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Discrimination or discernment


I was asked to teach a lesson on gay marriage. I elected to lead a discussion on the larger topic of  discrimination and, in particular, the question: When, if ever, is it appropriate to impose our religious beliefs on others? And, its mirror, when if ever is it appropriate for others to impose their beliefs on us. These brief notes are my summary points from that discussion. Clearly, this topic deserves a book and not a page!

As Martin Marty notes, much of the conflict in the world today is the result of the collisions of faiths. America was in Niebuhr’s phrase a “gadget filled paradise” suspended above a world of conflict until 9/11 cut the cord that suspended us.

Psalm 14 admonishes us, rightly, that we are all sinners, but that too easily leads us to believe that none of us are fit to judge any of us. The result is a tolerance of a coarsening in American life and an inability to judge right from wrong. In fact our willingness to tolerate all manner of behavior is what infuriates conservative religious people of all faiths, Muslim, Christian and Jew.

Most of us perceive that educating our children so that they have good judgment and are carefully discriminating is good and important. Live and let live is better when applied to our neighbor than to our children.

So, when is it right to be discriminating and when does that turn into discrimination? When is it right to have good judgment and when does that turn into prejudice? Where does spiritual discernment fit into this?

Consider the following situations:

Is it right for a teacher to correct a child’s algebra? Their punctuation? Their language? (Is Black English an independent language?) Their dress? Their beliefs? Should we allow evolution (as much of a fact as algebra to most scientists) to be taught in school? Should the teacher correct the student who believes that humans coexisted with dinosaurs 6,000 years ago?

Is it right for shopkeepers to make moral judgments on customers? Should a clerk at Borders refuse to sell Playboy magazine? Should a pharmacist at CVS or Walgreens deny contraceptives to a customer? Should a gun dealer be required to ask of a customer the purpose for the purchase?

All these illustrations involve conflicting religious beliefs. The sad fact is that it took a secular federal law in this country to prevent one religion from imposing its beliefs on another. Conservative believers of every stripe continue to wish to impose their beliefs on others on grounds that they are in the Bible, or the Koran, or the Torah and, therefore, come from God and not from mere mortals.

Answers to these issues are hard to come by. Marty suggests a part solution is to practice biblical hospitality. He argues that tolerance is passive; hospitality is active. I suggest below after the Marty excerpts that being hospitable means sharing stories, that what divides us is our stories, and that as we listen and absorb each other’s stories, so we will find it much harder to say, “Here be monsters” to the strangers in our midst.

Martin E. Marty, Extracts from Faiths in Collision

The collisions of faiths, or the collision of people of faith, are among the most threatening conflicts around the world in the new millennium. They grow more ominous and even lethal every season. Lulled as many in the West are when their neighbors and fellow citizens appear to be religiously indifferent and genially tolerant, they overlook trends that threaten the fabric of serene life everywhere.

These collisions occur when two communities of faith, which are strangers to each other, have to share the same space and resources or when two factions within a faith community become estranged. My thesis is that the first address to these situations should not be the conventional plea for tolerance among them, but is rather a call that at least one party begin to effect change by risking hospitality toward the other. Conversation and interplay follow the acts of reception; both are full of risk.

. . . Reinhold Niebuhr once said that the United States was a gadget-filled paradise suspended in a hell of international insecurity. The intrusion of murderous fanatics on September 11, 2001 cut the cord by which this paradise had been suspended and broke open out isolation.

. . . In 1493 Hartmann Schedel in his map of the known world wrote around the edges, “here be monsters!” Gradually, though, as Renaissance Europe began to meet the people beyond its borders they discovered that not all the strangers were monsters. Sadly in our time, too many people of faith have come to feel that those who disagree with them are indeed monsters cf. the rhetoric of Episcopal dissenters, Southern Baptists, Muslims

Around the world, there is a massive, convulsive, in-gathering of peoples into their separatenesses and over-againstnesses to protect their pride and power and place from others who are doing the same. But I’ve tried to find out what they have in common, and more and more I’m coming to develop a thesis that “the stranger” is the problem. In a way in the Anglican Church, the stranger is the booming Anglican Church of Nigeria, which is a very, very different culture than the Episcopal Church in the United States; and therefore they may share their faith in God, their faith in Christ, their faith in and use of the prayer book, and yet they are strangers to each other in this vast cultural difference.

So I’ve been working with a wonderful concept from the ancient world, particularly biblical – “risking hospitality.” What do you do with the stranger? Hospitality can be just a bright little summer resort word – the hospitality industry, which we all like; but I’m talking about risking hospitality. And if you look at the Hebrew scriptures – Christian Bible – there are few things you can do that are more problematic that being inhospitable and unwelcoming. If you think about the culture in which this occurs, this is a nomadic culture; these are people living in tents. There are no safe deposit boxes where you can put the jewelry or anything like that; and somebody comes there and you must take them in. It was a command,  and throughout there’s always the reminder to the children of Israel – remember, that you were once locked out and now God’s accepted you, now you must accept the stranger.

What does that mean? Well, let me take the simplest little example – home. If you come to the Marty house for dinner, people of many faiths are there, and we don’t take the crucifix off the wall, or the picture of Mary off the wall, or the saints. I think we talk differently, and we listen differently, and you listen differently. Nobody gets converted by it,  but we’re both changed by it. Friday night and the Marty’s are coming to a Jew’s home, so they say, “Well, the Marty’s are here and they’re Christian so tonight we’ll skip the wine and the candles.” No, we’re there because of that! How do we learn you and know you?

Risking hospitality. You haven’t profaned it; you haven’t cheapened it by doing that.  Two nights after 9/11 my wife and I were having a Victorian supper on our Victorian porch in our Victorian house in our Victorian town, and it was dusk and we looked across the street. There was a funny motion with some candles. Well, it was two of our neighbors’ kids who live next door to each other, a Catholic and Jew, and the parents were teaching their children a ritual to be mindful of the mosque not far from us which had been attacked right after 9/11. But there was an attack there, and as I have tried to de-sentimentalize the concept of the stranger, it was not a pure mosque: one of the people arrested and quite likely funneling funds to terrorists was a member of that mosque. Nobody could know that, but there’s a risk with hospitality. But they were teaching them that, and those children are never going to forget – the incorporation of the other. And the rabbi not far north of us said if they come to your mosque again, I have 300 members who will lock arms around the outside and they won’t get through to you. This is what I mean by risking hospitality. The one child is not less Catholic, the other is not less Jewish, the people in the mosque are not less Muslim, and they have an absolutely different relationship than they had previously.


What is life but the accumulation and the recounting of memories? Some are real, based on our own experience; others are imagined, often based on hearsay. Real or imaginary, they all exert great power over us and are the basis of the stories that we tell one another.

As the actual events fade into history, memories often grow richer, become conflated with other memories, allowing the story to become embellished to where David killed his thousands instead of merely his hundreds.

Some stories become part of the national psyche and define the nation. The English remember Agincourt, the French the Revolution, Americans the Alamo, white South Africans the Battle of Blood River. Most of these stories are retold to bolster our own inadequacies by demonizing the other. We are the strong because we remember how we defeated the weak.

So, how does one drive the demons away? The answer in South Africa was to tell each other stories. Truth was supposedly recounted in public. Was it truth? Or was it, as the critics of the process claimed, false memories? Does it matter? The story told was that person’s defining story. The listener was the demon in the story.

For the first time, we all sat and listened to one another’s stories. Their story became our story. Slowly and painfully we began to shape shared stories. Their memories, real or imagined, became part of our stories. And, as we began to build these shared tales, so the possibility of reconciliation among us became a possibility.

Many were never willing to listen then and still are not. Many claimed, perhaps rightly, that the stories were not based on facts – it never happened they said. They missed the whole point of the story telling. Many, particularly those living overseas, used the stories to demonize some of the story tellers. They too missed the whole point of the story telling.

The question that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission wants to place before all of us is whether we have the courage to sit down with our “others,” to tell them our story and to listen to them tell their story. The belief, perhaps naive, is that people across the world can, by this process, create shared memories and come to have stories in common.

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