Intra-Faith Divisions and the Dangers of Othering

By:  Heather Abraham                                                                         

Several weeks ago, my husband and I attended a dinner party at a friend’s home.   As always, she was the perfect hostess, bringing together an interesting mix of people and serving a fabulous meal.  After dinner, we gathered in the den for coffee and of course coffee talk.  The conversation was lively and covered many topics throughout the evening.  One specific conversation caught my attention and I wandered away from my group to listen more intently as two Muslim women were discussing the differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims.  Not surprisingly, the two Sunni Muslim women soon determined that Shiites weren’t “really” Muslim and that they were in reality practicing another religion entirely.  Terms like us/them and we/they were peppered throughout the exchange.   

This conversation reminded me of an encounter I had with a neighborhood acquaintance soon after she and her husband returned from 

If only humans could be so open and serene!

vacationing in Italy.  While showing pictures of her vacation, she mentioned that they had stayed in the home of a Christian missionary while visiting Florence.  Curious, I asked if the missionary used Italy as a home base and inquired where she performed her missions.  I was quickly informed that the missionary worked exclusively in Italy.   Since the vast majority of Italians are Christians I found this curious and inquired as to whom she was ministering.   Well, you would have thought I had opened Pandora’s Box! Obviously agitated, the neighbor informed me that most “Italians are Catholics and Catholics don’t teach the truth about Jesus, they aren’t really Christians at all—they worship the Pope and saints.”  She then admonished me for not “knowing” this as I study religion.  Hmm, I don’t know how I missed that important bit of information.  

Although I often write about the importance of interfaith dialogue, these two examples give us an opportunity to explore the phenomena of intra-faith divisions and discuss the dangers inherent in the process of othering.  

In the above examples, it is apparent that each party questioned the validity of a group within their own religious tradition and found them lacking in authenticity.  By extension of this conclusion, the adherents of the branch in question were relegated to the position of the other.  What does it mean to categorize a person or group as the other?  In The Origins of Satan, Elaine Pagels writes of this common yet problematic worldview. 

The social and cultural practice of defining certain people as “others” in relation to one’s own group maybe, of course, as old as humanity itself.  The anthropologist Robert Redfield has argued that the worldview of many peoples consists essentially of two pairs of binary opposition:  human/non-human and we/they.  These two are often correlated, as Jonathan Z. Smith observes, so that “we” equals “human” and “they” equals “nonhuman.”   

Thus when we otherize a group of people, we are in actuality assigning them an identity that is, to one degree or another, inferior to that of our own.  One only has to reflect on the horrors of WWII, Rwanda, or Darfur, to understand the consequences of perceiving the other as less than human.  

This attitude may seem harmless when it is promoted by attractive women at a dinner party or a retired neighborhood grandmother but when embraced and promoted by a religious organization or when it becomes political policy; intra-faith discord, enhanced by the process of othering, can become a powerful and destructive weapon.  Christian, Muslim, and Judaic history are littered with prolonged bloody wars which evolved out of intra-faith conflict and sadly the 21st century appears to be walking the same bloody path—deeply embedded in this never ending tragedy.  

Binary opposition is also alive and thriving in America’s political system.   One need only to look at the debacle on Capitol Hill to witness the consequences of this limited way of thinking.  Members of Congress, so deeply invested in defeating the other, have lost sight of their primary purpose of constructive governing.  Each side rigid with disdain for what is perceived as the other’s dangerously misinformed ideals and values.  No conflict resolution or compromise in sight, only the same repetitive childish infighting.  Seeing everything in terms of black/white, right/wrong, good/evil, or us/them is not only unproductive and destructive but is also tragically uninspiring. 

This brings me to the questions of the day:  Is it possible to admit theological or political differences without becoming adversarial?  And, why are we so invested in rejecting the validity of any tradition beyond our own?

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