A Jew, a Muslim and a Christian Sat Down at a Table, Again

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.

A Jew, a Muslim and a Christian Sat Down at a Table

My discussions on this blog usually revolve around issues related to churches with a mix of black and white members, because that is where I live. On Sunday I had the opportunity to attend an Interfaith Roundtable Discussion hosted by the local Turkish Cultural Center and a local Synagogue.

The Turkish Cultural Center only moved into the neigbourhood a year or so ago. The arrival of a Muslim organization raised a few eyebrows among people I talked to. In about August I made the decision to introduce myself and spent an hour or so talking to the director of the Peace Islands Institute that the TCC sponsors. Peace Islands is like a public relations branch that seeks to facilitate dialogue with groups who only know Muslims through what they see on the nightly news.  As a result of that visit I am now on their email list and receive invitations to their various community events. This was my first opportunity to attend.

muslim jew 01I really wasn’t sure what to expect as I turned up at this event on Sunday, but I enjoyed the experience. The theme for the day was “Interfaith Interactions Within Our Social Circles”. Rather than the series of lectures that I was expecting, the facilitators had us sit at tables with people of other faiths. Strangely, with about 50 people present, I was the only Christian representative in the room. As I was attending in order to observe and learn I chose not to declare my faith affiliation and limited my discussion mostly to questions. Each table was given a sheet of discussion questions and every ten minutes of so a spokesperson from each table would share our main thoughts with the rest of the room. Here’s a sampling of the questions:

  • How do you interact with people from other faiths when you know it is their holiday? (eg Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hannukuh, Ramadan)
  • Have you greeted people of other faiths on their holidays? How did you feel about it? Do you know and follow your own religious practice whether it promotes or limits well wishes?
  • At the work place where people are of different faith groups, do you eat together and join conversations?
  • You are watching a game in a public place where there are people from other faith groups, and some of these people support your team, how do you interact with them during that time? Do you share your excitement with them? Does your or their attention shift to a curiosity about what you are, or what they are?
  • How do you manage/strategize your communication on social media? Are there moments you are being offended or you think it is offensive? How do you handle it, react to it?

What I appreciated about this process is that it focused upon the common ground between Muslims and Jews. In this way they could learn from each other.

  • They are each minority religious groups within American culture.
  • They each have distinct religious dietary restrictions.
  • They each have holidays unique to their religion/culture.
  • They each often feel like they live in a hostile environment.
  • Most members of each group are first or second generation immigrants.
  • Many members of each group speak English as a second language.

Does it surprise you to consider that Jews and Muslims in the U.S. share so many experiences? Are you amazed that members of these two religions can sit around a table and share experiences and learn from one another? The TV talking heads would have us believe the two groups should be firing rockets at each other.

Of course, I imagine that there are topics of conversation that would raise the heat in the room, but it’s impressive what can be accomplished when we decide to focus on what we share in common rather than our differences.

I believe that churches can learn a lot from this process.

I’m not suggesting that we should sweep all differences under the rug, but most often when the proliferation of mono-racial churches is discussed, all I hear are the differences: race, culture, worship style, preaching style, food…. We need to find ways to remind each of our common ground, our holy ground, without sacrificing our cultural identities.

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
(Ephesians 4:4-6 NIV)