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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Are You an Oppressor?

This past monday, I had the privilege of going and hearing Najeeba Syeed-Miller speak at a conference at the University of Illinois-Chicago. She is a brilliant Professor at Claremont School of Theology & one of the leading Muslim women in the U.S. Our paths have crossed different times. One of my mentors, Bob Roberts, Jr held a conference called Global Faith Forum where he brought her into speak and I met her there. I also have spent time with her father while traveling with Bob, and when I found out she was speaking in Chicago, I decided to go learn some more. Her topic assigned was the "role of women in traditional Islam" and if it is changing, or more importantly, should be changing. I was fascinated by what she had to say, and I cannot do her justice in this blog by summarizing, but part of what she said inspired me to write this:

Are we oppressors?

Our first response to that question is a quick no. I mean, we live in the modern day United States where equality flows like milk & honey. However, a deeper look into our culture shows many oppressed people ranging from homosexuals to Muslim-Americans and racial tensions still exist in areas of our nation. Ironically, Najeeba's talk wasn't necessarily focusing on oppression, but this is the gist of the part of what she said that brings this all together:

She was talking about the role of women in Islam and how some view them as oppressed, but we ought to be careful to view them that way as a whole. Because, although some would like to be "liberated", others feel they are not oppressed because they have "chosen" to live the way they are and are not "forced." And, how they choose to live is their way of more closely following God. She went on to not try to even focus this just on women, but on the basic human right we have to choose.

This really got me thinking. The opposite then, of oppression, is the right to choose. To choose how you live your life. To choose which religion you will follow and how you will follow it. In one word: Freedom.

Therefore, to be against freedom of religion would be to be for oppression. To be against the building of a Mosque would be for oppression. To be against your child being friends with Muslim children would be for oppression. To be against building a church in the Middle East would be for oppression. Not allowing someone to choose their religion and force them to believe like you is to oppress them.

Jesus modeled this for us often. One story that sticks out to me is found in the New Testament in the book of John, chapter 4, where Jesus "had to go to Samaria." There he sits at Jacob's well and encounters a Samaritan women who happened to be a prostitute and He crossed socio-economic barriers (Samaritan's being on the bottom of the totem pole in any Caste system), and gender barriers to tell her He had the kingdom of heaven for her. He told her He was the living water and that a day was coming soon when eternal life could dwell inside of her if she "chose" to follow Him. She did that day and so did many in her village. What was Jesus teaching us when He went to this women? Why not just go to the leading man in the Village? Why was He even going to the Samaritans at all being a Jew? He was showing us that He loved all people and that His love knew no barriers and wants all people to have the choice to respond to Him.

I have seen oppression with my own eyes in South Africa & Palestine. We have all seen it in the Sudan, Egypt and other places throughout history. However, to move forward as people living in a multi-faith & multi-ethnic world, we must choose to love all people and not contribute to oppression because someone disagrees with us and our beliefs. As a follower of Jesus & his teachings, I must choose to love all people and fight against oppression.

I was visiting with Najeeba & a colleague of hers before she spoke and we were talking about multi-faith and I said that it must go beyond discussion and enter into engagement. "Hand. Heart. Head." is model that Bob Roberts developed that we are trying to do. Multi-faith, or interfaith, has always been about discussions between pastors, imams, rabbis, etc., to see how we can find some common ground. I have been a part of many inter-faith panels at the University of North Texas and they are all usually the same. The problem with this approach is they start with the "head." I was not friends with the other members of the panels and I would never see them again until another interfaith panel occurred. I just knew we had irreconcilable differences and that we didn't believe the same things no matter what "pluralists" were trying to tell us. Bad approach. It did nothing to change the stereotypes I had because I still did not know "them." (people of other faiths)

We need a new platform. Instead, we start with the "Hand." We partner together to make our cities better. Bob's church Northwood in Keller,TX has done this many times. They have done Habitat for Humanity houses with Muslims, Jews, and Christians all working together and other projects serving together to make their cities better.

This leads to the "heart." In working together, we become friends. You realize after roofing together or serving the homeless together that we really do like each other and we can be friends. Bob's church has had members go to each other's houses for dinners with people from other faiths and the ladies have even gotten together to learn how to cook each other's food.

Then we can get to the "head." Now, because we are friends, we can talk about all of our differences and agree to disagree. But because we like each other we still have a relationship, my stereotypes have been broken and you are no longer "them" to me but my friend. Now we can talk things out as friends instead of panelists.

Most importantly, however, this process enables the movement to the masses. It goes from religious leaders in each religion having a dialogue to the people in our different congregations engaging in a multi-faith movement to make our cities better and learn to love one another.

Hand. Heart. Head.

Let's love all people and be people that lead to peace, not more oppression. We have enough of that in the world already.