I’ve had cause to reflect this week on the labels that religious people use to describe one another. I won’t go into details, but it’s partly because I’m having a painful experience (yet again) of being judged negatively simply because I am a Mormon. It’s hurtful, and it’s wrong, and it’s disquieting that this can still happen in 21st-century America.
On a more positive note, I’m also reflecting on the “labeling” issue because I’m reading Brian McLaren’s excellent new book Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Muhammad Cross the Road? -- which releases, appropriately enough, on September 11.
Brian and the amazing, lovely Phyllis Tickle were gracious enough to be interviewed at length last week for the Mormon Matters podcast, describing Emergence Christianity for a Mormon audience and also their thoughts on Mormonism and evangelicalism today.
In the podcast and in the book, Brian makes a compelling case for Christians to prioritize interfaith understanding. The problem of pluralism, he says, is not our differences but our similarity: we try to build a strong identity by creating fear and hostility to the other. Our common rigidity is the real issue, not differences in belief or practice among various faith traditions.
This view has gotten him in trouble many times with folks from his own religion. At this summer’s Wild Goose Festival, Brian told a story about becoming acquainted with Muslim scholar Dalia Mogahed, author of Who Speaks for Islam? In getting to know him, she Googled his name with “Islam” and “Muhammad” to see how he had discussed her religion. She was worried that he had, like so many of his evangelical contemporaries, promoted stereotypes and misunderstandings about Islam.
However, every place she found his name, she discovered that he had tried to build peace with Muslims.
So far, so good. But she also saw that this peacemaking had gotten him in hot water with fellow Christians. The last line of her email, one of the most moving compliments he had ever received, was something like:
“Thank you for having the courage to speak up for peace. Lives are saved when people take these risks. You are a true Christian.”
I happen to agree with her about this respect being a mark of a true Christian. My Christian faith is best expressed when I am showing love and hospitality to God’s children, which begins by refusing to categorize them as “Other.”
Sometimes this might mean defying the apparently innocuous language that our own group might use to classify those around us. For example, I’ve written before about why I won’t refer to my husband using the typical LDS terminology of “non-Mormon.” My husband is not a non-Mormon. Such language suggests that being Mormon is normative and everything else is Other, inferior, lacking. He is so much more: a pianist, an engineer, a home improvement nut, a Car Talk fan, a pun-loving wisecracker, and an Episcopalian.
Mormons like me often find ourselves on the receiving end of religious prejudice but too rarely take the time to see where we might perpetuate it ourselves. Some of us have lauded our own institution as “the only true and living church on the face of the earth” before taking the time to learn about other traditions, attend their services, or unpack the nuances of their history. I have heard it taught in Relief Society that “members of other churches never tithe” (not true) and in sacrament meeting that “other churches believe that the days of miracles have ceased” (which is patently ridiculous to anyone who spends time with Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Christians).
Mormons don’t repeat such statements because they’re factually true, but because they can be employed to successfully police the boundaries of our own identity formation. Religious groups emphasize their own exceptionalism by pointing out areas where we imagine others are subpar. In our exceptionalism, Mormons are sadly unexceptional.
But why can’t we construct a strong identity of our own without denigrating others?
Brian’s Mormon Matters interview and his new book propose a Christian identity that is strong in its own beliefs but also benevolent to others. “The stronger your love for Christianity, the greater your love for all people, including other Christians who disagree with you,” he insists.
Amen to that.