Empty Bucket Theory

Let’s pretend for a second you’ve never met me. You know nothing about me except my name. In your mind, the category of Charles Dean is an empty bucket in your mind.

Now let’s pretend you meet someone and they say to you, “Charles Dean is a HUGE Cardinals fan. He loves watered-down light beer and his idea of a good time is a tractor pull.”

If there’s nothing in your “Charles Dean bucket,” you will probably just accept everything that was said about me without question. Why would you question anything you heard? If there’s no filter, there’s nothing in the bucket that would cause you to be skeptical. Those statements — I like the St. Louis Cardinals, I love watered-down light beer and my idea of a good time is a tractor pull — are not beyond the imagination. In fact, you just might assume that all Cardinals fans love watered-down light beer and tractor pulls. (HA!)

But if you know me, if there’s knowledge about me already piled in the bucket, there are filters for new information. If your “Charles Dean Bucket” has sufficient information piled up in it, you know that I hate the Cardinals with a righteous fury, I prefer craft beers (bring on the IPAs and dark beers!) and I have almost no interest in going to a tractor pull.

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Take the same idea and apply it to interfaith dialogue for a minute.

For example, if I know nothing about Muslims, if the “Muslim bucket” in my head is completely empty, and I see something on Facebook declaring that all Muslims are secretly trying to take over America and impose Sharia law on the rest of us, I might tend to believe it. (Especially if it aligns with my own religious impulses. Moral Majority anyone? Which is, I think, one of the reasons conservative Christians seem to be the ones most fearful about Muslims. But that’s a conversation for another time.)

If we are going to engage in meaningful dialogue with or about other religions, we have a responsibility to fill up our buckets first.

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But how we fill up the bucket matters. If you want to fill up your “Charles Dean Bucket,” you won’t get a very objective sense of who I am if you only talk to my biggest critics, or even if you talk only to my closest friends. You’ll get the most quality information in your bucket when you allow me to fill the bucket.

If you want to understand Muslims, let them tell you what they believe. Read the Qu’ran, talk to a Muslim, ask questions. Listen.

If you want to understand Democrats let them tell you why they see the world the way they do. Read liberal editorials with an open mind, talk to your friends about their views instead of just assuming you know why they think what they think. Listen.

If you want to understand why transgender people are conflicted about which bathroom to use, ask them. Let them fill up the empty bucket called “what transgender people think/feel” in your head. Listen.

This is one of the problems, I think, with Christian education. To the limited degree that we studied other religions in my formal education, it was always Christians telling you what Muslims/Buddhists/Jews believe. And there’s no way to do that without skewing the information. (I’ll admit that may be an over sweeping generalization of Christian education, but it was surely my experience. For example, the books I read in my formal education about Islam were predominantly by Christians writing about how Islam is wrong.)

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But all of this requires us to do the work. It requires us to get close enough to the people we consider other so we can ask them questions and allow them to fill the empty buckets in our head. It requires us to listen to other people with an open mind.

I’ll quote my friend, Stephen McKinney-Whitaker (I also quoted him in my last post, but it’s good, so you’re getting it again.):

“Listening is so close to loving  that you can hardly tell the difference.”

So, who do you need to listen to today?

Maybe it’s an interfaith thing. Maybe you need to listen to a flesh and blood Muslim tell you what he or she believes rather than just believing the rhetoric you read on your Facebook feed.

Maybe it’s an intrafaith thing. Maybe there’s someone of your own faith who holds their belief in a different way than you do and you need to listen to why instead of just simply condeming or critiquing.

Maybe it’s a relationship thing. Maybe you need listen to a spouse, friend or family member and hear what they’re thinking or feeling.

So, go love well and listen to someone today.

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Peace for Peoria

On Monday night, I had the incredible opportunity to participate in Peace for Peoria, a town hall Q & A event at the Peoria Civic Center Theater. I got to sit on a panel that included a Catholic, an Imam, a Rabbi and two Protestant pastors in front of a crowd at least 700 strong.

We were there to talk about how we can all work for peace, how all of us can have strong beliefs and still make space for each other, how we can have meaningful friendships with people of different faith and cultural traditions.  We also wanted to specifically address the irrational fear of Islam that seems to pervade our culture right now.

It was a breathtaking event. From what I could tell, there was great energy in the room. People seemed to be leaning into the conversation and many people were still hanging around the theater lobby talking nearly an hour and a half after the panel discussion was over.

This post is a collection of thoughts and impressions, two days after the event. I’ll be writing one more post in this series on interfaith conversations about an idea that emerged to me during the panel discussion. It’s written. I hope to have it edited and posted by Friday.

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The thought that occurred to me over and over again on Monday night was that this event was pretty unique. I don’t know of other conversations quite like this one, happening on a town-wide basis, anywhere else in the country. Part of it is because of Peoria’s size. Before the panel discussion we had several of the CEOs of the largest companies in Peoria talking about religious, ethnic, and cultural diversity in their workplaces, and the Mayor ended the night with a few comments. (I was also told that most of the city council was in attendance as well, although I haven’t confirmed that.)

Key civic leaders, business leaders gathering to listen to clergy talk about faith? In 2016 America? That just doesn’t happen!

I don’t know that I’ve ever been so proud of our city.

The other reason for the uniqueness of this event is that, behind the scenes, there are actual friendships between those of us who were on the stage Monday night. We’re blessed in this community to have an Imam like Imam Mufti and a Rabbi like Rabbi Bogard who are so open to conversation.

And special props to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and Stephen McKinney-Whitaker of United Presbyterian for being the catalyst for making Monday’s event happen.

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If I had any disappointment, it was that events like the one on Monday are largely an exercise in preaching to the choir. People who affirm interfaith conversation and cooperation are more likely to attend an event like this one. The people who are most ignorant of Islam, the people who have the most fear, the people who most need to witness peaceful conversation between religions aren’t likely to attend this kind of event. Which is really too bad. We talked fairly in depth about important questions people have: Do we worship the same God? What about the violence of Islam? Don’t Muslims just want to convert us all and institute Sharia law?

But at the same time, even preaching to the choir, it was affirming to me.

My background, my roots are in an evangelical Christianity that would most likely NOT attend. The religious context I grew up in would largely see Monday’s event as some kind of selling out of the gospel. So it was personally affirming to me to be engaged in the conversation and to receive affirmation from people who attended that this conversation is the good work.

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And finally, I want to recap one thing that was said during the discussion. The first question was, “Do we all worship the same God?” and I want to recap highlights of that discussion, because I think, at least to some people, it’s the most important question.

When people ask that, it’s often a red herring. Regardless of how I answer, as a Christian I’m compelled to love. And to quote Pastor Stephen in his concluding remarks, “Listening is so close to loving  that you can hardly tell the difference.” (One of my favorite quotes of the night, even though I’ve heard him say it before!) And so while I said that to some people it’s the most important question, personally, it’s just not that important to me.

But, to answer the question you have to first answer the question “what do you mean by same?” So it quickly descends into a matter of linguistics. Of course, all of us on the stage have different ideas about the God we worship. None of us prescribe to a lowest common denominator expression of our faith. I think we would all be insulted if someone said that inane thing that people sometimes say, “All the religions pretty much teach the same thing.”

We don’t.

Same doesn’t mean identical.

But at least among the Abrahamic faiths, we have what Yale Professor Miroslav Volf calls “sufficiently similar” understandings of God that enable us to have meaningful conversations. (Here’s a link to a discussion about his book Allah: A Christian Response.) And in a Twitter exchange with Northern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Scot McKnight, Volf says that if Evangelical Christians insist that they don’t worship a “sufficiently similar” God to Muslims, then they also need to apply the same logic to their understand of Jews. This is a trade-off that I think very few Evangelicals want to take.

But, in the conversation that we’re having in our community with Christians, Muslims and Jews, “sufficiently similar,” is enough at least to get the conversation going. “The God of Abraham,” is enough common ground that we can at least talk together. And, surely we can work together for peace in our community!

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So, anyway, these are my impressions. So proud of my city. So proud to be a part of this event.

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Some Rules for Interfaith Engagement

I’ve been working with a team of local clergy to bring together the next Peace for Peoria event – a town hall style Q&A next Monday, May 16th at the Peoria Civic Center Theater. Please help us plan by signing up in advance. (And if you don’t sign up, please come anyways.)

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Okay, so suppose a new family of a different faith moves into the neighborhood. And your kids are the same age, attend the same school, play on the same sports team and you find a great affinity with the new family. And now it’s an evening in the summertime, and you’re sitting on your back patio after having a great cookout and the subject of religion comes up.

What do you say?

What do you not say?

Breathe.

Here are a couple of ideas for Interfaith conversation and engagement that may steady your nerve. Of course, if you have more ideas, please add them in the comments below:

    1. The goal is not conversion, it’s relationship. So relax. In the tradition in which I grew up, there was tons of pressure to convert people. In my tradition, people from church would go door-to-door “soul-winning.” They would knock on the door and launch into a spiel about their faith, trying to convince people to convert.

      I suppose we could have an argument about the effectiveness of such strategies, but that’s not what you’re after here. You want to have an ongoing friendship. So stop stressing about getting people to “pray a prayer,” or “come to our church,” or go through “four spiritual laws.”

      Coming from a Christian perspective, your goal is to live out your faith in this relationship, to demonstrate love towards every human being. So relax, be yourself, and be loving. 

    2. Ask questions. Sometimes we convince ourselves that some questions are too dumb to ask, and so we choose to stay ignorant. Which is itself dumb. If you don’t know why your neighbor wears a headcovering, ask her. Ask kindly, and respectfully, but ask. I have NEVER been offended when someone asks me an honest, sincere question. And especially when it comes to matters of faith – where there are thousands of different religions, sects, denominations and viewpoints, asking why someone practices in a particular way isn’t out-of-bounds at all!

      (2a) Get curious. This is true of ANY relationship, but if you want to grow a friendship, get curious about your friend. Ask them about the things they care about. Ask them to teach you something about what they’re interested in. Do they have a great flower garden? Ask them about it. Do they fly the W? Ask them about why they love the Cubs so much! Ask them about their religion. Learn something new about their faith.

      A couple months ago I read a book just because I heard my good friend say, “It’s my favorite religious book.” I’m curious about my friend, so I read the book he was talking about. I recently listened to the Hamilton soundtrack, because my friend told me she liked it so much. And so I gave it a listen because I was curious about my friend and why she might like it so much. (And then I too, fell in love with Hamilton!)

    3. Don’t project upon your neighbor what you read in a Facebook article. In other words, there is no Christian that speaks for all Christians, Muslim who speaks for all Muslims or Jew who speaks for all Jews. So, just because you read an article online that said “Christians want to drop bombs in the Middle East,” you shouldn’t assume that represents the views of your neighbor. So, invoking rule #2, just ask the question, “I read something the other day online, what do you think?”

      (3a) You might need to stop reading online articles. To be honest, there’s a lot of BS out there – especially about Muslims. If you aren’t reading it on CNN, NPR or NYT or some other respected news site, you really need to be careful.

    4. Find things you agree upon. Even among my closest friends, we don’t agree about everything. And while we aren’t afraid to talk about those differences, we also don’t focus on those things either. Rather, we probably spend more time talking about the things we DO agree on, causes that we can all rally behind. And if this is a neighbor we’re talking about, you have things built in: common schools, the neighborhood, etc.

    5. Don’t back down from what you believe. In fact, a healthy relationship can tolerate and actually benefit from a degree of tension. Oftentimes we only grow when pushed. Having friends of a different faith, denomination or sect can actually strengthen our own beliefs. So, when the conversation “goes there,” don’t be afraid to say what you believe in the kindest, most loving way possible. As my friend Michael Danner said, in response to my last interfaith post, “I actually want my friends of other faiths – and of no faith – to try to proselytize me. Not disrespectfully. Not manipulatively. Not coercively or arrogantly. But through passionate, informed, loving persuasion.”
    6. Believe the best of your friend or neighbor. Believe that they believe the things they believe for good reasons. Believe that they are equal to you in intelligence, equal to you in devotion, equal to you in their love for their religion and the country you both live in. Believe that they believe following their religion is helping them become a better version of themselves.

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Okay, that’s my list. I’m sure there are other great ideas. What are some additional guidelines for interfaith engagement?

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What I Hope to Get Out of Interfaith Conversations

I’ve been working with a team of local clergy to bring together the next Peace for Peoria event – a town hall style Q&A on May 16th at the Peoria Civic Center. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be writing about interfaith issues.

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I’m a Christian. Let’s start there.

I affirm the Apostles Creed. I stand with traditional Christian orthodoxy. Engaging in interfaith dialogue is in no way a concession of my own set of beliefs.

However, when I talk to a Rabbi, there is so much I want to learn. How Rabbis have interpreted their Scriptures is of utmost importance to me. Of course, I’m going to interpret the Hebrew Scriptures through the lens of Jesus, but knowing how Jews view their Scriptures has made my understanding of Jesus richer.

I don’t think respecting Judaism is difficult for most Christians.

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But I can also say the same of Islam. Within the Quran, there is a high value put on the person of Jesus. Jesus is the penultimate prophet, and belief in Jesus as a prophet is required of a Muslim. Of course Muslims don’t believe that Jesus is God, but there is an engaging discussion among some Christians and Muslims about what it means to follow after Jesus. (Incidentally, the word muslim simply means “one who submits to God.” So Muslims, full of respect, consider Jesus to be muslim.)

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From Buddhists, I am learning important things about contemplative prayer and quieting the crazy in my head. From Native Religions, I can learn something about living in harmony with the creation — surely a Christian value. (A puzzling sidenote: I find it strange that Christians who hold most tightly to a literal understanding of the Creation accounts, where God commanded the first inhabitants to care for the creation, are often the least likely to embrace Christian environmentalism.)

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Yeah, I know. Sometimes interfaith stuff gets a little hokey. And sometimes not everyone is playing by the same rules and one group is trying to proselytize the others (The next post will be on “ground rules for interfaith engagement.”) But for me, interfaith conversation is about learning what I can learn from the other traditions that further strengthens my understanding of my own faith.

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Here’s an analogy that shows how I view interfaith conversation:  I love my friends. And I love how their marriages work. I talk deeply with my friends about how they love their wives, how they work through hard times, how they navigate the joys and sorrows. I learn a lot from my friends.

But at the same time, I have my own marriage. I’m my own person. Jennifer is her own person. And we have our own ways of navigating our life together that aren’t the same as our friends’. So, I learn from my friends, I’m enriched by our conversations together, but I also have my own way of “doing marriage.” I’m better for having the dialogue with my friends about their marriages – there’s definitely some overlap – but my marriage is mine and theirs is theirs.

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This is my hope for interfaith conversation (and interdenominational conversations as well) — that we will learn from others in the areas that overlap.

I’m richer for my dialogue with those of other faiths, but that doesn’t mean I’m exchanging mine for theirs.

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Jesus on Interfaith Dialogue and Cooperation

I’ve been working with a team of local clergy to bring together the next Peace for Peoria event – a town hall style Q&A on May 16th at the Peoria Civic Center. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be writing about interfaith issues.

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Last week, I had the opportunity to sit on a panel for a class at Illinois State University on interfaith dialogue. I sat on the panel with an Imam and Rabbi from Peoria. The question we were each asked for our opening remarks was something like this: what in your religious tradition draws you to interfaith dialogue? Here’s what I said:

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I need to start by owning my story. I grew up in a very xenophobic religious context. For example, I remember religious tracts from my youth that depicted the pope burning in hell. While we didn’t strictly believe we were the ONLY faithful remnant, we sure were wary, even of those in other Protestant traditions. But as I grew up, went to a more broadly evangelical seminary, and got to know people in other faith traditions, my horizons expanded.

I’m just saying, I’ve grown in my understanding of things, and I’m sure I will continue to grow. So these thoughts are still being formed. But to answer the question, I think there are generally three theological camps when it comes to interfaith dialogue, and Jesus has something to say to each.

The first is that “they” are our enemies. A Presidential candidate who says, “I think Islam hates us,” is choosing to propagate a narrative that says “they” are our enemies. When I wrote a post about the open house at one of the mosques here in Peoria a couple of weeks ago, I had a couple different people contact me with questions out of this perspective. And one of the things I heard is a common Christian idea about Islam, that “Muslims may say they are peaceful, but they’re just saying it to get power, and once they do, they’ll implement Sharia law.”

Even if this is in fact reality, Jesus couldn’t be more clear in the Sermon on the Mount that we are to love and pray for our enemies. And if, for the sake of argument, I grant the premise, it just feels like an excuse not to love. And yes, what it means to love and pray for ISIS is super complicated. But it’s much less complicated to love and pray for our Muslim neighbors in the Midwest.

So, even if you believe that Muslims are your enemy, if you identify as a follower of Jesus, then you are compelled to find ways to show love to Muslims in our community.

A second theological idea is that those of other faiths are not enemies but, rather, are just misguided. For example, many people I know are able to look past the rhetoric of conservative media and understand that Muslims and ISIS are not one and the same (just like Christians and the KKK are not one and the same). Many Christians believes Muslims (and those of other traditions/religions) are wonderful people who are simply on the wrong path.

I would suggest then, that our theological compulsion in such cases should be driven by Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan. If we believe someone is misguided, don’t we have a Christian responsibility to reach out and care for them, even at personal cost?

FInally, I believe there’s yet another way to view interfaith dialogue and cooperation. I was thinking the other day about these verses in the Gospel of Luke:

“Master,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.”

“Do not stop him,” Jesus said, “for whoever is not against you is for you.”

-Luke 10:49-50

Whatever you may think about demons, can we all at least agree that in the context Luke is written, driving out demons is a good thing? So, Jesus seems to be saying that anyone doing good things is “for you.”

I was thinking about the blog post I wrote a couple weeks ago. If the local Imam is doing something to promote peace, isn’t he then my co-laborer as a peacemaker? If the Rabbi is doing something good in the community, isn’t he “with us”? It seems Jesus is pushing his disciples to think of “us” as a much bigger concept than “those with whom we agree.”

I know it’s challenging for those of us who grew up with a strong sense of “our group is right” to think this way. But I’m challenged by Jesus’ words. I think our mentality most of the time is “If you’re not with us somewhere close to 100%, then you’re against us.” But Jesus said almost exactly the opposite.

Hmmmmmm.

So what do you think? Does your theology drive you toward interfaith dialogue and cooperation? Why or why not?

 

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Know Islam. Know Peace (in Peoria)

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall inherit the earth.”
— Jesus

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Several months ago, I heard a report from the BBC that vandalism crimes against mosques in America were on the rise. You don’t have to be an avid follower of the news to know that anti-Muslim rhetoric is getting increasing airplay in certain sectors of American society. In fact, just in the past few weeks, in a neighboring city, one man caused an uproar when he posted silhouettes in his yard of a man holding a gun to another man on his knees wearing a turban. In news reports, he defended his lawn decorations by quoting the Bible and Jesus.

Ugh.

Given the rising rhetoric, in December I finally took the initiative and sent an email to one of the local imams: “Hi. We’ve never met, but given the current anti-Muslim climate of this country and the mandate of my religion to be a peacemaker, I just wanted to say that I’m your friend. Let’s meet for lunch sometime.”

Within about a week I found myself having a long lunch with Imam Kamil Mufti, during which he challenged me to use my voice, to speak up for peace, to educate people to think differently about Islam. And he told me about his idea to have an open house at his mosque sometime in the next couple months.

Tonight was that open house.  The event was called “Know Islam. Know Peace.”

I’ve never been so proud of my community.

Local news is reporting that in excess of 700 people showed up at the Islamic Foundation of Peoria. I, and nearly everyone I talked to at the event, was blown away by the number of people who turned out to show support for Muslims in our community.

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I’m writing this just a couple hours after the event and here are a couple of my impressions:

First, I was blown away by the hospitality shown by the Muslim community. From the minute we arrived, they were the ever-gracious hosts, welcoming us, giving tours, answering questions, circulating the aisles handing out water during speeches and then feeding all of us amazing Afghani food. Just this past Sunday, I was teaching our church out of Luke 22 and one of the things we noted is that Jesus defined leadership as those who serve. I saw that lived out tonight. I felt honored and humbled to be the recipient of their kindness.

Another impression had to do with the speeches. The room was full of civic leaders, religious leaders and politicians and the dais was filled with the same. When I first saw the long list of those who would be giving speeches I thought to myself, “Oh no, this is going to be a long night.” But I was so caught up in the event, that I forgot to look at my watch until about 75 minutes in, just before Rabbi Daniel Bogard of Anshai Emeth took the stage to finish out the evening. Nearly all the speakers had something significant to add to the evening.

And finally, it struck me tonight that Jesus’ words, – “Blessed are the peacemakers” – don’t have any qualifiers. He didn’t say, “Blessed are the Christian peacemakers,” or the “American peacemakers,” or anything else. He just said that those who make peace are blessed. So, tonight, I was struck that the Muslim community is blessed. And Imam Mufti is particularly blessed I know others have worked with him, inviting those they know, but Imam Mufti and his community are the ones who reached out to build a bridge for peace.

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When Mayor Ardis stood up tonight to give his speech, he was visibly moved, as I think many of us were. I know I had goosebumps throughout the night. And he said to us, “I don’t know that I exactly have the words to describe what I feel.” He went on to talk about how proud he was of our community – both the Muslims in Peoria for hosting the event and also of everyone who showed up at a mosque – many of us for the first time in our lives.

I said it at the top, but it’s worth repeating. I’ve never been more proud to be a part of this community. It was beautiful to see people of all kinds of faiths supporting, honoring and defending each other’s rights to religious expression and being peacemakers.

There may be a world full of ugly, ignorant anti-Muslim rhetoric “out there,” but in tiny Peoria, IL, there are at least 700 of us who will stand up for peace, stand up for love and refuse to demonize “the other.”

I think this is the way of Jesus.

(To learn more, go to peaceforpeoria.com)

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