More Dispatches from Abroad: Why Interfaith in America Matters

As I mentioned in my earlier post about the Three Faiths Forum [link], I’m studying in York, England this semester on an exchange program through the University of Illinois. I’ve loved my time here: the history, the people, the pubs, and, yes… even the food.

Upon arriving in the UK, I expected to meet loads of Brits and immerse myself in British culture—and to a large extent, I have done just that. Yet much to my surprise I have met and befriended nearly as many international students as I have homegrown English ones, the likes of which come from places as far-flung as Italy, Turkey, France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, India, Switzerland, and Sweden.

Being thrust into a social group comprised of so many nationalities and identities made me scramble to position myself as an American within this expanded cultural context. What did people know of America? What did I know of their countries? They all asked me questions, they all seemed curious. What did I stand for in their eyes? There had to be  more to me than someone who doesn’t mean “soccer” when they say “football,” right?

In my flat, there are also four other American students, as well as about ten or so others from the UK and EU. Among these is a Somali-born Muslim girl around my same age who lived for a number of years in Holland. The first few days I arrived, she proved a welcome companion: she went with me on my first trip to the grocery store, helped me get adjusted to my life in a new place, and extended warmth and hospitality to me when I could have felt alone and far from home. We got along well.

Thus I was surprised when, one day, she told me in passing that she had been worried when she found out that so many American students were moving in. She said she didn’t know how we would react to her or treat her as a Somali Muslim. Though she continued on with the conversation, I stopped her there. “Wait,” I said, “why were you worried?”

She responded by saying that she didn’t think Americans liked Muslims. She hadn’t said it sarcastically; her words were tempered with honesty. “But you’re all right,” she said with a smile.

Though the conversation changed course after that, I couldn’t get her words out of my head. It bothered me that she viewed my country as prejudiced and intolerant when I had always taken pride in its idyllic virtues of freedom and justice for all. Were these virtues illusory? As a white male from an upper-middle class family in the suburbs of Chicago, I suppose it would be easy for me to see the freedom America grants. I have known privilege.

Whether a true title or not, the United States does in fact carry the label of being predominantly Christian. In some sense, what happens there does not just come across as political, but carries with it a religious tone. Other countries notice when our president says “God bless America,” and remember it well when we declare war or make policy decisions. As Christians, we must consider this. America is a big stage with a broad influence—what we do matters, what we say matters, and, more importantly, both of these things come back to reflect our faith.

Could I fault my flat mate for her less-than-positive perceptions of the United States? I thought back to last year, when Terry Jones, a Florida pastor, threatened to host a “Burn the Koran” day. His statements garnered international attention, despite the fact that back in the US he pastors a church of only 50 people. If not for his ridiculous anti-Islamic antics, he would be known by nearly no one. Yet I’m sure that his actions played heavily into my flat mate’s worries about having Americans living down the hall. And now, the protests in Orange County, the Radicalization Hearings in Washington—it’s hard not to see where she’s coming from.

Indeed, I can’t help but feel similarly about other countries that persecute Christians. Yet they don’t proclaim liberty, justice, or freedom in the same way America does. And, as someone contemplating a vocation in the church, I can’t help but think that the US should set an example for religious tolerance and cooperation, not show itself to be a less-violent version of the same prejudiced principles.

We can stand as a beacon of peace, or we can come across as the world’s wealthiest hypocrites.

While we as American Christians engage with those of other faiths in a peaceful, loving, and proactive way, we not only uphold the virtues America is said to possess, but we also demonstrate Christ’s love. Greg and I often mention Christ’s commendation “Blessed are the peacemakers” and his exhortation to love our neighbors as well as our enemies. Remember that we live in a big world, and that these virtues bear immense significance within it. How can we be better peacemakers? How can we better love our neighbors? How can we make stories of compassion and cooperation louder than stories of bigotry and strife? Join us; help answer these pressing questions.

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