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.

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.

Spiritual Doing

spiritual practices shabbat candlesMy spirituality study group is reading a charming book written by an Episcopalian who grew up Jewish.  It’s Laura Winner’s Mudhouse Sabbath.  Winner observes, as many others have, that where Christianity is preoccupied with belief, Judaism boils down to action.  The particular actions that Winner contemplates with narrative flair in Mudhouse Sabbath are those Jewish spiritual practices that held meaning for her and she finds missing in her Christian practice.

Winner describes the luxuriousness of real rest on Shabbat and reflects on how to make her Sunday’s stand apart from ordinary time.  She describes the mindfulness eating requires while observing kashrut, and she suggests how eating locally and in season (thus reducing indirect fossil fuel consumption) might be one way Christians could introduce greater mindfulness and ethical responsibility to their eating habits.  She explores how to bring intentionality and thankfulness into ordinary actions, like a dinner, for example, by candle-lighting.  She also makes observations about spiritual disciplines—bodily actions that strengthen spirituality—practiced in both Jewish and Christian traditions, like prayer and fasting.  Poignantly, she describes the nuts and bolts of mourning practices that honor the dead, affirm the survivors, and above all exalt God’s goodness.

Although Winner’s message is addressed to Christians, doing small acts with mindfulness or imbuing them with clear intention is good counsel for anyone looking to get in closer touch with his spiritual reality, regardless of his spiritual tradition.

My favorite part of the book describes what Winner calls a curious turn of phrase in the Book of Exodus.  “Na’aseh v’nishma” means “we will do and we will hear (or understand).”  The word order is curious because how can anyone do a command before hearing it or understanding what it is.  This captures for me the essence of the Jewish sensibility and wisdom concerning action.  Rabbinic commentary explains that it is precisely through doing that we come into understanding.  How many of us have come into a new way of seeing only after having done something for a time?  Speaking for myself, I have come into a new way of seeing people held behind bars after spending some time volunteering in jail.  Although my first visit left lasting impressions, the deeper understanding came from repeated visits.  The brain is designed to respond to experience, and experience informs our perspective.

It seems to me that Winner’s message about spiritual practices sings in harmony with this blog’s last post about affirming actions that defuse shame.  Shame arises from false messages we believe about ourselves, so repeating messages that affirm the truth disconnects shame from its source.  Bodily actions done with mindfulness and intention can reinforce the affirmation.  To take an example from last week, the person who puts away one small object every day as an oblation to God and as a ritual that clears the clutter of her soul will, through doing, come into a new way of seeing herself.

To be clear, it’s not that the new way of seeing is a reward for enough doing.  It’s that doing is the mechanism by which we receive the grace of seeing.

Join the conversation.  What bodily actions or spiritual practices help you see your spiritual reality more clearly?

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

Forgiveness: Do I Have to Tell?

The last post considered whether true forgiveness requires us to tell the people we’re forgiving that they are forgiven.  The question arose out of a conversation with women in the county jail, and they shared several thoughtful observations.

One said that telling the person who had wounded her that she forgave past wrongs was an important point of closure to her painful past.  What if the person who did wrong is dead, someone pondered.  How do you get closure and healing then?  One inmate created a memorial on paper to signify her forgiveness and peace with the past.  It served to remind her that forgiveness was the demarcation between a past in which her choices were limited by her woundedness and a present in which she is free to choose who she wants to be.  The memorial provided closure and healing without facing the other in person, something appreciably more difficult when one is incarcerated.  Another inmate hoped that forgiveness would be a way to hold onto love, even if there was no way to hold onto the abusive relationship.  There was also discussion about what to do if the forgiven person doesn’t have the capacity to receive forgiveness.  Initiating contact with a violent abuser deeply mired in denial and blame, for example, can compromise one’s physical emotional safety.

This question comes up every time I lead a forgiveness workshop, and here’s my answer.  No.  You don’t have to tell the people who caused you harm that they are forgiven.  Forgiveness is not a simple intellectual decision.  Holding a grudge is sometimes described as eating rat poison and expecting the rats to die.  As logical as that sounds, forgiveness involves more than logic.  Resentment has tentacles that reach deep into our emotions and psyches.  The tentacles wrap around our sense of fairness and cling tightly to our desire for accountability.  The process of extricating them in forgiveness is a journey, and the journey most certainly takes longer when the offender lacks sincere remorse and has made no effort to amend past wrongs.  Previous posts have described the process in five steps to forgiveness.  When people ask me whether they have to tell, I encourage them not to worry about that but simply to take the next step on the journey.  I promise that the question will look different at the end of the journey than it does at the beginning.

The truth is once resentment has truly been released—when we have let go of what we hoped for but never came to pass, our claim to hold the other to account, possibly trust or even the relationship itself—we care a lot less about what the offender thinks or knows.  That’s because the process of forgiveness takes the offender and what he deserves out of the center of the matter and puts our spirituality there instead.  When we can honestly say we care more about our own spiritual reality and our personal relationship with God than we care about what our offender deserves, we are on the home stretch to forgiveness.

Join the conversation.  What difference has forgiveness made to you?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Season of Hope

The last post explored the political, cultural and religious threads woven into the fabric of Christmas, but it did not contemplate spirituality.  How do we find spiritual meaning in the Christmas season?  Of all the threads, the spiritual one is the oldest, most diverse and perhaps the strongest.

The Talmud is a compilation of Judaism’s Oral Law first written around 200 CE.  It describes two pagan festivals celebrated 8 days before and 8 days after the winter solstice.  The Talmud asserts the pagan festivals originated in a story about Adam, wherein he feared that the shortening days signaled a descent back into the chaos before creation as a punishment for his sins.  He fasted in repentance for 8 days and then noticed the days getting longer, whereupon he celebrated for 8 days.  The story reflects something in the human spirit that yearns for longer days, a new season and the promise of redemption.  It reflects the nature of the human soul to wait and to hope.

Christmas as we know it inherited traditions from many cultures.  Some of them existed centuries before Christ, and some seem like traditions that Jesus would endorse.  For example, Saturnalia’s week-long role reversal of masters and slaves seems like an appropriate way to honor the one who said, “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave,” and “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”  (Mt 20:26-28)  Other traditions incite excessive consumption and debauchery.  I cannot find a spiritual thread connecting those indulgent traditions to the humility of Christ, and yet they persist to this day.  It’s ironic that the tradition of role reversal, meanwhile, has died.

I have heard the observance of Christmas attributed to Constantine, the Roman emperor who converted to Christianity and proclaimed religious tolerance throughout the empire.  While that would be consistent with the Roman pattern of assimilating peoples’ indigenous practices and making them Roman, it does not agree with history.  The Eastern Roman Empire celebrated Epiphany, and when a bishop said the Christmas feast, it was included on the Epiphany.  It was during the century of Constantine’s rule, however, that theologians attached Jesus’ birth to the winter solstice.  This choice may have been influenced more by religious symbolism than by pagan practice.  Scripture quotes John the Baptist in regard to Jesus’ budding ministry saying, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”  (Jn 3:30)  That is the 2nd century rationale for aligning Jesus’ birthday to the winter solstice symbolizing his growing ministry and John’s to the summer solstice symbolizing the fulfillment of his.

All the traditions Christmas inherited—those that seem aligned to Jesus’ teaching and those that seem to have no place—have something in common.  They exhibit the human capacity for hope.  A farmer waiting for the first sprouts to bud in spring, a pregnant woman waiting to hold her infant, a sinner hoping to be saved from the net of his own making—they are all utterly human.  As you exist in all the tensions and contradictions tangled up in Christmas, reach for the hope that connects us through it all.

Join the conversation.  What does your soul hope and wait for this Christmas season?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.