|Crossing religious barriers
by Doug King, your WebWeaver
A lot of our lives are shaped by lines – the lines we draw (“in the
sand,” for instance), the lines we follow (party lines, maybe?), the
lines we cross, the lines we use to connect us with others. We draw
lines, delineating and defending boundaries, to protect ourselves – as
individuals, as nations, as religious communities – from being attacked
or diluted or weakened by those who are different from us.
So lines may protect us, may guide us, but they may
also exclude us, limit our own freedom of thinking and acting and
associating with others.
Jesus drew lines, too.
I’m impressed though, that he seemed more interested in drawing lines
that included, rather than those that excluded. (“You are my friends if
you do what I command you,” he said according to John’s Gospel, 15:14,
in drawing one very wide circle of invitation rather than exclusion.) In
his living and his teaching, he seemed interested in crossing lines and
breaking barriers, more than in defining and defending them. So he
associated often and warmly with people whom most good Jews of his time
wanted to exclude – the poor, the prostitutes, the servants of the Roman
And when Jesus did draw lines, they tended to be to
protect people from the moralists, the pious, and the rich. For
instance, consider Matthew’s reports of his harsh warnings to the
Pharisees, as in Matthew 23.23: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees,
hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the
weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these
you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.” Or of course
there’s Jesus’ sharp contrast between the widow giving her two pennies
at the temple, and the wealthy donors showing off their generosity as
they made their gifts. (Mark 12.36-13.2)
So Jesus did cross some very important lines, and drew
some others – and was put to death for his willingness to do that.
And he invites us to follow him, I believe, in
crossing lines – loving and serving and simply being friends with the
outcasts, the unclean, the “sinners.”
One vital line Jesus calls us to cross is the line
that we draw so often, to divide one religion from another, one faith
from another. The line Jesus himself struggled with was the one between
Jews and gentiles, or within the Jewish religious community – the line
between those who observed the Law and those who were, for whatever
reasons, lax in their observance. The crossing of those religious lines
gave Jesus’ early followers, most of them Jews, a lot of trouble, as
they struggled to redefine the meaning of law for themselves, and to
shape new ways to deal with people who were not observing it.
Another major call by Jesus to cross lines was his
“missionary imperative” – sending his disciples out two by two into the
communities around them, to tell people of God’s coming reign that would
transcend all the pious line-drawing, and would establish a new social
order which would scramble the lines between rich and poor, powerful and
powerless, well-born and commoners. His sending out of his disciples,
both during his life and after his resurrection (according to Matthew
28.19 ), was aimed not so much at bringing people into his own group
(“bringing in the sheaves”?), as it was at reaching out to serve, to
meet with people who were “outsiders” in one way or another – to care
for and connect with them, more than to “convert” them.
But why should we bother crossing all those lines? Our
sense (somewhat lacking in modesty, perhaps) was that that is Jesus’
call to us: to show love, to help people (including Christians and
others) see and live out the meaning of the Gospel, that is, of Christ’s
reconciling, all-embracing love.
I first heard that call to
reaching out across lines when I was a college senior, in the national
conference in 1955 of the Student Volunteer Movement, a strong
ecumenical organization that grew out of the missionary movement of the
late 19th Century. I went to the conference, at Ohio
University, with a group from my college. As we prepared for the
conference, and again afterwards, we spent some time with the Rev. M. A.
Thomas, a priest of the Mar Thoma Church in South India. As we talked
through our various understandings of mission, and as many of us began
to feel that we ourselves we called to engage in mission, we came to a
conviction that “mission” was for us a distinctive calling to cross
boundaries – to going beyond the lines that divide nations and race,
cultures and religions.
But if you
cross lines into cultures and nations and religion traditions that are
foreign to you, you have to learn about them if you’re going to be at
all effective, whether you see yourself as a witness or an educator, a
communicator or an agent of change. So those of us who followed the call
that we heard through that great SVM conference soon found ourselves
drawn into learning – languages, customs, different cultures with their
different ways of looking at the world, political ideas very different
from our own. And above all, we began trying to learn about different
In response to all this, I ended up by going to
Indonesia, first for a six-month visit to the Christian youth and
student movements there, and about five years later, as a “fraternal
worker” sent by the Presbyterian Church. I was sent to a university in
Central Java, to teach college courses in Christian religion. Islam was
the dominant faith there, but many people were still profoundly shaped
by the Hindu and Buddhist faiths that had been dominant for centuries
before the coming of Islam, and later of Christianity. So I needed some
understanding of the Islamic beliefs and customs that shaped the lives
of many of my students, and even more of my neighbors. And the
spirituality of Hinduism and Buddhism were so much a part of the culture
and way of life, that I found myself trying to understand those
traditions too. (Not to mention trying to gain some understanding of
Communism, which was gaining great strength for a while.)
Why am I going on about all this? I want to share a
little of how I’ve gotten to where I am today: long retired, but still
shaped by my own past, and by all that I gained from crossing those
lines so long ago. For now I find myself drawn to crossing religious
lines again, but in a deeper, more personal way, to explore, to learn,
to grow. My line-crossing all those years ago was purposeful, a way of
trying to learn and understand things that would help me be more
effective as a teacher, friend and colleague. Now I’m simply seeking to
gain some wisdom and comfort and strength for myself, and to expand the
horizons of my spiritual world.
Specifically, I’m drawn to various voices speaking out
of contemporary Buddhist thought and practice, especially in what is
often called “mindfulness.” On this little quest, I’ve been drawn to
sages and writers including Thich Nhat Hanh, Chogyam Trungpa,
Pema Chodron, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and many others.
As I wander down these deeply enriching spiritual
paths, I want to find others who are on the same journey – crossing
lines, especially religious lines, whether to enrich their own lives, or
to gain understanding of others outside the Christian circle.
So – what are your experiences in line-crossing? How
have those ventures enriched you? What kinds of concerns and problems
have you encountered? What would you like to share with other seekers?
And what would you like to hear from them?
So – what are your experiences in
|How have those ventures enriched you?
|What kinds of concerns and problems have you
|What would you like to share with other seekers?
|And what would you like to hear from them?|
Are you interested in joining the conversation?
send a note – and let me know whether you’d like the conversation to
be private (in an email list I’ll set up) or public (by posting your
note here). NOTE: If the email link just above doesn't work,
just send your note to
I’m looking forward to hearing from you!
Religion – dividing or healing?
essay I posted a little over a year ago, trying to articulate
what I find a helpful way of understanding religion itself.
Case for Religious Pluralism in a Secular State
The separation of church and state takes on new
dimensions - and new importance - as our society becomes more
pluralistic religiously, and as fundamentalisms gain strength in many
faith communities. Gene TeSelle summarizes a variety of studies that
help us understand the new religious situation in which we live.
under God - or under many gods?
The Rev. John Shuck, pastor of First Presbyterian
Church in Billings, MT, recently published an opinion piece in the Billings
Gazette. With the title "Respond with hospitality to growing
diversity," Shuck simply highlights from his own experience the
fact that our "Christian nation" is becoming much more diverse
than that -- and suggests hospitality as our best response.
|Religious diversity in America - facing
the realities and finding new ways forward
A New Religious America: How a
"Christian Country" Has Now Become the World's MostReligiously Diverse
Nation. By Diana L. Eck. 404 pp. $27 hardcover.
The publicity for this book points out that the U.S. Navy has now
commissioned its first Muslim chaplain and opened its first mosque; that
there are more than three hundred temples in Los Angeles and the
greatest variety of Buddhism in the world; and that there are more
Muslims in the U.S. than there are Episcopalians, Jews, or
Beyond startling facts like these, the
book offers chapters on American Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists, in
which Eck both surveys the growing awareness of these traditions among
the American public over the past two hundred years and notes the
presence of their adherents in surprising places all across the country.
She has tracked much of this through the Pluralism Project, which
enlists local scholars to find out more about what is going on in our
There are the predictable accounts of
hate crimes directed against people and property. But also of community
responses to offer aid and protection. Or of the initiative taken by
Muslims in DuPage County, who joined the Interfaith Network "in order to
dispel their misunderstandings of Islam." Or of the decision of a Muslim
group to be the first to speak out against arson attacks against three
Jewish synagogues in Sacramento. Or of the movement in Billings to
display menorahs in the windows of homes during each holiday season
after an anti-Jewish incident.
The centuries-old reaction to immigrants
has been to tell them to go home," with the implication that "wherever
home may be, it's not here." The proper answer, given by one of her
informants, is, "I am at home." But the answer is not always
self-evident to those most closely affected, and the host country may
not be encouraging. Eck recalls an interview in which Bill Moyers asked
about the difference between an "expatriate" and an "immigrant." Bharati
Mukherjee, a much-read woman writer from India, suggested that an
expatriate is still attached to the old world while an immigrant is
being changed by the new setting.
The heritage of the U.S. is a mixed one.
Eck draws attention to the radical experiments in religious toleration
in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania; to the Flushing Remonstrance of 1657,
welcoming Quakers on grounds of hospitality; and the Williamsburg
Charter of 1988, which reaffirms religious pluralism and expresses the
confidence that "diversity is not a point of weakness but a source of
But she also reminds us of the Chinese
Exclusion Act of 1882 and Rabindranath Tagore's vow never to return to
the U.S. after what he had experienced at first hand. Long before that
(and I'll bet that you never learned this in civics class), a 1790
statute had limited naturalization to the "white" races, and this was
upheld in the courts against Asians of all nationalities. African
Americans were ahead of them, being given honorary citizenship (and
often merely that) after the Civil War.
The general trend has been from exclusion
to assimilation (on white European terms) to pluralism.
In discussing the last, Eck uses Horace Kallen's prescient model of the
symphony orchestra, correcting it, however, to the more accurate image
of jazz improvisation. And the improvisation does not happen easily.
Often, she points out, new neighbors are encountered
"not over a cup of tea but in a city council or zoning board
hearing" when people suddenly learn that a new and perhaps
strange-looking building is planned. School systems must now learn to
deal with a multitude of languages and religions; some classrooms or
whole schools now have a non-Christian majority. Eventually the courts
are the place where vexing conflicts -- in the local community, in the
workplace, and in the realm of public legislation -- get discussed and
resolved. (Unfortunately the discussion of church-state decisions,
especially the Smith decision of 1990 and the overturning of
the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in 1997, is incomplete and
therefore misleading. Most legal scholars seem to agree with the Supreme
Court minority in the RFRA decision, which urged that the court re-visit
Smith, allowing more consideration of religious beliefs without
the impossible demand of "least restrictive means.")
The current situation, Eck says, is one that will
require "moving beyond laissez-faire inattention to religion to a
vigorous attempt to understand the religions of our neighbors" --
and one that will also require "the engagement of our religious
traditions in the common tasks of our civil society."
Her final chapter suggests that religious encounter
reveals "both fault lines and bridges" -- or, to continue the
metaphor, that we may be building "a new infrastructure for a
society in which religious difference is just part of the traffic of a
creative democracy." As localities learn to acknowledge their own
religious pluralism, the ways they deal with them in their official
actions can become "the stretching exercises of a new
The book was published well before September 11, and
its basic optimism does not really address the brusque postures often
adopted by Jews defending Israel, Muslims defending the Palestinians and
Arabs and the Islamic world in general, and Christians defending
"the West." The difficulty of dialogue has been brought home
to us in a new way.
In this new atmosphere, however, it is all the more
important to note the quotable quote from the Koran, "Do you not
know, O people, that I have made you into tribes and nations that you
may know each other." Or the edifying solution offered by Muhammad
when there was a dispute about who would get the honor of carrying a
sacred stone: he had them put it on a sheet so that all of them could
carry it together. We are invited to look for more opportunities to do
just exactly that.
If this topic interests you, check out Aurelia
Fule's thoughtful essay on interfaith
Some blogs worth visiting
Mitch Trigger, PVJ's
Secretary/Communicator, has created a Facebook page where
Witherspoon members and others can gather to exchange news and
views. Mitch and a few others have posted bits of news, both
personal and organizational. But there’s room for more!
You can post your own news and views,
or initiate a conversation about a topic of interest to you.
for Life" website
Long-time and stimulating blogger John Shuck,
a Presbyterian minister currently
serving as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton,
Tenn., writes about spirituality, culture, religion (both organized
and disorganized), life, evolution, literature, Jesus, and
Click here for his blog posts.
Click here for podcasts of his radio program, which "explores
the intersection of religion, social justice and public life."
John Harris’ Summit to
Theological and philosophical
reflections on everything between summit to shore, including
kayaking, climbing, religion, spirituality, philosophy, theology,
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), New York City and the Queens
neighborhood of Ridgewood -- by a progressive New York City
Presbyterian Pastor. John is a former member of the Witherspoon
board, and is designated pastor of North Presbyterian Church in
Voices of Sophia blog
Heather Reichgott, who has created
this new blog for Voices of Sophia, introduces it:
After fifteen years of scholarship
and activism, Voices of Sophia presents a blog. Here, we present the
voices of feminist theologians of all stripes: scholars, clergy,
students, exiles, missionaries, workers, thinkers, artists, lovers
and devotees, from many parts of the world, all children of the God
in whose image women are made. .... This blog seeks to glorify God
through prayer, work, art, and intellectual reflection. Through
articles and ensuing discussion we hope to become an active and
Got more blogs to recommend?
send a note, and we'll see what we can do!