Rich Mayfield: Closing the cultural divide means feeling uncomfortable
Several Decembers ago, our congregation had just finished singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and most of us Lutherans were feeling as pleased as punch about our musical rendition. We were, if the truth be known, perilously close to committing the sin of pride, a particularly insidious indiscretion for our sometimes curious brand of Christianity.
In the silent afterglow of our singing, a young man raised his hand and asked if he could address the gathered. He asked respectfully but with such intensity that I felt I couldn’t deny him and, besides, it was, after all, the Christmas season.
He strode to the front of the church looked out upon us all, offered his Arabic name, and told us he was a resident of Bethlehem, the one just outside of Jerusalem and to which entrance is determined by armed guards of the Israeli army.
“I am here to tell you that despite your lovely hymn there is no peace in Bethlehem. There is instead very little hope in the place where Jesus was born.” He went on in his gentle but passionate manner to describe in disturbing detail the situation in his home town. When he finished there were few of us who felt much like belting out “Joy to the World!”
His intrusion into our normally pleasant little Sunday worship was more than a temporary disturbance. Ever since that disquieting morning, I’ve had trouble singing that old favorite with its evocation of a sweetly still little town.
Three of the world’s major religions refer to the land occupied by Israel and Palestine as holy but by all appearances it is anything but. Hardly a day goes by without news reports detailing the violent deaths of residents of one side by residents of the other. Our president’s recent attempt to facilitate reconciliation between warring factions is to be lauded but my sources indicate word on the street is far less hopeful.
Hatred fed by religious fervor is surely the most destructive force at work today. Any Christian with even a cursory understanding of history must admit to horrific atrocities in the name of the faith. Muslims, Buddhists, Jews and more would have to confess to similar acts of carnage. This very week, a gathering of normally peaceful Hindus in India wrecked havoc upon Christian homes and churches for some perceived slight.
Arguably, religion has done more to create havoc in the world than any other social force.
All of which is why a picture from strife-torn Iraq in the news this week did more to lift my spirits than all the carols we sang on Christmas Eve. The photo was of the Christmas Mass in Mar Eliya Church in Baghdad. The pews were packed and sitting in the very front row were Shiite Muslim clerics and tribal leaders. They were announcing by their presence to be “in solidarity with our Christian brothers…to plant the seed of love again in New Iraq.”
Such sentiment is welcomed, of course, and I dare say may be part of a growing movement among some Muslims and Christians for greater understanding between these two monotheistic faith traditions. Indeed, this past October, 138 Muslim clerics and academics issued a document called “A Common Word” that announced their conviction that Christians and Muslims are both committed to “Love of one God and love of neighbor.” Dozens of Christian leaders, including Southern Baptist Rick Warren of “Purpose Driven Life” fame and Robert Schuller from the mega-church Crystal Cathedral, signed a similar document in response entitled, “Loving God and Neighbor Together.”
Any attempt to find commonalities and to work cooperatively among various religious traditions should be both acknowledged and encouraged in the midst of continuing conflicts fed too often by religious fervor. Here in the mountains, the Vail Chapel, serving as host to a variety of religious traditions, is a stellar example of religious cooperation as it shares not just a worship center but office and fellowship space as well. Not only does such an arrangement contribute to goodwill and understanding among the congregants, it gently coerces clergy as well. It can be very awkward for a Lutheran pastor to bad mouth a Baptist preacher on Sunday morning only to meet him at the water cooler on Monday afternoon.
Which is precisely the point. The more the various faith traditions co-mingle and cooperate, the more possibilities for peace become present. Over and over again this truth is made evident. Whether it comes in a Christmas pew packed with Muslim clerics or a lone Palestinian man pleading his case to a congregation of slightly uncomfortable Christians.
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