Several years ago I was asked to lead a class at my church on grief. As part of the class, I had visitors from the Muslim and Jewish communities come on different nights and talk about how each of those traditions cares for those who are grieving. I love the way that care for those who are grieving is built into the regular worship at Jewish temples and synagogues and I thought we might could learn from this and other aspects of others' faith practices. Later I was criticized by one participant who said we didn't need those "foreigners" to come to our church to tell us anything.
Today I watched the ABC Documentary "Different Books, Common Word" that highlighted the dialogue between Baptists and Muslims in various parts of the United States. The program highlighted how several different people found themselves with the opportunity to interact with a person from another faith group and learned something about the common humanity of the other. So many times in church, I hear more of the "We are right and 'they' are wrong" kinds of rhetoric. Whether it is about religion, politics, race, gender or some other division, there seems to be a tendency to talk about those who are in and those who are out. Too often, what is called tolerance by such thinkers is the willingness to allow others the "right" to live life by their own cultural standards as long as "those people" know that "they" are in the minority and not in positions of power. There also seems to be an idea that if I truly enter a dialogue with someone who is different from me, I will have to give up something of who I am. This just simply is not true. In fact, dialogue that requires that a person give up a part of who they are lacks any potential for genuine connection. However, we do have to set aside our need to be right long enough to enter into the world of the other and try to see the world through their eyes.
This point has been portrayed beautifully in movies such as Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, and more recently, Avatar. If we just keep saying why we think we are right and why others or wrong, we never truly understand the other. (And this is true in world politics, marriages, and parenting.) In an encounter with another we may find something that changes us, or we may be reminded of why we believe as we do, but that cannot truly happen if we approach such conversations with arrogance. To a lesser extent, I have the privilege to practice this on a regular basis as I get to visit other congregations as part of my work. I have learned to appreciate the liturgy and practice of other Christian Churches. In each visit, I find things that I like and reasons to return to my own congregation. However, every encounter opens my eyes to new ways of doing things. For a couple of years I had regular lunches with my friend, A.J. Levine. A.J. is a Jewish woman who is also a professor of New Testament at Vanderbilt. I loved our conversations both about her faith and practice and her views on Christian faith and practice as she critiqued it through her studies of the New Testament. I have loved the rich conversations that I have had with those who are just across party lines from me or those that have different ethnic background. Each time I come away from a conversation with something I have learned and something that affirms a part of myself.
I do not understand the need to draw deep divides between people or those that express anger when they encounter views that are different than their own. In fact, if there is one place that I need to practice my own tolerance for others, it is for people who seem to demonstrate these types of rigid stances. As we learn what it is to love our neighbor as ourselves or as we truly try to embody the teachings of the "Good Samaritan", I think we have to learn to love - not tolerate or endure - others; others from different religions, countries, cultures, races and political parties. My life has been enriched as I try to overcome my own prejudices daily.