No One Is Exempt From the Responsibility to Combat Hate

In 2008, Marcelo Lucero was killed by a group of teenagers simply for being an immigrant. A 13-year resident of Patchogue, N.Y., Lucero was originally from Ecuador. His tragic story, soon to be recounted in the PBS documentary "Not in Our Town: Light in the Darkness" (airing Sept. 21), illustrates once again the need for every American to engage in efforts to combat hatred. Whether it is personally denouncing hate with vigor, stepping in with compassion to help when seeing someone being physically hurt because of the individual's identity or, better still, effectively educating family, friends and the community around you to keep hate crimes from happening in the first place, all of us can do our part.

Our efforts to prevent hate crimes were strengthened significantly in October 2009 when President Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. This important piece of legislation, for which many of us had worked for over a decade, provided new, much-needed resources to aid law enforcement personnel's investigation and prosecution of hate crimes. But a law alone will not prevent hate crimes from happening. The law needs concerned citizens and whole communities involved in eradicating hate.

You and I have a role to play if we are serious about stopping hate crimes. In our respective communities, we can do what neither Congress nor the President can do for us. Ours is the responsibility of commending others and modeling in our own lives respect for those who are different from us, focusing on similarities that bind us together, and denouncing hate as neither a democratic nor a religious value.

As a religious leader, I have seen both the positive and healing role that faith can play in people's lives as well as the destructive consequences of people using religion as an excuse for or a tool of hatred. Sadly, some who claim the mantle of God prostitute that sacred trust by inspiring anger toward those who are different from themselves and, through hate-filled oratory, disseminate venomous rhetoric that drives sick minds to engagement in violent actions.

I am not asking anyone to turn away from deeply held religious convictions. However, there is a tremendous difference between standing by your values and inciting hatred or inspiring violence. Mark it down: Any religion that justifies hate toward any other person is an impostor of religion. Diverse religions speak with one voice in opposing hate and hate-motivated violence.

In years of work on this issue, I have seen the proof of an observation of the British statesman Edmund Burke, who once said, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good [people] to do nothing." This is no time for passive spectators. Hate must be challenged and defeated. As a person of faith, but more importantly as a human being, I solicit your help in countering and ultimately eliminating hate from our society. "Impossible," you say. "Have we every really tried?" I must ask.

After the tragic attacks on our nation on Sept. 11, 2001, as president of Interfaith Alliance, I watched in dismay as members of the Muslim community became targets of people whose hatred caused them to take the law in their hands and play the role of hanging judges. But during those days I also experienced elation and hope, as members of our organization reached out to identify with Muslims and even accompany them in public as a way of protecting them from hateful words and actions. I never will forget the thrill of our Interfaith Alliance chapter in Denver, Colo., bringing together people of faith in their city -- Christians and Jews among others -- to hold hands with each other and surround the major mosque in Denver as a way of standing against those who hate and embracing with compassion the victimized. The message was powerful: This community will not stand by idly as innocent people are attacked because of their religious identity and the misinformed beliefs of others.

Did this event put an end to hate crimes in that community? No. However, that symbol sent an unforgettable denouncement of hatred as a means of solving any problem. As each of us finds our role in combating hate, we will do well to remember a 2,000-year-old statement from the Jewish sage Rabbi Tarfon, who said, "It is not your duty to complete the work; yet neither are you free to desist from it."

The greatest tribute we can pay to those who needlessly have lost their lives to hate mongers -- Mathew Shepared, James Byrd Jr., Marcelo Lucero and countless other nameless victims of hatred -- is to encourage civility and to create a community in which hate is not acceptable. In such a place, the 2009 bill would become unnecessary. But we are not there yet. So you and I are the people who must keep trying to get us there.