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We had just left the Hindu temple when I noticed the red dot on my mother’s forehead. It was the “tilaki,” the third eye or mind’s eye, associated with many Hindu gods, also symbolizing the idea of meditation and spiritual enlightenment. I, a recent graduate of a high school education, feeding on my scholastic possibilities, feeling strong in my evangelical superiority, upbraided my mother: “You let them mark you! And, that’s a false religion.”
My mother was neither intimidated or perturbed by her 19-year-old son: “How else can I find out what they think, and how they worship, if I don’t interact with them?”she calmly responded. “And besides,” she said, repressing a chuckle at my religious apoplexy, “Just because they put the red mark on me doesn’t mean I believe it. Remember, son, the importance of civility, cordiality, and respect before you tell them about your faith.”
It was lesson I took to heart.
“Maybe there is some truth in their faith,” I surmised. “Perhaps I don’t have an exclusive corner on all eternal truth.”
I was with my parents those 30-some years ago, on a six-week medical mission ministry to Bangalore, India. It was then that Mom and I had had that brief conversation that redirected me to a more sympathetic view of other faiths.
I hadn’t thought of that encounter with Hinduism for years until I read of Senator David Williams’ attack on Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear’s participation in a “ground blessing” Hindu ceremony, where the site of an Indian company is building a factory in Elizabethtown, Ky.
Williams took issue with Beshear.
“He’s sitting down there with his legs crossed, participating in Hindu prayers with a dot on his forehead with incense burning around him. I don’t know what the man was thinking.”
Williiams himself has taken it on the chin for his remarks, as many across the state were angered by his criticism of Beshear in the heat of the campaign for governor.
But Williams, despite his religious hyperbole--- was it simply a last gasp endeavor to reverse his lag in the polls? ---unwittingly did us a favor: He broached the question about the interaction of various faiths in a pluralistic society, such as ours, and reflection on the issue may help us clarify where we stand on the matter.
In the increasingly smaller and more pluralistic world we live in, it’s essential that people of different faiths learn to get along with each other. Today, Christians are persecuted in various parts of the Middle East. The steady resurgence of Tibetan Buddhism is raising tensions in China, as followers of that faith seek religious rights. And in Carrolton, Ohio, one sect within the Amish community has taken up the practice of forcibly cutting off the beards of men in the more mainstream Amish faith.
The more intense some grow in their own ideology, the more intolerant they become of others with different beliefs. But passion for one’s faith doesn’t have to translate into offensive words or harmful actions towards others.
And that brings me back to momma: “Remember, son, the importance of civility, cordiality, and respect before you tell them about your faith.”
That may or not be the right tactic when you are behind in a political race, as was Senator David Williams, but it deserves a look in the real world we live in.
We are linked with others, like it or not, and closer culturally, economically, and religiously, than ever before in human history. Getting along doesn’t mean we have to give up the uniqueness of our faith traditions, but that we honor the endeavor of truth in others. This involves genuine dialogue, which presupposes that we know the persons to whom we speak, and that we respect them in their cultural and religious identity. It also means that we expose ourselves, in the sense that we allow for the possibility of more truth in our own belief system. For Christians, giving an account of the hope within, (I Peter 3:15), may require proclaiming the gospel, free from a cultural triumphalism that expects those in “inferior” cultures to receive automatically the particular brand of “good news” various Christian denominations may proffer.
In essence, it means respecting and honoring the faiths of other people. It requires an attitude of humility - something those who engage in a win/lose form of religious conversation aren’t accustomed to having.
But maybe it’s time they did.
Just ask David Williams.
David B. Whitlock is pastor of Lebanon Baptist Church in Lebanon, Kentucky. He also teaches on the adjunct faculty at Campbellsville University in Campbellsville, Ky. Contact David at firstname.lastname@example.org. or visit his website, davidbwhitlock.com