This Advent season may we find ways to take on this supreme religious challenge of seeing God’s image in someone who is not in our image and offer them welcome.
During their middle school years, our youth spend a semester of Sunday School learning about the major religions—Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism. We call this semester of study “Coexist.” At the end of our study they all receive a diploma—a Coexist bumper sticker. A beautiful byproduct of this study is that the youth end up learning more about their own religion as well. Seen in the context of other world religions they can appreciate and understand more fully our Christian story.
This was one of the takeaways from the book Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others by Barbara Brown Taylor. Barbara shares that it was through teaching College Religion 101, that her own faith broadened and deepened.
One of the experiences I love most as we go through Coexist is our Urban Immersion trip to Milwaukee. In 24 hours, we experience three different religious settings—we go to the Milwaukee Islamic Society, the Sikh Temple of Oak Creek, and Greater Mt. Sinai Church of God in Christ. Despite being religious strangers, we are welcomed and even blessed in a way that is different from what we have experienced before.
Being welcomed as a religious stranger was especially poignant and tender during our visit at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek in the fall of 2012, two months after the deadly shooting in 2012 at their temple. A member of the Temple welcomed us and was our guide as we toured their Temple and learned about their religious practices and beliefs. We were asked all to put on head scarves before we entered their holy place of worship. What seemed like a simple act of kindness turned into a beautiful moment of welcome for me when our guide helped tie a scarf around my head. In that preparation and welcome, a sense of expectancy stirred in me—something was about to happen. My heart and mind were open as I stepped into their holy place.
On that day, the Sikh community extended to us tangible acts of kindness—assisting us with our head scarves, explaining to us about Sikhism, showing us around and offering us food. But what was for me the most powerful act of kindness and welcome was in what they didn’t do. They didn’t try and convert us. They welcomed us, offered us hospitality, engaged in conversation about our religions, and because of that we were blessed. They modeled for me how to offer welcome to a religious stranger.
Our theme for Advent is welcoming the stranger, welcoming the “Other.” This idea for Advent came about after our Home Group Studies of the book Holy Envy. We wanted to continue thinking and learning about what it means to welcome the stranger which was one of the main ideas of the book.
As we study scripture, we see that the divine command to love the stranger shows up often in the Old Testament—some of those passages were read earlier. And in the New Testament we discover a number of stories that supported engagement with religious strangers. Taylor shares that in the biblical narratives, Jesus receives religious strangers more than once. “They enter stage left, deliver their blessing on the Christian gospel, and exit stage right, leaving their mark on a tradition that is not their own.”
I greatly appreciated, however, Taylor’s examination of how difficult this is. She quotes Jonathan Sacks from his book Not in God’s Name who shares that “People are born with two sets of primal instincts: altruism toward those in our own group and aggression toward others.” Taylor sees this played out in everything from football rivalry and political affiliation to racial division and armed combat. “Since most of us need to feel good about ourselves while we are acting aggressively toward others, we develop psychological mechanisms such as projection and scapegoating, which allows us to assign goodness to our group and badness to the other group…We bond best with our group when we confront an external enemy.” James Alison describes this propensity as well in his book Jesus the Forgiving Victim: “We are inducted into a world in which we are typically in rivalry with each other and conceive of our own security and well-being as something which depends on others being excluded from it.” We create an “Other”—an us vs. them mentality.
In our study group as we were discussing Holy Envy, the question was asked: Who was identified as “Other” as we were growing up? I shared that I grew up in a small town where there was no racial or ethnic diversity, but our family still found an “Other” to warn us of. And that other was Catholics. I was told to never marry a Catholic. In addition, I had a sense that those who did not have jobs, those who were “living off the government” were considered “Other.” Who was the identified “Other” as you grew up?
As I continue my study of the Christian faith, I see that the call, the challenge is to lean less on this human propensity of dividing and excluding and more on the call to be welcoming, listening, and learning especially offering that to others who are not like me. And this is the call that leads us to become more fully alive, more fully human—the hope of the Gospel.
One of the most poignant challenges shared by Taylor is a quote she offers from Jonathan Sacks: “The supreme religious challenge is to see God’s image in one who is not in our image.” Taylor expounds on this challenge with the following thought:
“If Sacks is right, then the stranger—the one who does not look, think, or act like the rest of us—may offer us our best chance at seeing past our own reflections in the mirror to the God we did not make up.”
Seeing God’s image in someone we have defined as Other has huge implications. It increases understanding, helps to bridge cut-off, and deepens our sense of being human. I’m especially drawn to stories where we see this in action—where people transcend this notion of Other and make a human connection.
A powerful example of someone taking on this religious challenge is shared in the book The Gift of Our Wounds by Arno Michaelis and Pardeep Singh Kaleka. Arno, a former white supremacist recounts this experience: “A person I could never forget was an older black lady behind the counter at McDonald’s. As much as I tried to get her out of my head, she slipped from my subconscious into my thoughts at the most random times. I had been years since our encounter, yet I could still see her warm smile as clearly as if she were standing opposite me again.
It was during my early racist skinhead days that we crossed paths. I was working in the t-shirt factory, and on paydays I would treat myself to a Big Mac. One night I was at a party and they had a homemade tattoo machine. I got a swastika tattooed on my middle finger. The next time I went to McDonald’s, the old black lady was there. It had been easy enough to hide the sleeves of white power ink I had, but not the one my finger. ‘What’ll you have today, honey?’ she asked, her eyes literally shimmering with humanity. Placing my order, I found myself shoving my hands in my pockets so she wouldn’t see the tattoo. When it came time to pay, I fiddled every which way with my wallet in an attempt to hide it, but her eyes went right to my guilty hand. She looked up and our eyes met. I don’t know why I cared about what she thought of me, but I was ashamed she’d seen the swastika. I expected the cold shoulder or a lecture. ‘That’s not who you are. You’re better than that,’ she said softly, in the way that a doting grandmother might. I grabbed my burger and fled.”
This woman extended kindness, spoke truth, acknowledged Arno’s humanity and called him to live into a better, fuller humanity. She didn’t see Arno as an “Other” and therefore she wasn’t threatened by him. She saw him as a human being—someone made in God’s image. Arno’s encounter with that welcome forever changed his life.
The Sikh community of Oak Creek also powerfully displayed their ability to see God’s image in the Other. After the shooting, they covered up every bullet hole but one. The one remaining bullet hole is in the door frame as you go into their sacred worship hall. Underneath the hole are the words “We are One” with the date August 5, 2012. What a message to us all.
This Advent season may we find ways to take on this supreme religious challenge of seeing God’s image in someone who is not in our image and offer them welcome. And may we discover our image of God broaden and grow as we have opportunity to do this. Amen.