“Holy Envy”

Golden Rule from multiple faith traditions, Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN – Progressive congregations around the globe are celebrating “Pluralism Sunday” during the month of May. Pluralism Sunday was created as a celebration of our interfaith world. My greatest teacher of pluralism was my mother. As I have shared in the past, my mother explored many different kinds of faith traditions. She went to India to learn about Hinduism. She traveled to China to learn about Buddhism. She took me to Egypt to learn about primitive Egyptian religions. We rode camels around pyramids as a tour guide told us about the afterlife of the Pharaohs. My mother was always taking me to conferences on “New Age Religion.” She read books about goddess worship and then engaged me in hours of discussion about what she had read. When we took nature walks, she spoke to me about Native American (or “Indigenous”) spirituality as well as Wiccan worship. Our home was decorated with African tribal art. When I was about to kill a bug in our home as a teenager, my mother stopped me and then shared with me about the sacredness of all creation and went on to tell me about Jainism – an ancient religion from India that advocates a life of harmlessness. You could say that she had “holy envy.” Yes, she was a member of a Christian church, this church, Redlands United Church of Christ, because at the time she believed it was the only church in Redlands where she could explore other faiths and be allowed to question Christian doctrine. After all, we do say, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” And honestly, this was the only church in Redlands at the time where my mother felt completely welcomed. And so, on this Mother’s Day, I give thanks for my mother who taught me about pluralism and open-mindedness and I give thanks for this congregation who affirmed her spiritual quest.
What exactly is pluralism? Pluralism is not a religious soup, where we cook all the religions down till they taste the same. “Pluralism is not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity. Pluralism is not just tolerance, but the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference. Pluralism does not mean everyone at the ‘table’ will agree with one another, but pluralism involves the commitment to being at the table with one’s commitments, holding our deepest differences not in isolation, but in relationship to one another” (Diana Eck from the Pluralism Project at Harvard University).
Truthfully, there are a lot of differences among religions. For example, when I first saw an image of the Hindu god, Shiva, and heard that he was the god of destruction, I thought, “Why would anyone worship a god who destroys?” He is dancing on a ring of fire on the back of small creature that looks like a child or a dwarf. He has twice too many arms and several cobras swirled around him. As Barbara Brown Taylor says in her latest book, Holy Envy, “This is entirely too many snakes for someone raised on the Garden of Eden story” (p. 46). Moreover, “Rings of fire, hooded cobras, and small bent figures under heavy feet do not put me in a reverent mood. In my religious universe, skies full of angels and descending doves work much better. Those are the symbols that power my sacred stories” (p. 51). Then, of course, my mind careens to the first commandment in Exodus 20, “You shall have no other gods before me.” Yes, there are differences between Christianity and Hinduism.
There are differences between Christianity and Buddhism. There are similarities too. For example, both Jesus and Buddha were said to be born of virgins; both said to be visited by wise men who recognized their divinity; both fasted in the wilderness and were tempted; both performed miracles, healed the sick and walked on water; both were about 30 years of age when they began their ministry; both had a band of disciples; and both stressed compassion and peace. But Buddhism and Christianity see things very differently. Buddha shows his followers how to achieve salvation through enlightenment. Jesus achieves salvation for his followers. Buddha sees the problem suffering as ignorance. Jesus sees the problem of suffering as sin. Buddha says the self is impermanent. Jesus says it is destined for eternal life. Jesus prayed to God. Buddhism is a religion without God. There are differences between Buddhism and Christianity.
There are differences between Christianity and Islam. Muslims practice the 5 pillars of Islam: professing that there is only one God (which is different from the Trinity that we find in Christianity) and professing that Muhammed is God’s messenger, praying 5 times a day in a set position at a set time in the direction of Mecca, fasting during the month of Ramadan which by the way we are currently in the month of Ramadan (so be gentle with your Muslim neighbor who is fasting from sunrise to sunset), mandatory alms-giving to the poor, and a pilgrimage to Mecca. Salvation is obtained through good works. Traditional Christianity states that salvation is obtained through Jesus. There are differences between Christianity and Islam.
There are differences between Christianity and Judaism. The primary difference being our understanding of the role of Jesus. Christians believe Jesus was the long-awaited messiah. Jews do not. Why? Because Jesus did not do what Jewish scripture said that a messiah would do. He did not restore Jerusalem. He did not rebuild the Jerusalem temple. He did no usher in the age of peace on earth so that wolves and lambs lay down together and no one learned war anymore. Christians and Jews understand Jesus differently.
I confess that early on in my preaching career, I preached anti-Semitic sermons. I did not intend to do so. But I often pitted Jesus against the Jews and used stock phrases such as “the burden of the law” or “the righteousness of Pharisees,” perpetuating the Gospels’ portrayal of “the Jews.” Anti-Semitic language is embedded in the Christian narrative. In the Gospel of Matthew, we read that the Jews clamored for Jesus’ death. “Let him be crucified – His blood be on us and on our children” shouted the Jews (Matthew 27:23, 27). In the Acts of the Apostles, Peter charges “the entire house of Israel” with crucifying Jesus and so having “killed the Author of life” (Acts 3: 14-15). In John’s Gospel, Jews are identified as “from your father the devil” (John 8:44). After the appearance of the risen Christ, the disciples hide between locked doors “for fear of the Jews” (20:19). The anti-Christ figure in the Gospels is Judas “Iscariot.” Iscariot means traitor. Judas is the Greek spelling of Judah or Judea, the nation of the Jews. Judas Iscariot may very well be code word for an entire Jewish nation of traitors. The list could go on and on. But let’s remember that Jesus was a full fledge Jew. Jesus died on a Roman cross. The Jews had no authority to crucify anyone. Only the Romans could do that. But this severe misunderstanding of the Jews has infiltrated 2100 years of Christian history.
I preached anti-Semitic sermons that I never thought were anti-Semitic. Fortunately, a Jewish friend called me on it. Since then, I have learned that Jesus is not the primary lens through which to read the Hebrew scriptures. The Hebrew scriptures stand on their own. The Pharisees are not the bad guys. Jesus had much in common with the Pharisees and he challenged them because of their similarities. It is important for me to understand Jesus in the context of his Jewish culture, faith and traditions. He was not a Christian. He was not white. He was not a post-Enlightenment Westerner. Unfortunately, until Christianity understands Jesus’ Jewishness, white supremacy will continue its grip on Western Christianity.
I believe it is vital to honor Pluralism Sunday, coming to the table and holding our differences not in isolation, but in relationship to one another. Religious illiteracy is a luxury we can no longer afford. Hate crimes increased 17% in the last year and the primary motive is religion. Within the last six months, there have been deadly attacks on two synagogues in the United States, a mosque in New Zealand, and Christian churches in Sri Lanka. Our faith traditions must learn to honor our differences, learn from one another, and celebrate our similarities. No one owns God.
There is much we can learn from other faiths. Christians can learn about inclusivity from our Hindu siblings, meditation from our Buddhist siblings, devotion to prayer from our Muslim siblings, and Sabbath-keeping from our Jewish siblings. There is much we can learn from one another. May we honor our differences and may we celebrate our similarities. There is one similarity, in particular, that is especially significant on this Pluralism Sunday. It is, what we call, the “Golden Rule”: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It is found in each and every major faith tradition. People of faith have committed the Golden Rule to memory now may we commit it to our lives. Indeed, the Golden Rule includes honoring our neighbor’s religion just as we would have our neighbor honor ours. Namaste. Shalom. Ameen. Amen.