Commentary
By J. Dana Trent 3-20-2019

Let me tell you what it’s like to walk into a classroom studying world religions after a mass shooting at a house of worship.

I know because I’ve done it twice in six months. Last October, my students and I returned to class after 11 people were gunned down in Pittsburgh during Shabbat services. Last Friday, we awoke to a shooting that killed 50 people during Jumu'ah prayers at a New Zealand masjid.

In each instance, my community college students had been studying the very traditions that were terrorized. The Friday before the Tree of Life shooting, a Jewish guest practitioner had visited our classroom. A week before the Christchurch massacre, we’d taken a field trip to our local masjid.

My community college students are younger, ethnically diverse millennials, and hold many religious identities: Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Pagan, Agnostic, Atheist, and “spiritual but not religious.” Most were born to Christian families — or, at the very least, they grew in the “Christ-haunted South” of the Bible Belt. They are familiar with the narratives in which these two targeted groups — Jewish and Muslim — are seen as “other.”

“Empathy” is the first vocabulary word I write on the board each semester. It’s not what they expect; it seems abstract, maybe even mundane. But empathy is the crux of the academic study of religion. It’s the idea that, no matter the students’ own religious/spiritual identification of birth or choice, as scholars, their job is to study each tradition within an academic framework and from a place of understanding.

So, when I walked in the classroom last Friday, they understood. “Can we have a moment of silence for the New Zealand Muslims?” a young white Christian student requested.

We explore each world religions unit with an academic, yet hands-on, approach. We complete our required reading and lectures — but then, an insider to each tradition visits our classroom, and we take field trips to local houses of worship. The goal is for students to not only to grasp the learning outcomes, but to learn that proximity to story reduces prejudice.

They find the class to be timely; this course arrives for them amid an American and global climate fertile with obstacles to critical thinking. Though my students are likely the most globally connected generation history has yet seen, white supremacy and hatred for immigrants rages on.

I know I am also part of the problem. I am a white, female, Baptist professor teaching world religions in the United States. But from my privilege comes responsibility. It is not the job of the oppressed to teach religious literacy. It’s mine. It’s the job of activist-minded, critically thinking Christians who often hesitate to publicly refute the assertions that continue to fuel anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, racism, and hate-filled rhetoric against the immigrant, the refugee, LGBTQIA+ individual — whoever is deemed “other.”

When I walk into my world religions classroom, there’s no better time for me to confront my own white fragility by acknowledging the ways in which I — a Baptist living in the Bible Belt—am culpable.

The morning of the New Zealand shooting, a student I’d had several academic years ago wrote to me: “One of the most impactful things I learned in our class was that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ religion. We are entitled to our own beliefs and we should treat one another with respect, whether we share the same beliefs or not.”

Yet again, a sacred place of refuge and peace has been terrorized by white supremacy. And yet again, I walk into a classroom full of young, anxious eyes looking to me for hope amid hate. I don’t have the right words, but I write one word again on the board again: "empathy." Then I say, “There are three things I know to be true: first, empathy makes the ‘other’ our neighbor; second, empathy increases with use; third, it’s difficult to hate that which you take time to understand.” If they — and I — can learn these lessons, hate cannot survive.

The Rev. J. Dana Trent is a graduate of Duke Divinity School, professor of World Religions, and author of One Breath at a Time: A Skeptic's Guide to Christian Meditation (Upper Room Books, January 2019).

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