The Interfaith Resonance of "Allegiance"

On Tuesday I was fortunate to be in the audience of "Allegiance, the New Musical Inspired by a True Story." It was the first night of the previews of George Takei's new Broadway musical at Longacre Theatre. I'm no critic, but I know what I like. I loved it.

The story is based on the unjustified and dehumanizing internment of thousands of Japanese Americans during World War II. George Takei was a child when his family was rounded up and sent away. His family left their home and most of their possessions. They were targeted simply because of their Japanese ethnicity. While there are obviously very substantial differences between those internment camps and the concentration camps of the same era, both are rooted in the same dehumanizing impulse: categorizing a segment of human beings based on the behavior and beliefs of some with a shared ethnicity or religion. It happened to Japanese Americans in the 40s and is happening to Muslims in America today.

"Allegiance" was everything a musical is supposed to be - musically beautiful, politically poignant, romantically oriented, and emotionally gripping. What makes it stand out in the musical genre is that in the end there are as many questions as answers. Though the evil of dehumanization is clearly portrayed, the true villains are not wearing black hats. Is the character that bravely fought in the battles of World War II (winning a purple heart) braver than the character that refused to fight until his family was released from the internment camps? The former was wounded in battle; the latter was beaten and put in prison for his refusal to fight. Was the exuberant celebration of the end of the war justified given the mass slaughter of so many civilians by two atomic bombs? Would the bombs have been dropped on European cities, if the circumstances were different?

Good art always asks more questions than it provides easy answers. In this respect "Allegiance" is more like an opera than a musical. If I have one fear for the success of Takei's project, it is that it may be too good in this respect. Is there a mass audience for some of these difficult questions? I hope so, for there is no better time to ask them than now. For our dehumanizing temptations never cease.

A friend who teaches university said recently that no one in his class of sophomores knew who Timothy McVeigh was. I find this distressing and not just because I'm from Oklahoma and knew people lost in the 1995 bombing. I'm worried that there are too many people operating under the illusion that the only terrorists we need to concern ourselves with are those with dark skin, particularly Muslims. We need to shout from the rooftops that until September 11, 2001, the largest single terrorist attack on U.S. soil was carried out by a white guy with a very Irish name. As a Christian, I certainly would never want to claim McVeigh, but the fact remains that he was much more "Christian" than Muslim.

But in the end, and this is the truth we must all seek to grapple with, the Christian/Muslim distinction pales to the moderate/extremist difference. The former is vast, theologically speaking. I would never want to insult either tradition by acting as if they are somehow the same. They are not. To be sure there are similar ethical teachings in the best incarnation of both traditions, but the theological tenants are considerably different and we shouldn't attempt to "paper" over those. But of greater signifance to the entire world - meaning every human being who wants to live without terror, without dehumanization, and without undue fear of the other - is the distinction we must make between those extremists bent on violence and those who take their faith very seriously - seriously enough to never act out in violence.

To be sure that difference isn't always easy to determine. Who would have seen Timothy McVeigh driving that rental truck and thought: there goes a mass murderer on his way to kill over 100 people with a load of common fertilizer? No one at a glance. And that is the point. We cannot dare glance at those Syrians fleeing their hell on earth and assume they are potential terrorists.

Fear makes all of us do things we regret. Clearly it was the driver of those who put in place the internment of patriotic Americans who happened to have "yellow" skin and a Japanese ancestor. Fear drove us to do things after 9/11 for which history will judge us harshly - and rightly so. The epistle writer, John, was on to something when he wrote that "perfect love casts out fear." I don't know a perfect definition of perfect love, but it would surely begin with the golden rule. No one likes to be categorized without justification. To fight the evil effects of fear, we must seek to love by treating all human beings the way we would be treated. This has "non-kumbaya" implications. This ethical groundwork needs to serve as a policy foundation that would admit a greater number of refugees based on humanitarian grounds.

Certainly a vetting of immigrants is in order. Likely there are a few among those fleeing Syria, and a few among those trying to emigrate from other war-torn places, that would seek to do us harm. But we should not ignore our own immigration history. The vast majority of immigrants came to our shores to improve their lives, and as they did so, they improved the lives of all Americans. And as we've been reminded recently, many more Americans have been killed by domestic gun violence than by terrorists of any stripe.

Next week I will be traveling to the "World Parliament of Religions." I'll be representing my Baptist family (specifically the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship). I'm going not because I believe "all religions are the same." Nor because I think that via dialogue we'll discover undiscovered commonalities. I'm traveling because religion in all its forms has caused untold good and untold evil in this world. Pastors, imams, rabbis, monks, and shamans must hold hands together as we put our heads together in order to prompt our respective traditions toward efforts at undermining all dehumanizing theology, speech, and action.

I will admit that I'm doubtful a rural Southern Baptist congregation in Oklahoma will be paying any more attention to the "Parliament" than a remote group at a Mosque in Pakistan. But knowing we must never let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and that doing nothing seems to be a more certain road to failure than trying something, the Parliament is a worthy enterprise. And not unlike the new musical "Allegiance," we will surely produce as many questions as answers. But I hope this will be clear: de-humanization is always evil. It stands at the root of many of our problems and is nourished by religious extremists of all traditions.