Are You Still a Christian?
I was recently given my first assignment as a doctoral teaching fellow to assist with a course called World Religions in Boston. It was an intensive course, meeting for seven hours a day for a week. During the day our class explored the beliefs and histories of Sikhism, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, and Buddhism, and in the evening we visited these religious communities around Boston and observed their worship services. We ate a small meal with the Sikhs, we observed Muslim prayer and listened to a sermon, we were welcomed with warmth and generosity into the Hindu center, we sang with a rabbi, and we meditated at a Zen Buddhist center. The whole week was wonderful and eye opening, and I was eager to tell my friends about it. Many of my friends responded with a genuine desire to seek out friendships with people of different religious backgrounds in their own communities. However, a couple of people didn’t quite know how to respond. “Were you scared at the temple? All those idols would have scared me,” one person stated. “Are you still a Christian?” another person asked. I was honestly shocked by these responses, and a little confused by them. Why would these people expect fear? Why would they presume that my interaction with a different religion would lead to an abandonment of my own?
I think the heart of the problem is this: to exist as a human being is to be vulnerable. We are impressionable. We are finite. We fumble through life on educated guesses, maneuvering through our careers, relationships, and even faith by trial and error. We trust that what we have come to know is true. But we also have these painful moments in life when we come to realize that we are humiliatingly wrong about something. The moment at which I am confronted with my own flaw is also the moment that I am reminded of my own vulnerability. One knee-jerk response to this feeling is to try to cover my tracks, to hide my mistake. A less immediate but certainly more mature response is to immediately accept that I was wrong, and to welcome the learning experience. How we respond to those humiliating moments reveals quite a bit about our virtues and values.
All of this to say, each of us must come to terms with our own vulnerability. The instinct to protect ourselves from correction may very well result in our personal perpetuating of flawed thinking. Furthermore, our instinct to protect our vulnerable selves often results in divisive behavior. We try to customize who and what can influence us. This is part of why people distance themselves from that which seems foreign. That culture, that language, that philosophy, that experience, etc. is so different from my own, that I fear (often on an unconscious level) that it will challenge what I believe to be true. And if they uproot my truth, how am I supposed to function?
These instincts to resist the other are on full display in plain sight between differing religious communities, but the instincts also function more insidiously. For example, a Facebook friend recently posted an image of Tim Tebow which said, “The same people praising Colin Kaepernick for taking a knee for his beliefs are the same ones who told Tim Tebow to stop taking a knee for his.” First of all, no. This claim is just fundamentally unfounded. But how does an image like this function? It is absolutely divisive, but it also creates a false construction of the other which will intentionally perpetuate division. In reality, many Christians support Kaepernick’s peaceful protest. In fact, many Christians support the protest because of their religious convictions. But the image promotes the idea that those who support Kaepernick are opposed to public expressions of Christian faith. On the simplest but most horrific level, those who were already fearful of black people and black protest are liberated by an image like this, presuming that those who support black empowerment are unchristian. In their hearts, “unchristian” is a small step away from “unamerican,” “unworthy,” “unlovable,” “unwelcome,” or maybe even “unhuman.”
We like to create distance, even distance that is generated by falsity, to protect ourselves from being impacted by those we fear. All the while, Jesus lays out a meal for those you would least expect. He reaches out and touches the religious other. He welcomes politically disparate persons into his inner circle. He conquers fear with enduring hospitality. Presumably, his fearless hospitality must be connected to his divinity, right? The God of the universe fears nothing. The God of the universe abounds in steadfast love. Jesus shows us that the path to righteousness and justice is marked by our embrace of the other. To live at peace with another person requires humility and vulnerability.
So, whom do you resist? Whom do you contort into a caricature in your mind, so that you don’t have to engage in honesty? Greeting your neighbor in love and openness does not necessarily result in a change of mind or faith—but it does result in a change of heart. May we never be so manipulated by our own fears that we miss out on the image of God in the other. May we never be so cloistered in our echo-chambers that we remain unchallenged by our differences. May we never be so shackled to a false sense of infallibility that we miss out on what our neighbors can teach us. May we never be so arrogant to presume that we have all the answers, and may we never be so content or comfortable that we stop pursuing justice. Am I still a Christian after visiting my Sikh, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, and Buddhist neighbors? Yes. And I think I am a better Christian for it.