Editor’s Comments – Washing Your Ears: On Inter-Religious Friendships

[1] Shortly after getting to know some young Muslim men from Malindi while traveling in Kenya in 2009, they invited me to join them for prayer — to observe and participate as I wished. Outside of the mosque, after removing my shoes, they welcomed me to wash my hands, feet, face, ears, and mouth — to purify myself from the evil I had thought, done, seen, heard, and spoken. On my knees that African afternoon, as I cupped water with my hands to cover my ears, it occurred to me (like a revelation) that the cleansing of what I have heard about Muslims (mostly negative stereotypes) was an important, early step in hearing from Muslims about themselves and Islam, and in becoming friends.

[2] This month, Journal of Lutheran Ethics, with the help of national leaders in inter-religious dialogue, explores theological and historical resources from the Lutheran tradition that can inform and inspire encounters with our multi-religious neighbors. As the United States prepares to mark the tenth year of recognition of 9/11 this September, how might Lutherans contribute to a national moment of reflection on and assessment of the current state of inter-religious relationships in America? As the religious composition of the United States continues to change, openness, understanding, and cooperation are of course crucial to the domestic and global common good. What might Lutherans lend this cause?

[3] Lutherans involved in inter-religious dialogue and other interfaith endeavors often cite Martin Luther’s Small Catechism interpretation of the commandment against false witness as a guide. Luther’s explanation of this commandment is exquisite: we should fear and love God such that we do not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbors, but defend them, think and speak well of them, and “put the best construction on everything.”1 A light revision of the last phrase in quotes I believe could very well contribute to the openness, understanding, and cooperation vital to our multi-religious future together.

[4] For starters, let’s put the “put-the-best-construction-on-everything” approach to inter-religious encounters on hold. Given the relatively new proximity and forms of presence of religiously-remote neighbors2, the practice seems premature today, presupposing a level of familiarity with and understanding of our religious neighbors that many of us have not reached. In other words, we may simply be too inexperienced, too ignorant of our religious neighbors, to do any constructive constructing. Instead, it would make more sense if we put the best deconstruction on every caricature of our religious neighbors that we have inherited, assimilated, or fashioned.

[5] For the specific purposes of inter-religious engagement, let’s reconceive Luther’s interpretation of the commandment against false witness to read: We should love God and our religious neighbors such that we do not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame them, but seek to understand our religious neighbors in conversation with them, deconstruct our best constructions of them with their help, and construct together with them new shared understandings of ourselves and them.3

[6] Seek to understand our religious neighbors in conversation with them. While interacting with our religious neighbors, instead of putting the best construction on everything, seek first to allow them to present themselves, however personally, as they see fit (neighbor-centered approach). Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor recently observed, “The problem is that the standing ethnocentric temptation is to make too quick sense of the stranger, that is, sense in one’s own terms.”4 Allowing our diverse religious neighbors to present themselves in ways appropriate to them involves a willingness to have our constructions of them shattered and reconstituted. Thus, the warning is: putting the best construction on our religious neighbors, however well-intentioned and informed, can easily involve engaging them (unilaterally) as relatively manageable objects, rather than (bilaterally) as free, idiosyncratic persons — as we all are.

[7] Deconstruct our best constructions of our religious neighbors with their help. Our religious neighbors can help us, if they so choose, with the necessary deconstruction of our distorted, potentially damaging, views of them. While distortions can be morally neutral, like thinking that Tiger Woods is a forest in Southeast Asia, often they are not. There is usually something nefarious about them. Taylor exposes what is at stake for those with the upperhand: “the satisfactions of ruling [groups], beyond the booty, the unequal exchange, the exploitation of labor, very much includes the reaffirmation of one’s identity that comes from being able to live this fiction without meeting brutal refutation. Real understanding always has an identity cost….”5 It is not just that our constructions of our religious neighbors need to be remade (cosmetic solution), it is that we ourselves — who do the constructing — need to be remade (total makeover).

[8] Construct together with our religious neighbors new shared understandings of ourselves and them. At this point, Luther’s “putting the best construction on everything” is boldly ventured collaboratively. As significant differences emerge — due to religions accounting for things like god(s), the world, the self, and morality in comprehensive, unsurpassable, and fundamental ways6 — and trust is built in conversation and shared experiences, our previous conceptions of: our religious neighbors, ourselves, and even reality itself can change (sometimes dramatically). In other words, interactions that expand our range of experiences, knowledge, and possibilities make it impossible for those involved to remain the same. Both intersections and incompatibilities can be clarified, and (to the benefit of the common good) the explosive combination of fear, ignorance, and estrangement disarmed (instead of detonated).

[9] In the wake of Easter, such an approach to inter-religious encounters resonates with encounters with the risen Jesus, which involve the dismantling and refabricating of our best views of him. Everything one knows is undone and remade, even one’s own self is undone and remade. The risen Jesus reconstructs our understanding of God, others, the world, and ourselves. Accompanying such new understandings is the gracious threat of peace. The gift of peace between God and us, and between us and our religious neighbors in Christ, threatens every suspicion, stereotype, and hostility that we refuse to let go of, replacing them with forgiveness, repentance, and reconciliation.

[10] Like Muslims, Luther speaks of the importance of daily washing and purification from evil. My time with the men from Malindi reminded me of this. Considering the sacrament and practice of baptism, Luther asks what water connected to God’s word means. His answer: “It signifies that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts, and, again, a new man daily come forth and arise; who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”7 Beyond washing, Luther talks of drowning and death (mortification), and coming forth and arising (vivification), connecting it to dying and rising in Christ (once and for all at baptism8, and again and again daily). One possible manifestation of this daily baptism is the kind of conversation, deconstruction, and reconnection with our religious neighbors that I have described. Thus, I can say that one day in Nairobi I was baptized by a Muslim.


1. http://bookofconcord.org/smallcatechism.php. Accessed April 22, 2011. This older, standard translation is still widely used, even though a more recent standard translation is available. The latest version reads: “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.” Martin Luther, “The Small Catechism,” in The Book of Concord, eds. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000) 353.

2. Generally speaking, “religiously-remote” from the perspective of many American Lutheran-Christians at least.

3. My revision of Luther’s interpretation is influenced by Charles Taylor’s recent interpretation and assessment of Gadamer’s work in “Understanding the Other: A Gadamerian View on Conceptual Schemes,” in his Dilemmas and Connections: Selected Essays (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2011) 24–38.

4. Ibid., 34.

5. Ibid., 37.

6. See Paul J. Griffiths, Religious Reading (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

7. Luther’s Small Catechism.

8. See Romans 6:1–14.

Victor Thasiah

Vic Thasiah

Vic Thasiah is a California Naturalist and trail runner.  He is the founder and executive director of Runners for Public Lands, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit environmental organization, and an associate professor and the chair of the religion department at California Lutheran University.