Friday, March 31, 2006

More Than One Way

I love my street! We live on the 600 block of Q Street NW in Washington, DC. It's a great street filled with one hundred-year-old row houses and great neighbors. There are lots of great streets in DC, but of all of them, I love Q Street the most because it is, for me, home.

Q Street is also a one-way street. Washington, DC is notoriously difficult to navigate because there are so many one-way streets (not to mention all the circles). And although, in theory, Washington should be pretty simple to figure out because it's planned on a grid, if you get going the wrong way on a one-way street, you can be lost before you know it and have to find a way to turn around.

I guess that religion can sometimes be that way, too. You're headed the right way on the one-way street, and then you hit a circle, or a diagonal avenue and you are not sure what will happen to your straight-and-narrow path when you encounter all this other traffic coming and going in all these other directions. Will you be able to stay on track?

Last night I was invited to be part of a panel discussion on Transforming Images of the Prophet organized by the Interfaith Conference of Greater Washington. Rabbi Norman Shore, Imam Johari Abdul-Malik and myself discussed the recent cartoon scandal in Denmark, images of Islam in the media and in culture and the commonalities and differences in our faiths. It was a wonderfully rich experience and I learned a lot.

The people who came to the discussion were a diverse group. Many were Jewish or Christian or Muslim and came to engage in an interfaith dialogue from their particular perspective. There were others who believed that all religion was too narrow and saw themselves as interfaith. One man I talked to went to a Conservative Jewish synagogue, but was very well informed about the cartoon issue. Another woman told me she had been raised Jewish, but "didn't like all that sin stuff" and now considered herself "a little bit Christian, a little bit Jewish, a little bit Buddhist...". She went to a church called Unity (where she is studying to be a minister) and also to a kabbalist dream interpretation circle. It was quite an interesting group.

After the program part of the evening, I was talking with the Rabbi and the Imam (sounds like the beginning of a joke, doesn't it...), and a man approached us with a question. All three of our faiths taught us to love our neighbor, he said (correctly) and yet each claimed "priority status" with God--the Jews claim to be God's chosen people, Christians beleive that Jesus is God, and Islam claims that it's the only way. So how, he asked, can you really love someone if you think you are better than them?

It is a valid question, and I would not deny that Christians throughout history have engaged in some pretty awful things in the name of Christ who calls us to love--crusades, inquisitions, forced conversions, slavery--just to name a few. But for me, I said, I understand my call to love my neighbor comes from a place of humility and submission. Christ died for me while I was still a sinner, which means that I am not any better than others because Christ is my Savior, I am just (hopefully) different.

"But you think you are better than me because I don't believe in Jesus," this man said. "No, I don't," I replied, honestly. But all my earnestness was not changing his mind.

On the way home, of course, I thought of lots of things I wish I had said. The first of which is that, if I really thought I was better than people of other faiths, I wouldn't bother engaging in interfaith dialogue at all. But I truly want to learn and share with people of other faiths, and not because I want to make them Christian. My goal is not to become interfaith, but to be the best Christian I can be--which means being humble, and respectful and loving--and learn to speak to people of other faiths from my own Christian perspective.

The second is that I fully acknowldge that Christians have a long way to go in repenting for our sins of the past and earning the trust of people of other faiths (and people with no particular faith, too). And by being myself, that is, Christian, and working, studying and talking with people of other faiths with respect and honesty, I hope we will make some progress in building trust and reconciliation.

And finally, that the desire to be right or the best or even God's favorite is not part of religion, it's part of human nature. Human beings have used their religions to bully and oppress each other, but that's not what God intended for any of us. Arrogance is not of God, and it's certainly not a Christian virtue--it's a sin.

I wish I had thought to say all those things, but I didn't. But something makes me think that it probably wouldn't have mattered anyway. I didn't need to try and convince him with my words. I needed to show him with my actions--by loving him, too.

I love my one-way street. And I don't think Q Street is necessarily better than P Street or R Street. But it's my home. Christianity is also a one-way street when we take up our cross and follow Jesus. But our world is full of traffic circles where we encounter folks of other faiths, multipule faiths or no faith at all. The key is to drive well on the street you're on and when you get to those tough intersections, merge into traffic without crashing, and get back onto your one-way street on the other side.