‘Interfaith’ isn't an option

I’ve come across a few articles lately that have given an interesting perspective when it comes to religions crossing paths. The most recent was an NPR article detailing the heroin addiction problem on the island of Zanzibar, where the mostly Muslim population stands in contrast to the majority Christian or indigenous beliefs of the Tanzanian mainland.

The story tells of the attempt to bring the 12-step program for addiction and recovery to the island in an effort to combat the heroin problem that thrives on an island serving as a smuggling stop between the Middle East and Europe. Given Zanzibar’s 99% Muslim population, the Christian roots of the recovery program have been met with some resistance. Still, it's having success; according to the article, eleven recovery houses have treated 3,000 addicts over the course of six years.

Some Christians readers might wonder, “What’s the big deal? The 12-step program uses ‘Higher Power’ language, right? So why can’t that be Allah for a Muslim addict?” Well, for some it can. But this question gets interesting when Christians ask themselves if they could take on such a profound spiritual experiment. Doing so gets at the tough work of interfaith learning and exchange.  

The resistance to a recovery program based in Christian spirituality seems odd to some until they think about their own openness to learning and experiencing the lessons present in other faith traditions. It’s interesting to watch the appropriation (and misappropriation) of the teachings of other faiths by Christians who would backpedal in a hurry if they realized the roots of those lessons (we’ve all seen the articles about yoga and the secular/spiritual separation). The important thing to realize is that we have much more to lose by ignoring these opportunities than we have to gain by running from them. 

The Christian tradition has been doing interfaith work, knowingly or unknowingly, since the beginning of the church catholic. The first followers of Christ were devout Jews in the Middle East. The first major formal relationship between the Christian body and the power of the state was championed by Constantine the Great, a worshipper of several Roman deities. This kind of cultural ebb and flow continued throughout the rise and spread of Christianity, from the lands and peoples of the Roman Empire to those of the modern Americas. 

We have to pause here and remember the danger associated with cross-faith and cross-cultural work. The meeting and melding of Rome and Byzantium with Christianity led to more than its fair share of oppression, war and cultural appropriation and/or destruction in the name of Christian imperialism and colonialism. Suleiman Mauly was a Muslim who found guidance and help in the Christian roots of the 12-step program and then brought that wisdom back to his own people. This is a significantly different thing than a Christian pushing Christian wisdom on a Muslim community. Interfaith work requires walking a fine line where we must seek to learn and engage with traditions while not cherry-picking only the things we like so that we can make them “ours.” Christianity and Christians aren’t alone in this problematic behavior by any means, but forgetting our past is a pretty sure way to repeat it.

Given the unpleasant possibilities, it’s no wonder that Abdulrahman Abdullah’s mother worried about the 12-step program being a conversion tool for her son. This is why we have to think carefully about how interfaith work is pursued and what our intentions are when we do. We also have to be prepared to ask how to think about efforts when they work and how we should proceed when they don’t. How might Christian spirituality and teaching be viewed by the community when it fails for someone like Mosi Tamim Khalfani, who left the program two days after telling her story and is believed to have relapsed? How do we keep the dialogue and relationship going in the hardest, most trying moments for interreligious dialogue?

One way is to keep it grounded. The practical work of interreligious dialogue and cross-faith practice is a day-to-day deal. Learning from someone requires patience, an open mind, and lots of trading notes about what works, what doesn’t, and why. Mindful awareness, a tenet of Buddhism, can calm the mind by focusing on the breath and has been shown to help anxiety and depression. It’s not the same thing as contemplative or centering prayer for Christians, but it’s a practice that a Christian can incorporate into their spiritual life in meaningful ways. It's a way to start a conversation with our neighbors (Buddhists, in this case). Like Mauly bringing the 12 steps to Zanzibar, it’s a tangible way to connect and see how inter-faith work can help all involved.

We are a faith of interfaith work. It’s never been easy, as extreme differences, wrapped in political, social and religious garb, have led to conflicts time and time again. We face that same tension today when extremist violence and oppression — whether Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu or the myriad faith traditions you can name — causes us to question the humanity of those not on “our team.” We wonder if learning from the stranger will cause us to lose our own sure footing. We worry that we’ll get burned if we get too close to the beliefs of the unfamiliar neighbor.

The point is this: just because embracing the wisdom of another faith tradition isn’t easy doesn’t mean that it shouldn't be done, or that it can’t be rewarding and life-changing. Those finding healing in Zanzibar are well aware. As Christians, we are called to love our neighbor in the face of all that is different or scary about that unknown person. We are called to talk with them, share with them, discover with them. We are called to meet them where they are, love who they are as Christ loves us. This is the movement of grace, flowing from Christ through us. And whether we like it or not, there is no deeply loving someone without deeply learning from them.

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