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sharing god

The Truth about God and Interfaith Relationships

Can we share God?

Because for many of us, God is something that we refuse to share. In fact, human history shows that we will fight over God. God, after all, is truth. And we all like to think that we hold the Truth. But what happens when others claim that they hold the Truth about God? We get caught in a rivalry, even killing over who possesses the Truth.

But believing that we hold the truth about God is to turn God into an idol. That’s because we don’t hold the truth about God. None of us hold the truth about God. Rather, God holds the truth about us. And, according to Jews, Christians, and Muslims living in Long Island, NY, the truth is that God holds us in the spirit of love, justice, and service.

Members of these three major world religions come together at Brookville Church to share sacred space. Brookville’s slogan is “Where our doors are always open.” Indeed, the church’s doors are open to Jews and Muslims. But they do much more than simply use the church building as a place of worship. At Brookville Church, Jews, Christians, and Muslims intentionally build friendships with one another. They learn from one another, they serve their community with one another, and they care for one another.

It’s a radical experiment, especially when we consider that leading presidential candidates are proposing to ban Muslim immigrants from entering the United States and they are proposing to force police to patrol Muslim neighborhoods. Those candidates are the most vocal about their faith in God, but they worship an idol. They worship a god that erects political systems of fear, exclusion, and death.

But the true God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam doesn’t lead to fear, exclusion, and death. The true God leads to relationships like those formed at Brookville Church. The true God subverts the politics of fear, exclusion, and death. The true God transforms our relationships from rivalry into love.

In doing so, they show that they don’t hold the truth, but that the truth holds them.

Image: Flickr, Destination God, Hatim Kaghat, Creative Commons License, some changes made.

love and hate

Defenses Disarmed: Art, Islam, and Breaking the Silence

The images were raw, brutally honest, haunting, beautiful. And disturbing.

I was at the artist’s reception for Marwa Adel’s incredible photography exhibit, Memory of Physical Essence, at the Burning Bush Art Gallery in Wheaton, Illinois.  Marwa Adel is an Egyptian artist on a Fulbright Fellowship at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and her photography, sometimes digitally manipulated or overlaid with calligraphy, tells a story through a taboo medium: the female body. In the description of her exhibit, Adel writes:

The physical body is a word surrounded by restrictions in Middle Eastern society.

Why do people express such a fear from the physical body? How could we fear ourselves? Our bodies are the medium that links us to this world and reflects our souls. … [E]very person develops a personal memory enriched by the unique human existence that reflects on the body through which one can realize dreams. There is nothing impossible to achieve as long as the communication and interaction between the physical body and the memory are existent.

The photos express confinement, repression, and sorrow, but also yearning, hope, and resilience. They are deeply personal expressions of Marwa Adel’s own experience – as an Egyptian, as a young wife (now divorced), and, to an extent, as a Muslim. She had felt restrained by the societal pressures and expectations of her tradition, culture, and religion. When I met her at the exhibit, she had recently shed her hijab, and she spoke of her work as an outlet for her soul, the song of a voice long silenced.

Confliction at first kept me from fully affirming the voice that cried out through the silence of those photos. It was not the female form, shrouded or exposed, that disturbed me. It was rather that the images and their titles, “Arab Prisoner,” “The Burden,” or the deep sorrow in the eyes of “Surrender” made me concerned that this exhibit could play into a prejudice against Arabs and Muslims, an Islamophobia already deep and deadly in the West.  Concern for a marginalized population was keeping me from fully hearing the voice of someone bringing herself out of the margins through her artwork, someone who, ironically, was a Muslim, a Middle Eastern woman, someone with whom I longed to share solidarity.

It was the eyes that pierced my doubt, captivating me, compelling me to listen to their truth. Marwa Adel told a story through these photos of a patriarchal society that imposes stifling demands and restrictions upon women, seeing their value primarily in their relationship to men. This wasn’t the story of the feminist Muslims I knew, for whom Islam means empowerment. This is a story, shared by women throughout the world, of being devalued and having to struggle for free agency, a story to which certain interpretations of religion have contributed.

It made me wonder, “How often does a concern for an overall cause or ideal keep us blind and deaf to the needs of individuals? What happens when we refuse to hear the truth of someone who doesn’t meet our ideal narrative, even when claiming to be working for justice?”

My inclination to defend Islam comes in part from seeing it at its best, reflected in good Muslim friends whose faith is the foundation for their compassion, their intellectual drive, and their hopeful outlook on life. Some of these friends voluntarily choose to wear hijab and loose-fitting clothing, arguing, like Dalia Mogahed, that such modest dress frees them from impossible beauty standards and focuses attention away from their physical attributes and toward their minds. Yet those who choose hijab and experience it as liberation come from different perspectives from those forced by law or social pressure to wear it. Patriarchy is embedded in both Western and Middle Eastern cultures, influencing societal pressure upon women to dress a certain way and conform to certain standards of behavior. Those who see hijab as freedom from the social pressure imposed upon women to conform to beauty standards from everything from weight to hair style come from a different angle than those from cultures that demand modesty, especially from women, as an obligation (beyond encouraging it as a virtue).

Adel’s photography shows how a patriarchal culture veils women with more than just clothing, and how in such a culture, the veil itself may be the physical extension of a spiritual stifling. Islam at its best mitigates patriarchy, but all too often is interpreted through a patriarchal lens to reinforce woman’s subordination. Thus, Qur’anic passages that could be read as explaining men’s responsibilities toward women are often instead read as ordaining men’s superiority over women. Passages that could be read as mutual obligations of modesty that are relaxed only in the presence of one’s spouse are instead read as a husband’s control over his wife’s body. In an article by Jyoti Kalsi, Adel explains the burden of expectations and demands upon women in marriage expressed in her photographs:

[A woman] has to be a good woman in the eyes of a man, not in her own eyes. And that is the root of the conflict in this relationship.

I want to stand in solidarity with hijab-wearing Muslimas as they express how their faith empowers them, but I also must stand in solidarity with those who have been stifled by misogynistic interpretations of religion within their culture and misogynistic cultural overlays imposed upon their religion. Even when their stories may appear to clash, they express truths that must be heard with compassion, understanding, and grace. This is true for people of all faiths, including my own. When I hear critiques of Christianity, my urge to defend my faith must not overcome my ability to listen, for if defensiveness in the name of faith prevents me from hearing a story of pain, of injustice, of victimization, then my faith has become an idol working against its own best nature.

The test for any expression of faith in the Most Compassionate, Most Merciful, is whether that faith can humble itself to hear criticism from those pushed aside. What has been revealed through the great Abrahamic faiths, through Jesus and the prophets, including Muhammad, is the character of the one God who stands with the oppressed, the marginalized, those whose voices have been silenced. Too often, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are used to reinforce the patriarchy of the cultures into which they were born or migrated. But at their best, these same faiths can help people transcend the patriarchy of their cultures. Voices critical of human practices of faith that fall short of God’s love for women and men and God’s affirmation of women’s agency are crucial to practicing Islam – peace through conformation to God’s will for compassion and mercy – in ever-growing degrees of fullness. The same is true for any faith. Listening to the critiques from the margins and the marginalized is essential for following the faith of the God who calls us away from marginalization, scapegoating, silencing and sacrifice – even when those critiques reflect on the practice of that same faith.

Middle Eastern society, and all societies, Islam and all religions, indeed all of humanity, need to hear the voice of Marwa Adel and all the other voices rising above social, cultural and religious pressures that once kept them silenced or stifled. The voices, faces, and whole lives of women emerging from the shroud of patriarchy are crucial to transforming a world dulled and dimmed by oppression into the full, vibrant dance ordained by Love, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.

Image: Love and Hate by Marwa Adel. Used with permission.

Marwa Adel’s exhibit, Memory of Physical Essence, will be at the Burning Bush Gallery in Wheaton, IL, until March 10. The exhibit is sponsored by Caravan, “an international and interrrelgious peacebuilding arts non-profit (501c3) / NGO that originated in 2009 in Cairo, Egypt, addressing the increasing chasm of discord and misunderstanding that exists between the cultures and creeds of Middle East and the West.”

Wheaton

Bearing Fruits of Repentance: Wheaton College, Islam, and the Incarnation

The Advent season calls us to “prepare the way of the Lord” by “bearing fruit worthy of repentance.”

I’ve been pondering the meaning of these words since the season began, but they have taken on a further dimension for me within the last week as the news surrounding Wheaton College has turned national attention to a recurring question that is at the heart of my vocational journey: “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?”

A brief recap: Dr. Larycia Hawkins, a tenured professor of political science at historically evangelical Wheaton College, donned hijab – the headscarf worn by many Muslim women – as an Advent discipline to show solidarity with Muslims at a time of unprecedented violence and persecution of the Muslim community. In explanation of her gesture of solidarity, Dr. Hawkins said, “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”

It was her explanation, not her action itself, which led to Dr. Hawkins’ suspension from Wheaton College pending a review to determine if her words are compatible with the college’s evangelical Statement of Faith. Right now, the college administration believes that they are not. In their statement on the matter, Wheaton administrators insist:

The freedom to wear a head scarf as a gesture of care and compassion for individuals in Muslim or other religious communities that may face discrimination or persecution is afforded to Dr. Hawkins as a faculty member of Wheaton College. Yet her recently expressed views, including that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, appear to be in conflict with the College’s Statement of Faith.

There is so much to say that I don’t know where to begin. My proximity to Wheaton and my life in the community, my history with Islam and my love for Muslims, and my understanding of Christianity informed by mimetic theory, are all intertwined within my heart and mind in a network that is impossible to unravel.

I live down the street from Wheaton College. I love to hear the chapel bells ring from inside my house. I feel a great affinity for this community of Christians who are intentional about living their faith.

And living out the Christian faith is exactly what Dr. Hawkins is doing. I know the administration suspended her for her comments, not for wearing hijab, but suspending someone who embodies Christ — at Advent (a time when we are called to prepare for Christ) — speaks to a lack of a deep understanding of how Jesus interacted with those rejected by his religious community. Jesus, of course, was himself rejected by the religious community. At a time when the United States is waging war in 7 predominantly Muslim countries, when politicians and religious leaders are not only stirring up anti-Muslim rhetoric, but proposing oppressive anti-Muslim legislation, when religious leaders are calling people to arms to “end Muslims” (an injunction which Wheaton students courageously denounced), when presidential candidates tout their leadership by noting their ability to kill Muslim children by the thousands abroad (to protect our nation, of course!), Muslims here are experiencing real violence: threats, harassment, abuse and attacks. Standing with them by wearing hijab is a risk that puts one in the position of Christ, who was himself an outsider and who was himself cast out. Putting one’s own self at risk to stand with those who are persecuted is what embodying Christ means. It is much more than a “gesture of care and compassion.” This is the context that must be understood in regard to Dr. Hawkins’ actions.

In light of the profound depths of that truth — that Dr. Hawkins was living out her Christian vocation to embody Christ – her suspension takes on a dimension of adherence to “the letter that kills” rather than the Spirit that gives life.

Nevertheless, I understand, intimately, Wheaton College’s reluctance to concede that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. I have wrestled with this question from multiple angles. My history with Islam has been made public here. And I must admit that both when I converted to Islam and when I reaffirmed Christianity, I was chiefly concerned with getting God “right.” Even as both of these faiths have been simultaneously dear to my heart, I have struggled with deep questions and wondered how to be true to the revelation of God’s fullness in Jesus Christ while also affirming that Muslims, who deny the Incarnation, worship the same God. It is not an easy matter. While I believe whole-heartedly that the One God loves, guides, and hears the prayers of all worshippers, I understand the desire to affirm the uniqueness of Jesus as more than a prophet – as the full embodiment of God, the “structuring principle of reality” (as Michael Hardin so aptly defines the “Word” of God).

But as I continue to undergo repentance, to open my heart and mind to the love of God that is rebuilding humanity on a new foundation, a paradox I struggle to articulate becomes ever more clear to me. It is because, not in spite, of the Incarnation that I can know that Muslims and Christians worship the same true God when we affirm and embrace each other, and the same false god when we exclude and hate one another.

This is the truth that the Incarnation reveals: God is Love and Love itself is the language, the medium, the essence and content of worship. Muslims, Christians, Jews, atheists, agnostics, Hindus, Buddhists, people of all faiths and no faith at all, worship when they live in love that transcends boundaries, love that does not confine itself to family or faith or community but reaches out to embrace all. If worship can be defined as being in communion with God, and God is Love, then being “in love,” living into one’s place within Love in harmony with all of creation, is living in worship. One day worship and understanding will meet in full, when God’s kingdom is realized on earth as in heaven. Until then, all religions reveal in part what we will one day know fully, but also obscure the truth with false human understanding. Repentance, turning from the false human understanding of God – with all the violence, exclusion and victimization that comes with it – to the truth of God’s love and letting that truth restructure ourselves and our world, is our mission until we all embody our destiny as image-bearers of God.

Repentance means we will constantly have to re-evaluate our core beliefs in light of the continuing revelation of God’s love as it works on our hearts and minds. God’s love is revealed not only through scriptures, but through our relationships with people of all faiths who reveal mercy, generosity, compassion, and even – less comfortably – our own prejudices, blind spots, and mistakes.

Imagine being called to repentance at the time of Jesus. A marginal Jew – born poor in an unclean stable, taken to a foreign land (Egypt, to which the scriptures continually forbid the return), of questionable paternity, who eats with sinners, violates the Sabbath, embraces lepers, and rebukes the religious establishment – could this be the long-awaited Messiah from God? So many expectations are subverted and thwarted in Jesus, even as he fulfills the tradition of the prophets calling for compassion for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger. Jesus cuts through the tangled web of human prejudice and false understanding of God (which leads to exclusion) on the one hand and divine revelation from God (which leads to embrace for all, including those marginalized or deemed enemies) on the other that is intertwined in his own Jewish tradition, and challenges the religious leaders of his time to do the same when he says “Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Ultimately his life and teachings – his wholesale rejection of the violence on which the world has turned – culminate in so deeply offending not only the religious establishment, but the world order, that he becomes the victim of the Romans and the Jews – rejected, in other words, by the whole world. Human violence killed Jesus; divine Love vindicated and raised him from the dead. Imagine the re-orientation, the re-evaluation it would take to acknowledge the crucified one as the Living God?

Jesus is not where most people would look for God. But if we believe that God is fully revealed in the person of Jesus, and that people are made in God’s image, then we have to open ourselves to seeing God in all people. And we must acknowledge that the chief revelation of Jesus concerns not just God’s metaphysical nature (the Trinity did not become doctrine until centuries later) but God’s character. The wonder and mystery of Jesus is that a small community saw — in this poor, marginalized, crucified criminal – the truth of God. God was revealed not as the author of violence or violent order, but as its victim.

The truth that Jesus reveals about God, that God stands with the poor and marginalized, is the same truth that was revealed to Muhammad. Muhammad lived in a time of great wealth disparity and tribal warfare. He was distressed by the corruption, greed, and violence he saw, and the oppression of the weakest members of his society. He would go off alone to meditate, intuitively sensing a higher power than the warring gods. The compassion within him drove his heart to seek the God who is Most Compassionate, Most Merciful before he could articulate it. It was in tuning his heart to the needs of the vulnerable that Muhammad was able to discern a message from the true God.

There are differences between Christianity and Islam, but the message of God’s love for the weak and vulnerable, those once thought forsaken, is the same. The faith of both Jesus and Muhammad is in the God who loves those deemed unloveable. Their chief messages concerning care for “the least” come from the same Source of Love. Furthermore, all who love across human divisions are guided by God, whether they understand themselves to be or not, for God is Love. Both Jesus and Muhammad had an intuitive knowledge of God that transcended (in some ways encompassed, but in other ways defied, and in any case went beyond) the understandings of their societies because they dared to love outside the box.

And to undergo repentance, we too must dare to think and love outside of our own theological boxes. So, while I agree with Dr. Larycia Hawkins that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, I also agree with Wheaton College that her statement is in contradiction to the Wheaton College Statement of Faith. I respect the right of Dr. Hawkins and members of the Wheaton community to interpret that statement differently, but as I understand it, the Wheaton Statement of Faith displays a hermeneutic that interprets the life, work, and message of Jesus in a way that confines God’s salvation to an elect rather than understands the Incarnation as God’s revelation of unconditional Love to all. The Wheaton Statement of Faith can be supported by scripture, but it is not the only way to interpret scripture, and a hermeneutic that begins with Jesus’s boundary-breaking love renders a different perspective. The process of repentance will keep us open – heart, mind, and spirit – to God’s incomparable love, which will mean continually re-evaluating our statements of faith and theological understandings. Statements of faith are wonderful maps, helping us articulate where we are on a path, but they should never be confused with the destination, which is Love. I believe Wheaton College should reinstate Dr. Hawkins not because they should agree that her statements are in accord with theirs, but because we are all called to repent, to let our hearts, minds, and understandings evolve, to open them continually to God, who we will find revealed in wondrous ways in all people.

And when we do repent, we will bear fruit worthy of repentance. Standing in visible solidarity with Muslims, recognizing their dignity in the midst of a culture of disrespect and violence directed toward them, and declaring that they worship, love, and are beloved of the same God whose love we are called magnify. Dr. Larycia Hawkins is bearing fruit worthy of repentance. May we all find the courage to do the same. Amen.

Image: Photo by Lindsey Paris-Lopez

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mike Huckabee at the Republican Debate on December 16, 2015

The Top 4 Myths about Syrian Refugees: Mike Huckabee and the Republican Debate

At Tuesday’s Presidential Debate, candidate Mike Huckabee had this to say about the Syrian refugee crisis:

If it’s such a doggone good idea to bring people here that we really don’t know who they are, and Obama thinks that we are being unchristian to not do it, I’ve got a suggestion – let’s send the first wave of them to Chappaqua, Martha’s Vineyard, and the upper east-side of Manhattan, and to the south lawn of the White House where we’ll set up a camp. Let’s see how that works out. And if they behave wonderfully, that’s fine. I want to say, I don’t want someone lecturing me about what it means to be a Christian that I should invite a potential terrorist into my backyard.

Huckabee is repeating a popular myth about refugees that only stokes the flames of fear that is spreading throughout the country. Here are four of those myths:

  1. Myth #1: “We really don’t know who they are.” We do know a lot about Syrian refugees. They go through a rigorous screening process. Jana Mason, an advisor to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, told Time that, “Of all the categories of persons entering the U.S., these refugees are the single most heavily screened and vetted.” The process takes between 18-24 months and includes in-depth interviews of the refugees, reference checks of their home country, background checks for military involvement, and even biological screenings. Syrian refugees are the most scrutinized, with the FBI, the State Department, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Homeland Security all involved in the vetting process. We know who the refugees are.
  2. Myth #2: If they behave wonderfully, that’s fine. “If.” Such a little word that’s loaded with accusation. Underlying that word is an assumption that the refugees won’t behave wonderfully. But here’s the thing, since September 11, 2001, about 750,000 refugees have been admitted to the United States. As the Time article reports, during the last 14 years, refugees have behave wonderfully. “None have been arrested on domestic terrorism charges, though two – a pair of Iraqis in Kentucky – were charged with terrorist activities connected to aiding al-Qaeda.”
  3. Myth #3: Every Syrian refugee is “a potential terrorist [in] my backyard.” This is a clear example of scapegoating Syrian refugees. We could accuse any group of people as having the potential to be terrorists. The leading presidential candidate of the GOP has even suggested that we “kill innocent family members of terrorists.” And Syrian refugees are the potential terrorist? President Obama’s drone policies, which no presidential candidate criticizes, has missed nearly 90% of their intended targets. Those drone attacks kill innocent civilians, civilians that the U.S. then labels “enemy combatants.” But their only “crime” was being in the way of a United States military attack. Studies show that, “U.S. drone strikes have killed scores of civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia since 2009.” But don’t let that bother you, it’s those Syrian refugees who are the potential terrorist.
  4. Myth #4: Lectures about Being Christian. What does it mean to be a Christian? Getting “lectured” by President Obama about Christianity clearly stung Huckabee, especially since a recent CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll claims that 29% of Americans still think Obama is a Muslim. Ouch! But Huckabee, and many other presidential candidates, use anti-Christian rhetoric to propagate the myths above to create scapegoating distinction between “us” and “them.” Jesus calls his followers in an entirely different direction – to care for the marginalized, persecuted, weak, and the poor – to love and include them with radical hospitality.

René Girard taught us that myths are stories that we tell about our scapegoats. Those stories are based on demonizing them so that we can expel, lynch, and murder our scapegoats with impunity. That myth silences the voice of our scapegoats and covers over our own acts of violence and terror. The narrative that Syrian refugees are potential terrorists is a mythical story that needs to be challenged with the truth. We discover the truth by listening to their own stories. We will also discover the truth when we have the courage to take responsibility for America’s own violence. Our drone attacks and careless murder of civilians are examples of how we are aiding and abetting ISIS’s recruitment of terrorists. Violence breeds more violence. If we really want peace, we need to stop scapegoating Syrian refugees and take responsibility for our own acts of terror in the Middle East.

Photo: Mike Huckabee at the Republican Debate on December 16, 2015 (Screen shot from Youtube)

yes

The Posture of Yes

Our posture matters. In fact, it potentially makes all the difference. If our initial stance or attitude toward a new ideology, whether religious, political, philosophical, or otherwise, is negative, then we will experience the universe dissimilarly than if our posture is positive. As I see it, there are essentially two types of people. On one hand, there are those who are open to new ideas—new ways of seeing and being—and they will often experience the world with wonder. It becomes a magical place; an ever-intriguing mystery that never becomes dull or stale. On the other hand, there are yet others who are too quick to label, good or bad, positive or negative, in or out, us or them, and they inevitably see the world through a glass, dimmer even yet (1 Corinthians 13:12). Their ego becomes fed by the delusion that they possess “capital T truth.” Often, and sadly, this “truth” is simply the product of promulgation by others—a parent, pastors, et al—but rarely, if ever, is it the product of a 40 day quest in the desert.

We witness this sort of short sightedness, most obviously, within the confines of fundamentalism. Many fundamentalists, regardless of faith tradition, relies on pieces of information—sometimes great, sometimes small—that are derived from sacred texts but not on a posture that is positioned toward saying yes to the universe that was created by God. And if there is but one true God of the universe, and I believe there is, to have faith in God is to say yes to God, yes to his creation, and yes to experiencing both. True knowledge is tacit after all. Many fundamentalists, though, do not live by faith in God but faith in their correct knowledge about God. And so, they are postured in such a way that ensures they interpret themselves as elect, as chosen. What better than to “plainly” read one’s self as a sheep and others a goat? As a vessel of mercy and not a vessel of wrath? As Jacob and not Esau? This is to say: the fundamentalist is always “saved.”

Contrary to this type of thinking is one who postures herself toward discovery, not defending truth with mere bits of information (as if truth resides in mere information), but remaining open to it, wherever it presents itself. Faith, then, is built upon this posture. Faith is allowing the Christ in all of us (John 1:1–5), to lead where it may and to trust the Spirit is to trust the wind, for it blows where it chooses (John 3:8). The only way to experience this is to have a posture of openness, to be a pasture void of fences . . . the human constructs that they are!

In Christianity, we have a name for the Spirit that moves through all things. We call her the Holy Spirit and she indeed goes where she pleases. She transcends cultures, languages, and religions and no matter what label we give her, she is never bound by our human constructs. She cannot be contained in a box made of words and ideas. She is indeed free.

This is why, when you listen to the mystics of the various faith traditions—those whose posture is affirming—they all say compellingly similar things, albeit through their own cultural lens. Islam has the Sufis, Judaism has Kabbalah; Buddhism and Christianity has their respective mystics. They all say that the Divine runs in and through all of humanity, nay, through the entire cosmos. Unanimously, God is said to be always merciful, always gracious, always compassionate, and always, always, always loving.

Let me point to a few of the more prominent voices from a few of the various traditions. Gandhi, who was not a born-again Christian and probably would not affirm the Nicene Creed, not only read the Sermon on the Mount daily, but he, more importantly, followed the path of life in the Way of Jesus. Thích Nhất Hạnh, a Buddhist monk, teaches: “the practice of peace and reconciliation is one of the most vital and artistic of human actions.” It seems that he understands the mission of the Christ as well as anyone. Sufi Islam author M.R. Bawa Muhaiyadden teaches: “Be good, have love, and be patient. Never think of harming others. Only think of helping people. Think that others should be made better and that you should be made better.” Indeed, as I have said, the Spirit moves as the wind and goes where she chooses. She always speaks the word of peace. Jesus used the word shalom. In Islam, they say salaam. The Buddhist may use the word “sāma,” or a derivation thereof. But it is all the same message. It is always affirming reconciliation, peace, and unity among humankind.

Brothers and sisters, remember to pay attention to your posture toward life, toward God, toward humanity, toward love . . . which is the reason for our very existence. Open your mind and heart to hear what the Spirit is teaching, for she is the most gracious of instructors. She will never let you down, just as Jesus never lets us down. In unity, the Son and Spirit reveal the Father’s plan for us as John 20:21 testifies to. Jesus says, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” The peace of Jesus will triumph and through the power of the Holy Spirit will continue to move through all of us until all declare that “Jesus is Lord.”

Salaam

 

Image: Via Pixabay.

interfaith friends

Interfaith Friendship Will Save The World

My Friend Sheima

The first face of Islam I ever encountered belonged to a smiling 11-year-old girl who kindly gestured for me to sit next to her on the bus that would take us both to our first day of middle school. I was shy and introverted, but I had been nervously excited to begin a new chapter of my life with all the thrills middle school had to offer – changing classrooms, having my own locker, no longer being just a “little kid” in elementary school. All of my eager anticipation was nearly crushed before the day even began, as many kids on the bus greeted me by making fun of the new perm I had been so eager to show off. But this one girl reached out to me in kindness, and I felt a rush of relief in the midst of my embarrassment as I sat down next to her. We gradually became good friends. Over the years, Sheima would become a sister to me, one of the first people who helped me see the beauty in God and humanity… and the potential within myself.

When we first met, I did not know anything about her religion. But as time went on, I realized that her faith had compelled her thoughtfulness in our first encounter. It is not that she felt obligated by her religion to reach out to me. Rather, in knowing God to be gracious and merciful, in learning from her faith the values of empathy and compassion, her natural inclination toward me and everyone else was one of love. Her love mirrored the love of God to which she opened herself multiple times a day in her prayers and meditations, and love from and for God shaped her understanding of the world.

This is the Islam I first encountered, manifested in one of the best friends I have ever had. Her family welcomed me into their home and hearts as well, and through them I learned not only the doctrines of Islam, but the values of Islam embodied in Muslims who take their faith seriously – values of hospitality, compassion, tolerance, patience, generosity and love.

Religion As A Weapon

I know that there are violent expressions and interpretations of Islam. I know that any religion can be used to marginalize and exclude others. I know that not all Muslims, and not all Christians, interpret their faith in a way that is loving and peaceful. I know that monotheistic faiths in particular can lead people to an exclusive understanding of God that facilitates a dualistic, us-versus-them mentality that treats people of other faiths and no faith with suspicion and hostility, making them easier to dehumanize, oppress, persecute, and kill.

But none of my Muslim friends, none of the Muslims I know, have ever been motivated by their faith towards hostility and violence. The hostile spirit wielded by some Christians toward Muslims in the post 9/11 world, and particularly after the attacks in Paris, however, is unmistakable. When governors shut the doors to Syrian refugees, prominent officials call for religious tests, and presidential candidates seek to score points through ostentatious displays of Christianity and simultaneous fearmongering against Islam, faith is brandished as a cudgel.

But it gets worse.

When President George W. Bush launched the Global War on Terror, he felt compelled by his understanding of the Christian faith to do so. Former Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath has quoted him as saying:

I’m driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, ‘George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan.’ And I did, and then God would tell me, ‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq.’

While President Barack Obama has not made such appeals to God regarding his administrative decisions, he also identifies as Christian. And he has overseen the escalation of the war in Afghanistan, a war on Libya, and over 450 drone strikes that have killed predominantly untargeted individuals. A conservative estimate of the deaths from the War on Terror in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq alone stands at 1.3 million.

While religion should not drive foreign policy, Christianity that does not lead to restraint in warfare, Christianity that does not bear witness to the victims of war, has lost its salt and is worth nothing. And the many who see no contradiction, indeed, see a vital link, between Christian faith and military service, who believe in raining fire and death upon the enemy, do not know what spirit they are from.

At home and abroad, Muslims have experienced Christianity as a weapon. Yet they are constantly compelled by a demanding, suspicious population to counter the image of Islam as a hostile religion of terrorists. Muslims in the United States and around the world have denounced terrorism, hosted interfaith gatherings, written editorials and articles, and continue to live lives of patient compassion, modeling the religion of peace that I have come to know and love. Yet their voices are too often ignored by those who demand accountability for “Islamic” violence.

The truth is, violent expressions of Islam mirror violent expressions of Christianity in a cycle of hostility driven not by God, but by human fear. As mimetic theory shows, vehement religious zeal is driven by a desire to assert one’s self, or one’s religion, over and against another, and any differences are ironically drowned in an overwhelming flood of violence.

A Mutual Dependence on Enmity

The tides of violence are rising as fear and hatred perpetuate one another. The American Empire, ever living up to Dr. King’s apt assessment as the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” depends on ISIS to keep the war machine turning and put a noble face of “fighting terror” on a policy of maintaining military dominance and exploiting resources. ISIS, for its part, depends on violence from the United States and her allies to create an atmosphere of desperation, which is their biggest recruitment tool. In a recent article for The Nation, Lydia Wilson interviewed captured ISIS soldiers who confessed to being “terrorized” into fighting. Civil war fueled by American occupation had triggered a desire for vengeance, but more than revenge, fighters were desperate to provide for their families in a broken and impoverished land.

ISIS uses the devastation and hopelessness nurtured by a decade and a half of war to convince Muslims that the world is against them and that they are their only hope. Every gun fired, every drone strike, every parent, child, spouse and sibling killed, every dream obliterated, drives another recruit into their ranks. And with every act of terror they commit, they turn the world against not only them, but against the innocent Muslims who become increasingly isolated. Islamophobic attitudes and policies play directly into the hands of ISIS, who want to force Muslims to choose between them and an increasingly hostile world. Muslims who resist this binary are voices for peace, and they make up the majority of ISIS’s victims.

ISIS uses Islam to bring a veneer of righteousness to their violence, when there is nothing Islamic about it. Seeking to provoke overreaction by Western powers and further isolate fellow Muslims, they target not only soldiers, but civilians of all religions, ignoring the Qur’anic proclamation that to kill an innocent person is to kill all of humanity. (5:32). The United States military, for its part, invokes Christian prayers and employs Christian chaplains, yet throws Jesus’s command to “love your enemies” out the window and demonizes its victims. Both sides are made up of fearful, flawed human beings trying to protect themselves and their families, believing God to be on their side.

Interfaith Friendship Will Save The World

But there is hope. Religion that excludes and dehumanizes others is a weapon, but faith that recognizes the interconnection of all life can be a healing balm. At their best, Islam and Christianity both show life, the universe, everything to be ordained by the One who is Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Christians and Muslims worldwide are compelled – by hope and faith and love nurtured by prayer and support from their communities – to lives of active kindness, generosity, and a determined struggle for restorative justice. At their best, Islam and Christianity inspire not pride, but humility, not self-righteousness, but empathy, not hostility, but healing.

Worshipping the same God, inspired by ethics of compassion and mercy, and striving for the same goals of restorative justice for victims of exploitation, oppression and violence, Christians and Muslims have great potential to be not merely allies, not simply partners in peacemaking, but true friends. Interfaith dialogue is a good beginning, but the seeds of compassion must be sown deeper. Knowledge can be forgotten, fear can taint information, but friendship is the antidote to hostility that can dispel violence and lay a foundation for reconciliation.

So how do we form these friendships? Muslims around the world are already reaching out, as I have said before. Christians must step up and denounce Islamophobia, in order to dispel the fear that precludes relationship. Hand-in-hand with this task comes recognizing and condemning the violence of our own government. I am convinced that Islamophobia works subconsciously to dehumanize the victims of American aggression overseas as well as implant subtle but damaging views of Muslims at home. How else can we explain our collective complacency with a drone program where up to 90% of the casualties are not targeted and a genocidal ideology that justifies the killing of all military-aged males by deeming them combatants even when their identities are unknown? Friendship cannot grow in hostile soil polluted by fear and self-deception.

With fear dispelled and hearts broken open to the truth of our violence, I believe that more people will be willing to reach out to Muslims in friendship, or receive the friendship Muslims continually offer. Of course, friendships, like the one Sheima and I developed, come about naturally if they come about at all. They cannot be forced. But the current climate marginalizing and isolating Muslims precludes interfaith friendships, whereas reaching out in humility and compassion can facilitate them.

Friendships between Muslims and Christians would go a long way toward sucking the oxygen out of ISIS’ ideology and out of the United States’ war machine. Neither side in this battle is endorsed by God, no matter what leaders and soldiers might say. Yet all who fight are beloved of the same God, who stands with all victims and recognizes the fighters themselves as victims of violence and their own fear. The key to peace is not the elimination of the people who fight the battles, but the elimination of enmity itself. Showing that friendship is possible across boundaries of faith shows that God transcends human limits and can’t be confined to one group or invoked against another. It also draws upon and fuels positive mimesis. Compassion is contagious.

Just as ISIS and the West mirror each other in violence, Muslims and Christians can mirror one another in love, and come together in mutual resolve to end violence and sow seeds of peace. A fragile and dying world is dependent on it. And our souls will be enhanced by letting the expansive and reconciling love of the God we all believe in draw us together. Because I am already blessed with such a wonderful friendship, I can testify that so much joy and hope await if we tear down the divisions of fear and hostility and come together in love. We have everything to lose continuing on our destructive path of violence, and everything to gain in coming together in friendship. If we cannot make peace together, we cannot make peace at all. Only friendship across all human divides can save the world.

Image: Copyright: Katarzyna Bialasiewicz via 123rf.com

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American Christianity’s Great Scapegoat (Part III)

Is there such a thing as a sincere liberal Christian, which says that we basically take this document and re-write it ourselves? Is that really Christian? That’s a bigger question for me. And the answer, no, it’s not. I don’t think there is such a thing. To take what is plainly written and say that I don’t agree with that, therefore, I don’t have to pay attention to it, means you’re not what you say you are. – Rick Santorum, BuzzFeed News, 2012

In the third and final installment of this series, I will be changing my approach somewhat. There is a specific reason I am doing this, and here it is:

Because I would be labeled a “liberal Christian” by most in America, I do not want to fall into the trap of playing the victim for my own aggrandizement. Should I take the approach of simply defending myself against the attacks of not being an actual Christian, I fear I will engage in the very same scapegoating much of the conservative Right constantly engages in. Then I can show everyone how much of a victim I am! That would not exactly be Christlike. Instead of doing that, I am going to offer my insight (and hopefully wisdom) as to how to approach my fellow brothers and sisters who take a more “conservative” approach in love. My goal will be to help ease much of the fear some seem to have at the thought of theologies that differ from their own. Then perhaps all “types” of Christians can come together and actually help build each other up and grow.

Santorum’s primary fear in the quote above seems centered on his belief that liberal Christians are “re-writing” the Bible. Because this is not the first time I have heard this claim, I will focus my attention there. First, I would like to attempt to put his fear to rest because that is not what I, or any of my colleagues for that matter, are doing. Now, I will say that I interpret things vastly differently than most Western Christians, but different views aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Our Jewish forefathers often disagreed amongst themselves and, as scholar and historian Lester L. Grabbe tells us in Second Temple Judaism: History and Religion of the Jews in the Time of Nehemiah, the Maccabees, Hillel and Jesus:

Most Jews accepted the sacredness of the temple and the general teachings of the Torah. But there was no official orthodoxy (in the Christian sense), for it is clear that there were many interpretations of the Torah and many different views about how to apply the law outside the temple. (Preface, xii)

One group of Christians need not fear the interpretive methods of another, but in fact should be willing to learn and grow from them. And this goes both ways! Nobody has the complete—capital “T”—Truth.

The second thing I would like to address is the notion that the Bible should be treated as if it had “plain” teachings. And even if it did, there would still be complicated minds interpreting it—and we know no two minds are perfectly alike. It does not matter if you are studying Christology, eschatology, soteriology, or any of the other “-ologies,” there will be differences of opinions. In fact, dissimilar conclusions—even slight ones—will always be drawn when looking specifically at Jesus’ teachings, as most were in parable. Let me list some of them:

  • The Parable of the Lost Sheep
  • The Parable of the Prodigal Son
  • The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Servants
  • The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus
  • The Parable of the Mustard Seed

One could spend their entire lifetime deciphering what each parable truly “means”—and even that gets us nowhere because there is no one “meaning” to something that is pedagogical (used for teaching). Moreover, reading a parable literally is as logical as the famous Oscar Wilde quote: “I can resist anything, except temptation.” My point is, without getting into specifics, is that there is no one way to interpret Jesus. Things simply aren’t that plain.

I realize I am not offering a counter-hermeneutic to a flat reading. That is not my point here. But it was my point here, here, and especially here. I would, however, like to pose one question to those who favor a flat hermeneutic: is that how Jesus himself viewed Scripture? I believe that is a fair question—one that I never once heard asked in church. Again, I attempt that here.

So, I know I did not defend whether a “liberal Christian” can exist. Hopefully, if you have been keeping abreast to what I write, the answer is self-evident. Honestly, I would have offered more of a retort but it is so damn easy to fall into the scapegoating trap and I am trying to watch myself. I will, however, conclude by saying the following: Conservatism does not get to claim ownership of the Gospel, even if some of their members refuse to acknowledge a contrary understanding of it.

As a church, let’s stop scapegoating others. That’s not the Jesus way. He refused to create scapegoats. Instead, he chose to serve everyone, and it is my hope that someday I’ll start looking more like him in that regard.

 

Image: Stock Photo by radiantskies via 123rf.com.

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#IwasKimDavis, Or “Fearful Hermeneutic Syndrome”

Editor’s Note: Many thanks to Mark Sandlin, author of “The God Article,” for starting the #IwasKimDavis hashtag, which helps to curb our tendency toward scapegoating and instead embrace empathy. This is my #IwasKimDavis story.

“If I have to meet more homophobic people, I hope they’re all like you.”

Sixteen years later, these words still sting.

I was a freshman in college. I had converted to Islam two years previous, which is another story, and I was struggling to maintain my fledgling Muslim identity at a college with very few Muslim students. My conversion to Islam and later reaffirmation of Christianity is not particularly relevant to this story, except to say that I struggled to find a way to relate to and worship God that offended neither my heart nor my mind. Bewilderment about the Trinity and horror at the crucifixion as I misunderstood it at the time were some of the reasons why I embraced a faith with the same roots as the Christianity I had been raised with, without the same paradoxes. What’s important to understand, for the purposes of this story, is that I was struggling to be faithful to the God I was trying to understand. I believed this God to be Most Gracious, Most Merciful. But I also believed that this God had designed men and women to complement each other, and that this God had decreed homosexual behavior sinful.

It was, honestly, something that bothered me about Islam. But it wasn’t my central theological struggle, and Islam’s doctrine of Tawheed, the oneness of God, was so much clearer to me than the Trinity that I embraced it, and struggled to be faithful to the One God of all. I was striving to work through my doubts, trusting that God would eventually make things more clear to me. I struggled to live with the disconnect between my heart, which wanted to be an open ally of the LGBTQ community, and my religion, which (as far as I knew, before recognizing Islam’s more complex and multi-vocal history with homosexuality), told me that homosexuality was at best a pathology and at worst willful disobedience. I was new to Islam. I had much to learn. I wasn’t willing to disconnect from it or from the sense of relief it had given to my theological doubts over an issue that wasn’t even central to my life.

But the issue was about to become a lot more significant to me.

I had been somewhat taken aback when I learned that my new friend was a lesbian, because we had been alone together. I’m embarrassed now by how I might have jumped or flinched at the news, but it wasn’t because I felt any animosity toward her. It had more to do with Islamic purity codes, as I understood them, and how I would have to readjust my interactions with her to fit them. She had watched me pray with my covered posterior in the air, after all, and women stand behind or separate from men in the masjid to avoid that very situation! I recalled the hadith “When an unmarried man and woman are alone together, Satan is always a third companion.” We would have to keep the doors open when we visited each others’ dorms, I told her. I tried to tell her about how I was trying to keep up with my faith and how that meant I would try to interact with her as I would with a man, keeping my modesty.

I was almost embarrassed, and somewhat apologetic, as bumbled through an explanation of why I felt a need to change the way we interacted together. I have no idea what I said. But I remember my friend’s kindness as she listened, and her eye contact when I shyly looked back up at her, and she said the words to me that I have never forgotten:

“If I have to meet more homophobic people, I hope they’re all like you.”

Ouch!

I tried to explain that I wasn’t homophobic, or that I really didn’t mean to be. I wanted to acknowledge that I understood and deeply regretted if what I had told her was hurtful, and that Islam’s position on homosexuality was not something I loved about my new faith, but it was something I was trying to understand. I told her I knew it wasn’t my place to judge what was homophobic since I wasn’t the one hurt by it. I said that I wanted her to know that in my heart and mind, I thought she was a wonderful person, and that, if anything, I was a little troubled that her sexuality didn’t bother me, and troubled that I was troubled by that! She understood. And then we probably changed the subject to our mutual love of Disney, or a class we shared, or whatever. She quickly became my best friend. And as an agnostic, she appreciated the beauty that she found in my faith and my faith journey, and she herself became a part of it, as important relationships always become a part of one’s faith.

I eventually let the modesty codes of Islam, insofar as they separated me from my friend, fall away. I believed in modest dress and humility, and that hasn’t changed, but I didn’t want to keep my friend at an emotional or spiritual distance, so I didn’t.

At the time, I sometimes felt as if I was putting my friendship above God, but I was also able to explore my understanding and relationship with God through that friendship. My friend’s thoughts and questions sparked my own and expanded my heart and mind. Still, I had occasional pangs of doubt that I was doing wrong by God. What I didn’t realize then was that my doubts and struggles, and eventually my putting my friendship not above my faith, but above certain interpretations of religious tradition, was a path to a deeper understanding and a deeper love for the God who is Love and wants humans to relate to one-another in love.

Even after reaffirming Christianity because of a deeper understanding of the revelation of God’s love in the incarnation and crucifixion (while remaining ever grateful to Islam and still desiring to keep my love and respect for it), it took a while for me to come to the understanding of homosexuality that I have today. My understanding of scripture, my hermeneutical lens, is still coming into focus, but it is much more clear now than when I was struggling in the midst of fears.

My fear wasn’t really homophobia. And I didn’t want to admit that it was a fear of God, because I was trying, and sometimes succeeding, in believing that God is Love, though I did fear disappointing God. What I really suffered from is what I coin “Fearful Hermeneutic Syndrome,” or FHS, and I empathize with anyone who struggles with it or holds it as yet undiagnosed.

I was frightened of disappointing a God whom I believed would be disappointed by a violation of purity codes. I believed that this God was merciful and loving, and that this God would even forgive homosexuality, but not approve of it. But the more I came to know my friend, the more I could not understand God being disappointed in her for something that — not only could not be changed, but had no need to be changed. If anything, I realized that if I considered her potential to fall in love and build a family was at all sinful, that would hinder my compassion toward her, and that was a sin. Loving was not a sin. I came to understand that, and it opened my heart to a deeper understanding of God.

I now see sexual orientation and gender identity through the lens of mercy, not sacrifice. The words of Hosea, repeated twice by Jesus, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” does not just contradict certain elements of the Bible in which God clearly does demand sacrifice. It contradicts an entire understanding of scripture, an understanding that distinguishes in from out, clean from unclean. Coming to the understanding that scripture is multi-vocal, that it speaks of human projection of violence onto God as well as God’s revelation to humanity in the form of Jesus, has made all the difference in the world to me. Every word of scripture is important, but some of it reveals the depths of human sin, including the violence that we were deluded into thinking was from God. Jesus definitively shows that God’s love encompasses everyone. There is no way to hold mercy and sacrifice “in tension” within God. Perfect mercy casts out sacrificial systems that exclude and marginalize, just as perfect love casts out fear.

Among the marginalized in today’s world are those who belong to the LGBTQ community. Some use scripture to justify this marginalization. I really believe they are trying to obey God as they understand God. Yet Jesus embraced those whom the scriptures of his own time marginalized, in order to heal us of our delusion that God excludes people the way we do.

I believe that Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk recently jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses after the national legalization of gay marriage, is trying to follow her religious convictions. She does not have the legal right to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and I feel compassion for those whose lives she has made more difficult through her noncompliance with the law. I lament the pain she has caused them, pain that may be compounded by other voices that marginalize them. But I also feel compassion for Kim Davis, because I have been her. I believe she is suffering from Fearful Hermeneutic Syndrome, and it is not an ailment to be taken lightly.

Kim Davis may or may not feel assured of God’s love for her. I sincerely hope she does. But I also know that we will never know the extent of this love until we come to grasp the fact that God’s love embraces everyone, and that God desires abundant life for everyone, including members of the LGBTQ community. This abundant life often includes a relationship with an intimate partner, which is a human reflection of the depths of God’s love, and God’s love can be equally revealed in a partner of the same sex as in a partner of the opposite sex. I believe this, partly because theologians such as James Alison have successfully debunked the “clobber texts” for me. But more importantly, I believe this because I know that God is Love, that love is relationship (hence the Trinity that so baffled me in my younger days), and that being made in the image of God is to be made for love. Nothing reflects God’s image more beautifully than mutually self-giving love between two people. Knowing this, I understand Kim Davis’s struggle for the sanctity of marriage. Marriage is worth struggling for. But the LGBTQ community has known this all along, which is why they now celebrate their legal right to marry.

I pray that Kim Davis eventually recognizes that right, not just according to the law, but according to the God who is Love, who demands mercy, not sacrifice. Because I truly believe that if she stops trying to prevent others from embracing one another in love, she will find herself embraced in a divine love that is so much greater than she now imagines it to be.

For more on God’s all-embracing love as it relates to this issue, see Adam Ericksen’s article, “‘God’s Authority’: Same Sex Marriage and a Kentucky County Clerk.”

 

 

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Religion As A Drug And The Authenticity Of Jesus

Introduction

About a month and a half ago, Raven friend Michael Hardin, author of The Jesus Driven Life and director of Preaching Peace, asked me, among others, to contribute to a volume he is editing about religion and addiction. As an icebreaker, he shared with us essays in which he critiques destructive elements that he finds within particular Christian denominations, particularly Charismatic Christianity. Although I agreed, I was a little hesitant. While it is exciting to be invited to contribute, I am not especially familiar with the Charismatic Christianity that Michael critiques, nor have I been trained to help people cope with addiction from either a medical or a pastoral point of view. However, I have dealt with addictive tendencies of my own. What I write, therefore, is observation and analysis from my own experience, filtered through an understanding of human behavior guided by mimetic theory.

There may be certain denominations or practices of Christianity that encourage and nurture addictive behavior more than others. However, I wish to focus on another angle and discuss the ways in which anyone can be vulnerable to using a religious belief, practice, or community in an unhealthy or addictive manner. I look back on my life and recognize ways in which I have done this. When I am honest with myself, I also recognize a continuing vulnerability to the temptation to “use” faith in a way that falls short of God’s intention for this amazing gift. The gift of faith should help us to magnify the love of God and recognize that love in others, to form relationships in the image of God whose Triune essence is the ultimate relationship of Love. However, all good gifts can be abused, and sometimes faith can be twisted in our minds to assert ourselves above others, providing us with temporary gratification that ultimately leaves us hollow. “Corruptio optimi pessima;” the corruption of the best is the worst, and when faith becomes an instrument of self-gratification and ultimately scapegoating, one of God’s greatest gifts operates against its intended purpose. I think if we are all honest with ourselves, our faith is at best on a continuing journey toward the ideal, with the pitfalls of temptation to use it as a drug or a weapon continually before us. This is my story of stumbling into those pitfalls, climbing (or being lifted) out, and keeping my eyes open, that I may avoid stumbling again.

My Story

Addiction could be seen as a misplaced search for wholeness. I can look back on my adolescence and see times when I have used certain religious groups to fill what I perceived as voids in my life, to feel a sense of belonging and boost a shaky self-esteem.

I cannot attribute these voids to any tragedy or trauma; my childhood was pleasant and I am close to my family. Yet from my childhood I had a complicated relationship with “the Church,” both in the sense of the Body of Christ as a whole, and in the more immediate sense of my place of worship. My home church was a place where I felt safe and loved, among true friends. It was also, however, a place of anxiety, where I would wrestle with doubts and fears I didn’t dare fully articulate. I attribute my experience of the church as a source of comfort and confusion to being the daughter of a faithful Christian and a stark atheist.

I mimetically desired the conviction of faith I perceived in the people I knew from church, including my mother and grandmother and their friends. But my desire was mixed with more than a little fear. It wasn’t my church, much less my family, that taught me to fear a “wrathful God.” The myths I came to believe about a God who dispensed punishment on his own Son and a hell of eternal torment were not my church’s teachings, but they are so embedded in our culture that unless they are directly refuted, they may become internalized anyway. For me, living with a doubting daddy “outside” the boundaries of the Christian faith, absorbing his intellectual disconnects with stories of floating zoos and parting seas, men walking on water and divine mathematical equations that didn’t add up (1+1+1 = 1), I couldn’t help but be doubtful. And my doubt terrified me, and kept my heart as well as my mind from embracing the God who, on the one hand was Love, but on the other hand, was ready to cast my father, me, and countless others into a pit of eternal fire if we didn’t believe.

I think the commingling of deep-seeded fear with the palpable aching for genuine faith kept me from walking away from God. Yes, part of me was afraid to make a real break from religion, because of what I perceived God might do to me if God existed! But another part of me deeply yearned to fully embrace and be embraced by the love that I knew was there, because I saw it in my mother and my church. This is the context of my faith journey, and it is in this context that I can say that there were times when religion could, at times, be like a drug to me.

Looking back, I can see that I was always looking for belonging, for validation, and ultimately for a sense of unconditional love. I found that love from my family, but I questioned it in God, and my doubt was reflected in all kinds of anxieties. I struggled with my self-esteem, sometimes wondering what was wrong with me that I couldn’t believe, and sometimes wondering what was wrong with me that I couldn’t just embrace unbelief. I don’t know how many of my social or emotional insecurities could be traced back to this self-doubt, but certainly some of them could. The various faith communities I tried to embrace in turn embraced as much of me as they could – as much as I would let them. But rather than express my full self, I tried to suffocate my doubts under obsessive behavior, behavior that might have been harmless, had I not been using it to try to hide my doubt from myself. I threw myself into Christian music, decorated my walls with Bible verses and hymn lyrics, and made a grand and futile effort to redefine myself to myself as well as hide my weakness (as I perceived my doubt to be) from the world. I must stress that it was not the faith communities that fueled my addictive behavior. Rather, my addictive behavior was fueled by fears that I absorbed and pieced together, in spite of the love that I now realize ultimately saved me.

I repressed my doubts and fears in order to feel a sense of belonging. I wondered, if I tried hard enough, would I find God? Would God find me worthy enough to bless me with faith? I developed my identity around being faithful, hoping to live into it someday. “Faking” would be the wrong word. The longing for God was very real, and everything I learned and thought and said came from a place of truth. But repressing my doubts and fears, from myself at times and also from my friends, stunted my relationships. Even so, in spite of doubts that hindered me, I made genuine connections. Looking back, I now understand that the God I was so desperately seeking was in those connections – with Christians, Muslims, atheists, agnostics, everyone – the whole time.

When I finally found the courage to express my doubts and fears honestly, I was able to open myself to the love that had been waiting for me the whole time. I was blessed in my college years to find friends with whom I finally dared to be fully honest about joys and qualms I had within my meandering faith journey. The acceptance I received as I gradually let down my guard was a grace I slowly came to perceive. I found my anxiety fading as I relaxed into the love of my friends, and the theological questions that swam through my mind lost the baggage of fear that had long clung to them like a parasite. It was in finding myself loved that I began to understand the meaning of “God is Love,” and gradually trust that Love was holding onto me and surrounding me. My trust continues to grow and mature, and my love for Jesus is ever deepening, a reflection of his own love, magnified to me in the people who make me who I am.

The Authenticity of Jesus

 “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free,” Jesus tells us. The truth is that we are all deeply, truly, unconditionally loved, and understanding that truth is essential to being healthy and whole. Because love is a relational quality, we cannot be “whole” as isolated individuals. We are made in the image of the divine relationship of Love, the Trinity, designed to live in authentic relationship with one another. Addictions and addictive behaviors, I believe, are false paths to fulfillment that collapse us into ourselves and preclude authentic relationships in all of their messy, vulnerable complexity.

A faith community at its best can be a wonderful place to nurture authentic relationship, magnifying the love of God. But to repress fears and doubts to fit into such a community is to be disingenuous to one’s self and others, and stifle true relationship. If we truly seek to serve God and one-another in our faith communities, we must make sure we are contributing to an environment in which we are encouraging genuineness, accepting faults, listening to doubts, providing safe space for fears, and welcoming honesty. There is room for even the best churches to grow in this respect, helping those who go to church in search of belonging to recognize that such a search is joyfully unnecessary, because we already belong with God.

Of course, there are many faith communities that fall short of this vocation. There are churches that, whether unconsciously or deliberately, prey on the human desire for validation rather than preach that God’s unconditional grace is sufficient and universal. Churches that teach that God’s love is limited, erect boundaries between who is in and who is out, and effectively preach sacrifice over mercy, will inevitably mold some parishioners who either cling to a veneer of faith out of fear, or use faith as a source of pride over and against others. Both of these extremes are mirror-images of one-another, because both fear and self-righteousness inhibit intimate connection with God and neighbor. As in any other addiction, any sense of fulfillment in such an environment would be false.

When Paul instructs us to imitate the humility of Christ in his great hymn to the Philippians (ch 2, vs. 5 – 11), he is not giving us a formula for earning God’s approval. He is inviting us to consider Jesus Christ as a model not only of humility, but of confidence in the unconditional love of God that makes such humility possible. It was assurance of the love of God and a mission to share that love with the whole world that drove Jesus to “empty himself” and “become obedient unto death.” What drove Jesus to death was pushing the boundaries of what was considered to be God’s favor. Authorities and powers that thought God’s grace was bound to certain rules, certain people, and ultimately a certain sacrificial system, condemned Jesus for going beyond such boundaries. He embraced lepers and sinners and taught a love of enemies, drawing those on the margins into the circle of grace that some had thought to reserve for themselves. That is how Jesus emptied himself, forsaking the temptation to cling to human measurements of piety or prestige to embrace the marginalized. That is how he obeyed unto death the voice of Love. The consequence of such obedience was incurring the wrath of a humanity that had operated on exclusion and sacrifice. To defy a world order based on sacrifice, Jesus took a risk on the love of God. The resurrection was not only Jesus’ vindication, but the revelation of God’s love embracing the whole world, including those whom we would exclude.

Jesus’s assurance of God’s love allowed him to live authentically, free from searching for the validation of others. Rather than seeking identity in people or objects of obsession, Jesus knew himself in the love of his Father, in the love of the heavenly Father of all. To know ourselves to be in that love and to live it out in giving to others is to fulfill our vocations as image-bearers of God.

Jesus, indeed, is not a drug. Jesus is the true human and the perfect model of authenticity. Following Jesus is not “using” him; it is not seeking a euphoric experience to wash away loneliness. Following Jesus is about embracing the vulnerability necessary to be fully honest and fully open to others, embracing those who think themselves beyond the bounds of love, and receiving such an embrace when you feel beyond love yourself. Jesus is not a quick fix for our ailments but the Way of abundant life, because he models for us the freedom to embrace the love in which we are created. To follow him is not to “become high” but to undergo metanoia, to gradually relinquish the mythology of a world that compels us to seek our identities in objects and the approval of others, and compete for a limited share of prosperity. As we serve others and allow ourselves to be served, letting fear and pride fall away, the grip of such lies loosens its hold on us. The truth of Jesus, made known to us in our imitation of him, shows us that in relinquishing our fruitless searches – our addictions and obsessions – to the love of God, we find ourselves already found.

Image: Photo by Billy Hathorn. Available via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

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American Christianity’s Great Scapegoat (Part II)

In Part I of this series, I discussed how many within “mainstream” Western Christianity believe the LGBT community—more specifically, the recent SCOTUS decision on marriage equality—is to blame for the imminent judgment on America. In this entry, I would like to mention how those in the Muslim faith appear to be included among those charged with causing the “fall of America.”

The hyperbolic rhetoric used to talk about over 1.6 billion Muslims is just as head-scratching as that which is used to describe the roughly 9 million LGBT Americans. Radio host Rick Wiles recently stated that “millions of Americans will die in one day in this country” at the hands of Muslim-Americans, whose only goal is “to slaughter the people who do not convert to Islam.” We hear statements like this over and over, predominantly by those on the Christian right. I do not wish to demonize those who make such claims, but what I do want to do is shed light on the fact that this is nothing more than extreme hyperbole. Sure, there are those for whom that statement would be true. However, as I will point out in the following paragraph, this is not the goal of the Muslim faith. Furthermore, a statement like Wiles’ is a double-edged sword. Given his logic, one could point to recent Lafayette shooter, John Russell Houser, who, in 2013 tweeted, “The Westboro Baptist Church may be the last real church in America (members not brainwashed [sic])” and conclude, “the goal of Christianity is to slaughter the people who do not accept Christ.” Both claims are nonsense.

The goal of any religion, broadly speaking, will depend upon how one interprets matters. Some religions have sacred texts. Some don’t agree on what is supposed to be “sacred text.” Some religions have varying views of God, or gods, if the case may be. The Muslim faith, then, is no different. Sure, on one extreme, is ISIS (and groups similar). They have a specific goal in mind, which involves radical violence. On the other hand, however, you have a group like the Sufi Muslims. One such Sufi is Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, whom I mention in my forthcoming book, All Set Free. His understanding of Islam is beautifully summed up in the following:

Peace, unity, equality . . . when we are in one place, when we live in one place, eat in one place, sleep in one place, and when we finally join together in heaven in one place, that is unity. Even when we go to that (final) place, we all live together in freedom as one family, one group. In this world and in the next world we live together in freedom, as one family of peace. This is Islam. If we find this way of peace, this is Islam. – (Muhaiyaddeen, God’s Psychology, 218)

There should be no denying the plain truth that within various faiths, there are debates among adherents as to what constitutes “correct theology.” Just because a Christian makes an ethical, moral, or theological claim or performs a “God-mandated” action, does not mean all Christians are in agreement. Likewise, just because a Muslim makes an ethical, moral, or theological claim or performs an “Allah-mandated” action, does not mean all Muslims are in agreement either. (“Allah,” it must be noted, is an Arabic word simply meaning “the One God,” and is used by Arab Christians as well as Muslims). There seems to be a more accurate common denominator for the violence.

It does not matter if God is named YHWH or Allah, Zeus or Athena, if s/he is believed to be violent, then those who follow will likely be more tolerant of violence. In fact, in more extreme cases, followers of that god will eagerly engage in violence themselves. One problem with this belief is that when violence is justified—when an eye for an eye is how those religious interpretations operate for individuals and nations—they will, in reality, often ramp up the violence. (See the studies done by the University of Texas—sourced from Hardin, The Jesus Driven Life, 142–43).

This leads to all manners of madness!

This also seems to be the case with the perpetual conflict in the Middle East.

So, what is the answer to this conflict that seems to never end? Well, I believe Jesus gives us the answer to that question—do not engage in retributive violence. Or, directly in his words: “Do not resist an evildoer” (Matthew 5:39).

Although the blame for the violence should be equally shared with all who engage in the violence, the supposed “Christian nation” should at least model what a Christ-like foreign policy looks like. Should it not? Yet, the United States seems to be right in the middle of the violence—not “set apart” from others who are involved. If leaders truly want the United States to be known as a “Christian nation,” should they not “turn the other cheek?” Should the United States not love those labeled “enemy?”

I realize the relationships between nations are not simple. But, shouldn’t nations who claim to desire peace not at least consider that one’s belief in God literally will be a matter of “peace” and “war?” If we can recognize there is a correlation between violence and our theology, shouldn’t we begin to take more seriously the idea that God is not violent? It seems that belief might then lead to more peaceful interactions between nations. I think there is enough experiential evidence that one’s faith dictates one’s ethics. We witness it over and over—history seemingly repeating herself ad infinitum.

One should not blame the entire Muslim faith in the same way one should not blame the entire Christian or Jewish faith for the violence and acts of terrorism. The common link between the violence is the belief in a violent God—one who vanquishes enemies and blesses those willing to die for the cause. At some point, someone is going to have to end the cycle of violence. My hope is that it will be those who claim to have the very model to do just that. Jesus had legions of angels to unleash on the Romans, yet he kept them at bay (Matthew 26:53). A “Christian nation” should follow suit.

Don’t we see where perpetual war has taken us?

Can’t we try peace yet?

I pray daily for that.

Shalom. Salam. Peace.

Image Credit: Stock vector of world religions connected by international peace symbol. By casejustin via 123rf.com.