Talking across religious divides

An exchange student from Brown University in Rhode Island found that her semester in Amsterdam required fewer adaptations for cultural difference than when she went to Tougaloo College in Mississippi. Rural people find that city people think that a rural accent means lack of intelligence. Then there’s religious differences, then there’s food differences, then there’s race, then there’s politics. According to a Pew study, we are more divided by politics now than by race. That is both hard to believe and sad to believe.

In the 1960’s, there were cultural exchange programs for students within America. We need that again. In a recent WSJ article,  the conclusion is that people who go to cultural exchanges come back changed.

There are places in this country where Christianity is part of everyday life: at work, at school, at social events. Anyone who is openly Atheist or non-Christian has no seat at the table.

Likewise, there are places in this country where the idea of pubic prayer would be met with derision. Where’s the common ground?

Among religious people, leaders are leading.

Recently, twenty-two world religious leaders came together to issue a joint statement.

The message is simple: practice your religion, focusing on the principles within it that focus on friendship. Meet your neighbors. Spend time with people of other religions.

I am fully aware that some of my readers will say that religion is what divides us. To them, I say it does not have to. One can cherry-pick in the canon of text in any religion and find an argument for cooperation and peace. Once can also find the opposite.

It is a problem with the political history of religion. When a religious group holds governmental powers, the politics of territory and controlling people gets mixed with the message of the prophets, leaders, and deity.

At the conference, Rabbi Dr. Alon Goshen-Gottstein put it this way:

We cannot deny that in the books of many religions you can find texts that are not very open, even hostile, to people of other faiths,” he said in a statement. “Therefore, when the world’s most important leaders call for friendship, they are in fact affirming a particular way of practicing religion and rejecting another.

The way to Make America Whole Again is to reach across a reachable divide.

The human experience is the human experience. People want the same basic things: the material things of survival, love, respect, and safety for themselves and their loved ones. Beyond that, most humans enjoy social interaction, good food, and mental stimulation.

Do not go for the hardest places. Go for those that are manageable.

It is not productive for a Jewish person to attend a neo-Nazi rally. But, if a Jewish person sees someone with Nazi tattoos on a regular basis, that Jewish person can connect on a human level.

How do you connect on a human level with someone who seems to hate you? Find them where they are.

No one needs to seek out someone who might hate them. But, for minorities and non-mainstream people, those haters are all along the daily route. In New England, a religious person can easily find another who would deride their faith in a heartbeat.

I heard a story at a showing of a video produced by Not In Our Town. There, a man told a story about how an African American woman used to buy coffee every morning from a KKK member who worked at the coffee house. They always exchanged pleasantries. Over the years, he’d ask about her children, and she about his.

One day, she noticed his tattoos. She simply said, “You are better than that,” and he said, “I am now.”

Avoid the hot buttons.

I do business with the son of a board member of the NRA. You can bet, we don’t talk about guns. He’s a Christian with a capital C. We don’t talk about religion or the war on Christmas. He knows I have a consistent morality and I am Jewish. We talk about family, real estate, and barbecues. Over the years, I think he’s come to realize that I don’t have horns. I know he cares deeply about his family and community. I see him as a gentle man, and not some gun-toting scary person.

Seek opportunities to grow relationships.

For me, I do this through the Daughters of Abraham. There are similar organizations that do this kind of regular meeting around topics. I Googled “interfaith, boston” and a list came right up.

I like what I do. Over the 16 years we’ve been in action, I’ve made hundreds of connections with Christians and Muslims and Jewish people who find their way to moral, fulfilling lives through the lens of their faiths. I have Evangelical Christians friends. I have fundamentalist Muslim friends. I have Jewish friends, far more and far less theistic than I am; they practice more or less ritual than I do. (PS, it is with the Jewish people that I have the most intense conflicts!)

This video was made early on (I think it was 2004. I am greyer now.) It’s gotten so much richer since then.


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