Thursday, August 9, 2012

Close Proximity

Our world is more religiously pluralistic than ever before, which is not to say that it is more religiously diverse than before.  It’s always been diverse.  All the major faiths have been around for centuries if not millennia.  Islam is the youngster at “only” 1600 years, followed by Christianity (2000), Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism (2500), Hinduism (3000), and Judaism at 3800 years. old.  (All ages approximates.)  That’s just the major religions, the ones with the most adherents.  There are lots of religions with smaller numbers.  So the world has always been religiously diverse.
But each of these religions tended to be geographically and culturally separated from each other.  You used to be able to look at a map of the world and locate the major religions by looking at certain continents: Hinduism occupying the Indian subcontinent, Buddhism spread across Southeast Asia from Thailand and Cambodia up to Japan, Confucianism and Taoism in China, Islam spread across north Africa, through the Middle East, and into Indonesia, and Christianity sprawled comfortably across both Americas and Europe.  Today all these religions are everywhere. The other religions are here, not just there. Immigration patterns have transported large Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim populations to Europe and America. Pagodas and mosques nestle among churches and synagogues. You don’t see it as much in Frederick County, but go down to Montgomery County or over to Baltimore County.  And religious pluralism is coming to Frederick County.  It’s already started.
Unfortunately, proximity has not typically engendered respect.  More often it has bred suspicion, fear, and even outright hostility.  Hindus and Muslims slaughter each other on the Indian subcontinent. Ultra-Orthodox Jews and radical Muslims aggravate rivalries in Israel and Palestine with claims that Yahweh or Allah has given them the land. The recent killing of Sikhs by a neo-Nazi—which, unfortunately, in America claim to be Christians—mistakenly thinking that they were Muslims is indicative of the problem.  If we can’t avoid one another (as if that should have ever been our goal) then we must avoid fear and hostility.  We must understand one another.  We must educate ourselves.  We must talk.
It’s interesting: even though Jesus never met a Buddhist, Muslim, or Hindu, they have met him.  While none accept that he is the Son of God, these religions, if not their followers, do hold him in high regard.  Jews and Muslims regard him as a prophet; in Buddhism he is a bodhisattva, a person who is able to attain nirvana but out of compassion delays doing so in order to save suffering humans.  To Hindus he is an avatar, an incarnated god and divine teacher.  They are not attracted to Christianity, nor necessarily to Christians, but they are attracted to Jesus.  But their attraction has less to do with who he was than what he did and taught.  They are drawn to this Jesus for his exemplary courage, his compassion for the disinherited, and his willingness to stand up to corrupt political and religious authorities.  And they are especially drawn to his emphasis on the possibility of another kind of world where gentleness and equality prevail.  This world, of course, Jesus called the Kingdom of God.
It’s interesting, though, that many Christians are drawn to Jesus for who he is and what he can do for them, and have little interest in what he really had to say about the Kingdom of God.  Most hardly notice that he talked about it at all, or think that was just his way of talking about heaven.  Maybe it’s time for Christians to be as enamored with Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God as the other religions are.
Then maybe we’ll have the basis of something to talk about.  Because if we are going to live with these people, we better start talking to them.  Then maybe we won't disrespect them, fear them, discriminate against them, and kill them.
And it seems to me that’s a big step towards the Kingdom of God that Jesus oriented his whole life around.

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