My friend April grew up a church girl. She attended Bible camp and Sunday school, sang Christian songs, and went on mission trips. When she was a senior at Carleton College in Minnesota, she was elected the leader of her campus Christian group.
That year, a mosque in the Twin Cities suffered an arson attack, and the imam sent out an appeal to religious leaders across the state to stand with his community against religious discrimination. April, who had grown close to Muslims during mission trips to Russia, thought this was exactly the right thing to do. She presented her plan at the next meeting of the Christian group and was surprised when it was greeted with stony silence. Finally, someone spoke: “Why are you asking us to support devil worship?” April looked around the room and saw the other members of the group nodding.
April had a big problem. Her conscience was telling her to be a witness against a hate crime; her Christian group was telling her to applaud it. April made her choice: She went to the rally in support of the mosque. The Christian group made its choice: Members voted to remove April as president.
If only this were a simple morality tale, the story of a heroic individual standing up against peer pressure. But April didn’t feel like a hero; she felt abandoned. A large part of her identity was being a Christian. The community she felt closest to her whole life was the church. And now she felt shoved out by that community and confused by that tradition. Furthermore, the members of the Christian group were not just vocal about their position, they were educated about it. They cited prominent Christian leaders on why the destruction of a mosque was a good thing (for example, it may lead some of the Muslims to consider attending a local church instead). So while the students who went to the rally in support of the mosque were labeled compassionate, the ones who applauded the arson were called “Christian.”
April felt in her bones that being Christian meant reaching out to neighbors in times of distress, regardless of their faith. But she, and others who felt like her, didn’t have faith language for their conviction. The net result? The most clearly articulated “Christian” response to the attack on that mosque was cheering.
In a world where people from different religions are interacting with greater frequency and intensity than ever before, the way faith identity is expressed can take several different forms:
• The Bubble. Attempting to seal your community off from diversity, or pretending to. In my experience, most people who try to build a bubble are simply blind to the reality of their encounters with the diversity.
• The Barrier. Highlighting the differences between your group and others in a way that basically says, “We can’t have anything positive to do with you.” This is what the Carleton Christian group did during the mosque incident.
• The Bomb. This is the al Qaeda approach, practiced in this case by the people who burned down the mosque.
• The Bridge. The raw materials of this approach are simple: This is how my religion inspires me to build understanding and cooperation with people who are different.
I’m convinced that building bridges across difference is the instinct of most human beings and that resources for it run deep in every religion. Unfortunately, too few people are taught about those resources. How did April go through 18 years of Christian formation without being able to easily articulate how Christianity inspired her to build bridges with the Muslims whose mosque was burned down? In the absence of April’s articulation of the architecture of the bridge, Christian identity during that incident was expressed as a barrier.
Now here’s a challenging question: If a temple or a mosque were burned down in your town, would Christian identity be expressed as a bridge, a barrier, a bubble, or a bomb?
Eboo Patel is founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core and author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation.