Living as Christians in a Multi-Faith World

Donald Trump’s call to bar Muslims (both U.S. citizens and non-citizens) from entering the U.S., and the anti-Muslim feelings bubbling up in the U.S. and Europe compel me to respond.  There is much I could say, but I will begin by adapting for today portions of a sermon I preached in 2007.  I hope it helps Christians and others find a helpful alternative to fear and hatred of those who believe differently than they do.

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:  Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters. . . . Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare (Jeremiah 29: 4-7).

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.  As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him.  Keeping their distance, they called out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”  And as they went, they were made clean.  Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.  And he was a Samaritan.  Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean”  But the other nine, where are they?  Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”  Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:11-19)

This passage from the prophet Jeremiah has been important to me ever since a hot, humid Tuesday afternoon in Ohio in 1982 when I stood before 200 Presbyterian ministers and elders for examination regarding my fitness to be ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church.

The final question before the vote was asked by a minister who believed my Christian faith was suspect because I studied theology with Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu students at Harvard Divinity School.

“If you were pastor of a local church and a group of Hindus bought property down the street to build a temple,” he asked, “would you take the traditional Christian response?  Would you burn the idols and run the pagans out of town?”

“There are many traditional responses,” I answered.  “I would take the response of the prophet Jeremiah, who said we should build houses, plant gardens, marry and have children, and live side-by-side.  To do otherwise would be to fall into the sin of idolatry, creating our own image of God, and believing that we know all there is to know about the ‘Eternal One.’  Those who know God through other faith traditions may see a part of God we do not see.  We need to listen to and learn from them.”

Our world and nation have changed dramatically since I answered that question.  Gleaming mosques with minarets rise from the cornfields outside Toledo, Ohio.  A Cambodian Buddhist temple and monastery is set in the farmlands south of Minneapolis, Minnesota.  The Buddhist temple in Hacienda Heights, California, is considered so beautiful that “temple view” real estate is highly coveted. Our neighbors wear Sikh turbans and Muslim head scarves.  Many businesses and offices close for Yom Kippur.  Street vendors in Altadena, California kneel for prayer facing Mecca.

The United States has become the most religiously diverse nation on earth, as Diana Eck makes clear in A New Religious America.  Yet the discomfort of many U.S. Christians towards other religions continues. Often those feelings cross over into pride, self-righteousness, fear and hatred.  The belief that Christianity is the pinnacle, the ultimate revelation of God, and the only True way to know the Divine continues as a guiding principle in the lives of many Christians and even U.S. foreign policy. This misinterpretation of Christian scripture was the theological foundation of the Holocaust and informs many Christians today in their response to Islam.

The questions of how people of different faiths live together in this nation and world are important not only for how we relate to our co-workers, neighbors, and classmates.  Now they are critical to our community life, politics, national and international security.  It is time to reflect on these questions biblically, theologically, prayerful, and thoughtfully.

The prophet Jeremiah, the Apostle Paul, and Jesus himself, show respect for those of other faiths and traditions.  They have already shown us an appropriate path forward:  “Build houses, plant gardens, marry and have children, and live side-by-side.  Pray for good and prosperity to come to the non-Jews with whom you live in Babylon.”  In word and deed, show the love and welcome of God for all people.

Of the ten people whom Jesus heals in Luke 17, the only one who comes back to express thanks is a Samaritan whom Jews considered to be of a different religion.  To this man, Jesus says, “Your faith has saved you.”  Jesus uses the word for “salvation,” not the word for “healed.”  This is an important choice of words given that he is of a different religious tradition.

There are a variety of responses to religious diversity.  God is depending on us to choose wisely the responses that enhance life on this planet, rather than unkindness or death and destruction.  In When Religion Becomes Evil, Charles Kimball writes:

“Religion is arguably the most powerful and pervasive force on earth.  Throughout history religious ideas and commitments have inspired individuals and communities of faith to transcend narrow self-interest in pursuit of higher values and truths.  The record of history shows that noble acts of love, self-sacrifice, and service to others are frequently rooted in deeply held religious worldviews.  At the same time, history clearly shows that religion has often been linked directly to the worst examples of human behavior.  It is somewhat trite, but nevertheless sadly true, to say that more wars have been waged, more people killed, and these days more evil perpetrated in the name of religion than by any other institutional force in human history (When Religion Becomes Evil, p.1)

Some argue today that religion, itself, is the problem.  Don’t conflicting truth claims inevitably lead to conflict?  A new wave of books is selling briskly as they proclaim that the world would be better off if we stopped believing in God.

Yes, religion is part of the problem when it becomes distorted.  And no, religion is not the problem, for within the religious traditions that have stood the test of time, we find life-affirming faith that has sustained and provided meaning for millions over the centuries.

In daily conversation, most of us talk about our own religion in terms of its ideals.  At the same time, we often characterize other religious systems in terms of poorly understood teachings and the visibly flawed behavior of adherents.

The truth is, however, that every Christian speaks and acts in ways that are contrary to the ideals of the Christian faith.  People of other religions are in the same boat–they don’t necessarily live out the ideals of their faith any better than we do.  But do we, or they, want our entire faith tradition and community judged only by the ways we have fallen short of our ideals?  Of course not.

Despite distinctive characteristics and conflicting truth claims, religious traditions function in similar ways and share some essential teachings.  For example, all religious traditions mark key life stages, offer an analysis of the human predicament, and outline a path toward the desired goal.

Identifying common characteristics among religions is not the same as saying all religions are the same.  In fact, no religion is the same from one century to the next, from one country to the next, or often from one side of the street to the other.  Most people of faith acknowledge that our own theology and religious insights have changed through years of living.

It is also true that not all religious worldviews are equally valid.  They are not all just different paths up the same mountain.  Value judgments do need to be made between and within each of our religious traditions.  Some religions, religious worldviews, and subsets of even the enduring religions are unhealthy and abusive.  The judgement of when a religion is good and when it has become evil ought to be based upon the core values of faith, hope, love, and gratitude.

Kimball likens God or the transcendent in each enduring religious tradition to true north on a compass.  There are two different types of north:  magnetic north and geographic north.  The needle of a compass points to magnetic north, not geographic north.  Depending on where you are on earth, there can be several degrees of variation.  You might say that our religious needles point in the right direction, but we must be careful lest we assume the needle on our particular compass points directly to the sum total of the reality of God (Kimball, p. 191).

Faith, hope, love, and gratitude are the guiding principles on the spiritual compass that point toward true North, or the transcendent, in all enduring religions.

What is most striking to me about the healing story in the Gospel of Luke is that the only person who returns to Jesus with gratitude is not who most of us expect it to be.  It is a religious foreigner.  Only the religious foreigner recognized that the proper response to kindness is untainted gratitude and praise of God’s mercy.

Luke shows the racial and religious foreigner as an instrument of grace and a window into God.  The Samaritan was healed and saved, but continued to be a Samaritan.

I am convinced that it is possible to be a person of faith with integrity–Christian, Hindu, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh–and at the same time recognize that one’s own experience of God does not exhaust all the possibilities.

Faithful Christians strive to be better disciples of Jesus today than we were yesterday:  to be kinder, more gentle, more courageous, more generous, to keep our tempers in check, speak words of encouragement to others, and provide a gracious welcome to all whom we encounter. Faithful Christians seek the welfare of the city where we live and are open to what non-Christians can teach us about God.  We try to live as Jeremiah and Jesus command us to live.

When asked if good Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus or secular people would go to heaven, the Reverend Billy Graham replied, “Those are decisions only the Lord will make.  It would be foolish for me to speculate on who will be there and who won’t . . . . I believe the love of God is absolute.  He said he gave his son for the whole world, and I think he loves everybody regardless of what label they have.”

I agree with Billy Graham.  Let us build houses, plant gardens, welcome people of all faiths to our shores, respect Americans of all faiths and no faith, and rear generations who will know not Christian hatred, but Christian love.  If we do this, we will be faithful to the God of Jeremiah and Jesus, to the true north of the world’s enduring religions, and to the values of our American Constitution.

Diana Eck, A New Religious America:  How A “Christian Country” Has Become The World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation, HarperSanFrancisco, 2001
Charles Kimball, When Religion Becomes Evil, HarperSanFrancisco, 2002

What’s in Your Frame?

DSC00383I am fed up, frustrated, and so angry that I want to rip the skin off the face of our planet Earth  and pummel what is underneath with my bare hands.   Don’t tell me, “Oh, Barbara, don’t be so upset, it’s not that bad.”  Or, “There are billions of people in the world worse off than you. You’re lucky by comparison.”  No pity parties for me either, please.  And don’t tell me that talking about my anger is a bad thing, that I should keep it to myself.

I am totally pissed.  The worst part is that there’s no one who legitimately deserves my anger at whom I could feel righteous in directing it.  Being angry at life in general does me no good. And I am pissed about that, too.

But anger left inside untreated festers and, like sepsis, destroys life. It poisons the soul, spreads to other people, or causes the one with it to numb out all emotions so as not to feel the anger, leading to depression and paralysis.  I don’t want to explode.  I don’t like being numb.  Some days I just want to give up but I don’t even know what giving up would look like.  So, I damned well better figure out what to do with this bubbling rage or find some answer that will change my life.

Why am I so angry? Because another straw landed on this camel’s back.  I am sick (pun intended) of dealing with an increasing number of health problems.  First heart, then lungs, then smog sensitivity.  That was bad enough.  Now I also have adrenal insufficiency (diagnosed one year ago), periodic vertigo (probably BPPV but diagnosis still pending); and cascading chemical sensitivity (probably triggered by exposure to toxic mold a few years ago and exasperated by air pollution).  I bought a cane last week to help me walk safely, I am not driving until I can again walk in a straight line. I am detoxifying my house.  Beam me up, Scottie.  I am ready to scream.

In Markings, his journal published posthumously, Dag Hammarskjöld’s writes,  “We are not permitted to choose the frame of our destiny.  But what we put into it is ours.  He [sic] who wills adventure will experience it — according to the measure of his courage.  He who wills sacrifice will be sacrificed — according to the measure of his purity of heart.”

Riotous flower gardenI am not living the frame I would choose, but it is the one I have.  I can usually fill it with resilience, love, strength, goodness, courage, joy, faith, and sometimes even inspiration for others.  I can’t get rid of the health problems that comprise my frame, but I can choose how to live with them. Right now the colors of my palette are gray and muddy brown.  But I am trying — really hard — to clear away the layers of anger, frustration and impotence so I can paint again with the yellow, orange, purple and green of a new day.  I will fill my frame again with joy and love, laughter and hope, and goodness beyond myself,

Kings, Pawns, Popes and Purpose

My reservoir of resilience ran dry this year.  It feels like the seams holding it together came apart and I have tried to re-stitch them.  Along the way, four threads of resilience, humility and hope have helped.

I found one thread in Vice President Joe Biden’s commencement address at Yale in May.  Biden described how election as one of the youngest ever to serve in the U.S. Senate fueled his “raw ambition” many years ago.  He was full of himself, he said, until six weeks after the election, when his wife and young daughter died in an auto accident and his two young sons clung to life.  He changed his focus and commuted four hours each day between home and Washington, D.C. so he could be with his sons every morning and evening. Biden said that being present with his sons and family suddenly meant more to him than all he had striven for.  He commuted for 36 years.  His priorities have remained the same ever since.  Ordinary relationships and people are more important than prestige, said Biden.

A second thread of resilience came from President Barack Obama’s eulogy for the Reverend Clementa C. Pickney, Pastor of the historic Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina.   State Senator Pickney and eight other African-Americans were massacred by a white racist in June at the end of an evening Bible study at the church.  Of Pickney, the President said,

 He embodied the idea that our Christian faith demands deeds and not just words, that the sweet hour of prayer actually lasts the whole week long, that to put our faith in action is . . . about our collective salvation, that to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and house the homeless is not just a call for isolated charity but the imperative of a just society. . . .What a good man. Sometimes I think that’s the best thing to hope for when you’re eulogized, after all the words and recitations and resumes are read, to just say somebody was a good man.  You don’t have to be of high distinction to be a good man.

A third thread came from former President Jimmy Carter as he spoke about his diagnosis of metastatic melanoma.  When asked by reporters of what he is most proud and whether he wishes he had done anything differently, Carter responded,

. . . When I was president, for which I’m very grateful—that was the high point of my life, politically speaking.  But The Carter Center. . . . deal[s] with individual people in the smallest and most obscure and suffering villages and that has been far more gratifying personally. Going into the villages, learning actual needs, then meeting those needs has been one of the best things that ever happened to me.

I wish I’d sent one more helicopter to get the hostages, and we would have rescued them, and I would have been re-elected. But that may have interfered with the foundation of The Carter Center.  And if I had to choose between four more years [as President] and The Carter Center, I think I would choose The Carter Center.

The most recent thread and impetus to write came from Pope Francis’ visit to the United States last week.  Francis, from Argentina, is a Jesuit, served churches in slums, and rode public buses to work each day even after he becoming a cardinal.  Unlike previous popes, he eats in the staff cafeteria with custodians and cooks, and refuses as many of the traditional vestiges of papal wealth and power possible.  Experienced U.S. reporters were tongue-tied at the Pope’s simplicity and integrity when he stepped into in a Fiat hatchback upon arriving in the U.S.

pope-francis-arrives-in-philadelphia-a4a7dbb440aac5beFrancis ate lunch with 300 homeless people in D.C. instead of with congressional leaders; and paused gave attention to special needs children and their parents.  He visited poor children and their teachers in East Harlem, and prisoners in a Pennsylvania state penitentiary, held their hands and looked in their eyes as they spoke together.  He helped lead a multi-faith prayer service with Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Hindus at Ground Zero in New York where, instead of Christian exceptionalism,  he advocated mutual respect for all religions.  The Pope’s model of humility and solidarity with the vulnerable was an antidote to the self-righteousness, bigotry, judgement, and grandiosity which usually comprise the so-called Christianity most Americans see publicly presented.

Each of these people gave me a thread of resilience, hope, and purpose.  For although in powerful positions, each showed what matters most is not who one is–one’s status, wealth, or abilities–but the character of how one lives and the integrity of the love one demonstrates. One does not have to be of high distinction to be a good person.  At the end of our life, what is most important is that it can be said of us, “This was a good person.”  That is a purpose worth getting up for.