We find ourselves at the beginning of another new year. The twelfth day of Christmas has passed and the magi found their way to the manager via the bright star God placed in the sky. This event signaled the dawn of a new era for humankind, a new way of being in the world, and a new way of ordering our lives. It is fitting that we celebrate Epiphany at the beginning of our calendar year reminding us from the outset that this Christ-child will bring out new life in our midst, despite the ordinariness of the everyday.
I might argue that, in fact, the world around us is anything but ordinary. It is dynamic, ever-evolving shifting sand. It surprises us at every turn and challenges our minds how to make sense of it all. The Pew Research Center recently published findings that look at the U.S. a little differently. “What if we imagined the U.S. as a small town, population 100, instead of a continent-spanning nation with hundreds of millions of people?” I agree with the authors that it makes the data about changing religious affiliations more simple and fresh. As someone who grew up in small town America, it also personalizes the data and invites me to see the data as my neighbors, the kids I went to school with, rather than percentages of people, you know, out there.
We are still a nation where most people, 71 in our small town of 100, identify as Christian. But that doesn’t mean people still identify with the same religion of their childhood, worship regularly, or have any specific religious affiliation at all. In fact, only 36 of our neighbors actually attend religious services at least weekly, and there are nearly as many people who don’t identify a specific religious affiliation as those who identify as Protestant. What this means, as you may have read elsewhere, is that more of our neighbors are unaffiliated than ever before and only half believe religion is very important in their lives. These are changing trends and we expect to see the numbers of Protestants fall as the “nones” rise. Denominational leaders have been lamenting these trends for quite some time and working to turn the tide. It also means that America is changing, rapidly. It means that not everyone on our street or in our small town believes the same way we do. It means that it is so very important for us to talk to one another – sit on the front porch and share a glass of lemonade – so that we better understand our neighbor.
I would like to focus on the one Muslim neighbor who lives in our little town of 100 people. We spend so much time in our Christian-centric world behind the safety of a locked door that we often forget about the experiences of other Americans. Muslims have lived in America for a long time, this is not a recent development as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the civil war in Syria. Not a large presence in the U.S., these our brothers and sisters in faith can easily be singled out because of their difference. Maybe because of dress. Maybe because of prayer practices. Maybe because they were the only house on the street without Christmas decorations. We hear of mass shootings like the one in the Ft. Lauderdale airport and immediately think it must have been a terrorist tied to extreme Islam. We are suspect of Muslims in America; another Pew study found that 49% of American adults think at least “some” Muslims in the U.S. are “anti-American” and 11% think “most” or “almost all” are anti-American.
You might think that as Christians our focus should be to curb the rising tide of Christian-identifying nonaffiliated neighbors. But I would like to posit that we need to pay special attention to our Muslim neighbor. The FBI reports that anti-Muslim assaults in the U.S. have reached 9/11 levels. Our neighbors, perhaps our Christian neighbors, are committing hate crimes against Muslims in this country at alarming rates. These crimes are dissimilar to other types of religiously-motivated hate crimes which are usually crimes against property – these are crimes against people. Assaults against people simply because of their religious affiliation. In 2015 we saw a 67% increase in hate crimes against Muslims in this country and for that we should be ashamed. These crimes included bodily harm and intimidation. The one Muslim neighbor in our little town must confront all the others and fear for her own safety in a land with few hiding places. In this Christmastide, especially in this season when we celebrate God doing a new thing in the world, this saddens me deeply and should likewise sadden you.
I bet you thought this would be another post about the election or the incoming administration when you saw the title. That was intentional, I must admit. We always focus on the first 100 days of a new administration as a barometer of its ability to get the job done and how much change we might experience in the coming years. But I would like us to think of these first 100 days of 2017 as an opportunity to do things differently in our lives and in our communities. From my vantage point, many of Americans have grown more comfortable lashing out and excluding people who are different from us. I heard reports of colleagues who have been told to “go home” as if the U.S. isn’t their home because they don’t look or sound American enough. I’ve heard of friends who have had racial slurs thrown at them while waiting at the bus stop, suggesting that because they take public transportation they also are the unfair recipients of public assistance that steals from the deserving and gives to the undeserving. It seems to have become easier for many Americans to criticize boldly and unfairly other people who are different from the 47 white Christians that live in our little town. This is not the America envisioned nearly 250 years ago as a land of the free.
How will you spend the first 100 days of 2017 in your little town? I hope you will give some thought to reaching out to your Muslim neighbor and working with God to usher in peace and justice.