I'm a visiting scholar at Yale Divinity School, not a student, and as a Quaker I can't be ordained, so I delete most of the institutional email notices unread. Vestments and books on preaching and counseling can change hands at astonishingly low prices, the Reverend Mister Manners can strike again and again with sessions to prepare for interviews with parishes, and the Thou Shalt Kill volleyball team can massacre its rivals from other Yale professional schools, all without concerning me. But I eagerly read the announcement that came in July of this year about the first conference to follow from the document called "A Common Word Between Us and You." That public expression by Muslim leaders of their solidarity with Christians had received a warm response from Western churches and universities, and now the conference was warmly entitled "Loving God and Neighbor in Word and Deed: Implications for Christians and Muslims."
I recalled my excitement about the many luminaries' denial that there was any need for Christians and Muslims to be at each other's throats; I had been proud of the role played by Yale religious scholars. I now wanted to attend the conference and help to assure the guests of Christian goodwill, but also ask some of the hard questions that Quakers in South Africa, my second home, had been asking for decades, especially since the failures of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. After a long history of violence and mutual ill-will, how can lasting peace and goodwill come about? The catastrophically growing South African income divide; the unbelievable amount of crime; the government's assertions—at the probable cost of several million lives—that AIDS is a Western conspiracy; the stubborn and worsening racism in a country that is most people's favorite example of "reconciliation"; and the alliance with ravaging tyranny in neighboring Zimbabwe show that the formulas for mediation that are now most admired have proven, at best, incomplete.
But as I learned to my anger, neither I nor any other ordinary members of the Divinity School community could attend any panels of "Loving God and Neighbor." All of them were closed—extremely unusual for this institution. The purpose of Dean Harold Attridge's email was not invitation but warning: "I am writing today to let you know how these events might impact life on the [Yale Divinity School] Quad" (his emphasis).