From a Lay Leader's Desk

A series of opinion articles from lay leaders in our synod.


Love Thy Neighbor

Apr 09, 2019

By Renée Wicklund, MNYS Vice-President 

Do you know the five pillars of Islam? How about the Guru Granth Sahib of Sikhism, or what Krishna and Arjuna discuss in the Bhagavad Gita, or the ancient writings of Zoroaster? Have you ever sat down with a Mormon to discuss the Pearl of Great Price?

Or are you more likely to sympathize with Christians in Maryland who protested a school’s “mindfulness moment” because they associate yoga with false gods? (I once watched an entire program on public-access television, in the middle of the night, about yoga as a Hindu plot to take over the world. Insomnia has unexpected side effects.) How about Christian parents in the United Kingdom who organized to prevent their children from visiting mosques as part of cultural and citizenship education? Do you agree with their position?

These are real questions, because there are two sides to the argument. Many Christians, for many reasons, avoid engaging with other faiths.

Speaking for myself, I think that’s a mistake.

There is, of course, an obvious reason that we should learn about other faiths: Doing so reduces the tendency to distrust their adherents, who are “others” to Christians. Distrust is the way of the closed heart, and it allows hatred to fester. Think back to 2012, when a 40-year-old man in Oak Creek, Wisconsin shot 10 Sikhs at prayer. While the shooter’s exact motive may never be known, it appears he was a white supremacist who knew nothing about Sikhism and may have targeted his victims because he thought they were Muslims. A person should hardly have to understand the difference between Sikhism and Islam to know that it’s wrong to murder anyone; still, doesn’t this situation epitomize the danger of ignorance? I’d hazard a guess that the white nationalist who shot Muslims at prayer in Christchurch knew little about Islam, and that the anti-Semite who opened fire in the North Valley Jewish Community Center in 1999 knew little about Judaism.

You might be thinking, Why just these examples? Christians are slaughtered too. Indeed they are. By terrorists who don’t trust Christians. I stand on the side of all of us learning about each other, for mutual benefit. The Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor wrote: “The only clear line I draw these days is this: When my religion tries to come between me and my neighbor, I will choose my neighbor. . . . Jesus never commanded me to love my religion.”

So learning to respect other religions helps us love our neighbors. But I don’t think that’s the only benefit. Consider this: Studies show that learning a new language makes a person more skilled in his or her native tongue. I can vouch for that. Speaking German causes me to think more about sentence structure, word combinations, rhetorical emphasis. Studying Spanish (still studying! trying hard!) does the same; I’ve manipulated English words in ways that would not have occurred to me had I not seen their Spanish use.

Every year my husband, my 10-year-old son, and I celebrate “Hannumas” — or “Christmukkah” (we alternate the names)—with another family, who are Jewish. We decorate a Christmas tree and give small gifts to celebrate Jesus’ birth. Then the children put on kippahs and sing the Hebrew prayers as they light the menorah’s candles. A few months later, during our joint Eastover/Passter celebration, we hear what makes the Pesach Seder different from all other nights, and then what makes Easter morn different from all other days.

After these events, my son asks questions. Real questions, such as why Christianity doesn’t have a language like Hebrew, or when Christians stopped celebrating the Passover, or why we say Jesus was a Jew. Far from leading him away from Christianity, learning about Judaism prompts him to think about his own faith. Isn’t that preferable to blindly accepting what he hears, and then wondering one day why he never asked questions?

Christopher Hitchens, noted atheist (he called himself an “antitheist,” even), knew the Bible. He knew the Bible through and through. One of the last articles Hitchens published, May 2011 in Vanity Fair magazine, was an essay commending the King James translation, in which he wrote: “Though I am sometimes reluctant to admit it, there really is something ‘timeless’ in the Tyndale/King James synthesis.” Hitchens also knew Christianity. He could parse the differences between a Calvinist and a Huttite, between Intelligent Design and Biblical literalism.

We might ask why an atheist whose best-known work is called God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything spent his hours poring over the Bible and Christianity? Hitchens did so because he knew the best way to defend his own belief was to know how others believe. “I haven’t yet run into an argument that has made me want to change my mind,” he wrote in 2009 in Slate. “After all, a believing religious person, however brilliant or however good in debate, is compelled to stick fairly closely to a ‘script’ that is known in advance, and known to me, too.” The truth is that, by defending our own beliefs, we understand those beliefs better.

Honestly, I think that what worries Christians, sometimes, is that by learning about another faith, they might betray their own Christianity or want to practice that other faith. Although I can understand that worry, I don’t think it should stop us from engaging.

Four or five years after Christopher Hitchens’s death, Christian author Larry Alex Taunton published a controversial book titled The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist. Taunton, a friend of Hitchens, wrote about Bible-focused conversations the two had after Hitchens’s diagnosis with terminal cancer. He argued that Hitchens, as he faced death, did not convert but became open to the possibility that Christianity was true.

I don’t know if Taunton was correct, don’t know if Hitchens’s heart really softened toward the Biblical faith. But Taunton’s conclusion does make me think: If Christians refuse to learn about other faiths because they are worried that those traditions will rub off on them, or dilute their Christianity—shouldn’t they be just as optimistic that their Christianity will inspire those they engage?