For two years, I taught high school religious education at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Richmond. When talking about different UU sources, Christianity elicited the nosiest moans and groans. While many of the students were born into the church, their parents usually came from unpleasant Christian backgrounds. The teens experienced Christians as news clips, bombing abortion clinics or picketing funerals of the military. If they had Christian friends, it did little to change their opinion. Their friends would claim UU was not a “real religion” or that God hated homosexuals and eventually they would either agree not to discuss religion with these friends or stop associating with them. Needless to say, they had a slight anti-Christian bias.
My mother had a pretty negative experience with religion growing up. Like many UU’s she looked for a more progressive church. She found a Lutheran Church that was very progressive for the late 1970’s with a commitment ceremony for gay couples and an openly gay man as the head of the music department. I grew up with the “loving-accepting-Jesus”, so when I encountered the anti-Jesus vibe from the teens, I was a little stunned.
In reading MN 27, Brahmin Janussoni gives us the simile of the elephant. By examining the footprints, an elephant hunter can determine they were left by a large bull elephant. Brahmin Janussoni considers the followers of the Buddha like those footprints, claiming you can tell the quality of the prophet by his followers. The teens I taught encountered a mass of elephant footprints themselves. They decided that they wanted no part of this pachyderm.
All too often, we judge a faith by its followers. Ask an American what they know about Islam and you’ll find more than a handful who believes it a religion of violence and hatred. Liberal religious believers tend to think conservative religions do nothing but brain-wash their congregations into zealots. In either case the following is judged by the follower. Gotama wisely takes the simile one very necessary step further, saying that when you encounter a footprint and you think you know what left it, investigate it a little more. By following the footprints to the source, we have the chance to experience the faith for ourselves and draw some of our own conclusions.
In 2011 I attended GA in Charlotte as a youth sponsor. I overheard one of my youth chatting with a youth from a different church. His new friend was claiming Christian were close minded, intolerant and idiotic. My youth turned to him, seeing I was there and said, “Hey, Walt’s a Christian, they aren’t all bad.” I was glad to see he realized that not every elephant that leaves a footprint is bull.