The Face of Religion, or When Can We Just Get Along?

There are plenty of arguments in the States over whether or not America is a “Christian nation.”  Time to settle that argument: America is definitely a Christian nation.  Comparatively speaking, anyhow.

When you uproot yourself and move to a world where you wouldn’t even know where to begin looking for a Christian church (Morocco is 98% Islamic), those Nashville, Tennessee steeples in Green Hills that outnumber Starbucks by a billion begin to make America seem not so pluralistic after all (sorry, Diana Eck).  Everything in life is perspective, I guess.

As for me, let’s face it, this is a subject that I seem to obsess over, something that absolutely fascinates me.  What else would you expect from someone who studied Christianity for ten years and then moved to the Arab world?  Of course, it’s a touchy subject, religion.  It always is, I suppose, but it’s especially touchy here where Christian missionaries have given Christians a bit of a bad reputation.  No surprises there.

I’m not a missionary and have no desire to be one.  Ever.  I don’t think converting people saves them; instead, it creates more havoc and hatred than promoting love.  There’s a lot of good “mission” work going on out there, but all too often, the focus is on conversion rather than love, and that’s where I lose interest.  I work for the United States government and adhere firmly to the First Amendment’s Separation of Church and State.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy talking and thinking about religion, and while the idea of forcing or coercing your religion on someone is a repulsive concept to me, I don’t hide the fact that I’m Christian; it’s a basic part of who I am.  I don’t see the point in running away from who I am just because a few bad apples gave Christianity a bad name.  Not as long as I can at least try to redeem it or remind folks that forgiveness is at the heart of nearly every “religion.”  That seems like a good start, at least.  I mean, if we’re all hypocrites (and generally, I think we are and I’ll expound on that in a bit), doesn’t it make more sense to practice forgiveness of hypocrisy rather than hatred of hypocrites?  Or hatred of anybody?

I’ve encountered a few Americans here who are like a college freshman suddenly discovering the world, unable to think for themselves and simply swallowing every word their arrogant professors feed them.  Instead of critically engaging Moroccan culture or asking meaningful questions about this new world around them and how they fit into it, they treat it like a fad – some new, short-lived fashion statement that screams, “I don’t know who I am, but being anti-what-I-was or anti-what-you-are makes sense to me.”

Sadly, that’s how people treat their beliefs and values, too.  Too often, I’ve encountered pop culture Christians who jumped on the bandwagon of jamming to the latest contemporary beats without the slightest idea of what the lyrics actually mean (and sometimes the ironic, complete hatred for those “rigid, old, traditional folks”).  On the other end of the spectrum lies the atheist who criticizes those Christians who are, you know, “judgmental bigots,” and somehow, she thinks she’s got Christianity and everything else figured out, but in reality, she’s become exactly what she hated and doesn’t even realize it.  This is what really gets under my skin: when someone practices a faith (or lack thereof) so blindly that they continuously walk into walls or when someone else gauges out his own eyes because he thinks he should do away with the way he used to view the world.  Neither of those options are helpful to anyone.  We end up blind either way.

Then again, maybe everyone has to be a baby at some point before they can be an adult, so maybe they deserve or have the right to live blindly, at least for awhile.  I just despise extremism in all forms and see it as the real problem with the world.  I mean, how many times have I said that already?  My friend Melissa recently posted some of her own thoughts about that very thing.  You can read them here.  I digress.

I’m slowly getting to the real reason I’m writing this.

Eid 1Today, I walked around in a market full of sheep and goats, and every family will  buy one for the upcoming celebration Eid El Kibir, or Eid El Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice).  Next to Ramadan, Wednesday’s feast is kind of a big deal, a huge celebration and one of the most significant holidays in Islam.  This bedtime story is one you already know if you have had any encounter with Christianity at all.  God tells Abraham (the father of many nations, indeed) to slaughter his son as a divine sacrifice, a kind of test of his faithfulness.  His faith is exemplified in his willingness to do so (and in his son’s willingness in the Qur’an), but at the last minute, God provides a ram in the place of Ishmael (yeah, yeah, I know, it’s Isaac in Christianity).  As a result, come Wednesday, each family slaughters a “ram” in remembrance and thankfulness for the ram that “takes the place” of Ishmael.

It’s kind of like Easter in a way, what with Easter being the time we remember when Jesus “takes our place” sacrificing himself on the Cross, but somehow, Easter eggs, peeps, and green plastic grass just don’t really compare with actually slaughtering a ram.  With the feast quickly approaching, it’s forced me to think a lot about our two countries, our two religions, churches and mosques, and what’s at the heart of what we say we believe.

“The heart of what we say we believe” is an intentional way of phrasing that, because there’s always, always a gap between what we say and what we do.  We often try to bridge that gap by changing what we say rather than changing what we do.  That is, we justify our actions in light of what we really want out of life.  And rarely do we actually take the time to be self-aware enough to even try to understand why we make these kinds of decisions.

I think lately, especially, of all the bickering that happens in the church back home, some of which is so severe that good people are essentially forced out of their jobs or families no longer feel welcome or can even experience God in the very place where the doors are supposedly open and hospitality is supposedly “radical.”  Yeah right.  This has been on my mind with my parent’s recent decision to stop attending their own church and the church where I grew up.  And it’s a good example of that gap between who we say we are and how that differs from how we actually treat each other (and in the case of my home church, those things are clearly the absolute opposite of one another, sadly).  So part of me deeply wants to explore and understand that gap between what we do and what we really believe.

What I’ll see with my eyes next week is a sheep or goat who will be slaughtered and then eaten (I’m not sure yet if I’ll be served the entire head on a plate of rice or couscous or whatever, but fair warning now – if you don’t want to see that, don’t look at my pictures next week).  What I can’t really see firsthand or ever begin to fully comprehend is how this act of slaughtering the ram will or will not impact the things my family believes about Islam.  Is it just a tradition to slaughter the animal, or does my family here experience something deeper, fully engaged in the metaphor for sacrifice and thanksgiving?  If so, how much and what does it really mean to them?

I can’t say what it means for them, and I suppose, at the end of the day, none of us can fully understand the hearts of even the closest people in our lives – family, friends, etc.  Sometimes, we don’t even understand our own hearts.  We just have to trust that what we do we do with the best intentions and that those intentions will have a lasting, meaningful impact on our lives and the lives of those around us.  Perhaps the greatest sacrifice we ever make is the one to take that leap of faith to love and trust other people more than we love and trust ourselves.  This year, as I watch the ram sacrificed for the first time, I’ll be thankful that I am here experiencing that and experiencing a little something beyond the rather small world I used to know.  Maybe I’ll try a little harder to practice the things I want earnestly to preach, to love and serve beyond myself and to take the scary risk to trust that everything works out okay in the end.

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