Better than others?

Sometimes, we meet people whom we think feel they are better than others, or, we find organizations and companies where people think they are better than those working for sister organizations and companies. There are countries, too, where people consider they are better than others, sometimes for good reasons, you may say, but that doesn’t allow for arrogance and superiority feeling. There are class differences in all countries, and the upper classes somehow seem to feel better than the lower classes, irrespective of how they made their fortune and got into high positions. Even in our time, creed, colour and race define where we place ourselves on the ladder of status, and where others place us.

This year, the Muslim and the Christian month of fast, Ramadan and Lent, overlap most of the time, and sometimes those who fast feel better than others who are not able to do it. True, maybe they are indeed better, or more sincere in their faith, but we should not boast about it as faith is a gift by the grace of God, not by our own achievement.

In the Bible (Mark 12:41-44), there is a story about a man who donated a huge offering in the temple, and he did it so all could see and be impressed. On the same occasion, there was a poor widow, too, who humbly and quietly gave just a few copper coins. But she was the one who gave the most, Jesus/Isa told his disciples, because she gave all the money she had to live on. The Bible and Quran teach us to help the poor and needy, and it is a requirement in Islam to give ‘zakat’.

Ramadan and Lent are meant to be a time when we deepen our faith and relationship with God and fellow human beings. I feel a duty to write about it, too, making my very modest contribution. We must learn to be tolerant, open and accommodating to people of other faiths, classes, creeds and colours. Irrespective of our religion and denomination, we should not feel better than others, or lesser, just equal, helping and praying for ourselves and others on our common journey through life. Certainly, we feel thankful for the faith God has given us, which we have a duty and right to keep up, indeed strengthen during this holy month.

When I began planning today’s article, a news item in the Norwegian Christian newspaper ‘Dagen’ caught my attention. It presented the results from a study about religiosity in Norway, saying that Muslims are more committed to their faith than Christians are. Muslims are more orthodox and diligent in the observance of their religious traditions. Christians would, at least outwardly, be less committed to their faith. Muslims should certainly be happy with the outcome of the survey, and Christians and others, should draw lessons and be inspired by the Muslims. At the same time, nobody should feel better than others because a quiet faith may be as deep and inclusive to others as a faith carried on one’s sleeves. In the multi-religious and multicultural world, we live in, especially in the big cities, it is important that we develop a deeper respect for other faiths than our own, and help each other to practise our faith as well as we can, even giving space to agnostics and seekers.

As recent as the 1960s and 1970s, religion was much more present in everyday society in the West, including Norway, and at that time it was almost exclusively Christianity in an ethically and culturally homogenous country. The Protestant Evangelical Lutheran Church dominated with a state religion in all the Scandinavian countries, including Norway until 2012. That time, when I was young, and more so in earlier decades, Christianity was present in ways similar to how Islam is present in Pakistan today. It was important to be seen as practising and respecting the country’s religion. Sometimes, it may have been more outwardly than real, but that was nobody’s concern. Today, most of this is gone, and Christianity plays a lesser role in public life, although it is also there at national events, and at people’s major family and other events in life. Although it is not common to boast about one’s faith, it is low-key and subtle. But sometimes people envy those who have a personal faith. The religious commitment shown by Muslims and other immigrants is a valuable contribution to all.

Human beings are equal and the same, we say, but it is also true that some are God’s special messengers, such as Mary/Mariyam and Jesus/Isa. They incarnate God’s spirit and when Christians say that Jesus/Isa is the son of God, it should be understood as being more like God than other people, but not taken further. Mary/Mariyam, too, belongs to the select unique messengers. I believe her place in our faiths should be given more prominence – yes, in spite of not all men being too keen on that.

Dear Reader, I wish you a continued blessed Ramadan and Lent – and don’t forget all the joy and happiness that the holy month gives us, too, in everyday life and in sacred life.

Atle Hetland

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid

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