My children do not have perfect manners. My spouse and I are sometimes disappointed that two perfectly intelligent teenagers who were raised with repeated choruses of “Don’t talk with your mouth full,” “Get your elbows off the table,” and “Don’t just come up and interrupt when I am having a conversation with someone” still have to be reminded of such basic rules of etiquette. Recently, in a fit of frustration I asked them why it seems so hard for them to abide by such basic rules. “Because,” my daughter told me, “I don’t get why it matters. Who cares if I have my elbows on the table”? And I realized that for all of my teaching and nagging I had failed to get across the basic point: etiquette does not exist to make people hypervigilant and uncomfortable. It was not created for some people to use to ostracize others. Manners were developed to make people more comfortable with one another – to facilitate communication and encourage positive relationships. Except that when we get to a fancy dinner and don’t know what fork to use, it’s easy to forget. It’s easy to feel awkward and embarrassed. It’s easy to feel left out.
I think the same thing can be said for religion. Despite the fact that many of us have benefitted from being part of religious groups, many others have felt marginalized by religions. That’s what happens when we forget the real reason for the existence of faith communities. God did not create “religion” – people did. Churches, synagogues, mosques and temples do not exist because God needs them. They were built by people for people. And, as far as I know, they were not created to make people anxious and uncomfortable. They were not created to shut people out. They were created to provide people with a place where they could refresh their spirits – where they could grow and become better people – where they could be in relationship with others.
But for many years – thousands of years – people have used religion to separate themselves from one another and to destroy relationships rather than build them. Once, in response to one of my posts in which I talked about the necessity of loving one another – a bedrock principle of Christianity – a man told me that “More people have died as a result of Christianity than anything else.” I don’t think there’s any historical merit to his opinion, but there is certainly a great deal of support for the argument that millions of people have died as a result of the rigid and zealous religiosity of others. I would argue, however, that in most cases, religious violence is not the result of actions based on the fundamental precepts of the religions themselves. Most of the established religions in the world today, including Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism, are based on principles of growth, goodness, and spiritual enlightenment. But people often lose sight of simple moral truths when these ideas are co-opted in the service of human frailties like fear, greed, and the desire for power. This has led to distorted perceptions about the differences between us, rather than a focus on the things we have in common.
And I think that this is still the case. This is evidenced by three of the headlines on a recent religious news blog: “This US company just banned Muslim prayer breaks;” “Russian Orthodox patriarch blames acceptance of homosexuality for ISIS’s rise;” and “British PM to Muslim immigrant women: learn English or risk deportation.” These stories emphasize difference rather than solidarity. The same is true of the story of Larycia Hawkins, a political science professor at Wheaton College who in December posted a picture of herself on Facebook wearing a hijab, a traditional Muslim garment. Hawkins, who is a tenured professor at the Christian college and is herself a Christian, indicated that she planned to wear the hijab in support of her Muslim brethren, who have, as a group, been undergoing increasingly prejudicial treatment in the United States and other countries. In her post, Hawkins said that she believes Christians and Muslims share the same God. As a result of her action, Hawkins was suspended and is in jeopardy of losing her job because, according to college officials, her statement does not reflect the school’s beliefs. I am not a Wheaton college student, teacher, administrator, or faculty member, so I can’t speak to their specific creed, but I am a Christian -and the idea that all religions share the same God does not contradict my beliefs. The treatment that Hawkins has received at the hands of her Christian colleagues does, however. It belies the notion of a loving God. It thumbs its collective nose at the great commandment to love one another. And it certainly does not encourage either communication or relationship.
Sadly, the same can be said of the actions recently taken by the Anglican Primates to effectively “suspend” the Episcopal Church’s membership in the Anglican Communion. The reason for their decision is the vote by “the Episcopal Church’s General Convention last July to change canonical language that defines marriage as being between a man and a woman… and authorize two new marriage rites with language allowing them to be used by same-sex or opposite-sex couples.” The truth is that the Episcopal Church’s decision was not an easy one. There are many people both within and outside of the Episcopal Church that struggled with it, but, ultimately, as Episcopal Presiding Bishop Michael Curry put it, “Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all.” It is consistent with the theology of the Episcopal Church, which reflects a desire to understand both Holy Scripture and church tradition in proper context and to develop that understanding through open communication and in relationship with others. This requires intense thought and a willingness to be both socially and spiritually vulnerable. It is not easy. But it is, I believe, the right approach to religion. It requires mental flexibility and constant prayer. It looks for divine inspiration through inspired consultation with others. It involves studying “the rules” and then using them not to exclude, but to include, not to isolate but to communicate, not to hate, but to love.
The truth is that religious beliefs have and continue to cause conflict, but it is also true that they build community and encourage spiritual growth. Many religious communities are places of love and acceptance – and all religions communities can be. We just need to remember why we have them. That’s just good manners.
“Matthew Davies, (January 14, 2016), “Majority of primates call for temporary Episcopal Church sanctions,” Episcopal News Service, http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/ens/2016/01/14/majority-of-primates-call-for-temporary-episcopal-church-sanctions/.