Us & Them

Grant Montgomery – Grant’s Rants on Christians in a Multi-Faith World

I’ve heard deeply earnest and highly committed Christians raise questions about what it means to be a Christian in a multi-faith world. Two key questions emerge:
1. Does Christian fidelity require us to stand against Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Judaism, and other religions as rivals, imposters, or enemies?
2. Is it possible to be both faithful to Christian faith and charitable to other faiths?

Some have a strong Christian identity that responds negatively toward other religions. In other words, the stronger the Christian commitment, the stronger the aversion or opposition to other religions. The stronger the Christian commitment, the more emphasis of our differences with other faiths, and the framing of those differences in terms of good/evil, right/wrong, and better/worse.

We may be friendly to individuals of other religions, but our friendship always has a pretext: We want them to switch sides and be won over to our better way. We love them (or say that we do) in spite of their religious identity, hoping that they will see the light and abandon who they have been, to find shelter under the tent of who we are.

Alternately, others of us know how to have a more positive, accepting response to other religions. We never proselytize … but achieve coexistence through weakening our Christian identity.

I feel two opposing realities churning within me. On the one hand, I feel the pull of Jesus’ words “Blessed are the peacemakers,” … But on the other hand, I keep noticing how my religion has, over its first 2000 years of history, spent too little energy making peace, and too much erecting and perfecting walls of separation, suspicion, and hostility. …

This is the message that comes to me from the centers of religious power: I can’t belong to Us unless I am against Them. If you dare depart from traditional identity categories, you will be seen with suspicion by your former colleagues in that zone. They will see you as violating the “Us-ness” by which you once identified with them.

All of us are poised between “Us” and “the Other”. If we defend ourselves against “the Other”, we gain credibility with “Us”. Ironically, “Us” can be as great a threat to each of us as “the Other” is, probably greater. “Us” might withdraw its approval of me. It might label me disloyal, non-supportive, unbeliever, unorthodox, anathema, etc. To be rebuked, marginalized, or excluded by “Us” is an even greater threat than to be attacked by “the Other”.

I don’t think Christians [as well as those of other faiths] often realize the great degree to which we live in fear of “Us”.

The tensions between our conflicted religions arise not from our differences, but from one thing we all hold in common: An oppositional religious identity that derives strength from hostility.

Once the target of hostility is identified, our threatened group identity begins to energize itself by emphasizing our goodness and the target’s evil, our innocence and the target’s guilt, our uniqueness or chosen-ness and the target’s banality, our desire for peace and the target’s desire for violence, and so on. Thus we are given permission to see ourselves as good, as innocent victims, as lovers of peace who are authorized to use violence in order to restore peace. And we are given permission to see the enemy as irrational, evil, demonic, even subhuman.

This further promotes a mentality of “Us” versus “Them” … to see sameness a safety and otherness as danger. It teaches us to see the long-term existence of and well-being of “Them” or “the Other” as unacceptable, perhaps as an offense of a threat to “Us” and our religion.

But our root problem is neither religious difference nor religious identity. Our root problem is the hostility that we often employ to make and keep our identities strong –whether those identities are political, economic, philosophical, scientific or religious.

Concerning maintaining a strong Christian identity, here’s a third [and recommended] option: A Christian identity that is both strong and kind. …By “kind”, I mean something far more robust than mere tolerance, political correctness, or coexistence: I mean benevolent, hospitable, accepting, interested, and loving, so that the stronger our Christian faith, the more goodwill we will feel and show those of other faiths, seeking to understand and appreciate their religion from their point of view.

Shouldn’t it be possible to have a strong Christian identity that is strongly benevolent towards people of other faiths, accepting them not in spite of the religion they love, but with the religion they love? … Could our love and respect for them as human beings lead us to a loving and respectful encounter with their religions as well?

[Inspired by “Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed cross the road?” by Brian D. McLaren]

Grant Montgomery – Grant’s Rants on Christians in a Multi-Faith World