Mark 9: 38-40 reveals how Jesus’ closest followers (the apostles) complained about outsiders exorcising demons in Jesus’ name. This problem demonstrates how easy it is to think of apparent outsiders as the threatening “other.” Jesus’ closest followers were special but their smugness led to a feeling of separating themselves from competitors, in this case people outside Jesus’ inner circle who were nonetheless performing similar miracles in Jesus’ name.
Each person of faith has a mandate to spread love and truth, which can help accomplish wonderful things. Whether you call it mission, outreach, or even traditional evangelism, the point is that each of us are privileged to represent love and truth in God’s name. However, Jesus would not tolerate his disciples’ elitist attitude, which is why he said that “[w]hoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). This implies that we should not make tight boundaries around who and what God can do (or in how or through whom God works). It is not always clear what makes a person “for us” rather than “against us.” Jesus seemed to be saying that anyone who sincerely invokes healing power cannot be excluded or dismissed. This means that if people are doing good things, then they can claim to be doing so in God’s name. This is a hard message to accept because it’s tempting to embrace our chosen flavor of faith and exclude outsiders.
What about religious differences? There is a process that many people experience while on a faith journey. People who shop for a religion often are happiest when they can find something that fits the style and biases of their specific tribe. Sadly, more people than ever are not choosing any spiritual path. Instead, they have dropped-out, perhaps due to apathy and inattention. But for those persons who’ve found a faith, one of the key stages is a deepening of their participation through personal commitment to their brand of religion. It’s clear that Jesus’ disciples were not immune to a similar process of indoctrination and initiation. Persons often commit to a church or other organization and, as part of new allegiances, they may also form a revised personal identity. The problem arises when groups of people seek isolation from one another and hence sow the seeds of distrust from which persecution and violence erupt.
Religion is messy. Some folks lament that there isn’t just one proper explanation of God and all the other stuff that people attach to faith and belief. As tempting as it is to make people feel secure, it’s not a good idea to try to put God in either an overly small or overly complicated box. Within Christianity for instance there are many variations of Jesus’ message. This causes problems because the various denominations cultivate incompatible interpretations of who Jesus was, what he did, whether he was man or God, what is the nature of church, etc. Transcending the differences, God’s compassion invites us to embrace the other, those who are sharing love and truth in a stylistically or methodologically different manner. A challenge is to discern how love and truth are being shared despite the apparent differences between people.
God challenges us to remain open and humble, reluctant to jump to negative judgments about outsiders who, in some cases, may only appear as threats but who are just as credible and legitimate as we are. Unfortunately, even Jesus’ inner-circle didn’t always have this understanding. On the other side of the issue, we must also realize that openness to other religious paths doesn’t mean blindness to evils propagated in the name of religion; there can be no tolerance for attitudes that promote hatred and ultimately genocide. This is why people of faith have both a right and a responsibility to help others who are trapped in toxic religion. The slogan “I’m okay, you’re okay so let’s just walk away” isn’t an optimal solution. A disengaging, nonchalant attitude may seem polite and politically-correct but it isn’t a life-enhancing strategy. Instead, we must navigate a riskier course and call-out anyone and anything that diminishes human rights or civil rights.
How can you evaluate a religion and gain insight into whether it represents God’s compassion or something sinister? Ask yourself if love and truth emanate from a group’s teachings and behavior. Are hope and joy generated and are people empowered to love and be loved? Are women relegated to an inferior status or are children sexually abused through a culture of cover-up? Asking these and similar questions will help you evaluate any religion, philosophy or political ideology. The key is to resist any initial impulse to dismiss whatever is outside yourself. Often, a bit of discernment may reveal that what at first appears to be something or someone bad is simply another type of good dressed differently. Mere appearance can be deceiving. The challenge is to remain open and weigh the evidence. It could be that if the other person embraces the same attitude then neither you nor they will be threatened as “the other.”