Diversity Plaza, located in Queens County, New York, is aptly named: it is ground zero of the most ethnically-diverse urban area in the world. Of the 2.2 million citizens who call Queens home, 48 percent are foreign born, representing over 100 nations and speaking more than 138 languages. Standing in Diversity Plaza, one may hear English, Spanish, various Indic languages, or even Urdu.
Diversity Plaza and Queens County is also a place of religious pluralism. Over a residential and commercial area of only 2.5 square miles are half a dozen Hindu Temples, two Sikh gurdwaras, several mosques, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean Buddhist temples, a Taoist temple, over 100 Korean churches, Latin American evangelical churches, Falun Gong practitioners, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, all alongside the oldest synagogues and churches in New York City. Queens is a microcosm of a greater national and worldwide movement toward pluralism.
Although our corner of Texas is a far cry from Diversity Plaza, it is representative of this growing trend. An increasingly globalized economy, and revolutions in transportation and communication, have made the world a much smaller place. It has always been important to help kids contextualize their world in order to be the “salt and light” Christ calls us to be. But, it’s even more crucial now. As followers of Christ, we are called to love and to preach the good news of Jesus through words and actions. So, how do we “embrace the Other,” those not like us, with love AND truth, grace AND conviction, and how do we shepherd our kids to do so even better than we? As I’ve been praying it through, I think it involves at least three things:
Understanding what we believe. So many times, I think Christians confuse loving others with either fully embracing their belief systems on the one hand, or keeping them completely at arms length or ignoring them altogether on the other, because we aren’t operating from a firm foundation rooted in our own faith. Let’s face it, many of us don’t even read our Bibles, and we have very little idea of what Christian faith and Christian living means. We completely miss things like how Phillip loved the Ethiopian eunuch, Paul taught pagans on Mars Hill, or Christ had among his twelve disciples both Roman sympathizers and what the Romans considered terrorists. Until we have a deep-rooted understanding of our own faith, it makes it extremely difficult to engage on any kind of meaningful level with anyone of another—we simply operate from too much insecurity and defensiveness. There are a million great reasons to know what and why we believe, and to teach it to our kids, but this is a big one.
Personal humility. Many of us have been believers for much of our lives. Our parents were believers, or at least we were raised in a Christian culture. Our children may have been saved in kindergarten. While it’s awesome to have that legacy of faith, and as much as I pray for my kids to have “boring testimonies,” the fact is that many of us have forgotten what it was like to not see life through the eyes of the Holy Spirit. We forget that we had scales over our eyes, that the things of Christ were hidden from us at one time. We forget that we lived in such depth of rebellion, such weight of sin, that all of this “Jesus stuff” seemed completely asinine to us. And, so, whether sub-consciously or consciously, we look at non-believers as idiots, as people who aren’t as enlightened as we, as those who can’t seem to get their act together, as culturally weird if they’re culturally different.
We forget that the only thing that separates us is that the Holy Spirit reached down and grabbed hold of our wicked hearts, threw a life preserver to a drowning man, and we caught it. That’s it. That’s our contribution. We’re really not that great or enlightened. We’re not right or correct–Christ is both right and correct, and He just opened our eyes to it.
As we embrace Others, we do good for ourselves and for them to first embrace our own humility, to remember that the only thing that separates us is an act of the Holy Spirit, an act that could be waiting on our faithfulness to ignite in their hearts as well, if we would just show an ounce of the compassion that Christ has for us. We need to keep that ball out in front of our own eyes, and make sure our kids see it, as well.
Ethical imagination. John Dickson describes a failure of ethical imagination in our society that prohibits us from holding our convictions firmly, but with a soft heart toward those who hold contrary convictions. Ask yourself: how many friends do you have who don’t agree with you? If you’re a Christian, how many friends do you have who are not? If you’re a Democrat, how many Republican friends do you have, or vice versa? Do you have close friends of different races, national origins, sexual orientation? Or, do you sub-consciously believe that you can only really be friends with those whose politics, or religion, or sexual identity, you approve of? Did Jesus? Or, was he roundly criticized by the religious leaders of the day for being a “friend of sinners and tax collectors,” for sharing meals with pagans and whores?
From looking at the life of our Lord, it seems that embracing the Other, loving as Christ loves, means holding firmly to our own beliefs and convictions while learning to love and respect and care for those with whom we profoundly disagree. And, not love as some far away, abstract concept, either. It seems that teaching and modeling this idea for our kids looks like intentionally reaching out and cultivating friendships with people who don’t look like we do, believe like we do, think like we do. Today. Right now.
Do we have the courage to practice this faith, build these relationships, and model them for our kids? This is the faith, the love that transformed the world, that built the civilization that you grew up in for the past 2,000. It can change the world again, if we, and our children, are willing to embrace the Other.