This week, I ran across two stories that struck me. In some ways, they could not be more divergent, but in other ways, they echoed. Both had to do with faith communities and how one, directly, responded to a threat and how another refused to see one. One subject sought to destroy a house of worship and those within it by using lethal force, whereas, in the other story, the subject labored for years alongside others to build a house of worship but ultimately found their treatment within that culture so untenable that their conscience left them no choice but to leave. In both stories, love is the victor.
The first story is of a man with so much angst inside that he was driven toward destruction as he angrily approached a mosque in his hometown at prayer time. He looked every bit the former US Marine that he was with the grudges of war etched on his face and coursing through his body, evident by his angry movements and deeply flushed skin. He was furious that those who represented what he viewed as a murderous ideology, were now his neighbors in America’s heartland. He had fought in a war against Muslims and his training had conditioned him not to see their humanity, but to see them as nothing more than paper targets. They surely had no place in his America.
In the second story, the subject was a long-time member of a church organization. She was as far into the ‘in group’ as she could be despite being a woman. She had labored for decades to teach the Bible, create devotionals and bible studies and participate as the keynote speaker at well-attended events. She brought widespread notoriety to the organization and appeared to be in lock-step with it, teaching scripture in accordance with what was expected by the men in charge. She believed in what she taught and in the organization’s priorities. Then trouble came. She was shocked that these very men with whom she’d worked and shared common goals were willing to accept and support an openly misogynistic public figure and further, sexual abuse investigations had begun into some of the very men in her organization. She soon felt like a stranger and absorbed the sting of many attacks from those within the organization she once loved. Due to taking a principled stand, she was in the crosshairs whether she wanted to be or not.
Both subjects experienced enormous pain inflicted by the systems within which they had lived, finding themselves unmoored –untethered to the very things they had long adopted as right and true. The clearly defined roles they had come to embody had vanished. They were adrift in painful ways.
On that fateful day when the ex-Marine approached the mosque with his blood boiling, he was not met with fear. Perhaps it was there below the surface, but what was demonstrated was something else. Confronted by avatars of those he had fought and killed, he was shown kindness and love. Those proffering the gifts knew hate and war themselves, yet their faith dictated kindness toward the stranger. Through acts of kindness rooted in hospitality bridges were built over time, and deep relationships were formed.
Our other subject‘s conscience left her no choice but to publicly disaffiliate with the organization to which she’d belonged for decades. Perhaps the COVID pandemic where most lived a bit more isolating existence made it easier at first. But when the pandemic was waning and churches were once again opening their doors, she, likely feeling a bit battered, had no place of worship where she felt she was connected, more-or-less inconspicuous, and importantly, a place to which she could attribute the belongingness she dearly missed. Finally, feeling forced out of her familiar surroundings, she wearily ventured into an altogether different worship environment and was greeted not as a stranger, not as a threat, but with kindness and gentleness. Absent was the weight of who others thought she should or might be. She was shown hospitality in word and deed. A sense of welcome warmed her to the very depths of her soul. The kindness of strangers built bridges and love paved them. She had found a place to belong.
As I look around today, I see a society where fundamentalism has crept in and is wreaking havoc. It would be a mistake to assume that fundamentalism dwells singly among conservative Evangelicals. Dictionary.com defines fundamentalism as a “strict adherence to the basic principles of any subject or discipline”. Fundamentalism is seen daily in sharp relief when lawmakers take an “our way or the highway” approach and is present where sides refuse to govern in good faith by conversing with and working alongside each other with the goal of helping more than just those who agree with them. Fundamentalism is exhibited when disagreements become insurmountable when one group fails to see those in the other camp as just as human as they. Fundamentalism, rather than seeing humanity standing before it, sees a despised ideology or lifestyle unworthy of deeper consideration. Rather than seeing space for honest disagreement among equals or allowing for different interpretations, fundamentalism feels threatened—and those who threaten it become foes to be vanquished. Fundamentalism is given far too much air when those on either side of an issue discuss newsworthy topics and find it easier to make war against people who hold dissimilar views, rather than to honestly and ethically engage or even disagree with civility about opposing views.
Nobody wants to live in a war zone of words or projectiles. War zones are dangerous. Those affected must remain in a heightened posture of alertness, food and warmth are scarce and this all takes a massive toll on the body and its endocrine system. Friends and family are killed, and life is ruled by ever-present anxiety.
If we look at the two stories shared above, we see a different model than that which is on prominent display in America today. In these stories, artificial dividing lines were not drawn in the sand, instead, invitations were extended so each might walk alongside the other. We see people, in their humanity and informed by their faith tradition offer aid to the wounded. They offer kindness, love and hospitality. It is only upon these foundations that a kind and ethical society can be built.
When we engage in wars of ideologies that cause others to be injured, we display a lack of personal ethics and a lack of self-respect. We shame ourselves and dishonor the Christ we claim to follow.
In church this past Sunday, we were reminded by our rector of just how remarkable the conversation that took place between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, which also happens to be the longest recorded conversation with Jesus. That conversation was entirely countercultural in that two sects were represented who had a long history of disrespect for each other and to add another layer of complexity, they were represented by opposite genders. Despite running counter to significant cultural mores, a fruitful conversation was had because both were willing to engage.
Let us earnestly seek to emulate Christ, set aside our weapons, pick up our plowshares and truly see one another. Haven’t we had enough of war?
Photo credit: This macro image of air bubbles suspended in ice is an original creation of the essay author, Pamela Reynoso.