by Martin E. Marty

Religious Strangers As Menaces

The collisions of faiths, or the collisions of peoples of faith, are among the most threatening conflicts around the world in the new millennium. They grow more ominous and even lethal every season. Lulled as many in the West are when their neighbors and fellow-citizens appear to be religiously indifferent and genially tolerant, they overlook trends that threaten the fabric of serene life everywhere.

These collisions occur when two communities of faith which are strangers to each other have to share the same space and resources or when two factions within a faith community become estranged. My thesis is that the first address to these situations should not be the conventional plea for tolerance among them, but is rather a call that at least one party begin to effect change by risk hospitality toward the other. The root hospitare is "to receive a stranger," and hos-pitalis, is "of or befitting the reception of strangers." Conversation and interplay follow the acts of reception; both are full of risk.

Macro- and Micro-Levels

The collisions occur on both the macro- and the micro-levels. Macro- level conflicts usually issue in bloodshed. In India, Hindus fight Muslims. In Nigeria Muslims in the north and Christians in the south fight over future dominion in that troubled nation. In Israel/Palestine Muslims and Jews are in lethal combat. In Northern Ireland, Protestants and Catholics war with each other. In the former Yugoslavia Orthodox Christians and Muslims were recently killing each other. In these and other cases, religion inspires, exacerbates, or justifies conflicts that often also involve ethnicity, territory, revenge, and political ideology.

When Faiths Collide deals mainly with collisions that affect or occur within those societies or nations whose polities can be called republican, democratic, liberal, or free. Conflicts that occur in tyrannical or theocratic polities demand other kinds of addresses, though the presence of these does color much of what happens in nations that enjoy religious freedom.

Dealing with liberal societies, however, can no longer be done in the luxurious experience of protection from illiberal polities and agents. In the middle of the twentieth century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr could still speak of the United States as a gadget-filled paradise suspended in a hell of international insecurity. The intrusion of murderous fanaticism on September 11, 2001, symbolically cut the cord by which this "paradise" had been suspended, and actually plunged the United States into the world of insecurity that most people in most nations in most ages have experienced.

That new circumstance has broken open the cocoon of isolation and shattered the carapace of apparent security that citizens took for granted. These had resulted from awareness of the nation's physical distance from much turmoil, thanks to two wide oceans to the east and west and friendly neighbors to the north and south. Now the boundaries between the "safe" world where religions prospered while religious tolerance was significant on one hand, and the "unsafe" world where religious intolerance and inter-faith aggression dominated on the other.

If once Americans could look on at collisions of faiths and sit back with the self-assurance that "it can't happen here," they do not regard as alarmist the expressions or actions of those who discern trends that would not only subject the nation to religious terrorism from without but also to the subversion of the culture of tolerance by resentful and aggressive movements from within. It is with awareness of that porousness of boundaries and the fragility of the structures of free societies, that we write. At the same time, most of the diagnoses and suggestions reflect a scene in which conversation and counter-intolerance are legally protected and can be civilly encouraged.

On the micro-level, faiths collide within domestic, usually national settings. Some of the collisions result from the fact that groups of people in a nation at peace who share a faith with others who are at war somewhere else identify with these spiritual kin. Tensions at home result. Thus some Muslims in France, Germany, the United Kingdom or the United States are in sympathy with Muslims on far away battle-fronts, and this connection creates disruption. Through their partisan devotion to Israel some Jews are connected by a constitution with fellow-citizens of other faiths or political stripes who are themselves sympathetic to Muslims and in some instances Christian Palestinians. On occasion Catholics in the United States support Catholic militants in Northern Ireland, and some Protestant fundamentalists create stirs there through their support of Fundamentalists Unionists.

More often faiths collide when population shifts occur. Western European nations who desired the presence of Arab refugees to do hard work welcomed many Muslims whom the Germans call "guest-workers." Some citizens have often subsequently had difficulty finding ways to cope with the faiths of these newcomers. Also, thanks to migrations within a nation, large areas of European and American cities experience sudden population shifts. People on the move, sometimes within groups, bring their portable faiths with them. They then create or experience abrasion in encounter with those who have long been on the scene. Politicians often exploit such situations of change, playing as they can on worries of long-time citizens who are wary of strangers. Or they choose to aggravate the fears of newcomers who experience prejudice and harassment.

The landscape where these micro-level situations develop is not littered with dead bodies. One may on occasion see some defacing of mosques or synagogues, torching of Christian churches, or spewing of hatred by intense groups who invoke their God. Often we become aware of the stigmatizing of school children who are not immediately at home in the cultural patterns established by old majorities. While such scenes are not lethal, they do disrupt civil peace. They distract citizens from tasks that they might be otherwise be undertaking to address other problems that whole societies face. They set neighbor against neighbor and deprive both of opportunies to take up citizen responsibilities.

These conflicts present problems to which there can be contentious but still in the end some peaceful address. They differ from some macro- versions, wherein the potentials of military counter-attack or other circumstances are so dangerous that peace-makers cannot risk entry onto their No-Man's-Lands. However, not to address the micro- situations that are addressable is to risk seeing domestic citizen-groups increasingly identifying with their blood-letting fellow-believers in battle zones far away.

Strangers: Here Be Monsters

To establish positive relations it is necessary for people to stop demonizing strangers, immigrants, and those who are religiously different, who appear to many of them to be monstrous.

Hartmann Schedel inscribed "Here Be Monsters"—haec incoluerunt monstra— on his map wherever he dealt with the unknown world. In his Liber Chronicarum of 1493 Schedel depicted the earth as he imagined it was after the Flood described in the book of Genesis. Jerusalem lay at its center, surrounded by Asia, Europe, and Africa. Medieval travelers had brought back reports of monstrous creatures about which they heard or concerning which they made up tales. Since these lived beyond the margins of the recognized world, Schedel placed them on the margins of his map. He depicted a man with an umbrella-foot, a person with a dog's head, and creatures lacking heads but bearing faces on their breasts. Here he was citing ancients, Pliny and Strabo. The cartographer accompanied these with images of a man who had six arms, a centaur, a cyclops, a hermaphrodite, a person with a giant underlip, and another with ears that hung to the waist.

These monstrous figures serve as metaphors for the unfamiliar, strange, and often menacing faiths that today are in collision. Many Europeans and North Americans, finding these threats to be remote, often underestimate the power and potential of such faith communities among the so-called world-religions.

With good reason some are learning to adjust their visions and are beginning to determine how they will relate to the rest of the globe. In a world of 6.2 billion people, 2 billion are identified with Christianity, 1.25 billion with Islam, 836 million with Hinduism, 367 million with Buddhism, and 15 million with Judaism. These are but five of some 10,200 "distinct religions" known to today's mapmakers and chroniclers.1

In Schedel's day there were not only ominous figments of imagination but also real monsters, though not always religious in character. Pirates threatened the sea-lanes of the travelers on whose narratives he depended. Hostile people warred against each other and on the traders and explorers who invaded their space.

As the travelers came to know and deal with strangers, these did not all turn out to be monstrous. Instead they often served as trail-blazers, translators, and trading partners. Some of them had even created and inhabited cultures that welcomed strangers.

In the contemporary world, the unfamiliar strangers also are not always monsters. Not everyone in all societies wakes up every morning having to be cautious about the faiths of others, though in the age of terrorism ever more of them have reason to do so. Many non-religious people or those who are apathetic about faith and faiths, simply express hope that a growth in religious indifference and secularism can serve the human race in positive ways. Others make efforts to keep intense religious communities at a distance and do their best to ignore them.

More alert citizens of the world are at work attempting to effect polities and policies in which conflicting religions can learn to coexist and even cooperate with each other. Along with their formal efforts it is important to note the reservoirs of good will among ordinary people who, in the course of their daily lives, have learned to establish familiar and friendly relations with those who make up communities other than their own. They overcome strangeness and dispel the fear they might have associated with it.

Any inventory of forces at work today, however, will reveal that the conflict of faith communities who regard each other as monstrous has become the most volatile and often militant spiritual, or anti-spiritual, eruption in the world. Around the globe people gather into convulsive movements in which they define themselves over against others, usually in the name of God.

As if they did not experience enough conflict among themselves, many who long considered themselves remote from the worst are finding that there really are monsters "out there" in a world where the margins of their mental maps are no longer so remote. Where once pirates were the horrors, terrorists now cast shadows that menace everyone else. Most of these terrorists act in the name of some religion or other. Modern weaponry in the hands of terrorists has given potential victims reason to feel henceforth and forever insecure. Mass media of communication inform and stimulate modern imaginations about these monsters and monstrosities.

Faiths as Communities in Collision

The word "faiths," as mentioned, refers to communities of those who believe and behave in particular patterns because of the way that together they interpret human existence. So people may speak of the several faiths that make up a society. Ordinarily people do this in response to what they experience as the transcendent, the supernatural, or the supra-human. While millions of them may respond independently of everyone else and in highly individualist ways, the majority of seekers and those who practice faiths grow up in or form communities where in common with others they can make response to the sacred.

Headlines and prime time television images serve as daily reminders that these faith communities often come into collision. "Colliding" means that strangers "come together with solid or direct impact." Why they do so, we will argue, has much to do with the way each perceives the other as strangers and hence as menaces to their beliefs and ways of life.

What they do about the strangeness is the subject of several chapters. Many develop strategies associated with pluralism both to account for the way these communities are strangers to each other and for the way many are able to relate positively to each other. I shall advocate the theory and practice of hospitality, with all the risks that accompany it.

Central to all the argument is the observation that strangers so often come as or appear to be menaces. They may be strangers in a physical sense when they intrude on territory others have claimed. Members of one community believe that they have a right to claim that they along belong in a privileged or unique way in a particular place. They communities may also be strangers in spiritual senses, coming at each other with clashing ideas, narratives, and intentions.

The reference to a particular place indicates that the menace of the stranger within a pluralistic polity involves boundaries and territories, usually of a national character. Most discussion of issues relating to pluralism deal with such bounded realities: Canada and Tibet together do not make up a pluralistic complex. Quebec, the Maritimes, and the rest of Canada, however, do.

In a maverick and chancy take on the etymology "territory," William E. Connolly roots it in "terror:"

Territory, the Oxford English Dictionary says, is presumed by most moderns to derive from terra. Terra means land, earth, soil, nourishment, sustenance; it conveys the sense of a sustaining medium that fades off into indefiniteness. People, you might say, feel the claim the land they belong to makes upon them. . . . But the form of the word territory, the OED says, suggests something different from the sustenance of terra. Territory derives from terrere, meaning to frighten, to terrorize, to exclude. And territorium is "a place from which people are warned." . . . To occupy territory, then, is both to receive sustenance and to exercise violence. To become territorialized is to be occupied by a particular identity.2

Connolly engages in a bit of verbal sleight of hand here. The OED says right off that the etymology linking "territory" to terrere is questioned, and most dictionaries do not do such linking. However, research on the subject of territory and on protection by those who occupy it is ample and convincing. "Territorialized" people do not welcome the unfamiliar, the strange, the strangers, be they immigrants, refugees, exiles, displaced persons, new homeowners as neighbors, marital partners, schismatics, heretics, traitors, beguilers, and many other variants, each of whom may bring their different faiths with them.

The vision of this scene as described may seem Hobbesian. That is, each person or group appears to be suspicious of and even hostile to the other, in an each-against-all situation. This is not or need not be the case. They frequently do cooperate with each other and some welcome agencies that work to reconcile those who might be in conflict. Citizens who enjoy a liberal governmental polity can allay the suspicion of strangers or reduce their menace using numerous approaches, some of which we shall later explore.

Religious Strangers as Particular Menaces

The roots of "menace" are in the Old French word menacier and behind that the "OF-F noune" menace. Underlying that word is the Latin minacia, from the adjective minax. And even further behind those are words like minae, which referred to projecting points or pinnacles. They thus connote anything that projects or overhangs, the way a roof or a rock overhangs. Such a projection threatens to fall on the unprotected. Strangers, in this picture, are projected into situations and thus they disturb. The dictionaries stress that to menace is always seen as intending to inflict evil, or it threatens with an indication of probable evil to come. But strangers do not have to remain menacing. Contemporary pluralistic societies are made up of peoples and groups who started out as strangers to each other.

The idea of addressing estrangement and the situation of strangers in a hospitable spirit and with intention to invite positive interaction developed through my long career of dealing first with diversity in North American life. Monitoring and reporting on the ways different religious bodies and faith communities related to each other alerted me to the need to understand how factions within denominations or religions had become estranged. More recently, though a historian of American religion, concerned to chronicle this most pluralistic society, I was jostled into dealing with global issues that bear on America.

One decisive incident in the United States that altered the circumstances for interpreters of American religion was the liberalization of immigration laws by the Congress in 1965. The number of strangers increased dramatically. Coming from Asia, Africa, and Latin America with religion in hand and mind, they often represented a problem to those who claimed prior rights of belonging, who cherished their place of privileged possession of the country, and boasted a particular heritage European-American that they did not wish to share.

Through all those years, though Americans have been described as an unsettled people, many had shaped and settled into formerly homogeneous neighborhoods or regions. Then, typically, as African-Americans moved to metropolitan inner cities, white citizens often moved out to suburbs, where they put down stakes and instantly claimed rights that they felt were proper for those who have belonged somewhere longest. The race, ethnicity, and religion of the urban newcomers who were displacing them and were prompting their flight to the suburbs loomed as menaces. Yet before long, many of the suburbs to which the whites had earlier escaped also began to become home to Asian-, African-, Native-, and Hispanic Americans, most of them religious. Their skin color and expressions of faith were unsettling to those who thought of the suburbs as the place for their exclusive belonging.

Especially in the decades after 1965, housing court agendas revealed a nation struggling with the reality of pluralism, while its academies dealt with what came to be called multiculturalism. I was jostled out of my comfortable studies of religion in American history and was called to study collisions of faiths on international levels as several academies, foundations, and associations, asked me to direct or co-direct some projects, most of them global in scale. These included work on militant religious fundamentalisms, religious ethno-nationalisms, population-migration-development, and the religious dimensions of globalization ethics. I participated in but did not direct one on the religious issues in human rights. Meanwhile, some comparative studies on the American scene included assignments to direct or co-direct projects on public religion, civility in religious discourse, and conflict over constitutional freedoms and religion.

By then, ten years into my series of assignments to foray into international and other comparative studies, the line of distinction between the United States and everywhere else had, for me, become quite blurred. Older American claims of exceptionalism and illusions that the United States would not experience the effects of conflicts elsewhere came to be questioned. Global menaces to American security reached the psyche of all citizens after the terrorist acts in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. These brought the activity of monstrous strangers to the American shores and gates. Since religion was now central to foreign policy and military action, the United States, while seeking to counter terrorist threats overseas, found itself needing education about the faiths of strangers.

Out of such experiences and to nurture the curiosities they inspired, I am in this manifesto reporting on a search for generic categories which can help provide understandings of specific challenges and the beginnings of engagements over them. All the conflicts we studied or represented had distinctive features, but we also saw some things in common. One of them is central in this book: the relation of those who "belong" in a place or a faith-tradition and those they regard as strangers. Reflection on that commonality can inform specific inquiries concerning the interplay of people who feel they belong and strangers wherever they may be and whatever is the immediate cause of their abrasions.


1. Annual Reports issue from the World Evangelization Research Center,; these figures are the center's estimates for mid-2002.

2. William E. Connolly, The Ethos of Pluralization (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995), p. xxii.

Excerpted from When Faiths Collide by Martin E. Marty. Published by Blackwell Publishing. Copyright © 2005. All rights reserved.

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Source: Cross Currents, Spring 2005, Vol. 55,  No 1.