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Dealing with Religion’s Messiness

By Paul Louis Metzger and John W. Morehead

Interfaith Warts and All

Several years ago during a guest lecture on Islam, one of our Evangelical seminary students asked the president of a local mosque if Muslims did not feel any remorse over what al-Qaida had done on 9/11. He also wanted to know if Muslims did not cherish freedom and affirm human dignity. The mosque president immediately reacted to the student, pointedly calling to mind what he saw as American imperialistic policies that supported dictatorial regimes in the Middle East. The Muslim leader argued that America and Western Christianity had filth on its hands, too. The mud-slinging from both sides got us nowhere. It only exposed how messy our religions are.

There is a natural tendency for us to view our own religion in the most positive light. But with this often comes the corresponding tendency to view the religion of others in a negative light. This is best exemplified in our post-9/11 world in regards to Islam. On television, on the Internet, and in newspapers it is common to hear appeals by non-Muslims and Muslims alike as to what constitutes true Islam. This includes both those opposed to and supportive of terrorist acts like those that took place on 9/11.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield

In the context of 9/11 and the Twin Towers, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield offered important corrective thoughts to this tendency in the Frontline documentary Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero. He said, “A religion drove those planes into those buildings. And that’s upsetting, but that’s what happened. And this idea that somehow that’s not Islam, so we shouldn’t worry, it’s not only naïve, it’s stupid, it’s wrong. There’s a very rich tradition which they delved into to justify what they did. By the way, hating doing it and fighting against it ever happening again is also Islam. Just like within Jewish tradition, the guy who went into the mosque in the city of Hebron and murdered twenty-nine human beings didn’t do that out of the air. He had a deep connection to a tradition, a religious tradition in Judaism that pushed him there. Keeping him from doing it is also a serious religious tradition. You don’t sterilize these traditions and say ‘No, no they don’t do anything wrong.’”

Rabbi Hirschfield’s comments are a sobering reminder that violence is found within the sacred scriptures and histories of Islam as well as Judaism. But the third of the Abrahamic religions, Christianity, must also grapple with this problematic element. Each of these religions is messy. Each of them has blood on its hands in its use of its sacred writings as justification for violence and failures to pursue its highest ideals in the past and present.

Getting Beyond Denial

Philip Jenkins

Philip Jenkins

In his book Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses, Philip Jenkins reminds us that the Bible includes many troubling passages that endorse violence and genocide. It’s a messy book, and all three traditions noted in this essay share portions of this book and a vast array of its stories and commands. All too often, we Christians fail to account for this book’s fascinating and troubling trajectories in various directions. In particular, as Christian witnesses, we grieve the frequent failure of Christians to recognize this and to come to grips with the dark side of the biblical tradition; it’s almost as if we – especially those of us who are conservative Christians – treat the Bible as a collection of sanitized Sunday school stories and sweet little bedtime tales.

Jenkins labels this failure to come to grips with the troubling features of the Bible as a form of “holy amnesia.” If we Christians are to have a mature and informed faith, especially one engaging Islam that is wrestling with its violent aspects, we must also come to grips with similar aspects in our tradition, and how this has been used in the past as well as more recently as justification for acts of violence in the name of Christianity. We Christians have to come to the table of reconciliation personally as open books, critically aware of our own scriptures’ complexities and problematic histories, just as we are critical of others.

The Christian tradition includes the teachings of Jesus who in his Sermon on the Mount provided a Christian ethic. Jesus used restricted vision as a means of bringing out one element of his teaching. He warned his followers that before they worry about removing the piece of obstruction from the sight of the other they should be ready to remove the piece of debris from their own eye. In application to the tensions between Christianity and Islam, if Christians are going to be able to adequately address the messiness of religion and move beyond it toward peace, then they must draw upon a self-critical posture.

Hospitality is Central

Having abundant food available whenever strangers visit is an ancient Middle Eastern tradition. Photo: Arab Resources

Having abundant food available whenever strangers visit is an ancient Middle Eastern tradition. Photo: Arab Resources

As Christian scholars and practitioners, we have found that the best way to deal with the messy business of engaging the complexities of interfaith dialogue is through hospitality and table fellowship. Cleaning up our homes and bringing foods to share help prepare us to sit down and enter into painful and messy conversations regarding our religious histories and traditions. Long after we clean up dishes and hands after sharing finger foods and treasured delicacies, we will still be talking, exposing ourselves and covering one another through newfound friendships.

In past encounters with those of other faith traditions, we have found that hospitality is the best way to address hostilities. Most if not all major religious traditions prize hospitality. Among other things, hospitality helps us move beyond simply seeing ideas and categorizing people in terms of “isms” and ideologies. The lack of face-to-face encounters keeps us locked up and isolated from one another and from honestly addressing the complexities and messiness of our faith communities. Within the Abrahamic religions, our respective heritages’ emphasis on hospitality can help us move beyond building fences that isolate us further from one another and instead build trust where we live transparently with one another. So, let’s learn to keep the welcome mat out and keep the doors open.

Of course, this won’t be easy. Like every family, there are rooms in our ancestral homes we would like to keep locked and members of our respective faith communities who we wish we could ignore and keep away from others. But these uncles and aunts and cousins are still our family members, and they are often present at meals and at festive gatherings. Those providing hospitality must acknowledge them and try to incorporate them into the mix, no matter how messy and tension-filled the air might be. If we fail to acknowledge them, ignore them, or fail to invite them, we only aggravate matters further. When this happens, not only do we fail to be honest with our newfound friends, but also we keep these family members from moving past their ideological barriers that so often create further damage.

Muslim and Christian “extremists” are these isolated family members. Both are guilty of placing ideas above human beings. As a result, they discount a large portion of the human race that doesn't agree with them and which they treat inhumanly. The worst thing we can do is ignore and isolate them. All that leads to is further ignorance, isolation, and outrage. So, Christians, Muslims and Jews working to resolve the messiness of religion must acknowledge our respective family members who tend to embarrass us and invite them into the conversation in search of their humanity and in search of honesty with other faith communities about our respective acts of inhumanity which these family members have committed.

In like manner, we must also acknowledge the messy stories in our respective traditions that are often used to foster such inhumanity. Furthermore, we must draw attention to other scriptural resources and traditions that would lead us to value people of other perspectives and ways of life, as well as our own family members whose messy lives often embarrass us. We can all point to various texts and historical events that put the other group(s) in a negative light. We need to go in search of texts and interpretations of texts that affirm one another’s humanity, seeking first and foremost common ground before we focus on what distinguishes us in the pursuit of shared civic life. Such transparency and an emphasis on seeking common ground bound up with hospitality will help us clean up our messes and together build the beloved community that is pure and whole.