“As thousands of Muslims stream into the West, they carry more than ancient traditions, beliefs and cultures; they carry an ancient question as well:
How can diverse people live together?”
from Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear
By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine
Humility is the first value trampled into the dust of America’s stormy political conflicts these days. So, we start our coverage of Christian ethicist Matthew Kaemingk’s thought-provoking new book by pointing out that Matthew identifies true humility as a foundation for healthy interfaith relationships. If you are among our readers interested in the promising new findings emerging in humility research—then this is a a book you need to add to your bookshelf.
Want background on humility research? Journalist David Briggs is providing excellent overviews at the Academy of Religion Data Archives (ARDA) website. In an interview with sociologist Michael Emerson, David and Michael talked about the contrast between a “rights culture” prone to conflict and the potential antidote that can be found in cultivating humility. Then, David edited and published an ARDA Global Plus column on this research that concludes: “Humble people promote values from empathy to clear-eyed political leadership that contribute to more tolerant, prosperous societies.”
If that quick summary has you nodding your head, then you’re an ideal reader for Matthew’s new book. For most of his 300 pages, Matthew focuses mainly on the ancient religious value of “hospitality”—but he describes hospitality in terms that connect directly with this new appreciation of authentic humility. Toward the end of Matthew’s book, he even includes a section on Training in Humility.
‘HIGH WALLS, OPEN DOORS AND A THIRD WAY’
The main reason we see so much conflict around Muslim immigration, these days, is that the international debate has been polarized in two extremes. Matthew identifies these extremes as the camp of “high walls,” people who fear outsiders and want to erect towering barriers—and “open doors,” people who respond compassionately to the humanitarian plight of refugees and call for us to help these vulnerable men, women and children.
Matthew argues: Both sides are right. There is common-sense wisdom in the need for walls. Any safe and healthy community must take collective security measures, he argues. And, at the same time, there is a deep Christian calling to open doors. People of faith must respond with compassion to those in need, he writes.
But wait! Matthew’s central argument continues—arguing that both sides also are wrong when they reduce Muslims collectively to a problem we must solve or a crisis we must fix. If the majority of Christians continue to see Muslims as simply a problematic “other,” then they ignore the crucial question. Ultimately, Matthew writes, the question should be: Beyond security issues or humanitarian aide (“walls” or “doors”)—how do we live together as equals in communities with different faith traditions?
Matthew addresses this book to Christians, especially evangelicals, who assume that there are only two extreme responses to Muslim immigration. Instead, Matthew says we all need a new “third way.”
Like the nationwide emergence of Blue Ocean Faith churches, which were founded around an evangelical call for a “third way,” Matthew makes it clear that a true “third way” requires a radical rethinking of Christian traditions. In the book, he writes that a “third way” is not “an amalgamation of two broken approaches.” To be clear, Matthew is not part of the Blue Ocean movement. But, he does sound a lot like Blue Ocean leaders when he tells us that many mistaken assumptions must be reconsidered to reach a constructive third way.
In his dozen chapters, Matthew covers a whole range of these issues Christians should re-evaluate in approaching Muslim co-workers, neighbors and newcomers. The first is separating the evangelical enthusiasm for saving souls from the Christian call to hospitality. Inviting Muslim neighbors to debate each faith’s approach to salvation is not the most urgent question in our world today, Matthew writes.
Here’s how he puts that in the book’s opening pages: “This book is not primarily concerned with resolving the future question, ‘Where do Muslims go when they die?’ It is focused, instead, on exploring the present question, ‘How should Muslims be treated while they are still alive?’ ”
Why is that shift in focus so important? Because we doom any hope for a healthy relationship if we start by arguing about who is “right” and “wrong.” A third way won’t open up if we begin by trying to score points as winners and losers, Matthew writes. We are sure to stumble if we approach these new relationships with one side believing it holds the power over the other side.
We are not staging a contest; we are inviting friends to gather around a table.
Here is how Matthew describes this process in his final pages: “Table politics will demand that the distinct categories of guests and hosts ultimately come to an end. Well-functioning tables will not dissolve our differences, but they will dissolve our hierarchies. Well-functioning tables will encourage both guests and hosts to shed their labels and begin to call each other by a new name, a category unknown in modern political theory—friend.”
But, once again, wait! There’s more to Matthew’s argument!
Certainly, he writes, true hospitality and humility don’t involve asserting our power over “others.” However, he continues, Christians should not confuse that call with simply giving up on their religious traditions. Some of the most intriguing chapters in his book urge Christian readers to dig deeper into their core beliefs—as a way to strengthen their commitment to interfaith relationships.
In our interview, Matthew summed up this major section of his book: “You’ll hear some people actually say this in discussions about their hopes for interfaith relationships. They’ll say that, in order for different religions to get along, we all need to take our faith less seriously. We all need to let go, take our traditions less seriously—and just be more chill about it all. It’s tempting to say that: If we would only take our faith less seriously, then we could all get along.
“But, that’s just not the case,” he said. “All you have to do is look at Europe, where countries have been secularizing pretty intensely for the last 70 years—and, still, that widespread loss of faith has not helped Europeans to become more tolerant. We are seeing a rise in extremism and nationalism in these traditionally Christian populations. So, looking to Europe, we can see that the answer is not to give up our religious traditions in our hope for peace. In fact, there’s a real danger if we do that. If we lose the traditional values in our tradition—then we are giving up our teachings about hospitality, love, patience and humility.
“In this book, I’m pointing out that simply walking away from the church is not going to make people more tolerant. I’m saying that we can demonstrate a deep commitment to Jesus Christ and that very commitment can help us to build these new relationships. Christianity calls us to open ourselves up to the world in humility.”
A TRAINING CENTER FOR HOSPITALITY
Beyond Matthew’s well-organized analysis—punctuated with illustrations from around the world—are useful resources for congregations. His section on prayer as a training ground for hospitality and humility is practical, inspiring reading for men and women who care about their congregations. At its best, Christian worship can move families toward the core values of true peacemakers, he tells us.
“Unfortunately, not all worship calls us in this direction,” Matthew said in our interview. “But I believe that if worship is done correctly, then it should open us up to all kinds of difference. And I’m not talking about just opening ourselves up to Muslim immigrants—but also opening us up to racial, economic and sexual diversity.
“Properly focused prayer can bring us to such an opening. Good liturgies help us. But, the truth is: If we look at our lives, each week, we realize that it’s not just in Sunday morning worship that we encounter liturgies that shape the way we live as citizens. For example, millions of us engage in a daily liturgy of cable TV news—a repetitive reflection that trains us to believe certain things and to react in certain ways. Depending on which network you prefer to watch, this nightly news liturgy might train you to see others as friends—or foes.
“At its best, Sunday morning worship has always been counter-cultural liturgy. In our world of political fragmentation and fear, today, worship can train us to become citizens of hope and hospitality. If we practice postures of prayer that lead us to our knees, heads bowed, we are practicing hospitality, practicing our submission to something larger. If you like to pray with your hands raised, you can be saying: God, you are sovereign over what I do with these hands this week. May I be driven by your mission and not my own.
“There are lots of possibilities for worship to prepare us for hospitality,” Matthew said. “If worship is done well, it can be a countering force to the politics of fear. There are many approaches to worship—and not all of it leads us in this direction. But I do know that worship has this capability.
“And that’s not a new idea,” Matthew concluded. “That’s as old as our faith. Ancient Christians thought of worship as a gymnasium of the soul—a place where we strengthen ourselves for our life in the world.”
CARE TO READ MORE?
VISIT OUR BOOKSTORES—You’ll find lots of books that explore faith and compassion for “the other” in our own ReadTheSpiritBookstore and our new Front Edge Publishing Bookstore. You may be especially interested in our recent overview of books about Muslims and Islam.