Centuries ago, old European maps would mark the boundaries of what was known with the warning, “There be dragons.” Just on the edge of consciousness, just where fact gave way to fiction, where knowledge gave way to myth, there be dragons. The mapmakers warned against the beasts and people who lived on the edges of the known world.
Damayanthi Niles, professor of theology at Eden Seminary, one of our United Church of Christ seminaries, reminded me of those maps and their warnings. Professor Niles’ family came from a region mark on the old maps as a land of dragons: Sri Lanka. She knows what it is like to be treated as “the other,” one of the dragons from an unknown place, an unknown people, and an unknown history.
Once we warned would-be travelers “there be dragons,” teaching them to both fear and marvel at the unknown other. But now we live in an interconnected world, where people and ideas travel the globe; we go abroad and we welcome people here.
Consider this: our ancestors in faith helped to send the first missionaries to Burma 200 years ago; now our church works to support Burmese immigrants right here in Milwaukee. Then we tried to make the Burmese just like us, but now we are learning the difference between the Buddhist Bamar, the Christian Karen, and the Islamic Rohingya. The people who were once “the other” living in an unknown place are now our neighbors.
We once looked with fear at the edges of our maps, but now we live with a global perspective and with a global reality. How will this shape our faith?
It would be a mistake to simply think familiarity would breed acceptance. A person, and a culture, does not need to be a world away for us to view them with suspicion and fear, to isolate them as the dangerous other. It’s what Christians have long done with Jews.
One hears it in the Gospels such as John this morning. “The disciples were locked in an upper room for fear of the Jews.” Christians have long told stories of dangerous Jews, vilifying and demeaning stories. It comes in literature: Shakespeare's Shylock demanding his pound of flesh. And in slang: the legislator who told his colleagues in a budget debate, “Don’t Jew me down.” A person doesn’t have to be across the sea in order to be treated like the fearful “other.”
But this passage from John intrigues me because it contains a bit of the answer as to how we ought to treat those of different faiths or of no faith. All our English translations render it, “The disciples were locked in an upper room for fear of the Jews.” Going back to the Greek text, the original text, suggests another legitimate translation. The word translated as Jews meant Judeans, the people living in a particular place. One word was often used interchangeably with other. But reading it as Judeans, as people who lived in the area, means we could faithfully translate the story, “The disciples were locked in an upper room for fear of their neighbors.”
For fear of their neighbors. At least to my ear this change opens up a number of meanings. The old reading blamed the Jews - the disciples had to hide from them - but reading it this way we wonder more about their fears. And more importantly, it connects us back to the basic teachings of Jesus, “Love God and love your neighbors.” Suddenly, we realize the disciples locked in an upper room out of fear of their neighbors can’t be true to their faith. Their fear of their neighbors keeps them from living out the Greatest Commandment, their fear keeps them from being Christian.
This isn’t just a matter of translation though. Read the first way - the disciples feared the Jews - then Christians are called to live fortified from those other people, those fear-inducing others. And then the church exists as a protected space which must be kept pure, with walls built high to keep out those people. The map I mentioned earlier with the words “there be dragons” was drawn up for such a church.
But read it the second way - the disciples feared their neighbors - and then we get the ridiculousness of the disciples trying to love their neighbors from behind locked doors. We see the fear of the other as a spiritual problem; and not just any spiritual problem, but fear as the essential problem which keeps us from being faithful disciples.
How would Christianity be different if we saw “fear of the other” as the quintessential sin?
All of our different world religions rub up against one another in our globalized world. Faith doesn’t demand our fear and withdrawal, but instead sends us out into the world, with all our diverse neighbors. Yet I don’t think this means imagining we are all the same. There is a uniqueness, a beauty, and an integrity to each spiritual path which gets cheapened when we say “They’re all basically the same.”
The pretense that all religions are basically the same and the loss of unique spiritual voices is an effect of our globalized world. Globalization creates tremendous new markets for commercial goods; we go to the store and buy things manufactured and grown around the world. But the same process also results in re-formatting all those goods and products to make them match. Many of us are aware of this process with food: before globalized agriculture there were hundreds of kinds of apples for instance, but now in the store one can only find a few varieties, the same varieties the world over.
Olivier Roy, a French Islamic scholar, argues the same phenomenon happens with religion. Roy argues that religious traditions are reformatting themselves, losing their distinctive local features, and instead taking on generalized attributes: a globalized Christianity, a globalized Islam, and each of them more alike than ever before.
He gave an ironic example from Morocco. A couple of years ago a youtube video from Morocco depicted a man dancing dressed as a woman. It caused protests in the capitol; people denounced it as a same-sex wedding. The video captured a local tradition in rural Morocco, a unique veneration of an Islamic saint in order to exorcise demons. But as people moved from the rural countryside to the city, as globalization changed the norms of religion, what was once unremarkable became scandalous. Roy called it holy ignorance, the way in which globalization makes people ignorant of their own religious roots and traditions.
Yet more happened in that moment than a religious movement forgetting its own past practices. The protesters upset by the video of a purported same-sex marriage adopted a western model of human sexuality, moving from a more traditional Moroccan view of homosexuality as a sexual act to a western idea of homosexuality as a sexual nature. A local Islamic practice of a cross-dressing exorcism became condemned by universalized Islam that incorporated western notions of sexual identity. This is our globalized moment.
Many of us are on guard against the classic “fear of the other” which so often dominates the heart. We know we need to open our hearts and lives to people of diverse backgrounds. But Roy points to another concern, the loss of our particularity, our uniqueness, and its replacement by holy ignorance.
How do we move between fear and ignorance, between closed hearts and empty minds?
We might look to the disciples described by our reading from the Gospel of Luke, the ascension story. It’s not nearly as well known as the image of the disciples locked in a room out of fear. The resurrected Jesus had appeared with the disciples many times over the course of a few weeks, but now he prepared to say goodbye. The disciples go with him out of Jerusalem and watch as he disappeared. I’m intrigued by what happened next. “And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.” The Gospel of Luke ends there, with the disciples returned to the temple.
The disciples in Luke’s story do what the disciples in John’s couldn’t. They went out into the world, gathered with their neighbors, and prayed despite their very different views of God. The disciples didn’t forget all they learned about Jesus; nor did they hide away from their neighbors.
How different would our relationship with Jews have looked over these last two millennia if we took this verse to heart; if we remembered the disciples worshiping Jesus and also praying to God in the Jewish temple? How different would our relationship to other faiths be if we saw it possible to worship Jesus and pray in another’s temple?
Damayanthi Niles once retold a Hindu story which captures a bit of what the disciples were doing in the Gospel of Luke. A sage named Markandeya was taken up to a spiritual plane, where he rested on the body of the god Vishnu. Vishnu was floating on the primordial sea, the sea of chaos. And as Vishnu floated, the god dreamed of creating a world of order.
As Vishnu dreamt of order while floating on chaos, the sage Markandeya lost his balance. He slipped into the sea and began to drown. By grit of determination he pulled himself back up onto Vishnu, the sea of chaos leaving his body damp. Markandeya caught his breath in the clarity of order atop Vishnu; but then the sun started to dry him out, turning his body brittle. Markandeya longed for the moisture of the chaotic sea. Slipping into the water, chaos overwhelmed him and he couldn’t breathe again. So he climbed out of the sea again, back into the order atop Vishnu. Back and forth the sage went, desiring both the damp chaos and the clarity of order.
Niles explained, “Human beings are like that. We come out of and are part of the moist chaos of plurality, but we need the dry air of comprehension to negotiate it and find our place in it. If we spend too much time in the moist chaotic mystery, we drown. If we spend too much time in the clear air of order, we become dry and brittle.”
Living as Christians in a globalized world challenges us to be like the sage Markandeya, slipping between order and chaos, between clarity and plurality, between our own particularity and a celebration of others, between worshiping Jesus and praising our God in the temple of another religion.
Alleluia and Amen.