by Carolyn and JoeThe speaker, a college mathematics professor, arrived on time from a point an hour distant despite the inclement weather. His subject was not to be mathematics, however, but an explanation of his personal understanding and practice of his religion, Islam. As a gesture of friendship, he brought crackers and hummus, a garbanzo bean dip native to his mid-Eastern culture, to share during the social hour that was to follow his presentation.
The bad weather kept some church members from attending, but the event, one in a series held for the purpose of understanding the religions of the world, still managed to attract a sizeable crowd. One of the guests wore the collar of a priest. He was a stranger to the regular members of the church, some of whom were pleased to see that a priest was interested enough in other religions to attend.
The presentation went well. The speaker presented the basic understandings of his religion in a clear and concise manner. He emphasized its peaceful aspects. The mission of his religion, he said, was “to establish a world of peace in this life” through “compassion, forgiveness and respect.” His religious duty, he felt, was to teach others—not to proselytize. He wanted to focus on points we could agree on, not on points of division.
He invited questions during the presentation. At one point it quickly became obvious that a handful of he audience, strangers to the church, attended not to learn about Islam from the speaker but to attack Islam and him. They claimed Islam’s purpose is to promote violence and encourage its believers to kill others by blowing themselves up.
The visitors asked several legitimate questions, but offended attendees by presenting them with a belligerent, confrontational attitude. One of the most verbal of the group was the priest.
The speaker, without becoming agitated, gave answers intended to calm the questioners. He acknowledged the presence of extremists in all religions.
His answers were not accepted by the questioners, who became increasingly belligerent, even to the point of verbally attacking anyone not adhering to the tenets of the Christian faith.
For brief moments there was a fear that things could get out of hand.
The majority of those in attendance came to the rescue of the meeting. The leader and organizer of the lecture series told of her pleasurable and peaceful experiences when she visited an Islamic country. A woman rose to comment that she had come to listen and learn about one of the major religions in the world and not to argue about the actions of a few people in that religion. She was loudly applauded. The tension lifted when several of the strangers walked out of the meeting. The priest left at its conclusion, after which remaining members of the confrontational group interacted favorably with the4 speaker and other attendees during the social hour.
An odd thing happened that night. Some people attended the meeting to protest the violence they felt was inherent in Islam. The speaker presented the best side of his religion; those who attended to confront, who walked out, presented the rude side of theirs. It was they that had displayed the tendency for confrontation and (as feared by some in attendance) violence.
The important thing is not which religion a person adheres to, but how its believers play out that particular religion.
The evening was summed up by an attendee: what the group experienced was a microcosm of what goes on in the world—emotional response, not logic; anger, not listening; fear and defensiveness, not wisdom, in dealing with volatile issues.
A lesson in religion was learned that evening, a vital lesson, though perhaps not the one that was intended. The purpose of the series of meetings is to increase knowledge and understanding of other religions of the world. If anyone in attendance had harbored any doubt as to the value of and need for such a program, they were surely erased by the events that occurred.
October 1, 2007
A LESSON IN RELIGION