Big Tents

Years ago, back in my lawyering days, I had to go to Israel to meet with an Israeli scientist who was a witness in one of my cases.  Even though I was extremely busy, and anxious to hurry off to my next destination, he convinced me to stay an extra day for sightseeing.

In hindsight, of course, I’m really glad he did.  We spent a wonderful day exploring the sites in and around Jerusalem.  He and I had become friends over the years and he brought his wife and 12 year old daughter along.

One of the places we visited was St. James Cathedral in the Armenian Quarter, a popular tourist attraction.  It is a beautiful ornate church, supposedly on the site of the tomb of St. James.  While we were there a priest came into the church, chanting and swinging a censer of burning incense.  The priest had a long gray beard and was wearing a black hooded robe.  Behind him was a procession of boys wearing robes and chanting beautifully.  It was an amazing sight and I’d ever seen anything like it. (I later learned it was the Vespers service and the boys were seminarians from the Orthodox seminary there).

My friend’s young daughter was standing next to me while this was going on. She leaned over and whispered to me, “What are they saying?”

“I don’t know,” I whispered back.

Then she shot me an embarrassed glance and said, “Oh, sorry.  I thought you were Christian.”

I think of that often.  She imagined that if was Christian, then naturally I could understand and relate to what these Christians were doing and saying.  She had no idea how diverse a lot we are.

Many years later I recall a friend who grew up in an extremely strict conservative ultra-fundamentalist family talking about being in an English class when he was in college.  Somehow the subject of Epiphany came up. The professor, knowing my friend was a Christian, asked him to explain Epiphany to the class.  Although my friend was a pastor’s son (and was eventually to become a pastor himself), knew the Bible well and no doubt could easily recite the tenets of the church he was raised in, he was embarrassed to say he had no idea what Epiphany was.  The professor didn’t mean to embarrass my friend.  He just didn’t take into account the diversity of beliefs among Christians.

I suppose we all do that–sometimes assume that people who share a particular religious, ethnic, or social identity all have the same beliefs. We may even take our observations about a group (usually negative and derived from observing a very tiny fraction of the group) and project them onto the entire group.  That’s called stereotyping. Even when done innocently (as it probably most often is) it results in error.

The error is worst when a person who has developed negative feelings toward people of a particular religion, race, ethnicity, social group, etc. (perhaps justifiably) then projects those negative characteristics onto the entire group.  That error has done a lot of damage across the centuries.

Whatever identifying labels are attached to us (religious, ethnic or otherwise), the chances are good that they merely place us inside a very large tent.