Dangerous Interfaith

The beginning of the quarter means meeting new people- classmates, students, and professors. We know the drill- introduce ourselves and tell the class what we do. My classmates give such eloquent introductions. They have their elevator pitches polished. I usually say, “I do interfaith studies.” Frankly, it doesn’t sound lyrical or complicated. Often puzzled looks lead to questions. “What do you mean by interfaith?”

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Photo by Efe Kurnaz on Unsplash

Right now I mean interfaith community building is nothing short of radical. Revolutionary. Extraordinary and necessary and dangerous. Creating relationships with people who disagree with our fundamental values sounds difficult and painful. It is, and it can be. But this mixing of unlikely subjects is disruptive. It calls the system and those in power to answer. You see, we have been socialized to stick to “our own kind.” This keeps those in power powerful, and those not in power disjointed. Of course, interfaith community building requires intentional time and real work for authenticity. Putting several “different” people in a room together is not community building.

Today we remembered Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy as a civil rights leader. Except when Dr. King died, he wasn’t a celebrated figure at all. Many literally hated him. The government feared him. Dr. King was a troublemaker of the worst kind. He didn’t demand violence as the way to create change. He used sacred words. He used community. He used prayer. He exegeted and sermonized.

One of the reasons Dr. King earned his menacing reputation was the people with whom he spent his time. Non-Christians, protesters, ex-convicts, journalists. People that the system would gladly have oppose each other, compete with each other, hate each other. Working across these lines caused the real disruption.

This is what I mean by “interfaith.” It’s not warm and fuzzy, not a conversation about our favorite foods or holidays (though awareness is important and helpful for base building). Community building is about shifting our needs from the center of ourselves to the center of the circle. In interfaith work, this means inconveniencing ourselves to get others at the table because representation matters. Community building also demands that we speak our truths and acknowledge when we have harmed. It should be celebratory too- when something joyful happens, we can feel ownership over that joy. This is horrifying to a system that keeps power by managing groups separately. King spoke of a Beloved Community that invoked theological underpinnings. Interfaith communities hold not one sacred claim, but many.

I read several articles about the birth of empathy today. The authors scattered words like compassion, benevolence and pity throughout the text to help us readers understand what sympathy is. The concept of empathy hasn’t existed for very long, but it makes a powerful claim- one that when we take the time to embody someone else’s suffering-to physically and mentally comprehend- it is as if the suffering is our own. I believe empathy evokes a kind of spiritual practice that puts ourselves into the world without apology and fully vulnerable.

Interfaith community building doesn’t require empathy necessarily. We can create strong relationships without fully embodying another’s experience, and often we should refrain from assuming we could ever understand the oppression of another. Empathy does help us disrupt, though. It blurs the lines of responsibility and leadership. At a table full of conflicting convictions, empathy says “you are welcome because you are.”

Eulogy for a Son

To say someone was “a good man” inevitably reduces them in their humanity. We hear this so often in times of grieving the death of a loved one. “He was a good man,” we say to the spouses, children, siblings. That’s a conclusion, a nice thing to say, and a phrase that means next to nothing.

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PC: Cristian Newman

This weekend I walked among the grieving. I nervously scrolled through Instagram in the ICU waiting room. Several huge families chattered loudly around me, telling stories and laughing. Remember when…Their presence soothed me. Indeed it is in times of great anxiety and subsequent loss when we bend the rules of life and duty to come together. I sat in a plastic chair in the hospital room with two longtime friends, carefully watching them as they gave their life updates (one, working at the Museum of Modern Art in Los Angeles, the other sharing progress on his girlfriend’s first storefront bakery). As they shared and listened, their eyes twitched frequently to the bed, looking for signs of change, movement, anything. I waited while my partner showered, letting the steaming water run down his face for the slightest relief, just in that moment. And I reminded him to breathe, in, out, every few minutes.

Today we honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his contributions to the Civil Rights Movement. A few of my friends on social media remind us that when Dr. King died, he was not deemed a national hero, he was in fact an enemy of the state. Mugshots. Questions surrounding his doctoral dissertation (did he plagiarize?), his fidelity (affairs?) and even tactics to make change and rise to fame have previously made me uncomfortable. How dare we challenge the greatness of a man whom today we consider one of the most important figures in United States and global history? And yet, how dare we not. How dare we write off Dr. King as a great man with a dream who never made mistakes or misjudged a moral compass. “He was a great man” stops us from recognizing how deeply complicated a human being he was, how deeply complicated we all are. Further, how complicated our relationships are.

In grieving we tend toward the absolute. It is soothing to feel appropriate sadness upon clutching the memories that highlight “the good.” Memories of laughter, of kindness, of pride the deceased felt at our accomplishments. Yet below these scenes rests the complexities of the person that truly defined their humanity, and that now defines our own. These past three days, I listened to many joyous memories of a person who by every means is honored and will continue to be so through the lives he touched. Alone with my partner, I listened to his discomfort about the rising memories that weren’t so joyous. He remembered feeling confusion, anger, even resentment. It was not easy to admit these feelings that still ruminate within, as if he were committing a crime by naming them.

Dr. King was a father, among so many other roles. His youngest daughter Bernice King was only five years old when her father was assassinated. I can’t comment on what kind of father Dr. King was, but I can wonder if he found fatherhood to be one of the most complicated journeys of his life. And I can wonder if his children feel the same about the life of their father- one worthy of timeless honor and full of complexity. When we embrace that discomfort, we truly honor a person, for we honor ourselves as flawed and yet capable. We are not just “great” people, we are all miracles because of the fact that we are people.

I witnessed so much Revolutionary Love this weekend- not without tears and tension. Metta for the grieving, and for those who have and will continue to show up.