Friday, September 24, 2010

Can People of Faith Rise Above Tribalism? Reflections on the occasion of the remembrance of 9/11

(I meant to post this on 9/11, but my computer crashed, and I only now regained access to my documents.)

In another post on the site “Not the Religious Type,” the author refers to a recent NY Times editorial by Stanley Fish (see and In his editorial, Fish points out the double standard used to discuss violent acts by or against members of a religious community, and concludes the following:

The formula is simple and foolproof (although those who deploy it so facilely seem to think we are all fools): If the bad act is committed by a member of a group you wish to demonize, attribute it to a community or a religion and not to the individual. But if the bad act is committed by someone whose profile, interests and agendas are uncomfortably close to your own, detach the malefactor from everything that is going on or is in the air (he came from nowhere) and characterize him as a one-off, non-generalizable, sui generis phenomenon.”

What is going on here, I think, is something which we humans easily and naturally slip into, a kind of tribalism whereby we assume the best of those who are part of our people, and read their actions in light of our own best values (and with a generous dose of excusing and explaining away bad behavior), but assume the worst of those who are part of a different group, especially during times of conflict and tension between the communities.

(In terms of a model developed by Bennett – his “Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity” – which explains how people progress in their experience of cultural difference, this would fall into the second phase, “Defense,” in which people have a negative experience of difference, and tend to generalize and polarize and talk in “us”/“them” terms, where the “us” is generalized positively and the “them” is generalized negatively. More on the DMIS another time.)

The ability to assume the best of our people and the worst of others is rooted, I think, in lack of self-awareness in the first instance (glossing over how bad “we” are and can be) and ignorance of the others in the second instance. When we don’t know people from the “different” group, it is easy to assume the worst of them.

As a Christian, I believe that Jesus would encourage us to be bigger than our tribal allegiances. (As a human being, I would hope that any religious faith would encourage those who follow it, in this same direction.) In illustration of his most important teaching, that the two great commandments are to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves, he told a parable of a despised Samaritan (whom his Jewish listeners would have nothing to do with, and through whose territory they would not even pass) helping a wounded Jew who was abandoned by the road side. And he himself not only passed through Samaria, he stopped and conversed with a Samaritan woman, someone who would have been looked at by Jewish men as a non-person. By his teachings and by his example, Jesus showed us that God’s perspective on humanity is different than the tribalism we so easily embrace.

My question is, can we – not just Christians, but people of any faith – rise above our tribalism (which is worse when wrapped up with religion – which happens with people of all religions) and learn to relate to other human beings who are not members of our tribe, as if they were people also created in the image of God? And can we defuse the generalizing and polarizing, and work toward a more accurate understanding of those of other groups, that can only come as we enter into relationship with those others?

Friday, September 10, 2010

Should people of different faiths talk with each other?

I experienced something of an online firestorm recently when I posted a link to a new initiative called the Global Faith Forum (see; see also the blog site, Under the question “Why Attend?” the site says,

The Evangelical Church says we want to reach the world, but do we really understand the world? At the Global Faith Forum, we’re moving from a conversation about other faiths, to a conversation with other faiths. A conversation that allows us to hear from leaders with different faiths, different worldviews and different ideas that shape the way we communicate in the 21st century.”

In posting this link, I commented:

“It seems to me that a question faced by all people of religious faith is, are we prepared to relate to different others? Many religious people have the perspective (of the medieval Catholic church and others) that "error has no rights," and believe in trying to convert others, but not in really relating to and understanding them. In the spirit of Jesus, who "became flesh and dwelt among us," I like this "Global Faith Forum," emphasizing conversing with (and relating to) people of other faiths. And surely, if you are a person of faith, you must see that the strongest way to influence others is to start by actually relating to and engaging them (rather than, for example, burning their sacred books).”

In response, one of my friends commented:

“What a complete error in logic!... "became flesh and dwelt among us," Jesus became a "human" ...In that sense ONLY is there a universal connection. He did not become "flesh and dwell among us” --Jews or Arabs or 'Samaritans' to dialogue about the good points of their religious belief system--the fact that they were "different others" other than to tell them they were lost and wrong! " Christianity is 100% exclusive! Who is this Jesus that you see and preach?? Who is this warm and fuzzy Jesus that you make out to be so inclusive??
I can just see Jesus saying... "I want to hear from leaders of different faiths so that we can talk." Read John 8...let's start there.


“The anemic buzz words of post modern academia..."different others", "co-religionists"...
In the latter part of John 8 Jesus is not in a discussion or dialogue regarding the value or sanctity of someone's religious view. "43 Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. 44 You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies." et al...

There is no appeal for "mutual understanding" here--neither is he calling them to repent.

To believe Jesus would sit in on and entertain a "Global Faith Forum" is ludicrous at the least and blasphemous at the outset. Get this mental picture --Jesus sitting at the round table with all those panel members, "speakers" from different faiths --the ONE among many. What a hoot! I wish I were a cartoonist because THAT would be a great cartoon!

"For you, O LORD, are most high over all the earth;you are exalted far above all gods."

At the end point of your fallacious view what would you do once you entered into dialogue and gained "understanding"--THEN tell them you need to believe in Christ and repent?? So your real agenda would be what??”

The question raised for me is, should (can?) people of faith talk with people of other faiths? It is interesting that there are people in every religious community, it seems, who are against “dialogue.” I have heard some say that unless they (the others) are interested in understanding what we believe, etc., “we have nothing to talk about.” In general, it seems, there is an interest in talking to – in the sense of stating one’s beliefs, distinctives, etc. – more than in listening to, those of a different faith.

It seems to me, as a Christian, that apart from the issue of the value of so-called interfaith dialogue, surely Jesus would direct his followers to enter into relationship with others? Many Christians, it seems, tend to sit back and “throw stones,” and live in fear of who we do not know. If we don't enter into relationship with other people, we are simply talking or preaching at them, which does no good (especially in these days of heightened tensions between Christians and Muslims, West and East).

Jesus said that his followers should be "salt" and "light" in the world. (One of the points of Jesus' coming to earth and "dwelling among us," I think, is that God was not content to just give us a book or speak from afar - Jesus' life represents God entering into peoples' lives and relating to us. His disciples wrote of "what we have seen and heard and our hands have touched.") And I think, given that he himself is and is about "good news," that it is at least implied that Jesus' followers should be "good news" to others.

Unfortunately, it seems that the way we Christians relate to Muslims and others is often perceived as bad rather than good news. The New Testament also says that Jesus' followers are his ambassadors, and again, it seems to me that this requires entering into relationship with people. So if a Christian is wanting to share his/her faith with Muslims, the best thing to do is to enter into relationship with them (and love them, which is Jesus' first and foremost command to us re. how we relate to others).

And beyond that, if we are concerned more broadly for our society, it seems that bringing different people together to get to know each other is a key foundational step away from war and toward peaceful coexistence (which is a baseline issue for even having a society). And I do believe that most Muslims in America, as most others in America, actually want to peacefully coexist.

But I headed this post, “Should people of different faiths talk with each other?” not “Should Christians talk with people of other faiths?” I have been talking here as a Christian to other Christians, because that is my life and my people. But I would bring this around to Muslims or those of any other faith – what about you? Do you believe in relationship with (and talking with and listening to) people of other faiths? Do you have a firm belief in the common humanity of those of other faiths? If you believe in spreading your faith, do you believe in doing so through relationship? Do you believe that we should be working together not to build more barriers between us, but to break them down, even to look for common understanding and common ground?

Can we – all of us who are people of faith – have the courage and the strength of our own convictions, to listen to (rather than just talking at) each other, to enter into relationship and get to know each other? I believe that this is good for our faith and for our world.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Do Muslims Belong in America?

In a recent blog at "Not the Religious Type: A Different Conversation About Faith," under the title "What's Our Role Vis-a-Vis Muslims?" (see, the author quotes from an article in the New York Times about the place of Muslims in America, the difficulties they have been facing since 9/11 and most recently with the issue of the Qur'an burning by the church in Florida, and whether they are accepted by Americans - and asks what the response of his readers might be to Muslims in America.

As a "Christian," I deplore the anti-Muslim sentiments, statements, and actions taken by others who call themselves Christians.
As an American who has studied and taught American history, it strikes me that Muslims are facing what Jews and Catholics both faced, in the progression toward becoming an integrated, accepted part of the nation - suspicion re. their intentions, re. whether they are loyal to the U.S. or to their religion or some foreign authority, and would try to "take over" the U.S. in the name of and for the purposes of their religion (e.g., note the disturbance caused by Kennedy's run for President, with the question being asked, "if elected, who's directives will he follow - that of the American people, or that of the Pope?" It's hard to imagine now, but in 1960, that was a serious issue for people).
The issue for Muslims, then, is to answer the question, are they ready to embrace separation of church and state and freedom of religion? There is little freedom of religion in any Muslim country (which is one of the reasons Muslims enjoy life in America). Will they embrace the American way of free competition in the marketplace of ideas, where they have to win the day by persuading people, not by force? I think that a certain number (I have no idea as to percentages) of Americans are not yet convinced of the intentions and designs of Muslim immigrants and citizens (I hear many people I meet, asking these questions).
So, if you are Muslim, I would encourage you to continue working through these issues, and making your perspectives known. If you truly embrace American values, I am confident that you - like Jews and Catholics before you - will eventually be accepted into the mainstream. And I as a Christian American will work with you for you to be accepted.
In response to these sentiments, a friend of mine said:
"Your comparisons of religious systems is totally flawed. Give me an example of a Jew or Catholic that came to American soil and killed 3000+ people?? Or whose base religion would even honor that?
"The core of Islam is world domination through whatever means possible. Muslims by religion COULD NEVER accept AMERICAN values! Nor should they --it's against their religion! Islam is not about being assimililated into the culture. Islam wants to conquor the culture."
In response to which I would point out that the history of Christianity is very similar to the history of Islam. Well into the colonial period in America, Christians were persecuting and killing other Christians who disagreed with them. I don't think that was due to the core teachings of the faith - I see it as due to "fallen" (faulty, twisted, incomplete, broken - call it what you will) human nature, which is also at work in extremists who are killing in the name of Islam. The vast majority of Muslims I know do not believe what the extremists are teaching. I lived through the first Gulf War in Tunisia, and 9/11 and the second Gulf War in Egypt, and after those events in Lebanon and Jordan, and have never been threatened in any way (even though people were very upset with American policy and actions).
And I would draw another parallel - one of the things which many Americans fear from "conservative" Christians, is that those conservative Christians are out to "take over" America and impose their values on others. Muslims believe that Islam is true, and that the best scenario for mankind would be for everyone to embrace Islam (but I don't think most Muslims believe that should happen "through whatever means possible"); even as Christians desire that all people come to know and follow Jesus (but not through whatever means possible).
And one final "faith and culture" issue - are Christians about "being assimilated into the culture"? Jesus said that his followers should be "in the world but not of it." That doesn't exactly sound like assimilation. In fact, Christians have wrestled forever re. the relationship between faith and culture. H. Reinhold Niebuhr in his well-known "Christ and Culture" discusses 5 different ways in which Christians have responded to culture:
1. Christ against culture
2. Christ of culture
3. Christ above culture
4. Christ and culture in paradox
5. Christ transforming culture
I'll return to these in another post, but suffice it to say that the relationship of Christians to their culture has been anything but simple or straightforward. Miroslav Volf in "Exclusion and Embrace" talks about Christians having one foot "in" and one foot "outside of" their culture, being part of it but also in some way distant from it and able to critique and judge it.
There is much to reflect on, which is a major reason I decided to start this blog. My point here, in response to my friend's declaration about Islam and Muslims, is that Muslims and Christians are in much the same situation, regarding faith and culture. Both have experience with rejection of culture. Both have experience with adaptation to culture (the story of the spread of Islam is the story of the adaptation to the world's different cultural settings, with the faith of Muslims clearly reflecting both central Islamic cultural values, principles and practices, and the local cultural flavor wherever Islam took root - much the same as the spread of Christian faith through time and place). Islam is adaptable, as is Christian faith. Muslims read the texts and the history, and work through how to understand those texts and their history, and how to move forward into new situations. I believe that Muslims are capable of interpreting Islam in a way that will allow them to embrace life in America under basic American values such as freedom of religion and separation of church and state. And I believe it is in the interest of other Americans to encourage them in this process.