Christmas is an overwhelming force during this time of year. Where I live, it’s difficult to go anywhere or do anything without my senses being overloaded with Christmas music, lights, and decorations. In secular stores, I hear Christmas carols with overt Christian themes that explicitly worship and celebrate Christian values. As a Christian, you would think I’m unbothered by this. However, as a non-binary queer person trying to heal trauma from some harmful Christian teachings, this makes me uncomfortable for many reasons. It reminds me of the times I was told that what we believed was the only way, that other religions didn’t matter, and that there was no space for anything that didn’t fit the mold predetermined by my teachers’ biases.
When I see people turn up their noses at other religions, I’m reminded of the saying that America is a “Melting Pot.” Ever heard that before? The idea was popularized by a play written in 1916 by Israel Zangwill, an author born to a Jewish family who immigrated to England from Russia. Zangwill intended the play as a hope for the possibility of a future where one wouldn’t be discriminated against because of their religious or ethnic background.
The question becomes “If everyone is melting in one pot… what are they melting into?” The poster for Zangwill’s play is a striking image, and it holds our answer. With the Statue of Liberty in the corner, the poster is taken up by a swirl of hundreds of tiny people being swept into a ginormous cauldron over fire; an American shield sits front and center on the pot. What was meant to be a beautiful conglomeration of different peoples from different backgrounds got lost in translation, and all we see today that represents the diversity of American beliefs is maybe a small Hanukkah section in the sea of department store Christmas decorations.
Zangwill’s hope for a better future inevitably turned into the assimilation and homogenization of cultures and religions. These things will not yield the future he hoped for; our differences help us grow and learn from one another. There is a power in diversity when differences are celebrated, rather than melted into a monotonous mold.
As I move through life and rebuild my faith to seek the welcoming and inclusive heart of God, I resent this idea that everyone should hold the same values or beliefs for any reason. Now that I am learning from other religions and cultures about their views of God, my faith has grown more in a couple of years than it had in my entire childhood. Back then, I was told that other religions have it wrong and that we were the “right ones”. Comparing this with my experience now, it couldn’t be further from the truth. I have learned so much from religious teachers in Santa Monica from how they view spirituality and faith, and my view of spirituality and God has become more vibrant and is filled with love and light. Interacting with other faiths hasn’t taken away from my own, but has breathed life into it.
Let’s swap out the “melting pot” analogy for a salad instead. (Stay with me, now. There’s no toxic diet culture here.) We’re all different, like the ingredients of a salad, but coming together, we make something greater than the sum of our parts. Each ingredient can be different from the next, but the flavor can be tasted by itself as well as with the other flavors. I’m not talking about carrots and ranch with some iceberg lettuce – I’m talking about barbecue chicken salad, or arugula with couscous and spices. I’m talking about the good kind of salads that don’t feel healthy in a sad way. Flavor! Zest! If it was a big bowl of mush with one flavor, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting or as fun.
That’s how I view my faith: it is enhanced and invigorated when it interacts with other faiths.
Let’s get rid of the food analogy altogether – we’re a mosaic. Each piece is beautiful and can be enjoyed on its own, but in context and in community, it makes a beautiful piece of art. When we look at a diversity of religions and spiritualities as adding to our lives instead of taking away from them, our perspective changes and we can learn so much from each other. My experience with the Interfaith Council has been exactly that – a life-giving space to learn and grow as a community. We are stronger when we support each other and protect each other’s freedom to practice all of our diverse and unique faiths.
"For though my faith is not yours and your faith is not mine, if we are each free to light our own flame, together we can banish some of the darkness of the world"
― Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
It’s important, now more than ever, to recognize what we share as well as to celebrate our differences. It’s time to share some salad.
Jen Philbin is the Director of Youth and Missions Ministries at First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica