What do you think of those Coexist bumper stickers?
What I don't like about them is the word itself: Coexist. It's not the only word used, but it is by far the most widely recognized of the genre.
Coexist and Tolerance work very well as bumper stickers, because their letters translate to religious symbols easily. But the words themselves don't convey enough imagination. Surely, we can do a whole lot better than simply coexist together and tolerate each other!
Respect, Interact. These move us in the right direction.
Harmony, Peace, One Love, Compassion. These are better at calling our imaginations toward true harmony amidst our diversity.
But I think they are all good. They all call us to imagine a better way for people of different backgrounds to live together--to coexist in peace. Coexistence and tolerance may be a minimum, but all too often it is a huge challenge even to have that!
Our Common Home
I have a very tense relationship with neighbors on one side of my home and a very peaceful relationship with neighbors on the other side. On the tense side, we all watch the property line very closely. There is literally a fence, and it gets more entrenched and elaborate each year. We are often on guard since trust is lacking and we aren't sure how to build it. I often avoid that side of the yard. It's hard to be out there and not think about the tense situation. On the other side, I'm not even sure exactly where the property line is. We greet each other warmly and help each other occasionally. It feels like there is a whole lot more breathing room and we spend very little time thinking about it.
Peace is extremely beneficial--it frees up time, money and emotional energy. It improves our health. It does not take an actual war before we experience the value of peace. Any relationship where peace is lacking is costly and limits your freedom.
It is not that much different sharing the same planet. Pope Francis reminds us that the earth is our common home. All human beings share it. Not to coexist, at a minimum, is to live in denial about the shared home we all have and the realities that brings.
Besides, coexisting in peace is a minimum requirement if we are to respect every person's religious freedom.
This page is dedicated to building dialogue--and hopefully better relationships--between religious groups, particularly Catholics and Evangelicals. It seems like the central tension always revolves around this fundamental question--will I put what I know in jeopardy if I affirm something about another group?
I'm here to suggest that tolerating other religious groups does not have to in any way limit your own commitment to your faith. If you follow Jesus as the Way, Truth and Life, this should be easy--because it is what Jesus himself did while walking on this earth!
Jesus did a whole lot more than just coexist--he was constantly interacting with people outside of the "approved" groups of the day, including religious groups. He associated with all manner of people and treated them with respect--including enemies. If Jesus did anything at all in his earthly ministry, it was this mind-blowing witness of treating everyone equally while interacting with literally anyone and everyone--those who crossed his path and those he went out of his way to find.
Jesus had so much respect for the dignity of every single human person that he didn't treat people differently based on the stigmas, classes and cliques that usually divide people. He did not honor those divisions at all, because he was too busy honoring the person.
Jesus bypassed the "media" of his day and went straight to person-to-person dialogue.
Jesus practiced this even during extraordinary circumstances: He talked to his disciples about love at the very instant he knew Judas was slithering out of the room to make his traitorous deal (John 13:21-38). Throughout his arrest, trial and execution, he was peaceful. He told his disciples to "put down the sword" (Matthew 26:52) and prayed for all those involved in his crucifixion, "Father, forgive them" (Luke 23:34).
There is a place to defend yourself and resist evil, but you don't have to do it violently or lose respect for all people in the process. If people do want to harm us, we should do everything we can to resolve those tensions so that we can coexist in peace.
Bumper Stickers Redux
I always thought the Coexist bumper stickers were clever, and I appreciated their message. But I wasn't comfortable having bumper stickers at all. I have always resisted anything that seemed to oversimplify human life. I'm a whole person with complex thoughts and feelings--and so are you, too. Being a walking, talking billboard for certain causes seemed to minimize the depth of the human experience. It does not invite true dialogue but rather feels like preaching at someone.
But I also realized we communicate in many ways. Some people say a lot by their outfit or choice or automobile. Our world is flooded with advertising of all kinds. One day, I decided it was a huge missed opportunity not to witness to what I believe in this way. If nothing else, it could be a conversation starter or could help embolden others who may be wavering in their faith.
A bumper sticker is perhaps no different than a cross necklace or minister's collar—it is a public statement of what I stand for.
I am asking others to hold me accountable when I display these public statements. I am sticking my neck out on the line, and that is risky. I'm not just preaching my views to others but also setting a standard for myself. There is power is speaking our views out loud in public. Like marriage vows--you stand before the whole community declaring your intentions.
There are lots of criticisms about these bumper stickers. Often, they relate to driving behavior, such as: Those people with the Coexist bumper stickers are always cutting me off or swerving while texting and driving. I suspect comments like these are intended to discredit a movement, making the association that these beliefs must emanate from selfish or naïve people.
Indeed, when something you believe in gets under the skin of someone else, it is always best to conduct yourself in public as politely, intelligently and respectfully as possible. Otherwise, your behavior gives people an all-too-easy reason to discount both you and your views.
While trolling the internet looking for graphics for this post, I discovered that those bumper stickers have a lot of anger associated with them. On top of that, there are many unkind spin-off's and spoofs, to boot. It seems they strike a nerve. The anger comes from many sides--atheists who think that any religious expression at all is ridiculous all the way to devotees of a particular religion claiming that these bumper stickers obfuscate the uniqueness of their particular religious tradition.
Few people will actually come right out and say that respect and tolerance are against their religious beliefs, so they create a side discussion, instead--saying that the people with these bumper stickers have bad driving habits or that tolerance is a political impossibility given what those people believe.
I think the real reason is that true faith involves true vulnerability. It calls us our of our protective shell. It coaxes us to imagine something better than what we are used to. It seems easier, at least at first glance, staying on guard and keep divisions up. It is much harder to take those brave steps to encounter other people in true dialogue. In the long run, peace is much easier, but it is difficult to take those first steps.
So I will put my Coexist and Tolerance bumper stickers on my car--not to water down my faith or step away from my church tradition, but actually as a very mark of my Christian faith and identity. They feels like Good News to me, and Scripture tells us to share the Good News. I also hope I live up to this by my own behavior.
People will recognize that we are indeed Christians by whether or not we show love. Love requires us to do a whole lot more than just coexist and tolerate others. But those are indeed the very first--and necessary--steps.