I was interviewed for an episode of the “In Times Like These” podcast, which is run by the most excellent Dr. Stephanie Varnon-Hughes at Claremont Lincoln University. You can listen to the recording here.
This article was originally published at Sojourners.
When it comes to refugees, our country seems to be torn between a desire to open our arms and hearts and a desire to be safe from all harm — as if those fleeing war are really just aggressors themselves, waiting to spring a vicious trap.
Xenophobia? Sure. Islamophobia? Double sure.
But there’s another scary idea at play: Refugees are an existential threat because they force us to confront the inconvenience of radical compassion.
Refugees arrive in our land with little more than the clothes on their backs, struggling against language and cultural barriers. Some of them are physicists and doctors and university professors, now scrubbing dishes or emptying bedpans in nursing homes to make ends meet. And while giving thanks for their own resettlement, many help the next group of new arrivals and work to strengthen their adopted communities with a humility that perhaps only fleeing war can bestow.
Their generosity brings to mind Luke 18:22, when Jesus said, paraphrasing, “None of this temporal stuff matters. Please sell everything you own and use the money to care for the poor and disadvantaged. You’ll be fine, because this is what God is really concerned about.”
Refugees shame us by throwing into stark contrast the real division between “haves” and “have-nots,” and our responsibility to the latter.
This is a consistent tension in our belief systems.
The Old Testament mentions caring for the stranger, no fewer than 36 times, because “You were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” The New Testament is chock-full of more exhortations to the same. Set your search engines to Exodus 22:21, Deuteronomy 10:19, Matthew 5:1, Leviticus 19:33, Deuteronomy 27:19, Matthew 25:25, 1 Corinthians 12:12, Galatians 5:14, or Luke 10:29.
The Quran is likewise insistent upon showing compassion for those displaced by war or disaster. Similar searches of Sikh and Hindu and Buddhist and Wiccan and Secular Humanist texts will reveal the same message: Be a radical welcomer, because that is what humans need to do.
This kind of compassion is part of our national civic-religious-ethical fabric, but that doesn’t make actually doing it any easier. For Christians, refugees force our eyes up the cross until we find the broken body of another Middle Easterner, crying and bleeding, and yet still forgiving those who trespassed against him.
And that can cause us to lash out against our own shortcomings.
If my fellow Christians were honest about the deep shame that we feel when we don’t live up to the example of Jesus, we wouldn’t need to convert that shame to loathing and heap it upon those whose only sin was being born in a part of the world where violent men wield weapons of war against civilians.
This past Sunday, I hoped in my heart of hearts that my priest would spit fire about Catholics’ obligations toward refugees — especially of the Muslim kind — as we Catholics were once similarly despised in America. Instead, he focused on the value of humility — of clearly recognizing that sic transit gloria mundi, “thus passes the glory of the world.”
Luckily, in addition to the gospel reading of the Beatitudes, our second reading was from 1 Corinthians 1:26, which, among other things, says, “God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something.”
Refugees threaten to reduce us to a holy nothing. In so doing, they free us from our own selfish pursuits. And that is scary.
I took Interfaith Youth Core up on their challenge for Better Together Day on April 14th and reached out to others of faith or philosophical tradition to have a conversation about what they believe and what values inspire them to do good in the world. I did this because I believe that when it comes to religion, we’re too often told that our differences define us. I’m for fixing that. Join me.
I’m a Catholic. For the past decade, in my work as an interfaith leader and through my job at Islamic Networks Group, I’ve been lucky to meet a huge variety of non-Catholics. I’m talking denominations and sects and sub-sects and sub-sub-sects of faiths from all around the world, and even a few who believe that they are from another planet. Many of these interactions have been casual, unremarkable even, but on occasion, I’ve found myself challenging my own stereotypes and misperceptions about other faiths.
A long time ago, I thought that Muslims were dangerous (usually Arab) villains. Movies, television, and my rural milieu all seemed to suggest that they were a violent “other” to be feared. After a few visits to my local mosque, hundreds of handshakes, and a great many gigantic meals, I’ve found that Muslims are indeed dangerous, but only to my waistline. Otherwise, they are just like me in most ways. My contact with them has prompted theological soul-searching more than once, and my old prejudices have disappeared in the face of generosity, compassion, and laughter.
It’s intuitive that interacting with unfamiliar people can head off stereotypes and contribute to better understanding between disparate groups, but in our religiously turbulent landscape, it bears repeating.
An example: To my knowledge, I’ve never met anyone from Georgia — the Caucasus one, not the American South one— so my understanding of what Georgians are like is a bit lacking. I know a little bit about the country’s history, I find their script fascinating, and I have enjoyed at least two separate Georgian wines. Academically and alcoholically, I am not unfamiliar.
Fortunately, I am not aware of Georgian stereotypes, either. If a friend said that I was “…as quick as a Tbilisi dessert,” I would check them for signs of stroke. Perhaps I’m lucky; I’m sure that there are many people like me, un-Georgianed, who have a very low opinion of the Caucasians. I’m looking at you, Russia. But imagine that I sit down and share a meal with a Georgian, or work with one (or more) of them to clean up a local park. As long as we don’t spend the time bickering about what fork/rake to use, I’d guess that by the end of the interaction, I’d have a generally positive impression of Georgians. They will be personalized in my mind as normal, nice humans. If, during that conversation, I find out that Georgians don’t even eat dessert, I’ll know that my friend was essentially praising my speed, and I’ll be enriched by the knowledge.*
Personal experience with people outside our immediate sphere of knowledge can be transformative. In psychological terms, it’s called the “contact hypothesis,”or “intergroup contact theory.” The US Army experienced it in the post-World War II era when the Armed Forces began to formally desegregate its units. The Army found that sixty-two percent of the soldiers in white-only units said they would dislike the idea of serving with black soldiers. Yet within semi-integrated units, white soldiers who already served with black soldiers reported only 7% dissatisfaction with the arrangement. These findings helped convince the rest of the Armed Forces that desegregation would not, as some believed, be a horrifying experience for white soldiers.
Researchers have noticed the same phenomenon elsewhere. Michael Savelkoul and his team in the Netherlands found that non-Muslim Dutch people were more likely to regard Muslims positively if they lived near or worked with said Muslims. A Zogby poll from 2014 shows the same effect in the United States: 36 percent of those who said they knew a Muslim viewed Muslims and Islam favorably, as opposed to only 19 percent of those who did not know any Muslims.
What’s the lesson here? How do we mend the divides between the world’s faith traditions? I think it comes down to three steps.
- Meet someone of a different religious or non-religious background.
- Talk about something that inspires them.
- Share the experience with those around you.
Easy, right? If you don’t know much about, or are slightly afraid of, Muslims or Baha’is or Mormons or non-theists or Deists or Sufis, the best way to figure them out is to talk to them. This is not rocket science, people. We do it all the time when the stakes aren’t high at all: asking the mail carrier about their day, chatting up the cute person for one reason or another, etc. We have a notion that it’s incredibly weird to talk about one’s religion or philosophy, but consider how many aspects of our lives are profoundly shaped by our deepest beliefs. In the religiously complicated world that we live in, the stakes can be immensely high; it behooves us to talk about our differences and similarities.
Aside from healing some of our planet’s ills, such dialogue can also be personally transformative. I have no idea where I would be on my faith journey if not for years of long, passionate discussions with adherents of religions not my own. My Muslim conversation partners have expanded my understanding of the place and importance of God. Hindu friends have helped explain cosmologically imperative notions of personal duty. Atheists have helped me sharpen my views on…basically everything faith-related (they ask a lot of questions). And Evangelical Christians wildly more conservative than I could ever hope to be have sounded suspiciously close to very liberal Christians when they show me the radical side(s) of Jesus, and how compassion can change the world. Countless other religious people have helped me articulate both what I believe and what I don’t believe.
If there’s one thing that the world’s faith traditions can agree upon, it’s that our faith journey is never really complete. There’s no end-point, just a constant work-in-progress; a slow, clumsy, plodding walk towards our ultimate visions. Learning about the beliefs of others helps us understand our own beliefs; we walk a little faster, a little straighter, a little more up-right. I plan to keep learning from others until we’re all running together in the same direction, arms locked, singing whatever praises we happen to sing, doing good deeds along the way. I imagine that it’ll look a lot like Better Together Day.
So get out there, cross a religious line, get to know a non-WhateverYouAre. Talk about the weather. Complain about the weather. Chat about the Chicago Cubs’ chances for a national championship, which could very well involve a discussion about whether there truly is a god. Share a pastry or five. Learn how to be better together. Talk to a human; build understanding, and combat ignorance.
*If Georgians truly don’t eat dessert, however, I might very well find it hard to trust them. Who doesn’t like dessert?
Asma is sitting in front of me on a hospital bed holding her son Abdalla’s hand. He’s lying down, semi-conscious, with a chloroquine drip in his arm. She’s wearing a black abaya with gold feather trim at the sleeves.
Abdalla was sick – vomiting and in pain – so she took him to the doctor. He’s two years and three months old; children with malaria don’t tend to have very high fevers, so any illness has the potential to be malaria in disguise.
The medical officer I was with asked some questions of his own and informed me that she didn’t understand where malaria comes from. Or rather, she did, but could not connect the vector (mosquito) with the disease. She and Abdalla sleep underneath a bed net every night, yet he still has malaria.
“How is this possible?” she asks. This is a story that I’ve heard before. People are told that bed nets will protect them from malaria, but unless you are completely vigilant about when you travel and how you conduct yourself in the evening hours, mosquitoes can find you. It’s a contradiction that causes people here great confusion. Health education, in Asma’s case provided through her local mosque, could explain that contradiction and help people like her learn proper prevention methods.
I asked what made her happy, or what she looked forward to. She is still mourning the death of her husband this past April, but she is excited for the future. He left her with ownership of a small plot of land. It stands empty now, and she plans to save money until she can build a home there for her and her son. She says she knows that in that home, she will be very happy.