Friday, May 14, 2010

Interfaith Shopping

Yesterday I was leaving the grocery store and spotted a “Christian Business Directory” on the free literature rack. Curiosity almost made me grab one, but I decided to pass. Such faith-based business directories have become more common in recent years, and I regard them with deep ambivalence. There is something positive to be said for doing business with fellow members of your faith family, and there are religious sects (Orthodox Judaism and Anabaptist Christians such as the Amish and Mennonites, for example) where this practice has been encouraged for many years. But now it is a much broader group of Evangelical Christians who are driving the movement towards Christian Business Directories. Behind it are two ideals – we should try to support our fellow Christians and we can trust our fellow Christians to deal with us ethically. Which both sound like good things, right?

But I have questions about both of these assertions. Let’s begin with the second one: fellow Christians will deal with us ethically. Some of the worst scandals of recent years have swirled around of self-proclaimed “Christian businesses.” For a year or so you could not turn on your television in Wisconsin without seeing ads for a homebuilder who paraded his rather spooky-looking children before the cameras while announcing that his was a “Christian-based” business. The ads are long gone, as is his business, leaving many trusting customers holding the bag for their deposits. I gather the guy had some “issues.” Then there was a large “Christian-based” financial services company that talked endlessly about Jesus while running an old-fashioned Ponzi scheme until the law caught up with them. Anyone can claim to be a Christian, then abuse the trust that na├»ve persons invest in them because of that claim. And Christians, as our own doctrines attest, are no less likely to sin than anyone else. As the saying has it, the only difference is that Christians know that their sins can be forgiven.

But back to assertion number one: we should try to support our fellow Christians. Well, yes we should, but Christians also need to answer Jesus’ question “who is my neighbor?” If Christians love and support only their fellow Christians, they have entirely missed the heart of what Jesus taught about love. Based upon my understanding of the requirement to love my neighbor as myself, I attempt to do as much business as possible with locally-owned, small businesses owned by folks who are working hard to establish a foothold in the American economy without regard to their race or religion. My insurance agent is Hmong, and I have no idea what his personal faith is. I am pretty sure that the guy who runs the Indian grocery store where I buy ten-pound bags of Basmati rice is Hindu, not Christian (Christians rarely wear turbans). It is when Christians move among persons of other faiths and cultures, treating them with honesty, respect, integrity and kindness, that they witness most effectively to their faith.

A few months ago I took a suitcase with a busted zipper to a shop in Ashwaubenon to get it fixed. The very pleasant man who ran the shop had a sign professing that his was a Christian business, so I told him I served as chaplain for Goodwill Industries, including the Goodwill store just down the street from him. He was pleased to meet me and asked if I had sought him out because he was a Christian. “No,” I replied truthfully. “I sought you out because you are the only one I could find who fixes suitcases, and I’m too cheap to buy a new one.” I am happy to do business with Christians, just as I am with folks of all faiths.

Friday, May 7, 2010

"This is my Offering to You"

Christian writer Annie Lamott wisely observes that we can be pretty certain we have made God in our own image when God hates all the same people we do. No matter what their religion, cause or nationality, most people fervently believe that God is on their side. At the height of the Civil War someone commented to Abraham Lincoln that God was clearly on the side of the Union. Lincoln replied that it was entirely possible that God’s interests were different from those of either the Union or the Confederacy. I try to imagine our president, or any politician for that matter, daring to question whether God’s interests coincide with those of the United States. It would be political suicide.

I recently tossed the question “what are you pretty sure God hates?” out on Facebook. It turns out that some of the things that God hates are white zinfandel, drivers who do not use turn signals, and people who do not know the difference between “their” and “they’re.” Who knew that God was a grammarian?

It would be interesting to bring together persons from many different faith traditions and pose the same question in a serious manner. “What does God (Allah, Yahweh, etc.) hate?” Can we all agree that God hates war and violence? Then why do we attempt to resolve our differences through war and violence? Does God hate economic injustice? Then why do we tolerate greed and turn our backs upon the poor? Does God hate racism and intolerance? Then why do we allow them to persist?
It seems to me that anyone seeking to know the mind and heart of God must first (and this is no easy thing) abandon the presumption that God is on our side in order to ask the difficult question “am I on God’s side?”

The spiritual teacher Baba Ram Dass suggested that one path to aligning ourselves with God’s will is to become conscious that each word we speak and each action we take is the offering we are making to God in that moment. When we speak a word of cruelty or pass along a bit of vicious gossip, that is the offering we are making to God. If we light a cigarette, that cigarette is our offering to God. When we turn our back on someone in need while indulging ourselves with luxuries, we say to God “I do this for you.” As we become more and more conscious of each word and deed as a sacred offering, Ram Dass suggests, we will begin to change our behaviors to align them with our understanding of God’s will.

Another term for this is “mindfulness;” being fully aware of what we are doing in the present moment. I have argued that the command Jesus gave to his disciples, “stay awake,” may be second only to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Most of us are spiritually asleep much of the time; we are not mindful of the sacred dimension of each moment we live. Designating even a single hour of the day to being fully awake and mindful could be the beginning of a transformed life.