Christian-Muslim Dialog

Christian-Muslim DialogMissionaries are a unique breed.  If you’re in the company of one, you can’t so much as hop a taxi or buy a hotdog from a street vendor without delving deeply into the life stories of the taxi driver or hotdog vendor.  Missionaries are ethnic restaurant connoisseurs, not so much for their love of food as for their love of stories.  Somehow they get busy owners to sit down and pour out their life stories.  Coming from Texas, I’ve met a lot of great story tellers, but missionaries collect stories like no one else.  They’re story curators.  They thrive on that stuff.

I had the good fortune to be with a bunch of missionaries when I studied at Duke’s Center for Reconciliation earlier this summer.  I took a class called “Listening Together” that examined scripture from the Bible and the Qur’an.  Many of my classmates were missionaries or had been at one time, and many had spent a lot of time in predominantly Muslim places.  A few told a particular story in common, and I found it to be rather poignant.

These classmates got started as missionaries in Muslim lands with the goal of converting Muslims to Christianity.  But as they experienced the extraordinary hospitality and gentleness of their Muslim friends and neighbors, and as they witnessed their neighbors’ devotion to God playing out in daily acts of love, gradually my classmates came to see they could do a lot more good by fostering Christian-Muslim dialog and understanding than by converting anybody.

Many of those individuals now work with an organization called Peace Catalyst.  Peace Catalyst’s mission is fostering reconciliation broadly, but much of their present work focuses on promoting connections and understanding among Christian and Muslim communities.  Peacekeepers work primarily with evangelical congregations and sponsor events with mosques to start dialog and build friendships.  I don’t know why Peace Catalyst chose to focus on evangelical communities.  It seems other denominations, Episcopalians for example, would make an easier starting point.  Maybe the founders had evangelical connections or felt Christian-Muslim dialog would have greater impact with evangelicals.  Regardless, I have to credit their vision and the loving way they go about their work.

One frustration voiced repeatedly was that Christian communities tend to compare their best to Islam’s worst.  Peace Catalyst initiatives help Christian communities to filter the media noise, to reject the stereotypes (e.g. all Muslims are violent extremists), and respect Islam as a peace loving and God loving religion.

While at Duke, horrifying news of a British soldier’s savage murder by an Islamic radical broke.  In the aftermath, a group fueling the anti-Muslim backlash planned to protest at a small mosque in York.  Having caught wind of the protest ahead of time, York Mosque greeted the protesters with tea, custard creams and signs reading “York Mosque welcomes anyone who condemns extremist violence.”  My favorite part of the story was that the potential confrontation, after 40 minutes of talking over sweets, gave way to an impromptu game of football.  The protesters wanted to be heard, and the Muslims listened.  In the end, they were united in their conviction that extremist violence must stop.

Once we start a genuine dialog with people from spiritual traditions different from our own, we may, like the York Mosque protesters, find more that unites us than divides us.

Join the conversation.  Has considering another’s perspective ever deepened your insight into your own spirituality?

Copyright 2013 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

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Misunderstood

Reza Aslan interviewA TV interview dubbed “the most embarrassing ever” is garnering bad press for the interviewer and book sales for the author interviewed.  Although admittedly painful to watch, the interview lacks any real substance.  The ensuing brouhaha is classic news-making-the-news media sensationalism.  I suspect the only reason it is getting coverage is the interview comes off as a Christian-Muslim ambush fail.  The aftermath leaves me wondering who ambushed whom.

I happen to think the interviewer asked a good question, and the author, Reza Aslan, missed an opportunity.  The interviewer asked why a Muslim would write a book about Jesus.  Aslan responded, perhaps a bit patronizingly, that as an academic New Testament historian, it is his job.  By responding to the question as a personal attack on his authority or motivation, he missed an opportunity to elucidate Muslims’ regard for Jesus as a great prophet.  The bigger opportunity he missed, in my opinion, was making a case for why anyone from any spiritual tradition ever considers different ways of looking at things—it fosters deepening spirituality.

No spiritual tradition has cornered the market on truth.  The spiritual experience is full of mystery.  Some questions are bigger than the human capacity to comprehend.  Yet some people are more perceptive than others.  How do the perceptive ones do it?  We expand our power to perceive when we steady ourselves with truths anchored in traditional wisdom and reach into the unknown.  Some truths transcend many spiritual traditions.

When making the case for reaching across traditions, I like to point out that Moses changed his perspective to get a better look at the burning bush.  (Ex3:3)  We too must change our perspective to see truth in a new light.  We work harder to understand even our own comfortable beliefs when we are drawn into tension by differing views.

On a personal note, Amy-Jill Levine’s The Misunderstood Jew fundamentally changed my understanding of Jesus’ parables.  Oh, and by the way, Levine is a New Testament scholar at predominantly Protestant Vanderbilt who also happens to belong to a Conservative Jewish congregation.  As songwriter and occasional Texas gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman sings, “They Ain‘t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore,” and Levine quite compellingly explains how Jesus’ Jewishness is essential to understanding his ministry.  It’s a good read.

Christian-Jewish dialog, however, is nowhere near as charged as Christian-Muslim dialog these days.  Christian and Jewish authors can only dream of receiving the publicity Reza Aslan is getting.  Aslan made the question all about him when he could have made the question about all Muslims or about all spiritual seekers.  Maybe he has a publicist who told him being a jerk and making a spectacle of the interview would sell more books.  While true, it obfuscates the substance of his book and leaves unanswered important questions about what we all can learn from each other.

Join the conversation.  Have you had a spiritual experience that transcended a particular religion?

Copyright 2013 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Prisoners of the Past

past wounds and forgivenessLast month in the county jail we were working on healthy communication, but we had one of those sessions where we never got to the class material because some issues needed airing out.  This is where group therapy gets its potency.  The women’s honesty and courage in sharing their experiences raise everyone’s self-awareness and understanding.  Here’s what came out.

Lauren (name changed) forgave her abusive mother.  It happened in a worship service a local congregation provides for inmates on Sundays.  Lauren described feeling lighter, as if chains wrapped around her ankles had fallen off.  Her mother died years ago, but Lauren’s experience was as powerful as if she had spoken to her mother directly.  Without the blinders of anger and resentment obstructing her view, Lauren could see her mother suffered the same kinds of child abuse to which she had exposed Lauren.  Lauren can now see the threads of both victim and perpetrator weaving through the complex tangle that was her mother’s life.

Lauren said something I lingered over.  Seeing her mother as an abuse victim didn’t allow Lauren to release resentment.  Releasing resentment allowed Lauren to see more clearly the reality of her mother’s complicated situation, and finally, to have compassion for her messed up life.  Forgiveness came first.

Christa (name changed) had a tough week.  With several new inmates in the pod, the environment gets loud at times.  It’s driving Christa crazy, and she’s struggling to contain her anger.  In the jail we talk about anger as a secondary emotion, like the visible part of an iceberg floating on top of emotions hidden under the surface.  Christa had no hesitation in identifying the emotion underlying her anger.  It’s loss of control.  In childhood, Christa endured rampant sexual abuse by her father, brother, uncles, “pretend uncles,” and anyone else to whom her family made her available.  It started at an age before she knew it was wrong.  There was no protection for Christa.  And no control.

Christa drags feelings about loss of control from her childhood like chains wrapped around her ankles into her present situations.  “It’s all connected,” she lamented wearily when examining the origins of her recent anger.  Indeed, it is a worthy lament.

We all do that.  Whenever anger flares, the source of the flame is rarely the immediate situation.  The present situation is merely a spark igniting something that was already there deep within us.  Unresolved hurts from our past – feelings of betrayal, abandonment, humiliation, or shame—lurk within us like invisible explosive gas.  For me it’s hurt pride—feeling put down, belittled, or disrespected.  Even being ignored can be felt as a form of disrespect.

We may think we’re hiding our feelings or that we have reconciled ourselves to past misfortunes.  Here’s the test.  If a seemingly innocuous situation can send us into a fiery fit of anger, then something lies unresolved within.  And we drag that tinderbox of past emotions into every new encounter.  Christa protested, “But forgiveness is hard.”  For someone with her past, I honestly cannot fathom how hard.  Nonetheless, forgiveness remains the only way I know to free us, once and for all, from the chains of painful pasts.

Join the conversation.  When your anger flares, what underlying emotions fuel the fire?

Copyright 2013 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com

What Fear Gets You

MLK Trayvon juxtopositionThe Zimmerman verdict had me moping around for a couple days. I read a little about Zimmerman when he was first charged, and he really sounded like a manipulative bully. Just the kind of guy who would want, but shouldn’t have, a gun. And then there was his “apology” that expressed regret for the consequences of his actions, but notably, not for the actions he chose. He even had the gall to assert Trayvon’s death was God’s will. The Guardian had a piece I thought sounded all the right notes.  Namely, since Zimmerman targeted Trayvon, where was Trayvon’s ground to stand?

After sleeping on it, I wonder if in some ways this tragedy is playing out in miniature a dynamic happening in America at large. Both men acted out of fear for their lives. One had lethal power and one had no power at all, but each felt genuinely threatened (whether justified or not). Likewise, almost half the people in this country own almost all the wealth, while the other half has almost none, and yet both feel threatened. To be more specific, the top 40% of Americans enjoy 95% of American wealth while the bottom 40% cling to 0.3%. The top 1% holds 42%–almost half–of American financial wealth, and yet many of those at the top are genuinely afraid that somehow healthcare for all or better public education or some other common good will take something away from their own wellbeing. They genuinely feel financially threatened and, frighteningly, have the clout to drive domestic policy.

Imaginary threats drive foreign policy as well. We dove into a decade of war that cost thousands of lives and trillions in taxpayer debt predicated on imaginary weapons that never turned up. The fear is not rational.  Dare I say, Americans would be more secure today had trillions been spent on diplomacy and education instead of war. And the richest Americans would benefit financially from a healthy, educated workforce. Despite this, much of policy discourse is driven by (and in fact depends on) people feeling genuine fear.

What happened to courage? High school kids all over Dallas have been assigned Devil in the White City for summer reading. It’s stacked on bookstore display tables and has long request lists at area libraries. Two kids in my house are reading it. From what I can remember from having read it a decade ago, it offered a fascinating account of how architecture and police work were done in the 1890’s. More fascinating still was the civic pride of ordinary citizens and their courage to undertake such an ambitious project. Where today, in our vapid celebrity culture, do we find ordinary people undertaking extraordinary things for the sake of human achievement?  Please comment with examples.  They would surely lighten my mood.

For both Zimmerman and Trayvon, fear drove the fatal missteps. If Zimmerman had had the courage to question Trayvon without a gun, if Trayvon had had the courage to respond without fists, if either had had the courage simply to ignore the other, what would have been possible? What would be possible if the 1% advocated common good or governments advanced diplomacy over jingoism?

Join the conversation. What fears can you identify within yourself, and what could a little courage make possible for you?

Copyright 2013 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Forgiveness in Jail

forgiveness in jailWe’re talking about forgiveness in the Dallas County jail this week.  Everyone in jail has been charged with some offense, obviously, and many long for forgiveness from victims or family members who suffer consequences from their actions.  Many also struggle to forgive themselves for the direction their lives have taken.  Many are mothers who grieve not being there for their kids, and they can’t forgive themselves for falling down on that job.

A startling number of incarcerated women became victims of sexual abuse and violence long before committing any crime.  In some cases, the signs of abuse are physical, permanent, and quite visible.  Other signs are hidden.  Child abuse has its most insidious and lasting effects when children are made to feel culpable in some way for the abuse against them.  Sometimes they blame themselves for not preventing abuse against others, too.  While some trauma survivors want to forgive their abusers in order to heal painful pasts and to find personal transformation, others need self-forgiveness for being crime victims.  In short, the undercurrents nudging us to forgive and to seek forgiveness rampage like tidal waves through this group.  Self-forgiveness proves the toughest nut of all.

Many of the inmates with trauma histories are incarcerated for criminal behavior consistent with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder behavior patterns.  When we talk about forgiveness, anger management, or any psychological issue in the jail, we use particular care not to trigger trauma memories.  Jail for most is not a safe place for processing the wounds of trauma.  Trauma memories can trigger PTSD behaviors that endanger other inmates, and that has severe consequences in jail.  Jail is not a treatment facility, after all.

Hence, the forgiveness discussion requires a “trauma informed” approach.  One way we prevent exposing inmates to triggers is not giving anyone a chance to share trauma stories.  I make it clear that the introspection exercises they do in class are for their eyes only.  Another way we steer clear of trauma triggers is to focus exercises on current resentments the participants are experiencing in jail.  Those might result from tensions with other inmates or tensions with friends or family on the outside.  It’s rare that an inmate does not have one or the other.

To be candid, I have an “elephant in the room” feeling about focusing introspection on current irritations.  On the one hand it is easier to learn the steps to forgiveness with resentments that are not deeply held or woven into the fabric of one’s life.  On the other hand, it’s also something of a missed opportunity that makes my heart ache.  When I do forgiveness workshops with church groups, the hunger participants have to be healed once and for all from old wounds is utterly compelling.  Of course, one who hungers, in all likelihood, is in a physically and psychologically safe place for confronting past hurts.  As much as I want to expose inmates’ deepest wounds to the healing power of forgiveness, our first obligation is to keep everyone safe.

An exquisitely talented therapist leading the class with me is more than capable of managing any difficult psychological situations that arise.  I’ll probably throw in a closing comment about applying the steps to process deeper wounds when one is in a safe place to do so.  Tune in next week for some observations about what we all learned.

Join the conversation.  What conditions make it safe to start the forgiveness and healing process?

Copyright 2013 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

How to Forgive in 5 Steps

how to forgiveIt wouldn’t be terribly helpful to ponder why forgiveness is hard without considering what exactly we can do to overcome the obstacles. It seems to me there is a lot written about the healing power of forgiveness but very little about how actually to do it. Here’s where spiritual conditioning can help us do the right thing, even when it’s difficult. These are the steps that help me.

1. Name the Action
I am looking for specific action verbs, here. Putting a name to the wrong done against me sets that action apart as unacceptable. It establishes a healthy boundary defining what is and isn’t ok with me. In the process of pinning down the exact action that upset me, however, I might realize the offense wasn’t so bad. Maybe hunger or fatigue exacerbated my response. Maybe my offender made a harmless remark that triggered a harmful memory. Realizing this gives me an opportunity to look deeper within for the true source of my resentment. It also allows me to release resentment for one who meant no harm.

2. Name my Feelings
The key here is a simple, blame-free statement. “When you X, I feel Y.” Most things that upset me result less from malicious intent than people intent on their own agenda, oblivious to repercussions. Showing someone the unintended consequences of his actions creates the opportunity for genuine remorse. Even genuine remorse might not pry the lid off my resentment if I fear being hurt again. A candid conversation about how to prevent repeat performances can restore trust. Sometimes wrongdoers have good ideas for that.

3. Own my Response
There’s no question that the absence of remorse makes forgiveness hard. The thing I do here is take the unremorseful offender out of the matter and focus on my side of the street instead. I take a cold hard look at how the wounds I received played a role in the wounds I inflicted, and I take responsibility for my actions. This is not victim blaming. It’s control claiming. Confronting my misdeeds leads to the realization that I stand in need of forgiveness, too.

4. Ask for Grace
I believe we act out our relationship with God in how we treat others. Recognizing how I treat God in the face of how God blesses me fills me with remorse and desire for renewal. When I can honestly say I care less about what my offender deserves than I care about restoring my relationship with God, I’m on the home stretch to forgiveness.

5. Respond to God’s Grace
It is the ultimate liberation to see forgiveness not as a response to what my offender deserves but as a response to God’s grace towards me!

Join the conversation. Which step do you think is the hardest? Which helps the most?
Copyright 2013 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

5 Reasons Forgiveness is Hard

forgive and forgetHas anyone ever told you to “forgive and forget” or “just let it go”? They make forgiveness sound easy, as if it’s an automatic response to deciding forgiveness is in our own best interest.  But releasing resentment in an act of forgiveness can be monstrously difficult, even when we genuinely want to leave old episodes in the past. It helps to see clearly what holds us back from the forgiveness we desire.  Here are five things that make forgiveness hard.

1. Misconceptions
Sometimes what forgiveness is NOT poses obstacles to forgiveness. Forgiveness does not condone the offense, liberate anyone from consequences, or restore trust. Forgiveness does not compel anyone to forget anything, to tell anyone they’re forgiven, or to stay in relationship at all. If I’m laboring under the misconception that forgiveness requires any of these things, I might quite understandably find forgiveness impossible to do. Fortunately, forgiveness is simply the release of resentment and claim to retribution—no more and no less. It is possible to release resentment and then end a relationship or return to a different kind of relationship with less trust.

2. Accountability
Most of us expect a little recognition for good deeds and to be held accountable for our mistakes. When someone does us wrong, we want that person held accountable. It flows from our sense of justice. If our offender appears to be waltzing off scot free, with no one holding her to account for her wrongdoing, we naturally feel drawn to fill that void. Thus, our desire for justice and accountability can work against releasing resentment.

3. Superiority
Being the victim of someone’s harmful choices can have several consequences. It can really hurt of course, but being the victim can have subtle payoffs as well. Recognizing another’s moral failings can make us feel better about ourselves, or at least better than the moral flunky who did us wrong. In addition to feeling superior, we might feel entitled to something from that person. Our attachment to superiority or entitlement pulls us away from releasing resentment.

4. Connection
In a badly tattered relationship, resentment may be the only thing left between two people. If it’s someone I think I need in my life, I may cling to the resentment because it’s all that’s left. This phenomenon sometimes plays out in parent relationships with adult children. A parent might cling to resentment for adolescent behavior as her only connection to a time when her child needed her. That desire for connection is at odds with releasing the past.

5. Remorse
The big kahuna of forgiveness obstacles is a lack of remorse. Genuine remorse on the part of our offender gives us a sense that forgiveness is complete. Without it, forgiveness feels one-sided and unfinished. Sometimes offender remorse is impossible, though. An addict deeply in denial, for example, doesn’t have the capacity for remorse. In the case of long past childhood wounds, the offender may have died. Even in stubborn cases without any offender remorse whatsoever, there are steps we can take to lead us to the healing power of forgiveness.

Join the conversation. What has made forgiveness most difficult for you?
Copyright 2013 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.