Culture defines who we are as a group of people. The cohesiveness of the inherent group identity expressed in culture is protective, but can also be destructive. The more clearly defined the culture is the more impenetrable its boundaries. A culture with significantly less similarities than our own is suspect, and subsequently easily becomes a scapegoat or an enemy.
In Eastern Europe before the Holocaust Jews lived in villages called “shtetls.” These Jews spoke Yiddish which is a combination of German and Hebrew, and had very distinct cultural practices. Jews were significantly different in their religious practices and cultural identity than the majority culture which created the establishment of rigid boundaries that disallowed interaction between the two cultures. Subsequently, because of lack of understanding of the Jewish religion and culture by the majority culture, propaganda and myths about the Jews began to circulate which created fear and mistrust. For example, one of the myths was the “blood libel:”
“…a myth that Jews used the blood of Christian children for ritual purposes. Other myths included the idea that Jewish failure to convert to Christianity was a sign both of service to the anti-Christ as well as innate disloyalty to European (read Christian) civilization. Conversely, the conversion of individual Jews was perceived as insincere and as having materialistic motives. This teaching provided the grounds upon which a superstructure of hatred could be built” (Antisemitism in History: From the Early Church to 1400).
America has been described as a “melting pot” of different cultures and peoples, but historically our behavior towards immigrants tells an entirely different story. The description “melting pot” infers these various types of culture, religions and races somehow blend and live in synthesis. Additionally, the descriptor infers more interaction than in reality occurs. America is more like a patchwork quilt than a melting pot. The more ethnic cultures live in their own neighborhoods and retain all of the characteristics of their home culture, while incorporating some of the new culture’s behavior into their indigenous culture but with very few interpersonal relationships of outsiders. Lack of contact equals increased risk of persecution from the majority culture.
Recently, I read an article by Sara Weissman about Yiddish slang words presently being used among Orthodox Jews. At the same time I read this article I was attempting to learn the foreign words used in Islam. Some of the words speak to Islam itself, and some of the words can also be used in a slang context. Because of the exclusive use of intercultural language, both of these religions highly express their religion through cultural behavior. In other words, it would be extremely difficult to separate out the religion from the culture. They have their own self-governing practices, ethnic foods, language use, clothing, etc. that to an outsider would appear foreign. If there is little interaction between the ethnic group and outsiders, then the outsiders have very little understanding of the ethnic culture, and subsequently less acceptance. This is the destructive aspect of the more clearly defined ethnic culture due to its high level of impenetrable boundaries. The ethnic culture’s cohesiveness is stronger to provide a protective factor against the majority culture. However, because of the stronger boundaries, this type of culture becomes more of a target by the majority culture.
Presently, the prejudice is growing against Muslims in some European countries (especially France), and in America. There is a significant degree of misunderstanding of Islam by Christians and Jews who are the very ones who could be reaching out in love with a sincere intention of dialogue to understand Islam to promote peace. Of course, the perception of Islam became distorted after the 911 attack, and has continued to be distorted. Even in spite of the many Imans publishing fatwas against the terrorists and constantly attempting to reassure non-Muslims that they don’t support terrorism, while explaining the terrorists do not follow the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Personally, there is not even one Christian I have spoken to that has even the slightest understanding of Islam. They listen to the propaganda on news programs and the internet, and subsequently believe all Muslims are violent and want to forcefully convert all people to Islam. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Lack of understanding can be easily used to spread negative misinformation which ignites hatred.
Those we don’t understand, who are different from us become aliens that must be destroyed. How many Science Fiction movies have you seen where aliens were always dangerous and needed to be destroyed? I can only think of one alien movie where the aliens were not seen as intent on destroying earthlings, but were gently reaching out to establish peace and understanding. The reaction of the earthlings was a highly interested expectation of a peaceful first interaction with the hope of learning from the “aliens.” The movie is Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Movie clip:
Our world will always be in a state of war and violence unless we deeply understand the need to give up our power, and learn to love. Jesus consistently expressed the kind of love to achieve peace, understanding and acceptance. Love is the filter by which ALL of our actions should be expressed through. Learn this incredible love, which is filled with light, compassion and wisdom and God will establish His kingdom on earth. Our world today is filled with such violence and chaos we are losing hope. Hope lies within the amazing transformative power of God, not with our weak attempts to make changes based on our limited understanding.
There is a description in the gospels of Jesus reaching out to one of those aliens. In John 4:1-42 we find Jesus leaving Judea to return to Galilee. Jews would take the long route to avoid going anywhere near Samaria. Historically, there was great animosity between the Jews and Samaritans that had lasted for centuries. The Jews considered the Samaritans as impure, and self-righteously looked down on them while refusing to have any type of contact. And yet, Jesus, for no discernable reason, tells His disciples he must go through Samaria. He arrives in Sychar at Jacob’s well at noon where he meets a Samaritan woman who is drawing water. According to his Jewish heritage he should have turned around and went the other way – quickly. Jews did not interact with aliens. In fact, not only did Jews avoid contact with the filthy, alien Samaritans, but would not have spoken to a woman. This woman is extremely alien. Jesus knew because she was drawing water at noon when the other women didn’t draw water that she was being ostracized by her community for most likely a sexual sin. No self-respecting Jew would have anything to do with such a woman, must less a Samaritan woman.
The typical response to aliens is one of judgement, isn’t it? Our brain categorizes aliens or “others” into negative categories to ostracize them from acceptance while placing ourselves in a position of superiority. Jesus speaks to the alien, and miraculously tells her all about her life revealing he knows the details of why she was at the well at such an hour. He reveals to her he is the Messiah, and tells her to reveal this special information to her villagers. She excitedly tells her community that has excluded her that there is a man at the well who performed a miracle. Jesus could have simply went to her village and spread the news himself. But out of love and compassion he uses the alienated alien to spread the news thereby restoring her to her community. She is transformed from an alien outsider to an insider. Additionally, the Samaritans who have been ostracized by the Jews are made insiders and become chosen by Jesus.
We are called by God to be bearers of the Good News. Our love is to be a shining light guiding the lost to safe harbor. However, our light is diffused through layers of misunderstanding and lack of acceptance. Love one another, as God loves us.