“If they [Muslims] can’t dress like we do, then they should just go back to their own country,” spewed the church member. As that morning’s guest preacher, I watched with interest as the church dynamics played out in this small town Texas congregation.
It was my first time worshipping with this congregation, so I chose to join one of their Sunday school classes to get a feel for the place. That Sunday, the contentious church member — and don’t all churches have such a person? — was ready to rumble.
The teacher asked how the church might welcome others into the church. Somehow, this turned into a few members of the class ranting about the woes of the Millennial generation and modern teenagers. We’ve all been in that wheels-off Sunday school discussion haven’t we? Several members in the class worked to redirect the conversation, but it was no use. The degeneration crept on.
Eventually, the contentious member began to rant about Muslims. No surprise in small-town Texas, although the line of logic wasn’t entirely clear. “I’m offended by what they wear,” she said, referencing the hijab worn by some Muslim women. “If they can’t dress like we do, then they should just go back to their own country.”
The air in the class weighed heavier and heavier by the second. The poor Sunday school teacher’s face telegraphed the weather-worn frustration of someone who fought this same losing battle week after week. He narrowly succeeded in redirecting the conversation back to its origin, and the lesson rockily rolled along. For a time.
“What might be some of the reasons we don’t welcome others?” the teacher asked near the end of the hour. That’s the opening Ms. Contentious was waiting for. Her anti-Muslim rant resumed.
“I’m afraid they’re going to try to make me dress like them,” she confessed as one of her justifications.
What a profound insight, I thought. Ms. Contentious was afraid a Muslim woman might ask her to conform to another culture’s dress, which was the exact demand she made of Muslim women only 10 minutes before.
Someone spoke up and asked, “Has a Muslim ever asked you to dress like them?”
“No, they haven’t,” she answered honestly.
“Do you know someone you think might?”
“I don’t know any Muslims, and I want to keep it that way,” she concluded. And that was that, but my mind was already elsewhere.
I am increasingly convinced that the primary goal of the spiritual journey is self-awareness, and that it is the answer to many of our personal and public problems. Some spiritual writers call it “awakening,” while others refer to it as “shadow work.” However we talk about it, the point is to examine ourselves honestly and gently. The main goal isn’t to change ourselves or make ourselves better. It’s to observe and grow more aware.
The spiritual journey is about gently bringing our unconscious self into our consciousness. Otherwise, we not only repress and deny our darkness, we end up projecting it. That’s exactly what scapegoating is. We place our own anxiety and the unconscious sin within us onto someone else. Then we attack that person with “righteous indignation” using justifications like God, country or family to explain and excuse our behavior.
Case in point: Ms. Contentious doesn’t know any Muslims. She has no personal experience with which to contend. For the most part, Muslims are a blank canvas for her to paint as she will. Ms. Contentious’ sin is being unwelcoming and forcing conformity on others. It’s easy for her classmates to see it, but she remains unaware. It’s her shadow.
Maybe she’s sat in too many Sunday school classes over the years where she’s received the message that people who are unwelcoming and force conformity are bad people. She doesn’t want to be a bad person, so she hides that piece of herself (unconsciously), because she’s never learned how to welcome the grace of God into her own darkness.
Eventually, we can only repress and deny it so much. We have to do something with it. So Ms. Contentious projects her own rigidity, amongst other things, onto Muslims and brews with anger against them for it. In reality, her problem isn’t with Muslims nearly as much as it is with the unwelcoming and unkind part of her own self.
The answer to her problem is a spiritual one. It doesn’t do any good to give her facts about Muslims, because that’s not what this is about.Telling her she needs to be more tolerant (she does) only gives her more to repress, deny and project, making the problem even worse. No, the answer for her — and for all of us — is learning how to bring our sin and shadow into the light where God’s love is. It is God’s love that transforms us.