Reweaving a National Narrative
Interfaith is Political. Interfaith is Personal.
by Bud Heckman
Inside the Bubble
My first memories of interfaith encounters were innocent and rather comical. I grew up in a bubble – an almost exclusively white, Christian, rural/suburban region of Ohio. Everyone that I knew went to church, or so it seemed.
I had two impressionable early exchanges with the “other,” both in an age before the advent of the internet and cell phones. One time, whilst playing with my neighbor and frequent childhood playmate David, I asked him if he was a Christian. He replied, “No, I am Catholic.” Neither of us was enlightened enough to see the humor in that quickly ended exchange.
In high school, I met a beautiful girl at the local mall and we dated a bit. After several dates, I remember sitting in Mary’s living room and asking her what she was planning for Christmas, and she became a bit exasperated with me. She said, “For crying out loud already, we are Jewish, don’t you get it?” As she pointed around her family room, she noted “that is a menorah, that is a Star of David, and I am Jewish. Have you never really met someone who is Jewish?” Luckily, Mary was very kind to me after her poignant question. We both laughed.
Bursting the Bubble
It wasn’t until college and generous opportunities for domestic and international travel that I got to see the wide diversity of our world. In 1994, when I arrived to do Ph.D. work at Boston University in theology, they announced that the program was changing, and we would all be studying intensively the core texts and motifs of the world’s religions and treating the theological enterprise as an inter-religious one. It was a challenging and experimental undertaking. I was drinking from an open firehose.
Seven years later, when there were massive layoffs at the mission board of my denomination in New York, the head of the ecumenical and interfaith arm of my denomination recommended that I go next to work for Religions for Peace (RFP), given my education and experiences. RFP had broken out its domestic work into an independent affiliate that was building interreligious councils and programming in local U.S. communities. It was terrific practical experience. There were hundreds of little things to learn on the fly. A masjid is a mosque. Jews are “reform” (because the process is ongoing), versus their Christian counterparts who adopted saying “reformed” (as if somehow the work is done). And so on. It was humbling. F. Max Müller’s famous dictum came back into my head over and over again: “He who knows one, knows none.”
Building Social Cohesion
Eventually I was privileged to come to work for and with many of the leading interfaith organizations and enjoyed a long multi-term run within the Religions for Peace family. Because I dealt with such wildly different religions and viewpoints, I tried to squelch my own theological and political viewpoints to the service of bringing people who may have marked differences with one another to the same table. I wasn’t interested in working through the differences between faiths. I had done enough of that at the meta-level in graduate work. Now I was passionate about helping people wanting to understand one another better by getting them to identify shared values upon which to work together.
One of the most rewarding things was to see people from different faiths who would be arguing – sometimes rather harshly – over a particular issue one day and then the next be able to share a table and break bread and find common purpose and meaning-making together on other grounds. It felt like I was witnessing the social fabric of belonging, community, and shared respect being woven before me.
When I traveled abroad, I was frequently confronted for America’s ideals, interventions, and place in the world. While I could always be proud of our system of higher education and our tremendous engine of innovation, I was especially proud that a nation of immigrants and “huddled masses” found their way together towards “a more perfect union.” That is to say, for all of our failings and struggles, we found a way to get along and measured strength in our diversity. But, as I have slowly learned through life, that diversity is very gingerly held together.
Realizing Our Intersectionality
The recent election cycle laid bare again the wide range of our differences. It also showed how our various identities are deeply entangled. We can’t deal with religious differences in a singular frame, as we have long done in interfaith. Religion does not exist apart from race, ethnicity, economic class, and other factors. The human mind layers and bundles our various complex identities together, treating them like playing cards dealt out in hands and sets.
“Intersectionality,” a term coined by American civil rights advocate Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, is shorthand for noting the overlapping and interrelated social identities we all have. More importantly, intersectionality also is a way of calling out the concurrent systematic and structural oppression and discrimination that the dominate culture (here, mainly white and Christian) lays upon its minority participants.
My friends David and Mary were different than me. But not as different as others. Their ancestors came from generally the same place as mine. We were all White, middle class, and in the heartland. We shared values and expectations. We were in a bubble. Our differences were privileged to be comical, because they seemed safe rather than threatening.
Healing Our Great Fissure
In commenting on the shrinking white Christian hegemony (now only 43%) in the United States, Robert P. Jones, founder of the Public Religion Research Institute, recently suggested that we are now at a uniquely challenging turning point in our culture. In a May 2, 2017 New York Times Op-Ed, Jones noted:
There have been other times in our history when the fabric of American identity was stretched in similar ways — the Civil War, heightened levels of immigration at the turn of the 20th century, and the cultural upheavals of the 1960s.
But during these eras, white Christians were still secure as a demographic and cultural majority in the nation. The question at stake was whether they were going to make room for new groups at a table they still owned. Typically, a group would gain its seat in exchange for assimilation to the majority culture. But as white Christians have slipped from the majority over the past decade, this familiar strategy is no longer viable.
White Christians are today struggling to face a new reality: the inevitable surrender of table ownership in exchange for an equal seat. And it’s this new higher-stakes challenge that is fueling the great partisan reorientation we are witnessing today.
I share with Jones the belief that this is a moment that requires our strategic reweaving of a new national narrative that holds together the sum of the parts. Our way of life, our democracy, and our sense of purpose are all at stake.
Interfaith Cooperation is Political
The bestseller lists and news shows these days are filled with books and talking heads seeking to making meaning of our deep fissures of difference and their challenges. Hillbilly Elegy, The Evangelicals, and The Benedict Option are just a few of the works that I am trying to digest.
In the end, these pundits are all talking about much the same thing – how to deal with our differences. It calls to mind Rodney King’s infamously striking and stupidly simple question from the LA riots 25 years ago: “Can’t we all get along?” In other words, why do we have to divide ourselves and fight over our differences? There are no easy answers, even if the question is now painfully obvious.
If it wasn’t evident before, it bears saying explicitly that interfaith cooperation is a political enterprise. Advancing interfaith cooperation requires a commitment to diversity as strength and the “other” as an equal. Those are political ideas. Despite our highest ideals, in an inequitable society, the things that make us different might account for the difference between our experiencing oppression or opportunity. In our current environment all identities are politicized, especially religious ones. Our 45th President is only making such matters worse by weaponizing faith institutions as political endorsers and action committees, neutering the longstanding Johnson Amendment that preserves a valuable barrier between the roles of church and state.
Re-entering the Bubble
There is an ideological gulf between me and many of the folks with whom I grew up, friends who never really left the short radius around my hometown in Ohio. Their lists of friends on Facebook make evident how homogeneous their social networks remain. If I had stayed, I’d be happily in the same boat and not see the bubble that I was in. DC political observer Patrick Thornton chronicled the same feelings and experiences as me in this short post-election opinion piece on rural America and coastal urban cities.
Talking to some of my hometown friends and acquaintances quickly leads to what can be sharp exchanges about Muslims, immigrants, and the economy. I have had insane conversations about the crap generated by fake news and beliefs that belie facts. Yet, I woke up the day after the election in November, pledging to double down on interacting with these sorts of folks, realizing that is where the hard person-to-person work of learning to value religious differences needs to be done. Real and earnest empathy is built with the slow processes of listening and being present. I had to make myself vulnerable and open to change, if I was to expect the same from them.
My hometown, once a model suburb of industrial Dayton, is now deeply challenged by factory losses, a rampant opioid epidemic, and a loss of hope that is just below the veneer of fragile families’ outward lives. My United Methodist denomination once walked with swagger and social prowess, filling every little town in Western Ohio, but now it is much diminished and reflects all of the infighting and ugliness of the outside world, even magnified, rather than offering a shining counter narrative. The anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and anti-Jewish sentiments that are evidenced, subtly or not, are scapegoats that are generated from a place of pain, loss, and humiliation, as much as they may ever have come from the privilege and comfort of an, albeit dying, hegemony.
If we are to overcome our differences and build a shared narrative of America, we have to be willing to listen, be present, and invest in one another’s lives. Uncomfortable and unpleasant as it may be, it is necessary. Interfaith is political. Interfaith is personal.