Tag Archives: Interfaith

No Benadryl Allowed

The Gospel reading for this week was a portion of the Sermon on the Mount that we all know: “you have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you: Do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”

Do not resist an evildoer? This verse about turning the other cheek is probably one of the most quoted New Testament passages—just after love your neighbor as yourself and John 3:16. But it’s troubling. Don’t even resist?

I looked up the Greek word here for resist, anthistemilike the word that we use for allergy medications—antihistamine. It means to set against, withstand, oppose. We use antihistamines to fight the chemicals in our bodies that are causing an allergic reaction and making us weak, tired, stuffy. If you’ve ever suffered from allergies, you are thankful for good medication that can resist these reactions. But, Jesus, it seems, would have told us to stock up on tissues and tea—no Benadryl allowed!

What’s hard for me about this verse is that resistance actually seems to be a major theme in Jesus’ teachings. Doesn’t the Gospel invite us to resist greed, to resist Empire, to resist the forces of evil in the world…Didn’t Jesus resist the men who wanted to stone the adulterous woman? Didn’t he resist the forces of death when he raised Lazarus to new life? Didn’t he resist Satan’s temptations of power and wealth while he was in the wilderness? Wasn’t Jesus, in his ministry, a resistor?

And it didn’t end there. Isn’t the Resurrection the ultimate act of resistance? In his resurrection, doesn’t Jesus say no to death, no to violence, no to sin, no to injustice?

So, what is going on in this passage? Should we resist as Jesus has modeled for us, or shouldn’t we, as he instructs us?

A few weeks ago, I was at a conference of Interfaith Youth Core Alumni in Atlanta, Georgia, and there was a young Muslim woman who was speaking on a panel about the work she is doing to build peace in the Middle East. Someone from the audience asked her which stories from her faith tradition have inspired her work and this is what she said:

It has been written that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), though he was beloved by many in his time, was not beloved by all. In fact, he had a neighbor who did not like him one bit. And this neighbor, because she didnt like him, would get up very early every morning and bring all of her garbage and rotten food, even the waste from her animalsand she would leave them in a pile on the doorstep of the Prophet. And every morning Muhammad would wake up, see the trash, quietly sweep it away and then go about his daily chores and activities.

One morning, Muhammad woke up and he opened his front door expecting to see the pile of trash as usual, but on this day, there was nothing there. No trash. Without hesitating the Prophet went to the pantry, collected some fruits and herbs and rushed next door to his neighbors home.  Sure enough, she was very sickso sick that she had not had enough strength to collect the garbage to leave at Muhammads front door. Muhammad offered her some food and stayed with her and prayed for her recovery.

This seems to me to be the kind of thing Jesus is talking about when he says: do not resist an evildoer.

Jesus is asking us to change the way we think about justice and injustice–to envision a larger picture. The Prophet Muhammad did not let the garbage pile up on his doorstep, but neither did he grow to hate the woman who seemed to hate him so much. He saw the woman for who she was—a human, broken, like the rest of us, who might fall sick one day and need to rely on the compassion of others.

Perhaps Jesus is saying, don’t set yourself in opposition to those who do evil to you, to those who do evil in the world; instead, imagine them as part of the larger picture of God’s salvation. Don’t build fences, build pathways. Don’t stand your ground, expand your ground. We are not called to be antihistamines that fight against the evils of the world: we are called to see those evils and envelop them. We are called to imagine that even those who seem to do the most harm, might also have a share in God’s kingdom.

We don’t need to tolerate injustice. We don’t need to let evildoers free.  We don’t need to sit idly while people step all over us; we do need to do the work we can to clean up the messes that people leave on the doorsteps of the world. We know that from Jesus’ own example. And we need to keep the resurrection in view.

I think that Jesus is inviting us to rethink our own stories. In what ways do we let ourselves get bogged down in the small battles of our daily lives? What “evils” do we resist that Jesus might actually nudge us to welcome as part of the larger vision of salvation? Do we resist difficult conversations with people whose political, social, or religious beliefs differ from ours? Do we resist wisdom from other faith traditions—like the story I just told you about the Prophet Muhammad—because we think that by appreciating what others have to offer we will somehow become less whole ourselves? Jesus says, don’t resist—embrace the coming of a new world and have faith that all of us will have a role to play in it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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FLP in Atlanta: Reflections on the First Ever IFYC Alumni Gathering

By Cameron Nations

Maybe it was the impromptu interfaith dialogue with the belly dancer who surprised us at our table at the Turkish restaurant on the first night of the conference. Or maybe it was the overwhelming optimism and energy surrounding the largest Interfaith Leadership Institute in IFYC history. Whatever it was, something made the first ever gathering of IFYC alumni in Atlanta more than a mere memorable experience.

For over two days about 30 of us sat in a meeting room in the Sheraton in downtown Atlanta to discuss the ways in which we are using our interfaith training in our post-undergrad lives.

For some, this extension of their interfaith work came rather easily as part of their current job or occupation. For others, working interfaith engagement into their daily lives did not come as naturally. Yet both perspectives offered a glimpse of what the future of the interfaith movement could (and will) look like over the next couple of years as IFYC’s alumni base explodes from around 550 to over 2,000 young adults.

Apart from the joys of the connections—both old and new—strengthened and forged over the course of the weekend, the sessions also focused on broader questions such as ways of leveraging social capital for the common good and judicious use of social media in our professional lives. The IFYC Alumni gathering proved an enriching time of building new relationships and new strategies to address our growing interfaith reality.

For part of our time we broke into smaller sector-based groups that focused on those working in “Religious and Intentionally Secular Communities,” “Media,” “Non-profit,” and “Higher Ed.”

Not surprisingly, I found myself (along with other seminarians and ministers) in the “Religious Communities” group with fellow Faith Line Protestants contributor Anne-Marie Roderick. Amber Hacker, who also writes for FLP in addition to her duties with IFYC, led the group. Along with us sat sometime FLP writer Nick Price, and together with our group we discussed the need for the development of theologies of interfaith cooperation in our respective traditions and ways in which we might see this development through to fruition.

The discussions throughout the alumni gathering helped us to refine FLP’s vision and mission to offer a place for constructive dialogue around the areas of interfaith cooperation and evangelism. Faith Line Protestants might also be a place for fostering conversations that move toward these theologies of interfaith cooperation mentioned in our sector group sessions.

Even outside our sector group quite a few people expressed interest in FLP’s mission, vision, and possible importance to the interfaith discussion. Case in point:
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This word cloud shows the post-gathering aspirations of the alumni. (Notice how our size compares to a certain other acronym. Heh-heh.) This word cloud expressed why the alumni gathering was more than just a memorable experience: it stood as evidence of the transformation that IFYC has had on the lives of all those who have had the privilege to go through their programs, and the support that they give to the leaders they foster. The gathering was, in short, the ways in which interfaith cooperation is being made a cultural norm. And it was humbling to behold.

As FLP moves forward over the coming months, we will continue to define our roles behind the scenes to better bring you regular, thought-provoking content. Join us! Be a part of the conversation.

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Pagan Post-Holiday Reflections

Christmas has come and gone, but for many this is the perfect time to reflect on what Christmas means, or meant to them. I thought I would share with you two reflections from Pagans on Christmas, and their experiences with Christmas. They are lovely reflections and I strongly recommend them to you.

“Why this Pagan Celebrates Christmas” by Better Together Coach Tyler from Roanoke College and
“Yuletide Reflections” by University of North Florida student Emily Schroder.

Happy Reading.

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UK City’s Synagogue Saved by Local Muslim Community

Check out this awesome story via The Guardian of how the Muslim community in Bradford, a city just outside of Leeds in north England, saved a local synagogue from closure due to costly building repairs. Tangible signs of interfaith cooperation.

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Moving Beyond the War On Christmas

There has been a lot of talk this season about the “War on Christmas.” Many of my fellow Christians seem fearful that Christian holidays, and in particular Christmas, will be “taken away.” I’ve heard many people I know express concern that “they” want to “take away our holidays.” Though I couldn’t quite tell you what having a holiday “taken away” means – I can only assume there is a fear that Christmas could be taken off the list of federal holidays.

I think that we forget Christianity was intended to be a religion on the margins. “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness” is an oft quote piece of scripture from Matthew 5. Identifying as a marginalized, oppressed, or persecuted population is part of Christian DNA. Yet, Christians in the U.S. enjoy many privileges and comforts (for a list of those comforts see here). Christianity in many ways has entered the realm of the mainstream in the United States – especially when it comes to Christmas.

So when we see a billboard in Times Square posted by Atheist.org that says, “Who needs Christ during Christmas? Nobody” -of course it is easy and understandable (and perhaps even justifiable) to respond to this kind of antagonism with defensiveness, but I also think we cling to it as proof that despite our privileged position in the U.S. we are indeed “persecuted because of righteousness.” Though we feel the need to cling to this martyr identity, I think we are really just afraid to lose our comfortable, privileged position as Christians in the United States. I think we are afraid of disappearing into the margins of society. I mean – who wouldn’t be?

In 1870, Christmas was established by law as a federal holiday along with Thanksgiving, New Year’s Day, and Independence Day. With this law, Christmas became a patriotic day, rather than simply a Christian holy day. None of us should be surprised that when the government of what is now the most religiously diverse country on the planet (and possibly ever) established Christmas as a federal holiday, Christmas entered the arena of the mundane. New myths of elves, and a jolly fat man who drove a flying reindeer -led sleigh, grew out of its foundation in an effort to make Christmas something all Americans could participate in. Of course, as a consequence, our free market took hold of the neck of Christmas and squeezed as much profit as they could out of Christmas, and so thousands of marketing campaigns developed to create a mad consumer dash to the finish line each Christmas season.

Christmas, a day to celebrate the birth of a little Galilean boy who would eventually preach the coming of the Kingdom of God, heal the sick, dine with tax collectors and prostitutes, teach forgiveness and then give the ultimate gift to humankind And so a season intended to remind us of grace and hope in the midst of the darkness and longing of winter, has become an American civic holiday filled with greed, selfishness and secularity.

So I ask you – which Christmas exactly, is this oft-spoken of “war” on? As far as I can see, the Christmas that is currently celebrated here in the United States, might not be worth saving. Perhaps we should let “them” (whoever “them” is) wage their war.

(Bear with me.)

When we say “they want to take away our holiday” – what exactly do we mean? As far as I can tell, what we really seem to be afraid of is Christmas being taken off the list of federal holidays. There are currently 11 federal holidays – Christmas, New Year’s, Thanksgiving, Independence Day, President’s Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Veteran’s Day, Inauguration Day, Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Columbus Day (This list begs the question, which of these things are not like the other?). Officially, federal holidays were created to honor different parts of American heritage which helped form the U.S. as a nation and as a people (read more here: http://www.senate.gov/reference/resources/pdf/Federal_Holidays.pdf). Additionally, being a “federal holiday” simply means that all federal employees are required to be given that day off by the government with pay.

So would it really be so bad if Christmas was taken off the list of federal holidays?

As a federal holiday, Christmas belongs to the entire citizenship of the United States, Perhaps the entrance of Christmas into public life is what led to its commercialization, so removing Christmas as a government recognized holiday could be a step toward reclaiming some of the holiness of the day (let’s remember that “holy” means “set apart”). If Christmas was no longer a day that most Americans had off from work then Christians would actually have to make a bit of a sacrifice to honor and celebrate this day; something non-Christian Americans have always had to do in order to take off work to honor their holy days. Perhaps taking Christmas of the list of federal holidays would be one step toward loosening consumerism’s grip on our Christmas traditions. Perhaps we would actually honor Advent as a time of meditation, anticipation, and preparation for the return of Christ.

I’ll I admit it – I love Christmas – sacred and secular traditions alike. I enjoy baking the cookies, buying the gifts, decorating the Christmas tree, watching the Christmas themed movies. I like hanging my stockings and dreaming up ways I’ll play along with myth of Santa Claus with my children. I love it all. But none of those things I just listed do anything to help me honor and celebrate the birth of Jesus, my Christ. I love all of those things because I did them as a child with my family, and I feel like I’m participating in tradition. Perhaps the “secular Christmas” has merit as a time to gather with family and celebrate the previous year.

And I’m not suggesting we rally and sign a petition asking the Federal Government to take Christmas off the list of federal holidays.

What I am suggesting is, if “they” were to take away Christmas as a federal holiday, would it really be so bad? Thanks to the first amendment, we would still have the right to celebrate and honor this day just as much as Jews, Hindus, Muslims, etc. all have a right to celebrate and honor their special days. So would it really be so bad? And should Christians really get special status in the U.S. among these religions?

I am also suggesting that perhaps it’s time to drop the “War on Christmas” noise and focus on the sanctity of this time. Defensiveness and fear are not in the spirit of Advent, nor are they in the spirit of our beloved Jesus.

This Advent season, as we prepare for Christmas, rather than focusing on what could be taken away – let’s focus on what we have, and what we can give to others – hope; hope of a Kingdom where justice, mercy and peace will rule eternally under the Christ’s reign. This Christmas let’s honor the hope that was born in a barn that day in Bethlehem by dropping all grudges, shedding all defensiveness and reflecting the light of the hope we know is true – Jesus is coming.

Merry Christmas.

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Strive to Love

 I work for a public university in Florida full-time in their Interfaith Center. I am the Programming Coordinator which means it is my job to put together programs and events for students in order to promote religious pluralism on campus. On a daily basis I engage with students of diverse religious and non-religious identities from Atheist to Baha’i, Christian to Jewish, Mystic to Muslim, Secular to Unaffiliated and everything in between.

Engaging with students of so many different religious and non-religious backgrounds and understandings is the most exciting part of my job. I learn something new every day about how young people understand themselves and the world around them: what’s more, I learn something new every day about how I understand myself and the world around me.

I also identify as an Evangelical Christian. And I’m not really that shy about sharing my religious identity with my students. I want them to be comfortable sharing themselves with me, so I try to model how to talk about their identity as a religious or non-religious identity by doing so myself.

Since I’m not shy about sharing my own religious identity, naturally a lot of question come up. In particular, I have been asked by many people…

                        How can you be a Christian and do full-time interfaith work?

Sometimes this is asked out of genuine curiosity, sometimes it’s asked more as an accusation than an actual question, and other times it’s asked by Christian students who genuinely want to participate in interfaith dialogue and cooperation while holding onto their Christian identities and need help understanding how to do so.

I don’t mind being asked this question. In fact, I’m grateful that I’ve been asked so many times since I started my job over a year ago. Being asked this question enables me to take a moment to stop, take a step back, and reflect. I use this question to keep myself accountable to Christ’s calling on my life. Is my work enabling me to act as Christ’s witness, or is it hindering me? How do I follow Christ and do my job? Or, what’s better – how do I follow Christ by doing my job.

You see, I take my Christian identity (or role as follower of Christ) very seriously. I like to consider it my first identity- more important than my identity as a wife, daughter, sister, female, etc. When engaging with the normalcy and routine of life, sometimes it’s easy to lose track of who we are in Christ; what God’s call on our lives has to do with the mundane; how our actions reflect something about who our God is – the list goes on. Interfaith work is my job. It has become a very normal part of what I do on a daily basis.

So it’s important for me to ask myself, as often as possible, “Why do I do what I do?”

Of course in every person’s life there is a series of events and relationships which creates a path, a journey, that leads them to where they are, wherever that is. And my case is no different.

So of course there is a story about how I got here.

Though when you walk into the church in which I grew up today, demographically (I emphasize “demographically!!”- not in substance) it’s very much like a saltine cracker – white and plain (with few exceptions)-it wasn’t always like that. When I was very young the church was a pretty international and diverse church (unless my memory serves me poorly). There were all sorts of different people – artists, scientists, musicians, black, white, asian. India, Uganda, China, Puerto Rico, England were all places people within our congregation called home. Five of the Seven Continents were represented, and I think this is, at least in part, what drew my parents to this place. I can’t help but think it was this early exposure to ethnic and international diversity that fostered a desire within myself to bridge gaps and understand difference – because I saw what a community can be capable of when difference (at least certain kinds of difference) is embraced rather than feared.

I didn’t always have such cushy feelings towards other religions. And of course certain relationships brought me to a place where I was able to start opening up to other faiths and to see them as an opportunity for learning and cultivating understanding rather than as a conflict or something to change to be more like me.

But the most important relationship I’ve had that brought me to a place where I saw this work as necessary, was my relationship with Jesus.

I know it sounds hokey-but I don’t believe that it is.

Jesus loved with everything; with his whole self. Jesus was (and I believe-is) the embodiment of love. I want to love others the way Jesus does; and though I know this is impossible, I want to spend my life striving to do so.

He said the two greatest commandments were to Love the Lord your God, and to love your neighbor.

I truly believe that by serving and loving my neighbor – Hindu, Jewish, Baha’i, Muslim and so on- I am loving God and serving Christ.

There’s a whole lot of ugly in this world, and often that violence and ugliness are created at the fault of the religious (and even at the fault of Christians – gasp!). As a religious person I want to bring people of different religious backgrounds together to serve the community, the country, and the world, rather than breaking it.

So I do this job as a Christian seeking a way to serve God and serve God’s children to the best of my ability.

And that’s how I do full time interfaith work as a Christian – by striving to love as Jesus loves me.

“So in Everything – Strive to Love,” I Corinthians 14:1

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Christian privilege at college: Interfaith work needs more than good intentions

By Hannah Pynn, guest writer for Faithline Protestants.

I want to first identify myself as a protestant christian who is wrestling with my privileged identity. Being raised in a christian family, I was immersed in a christian community throughout my childhood, attended a christian school for eight years, and experienced my faith development in a religiously homogenous environment wherein being white, being christian, and being “American” seemed inseparable identities.

Walking through a critique of my protestant christian identity is an intimidating process that is connected to all other aspects of my identity. My gender, race, sexuality, cultural, and even professional identity all face examination through this process.

As a higher education professional that is specializing in student spiritual development, I acknowledge that my value for this aspect of holistic student engagement is strongly tied to my privileged christian identity. During my undergraduate experience, resources and relationships were available to me that enabled me to progress through stages of my christian faith, and there by cultivated my passion for college student spiritual development.

As I continue to deconstruct my christian privilege, I hope the process will shed light on how I might give voice to those that my privilege has oppressed and that, like Jesus, I can act as a humbled advocate for the agency of all people. I’ve chosen to not capitalize the word “christian” in this text to emphasize my hope to diminish the dominance and oppression of my faith.

A non-christian Campus

On my college campus, I have to attend classes on Sunday mornings. We have a winter break, but I don’t get Christmas day off. Last year I had a midterm on Easter Sunday. The university seal has a symbol of a foreign God on it and is prominently placed on the front doors of my student union. I wanted to run for an officer position in my academic club, but a rumor started to circulate that I was a religious extremist and only wanted to convert people. At the beginning of university ceremonies, the president of my university steps aside for a priest to chant a prayer that I do not know or understand. There is a small christian student group on campus that I go to for support, but I have to drive to a bigger city that’s an hour away to attend church.

Okay, this isn’t my university. If it was, I think that I would feel incredibly isolated and it would take a lot more effort to practice my faith. I have not had this experience because of my christian privilege in higher education. Replace the names of the holidays, symbols, and prayers in the paragraph above and this describes the experience of university students, faculty, and staff who do not identify as christians in the United States.

I thought christians were oppressed

When I first heard of christian privilege, I argued with the concept. I have been taught my whole life that christians have been an oppressed people since Jesus walked on earth. We are counter-cultural, we have customs and values that non-christians don’t understand, and it takes sacrifice to be obediently committed to God. However, when I began developing genuine interfaith friendships without the agenda of proselytizing, I started to see how easy I had it, especially on the college campus where I work. I began listing out some of the individual, institutional, and societal privileges for me as a Christian (Blumenfeld, 2009; Schlosser, 2003)

*Some of these are adapted from the “Beginning List of Christian Privileges” (Schlosser, 2003) to specifically articulate christian privilege in higher education environments.

1. I have Sundays and major christian holidays off, therefore I don’t have to rearrange my school or class schedule to observe my holy days.

2. Course reading assignments have references to the christian God, the bible, and portray christians as the dominant faith that has won wars and shaped classic literature.

3. If I want to find christian friends on campus, I have multiple denominational and non-denominational student clubs and organizations to choose from.

4. It is easy to find a romantic partner who shares my christian faith. (Ok, this may not be easy, but chances are there is more than one other christian on campus that is of dating age.)

5. When someone on my campus refers to God, I can assume they are referring to my christian God.

6. My college or university very likely has a history of being a christian institution and may have christian symbolism in their traditions or ceremonies.

7. There is a chapel on my campus or a christian church in very close proximity.

8. It is easy to see others on my campus wearing christian symbols on their jewelry, clothing, or body art.

9. When displaying christian symbols as a form of personal expression, I do not have to worry about being physically harmed or assaulted.

10. I can find people reading bibles in the public areas of my campus buildings.

11. If I wanted to choose a christian college or university, there are many denominational options available in my state.

12. People on my campus know the names and dates of christian religious holidays.

13. Philosophical or religious debates on my campus have a representative from the christian faith.

14. My christian holidays are considered “normal” and are observed by my government and my culture.

15. I have the option to vote for christian politicians who are making decisions about my education system and its government funding.

16. My christian faith is never regarded as exotic or foreign.

17. My personal expression of my christian faith is viewed as a personal choice, not as a cultural mandate.

18. Volunteer projects and service opportunities at christian-based hospitals, organizations, or businesses are readily accepted as valid educational experiences and can even be counted for credit.

19. I can choose if I want my christian identity to be public or personal at school.

20. If I get married young, people do not assume that my christian faith creates a system of marital oppression.

21. I am viewed as a complex person, not viewed solely by my christian identity.

22. When I tell others that I am a christian, they ask about my denominational affiliation and understand that there is diversity within the christian faith.

23. As a christian, I am encouraged as part of my religious duty to persist in sharing my faith with classmates, friends, and acquaintances, regardless if it makes them feel uncomfortable.

Christians as the oppressor

These privileges do not come easily; they come at a cost for people of other faiths and belief systems. In order to gain these privileges, christians limit the freedom of others under the good intentions of telling people about Jesus on their college campus.

I have met christians who sign up to be conversation partners with international students with the hope of sharing the gospel with them. International students sign up for these programs to learn English, and christians take advantage of their desire for friendship and language support.

I have met christians that have protested Pride Centers on their campus because they say they shouldn’t have to pay student fees to support something that is against their religious beliefs. The LGBTQ student community is a group of people who are highly at risk for poverty, homelessness, mental illness, and depression. The reason for their suffering is largely because of the christian community using political leverage to limit the rights they have as United States citizens.

I have met christians who have participated in social justice programs but are not willing to acknowledge the need for racial, LGBTQ, environmental, and women’s rights justice. Addressing social justice issues like abortion and human trafficking without fighting all systems that oppress and disenfranchise vulnerable populations prioritizes the value of some humans over others.

I have met christians who attend events put on by other religious student organizations so they can carry their bible and start up conversations about Jesus with non-christians. There are a multitude of other ways that christians can develop relationships with people who believe differently, invading their safe spaces to carry a christian agenda is disrespectful at best and threatening at worst.

These actions are examples of christians (knowingly or unknowingly) leveraging their dominance on college campuses. Christians believe that they have the right to take these oppressive actions because they have the good intentions of getting out the message of Jesus.

What do I do with my christian privilege?

I often hear stories from my interfaith friends who experience prejudice, hate, and marginalization from the christian majority that surrounds them. It is a painful process for me to acknowledge that my grace-based faith had been used as a tool of oppression to try to gain dominance over others. But I believe that identifying myself as someone who benefits from and has even leveraged my own christian privilege, is the first step in aligning myself with the humility of Jesus.

Philippians 2:6-8

6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!

Jesus humbled himself and did not leverage political power, privilege, or strength in order to make known his good news. Jesus loved, listened, and served. As someone who works on a college campus that is full of all creeds and faiths, I hope to give support and access to all students.

What do you do with your christian privilege on your college campus? How will you repair the damage that christian privilege has done to other faiths?

 

More readings on christian privilege:

Blumenfeld, W. J. (2009). Christian privilege in the United States: An overview. In Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (pp. 3–22). The Netherlands: Sense P.

Schlosser, L. Z. (2003). Christian privilege: Breaking a sacred taboo. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 31, 44–51.

Seifert, T. (2007). Understanding Christian privilege: Managing the tensions of spiritual plurality. About Campus, 12(2), 10–17. doi:10.1002/abc.206

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Glimmers of Hope

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

I’ve been doing full-time interfaith work at a university for a year now. During the week my days are filled with conversations about pluralism and interfaith cooperation, dialogue and safe space, civic action and religious and non-religious identity. It is my job to plan events and programs for college students in order to promote religious pluralism on campus, religious literacy (that includes understanding around religious and non-religious identity), and common action for the common good across religious difference. This is my normal.

I am so convinced of the importance of my work that I often take it for granted, but the truth is – not everyone is convinced that interfaith dialogue and cooperation are necessary or even relevant. After a year of full-time interfaith work I’ve heard from a lot of different reasons why interfaith work is a waste of time. One could assume that I’d be used to it – but every time I encounter yet another person with yet another reason to be skeptical of interfaith work I’m still caught off guard.

A few weeks back I was (wo)manning a table for the Interfaith Center at a training workshop for higher education professionals. I was there to provide information on the Interfaith Center and what it offers to students as far as programs, services and events. One by one trainees came by my table and I was pleased with the amount of enthusiasm with which people were responding. The responses were so overwhelmingly positive that I was almost shocked when one particular trainee’s attitude didn’t match those of prior encounters.

At first it seemed (let’s call him Bob) Bob and I were on the same page – we agreed that the university has students of diverse religious and non-religious backgrounds (believe it or not it can be difficult to get some people to recognize this). Our conversation developed into misconceptions of Islam, “In fact,” he continued, “what many students, or people in general don’t even realize, is that Islam was founded as one of the most peaceful religions in the world.”

I nodded, “Yes there’s so much students don’t know about other religions, that’s why we’re here – to help them learn and understand these differences in an interactive, engaging, and personal level.” He looked at me quizzically – though I initially mistook his look for one of agreement, so I went on, “One of our programs is called Coffee and Conversation. Once or twice a month throughout the Academic Year we bring in a religious leader, faculty, or staff member to lead a one hour casual conversation about a particular religious or non-religious identity or current event relating to religion. We’re having a hard time finding people to participate this year and since you seem to have so much knowledge on religion – perhaps you’d be interested in leading one of these Coffee and Conversations?”

Bob smiled weakly, “Yeah – I seriously doubt it. I’m one of those who are of the opinion that religion has done, and does, more harm in the world than good. I wouldn’t find something like that to be productive.”

I persisted, “but that’s exactly the point. A lot of people are in agreement with you – that religion does more harm than good – but I think it’s actually fear, misunderstanding, lack of education and interpersonal relationships that does the harm, not the religion itself. If we work hard to build understanding across difference, then a lot of that division, and violence, and hatred, and harm, can be prevented.”

He didn’t bite.

Sigh.

It’s easy to feel a little defeated after encounters like these. Sometimes I almost feel convinced that perhaps I’m being naive and too idealistic to think that interfaith dialogue and cooperation can have any kind of impact.

But then I’m usually given a glimmer of hope.

The news coming out of Egypt the last month has been grim. I, like many others, have not kept up with the news as much as I should. I would catch glimpses of the goings-on in Tahrir Square and the rest of Egypt on NPR during my morning commute, CNN and various articles found on my Facebook and Twitter feeds. Every bit of news seemed more bleak than the last.

But then a particular photo went viral. I’m sure you’ve seen it – a group of Egyptian Muslim men wearing traditional white garb are holding hands circling an Egyptian Catholic Church in an effort to protect the church and the Christians attending mass inside from the threat of pillaging at the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. There is news of this happening all over Egypt – Muslims protecting Christian churches from destruction. Equally encouraging was the response of some Christians to those Muslims risking their lives to save their church buildings. In response Christians encouraged Muslims to not put themselves in danger in order to protect their church building. I also saw another beautiful image – one of Christians holding hands in Tahrir Square circling Muslims during prayer who would be left vulnerable during protests.

In the midst of the grimly bleak news out of Egypt – these images stand as our glimmers of hope. These images beautifully illustrate the importance of interfaith cooperation. Building understanding and love across religious difference has real consequences.

I disagree with Bob. Religion doesn’t do more harm than good; further, religious and non-religious difference doesn’t have to do more harm than good. When presented with these images I had to ask myself – as a Christian would I be willing to risk my life to protect a Mosque? Would I be willing to risk harm to myself to stand guard around a group or praying Muslims? I hope I would, but I can’t be too sure. I truly believe Jesus would – and I believe Jesus would urge me to do the same. [John 15:13]

I also know that I am passionate about cultivating a generation that would answer “yes” to that question without hesitation. There is hope in interfaith cooperation. For every act of interfaith conflict and division I believe there stands an illustration of interfaith cooperation and unity – our glimmers of hope.

And where those illustrations of cooperation and unity don’t yet exist, I believe that with a little work, persistence and yes, prayer, they can exist.

Where have you seen glimmers of hope lately?

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