I wrote last week about my experience attending an inter-faith round table dialogue hosted by the Turkish Cultural Center and a Jewish synagogue. These are some further observations from that event.
I am a Christian male with white skin.
I recognise that this “accident” of birth gives me advantages that I don’t fully appreciate. For instance, my friend recently pointed out in a blog how eurocentric it is that European scholars get to name the study of God “theology” and every other group needs to hyphenate their perspective of this study: liberation-theology; feminist-theology; African-American-theology; etc. I live in a society that for hundreds of years has largely been developed for guys like me.
When I walk into a room filled with Jews and Muslims I suddenly find myself a minority. Although I’m a foreigner living in the United States, my adjustments still pale compared to those of Turkish immigrants. Unlike the Jews, I haven’t needed to navigate how employer will allow me to practice my observation of Sabbath or other religious holidays.
I’ve been a minority before. I’ve traveled. I’ve sat in Bible studies where I’ve been a minority. I even joined the Malaysian Student Association while at university. This experience instantly puts me in a situation where I don’t have the answers any more. I’m in a social situation where other people are the experts and I need to listen.
As I sat listening to the conversations between these two groups I became aware that many of the conversations revolve around the topic of how they interact with Christians. Christians ignore their religious customs. Christians rudely expect Jews and Muslims to participate in workplace Christmas festivities. Christians insensitively order pizza for a work lunch, but they all have sausage and pepperoni (pig meat) on them. Christians don’t attempt to understand their holidays but expect them to observe Christian holidays.
As the lone Christian in the room this was a fascinating insight. They regarded all Americans that weren’t adherents to another religion as “Christian”. They viewed Christmas and Easter as deeply religious. But not Thanksgiving.
Every negative interaction they had with a “Christian” in the workplace, or school, or government bureaucracy, influenced the way they viewed Christians. This was true even though many people celebrating Christmas would not describe themselves as Christians. This was true even though the person who offended them may have been an atheist.
While their experiences were very real, and regrettable, their interpretation of them wasn’t very accurate. They would use their experiences as a preliminary filter for their interactions with me, and my church, although my beliefs and behaviours might be very different from the other people with whom they’ve interacted.
The experience of sitting at a table with these people reminds me that not everyone sees the world as I do. As someone representing the dominant culture in my community it’s vital that I listen to minority communities and understand their needs and concerns. I cannot presume to know their circumstances simply by interpreting them through the filter of my personal experiences.