession from 1980 until 2001, and in my blood still—I read what I could, as background for whatever story I had at hand. I also found it fundamental to listen carefully to what people had to say. Often enough, the written and the spoken words intersected and reinforced each other.

R. Gustav Niebuhr standing behind a podium with a Harvard Divinity School banner on it

R. Gustav Niebuhr. HDS Photo

My primary example of this—which will refer to the essay’s title—occurred a quarter century ago in Atlanta, during my first job as a newspaper reporter whose beat involved writing about religion in the Southeast—a rich experience. That work meant much more than simply talking to clergy in houses of worship, but occasionally it did involve that. One summer afternoon, I met a man at his church door, who greeted me by slipping a pamphlet into my hand. “Read this,” he said, “if you want to know who we are.”

By then, I had lived in the South long enough to find nothing unusual in being handed a tract, ostensibly addressed to me, the reader, by someone serious about her or his faith. On street corners all over the region, I had encountered individuals ready to offer printed religious counsel to a stranger.

But this particular experience proved unique, as the challenge posed in that pamphlet said nothing about the destination of the reader’s soul, but rather the responsibilities she would or would not assume here on Earth. To clarify, the minister belonged to the Unitarian Universalist Association; the pamphlet he gave me, titled Neither Victims nor Executioners, contained essays written by the philosopher Albert Camus in 1946. Camus described the basic moral choices involved in living in a world nearly broken by Nazism and faced with the building horror of a possible confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. This, in part, is what I read:

In the coming years an endless struggle will be waged across five continents, a struggle in which either violence or dialogue will prevail. Granted, the former has nearly a thousand times the chances of the latter. But I have always thought that if the [person] who places hope in the human condition is a fool, then he who gives up hope in the face of circumstances is a coward. Henceforth, the only honor will lie in obstinately holding to a formidable gamble: that words are stronger than bullets.

I found clarity in Camus’s proposition, enough so that I never forgot his words. No, I didn’t think about them every day. Instead, his argument sank into some deep area of my memory, where it rested for years—until I found I really needed to call it back. And that would happen as I worked on a book about interreligious dialogue and cooperation in the United States.

That subject—the hard work of building up positive interfaith relations—interested me increasingly during my last years at The New York Times. As I traveled the country, reporting stories connected in one way or another with the broad idea of religion, I became persuaded that there was evidence of a scattered, grassroots movement taking hold in cities and suburbs, focused on bringing people of differing theological beliefs into productive contact with one another. In part, this movement—there seemed no other word for it—drew its inspiration from the recognition of growing religious diversity that in its complexity seemed unlike anything Americans had experienced. To some people with whom I spoke, that diversity offered an educational opportunity with social benefits—a chance to get to know people of different faiths as they were, without trying to convert them, and, at the same time, rejecting stereotypes rather than falling prey to them.

It began to strike me as a big news story, but an elusive one. As a movement, interfaith encounters often shared common principles. But the action occurred very gradually over time and involved a great deal of talk—the kind of talk that starts and stops, loops back on itself and accelerates, only to begin the process again. Not a direct, linear argument (as one might hope to hear, for instance, before the Supreme Court); not a quick, political advertisement—and therefore not easy material out of which to make a news story, at least in the conventional sense. But then movements aiming at real social change may begin this way. As one of my editors, who came of age professionally in the 1950s and early 1960s, liked to say, if news organizations had paid some attention to what was going on inside predominantly African American churches in the Southeast, they might well have grasped the breadth, depth, and resilience of the civil rights movement long before they did.2

My first real brush with the interfaith movement came in 1993, when I attended a weeklong event in Chicago marking the centennial of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. The organizers invited thousands of people; and thousands had come. They held lectures, workshops, panel discussions. But, mainly, they just met and talked with one another. That had great value. After all, to borrow Martin Buber’s phrase, “all real living is meeting.”

How to describe what I saw? I grappled with that problem then and later. The best analogy probably lies in literature—in Melville’s Moby Dick. Early on, the narrator, Ishmael, introduces his new friend, the South Pacific Islander, Queequeg, to the Quaker owners of the whaling ship the Pequod. The owners quickly recognize Queequeg as an extraordinarily gifted harpooner and they want to sign him on with the crew. But they feel troubled about hiring someone they correctly perceive as a non-Christian. So they twice ask Ishmael, to which church does your friend belong? Finally, he replies that Queequeg holds membership in the “First Congregational Church of the whole worshiping world.”

That church convened in Chicago in 1993. It might have been a one-time event, like the gathering it celebrated, a century earlier. That said, even the original parliament did not fold its tent without effect. It elevated to national status a singular figure—a bilingual Bengali teacher, Swami Vivekananda—whose speeches, attire (he wore a turban), and self-confident bearing made him an object of deep fascination in Victorian America. In his speeches, he delivered a clear, direct message of interreligious cooperation, across theological divides, with respect for differences.

The organizers of the 1993 event closed shop with a surplus, enough to allow them to continue holding meetings similar to the one in Chicago, at five- or six-year intervals. More importantly, however, the event planted the seed of the idea that people could meet peacefully, educationally, in multireligious encounters. The parliament’s participants took its message home, all over the United States and abroad.

Then came September 11, 2001. Would the sledgehammer brutality delivered against so many American civilians that day weaken, perhaps even wreck, the nascent interfaith movement? That week, a friend asked me if I thought Americans were now likely to turn away from religious faith and practice after they had been so abruptly and horrifically reminded that human ideas of religion can have a very dark side. I didn’t dismiss his question—he meant it sincerely. I replied that I doubted the event would have such an effect, if only because the overwhelming majority of people who called themselves religious did not identify either themselves or their religion with acts of atrocious violence.

On that September 11, we witnessed an exceedingly cruel demonstration of what my great-uncle Reinhold Niebuhr called “absolutism”—the self-justifying quest for the impossible ideal. “Absolutism,” he wrote in Moral Man and Immoral Society, “in both religious and political idealism, is a splendid incentive to heroic action, but a dangerous guide in immediate and concrete situations.” The absolutists fail to understand that they will inevitably confront their nemesis, which he described as the inertia of human nature. Furthermore, he wrote, they

risk the welfare of millions when they gamble for the attainment of the absolute. And, since coercion is an invariable instrument of their policy, absolutism transmutes this instrument into unbearable tyrannies and cruelties. The fanaticism which in the individual may appear in the guise of a harmless or pathetic vagary, when expressed in political policy, shuts the gates of mercy on mankind.

And yet, I think my friend’s question deserved more of a response than I was able to offer at the time. Perhaps I have been responding to it ever since.

The day of the attacks, I caught my usual commuter train into Manhattan from Princeton, where I then lived. I happened to sit on the east-facing side of the New Jersey Transit railcar when I saw—after we rounded Newark International Airport—a bluish cloud rising over the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Our train rumbled into Newark Station, then emerged after a disconcertingly long stop of at least five minutes. As we raced across the Meadowlands, we saw both towers, their upper floors shrouded in dense, malevolent smoke.

No one can be prepared for violence on that scale. The people around me went utterly silent, except for one, who wept. Both responses seemed natural and fitting. Acts of terror can be carried out without words—as terror, they are meant to deprive people of speech. The purpose is to crush our humanity, take away our ability to communicate rationally, and replace it with stark, uncontrollable fear.

What I didn’t know that morning, however, is that not everyone had lost her or his speech.

Very shortly after the towers in New York collapsed, someone in Seattle did an extraordinary thing, taking out a note card and writing a simple statement that said, “We don’t blame all Muslims.” Whoever wrote this message then took it in hand and left it leaning against the front door of the Islamic School of Seattle. I know this because the school’s principal, Ann el-Moslimany, told me about it five months later. She became deeply worried after the World Trade Center attacks that the seventy or so children under her charge, kindergartners through eighth graders, might be at risk in a possible “backlash” by individuals driven wild with fear and grief. But when she canceled classes for that week and opened the doors to parents arriving to pick up their children, she found notes like the one I quote and bunches of flowers, too. When she and her students returned a week later, they were greeted by students from an alternative high school across the street who carried signs saying, “Welcome back.” And when she went into her office, she got a call from the Seattle Council of Churches, offering volunteers to come patrol the sidewalks and keep an eye on the building. On September 11 and the days immediately following, the council had been flooded with calls from individuals, many of whom had never called the council before, but who wanted to “do something” to prevent the innocent people among them from being harassed or attacked. And so the council signed them up, under a program it called “Watchful Eyes,” to walk the sidewalks in shifts, 24/7, at the Islamic school, a local mosque, and a Sikh gurudwara.

This response was not unique—not by a long shot. Volunteers organized a protective, human ring around a mosque in Denver. In Herndon, Virginia, on September 12, the day after vandals broke into a mosque and defaced its walls, the imam—the prayer leader—got a call from his neighbors, asking if they could come over and help clean up. One man, identifying himself as Jewish, said he wanted to pay for the paint. This made an impression on Imam Mohamed Maguid. At that time, his mosque had just broken ground for a new building, on a site nearby. A large sign identified the project. The neighbors began turning out, in vigils, to protect the sign itself.

In Syracuse that morning, a United Methodist woman took down her phone book and looked up the number of the Islamic Society of Central New York. She asked the man who picked up the phone there, “Is there anything I can do to help the women in your mosque?” He put her in touch with a woman who worshiped there, and the two sat down at a kitchen table to talk. From that initial get-to-know-you conversation emerged an organization. The women invited their friends to come join them; a monthly meeting began; participants brought food for potluck dinners. The circle expanded to include Roman Catholics, Jews, Buddhists, agnostics. They talked about their families, their beliefs, the world around them. They gave their group a name—Women Transcending Boundaries—and launched a website. They raised money to help build a girls’ school in Pakistan.

People acted locally, without press releases. These activities showed people had not lost their voices—or their determination to use them for the public good.

I largely missed these activities when they began. They occurred beneath the media radar. People acted locally, without press releases. Because their activities did not end up on the police blotter, local news organizations—and national ones—tended to miss them. But together these activities showed that people had not lost their voices—or their determination to use them for the public good. A rabbi, a friend of mine who served a synagogue in Los Angeles, emailed me a copy of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem, Dirge without Music.

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the
hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Later that year, I left the Times to write about interfaith dialogue and cooperation, this grassroots movement—and found that a large part of it was driven as a response to 9/11. Many different expressions of the trend existed—although it often depended on word of mouth to locate them. I visited a mosque and a synagogue engaged in a fifteen-year-old dialogue on Long Island; a one-day gathering of different religious believers at a Buddhist temple in northern Los Angeles; an annual celebration of religious differences—with lectures, panels, artwork, dance, and music—in Louisville, Kentucky.

All these activities constituted a fitting response to terror. The individual actions of the people who participated (and continue to do so) helped hold our nation together. Their words and deeds amounted to a vote on behalf of civil society.

Some people, I would later write, “choose to build networks that deliberately cross boundaries in an era in which religious differences are so explosive.” Their work constitutes a quiet countertrend in that “it directly challenges violence in God’s name, even if it does not replace it. At its heart, it’s a grassroots educational process in which the goal is to gain knowledge about individuals and their beliefs in a way that lessens fear. It is a new activity in the world, an entirely new phenomenon in our history. It is a social good, a basis for hope and a tendency that ought to be nurtured and cultivated.”

What amazes me about this citizens’ project is that it is not easy, because it means confronting differences without acting to change them, but rather trying to understand them. A Roman Catholic theologian put the challenge to me succinctly when she asked, “Can one admit differences without being adversarial? Now, that’s a radical thing in the world—that you’re not me, and I’m not you, but that doesn’t mean a threat.”

The world’s religions are remarkably varied; they are different systems of thought whose ultimate goals for the individual practitioner are highly distinct. Jesus and the Buddha had different missions. Moreover, interreligious dialogue and cooperation also requires participants to learn that a single noun—be it Muslim, Christian, Jew, agnostic, Buddhist, or some other one—does not tell one everything one needs to know about the person who accepts that noun as a label.

I have tried (I hope without sounding prideful) to do my part in this process as a teacher. In recent years, I have had the good fortune of having backing from the Carnegie Corporation of New York to create a program in religion and media. Among other things, I invite to Syracuse University, where I teach, individuals who are either the focus of the news media or practitioners of media who I would like my students (and whoever else is interested) to meet. I call these events “public interviews,” because I begin them by asking my visitors questions that allow them to speak both personally and expansively about issues at hand. In October 2010, I had as a guest Daisy Khan, a principal figure in what was then being vilified as “the Mosque Near Ground Zero.” She impressed her audience that day—which did not surprise me.

In October 2011, I invited Asma T. Uddin, a lawyer, advocate of religious freedom, and the founder and editor of a web-based magazine. She is a thoughtful speaker on the subjects of Islam in the United States, religious devotion, and running a website that attracts not only Muslim women, but Christians and Jews who find the subjects interesting and relevant for their own lives. Uddin, who grew up in Miami, also spoke about her decision in college to wear a headscarf, and her decision, at the end of law school, to take it off. More than anything else, that part of her talk seemed to affect the undergraduates present. I spoke with one afterwards, and he told me that he thought Asma Uddin was “a normal American.”

I gave that some thought. I wouldn’t dispute it. She struck me, too, as a “normal American,” one among perhaps 300 million. “It’s an old story, unless you’ve never heard it”—to borrow a phrase by Michael Herr, from Dispatches, his book about the Vietnam War. Herr included a moral statement in that book, one that has stayed with me ever since I first read it more than thirty years ago: “You are as responsible for what you see as for what you do.”

For years, I had the great good fortune to have a profession that required me to travel the nation (and sometimes go abroad) to speak with people about what they held closest to themselves, spiritually, and how this caused them to act in society. Eventually, I discovered such encounters left me in a peculiar situation. I felt hesitant to generalize easily about people. I had not lost my opinions, or surrendered anything fundamental in myself. It was simply that when I heard people make broad-brush statements—for good or ill—about groups to which they did not belong, I would find myself often in the uneasy position of wanting to say, “Yes, but. . . .” Or sometimes just, “But. . . .”

This extended to people with whom I disagreed politically and culturally. For example, when the contentious subject of conservative Protestants or, even more so, fundamentalists, comes up among my friends, I have occasionally felt the need to step in, if only because I have known people in both groups—and some stand out clearly as individuals. Sure, some in their outward, public behavior may fit a common stereotype. But perhaps that emphasis should be on “some.” I can’t forget that when I worked in Atlanta, I knew a man who fit the theological description of a fundamentalist, yet was absolutely committed to the same basic freedoms in which I believe and under which I operated—freedom of speech and the press.

Every person is a text to be read. And the reading imparts an experience that adds a dimension to labels we might otherwise be tempted to dismiss. And then there is the writing that we ourselves do. What continually amazes me is how the writing from those who seem to be the weakest, in the most vulnerable situations, endures to move us and inspire us years and years later. The opposite is so often true of those who wield power brutally.

I once challenged an audience to think if they could come up with anything they remembered spoken or written by the late Osama bin Laden. I had read an entire book on al-Qaeda—a very good one, by the way—but I still came up empty, as did my audience. What that suggests is that terror goes only so far. Yes, it creates fear. And from fear can arise great destruction. But otherwise it leaves little behind.

The message that the terrorist delivers can be described with exceptional brevity. It is simply, “I am capable of this. Be afraid.” But in commanding us to fear, the terrorist shows how utterly cramped his or her understanding of human nature is. At some point—and it may be very quickly—a significant number of people will find ways to overcome their fear and begin rebuilding the physical landscape and relationships, as well. The evidence for this can be found in the various responses we have seen to acts of terrorism (even state terrorism) in our lifetimes. Of course, recoveries move at different speeds, depending on the scope of the violence and the political power of the perpetrators.

W. H. Auden understood the acute limitations that bind the terrorist. He wrote a poem, titled “August 1968,” in response to the Soviet Union’s army crushing an emerging democratic movement in Czechoslovakia. In the poem, Auden describes a beast he calls “the Ogre,” who carries out destructive deeds “quite impossible” for mere humans. But the Ogre “cannot master speech.” And, as he proudly surveys the ruin he has wrought, “drivel gushes from his lips.”

The ogres of this world may hold a certain fascination for us. But they rarely are truly memorable. And they are not widely quoted. (Many years ago, sitting in a reading room at the British Museum, I happened to glance up at the shelves above me to see a long series of leather bound, gold-embossed books: the complete works of the dictator Enver Hoxha. They looked just as fresh and crisp and unopened as the day they had been shipped from Albania to London.)

This is not true for men and women who put their energies into building community, civil society, democracy. They are memorable. They are quoted. They inspire long after their deaths. A friend, a Muslim who has built an interfaith organization that operates among college students, came to his religious and community-centered awakening through reading Dorothy Day, the Catholic exponent of workers, pacifists, and the poor.

At age fifty-nine, Day traveled to Montgomery, Alabama, to see the civil rights bus boycott for herself. She went on to Georgia to visit Koinonia Farm, a sort of utopian, agricultural community in which black families and white families lived and worked together, in visible violation of the cultural mandate of racial segregation. Day knew that many people outside the farm wished to see it eliminated. Yet she spent a night sitting watch, against possible assailants, in a car parked on the property’s edge. As she recited her prayers, a carload of armed men pulled up and opened fire on her. They missed. She would later write, “It is what I came for—to share in the fear and suffering.”

Words over bullets.

For inspiration, one could as easily quote others. After all, individuals these days find deep, life-giving inspiration in the writing of Mahatma Gandhi, or the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., or Nelson Mandela, or the fourteenth Dalai Lama. We will remember these people of our time.

I conclude with some thoughts that came to me during the dedication last year of the 9/11 memorial in New York City. I realized then that I hoped the names of men and women inscribed on the memorial’s walls would remind and inspire us to continue the positive reaction that followed 9/11. Then, many people quietly but effectively reached out to one another, across religious lines, especially to protect American Muslim institutions. They held conversations. They formed community groups. They helped sustain civil society. Their actions expressed a profound faith in America as pluralistic, and in our founding idea of many groups who together make up a single nation.

I grew up in an era when people warned against publicly discussing religion. But that time is long past; religion must be discussed, if we are to be educated about our fellow citizens. We need to know what others believe, how they interpret their texts, how faith shapes their lives. We need to know so we can pierce the suspicions that would divide the overwhelmingly peaceful majorities among us. To know is a civic responsibility. And we must learn to recognize demagogues for what they are when they try to wring poison from dogma.

Mass terror takes many forms, some political, some ethnic, some based on economic theory, some starkly racist. The Red Brigades; the Baader-Meinhof Gang; the Ku Klux Klan; Timothy McVeigh; Anders Breivik—we have read our fill of them. Terror despises human rights. But combatting it does not belong simply to the military. Among us civilians, it demands a commitment to search for the common ethic among people we do not always know. Does that mean taking a risk? Yes. Does that mean sometimes being disappointed? Yes, again. But as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “He has not learned the lesson of life who does not daily surmount a fear.” In dealing with differences, that’s our charge.

In March 2012, I visited the new monument to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., on the Washington Mall. On a wall there, one can read some of King’s words from the letter he wrote in an Alabama jail cell; he described humanity as “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” Later, he preached in Riverside Church in New York City, denouncing the Vietnam War. He had met the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, committed to peace for his nation and to finding a “third way” between American capitalism and Marxist Communism. King would nominate Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize. At Riverside, he said, “When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. . . . Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door that leads to ultimate reality.”

Memorials—like the one to King and for the men and women of 9/11—speak not simply of loss, but of unfinished business. This idea is found in the Gettysburg Address, our greatest memorial oration; Lincoln speaks of the responsibility belonging to the men and women who would survive the Civil War. “It is for us the living,” he said, to whom falls the task of rebuilding, after great, unanticipated violence.

After September 11, a terrible cloud rose into the late summer skies above Lower Manhattan. Boiling up from the burning ruins of the World Trade Center, it carried aloft the ashes of 3,000 people—daughters and sons, mothers and fathers; individuals of every race, color, ethnicity; people of every imaginable religious faith, and those who shunned any religious identity.

Those “honored dead” (in Lincoln’s phrase) deserve their memorial—but not simply a physical one. They deserve our dedication to reject terror’s ultimate goal, the destruction of civil society. They deserve all the effort we can muster against fear and stereotyping and in support of education about one another. They deserve a clear-headed, unsentimental monument to hope in the hard, unfinished business of forging community. As Camus wrote, in that pamphlet once handed to me, “[W]hat we must fight is fear and silence and the spiritual isolation they involve.” What we must defend, he said, is dialogue and universal communication among all people.


  1. ​This is an edited and revised version of the talk given at Harvard Divinity School’s centennial celebration of Andover-Harvard Theological Library, October 6, 2011.
  2. One cannot write on this subject for a publication of Harvard Divinity School without paying respect to those who early recognized and wrote about the diversification of the American religious landscape: Diana Eck and the late Bill Hutchison, who put it in its historical context.

R. Gustav Niebuhr, Associate Professor of Newspaper and Online Journalism and director of the Religion and Society Program at Syracuse University, is a former religion journalist for The New York Times and author of Beyond Tolerance: Searching for Interfaith Understanding in America.

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