Quickly, what are the first words that come to mind when you think of the word “religion”? What words did you come up with?

In her book Christianity After Religion, author and scholar Diana Butler Bass asked this question of groups around the country, although she actually used the word “religious.” The groups responded with similar words: rules, institution, certainty, hierarchy, boundaries, structure and order.

I’ve repeated this same exercise many times with groups of varying ages and backgrounds. I’m astounded at how consistently they come up with the same or related words.

Let me ask another question: Do the words you used to describe religion have a positive or negative connotation for you?

In my experience they almost always have a negative connotation, particularly with young adults. But whether or not those words sound favorable or unfavorable to you, I think we can all agree that “religion” is a word that isn’t always positively received.

Unfortunately religion has gone beyond being perceived as stodgy or old-fashioned. In these days it’s associated with extremism, intolerance and violence. We may feel like our own religion is OK, but we’re suspicious of the family down the street that practices a different faith, particularly if they happen to be Muslim.

How did we get to this place in our culture—where candidates vying for office simultaneously tout their religion while calling for the exclusion of those who practice another?

This is especially ironic when we consider what the word “religion” actually means. The root of the word means “to bind together,” and yet so often religion is the source of division and contention.

When we disparage people of other faiths, we merely reinforce the notion that religion is a negative thing. We don’t necessarily have to agree with one another in order to cooperate. When the faith of one community is challenged it ought to be a cause of concern for all people of faith.

There is no doubt in my mind that Jesus would stand with our Muslim brothers and sisters who are experiencing discrimination, demonization and sometimes even violence. The Muslim people as a whole are no more responsible for the killings in San Bernardino, Calif., than Christians are for the Oklahoma City bombing. The only difference is that we are in the majority and therefore exempt from the same level of scrutiny.

Let’s demonstrate that religion doesn’t have to be a negative word by recovering the original meaning. Let’s bind ourselves to the Muslim community, not giving up our identity as Christians, but rather standing with them as Jesus would have us do.

Brian A.F. Beckstrom
Beckstrom is campus pastor at Wartburg College, an ELCA college in Waverly, Iowa.

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