"So, how did you find yourself living in Arizona?" I asked the twenty-something year old during a recent visit to the United States. She took a deep breath and told me that she and her family are Muslim and lived in Bosnia during the war which saw the country torn apart by terrible conflict including genocide, mass rape, and other horrific atrocities. She spoke of how the Christians came to their town and told them they needed to convert to Christianity or face the consequences which included the loss of livelihood, imprisonment or death.
She shared the remarkable story of her mother’s courage, tenacity, and ingenuity as she single-handedly managed to get her family to refugee-weary Germany. Temporarily safe in Germany, her mother applied to the USA for refugee status, all the while caring for her family and sending what she could to her family back home, often hidden in jars of fruit jam.
I listened to her story, and I felt sad, and to be honest, embarrassed. Again, some very damaged, power hungry individuals had hijacked religion as a means to legitimize their greed and oppression of others. I said to her, "You know, I am a follower of Jesus, and I am deeply sorry that this happened to you and your family. Please understand that not all Christians are like what you experienced. Please know it was not Jesus who did that to you." By this time we all had a couple of tears in our eyes, as she shared how they were successful and were granted refugee status in the States, settling in the Midwest. She then smiled and said, "Do you know who sponsored us and supported us as we started our new life in the States?" "Catholic Charities."
This story illustrates that the knife cuts both ways. For the Muslim woman, the terrorists of a sort were not Muslim extremist but, in fact, Christian. Personally, as a follower of Jesus, I do not want to be associated with the actions of folks who force Muslims to convert, who burn the Quran in some petty protest, who murder abortionists, or picket dead soldiers funerals. I have nothing of substance in common with those who oppress any group for whatever the reason (race, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual orientation) and I suspect the lion’s shares of Muslims do not want to be associated with those who engage in the extremist activities in the name of Islam.
The problem, of course, is not just a religion problem. There are folks in almost every stream of humanity that for whatever reason behave in some really terrible ways. The challenge remains, how can we avoid the broad and indiscriminate generalizations that seem so natural for us to make? Perhaps we are genuinely afraid of those who are different from us or maybe we feel better about ourselves when we can look down on another group. Maybe it is just easier to lump all these people together, so we never have to take the risk of learning that they really aren't all that different than we are. Perhaps, and just wondering out loud, in focusing on the evils of another group we don't have to face our own.
Just for fun, consider the following groups of people and what is the first thing that comes to mind - First Nations, the poor, the rich, LGBT, Conservatives, Liberals, men, women, teens, the elderly ... you get the point. Regrettably, stereotypes are in many ways embedded in our cultural consciousness, and I think the first step in dealing with them is to realize that perhaps they are alive and well within us in some shape or form. Next, what if we were to look for those things we have in common with people instead of those things that divide us. I suspect we will all be pleasantly surprised.
Let me end with a thought attributed to Mother Teresa of Calcutta:
"When we judge others we leave no room to love them.”