Mackenzie Reynolds: Why I am committed to building relationships with those from different religious and ethical traditions

Managing Director’s Note: beginning in the Spring of 2013, all Contributing Scholars will answer the following question as their first post: Why are you committed to building relationships with those from different religious or ethical traditions? 

I grew up in Spokane, Washington. There was an active Klan group centered just across the state line from us, about 30 minutes away. In 1994 we were still taught that the Cold War was happening, and that our town was a current target because of our aluminum plant. We had a conversation each year about whether or not the white pride march should happen in the neighboring town, as though there were a question about it. I did not grow up Christian, but became Christian in high school, and I didn’t know any non-Christians outside of my family. My school was about 97% white. It was a very homogenous environment.

My take-home message was: difference is dangerous. It leads other people to hate and revile you, to attacks on your body and property. In classes I was vocally feminist, pro-choice, and a queer ally, which made me a target of bullying. I knew that the world I was living in was nothing like it should be, but I did not know how to make anything change, aside from fighting when I could. That meant interrupting racism and speaking up for queer people when possible, and weathering the taunting that came with it.

What does this have to do with religious pluralism, though? Well, a lot. It would have been easy for me to react in the small and scared way that was the ethos of my hometown. I could have stayed there, never come out, and kept a small vision of the world. But I didn’t. I always sought a wider world for myself. I knew that what was scary about difference was not difference itself. It was the reactions of the people around me, who were invested in the world remaining exactly as it was, exactly as they thought it should be.

I have made life as different for myself as I could as an adult. In coming out as queer and gender non-conforming, in anti-racist activism, in pushing my religious communities to have greater capacity for religious diversity and inter-religious dialogue, in fighting for economic justice and recognition of economic diversity in our religious communities, in becoming Jewish and working in my Jewish communities towards these same ethical ideals, I am pushing towards a vision of the reality of the hugely broad and beautiful world we live in.

The 16th century mystic Rabbi Isaac Luria teaches that in the act of creation, God contracted Godself into vessels containing the Divine light, some of which shattered and scattered. The work of repairing the world – tikkun olam – is the human work of finding and bringing together these vessels of divine light. Religious and civic pluralism is this work. We cannot be so shortsighted as to think that only “our people” – whatever that means in a community – are the vessels of Divine light. The vessels are in all of creation, and it is our human work to figure out how to bring them all back together again.

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4 thoughts on “Mackenzie Reynolds: Why I am committed to building relationships with those from different religious and ethical traditions

  1. Way to quote Luria. I really like how you grounded your precepts in earlier context (and in relation to earlier thinkers).


  2. ‘[D]ifference is dangerous’ is an all-too-familiar edict, and I thank you for the courage to share the experience of small-town [forced] homogeneity here.

    I also want to thank you for depicting a west coast state in a light other than what most think. When I travel, and I tell people I’m from Portland, or Oregon, or even the Pacific NW, the automatic response tends to be: ‘Oh, with all the hippies, right?’ I can now take your representation forward to showcase that, even/especially here, we have pockets of astounding hatred based out of fear.

    Thank you for noting that it does take courageous, willful engagement of the Other to break the cycle of conformity.

  3. Hi Heath,

    Thanks for this wonderful reflection! I really liked the imagery of “tikkun olam” and the idea that we are all vessels of divine light, regardless of who or what we are. It seems as though people are afraid of differences because it disrupts and challenges our perceptions of the world, and that pluralism helps to push past those boundaries.

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