There are many great universal truths in this life. For example:
Never trust a dog to watch your food.
Or the quickest way to double your money is to fold it in half and put it back in your pocket.
A third great universal truth is this: With any given family gathering, there is always stuff.
We all know about families. While we love to think we have the perfect postcard family that gathers around a table where everyone gets along, we know that’s not always what happens.
I remember disagreements at my childhood family gatherings. Like Aunt Gretchen (the names have been changed to protect the innocent), the lifelong Democrat who, after consuming half a glass of Chablis, would always start a political argument with cousin Ned, who had a framed portrait of Ronald Regan over his bathtub.
And then there were people at our family gatherings that we didn’t understand. Literally. Such as my aunt and uncle who worked at a school for the deaf and would have heated arguments between bites of green bean casserole through a flurry of indecipherable hand motions.
With any given family gathering, there is always stuff. But here’s the thing with families: While we may not understand them, and we may not always agree with them, we stand by them. Why? Because they are family. Which tees up this question: What would the world look like if we were to offer that basic courtesy of solidarity to all who were our family?
Webster’s defines “family” as “descendants of a common ancestor.” Under that definition, biological family is easy to figure out: parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins. However, in addition to biological family, there are other equally important categories of family to be considered — ones that clearly match this definition, yet ones we have conveniently and consistently ignored. Let me give you one example, a very important category of family that we rarely claim: religious family.
As Christians, we tend to think of family as our brothers and sisters in Christ. While accurate, that is also a narrow, self-centered definition. True family is defined as our fellow descendants from a common ancestor: the 15 million Jews and 1.6 billion Muslims of this world. They are family, because all three religions trace their lineage from a common ancestor: Abraham.
As Christians, we remember the long list of begats in the first chapter of the Book of Matthew. While it is not necessarily a popular section of Scripture, it is a significant one as it describes the 42-generation family chain — Abraham to Isaac to the house of David to Jesus. Clearly, Abraham is also core to the Jewish line. In fact, Christians and Jews shared the exact lineage until Jesus, at which point we Christians broke off from our Jewish family.
But what many don’t realize is that Muslims also draw their lineage from Abraham. Most of us remember that Abraham had two sons: Isaac and Ishmael. Isaac is the son who bore the line that Christians and Jews claim. But Abraham’s second son, Ishmael, was, according to the Bible, born to Sarah’s slave, Hagar, and cast into the wilderness, where he became the Patriarch of the Arabs. The holy book of Islam, the Quran, has a different version of the story. Islamic tradition says Abraham was ordered by God through the angel Gabriel to take Hagar and Ishmael to Mecca, where they built the Kaaba, the holy place in Mecca where Muslims make their pilgrimage or the Hajj. The prophet Mohammad, born centuries later, traced his lines back to Ishmael.
Whatever version of the story you choose, the fact remains that all three of our holy texts (the Bible, the Torah and the Quran) agree that Muslims, Christians and Jews are descended from a common ancestor: Abraham. They agree that we are family.
So here’s my question: Why don’t we show each other the same courtesy we show our family around the dinner table? Why don’t we stand by each other even though we might not understand or agree?
Maybe we just need a little more evidence of our family relationship.
I remember having a fight with my mom when I was 6 or 7. By the end of the conflict, I knew that she had won. In anger, I blurted out the only thing I could think of: “I don’t care ‘cause you’re not my momma!” As my mother stood there shaking her head, she laughed and said, “Well, if the birth certificate’s not enough, then go look in the mirror.”
At the time, I didn’t quite get the import of that statement, but after 50 years on this earth, it now resonates clearly. We can argue all day about what’s on a birth certificate, but what we can’t argue with is what’s in the mirror. Because if we truly look, we will see a striking resemblance to our family. Part of it is physical, but it’s also how we come at the world. Early on, we begin to resemble our families in our mannerisms, how we carry ourselves, how we express ourselves, how we laugh, how we smile, how we play, how we sing, how we think.
Likewise, if we put our three religions in the mirror, we’ll see some startling similarities, like the fact that we worship the same God. Sure, we have different names (God, Yahweh, Allah), but it’s one God. The same God that Jews believe gave Moses the commandments, is the same God that Christians believe Jesus called father, is the same God that Muslims believe sent Gabriel to Mohammad to dictate the Quran.
We share other likenesses as well. For example, all three religions share Jerusalem as a holy city. All three religions teach the importance of prayer, mercy, caring for the poor, and charity. And all three religions acknowledge and/or honor Jesus.
Obviously, we know Christians worship Jesus as the Messiah. Judaism also acknowledges Jesus’ life and death, but doesn’t believe him to be the Messiah. What you may not know, however, is that Islam honors Jesus. Muslims believe that Jesus was an honored prophet sent by Allah and born of the Virgin Mary. “Those messengers We endowed with gifts, some above others: To one of them Allah spoke; others He raised to degrees (of honour); to Jesus the son of Mary We gave clear (Signs), and strengthened him with the holy spirit” (the Quran, Surah 2:253). In fact, the Quran discusses not only Jesus, but Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon and other biblical figures.
Of course, there are differences in our traditions, some cutting to the very core of our beliefs about our messiahs or prophets. But these differences don’t change the fact that we are from the same tree, descended from the same ancestor, and if we take the time to look in the mirror, the resemblance is unmistakable. Yet, when we disagree or fail to understand each other, we don’t stand together. We simply turn and walk away. Or worse — we strike out.
Look at the news. Recent FBI data show that anti-Muslim hate crimes surged by 67 percent in 2015. Consider the fact that four mosques have burned in seven weeks since the beginning of this year. Jan. 7, the Islamic Center of Lake Travis in Austin, Texas, caught fire; Jan. 14, the Islamic Center of Eastside in Bellevue, Wash., burned; Jan. 27, several hours after the executive order banning immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, a fire destroyed the Islamic Center of Victoria in Texas; and Friday, Feb. 24, a small blaze broke out at the front entrance of the Daarus Salaam Mosque near Tampa, Fla. Authorities have ruled that three of the four fires were caused by arson.
Or consider the recent violence and vandalism against three Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis, Philadelphia and Rochester, N.Y. And if that’s not enough, CNN reports that in recent weeks more than 80 bomb threats have been called in to Jewish community centers in 33 states and two Canadian provinces.
And let’s be clear; it’s not going to get any easier, as our planet is getting more and more crowded. In the past 70 years, the world population has tripled, growing from two billion in 1950 to over seven billion today. Experts project that in the next 40 years (in one generation), the population will explode to over nine billion.
Let me share one other statistic. The Pew Research Center recently projected that by mid-century, Islam will grow by 73 percent while Christianity will only grow by 35 percent, and that Islam will then match Christianity in the number of followers worldwide.
Things are changing. Populations are increasing. Resources are dwindling. For survival purposes, if nothing else, we must figure out how to live together.
So I return to my original question: What would the world look like if we stood by those who were our family? Let me give you a glimpse through two recent stories.
First, from Religion News Service. After one of the mosque attacks in Florida, a Muslim who had launched a repair fund noticed something odd about the donation amounts. Instead of the round numbers expected — $25, $50, or more — the donations were in multiples of $18 ($36, $72, etc.). “‘I couldn’t understand why people were donating in what seemed like weird amounts to the cause,” Adeel Karim wrote. “Then I figured out after clicking on the names Avi, Cohen, Goldstein, Rubin, Fisher …. Jews donate in multiples of 18 as a form of what is called ‘Chai’” which means life. Thus, the donators were symbolically wishing the recipient a long life.
I also offer this story reported by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency about Muslim veterans offering to guard Jewish sites and cemeteries across the United States.
When I hear reports like these, I can’t help but think of a line in the Psalms (a book all three religions honor): “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity” (Psalm 113:1). That little Psalm — with its 13 words — packs a powerful message. According to some scholars, the word “kindred” in this passage does not mean blood relatives, but a people joined by God’s grace, which is exactly what we, as Christians, Jews and Muslims, are. The words call all people to worship God. And in doing so, calls us to remember our family.
So we return to our universal truth: With any given family gathering, there will always be stuff. People we don’t understand, people with whom we disagree. But in the end, none of that matters. Because in the end, we are family, descended from a common ancestor. And as family, we will stand together, we will live together, and we will survive together. Because that is what families do.