General CBF

Common Ground: A reflection on religious freedom

By Trey Lyon

“The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.”-John Leland, 1790

I was standing in a circle in a room full of about 40 people, almost all of whom were under the age of 40. Aside from our relative youth and biological classification as human beings there were very few similarities. There were men and women, Anglo, Hispanic, African American, Asian, South Asian, Indian, Gay, Straight, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Sikh, Agnostic, Hindu, Muslim and many other qualifiers of difference in that peculiar circle.

The activity we were participating in was “Join Me on Common Ground” and in turn, as people felt inspired, they would say “Join me on Common Ground if you…” and they would describe an experience or part of their identity, and one by one, as the description applied to each person, we would step forward.

“Join me on Common Ground if you were bullied or made fun of for your beliefs…”

“Join me on Common Ground if you can travel the country freely…”

“Join me on Common Ground if a close friend or family member came out to you…”

“Join me on Common Ground if you’ve ever been watched, profiled or harassed by an authority figure…”

With that statement, everyone in the room stepped forward–except for myself and two other guys. The only three white, straight, Christian males in the room. My eyes were opened in that moment because while I normally rest in a pretty comfortable majority, for a brief moment I found myself in the minority of the un-harassed, the non-harangued, the safe, secured and socially not-at-all threatening white male.Common Ground

For a split second, I tried to push past the veil of my own privilege and scan the room. Some people looked proud and resolute, others stared at the ground or fought back tears–as if you could see the tapes of those painful memories play back in the facial contours of each person.

I couldn’t see their personal experience, but I could see that it was not right or just–and as we were gathered for a Justice Conference, this seemed something worth getting upset about.

For the next several days we had conversations about unjust immigration policies, punitive and selective law enforcement, racial inequality, gender and sexual identity, oppression and environmental degradation. It was a powerful conference overall, but I could never really shake that experience of the “Common Ground” that I could not share.

I set out to befriend the guy who made that statement. His name is Gurwinder, he is from Queens, New York, and he is Sikh. He’s among the kindest and most thoughtful and peaceable people I’ve ever met–the kind of “still waters run deep” figure who can just as easily crack a joke, craft a beautiful line of poetry or bust some serious moves on the dance floor.

Over the course of the next few weeks I tried to understand Gurwinder’s experience as much as I could. In his own words:

“As a younger person in middle school I confronted a lot of discrimination and bullying because I chose to stay close with my faith. These recurring experiences discouraged me and then one day I decided to cut my hair, thinking I would be able to blend in. This decision actually backfired on me and actually didn’t ameliorate the situation at all.

 After a short period I discovered my faith at the local Sikh house of worship, where I was first introduced to the music and individuals who were enthusiastically practicing the Sikh faith. I fell in love with the music and the people and then decided to re-grow my hair. Those experiences encouraged me to find alternatives for confronting discrimination. I was once again a Sikh male with a turban and the bullying increased more to an extent where I was physically assaulted many times. I had no choice but to be determined internally and be in the constant state of ‘chardi kala‘ which Sikhism teaches us and translates to ‘eternal optimism’.

These experiences have shaped how I am today and I definitely admire them. But again, when it comes to the ‘freedom’ aspect of religion I think that it’s up to oneself to practice or live what they believe in however they perceive to be. If they want to be religious ‘spiritually,’ then they are entitled to do that, and if they want it to be a ‘physical’ part of them they are entitled to do that as well. We are the ones to decide what makes us comfortable, and that’s how I envision freedom.”

The kind of freedom Gurwinder speaks of here isn’t necessarily a Fourth of July, flags, BBQ and apple pie kind of freedom. It is the kind of freedom to explore one’s own deep spiritual identity and to literally wear that identity physically on your person–a reminder of who you are and to whom you belong. It’s the kind of freedom John Leland, a Baptist preacher, spoke about in 1790–the same kind he used to strong-arm James Madison to protect in the Constitution of the United States of America.

This Freedom isn’t “tolerance,” for tolerance refuses to embrace difference. Tolerance is never about common ground, it’s about finding your lane, staying in it and making sure you don’t deviate into someone else’s lane. But we deviate all the time, sometimes with catastrophic results.

One week after attending the conference where Gurwinder and I met, a Sikh man was deliberately run over in Queens, allegedly for having his car door open and temporarily blocking a parking space. The attacker called the man a terrorist and drove his truck directly into Sandeep Singh, hitting him and dragging him underneath the truck for several feet. It was, and is, a horrific tragedy–one made worse by the ignorance that confuses a peaceable middle-class Sikh with a radicalized, militant terrorist.

When we are being honest, most of us know enough not to spew venomous hate-speech and attack innocent people. But if we were forthright, it is all-too-easy to settle for tolerance instead of the more challenging common ground and true love of neighbor.

In 2014, the struggle for religious freedom is most often externalized–persecuted Christians and the Yazidis in Iraq, Palestinians and Israelis in Gaza, or corporations with faith commitments they believe preclude them from following federal law. All of these are open for debate and conversation–as is the call for religious tolerance–but are we really hearing each other?

Are we just standing on the outside of the circle thinking “Wow, that’s awful. I can’t imagine that happening to me.”?  Are we willing to move beyond our comfortable lanes to find a new path–one that we walk together, protecting, talking, laughing and dancing? Who knows–we might form a new road in the process–one forged of common, holy ground–a road that is never intended to be walked alone.

Trey and his wife, Jennifer, serve as CBF field personnel in Atlanta. Learn more about their ministry here. 

9 thoughts on “Common Ground: A reflection on religious freedom

  1. “For the next several days we had conversations about unjust immigration policies, punitive and selective law enforcement, racial inequality, gender and sexual identity, oppression and environmental degradation.”

    And then you went right back to representing the CBF who openly encourage discrimination against LGBT people and the belief that we lack “moral integrity.” Sounds like you really learned something.

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