I have been deeply interested in the plight of Syrian refugees and the impact we are seeing on the whole immigration discussion/debate at all levels of our U.S. culture. For the most part, the general responses have been grounded in fear, suspicion, anxiety and a knee-jerk parochialism. People are worried, and that has an impact on openness, compassion, generosity and kindness. It has been a great relief to see that the faith-based response has been mostly a balanced scripture-based “welcome-the-stranger, as-you-do-to-the-least-of-these-you-do-to-me” reaction. It helps quite a bit that the images we see of these poor displaced people strongly counters the fear-mongering, xenophobic message of many media pundits. My personal sorrow over the whole situation is that it is a media/political circus act instead of an awareness raising on human rights and dignity.
As I drove into work today, I heard a Lutheran pastor on the radio talking about treating root causes instead of reactively dealing with symptoms. I thought “preach it, brother.” He spoke, quite intelligently I thought, about the current global atmosphere of fearfulness and using fear to cultivate a malignant distrust of “the other.” Then he said something that just floored me and undermined everything else he said. I put this in quotes, but I am not sure I have it exactly verbatim; he said, “Christians must take the lead in this, because ours is the superior religion. Jews cannot bring peace. Muslims cannot bring peace. Eastern faiths cannot bring peace. Only Christ has the power to heal our wounds.” I find it laughably paradoxical and pricelessly “American” to claim superiority to those with whom you disagree as a pathway to peacemaking.
But I grew up in central Indiana and was exposed to “better than” religion all my young life. I am not sure I heard the word Jewish until I was seven or eight, but I heard “those Jews” from as early as I remember. Catholics were often referred to as “papists,” and I remember my dad calling a nun a “bead mumbler,” once. “Towel-head” was not uncommon for Muslims and anything Middle eastern or exotic. Of course we also jeered at the overly religious as “fundies,” and “holy-rollers.” Anyone who didn’t agree with our white-bread and Miracle-Whip version of Christianity was somehow “less” — something inferior in every way. I foolishly want to believe we are outgrowing such sentiments, but alas while the Bible tells me of love, mercy, justice, and tolerance, talk radio tells me different.
What makes us want/need to be “better than?” It is fine for people who believe that Jesus is the way/truth/life, to hold that God’s grace and mercy extend no further, but that should make them feel fortunate, not superior. Those who believe God’s mercy and grace may find expression to other faiths in other ways should joyously embrace brothers and sisters, not look on others as poor cousins.
Back when I worked for the General Board of Discipleship, I would periodically put up a “just-for-fun” poll on our website that people could vote on. Usually, I was trying to make a gentle, subtle point, and one such instance was to illustrate that Christians are human, too. The question people responded to — and remember, this was a United Methodist Church website, so it was a restricted polling sample — was, “Are Christians nicer, kinder, more considerate drivers than non-Christians?” The results were stunning. 5% said “yes,” 7% said “the same,” and 88% said “no.” The comments string was a hysterical litany of Christians behaving badly behind the wheel of their vehicles. My own story that fits this query dates back to my time as a student pastor in Westwood, New Jersey.
From my parsonage to the Paramus Park Mall took about 15 minutes to drive. It was probably no more than 4 miles away, but traffic and stop lights/signs made the trip take a bit of time. One day I got behind a mini-van that had an ICTHUS fish symbol, a cross, and a dove decal on the rear gate. It also had a “Honk if you LOVE Jesus!” bumper-sticker. Feeling playful, I began tooting my horn. Now, I REALLY love Jesus, so I kept it up. At each traffic sign or signal, the driver (a thirty-something, clean-cut, male suburbanite) would stare into his rearview mirror, trying to see who was honking at him. We’d start rolling again, and I would start tooting again. This went on, stop-and-go, for about two miles. Finally, at one long traffic light, he jumped out of his car, yelled a phrase that I am positive is not in the Bible, and shot me the middle finger of both hands. To this day, I still hope this was his wife’s car, but I’m pretty sure it’s not.
I don’t see much evidence in our world today that indicates Christians are superior in any way to our multi-/inter-faith counterparts. In fact, there is certainly a biblical case to be made that at the moment one feels superior to others, one fails in their Christianity. Paul’s words echo in my ear, “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves,” he tells the folks at Philippi. And wasn’t it Jesus who admonished, “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted”? Humility is a hard one. So is compassion. And kindness. And generosity. And gentleness. And mercy. And patience. And tolerance. And grace. And forgiveness. And love. And receiving the stranger. And visiting the sick and imprisoned. And feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, healing the sick. Christianity is hard, and until we get good at it, perhaps we shouldn’t be too smug.
It is why we need the Holy Spirit. It is why, once again, we need the Christ to be born into this world. We are not “better than” anyone. Shame on us for feeling superior. What we should feel is loved, forgiven, and grateful, and we should seek to share these blessings with anyone and everyone we meet. God provides millions of gifts and graces, and there are a million and one opportunities for us to do something wonderful for someone in need. Doing for others certainly doesn’t make us superior, but it certainly helps us learn to be Christian.