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On Franklin Graham’s Facebook Post: Where is the Grace?

Where is the grace?

On Saturday Franklin Graham posted the following to his facebook page:

Franklin Graham

Billy Graham was a big part of my childhood. I remember seeing him speak in Columbus, Ohio as a young child at Clippers Stadium – Columbus’ minor league baseball stadium. I also remember watching him on television with my parents. Billy Graham had a significant role in the spiritual development of my dad and so I have always had fond feelings toward the Grahams in general.

Franklin Graham’s organization Samaritan’s Purse does wonderful humanitarian work around the world. I have friends who have worked for the organization and I find what they do inspiring. I love that Samaritan’s purse takes the Gospel’s call to serve “the least of these” seriously and uses the influence and privilege of the Graham name to raise financial support in order to serve more people.

In light of all of that, you can understand my disappointment in Franklin Graham’s now well-known Facebook post.

I’m not even going to address what he says in his post regarding the treatment of the Japanese by the U.S. government during World War II. Pointing out the audacity of this comparison would be redundant and unnecessary since American hindsight has shown how unjust the treatment of Japanese Americans was during that time.

Instead I wish to address the lack of grace found in my Christian brother’s words.

Where is the grace?

The most powerful and penetrating aspect of the Gospel, of Jesus’ life on Earth, or Christ’s saving reign, is grace.

What is grace?

Brandan Robertson recently wrote a piece called “What’s so Offensive about Grace?” in which he says the following about grace:

“[I]f we’re trying to our lives by Grace, we’re not only called to extend forgiveness to those who have wronged us, but to go far beyond that.

Beyond merely absolving them of their wrongs.

Beyond merely letting go of the laundry list of offenses we have against them.

To blessing them. Not with mere words. But with lived action.

Grace not only forgives a thief, it let’s them keep everything that they stole and offer them the golden candlesticks as well.

Grace not only extends mercy to a murderer, it offers them the mental, spiritual, and financial support they need to reform their life and have a legitimate second chance.

Grace not only pardons a terrorist, but it helps them discover love, find hope, and begin a new life with a clean slate.

That’s what Grace does.

It’s radical.”

I love the way Brandan describes grace here. It points to the fact that grace transcends our natural human inclination to look out for ourselves, to claim everything as our own, and to otherize those whom are different or those with whom we disagree. Grace calls us to be bold and embrace the people we fear.

Mr. Graham’s Facebook post reeks of fear and it assumes that our citizenship in America is valuable. He seems to forget that as Christians, our primary citizenship is in the Kingdom of God which is both present and yet to come. In light of our Kingdom citizenship, we shouldn’t worry about who belongs in the U.S. and who doesn’t – we should be focused on bringing others to the Kingdom, or even bringing the Kingdom to others.

In many ways this seems to be what Samaritan’s Purse does. Under “About Us” on their homepage, it says,

“After sharing the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus said “Go and do likewise.” That is the mission of Samaritan’s Purse—to follow the example of Christ by helping those in need and proclaiming the hope of the Gospel.”

For me, one of the lessons of the Good Samaritan is that as the “people of God” we constantly fail at being the face of God’s grace to others (especially to those of other faiths). Jesus recognized that those who are supposed to be the very best example of righteousness, of God’s work in the world, will fail.

In Jesus’ famous parable of the Good Samaritan, a priest and a Levite – two people who are supposed to represent the epitome of God’s truth and light in the world – choose not to help a traveler who has been left for dead. Instead, a Samaritan, someone who is both an ethnic and religious “other” of Jesus, is the one who represents God’s grace in this story – the one that does right and cares for the stranger through the giving of himself, his time, and his money.

After Jesus finishes his story, he asks, “Which of these three [the Samaritan, the priest, or the Levite], in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” We hear the answer from those present, “The one who treated him with mercy.” To which Jesus replied, “Go and do likewise.”

Where is the mercy in Franklin Graham’s post? Where is the grace?

Franklin Graham assumes that as Christians in the U.S. we have some kind of moral superiority over Muslims and that only Muslims have the potential to be radicalized. There is a lot of history that illustrates as Christians, we have that same potential. “Graham calls us to pray for men and women who serve this nation in uniform, that God would protect them.” Of course this is important – but why not call us to pray for our Muslim neighbors – to pray for their protection, as well? Where is the grace?

I am not discussing Franklin Graham’s Facebook post here as a way of holding him at arm’s length so that my Christian faith might not be identified with his. I am not criticizing Franklin Graham in order to chastise him.

Instead I offer Franklin Graham’s words to you, and to myself, as a mirror.

Who do we otherize? Who do we scapegoat? Who do we refuse to show mercy to? How often do we fail at breathing grace into the lives of others?

Don’t point the finger at others, or in this case Franklin Graham, in an effort to make yourself feel like a better Christian. Instead use this as an opportunity to ask yourself – are the words I say, and the actions I make, a reflection on the grace of the Gospel?

“But just as you excel in everything – in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us – see that you also excel in this grace of giving,” 2 Corinthians 8:7.

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Mother Emanuel AME Church Charleston SC by Steven Hyatt-7-L

When loving your enemy feels unjust

Thanks to social media, news has spread quickly about the tragic shooting at Emmanuel AME in Charleston, South Carolina last night. The death of my Christian brothers and sisters weighs heavy on me this morning.

As I read the description of the young man who killed nine people after an hour of sitting in a prayer meeting with them, I felt the unfamiliar sting of hate. Hatred is not something I’ve felt often in my life – but I suddenly found myself burning with a desire for vengeance.

I tried to remind myself that this young man has a story. And I tried to remember the words of my beloved savior:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. – Matthew 5:43-46

So I am called not only to love this young man, but also to pray for him?

I closed my eyes, imagining the the pain of living with poisonous hate. I tried to find ways I could dissolve my vengeful feelings just enough to pray for this young man. I tried.

But any prayerful breath for this person who killed 9 people while they prayed felt wasted….even sinful. It felt like breath that should be saved to pray for the loved ones of those killed. It felt like breath that should used to groan in mourning. It felt like breath that should be used to petition for the kingdom to come now – Lord please come.

Any breath used to speak on behalf of this young man feels unjust.

So what now?

I pray anyway. I pray, then I hope love comes later.

I thank God for his redeeming grace and love, and pray that this young man be found and brought to justice – but that he may find warmth and reconciliation in the embrace of God’s holy spirit.

I praise God he reigns with both mercy and justice, and ask that he might give me the internal peace needed to be merciful to all.

I pray for the healing power of the Holy Spirit to move swiftly through communities fragmented by racial tension.

I pray for the wisdom needed to act justly, and advocate for others.

I pray anyway.

Will you pray with me?

Lord,
I confess that nearly as often as I breathe I contribute to injustice,
but I believe in the hope of your coming kingdom and the grace of your son Jesus Christ whose goodness transcends my misdeeds.
I believe that at the heart of your Gospel is reconciliation –
show us the path, my God, to peace and reconciliation today.
My God, My Hope,
Grant me the humility to hear the brokenhearted;
Lend me the grace to embrace those who I do not understand or even despise;
and Empower me with the courage to act on behalf of, and alongside, those who do not look like me.
Jehovah our Healer,
Mend our hearts,
heal our system,
redeem our country,
Bring your Kingdom.
Amen.

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Why I Didn’t Give Up Anything for Lent: Learning to Give Myself Some Grace

By Guest Blogger Matt Hoffman

For as long as I can remember, I have given up something for Lent each year. When I was younger, it was chocolate or caffeine. In college, I graduated to giving up snack foods and meat. Recently, the fad has been to “take on” some practice—maybe thirty minutes of meditation or prayer each day (if you are looking for a creative thing to take on, I had a friend who adopted the practice of never eating lunch or dinner alone during the entire 40 days). Such practices have been important for me during Lent because they have increased my awareness of God’s presence in my life.

This Lent has been different. Breaking with tradition, I decided that I would neither give up something, nor would I take on an additional practice this year. Indeed, the Lenten devotional book from my church is still sitting in my school bag, unopened. I am not sure if my decision was due to laziness or being “busy,” but to be honest, I just couldn’t bring myself to any sort of Lenten practice.

Reflecting on this decision, it has become apparent that my choice was not so much an act of rebellion but one of mature faith. When certain practices begin to feel like burdens, it is important to reflect on how these practices draw us closer to God. What is the reason for engaging in such a practice? Are we just going through the motions? Most importantly, it is necessary to extend ourselves some grace when it comes to spiritual practices.

Liturgically speaking, the Lenten season is a time to pray, fast, and repent for our sins. Mirroring Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness (in Matthew, Mark, & Luke), this solemn season marks a time of introspection and closeness with God. In Lent, we have the opportunity to know Jesus as a fellow human, someone who experienced temptations and desires.

Facing the option of whether to engage with Lent this year, I simply chose to opt out. This does not mean that I am opting out of the season or the responsibility of reflecting on how I fall short of my potential and cause harm by my (in)action in the world. It simply means that there are times in our lives when we must learn to claim our spiritual agency. I do not believe that God is marking down on a large notebook whether we participated in each part of the human-created liturgical calendar. Moreover, God is not keeping tally of each time we forget to pray or decide that we cannot forgive someone right in the moment. God is not watching out for each piece of Lenten chocolate eaten or each 30-minute prayer session slept through. Instead, we must learn to extend a little bit more grace to ourselves.

The joy of grace is knowing that we do not have to be perfect. It is okay to ask for a “timeout.” Indeed, this time of the year can already be stressful enough with looming midterms exams, family vacations, Easter dinners, etc. So, if Lent this year is not your thing, give yourself some grace. God does not want you to be perfect. If you need a break, take one. I won’t tell.

So, if the doldrums of life/Lent have you down, remember that God’s grace abounds. Live fully into this grace knowing that no one is marking your progress on a clipboard this Lenten season. Take a break and love yourself.

For those of you who have added a practice or have given up something for Lent, I salute you. But, whatever you do, please give yourself a little grace in the process. And, if you decide that you need a break from Lent, I support that too.

At least there will be two of us who are not Lent-ing.

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Christian Witnessing: An Evangelical’s Guide to Interfaith Engagement

By Kevin Garrity, High Point University Student

Last week in my Contemporary Theology class I was reminded of what it means to be a witness to the miracle of Jesus Christ. We were learning about the famous theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who used an analogy for Christian witnessing in terms of a trial. The professor explained that there are various actors involved in a trial – such as a judge, the prosecution, and witnesses.

As an evangelical Christian, witnessing is a fundamental part of my faith. Oftentimes, I feel at odds when witnessing to, and identifying with, people from different religious traditions. I think this is because of the sensitivity required for sharing my faith in a non-abrasive way. Thinking about these different actors in a trial has given me a better sense of how to both honor my religious convictions, and identify with individuals who do not come from Christian backgrounds.

I will share what I have learned from Bonhoeffer’s analogy here. I hope that you too will find it a helpful guide to navigate interfaith engagement, and that you come away with a better understanding of what it means to be a witness of the Christian faith.

The role of prosecutors is to prove the wrongdoing of another, while the judge’s job is to make a decision on whether or not an individual’s actions are deserving of punishment. Scripture indicates, though, that we do not have the capacity to fulfill either of these roles: “There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?” (James 4:12).

One should take notice that this verse is condemning judgment of one’s neighbors, not personal judgment. Of course it is necessary for Christian believers need to be the judges of their own actions, but no one is in a position to condemn the beliefs of others.

Abstaining from judgement or condemnation does not mean that doubt or criticism of other faith traditions should remain un-verbalized. It means that the doubt or criticism must not exist in the mind of a Christian believer at all.

For me, withholding judgment starts from my deep belief that the Christian faith is my ultimate truth. And, while I maintain this as a personal truth, withholding judgment ends through exercising a sense of humility – acknowledging that my personal truth, which is ultimate for me, may not be the only truth for everyone.

Having humility is necessary to be a witness. Witnesses are members of a trial who share what they have experienced. They do not speak to the experiences of others because their concern is only what they have seen, heard, and felt. And further, trial witnesses only share their experiences when they are called upon, or invited to do so.

The question is, how can Christians think about their role as witnesses in interfaith settings?

Christian faith is legitimized when the witness speaking about their faith, and telling their story, exudes a sort of character that makes a listener want to share the same faith as the storyteller. The convincingness of the witness then relies not on what they say they believe, but on how much the statements of faith seem to influence their life.

Witnesses are only as convincing as how well their story of faith aligns with their character. Rather than telling someone what they should or should not believe, Christians must focus on living out the faith they hope to share; a faith that tells us we are incapable of judging anyone but ourselves.

 

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The #1 Tip for Engaging Evangelicals in Interfaith Work is…

As a Christian working at an interfaith organization, I am frequently asked how to engage evangelicals. Here at Faithline Protestants we’ve written a lot about the subject, but there’s one issue that I’ve seen that comes up again and again. If I were to pick one tip for communities interested in engaging evangelicals in interfaith work, if would be this: Define interfaith cooperation.

Here’s why. A few years ago, my IFYC colleagues visited a campus that was interested in how they could build and sustain interfaith initiatives in their community. During that visit, we met with several campus groups, students and staff. A few of our Christian colleagues met with a conservative evangelical group that heard we were coming to campus, and were skeptical about our intentions, so they requested a meeting. After hearing us out, the group said this: “We can’t do interfaith work. But, if you want organize an event, bringing together people of different faiths to do a service project, and afterwards we can talk about how Jesus inspires us to serve, we can definitely do that.” We were thrilled! People of different traditions coming together to serve and talk about their religious or secular values? That’s interfaith work! Our new friends just didn’t want to call it interfaith.

What struck me about that story is that the biggest barrier to getting this particular group on board to do interfaith work was the label “interfaith” – and common misconceptions about the word. Some that I hear most often in my work: “Interfaith is wanting everyone to be one religion” “Interfaith where you have to water down your faith to the least common denominator” “Interfaith work is only for folks on the liberal end of the political spectrum” “Interfaith is people of different traditions worshiping together” – none of these are true based on the way we define interfaith cooperation.

At IFYC, we define interfaith as respect for people’s diverse religious and nonreligious identities, mutually inspiring relationships between people of different backgrounds, and common action for the common good. Interfaith cooperation is not syncretistic or relativistic; that means that you don’t have to water down your identity to come to the table of interfaith cooperation – whether you’re an evangelical, Muslim, Hindu, Jew, or an atheist, you don’t have to compromise what you believe (or what you don’t believe) to engage in interfaith work. We recognize there are shared values across different traditions, and there are very real differences – while we may not agree who goes to heaven, or even if there is a heaven, but we can agree that homelessness is a problem in our community, and we should do something about it. Our definition of interfaith is founded on a sociological – not theological – principle of pluralism that acknowledges the potential for diverse religious and nonreligious to build positive relationships and social cohesion. That means that when even when folks of different backgrounds disagree, there is still a sense of common ground between them.

Those of us that work in the interfaith field, or regularly engage in interfaith work can forget the importance of defining interfaith cooperation for folks new to this work. So, if you’re hoping to engage evangelical communities – or most other communities, for that matter – in interfaith work, define what interfaith is, and what it isn’t. Emphasize that folks across the theological and philosophical spectrum, whether liberal or conservative, are welcome.

The interfaith table is set, and you are welcome here.

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3 Goals for the New Year

I know that New Year’s was last week, but if you’re like me, you might be little late setting goals for 2015. Many people commit to losing weight or being more active at the start of a New Year, but I think there is also a great opportunity to reflect on our lives as Christians and set goals for walking more closely with God.

Here are three goals from scripture that I hope to follow in the New Year:

1)    Do not put the LORD your God to the test (Matt 4:7)

When we set specific expectations for God to help us in particular ways, or bring us new opportunities, or make something better in our lives, we are testing God and setting ourselves up for disappointment. As Christians, we know that Jesus did not abandon us in his death on the cross, but rose to new life so that we might also share in the promises of the Kingdom of Heaven. We celebrated God’s coming into the world on Christmas and we know that God continues to be with us in all moments and in all aspects of our lives through the presence of the Holy Spirit. Yet we often test the presence and work of God by praying for specific outcomes or solutions–I know I do. And testing God in this way can make us blind to the unexpected and remarkable ways God works in the world.

As a seminary student, I can sometimes feel confused or conflicted about the things I learn and the conversations I have with my classmates. For a long time this semester I was praying for God to move in my courses and to help me find ways to feel more connected to my classmates. I didn’t feel like God was responding to my prayers and I felt frustrated. It wasn’t until I had a long phone conversation with a Jewish friend of mine from college. She and I vented together about our struggles in graduate school and laughed out loud about some of the ridiculous (and frustrating) experiences we were having. For whatever reason, that conversation lifted something in me that allowed me to go back to school with renewed energy and fresh insight. Nothing actually changed in my school life, but I realized later that God had answered my prayers in an unexpected way. I wonder how many times God has worked in my life and I have missed it because I have been testing, or waiting for God to respond my way.

2)    Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in Heaven (Matt 5:16)

As a student it is easy for me to theorize and theologize, but it is much harder to put my thoughts and beliefs into action. The question I want to ask myself this year is: how will I share my Christian faith with others? If it is only by the cross around my neck, or my attendance at church, or what I know about Christian thought and practice, then I have missed a big part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. We should be able to show our faith through our actions and how we treat others. I think about the story of the Good Samaritan and I wonder how often I have passed by opportunities to help others because of racial, religious, or cultural differences. I wonder what opportunities I have missed to receive help from others because of those same differences.

Jesus seems to imply that when we do good, the people around us will recognize the power and grace of God. This year I want to commit to letting my actions speak louder than my thoughts and words. Whether it is standing in solidarity with people of color who are targets of police brutality, or smiling at a Muslim woman wearing a hijab on the subway who is receiving skeptical stares from other passengers, or listening with care and sincerity to the stories of people who are radically different than myself–I want to strive to do good for the sake of bringing greater glory to God.

3)    Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest (Matt 11:28)

Life is tiring and sometimes school work, regular work, friends, family, and all of the challenges of life can feel overwhelming. Sometimes I have so many questions and concerns that it is hard to fall asleep at night. This year, I want to commit to giving my questions and my burdens to God. You might be thinking: easier said than done. I feel like that a lot. But God promises us to give us rest from our hardships. Jesus offers himself to us and allows us to rest in the knowledge that he can handle even our most difficult situations. Jesus invites us to fall into his arms and rest. I want to commit to accepting God’s grace and resisting the pride that makes me feel as if I can handle everything on my own. For many around the globe, 2014 was a year of tragedy, loss, and frustration. What to do in the face of unexplainable, or insurmountable struggle is not easy to figure out on one’s own.

At my school last semester, students strived to figure out how to respond to the threats of police brutality in black and brown communities in our city, New York. As I watched students pray and cry and ask God for guidance, I realized how little I am sometimes willing to do this in my own life. Eventually what was born on our campus was a thoughtful and coordinated response of peaceful organizing, bold action, and open dialogue. Students did not just give their problems to God and pray for peace of mind; they offered their sadness and anger to God and received insight and renewed energy for action.

I wonder how I can seek rest and refuge in the knowledge of God’s grace and how God might take my burdens and offer me opportunities or new perspectives and new action in 2015.

So these are some of my goals for the New Year. What are your goals? How do you hope to strengthen your relationship to God this year? How will you commit to embracing God’s creation, striving for God’s justice on earth, and seeking the personal strength to let the light of Christ shine in you in all that you do? This year, 2015, will be different for each of us, but the mission of knowing God, serving God, and striving for God’s Kingdom is the same for all of us–sometimes setting goals can make our path a little clear.

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Involving Evangelicals in the Interfaith Movement

I am an evangelical Christian. If you’re a regular reader here, you already know that.

We can argue about what being an evangelical Christian means, or even if it means anything at all (a professor of religion recently told me that it doesn’t mean anything at all, as you can imagine I really loved that — insert eye roll here). The long and short of it for me is that I want everyone to be in relationship with Jesus, know the love and grace of God, and that I believe when it’s all said and done, some will enter the Kingdom of God, and some will not. It also means I take the scriptures to be the true Word of God (yes Word with a capital “W”) and I also really dig contemporary Christian worship.

It confounds Christians and non-Christians alike why I – an evangelical Christian – would even bother with interfaith cooperation. For those new to the interfaith conversation, one of the guidelines of interfaith events and dialogue is that we will not proselytize. In other words, to be a participant in a formal interfaith project or dialogue there is an agreement that those participating will not try to convert each other. It has to be a space for people to learn, gain insight, and build relationships. If you’re trying to convert someone, you’re usually not trying to hear their story, learn about their worldview and you’re definitely into promoting whatever truth you hold dear.

Proselytism (or to use Christian lingo – evangelism) is important to my spiritual practice. It’s important to a lot of other peoples’ practice as well (those who belong to ISKON, certain Muslim communities, heck – even to some atheists!). The Interfaith Movement is not about watering down identity or praxis. It is into “pluralism”positive engagement between people of different religious and non-religious identities. So difference is key here, and authenticity is important as well. So to agree to this guideline of no proselytism at an interfaith event, doesn’t mean you’re necessarily agreeing to it in every aspect of your life.

I don’t mean to make this sound simple or easy. It is complex and challenging to be a person who understands evangelism to be important and who understands interfaith cooperation and dialogue to be important. But for me, nothing worth doing is easy – I love nuance and mystery and complexity – all of these things are ingredients to a great adventure, and interfaith cooperation and dialogue are nothing short of an adventure.

All of that being said – I think there are some things that the interfaith movement can do to be more open to those of us for whom evangelism (or proselytism) is central to our praxis – (Note: these don’t apply only to Christian evangelicals):

1 – Create a Safe Space: Most interfaith dialogue I have been a part of sets up a “safe space” before engaging in dialogue. I know we do at just about every event we do at the UNF Interfaith Center. As I mentioned before, there is a guideline within the movement that participants will not try to convert others. I think that’s great for these types of events, however when you are explaining this guideline to your group, be sure to use positive language when talking about proselytism. Evangelicals are not ignorant of the negative connotation evangelism has for many people. In order to keep the evangelicals (or other faith groups who might also proselytize) from feeling defensive be sure to affirm evangelism as something that is positive for many people and that you’re not asking them to give up evangelism altogether, but to simply suspend it for your time together.

2 – Make sure everyone in the room knows it’s okay to disagree. Often time outsiders think interfaith cooperation is all about how “we’re all the same.” While I do think talking about our similarities is important, particularly for creating common ground and building relationships, sometimes evangelicals can be made to feel like the “bad guy” because they’re not willing to say “all beliefs are created equal.” For evangelicals (and many other faith identities) it is important for them to feel okay about the fact that they believe Jesus is the one and only savior, and the only way to the Kingdom is through him. If pluralism really is about engaging people of different religious and non-religious identities – it has to be okay for us to disagree. I am not saying you should let people be disrespectful during your dialogue – this is why “I-statements” and other Safe Space Guidelines are important. (You can go here for more information on Safe Space guidelines.

 

3 – Give evangelicals opportunities to talk about their faith. If you haven’t noticed, evangelicals LOVE to talk about their faith and of course, about Jesus. Yes, it is very important for evangelicals to hear about the faith and beliefs of others. Arguably, evangelicals don’t do this enough (does anyone do it enough??). That being said, evangelicals are going to feel a lot better about what your interfaith group is doing if they’re being given equal opportunity to share. It seems like it should go without saying, but it doesn’t. Because evangelicals are viewed to be the “religious majority” in our country, in my experience, it is often the case that evangelicals are expected to take a backseat in interfaith dialogue. The truth is, just like any religious/non-religious identity, there is a lot of misunderstanding about evangelicals – particularly around their views of salvation. Evangelicalism is incredibly diverse, and it is becoming a more and more complicated identity every day. So why not give an evangelical Christian an opportunity to dissect some of those misunderstandings? At the interfaith center where I work we have an event called Coffee and Conversation where we give students, faculty, staff and community members an opportunity to talk about their identity. We set up Safe Space Guidelines, the speaker talks for about 15 minutes, and then we open up for questions for the remainder of the hour. I have found them to be an incredibly meaningful experience for the speakers and a great opportunity for the participants to deconstruct stereotypes and misunderstanding while building relationships with people of different religious and non-religious identities.

As the Interfaith Movement grows it will be increasingly important for us to find new ways to communicate with each other. As the movement becomes more diverse, we’ll also have to find new ways to be as inclusive as possible. If you’re struggling to get evangelicals involved in your interfaith programming – feel free to peruse our blog or contact us!

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Take the #ScriptureChallenge

Today’s Guest Post on Faithline Protestants is by Nick Price and a follow-up piece to a couple of posts Nick wrote in the last few weeks. Nick is currently a student at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO, and is a former staff member for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA. As an Evangelical Christian, Nick feels called by his faith to encourage Evangelical Christian participation in the interfaith movement. Nick was profiled in a video by 30 Good Minutes, in which he discusses his faith as an Evangelical and his commitment to interfaith work. He was also invited to write series for RELEVANT Magazine, in which he shared his Christian convictions for doing interfaith work. Nick is also the author of Prodigal Preacher, a blog that explores his experiences in seminary, where he wrote a 3 part series outlining his own theology of interfaith cooperation.

 

Religious illiteracy is a problem. Books and research have shown that a majority of Americans are becoming increasingly illiterate when it comes not only to their own faith traditions, but also when it comes to the religion of others. The result is increasing fear and mistrust of people from other faith traditions as well as an inability to articulate your own faith to those from other religious backgrounds.

So this is my small attempt to correct this problem. Welcome to the #ScriptureChallenge!!!

Like the famous (infamous?) #IceBucketChallenge, the #ScriptureChallenge is a chance to raise awareness. But this time it is a chance to raise awareness about another faith tradition. Here is how the #ScriptureChallenge works.

Step 1: Commit to reading through your own Scriptures within a year. For my fellow Christians, this means reading through 3 chapters of the Bible a day. This should get you most of the way through the Bible in 365 days.

Why is this important? It is important to have a robust understanding of your own faith tradition as you interact with those of other religious traditions. It allows you to find common ground as well as know how to articulate your differences.

Step 2:   Read through the Scriptures of another faith tradition within a year, pairing it with another book from that tradition to provide you with some context.

For example, I have decided that, in order to better understand my Muslim neighbors, I am going to read through the Qur’an. As my partner book, I will also read through Farid Esack’s The Qur’an: A User’s Guide in order to better acquaint myself with this rich text.

For those who want to learn about my own faith tradition, I would recommend reading through the Bible and pairing it with, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth or How to Read the Bible Book-By-Book: A Guided Tour.

Step 3: Nominate some friends to do it with you. Personally, I’m nominating the rest of the Faithline Protestants writers to take this challenge with me. Make sure you encourage them to write down what they are reading.

Step 4:  Tweet, Facebook, and hashtag it!!! #ScriptureChallenge

My hope is that we will all learn something, both about our own faith traditions, but also about the faith traditions of those around us. Let the challenge begin!!!

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Reframing our view of Religious Terrorism

Today’s Guest Post on Faithline Protestants is by Nick Price and a follow-up piece to a post Nick wrote last week. Nick is currently a student at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO, and is a former staff member for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA. As an Evangelical Christian, Nick feels called by his faith to encourage Evangelical Christian participation in the interfaith movement. Nick was profiled in a video by 30 Good Minutes, in which he discusses his faith as an Evangelical and his commitment to interfaith work. He was also invited to write series for RELEVANT Magazine, in which he shared his Christian convictions for doing interfaith work. Nick is also the author of Prodigal Preacher, a blog that explores his experiences in seminary, where he wrote a 3 part series outlining his own theology of interfaith cooperation.

SETTING THE STAGE
There is a major world religion that very few of us have spent any time studying. Though it has made a profound impact on world history, it is often ignored or overlooked. Over 1500 years old, it has spread from the Middle East to such far-flung places as Africa, Asia, and Europe. And while its adherents can be found in almost every major country, many of them live below the poverty line, fighting to survive on day-to-day subsistence living.

A monotheistic faith, it has rich theological, philosophical, and artistic expressions. Sadly, most of its followers live in ignorance of this fact, believing God to be a harsh and angry judge who punishes unbelievers and sinners in the afterlife. This ignorance is further reinforced by the fact that both its Scriptures and its worship are read and carried out in a language that most of its own people cannot read or understand. As such, the majority of this religion’s followers rely on the interpretations and teaching from a few educated religious leaders.

In abuse of their position of influence, several of these leaders have preached a version of the faith that encourages violence against those of other faith traditions. They impose harsh taxes on those of other monotheistic faiths and crowd them into ghettos and restricted communities. They execute those deemed heretics and burn their writings in an effort to purify the faith.

But these power hungry clerics are not content. So they rally their followers to wage a holy war against another sovereign nation, one that is rich and whose citizens include people from a variety of religious traditions, cultures, and people groups. These violent clerics’ goal is, ultimately, to overthrow this country and impose their own harsh view of their religion upon its inhabitants, even upon their fellow believers who do not share their own narrow and violent views. Their rallying cry is, “Convert or die!”

Sadly, many of this religion’s followers have taken up the battle cry, having been told that dying in this holy war guarantees them eternal life in paradise and the blessings of God in heaven. And so they march off to battle—men from every socio-economic and cultural background—united by their zeal for holy war.

The religion is Christianity during the Middle Ages. The target is Jerusalem.

Why do I bring this up? Earlier this week I posted a column entitled ISIS & The War on Islam. Not surprisingly it caused a bit of stir. One of the common responses that I received was from fellow Christians who continued to argue that Islam is an inherently violent religion and that ISIS is nothing more than the latest expression of this ingrained hostility.

As such, I thought it would be worthwhile to respond to some of these criticisms by reminding us, as Christians, of our own background and noting some of the parallels between what we see in groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda and what happened during the Middle Ages with Christianity and the Crusades.

SIDENOTE: STOP COMPARING HOLY WARS

Now, before I get too far into this comparison, let me start by addressing a common objection that I have heard over and over again. It goes something like this: “The [medieval] Muslims struck first and conquered the vast majority of the Mediterranean. Besides, they attacked and conquered far more territory than the Christians ever did.” Yes, yes, I have seen your YouTube videos and I have heard this argument.

But let’s get down to brass tax; holy war is holy war, whether being waged by Christians or Muslims. It is all-around bad news. While some people may want to make the Muslims seem like the only bad guys, keep in mind that the Christians of medieval Europe were just as bent on destroying Muslims in the Middle Ages as the Muslims were on conquering the Christians. The only difference is that the Muslim armies were better trained, unified, and led than the ragtag Christian forces that marched off to the Middle East. So it wasn’t for a lack of zeal that the Crusades never ultimately succeeded.

So rather than arguing in circles about who started what and how much territory so-and-so conquered, let’s focus on the bigger picture. The truth is that most Christians (maybe with the exception of Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson) think that the Crusades were a bad idea. We, as Christians, recognize that the Crusades were not reflective of what it means to be a follower of Christ, and we are right to repudiate and denounce this dark chapter in our history. We recognize that what spurred on the Crusader mentality was a lot of ignorance, fear, bad theology, economic distress, and the propaganda campaigns of some of the clergy.

ISIS IS NOT ISLAM

So what does this have to do with groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda? Well, quite a bit actually. Muslims number over 1.6 billion. That is roughly 23% of the world’s population. Yet the vast majority does not even live in the Middle East. In fact, the country with the largest number of Muslims is India and the nation with the largest Muslim majority, by percentage, is Indonesia. Islam’s central Scripture, the Qur’an, is written in Arabic. Yet, for most Muslims, Arabic is not their primary language. Finally, if figures are accurate, then the majority of Muslims live in underdeveloped or developing nations. They make ends meet on less that $1 a day, like much of the rest of the world.

So what happens when you have well-funded clerics from more extremist countries telling the rest of the Muslim world that what it means to be faithful to the teachings of Islam is to participate in open war against the West? You get groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda: organizations that actively recruit young people who are disgruntled, often economically poor, or just looking for purpose in an increasingly complex and confusing world.

But this does not mean that this is the truest expression of Islam. Islam is a faith tradition that is rich and complex. It has made a profound impact on world history, enriching the arts and the sciences, even during the medieval period. As such, we must become conversant with the rich history and legacy of this faith tradition. It is worth it to spend some time studying books about Islamic history and theology. It is important to learn from and read well-educated Muslim leaders and scholars as they articulate their faith to the world in ways that are reflective of their religious tradition.

Furthermore, it is important to remember that the majority of Muslims are not violent. They are doctors, business owners, policemen, professors, peace activists, and politicians. They are husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters who love their families and who serve their neighborhoods. They are our neighbors and our friends, our co-workers, clients, and service providers.

So let’s not lump them in with the psychopaths that we see on television. Let’s not step on their faith tradition by equating it with those terrorists who would seek to hijack the name “Islam” for their own sordid ends. Rather, let us let them define what Islam truly looks like. Let’s listen to their stories and seek to understand their faith tradition through their own eyes.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was from a theology professor who said, “One of the greatest disciplines you can pursue is learning to see the world from someone else’s perspective.” I would encourage us to do likewise with our Muslim neighbors by honestly asking ourselves the question, “What is it about Islam that makes it so attractive that it would make people like my friends and neighbors want to follow it?”

SHIFTING THE PARADIGM: CALLING TERRORISM WHAT IT IS

One of the common objections that I have heard from people goes something like this: “Well yeah, there are nonviolent Muslims, but these people aren’t really being true to the religion of Muhammad. They are the liberals.”

First of all, not only is this insulting to the majority of Muslims around the world, but it is also not true. I’m hesitant to label the temperate movements within Islam “liberal” because there are many conservative Muslims who are non-violent as well. I think a wonderful example of this is the work that Sheikh Hamza Yusuf is doing through Zaytuna College in Berkley, California.

Zaytuna was founded “to help revive Islam’s educational and intellectual legacy and to popularize traditional learning among Western Muslims.” Its goal is to develop Muslim leaders “with the cultural literacy to tend to the spiritual and pastoral needs of American Muslims.” They do this by teaching the traditional Islamic sciences. It is a conservative institution through and through. Yet its founder, Sheikh Hamza, has also been an outspoken critic against groups like ISIS and has actively worked for peace and nonviolence over the course of his distinguished career. What this shows us is that just as there are liberal and conservative Christians who are nonviolent, there are also liberal and conservative Muslims who are nonviolent.

A better distinction would be to learn the common threads that all violent religious groups share in common and label them for what they are: terrorists. There is a huge body of literature out there that highlights the fact that religious extremists of every stripe—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, etc.—share many of the same characteristics in terms of their values and aims. Someone who has done some great research on this is Jessica Stern in her book Terror in the Name of God. Likewise, it is worth it to read Landscapes of Jihad by Faisal Devji, as he paints a powerful picture of what actually drives extremists like Al-Qaeda and how they actively recruit people into their movement.

Again, my hope is that we can redefine this struggle as one that is not between Islam and everyone else, but rather as that between terrorists and the rest of the world. This is not about Islam. This is not about Muslims. This is about a group of violent psychopaths who want to destroy anyone—including Muslims—who does not agree with their own narrow brand of pseudo-religion.

My hope and prayer is that we, as Christians, would begin to stand with our Muslim neighbors in denouncing these violent fanatics and do so in a way that does not demonize and ostracize our friends.

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ISIS & the War on Islam

Today’s Guest Post on Faithline Protestants is by Nick Price. Nick is currently a student at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO, and is a former staff member for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA. As an Evangelical Christian, Nick feels called by his faith to encourage Evangelical Christian participation in the interfaith movement. Nick was profiled in a video by 30 Good Minutes, in which he discusses his faith as an Evangelical and his commitment to interfaith work. He was also invited to write series for RELEVANT Magazine, in which he shared his Christian convictions for doing interfaith work. Nick is also the author of Prodigal Preacher, a blog that explores his experiences in seminary, where he wrote a 3 part series outlining his own theology of interfaith cooperation.

It’s been hard for me to watch the news lately. Even going on Facebook has been difficult. Every time I go online I hear of more disturbing stories emerging from Iraq and Syria as the militant group ISIS continues to oppress minorities, rape women, and violently execute innocent men, women, and children. But what has made these horrific acts even more difficult to watch is the conversation swirling around them. Over and over again I have watched friends, colleagues, media personalities, and news outlets call ISIS the face of Islam. More and more people have begun to say things like, “This is what Islam is really about. They are finally showing their true colors to the world.” And as I have seen this picture of Islam painted over and over again I have actually begun to wonder, “Are they right? Is this truly what Islam is all about?”

What terrifies me about that thought is just how pervasive it is. For someone who spent his undergraduate studies focusing on Islam to suddenly start to wonder if this faith tradition is truly, at its core, a religion of violence says something about the power of this narrative. It is one that has begun to make me question even my own understanding of Islam.

And so, it has taken a conscious effort on my part to remember my past. I remember the late night conversations in the dining hall with my classmate Umar as we talked about the shared emphasis on social justice within both Christianity and Islam. I remember my Malaysian roommate, Adzwan, and how he would play religious music from his home country while I would share worship songs from my own faith tradition. I remember all the years of visiting the local mosque during Ramadan, only to be greeted with warm hugs, delicious food, and long conversations about the need to promote peace and advance humanitarian causes around the dinner table. I remember reading beautiful Sufi poetry, learning about Muslim leaders in nonviolence, and reading books by pioneering activists like Farid Escak, Eboo Patel, and Feisal Abdul Rauf.

And then I am confronted with ISIS, and my question suddenly becomes, “How do I respond to this, in light of all I know and all I have experienced?” The answer comes when I slow down and think carefully about what I am seeing. ISIS is an abbreviation of the name “The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria”. More recently, this group has shortened its name to “The Islamic State.” And suddenly it becomes clear what the real agenda of this organization is. They are seeking to define Islam for the world. They want their extremist brand of religion to be the face of Islam to people the world over. They want to steal the heritage of this faith tradition and narrowly define it for their own violent and bloodthirsty ends. And, sadly….I think they are winning.

They are winning every time a Western news media outlet calls these fanatics “Muslims.” They are winning every time a person thinks, “This is the truth about Islam.” ISIS wants us to see them as the authoritative voice of how Muslims think, act, and behave in the modern world. And every time we charge them with being the true face of Islam, we give power to their voice while silencing the countless Muslims around the world who work for peace, nonviolence, and social justice.

So how do we change this trend? I would argue that the first thing we can do is call these people what they are: psychopaths, murderers, and rapists. They are not Muslims. They are not religious fanatics. They are genocidal maniacs. Pure and simple. We need to stop equating them and their violence with a faith tradition that is far more diverse and beautiful than the horror they would export. We need to rob them of their voice and their attempts to usurp the name “Islam” from the countless men and women who honorably and peacefully bear the name of “Muslim”.

Second, we can learn from, support, and work alongside the countless Muslim leaders who oppose groups like ISIS. I think of leaders like Feisal Abdul Rauf, Eboo Patel, Farid Esack, Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, and Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, who are all leaders in the Muslim community and who have advanced the cause of peace both in the West and abroad. In doing so we can advance the cause of peace and work for greater understanding between people of all faith communities.

Thirdly, we need to get to know our Muslim neighbors. As one of the largest religious communities in the United States, it is likely that every one of us has at least one Muslim neighbor, coworker, or friend. I think it might be worth asking them about their faith and how it informs their life. Take some time to stop and listen to their stories and allow them to give you a broader perspective on what it means to be a follower of Islam. I think that this will not only strengthen your friendship, but will help redefine how we think about one another in a world where extremists are seeking to steal the mic.

My hope is that ISIS will not win the war against Islam. But that will only happen when we begin to interact with each other and work together to combat their propaganda campaign. May we truly stand united against the threats from terrorists everywhere.

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photo credit: ecstaticist via photopin cc

Ripples of Peace: Confess, Repent, Learn, Speak Up

Let us make every effort to do what leads to peace…-Romans 14:19

 

Real talk – it’s not looking good

In fact, it’s looking pretty damn bleak.

The headlines these last few weeks have gone from bad, to worse, to downright depressing.

Particularly distressing for Christians around the world, and specifically Christians of my Facebook newsfeed, is the violent persecution of Christians in Iraq. I’m sure you’ve noticed a particular Arabic letter acting as your friends’ profile pictures, or the use of the hashtag #WeAreN. This comes from reports that ISIS militants were marking the homes of Iraqi Christians with the arabic letter “N,” meaning “Nazarene” or “Christian,” in order for those homes to be targeted. Apparently, Christians are being told to convert, or die, and many have been killed (there is an informative interview with the creator of the #WeAreN hashtag which you can read here and can offer you some more context).

I think it’s important for Christians to remember the universal church community of which they are a part. Often times our own American nationalism, and our Protestant denominationalism, can keep us from remembering our role in the greater body of Christ. That being said, I also think it’s very important for us to remember that Christians aren’t the only religious minority being driven from their homes, and killed.

When we peer out from behind the safety blanket of our first amendment into the lives of others and see such ruthless, meaningless violence against people simply because of their religious beliefs, it’s natural for us to want to do something. But we don’t know what the heck to do. So we resort to things like changing our profile picture, or using social media to spread awareness. these things (like changing our profile picture) can be helpful, and they can help us feel like we’re doing something to create a ripple of peace in this world – and I think that’s okay.

However, I wanted to make a few suggestions for simple ways (simple- not always easy) you can begin to make ripples, and hopefully eventually a tide, of peace.

1.  Confess:

Admit what your prejudices are – say them aloud to a friend, to yourself, to God. When we name our prejudices aloud, we realize so many of those prejudices are based on fear and misunderstanding. When we confess our prejudices aloud, we have an opportunity to learn how we ourselves perpetuate a culture of intolerance through our own ignorance, misunderstanding and fear. When we confess our prejudices aloud to God, we are opening our hearts to see others the way God sees them.

2.  Repent:

Once you have acknowledged your prejudices – repent. Repentance humbles us before God and others, reminding us that we are often in the wrong. Not only must we feel regret for the prejudice we’ve felt and believed, we must turn away from them completely. As Christians in a religiously diverse world, it is easy for us to believe we are always in the right, but history has shown us that that is definitely not true (think Spanish Inquisition, theologically defended slavery in the U.S., etc.). Pride is a dangerous road which often leads to violence. Pride and peace are like oil and water and pride is an oily slippery slope. Turn away from pride; instead, humble yourselves in service to others.

3.  Learn

Once you’ve confessed your prejudices and repented, you can humble yourself before others by learning. There are two ways in which I believe learning can help us create more peace in the world. First, learn about the believe systems of others. I’ve noticed that “open-mindedness” is often confused with wishy-washy political correctness (I actually believe political correctness can be very important for inclusion – but that’s a different topic). I believe, on the other hand, that open-mindedness is actually a willingness to check our presumptions at the door in order to listen and learn about others. We don’t have to not believe what we believe in order to be open-minded. Learning about others, particularly the belief system of those from different worldviews (religious or non-religious), can lead to more positive attitudes about others, thus leading to positive relationships with others (see more at www.ifyc.org/about). What’s the worst that could happen if you decide to learn more about another person – you make a new friend? Being willing to learn more about others helps us understand more fully that we are all created in God’s image and we might have more in common than you might expect. What better way to create more peace in the world than through new friendships and relationships?

Second, learn about the hardships of other people groups (whether those are religious groups, ethnic groups, etc.). Believe it or not, one of the things that all religious/non-religious groups in the United States have in common is that every group has experienced some kind of religious intolerance. Religious intolerance is understood broadly; it takes many different forms. Vandalism of religious buildings, stereotypes, misrepresentation in the media, discrimination, violence – these are ways that people experience religious intolerance. Feeling persecuted because your biology professor scoffs at your Christian view of creation? Learn about the experiences of Muslim girls getting their hijabs torn off in their school hallways. Or read about the persecution the Christians, Yezidis, Turkmen, minority Muslim groups and others in Iraq at the hands of the Islamic State currently. You’ll soon find out that you’re not the only one experiencing religious intolerance. Perhaps your experience will help you feel empathy for others – even those you would not normally identify with. Perhaps this empathy will inspire you to act on behalf of others as well – whether it’s through prayer, writing, community organizing, raising aid funds, etc.

4.  Speak Up for Others

I’ve heard a lot of fellow Christians get really offended by the lack of coverage about the persecution of Christians in Iraq (heck – I know I have). Thankfully it seems the media has finally taken notice. However, I’ve noticed Christians are very quick to spread the news about the persecution of their brothers and sisters in Christ, yet I rarely see a fellow Christian talk about the Yezidis or other Muslim minority groups also experiencing violence and even death because of their religious identity in Iraq (not to mention religious violence experienced by Muslims in Mynmar, or Muslims and Christians in India, etc.). I’m not blaming them – I get it. As I listened to NPR yesterday morning they talked for several minutes about the persecution experienced by Yezidis in Iraq, and there wasn’t a single word about Christians in Iraq. Now, I have heard NPR cover the persecution of Christians in the last few weeks, but in that moment I immediately felt alienated.

But why should I feel alienated?

It’s important people know what’s happening to Yezidis, just as it is important for people to know what’s happening to religious groups all over the world who are experiencing extreme persecution.

All that to say – I think it would say a lot more about what it means to follow Christ if we as Christians were just as quick to stand up and speak up for all groups who experience violence, discrimination, and displacement on account of what they believe. It’s important for us to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Christ who are being killed and displaced because they believe in the same gospel we do; it’s important that we spread the news of what’s happening to them. I think it’s just as important, however, to speak up for others, even those we would not normally identify with.

Proverbs 31:8 tells us to “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.” With social media a mobile device away – it’s easier to speak up for others now more than it ever has been.

Let’s stand against violence by speaking on behalf of others in the name of peace, and in the name of the coming Kingdom we so fervently are hoping for. Let’s drop all defensiveness, pride, and prejudice, tear down the wall of division and build a bridge of peace, remembering that it is our duty as Christians not only to stand up and speak out on behalf of each other, but also for others.

It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the violence and hatred in this world. It’s easy to feel bogged down by the enormity of it all and simply sit, paralyzed to do anything. But I believe if we confess, repent, learn and speak up on behalf of others – then we can create small ripples of peace in our own lives. Who knows – maybe this way we can create ripples of peace in other lives too.

photo credit: ecstaticist via photopin cc

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6 Chaplains Walk Into a Hospital…

What do you get when you put two Reform Jews, three Episcopalians, and a Presbyterian together in a hospital to minister to the sick and grieving for ten weeks?

I haven’t been able to come up with a punchy one-line answer yet—but let me know if you can think of any.  This has been my summer so far. In early June, six of us from Jewish and Christian seminaries around New York City embarked on our first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE)—a requirement for most clergy-in-training that involves offering pastoral care to people in need, in a clinical setting. Our hospital ID badges say “Chaplain Intern,” but what it means to be a chaplain—as I have learned over and over again—is ambiguous, and often has more to do with what the person we happen to be serving wants (or needs) us to be, than what we believe we are.

When someone asks us about our faith traditions—even though we are all deeply connected to specific traditions—we are instructed to say something along these lines: I am an interfaith chaplain and I’m here to serve the spiritual and emotional needs of patients in the hospital, no matter what their faith or philosophical tradition may be. Still,patients often project their own faiths onto us—there was the Episcopalian chaplain who has been repeatedly called Rabbi, the Jewish chaplain who was thanked for her work and her inspiring faith in Jesus; I have had multiple patients assume I am Catholic. For the most part, we don’t correct these assumptions, not because we don’t care, but because our job in the hospital is not to share our identities with others, but to listen, to pray, and to walk with those who are suffering. Why should a patient who is just coming out of a four-week coma after a stroke care if I’m an Episcopalian, or even a Christian for that matter? Much more important is that the patient can express her feelings and know that God is with her and is listening to her prayers.

That’s not to say that it has been easy to “set aside” our faith traditions. There are times that I have wanted to talk about Jesus or quote New Testament scripture and have had to hold back. But being able to talk about Jesus isn’t what makes me a Christian. I am a Christian because my beliefs and my relationship to Jesus inform the way I live my life and interact with others. Even if I don’t tell a patient that I am Christian, my Christian beliefs are what “get me in the door,” so to speak. My personal faith is the ground I stand on when I meet with patients. It is what helps me to understand the suffering I witness; it is what allows me to love each patient I encounter, regardless of our differences; it is what challenges me to keep coming back. In that way, I haven’t had to set aside my faith at all.

Throughout our first four weeks, each of us has been challenged to define our own theologies of pastoral care, of suffering, and of grief. Many of us have been with family members at the time of a loved one’s death; we have listened to patients who are experiencing excruciating pain, who have been diagnosed with incurable diseases, who feel hopeless about the possibility of healing—and we have to figure out how we can find the tools within our personal faith traditions to be a presence of God’s love to those we encounter. So, what do you get when you put two Reform Jews, three Episcopalians, and a Presbyterian together in a hospital to minister to the sick and grieving for ten weeks? You probably have to be there for yourself to know for sure—and even then, it’s hard to articulate. But I can say that, in my own experience, not being able to talk directly about my faith has forced me to figure out how to live my faith in a way that speaks louder than words. I can’t say that I always do it well, but I am committed to trying as hard as I can. Perhaps what you get is a group of people who can’t hide behind their intellects and religious platitudes—perhaps you get raw, real religion.

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Co-Exist

Jesus CAN Co-Exist: A Response to the Rev. Karl Schaffenburg

The Rev. Karl Schaffenburg, the rector of Grace Church in Sheboygan, WI, published a short opinion piece in an early May issue of The Living Church, a popular publication among Episcopalians. The piece, entitled simply “Why Jesus Would Not Coexist,” takes aim at the popular blue and white “Co-Exist” bumper stickers one finds on automobiles, Facebook posts, and t-shirts all over the country to say that the Christian faith remains incompatible with the idea of pluralism.

Fr. Schaffenburg’s critique actually raises some common concerns about pluralism and the place of Christianity in a pluralistic society I hear rather often while doing interfaith work, and so I thought it might be helpful to engage with him to see if his assertion that “Jesus Would Not Coexist” reflects the most accurate reading of the Gospels or a positive definition of pluralism.

To begin, Fr. Schaffenburg introduces the concept of the law of non-contradiction found in classical logic (that two contradictory claims cannot be simultaneously true). He then briefly explains the differences in the ways that the Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) view Jesus. He argues on the basis of John 14:6 (“I am the way, and the truth, and the life…”) that “Jesus cannot coexist with contradictory claims to truth made in other faiths. If Jesus had been content with coexistence he might have escaped crucifixion. We should live peaceably with all people (Rom. 12:18), but we ought not reduce this peace to a glib assertion that all paths lead to God. The assertion that all faiths are the same and there is no exclusive truth is itself a doctrine, and one that excludes all but the universalist. It represents an incoherent quest for tolerance.”

I would have to agree with Fr. Schaffenburg that such a view indeed “represents an incoherent quest for tolerance,” yet I’m not so sure that the crucifixion stands as the best example to support his claim, nor that “tolerance,” however conceived, necessitates universalism. If what Fr. Schaffenburg aims to do is point to the veracity of the Christian faith, I stand with him in this claim; I think it is the “true” faith (otherwise I wouldn’t be one). That said, to be a Christian does not mean I cannot exist alongside other faiths in a positive and productive way that includes cooperation and collaboration.

To his credit, Fr. Schaffenburg does grant that elements of truth can be found in other faiths (this, he notes, is a “classical Christian doctrine”). Yet ends his piece by labeling the “real danger of COEXIST” as “its underlying assumption that how we live is ultimately a matter of human agency,” arguing that the “lessons of history… make it clear that we will never achieve peace and harmony on our own.” He critiques the view held by some Christians that attaining piece on earth is equivalent to the kingdom of Heaven, and concludes by saying, “Coexistence that treats Jesus Christ merely as an important moral teacher disregards that he revealed himself as God and reduces the saving act of God to a set of rules. It claims that if we live in a certain way we will attain salvation, thus toying with Pelagianism. For this reason, COEXIST is unworthy of anything more than a bumper sticker.”

There’s a lot to tease out in Fr. Schaffenburg’s critique. In fact, I would argue that the biggest issue I have with his editorial is that it simply sets out to do too much—arguing against universalism, certain views about salvation, the Kingdom of God, and Pelagianism—all in a short piece about a bumper sticker.

But there’s something else here, too. Beneath Fr. Schaffenburg’s many aims lies the assumption that pluralism—to “coexist”—requires one to give up the tenets of their own faith or, in the case of the Christian, to relegate Jesus Christ to the margins for the sake of an ideal of world peace.

Yet I would argue that this is not the sentiment that lies behind the “Coexist” bumper-sticker, nor is it the understanding of pluralism that undergirds our work at FLP… or even of Fr. Schaffenburg himself.

We coexist every day—at work, at school, in airports, in the grocery store. My convictions as a Christian do not limit me to interact only with other Christians, but rather informs the way that I work in the world. Indeed, Jesus himself coexisted with those he encountered; it was they who could not coexist with him.

Perhaps a healthier view of pluralism and coexistence can be found on this very website, on the “Pluralism” tab at the top of the page. Permit me to conclude by quoting it.

When we say pluralism, what do we mean? Good question.

We follow a model of interfaith engagement developed by the Chicago-based non-profit named the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC).

IFYC’s approach to interfaith engagement pulls heavily from the work of Harvard scholar Diana Eck and revolves around three components:

            1.) Respect for individual religious or nonreligious identity.

Respect for identity means that everyone can bring their full identities to this work. There’s space for people to believe that they are right and others are wrong, and that their beliefs are true and others’ are not. Interfaithcooperation is not syncretistic or relativistic; no one has to concede exclusive truth claims to be part of it – whether you are an Orthodox Jew, a conservative Christian, or an atheist, you are welcome to the table of      interfaith cooperation.

                 2.) Mutually inspiring relationships.

Interfaith cooperation builds relationships across religious and nonreligious   boundaries, while creating space for real conversations about disagreements and difference and a sense that each person gains from the relationship.

            3.) Common action for the common good.

Interfaith cooperation is based on the conviction that people of different religious and nonreligious backgrounds have shared values that call them to make the world a better place. By working together on local and global        projects based on these shared values, individuals learn to connect to those    who are different from them while strengthening their communities.

Their idea is simple: face-to-face interaction, as well as conversations with those with whom we disagree, can be a means for mitigating hate and increasing understanding. We think it’s a pretty good idea.

IFYC focuses on shared values and does not suppose or support shared theologies. So do we.

We believe that you don’t have to water-down your own religious tradition in order to participate in interfaith cooperation. Instead, you are encouraged to fully embrace your own tradition and share its distinctives with others. This is our idea of pluralism.

One day (God willing and the people consenting!) I hope to be a priest with as much experience as Fr. Schaffenburg, and I hope that I can carry a constructive definition of coexistence with me in my ministry that facilitates interactions with those of other traditions to work for the greater good while still retaining the potency and vitality of the Christian faith.

 

 

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3 Reasons Evangelicals Don’t Do Interfaith Dialogue & 3 Ways Forward

FLP is excited to feature a guest blog by Josh Daneshforooz. Josh is an author and international speaker on leadership, peacemaking and personal development. Author of the Loving Our Religious Neighbors curriculum, he spearheads social change campaigns between disparate religious communities. Josh is also founding partner at East Africa Property Partners and founder of All Nations Education, an organization that empowers young adults through mentorship and higher education in developing countries.

“Evangelicals are consistently the most difficult community with whom we attempt to collaborate,” an executive of a well-respected interfaith organization recently told me on a phone call.

As I’ve become increasingly engaged in the movement for peace among different faith communities, I’ve noticed there’s one regularly absent Christian community: evangelicals.

Most people who attend the big interfaith conferences such as the Parliament of the World’s Religions, who co-organize local community service projects and who participate in dialogue sessions are of a liberal persuasion—both Christian and non-Christian alike.

But what about the more conservative types, like me? More specifically, and more relevant for this post, what about the 100 million evangelicals in the US and the other 400 million around the world? Why has our seat at the table remained empty for so long?

With an American evangelical mother and an Iranian Muslim father, I grew up straddling two worlds. Though I was shaped in certain ways by both sides, the main spiritual community that shaped my values and beliefs was a large evangelical church in Las Vegas.

As a child I developed a subconscious fear that intentionally building relationships of mutual respect and learning across religious boundaries was somehow not consistent with the teachings of Jesus. Throughout the past ten years, I’ve attempted to understand this fear. Along the way, I’ve met many other evangelicals who share my concerns.

After learning to overcome my own fears, I created the Loving Our Religious Neighbors (LORN) curriculum as a resource to enable others to overcome theirs too. Today LORN empowers evangelical communities to build lasting relationships of conviction and respect with non-Christian religious communities as they work together to serve the poor and tackle social problems.

Leading LORN campaigns throughout the United States has taught me that evangelicals typically don’t do interfaith work for three reasons. In response to these three concerns, I’ve developed approaches in LORN for equipping evangelicals to take their place at the table of peace.

1. Don’t Want to Compromise the Teachings of Jesus

“When you hear the phrase ‘interfaith’ or ‘interreligious dialogue’, what usually comes to mind?” This is the question I ask at the beginning of every LORN campaign.

Krista, a member at a church in Boston, responded, “The first thing that comes to mind when I hear those phrases is that all religions lead to the same mountaintop. All religions are the same. Mixing theologies. But I just don’t believe that. So I don’t usually get involved in interfaith initiatives. I don’t want to compromise my faith.”

Evangelicals often equate interfaith work with theological relativism, and as a result, those who do participate are frequently faced with judgment from their own community.

The essence of evangelicalism teaches that faith is life and life is faith. Asking an evangelical to put her faith, her life, aside in the name of dialogue is like asking the body to remove the heart and continue to circulate blood.

How Do We Overcome This Concern? 

Establish a biblical foundation. Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). In LORN campaigns, we are empowering evangelicals not to water down their faith but to put it into practice as peacemakers as we take ownership of our title as “children of God.” The LORN curriculum also lays a biblical foundation in the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23).

2. Don’t Want To Abandon Sharing the Good News

Evangelism, or sharing the Good News of the Gospel, is a pillar of the message of Jesus: “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). Pastors and leaders are constantly strategizing new ways of inviting people into authentic community, growing the Church and ultimately spreading the news that the Kingdom of God is at hand (Matthew 10:7).

This message is the foundation of the evangelical growth paradigm and, I hope and pray, the major motivation for expansion. Today many megachurches have multiple campuses. Central Christian Church where I grew up, for example, has grown from one thousand members and one campus when I was 10 years old to 15 thousand weekly attendees and 10 campuses not only in the Las Vegas valley but also across the U.S. and around the world.

The word “evangelical” comes from the Greek word meaning “good news.” Asking an evangelical to put aside sharing the Gospel in the name of dialogue is like asking an Olympian to stop competing in the middle of the Olympics. Sharing the good news is just what we do—because Jesus teaches us to.

How Do We Overcome This Concern? 

Imagine new ways of sharing the Gospel. Instead of using older forms of evangelism, LORN, among other things, equips Christians to share their “Public Testimonies.” I define public testimony in LORN as the “skill of communicating your faith with conviction and respect (1 Pet. 3:15) in a multi-religious society.”

3. Fear of Violence 

Sam is an active member at an evangelical church in Texas. After hearing his senior pastor talk about the importance of building respectful relationships with local Muslims, Sam became fearful and asked, “Why would I become friends with them? They blew us up. I’m not going to let them anywhere near my family.”

Many evangelicals like Sam have never met a Muslim or a Buddhist or a Sikh or even a Catholic or liberal Protestant. The only Muslims they know are the suicide bombers whom they see in the media daily. So they make generalizations such as, “They blew us up.”

Our ignorance often breeds fear, and our fear can cause us to express violent attitudes and use violent speech. This is often true of human beings in general, conservative Christians not being an exception. Some evangelicals fear violent and forceful Muslims, yet they project violent and forceful attitudes out of fear.

How Do We Overcome This Concern? 

Meet your religious neighbors. I’ve learned that the single most powerful way to overcome misunderstanding and prejudice is to develop lasting friendships.

After Sam met Muslim families in his suburb, he said, “I get it. These people are normal, just like my family. They’re not violent. Now I’m on board with what our pastor is teaching: We can remain committed Christians while being friends with our neighbors who come from all over the world.” This is precisely why LORN is not simply a book; it’s a curriculum that’s used in a 5-week campaign that culminates in a day of multi-faith community service and relationship building with our religious neighbors.

1 John 4:18 says, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear…. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” If we respond out of fear to our religious neighbors, we are not responding out of our faith. Instead we are reacting out of our fallen humanity because we have not been perfected in love. When the waves of fear come crashing down on the seashore of multi-faith engagement, let us stand on the rock of the One who casts out all fear.

Will You Join Us?
Start A Loving Our Religious Neighbors Campaign Today
 

LORN is now available! We are in the process of launching in evangelical churches and on college campuses across the United States. Go to the following link for the 3 Steps to Start a LORN Campaign.

Also, click here for a video on “How to Launch and Sustain a LORN College Campus Team.”

And click here for a video on “How to Launch LORN at a Church or in a Christian Organization.”

Or email me directly to get involved: josh@lorneighbors.com.

Visit www.LORNeighbors.com to get a copy of the curriculum.

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“I will, with God’s help”

As a member of The Episcopal Church and someone involved in their ecumenical and interreligious work on a national and global level, I have begun to delve deeper into my own tradition for sources that nurture our work to foster mutual understanding amongst our brothers and sisters of other faiths.

While The Episcopal Church has an important historical legacy for building interfaith understanding and relationships – one that I cannot fully go into here – I have found that one of the best places for Episcopalians to begin interfaith work is, you guessed it, our liturgy.

In the Anglican tradition we hold fervently to the motto “praying shapes believing”. It comes from the Latin: lex orandi lex credendi, which translates to “the law of praying is the law of believing.” It means that the words we utter together to God hold profound weight in our life. Verbal and communal markers, they carve deeper into the bedrock of our belief through repetition until our hands and feet respond to the flood.

Just as a stream wends its way through rock and soil to carve a path, gradually building its momentum and depth into a river, so also I believe our liturgy can embed itself in us, molding and moving us into action, directing and expanding our imaginations, hearts and wills towards a greater collective theological and social consciousness.

So if our prayers, beliefs and actions are so closely knit together, then what are we praying?

This is exactly where I, and many others past and present, have found the words of the Baptismal Covenant to be a deep well and foundation for enabling, fashioning, and sustaining our work to build bridges and mutual understanding amongst those of other faiths.

I was baptized as an infant so I do not recall the memory well (or at all). But I hold this liturgy dear today, knowing that my family and community prayed it over me all those years ago so that I can now claim it as my own, confirm the faith of my baptism, and strive to live out these promises moving forward.

The Baptismal Covenant is found in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the hallmark resource which embodies the corporate, liturgical, sacramental and ordered Anglican moral vision (the 1979 version is distinctly Episcopal). It is comprised in true catechetical form: it begins with an affirmation of belief in the classical Christian doctrines of the Apostles’ Creed and then includes a question-and-answer format with five ethically-driven questions at the end.

It is this question-and-answer portion which I find particularly compelling, and offer it here as a guiding prayer, resource and resolve for crossing the borders of difference and ministering in interfaith contexts.

Celebrant    Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and
fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the
prayers?

People        I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant    Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever
you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?

People        I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant   Will you proclaim by word and example the Good
News of God in Christ?

People       I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant  Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving
your neighbor as yourself?

People       I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant  Will you strive for justice and peace among all
people, and respect the dignity of every human
being?

People       I will, with God’s help.

(Book of Common Prayer, pp. 304-305)

As we continue to renew our faith this Easter season, it is my hope that Christians of all backgrounds would find the boldness to make these promises over and over again – only and always with God’s help – and let the praying shape the believing as we seek and serve Christ in all persons, even those most different from us.

Carrie Diaz-Littauer is a member of The Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission for Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations. She is currently an editorial consultant for various international and ecumenical NGOs in Geneva, Switzerland. She holds an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary.

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Lord Bring your Kingdom: A Holy Week Reflection on Overland Park

Palm Sunday inaugurates Christian Holy Week each year. It commemorates Jesus’ triumphal entry into the city of Jerusalem the week before his death and subsequent resurrection. I love Palm Sunday because it is not only the beginning of my favorite time in the Christian liturgical calendar, but because it celebrates peace. It celebrates that Jesus was not only the incarnation of eternal Love, but that he was the full embodiment of peace. Palm Sunday not only initiates the events of Holy Week, but foreshadows the eternal Kingdom – a Kingdom of peace, where redemption, mercy, justice, and of course love, are ever-present in the world, and darkness is cast away. As Christians, we believe it is Jesus, the Christ – our messiah – who initiated this Kingdom into being with his resurrection, and will eventually bring the Kingdom to its fullness when he returns in his Second Coming. So, on Palm Sunday, we wave our palm branches and shout, “Hosanna, blessed is the One who comes in the name of The Lord,” in recognition that Christ is our King who shall one day reign forever in the name of peace.

This past Sunday, as in every Palm Sunday that I can remember prior, I did just that: I celebrated the peace that is present, and fullness of peace that is coming. I waved my palm branch and sang Hosanna alongside my husband and brothers and sisters in Christ at First United Methodist Church in St. Augustine. On the walk home in the warm Florida sun I felt optimistic and hopeful, and full of love.

It was a normal, peaceful Sunday until a Twitter notification told me that several people I follow tweeted the same news story – the headline read “Shootings reported at two Jewish Centers in Overland Park, Kansas.” As I continued reading I learned that 3 people had been killed, and that the shootings were being investigated as a hate crime. Reports say the man yelled “heil, Hitler” as he was arrested, and that he has a long history of bigoted hatred.

When I guest teach college courses on religious pluralism, I often start by talking about religious intolerance. I define religious intolerance very generally. It could be stereotyping, discrimination, verbal abuse, or even violence of a person or people because of their religious or non-religious identity. I often do an exercise to illustrate all the ways different groups experience religious intolerance. I explain that in 6 different states Atheists are prohibited from running for public office; Christians experience misrepresentation in the media; Muslims often have to show up at the airport earlier than other folks because the know they’re going to be extra screening at “random,” while many a Muslim girl has had her hijab ripped off her head in a high school hallway; more than one Sikh has been killed or brutally beaten in the United States because they were wearing a turban after 9/11; Jews are ridiculed for being greedy and often experience vandalism of their synagogues and temples. I could go on and on and on. Students are often shocked to hear about the level of religious intolerance that exists in the United States. Many of them have experienced religious intolerance themselves, but believed that it was only their group that experienced hatred, fear or misunderstanding because of what they believed. Religious intolerance in the United States, believe it or not, is actually a common thread among all of our religi
ous/non-religious identities.

While I do full-time interfaith work, and religious intolerance is something I’m keenly aware of, it is still a shock when I see such ruthless violence because of religious hatred; particularly on a day when peace is to be celebrated. It reminds me that there is a long history of Holy Week related violence. In the Middle Ages in Europe, on Good Friday Christians would go out and beat or kill Jews after becoming impassioned by a Good Friday sermon, which taught them that Jews were responsible for Christ’s death (they were never reminded that Jesus himself was Jewish). While religious violence and hatred are nothings new, there are new ways to prevent and correct such hatred. The new Interfaith Movement can move us in the direction of religious peace and understanding in our country, and even world.

I am reminded this Palm Sunday about the WHY of Interfaith. Interfaith dialogue and cooperation is about promoting religious literacy; meaning, creating a world where we seek understanding about our religious and non-religious neighbors, rather that perpetuating assumption which often leads to fear, misunderstanding, and ultimately hatred. Scripture teaches us that what lives in our heart is just as important as what we act out in our lives (“Anyone who hates his brothers or sister is a murderer,” I John 3:15).

Maybe you’ve never pulled a trigger on someone because they were a different religion than you, but any time you have felt a hint of hatred, or judgment, or distaste about someone because of what they believed – you have sinned and sin is the Great Enemy of peace.

As Christians, it is our role to reflect the Kingdom we so eagerly look forward to. It is our duty to be embodiments of peace. I believe that Interfaith dialogue, relationships and cooperation is one avenue through which we can reflect God’s Kingdom of Peace.

Ask your Muslim or Jewish neighbor to coffee this week as an act of love and get to know them. Ask them what they believe – what is their religion all about? And not as a way to gather intel for conversion ammunition later on, but as a way to truly know them, and to truly love them. This is how we can make this a world where people don’t get shot because they’re Jewish, or Christian or Atheist, etc.

Let us meditate this Holy Week on Christ’s triumphal entry, which was an action sermon that preached peace. While we mourn the loss of life in Overland Park, and mourn the horrifying hatred demonstrated there, let us pray, “Lord bring you Kingdom.” And until that Kingdom comes in its fullness, let us act peace mediators by actively loving our diverse religious and non-religious neighbors.

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A Common Table?

One of my best friends from high school is Jewish. He’s not very religious at all, but being Jewish is an important part of his identity. As we’ve gotten older, our lives have taken us in different directions, but we’ve stayed close, in part (I think) because we share our traditions with one another—he celebrates Christmas with my family and I have celebrated Passover and Hanukkah with his. A few weeks ago, I invited Peter to come to a church service at which I would be preaching. I invited him as a friend—not as part of a missionary enterprise—and I was very touched when he agreed to come.

I meant to warn Peter before the service that there would be Communion. I wanted to tell him that Communion is for Christians who feel prepared in their hearts to receive the body and blood of Christ as holy sacrament. “No pressure,” I wanted to tell him—“you are still welcome here, even if you don’t take Communion.” But I was busy preparing for the service and we weren’t able to connect beforehand and so I never got to relay the message.

When it came time to celebrate the Eucharist I looked over at Peter. I had knots in my stomach. I hope he doesn’t feel uncomfortable; I hope he doesn’t feel pressure; I hope he understands what is going on.  As the thoughts ran through my head, I actually considered running over to him; but before I knew it, I saw that he was in line to receive Communion. And a moment later, he had received and returned to his seat.

Afterward, I asked him how it had felt to receive Communion in a Christian church. “I enjoyed it,” he said. “It felt personal.”

“You know you didn’t have to take it, right?”

“Yeah, I know” he said. “But I wanted to.”

At home that night I thought about what it meant that my Jewish friend had taken Eucharist. Was he a Christian now? No—not even close. He remains strongly rooted in his Jewish heritage and tradition. But I felt that this friend—someone who has known me for over 10 years and has seen significant changes take place in my life—knew me in a different way. I felt that even though we would not continue to worship together, we were more deeply connected. Receiving Communion is very important to me as a Christian; it is a major way that I connect with God and strengthen my faith. Being able to share Communion with Peter—even if it didn’t have any spiritual significance for him—allowed me to convey this very important part of my faith in a way that was deeper than words. I felt honored to have been able to invite Peter into a Christian worship service that welcomed him and included him, despite his differences from other congregants.

Still, I wondered: Was it okay that he received? What if the celebrant had known that he wasn’t Christian—would he have been refused? I know that some churches have very strict rules about who can and cannot receive Communion—these are serious and contentious issues. In fact, disagreements about the Eucharist have led to major disputes and splits throughout Christian history. I myself have been kept from Communion in certain worship settings and I know others who have had to look on because they didn’t fit fellow Christians’ criteria. I don’t hope to build a compelling theological argument for the necessity of inclusive Eucharist in this blog post, but I do want to say that there is something very powerful about extending our tables, even to those who are not prepared to receive Christ into their hearts. After all, the gifts themselves have the power to transform each of us. What would happen if we didn’t require each person to be our ideal of a Christian before sharing in the bread and cup? If we didn’t hold onto these gifts so tightly, would we find both ourselves and others transformed?

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The Self Destructive Nature of Bearing False Witness

by Nicholas Price

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post on my blog reflecting on a disturbing issue that has arisen since beginning my studies in seminary in July of 2013. It is a problem that has continued to bother me and it relates to how we, as seminarians and faculty, talk about those with whom we disagree.

Let me explain what I mean. At several points over the past two quarters I have heard professors and students set up straw men when trying to highlight what makes us, as Lutherans, theologically superior to other strains of Christianity. More often than not the straw man is the “Evangelical”. I’ve heard evangelicals called anti-intellectual, prone to emotionalism, shallow in their theology, self-centered in their worship practices, and overly focused on works righteousness.

Not only are these criticisms harsh, they are not true!!! And I say this as someone who worked for an evangelical para-church ministry for six years. I say this as someone who has attended evangelical churches, received training at evangelical conferences, and studied at an evangelical seminary. In fact, it was the evangelical commitments to discipleship of the mind, deep theological inquiry, Christ-centered worship, and the insistence on salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone that brought me to the Lutheran Church. I have a high regard for my evangelical brothers and sisters and, in many ways, still consider myself a part of that community. So you can understand my personal frustration and distress when I hear members of my own church community insulting and denigrating an entire community of Christians just to score a couple of theology points.

But beyond being unfair and ungenerous, this problem matters for one other reason: we are breaking the Eighth Commandment. This commandment states the following:

“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16).

When we set up straw men and use them to make a point, what we are really doing is judging and speaking against a community based on stereotypes. We are claiming that those who belong to this community say, act, and believe things that, in truth, they do not. In so doing, we are bearing false testimony against them. And we are doing this to fellow Christians, brothers and sisters in Christ.

Not only does this damage the unity of the larger body of Christ, but it actually hinders our witness to the world. When I was studying Islam as an undergraduate student, one of the most frequent charges against Christians by my Muslim friends was that they fought all the time about doctrine and would regularly tear each other down over religious disputes. They said that they could not believe in a faith tradition that was marked by such division and infighting.

However, as I have reflected on this further, I’ve come to the realization that this kind of “straw man” approach not only damages those within the Church, but also to those outside of it. How many times have we, as Christians, heard our fellow brothers and sisters tear down Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Pagans, Atheists, and Agnostics based on stereotypes of these religious and philosophical communities? In our attempts to highlight the unique features of our own faith tradition, are we denigrating and painting a false portrait of those from other backgrounds? I would argue that this is no less a violation of the Eighth Ninth Commandment than when we fall prey to infighting, for when we do this we are tearing down our neighbors. Furthermore, it destroys bridges to cooperation.

But the damage doesn’t end there, for these kinds of stereotypes actually do harm to us as well. When we start seeing an entire community of people through the lens of a stereotype we hinder our own ability to build meaningful relationships with people who are different from us. The reason is because our perception becomes our reality.

For example, if we start from the premise that evangelical Christians have weak or inaccurate theology, then we build up the impression in our own minds that we have nothing to learn from them. If we start from the premise that Muslims are violent, then we will never learn of the rich history of social justice and peacemaking work that has been done by pioneers within the Islamic community.
In so doing, we cut ourselves off from the powerful theological insights and social contributions that entire faith communities, within and outside of the global Church, are making. The truth is that often my own faith is strengthened when I learn from the insights of my brothers and sisters from other branches of the Christian church. Likewise, my appreciation of the arts, sciences, social activism, and yes, even theology, have been broadened as I have learned from my non-Christian neighbors.

So, if we must argue against people who have differences in opinion let’s be specific. Rather than saying things like, “Evangelicals believe….” or “Hindus think…”, it would be more helpful to say, “When I was at a theology conference, I had a disagreement with a particular presenter on the following issue…” or “When I read (insert specific title or author) I disagreed with (him/her) on the following point….”. Get specific. Address real-life disagreements that happened between specific individuals. Don’t paint broad strokes and don’t label an entire community.

My hope is that we would learn to disagree honestly and with integrity while still leaving the doors open for fellowship and mutual instruction. The truth is that we, as Christians, have significant theological differences with those inside and outside of our community. However, there is a way to discuss these differences while still communicating respect to others. Generosity must trump polemics and addressing specific concerns goes much further than condemning entire communities. My prayer is that at the seminaries and in the churches around the country, we build academic environments and ecclesial cultures based on respect, honest inquiry, and humble conviction.

Nick is currently enrolled full-time at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis in the M.Div program. He is the proud father of two kids and happily married to his wife of five years, Jenny. He writes regularly on his blog, Prodigal Preacher.

Read another Faith Line Protestants reflection on Bearing False Witness here.

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The One Where I Wear a Turban

A couple of weeks ago, through a collaborative effort between the University of North Florida’s Interfaith Center (where I work) and the Sikh Society of Northeast Florida, I was given the opportunity to wear a Turban. Wear a Turban Day @ UNF was planned for Wednesday, February 26 and in an effort to promote the event the Tuesday before, a reporter from our local news station came to the Interfaith Center for a turban tying demo. Two gentlemen from the Sikh community came with a bag full of turbans, ready and excited to share an important piece of their identity with the Jacksonville, FL community.

I arrived at my office that Tuesday morning groggy as usual when I was informed by my boss, “The Sikhs are going to tie a turban on your head for TV!” Having not yet caffeinated myself for the morning, I was too comatose to protest. Thankfully, the two Sikh men brightened the room with their brightly colored turbans and beard-clad smiles; their enthusiasm contagious enough for me to even feel excited to be the model for a turban tying demo. They picked a lovely salmon color for me to wear, and once the camera was rolling – got to work.

turban guys

I listened to them talk about the significance of the turban to Sikhs as they wrapped the 18 foot cloth around my head. While the colors and patterns of turbans are usually chosen based on fashion preference, the turban itself serves as an identifier for Sikhs. It is a way to set themselves apart and to remember that they are always representing Sikhism and the truths and ideals it promotes – peace, justice, mercy. “I know when I am in a public place that I stand out, I’m hard to miss because of my turban. So I must do my best to promote justice, and do good, wherever I go. The turban keeps me accountable to my values,” one of the Sikh men said.

I couldn’t help but feel a little convicted upon hearing this.

For years I have refused to put a Jesus fish on my car. Within Christianity, there aren’t a lot of visible makers of our faith. Some Catholics wear rosary beads, some Christians wear cross necklaces, some priests wear a white color, etc. It seems to me, in American Christian culture, the closest thing we have to a visible sign of our Christian faith is the Jesus fish. Some wear it on jewelry, some put them on their cars, and some even tattoo it permanently on their bodies. I’ve contemplated putting a Jesus fish on my car from time to time (when I was a young college student I even considered a Jesus fish tattoo), but I could never quite bring myself to get one. I was always afraid that I would misrepresent Christianity, or worse, Jesus himself. What if I stuck a Jesus fish on my car then rudely cut someone off on the intestate? What if I “let the bird fly’ when some irritating motorcycle sped by at 100 miles per hour (not that I would ever do such a thing)? I haven’t worn a cross necklace in years – I’ve been afraid that I would not live up to the standards of the truths that the cross represents for me.

What these Sikh men were telling me is that they feel just the opposite. Clad with a symbol of their faith, they are held accountable. If they fall short, it’s on them, and they understand they aren’t perfect. If they don’t act in love, or peace, or justice, they have to answer for their actions not only to themselves, or to God, but to all people. More than boldness, wearing the turban seems to take deep devotion and commitment to one’s faith.

As Christians we are called to live holy lives. To be holy means to be set apart. We are to set ourselves apart through our faith, and through our faith put into action. It seems Sikhs similarly feel called. As I wore the turban the rest of the day I wondered what I do on other days to set myself apart as a Christian. Of course wearing a cross around my neck, or sticking a Jesus fish on my car would serve as a visible sign to others that I am indeed a Christian – but I want to know how my actions, my words, my life serve as signs of my faith. Would I be able to don the physical visible signs of my faith (a cross, a fish, etc) in humility – as a way of humbly setting myself apart? Would I be able to wear these markers and live into the ideals they promise?

I suppose the question isn’t if I’m able, because perhaps I am not – maybe no one is – but perhaps the question is, am I willing to try?

I think that’s what I most admired about these Sikh men who were so excited for me to experience turban wearing – they seemed to understand what a great responsibility it was for them to tie their turbans every morning. They seemed to understand that they won’t always live up to the ideals the turban symbolizes – but they were so humbly proud to try. It seems to me that every day, as the tie their turban, they’re making a choice to, at least for one more day, to be a Sikh.

This reminds me that every morning it is up to me to make a choice when I wake up in the morning to spend another day serving God, and serving others.

Then he said to them all, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily, and follow me.”

Luke 9:23

me in turban

 

 

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No Benadryl Allowed

The Gospel reading for this week was a portion of the Sermon on the Mount that we all know: “you have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you: Do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”

Do not resist an evildoer? This verse about turning the other cheek is probably one of the most quoted New Testament passages—just after love your neighbor as yourself and John 3:16. But it’s troubling. Don’t even resist?

I looked up the Greek word here for resist, anthistemilike the word that we use for allergy medications—antihistamine. It means to set against, withstand, oppose. We use antihistamines to fight the chemicals in our bodies that are causing an allergic reaction and making us weak, tired, stuffy. If you’ve ever suffered from allergies, you are thankful for good medication that can resist these reactions. But, Jesus, it seems, would have told us to stock up on tissues and tea—no Benadryl allowed!

What’s hard for me about this verse is that resistance actually seems to be a major theme in Jesus’ teachings. Doesn’t the Gospel invite us to resist greed, to resist Empire, to resist the forces of evil in the world…Didn’t Jesus resist the men who wanted to stone the adulterous woman? Didn’t he resist the forces of death when he raised Lazarus to new life? Didn’t he resist Satan’s temptations of power and wealth while he was in the wilderness? Wasn’t Jesus, in his ministry, a resistor?

And it didn’t end there. Isn’t the Resurrection the ultimate act of resistance? In his resurrection, doesn’t Jesus say no to death, no to violence, no to sin, no to injustice?

So, what is going on in this passage? Should we resist as Jesus has modeled for us, or shouldn’t we, as he instructs us?

A few weeks ago, I was at a conference of Interfaith Youth Core Alumni in Atlanta, Georgia, and there was a young Muslim woman who was speaking on a panel about the work she is doing to build peace in the Middle East. Someone from the audience asked her which stories from her faith tradition have inspired her work and this is what she said:

It has been written that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), though he was beloved by many in his time, was not beloved by all. In fact, he had a neighbor who did not like him one bit. And this neighbor, because she didnt like him, would get up very early every morning and bring all of her garbage and rotten food, even the waste from her animalsand she would leave them in a pile on the doorstep of the Prophet. And every morning Muhammad would wake up, see the trash, quietly sweep it away and then go about his daily chores and activities.

One morning, Muhammad woke up and he opened his front door expecting to see the pile of trash as usual, but on this day, there was nothing there. No trash. Without hesitating the Prophet went to the pantry, collected some fruits and herbs and rushed next door to his neighbors home.  Sure enough, she was very sickso sick that she had not had enough strength to collect the garbage to leave at Muhammads front door. Muhammad offered her some food and stayed with her and prayed for her recovery.

This seems to me to be the kind of thing Jesus is talking about when he says: do not resist an evildoer.

Jesus is asking us to change the way we think about justice and injustice–to envision a larger picture. The Prophet Muhammad did not let the garbage pile up on his doorstep, but neither did he grow to hate the woman who seemed to hate him so much. He saw the woman for who she was—a human, broken, like the rest of us, who might fall sick one day and need to rely on the compassion of others.

Perhaps Jesus is saying, don’t set yourself in opposition to those who do evil to you, to those who do evil in the world; instead, imagine them as part of the larger picture of God’s salvation. Don’t build fences, build pathways. Don’t stand your ground, expand your ground. We are not called to be antihistamines that fight against the evils of the world: we are called to see those evils and envelop them. We are called to imagine that even those who seem to do the most harm, might also have a share in God’s kingdom.

We don’t need to tolerate injustice. We don’t need to let evildoers free.  We don’t need to sit idly while people step all over us; we do need to do the work we can to clean up the messes that people leave on the doorsteps of the world. We know that from Jesus’ own example. And we need to keep the resurrection in view.

I think that Jesus is inviting us to rethink our own stories. In what ways do we let ourselves get bogged down in the small battles of our daily lives? What “evils” do we resist that Jesus might actually nudge us to welcome as part of the larger vision of salvation? Do we resist difficult conversations with people whose political, social, or religious beliefs differ from ours? Do we resist wisdom from other faith traditions—like the story I just told you about the Prophet Muhammad—because we think that by appreciating what others have to offer we will somehow become less whole ourselves? Jesus says, don’t resist—embrace the coming of a new world and have faith that all of us will have a role to play in it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Faith Line Protestants: Moving Forward

by Rachael K McNeal

Faith Line Protestants is in the process of doing some restructuring. It seems in the middle of our attending seminary, getting medical degrees, parenting children, working full-time jobs, pastoring churches, volunteering in our respective faith communities, living married life, preparing for married life (congrats to Greg who is now engaged),dealing with pregnancy, and so on – well it seems we’re all kind of busy. Unfortunately, all of these life things seem to keep us from consistently keeping original and relevant content up on the blog on a weekly basis. We’ve been testing the waters trying to figure out how to keep the blog going and we appreciate you bearing with us as we smooth out the wrinkles in this adventure we call “FLP.” Despite the challenges, one thing is for sure – we all think that what we’re writing about at FLP is important.

Please understand, I don’t tell you about all of our other commitments and the challenges we’re currently facing when it comes to running the blog in order to complain, or to make excuses for falling short of excellence when it comes to maintaining our content. No, I tell you all of this so that you understand – despite all of these other very important commitments we hold, we are committed to making Faith Line Protestants work. We are committed to continuing this conversation. It is worth adding a little extra chaos to our lives to make sure someone is discussing the issues related to being a Christian in a religiously diverse world.

The thing is, between having babies, getting medical degrees, attending seminary, working full-time, etc., we want to be sure that someone is engaging the question of how to engage a religiously diverse world as a Christian in a way that’s nuanced, personal, inquisitive, open and above all loving. How can we live as witnesses to Christ in this overwhelmingly diverse world in a way that’s honest? In a way that’s true to the Gospel? In a way that progresses God’s Kingdom? These are all questions we ask here and these are questions we want to keep asking. What is this beast called “interfaith”? How do we work together with people who believe different things than us to better our communities and world? We’re particularly interested in how we can hold an Evangelical Christian identity while engaging in interfaith dialogue and cooperation. Does “interfaith” conflict with the theologies of an Evangelical identity?

We want to have these conversations, and we want to have them here at Faith Line Protestants. So we are committed to making it work and we hope that you will help us.

Please join our conversation. We want to hear from you! Comment on our posts – let us know if you agree with us, or disagree with us. Share our posts – like us on Facebook (www.facebok.com/faithlineprotestants), follow us on Twitter (@FLProtestants), tell your friends about Faith Line Protestants. Let us know if we’ve struck a chord with you. We want to know how you’re engaging with this religiously diverse world as a Christian. Or, if you’re not a Christian – we still want to know your thoughts. Maybe you’re even interested in writing a guest post – email us and let us take a look. The more voices we add to the conversation the better.

Recently a few of us Faith Line Protestants folks were at the Interfaith Youth Core’s Alumni Gathering in Atlanta, Georgia. We were encouraged and energized by the support Faith Line Protestants received from colleagues in the Interfaith Movement – from Christians and non-Christians alike. This made us very excited and enthusiastic about the future of Faith Line Protestants, and we are very much looking forward to the new voices that will be added to the conversation.

“Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, so it is with Christ’s body and we all belong to each other (Romans 12:4-5).” Faith Line Protestants has a special function. At least I think it does (and perhaps I’m biased). When Greg and Cameron (co-founders of Faith Line Protestants) asked me last February if I’d be interested in contributing to Faith Line Protestants (after I wrote this piece for Interfaith Youth Core) I jumped at the chance. I work full-time in Interfaith Work and as an Evangelical Christian that can be quite isolating. Isolating from my faith community because many within my various Christian circles don’t understand interfaith work or how it fits into my walk as a Christian; and isolating from others within the interfaith movement because sometimes it seems the Interfaith Movement is quite short on evangelicals. Faith Line Protestants provided me with a cohort of fellow evangelicals who are interested in achieving a religiously pluralistic society as a person who follows Christ. FLP has also given me a place to further explore and articulate my understanding of the world, my identity as a Christian, and how to engage with people of different religious and non-religious identities.

This is my motivation as I continue to help grow FLP, its readership and content. As the now editor of FLP, I am excited to see where we go from here. I’m looking forward to gaining more partnerships, reading more from current FLP contributors and authors, gaining more FLP contributors and authors, sharing some compelling guest blogs and hearing your thoughts. I hope you will look forward with me.

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FLP in Atlanta: Reflections on the First Ever IFYC Alumni Gathering

By Cameron Nations

Maybe it was the impromptu interfaith dialogue with the belly dancer who surprised us at our table at the Turkish restaurant on the first night of the conference. Or maybe it was the overwhelming optimism and energy surrounding the largest Interfaith Leadership Institute in IFYC history. Whatever it was, something made the first ever gathering of IFYC alumni in Atlanta more than a mere memorable experience.

For over two days about 30 of us sat in a meeting room in the Sheraton in downtown Atlanta to discuss the ways in which we are using our interfaith training in our post-undergrad lives.

For some, this extension of their interfaith work came rather easily as part of their current job or occupation. For others, working interfaith engagement into their daily lives did not come as naturally. Yet both perspectives offered a glimpse of what the future of the interfaith movement could (and will) look like over the next couple of years as IFYC’s alumni base explodes from around 550 to over 2,000 young adults.

Apart from the joys of the connections—both old and new—strengthened and forged over the course of the weekend, the sessions also focused on broader questions such as ways of leveraging social capital for the common good and judicious use of social media in our professional lives. The IFYC Alumni gathering proved an enriching time of building new relationships and new strategies to address our growing interfaith reality.

For part of our time we broke into smaller sector-based groups that focused on those working in “Religious and Intentionally Secular Communities,” “Media,” “Non-profit,” and “Higher Ed.”

Not surprisingly, I found myself (along with other seminarians and ministers) in the “Religious Communities” group with fellow Faith Line Protestants contributor Anne-Marie Roderick. Amber Hacker, who also writes for FLP in addition to her duties with IFYC, led the group. Along with us sat sometime FLP writer Nick Price, and together with our group we discussed the need for the development of theologies of interfaith cooperation in our respective traditions and ways in which we might see this development through to fruition.

The discussions throughout the alumni gathering helped us to refine FLP’s vision and mission to offer a place for constructive dialogue around the areas of interfaith cooperation and evangelism. Faith Line Protestants might also be a place for fostering conversations that move toward these theologies of interfaith cooperation mentioned in our sector group sessions.

Even outside our sector group quite a few people expressed interest in FLP’s mission, vision, and possible importance to the interfaith discussion. Case in point:
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This word cloud shows the post-gathering aspirations of the alumni. (Notice how our size compares to a certain other acronym. Heh-heh.) This word cloud expressed why the alumni gathering was more than just a memorable experience: it stood as evidence of the transformation that IFYC has had on the lives of all those who have had the privilege to go through their programs, and the support that they give to the leaders they foster. The gathering was, in short, the ways in which interfaith cooperation is being made a cultural norm. And it was humbling to behold.

As FLP moves forward over the coming months, we will continue to define our roles behind the scenes to better bring you regular, thought-provoking content. Join us! Be a part of the conversation.

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Season after Epiphany, an Interfaith Meditation

“And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” Matthew 2:12 (NRSV)

I know not all Protestant traditions follow a liturgical calendar, but for those of us that do, we are currently in the aptly named Season after Epiphany.

Epiphany was celebrated by most Protestants on January 6th.  It is the time when we celebrate when God made flesh in Jesus Christ was visited by three wise people.  Before arriving to the birth place, the three wise ones visited Herod, Roman-appointed puppet governor of Judea.  To make a long story short, Herod was threatened by the small baby Jesus because people were referring to the child as the King of the Jews.  Herod killed many children in Judea in an effort to protect his power and the wise people decided to not revisit Herod, instead taking “another road.”

I think this is inherently a call from the Bible to be engaged in interfaith cooperation against the injustices of the world.  The wise men, sometimes referred to as astrologers, were from lands abroad.  Church tradition notes that they may have been from three different continents.  They were most-likely not Jewish.  It’s hard to say what tradition they practiced or why they came to the baby Jesus or why they listened to the dream that warned them about Herod.  Despite all these uncertainties, I have been dwelling continually on what that other road was like.

Sure, there are the geographical questions, but what about the life questions?  As someone who is both a religious leader and an interfaith leader, I feel like my ministry is filled with opportunities to take other roads.  Interfaith cooperation is not about doing the same old thing, it is doing an entirely new thing.  We encounter injustice and suffering in many different ways in the world in which we live.  Are there other roads that we can join people who might not think the same way we do, but surely are capable of loving in the same way?

My hope and prayer is that this post serves as a motivation to begin thinking outside the box.  Encourage your own faith community to reach out to other faith communities or non-religious groups to get involved in a larger issue.  I am making it a part of my ministry to intentionally work with other faith groups for service projects.  Sometimes it seems difficult to find the time to do such things, but when we think of it as taking another road it shifts our mode of thought.  Interfaith cooperation is not a simple action, but an entire paradigm shift in how we think about and engage in the world around us.  Let us reap the wisdom from these wise ones of ancient times and not be afraid to take another road to see what can be.

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Moving Beyond the War On Christmas

There has been a lot of talk this season about the “War on Christmas.” Many of my fellow Christians seem fearful that Christian holidays, and in particular Christmas, will be “taken away.” I’ve heard many people I know express concern that “they” want to “take away our holidays.” Though I couldn’t quite tell you what having a holiday “taken away” means – I can only assume there is a fear that Christmas could be taken off the list of federal holidays.

I think that we forget Christianity was intended to be a religion on the margins. “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness” is an oft quote piece of scripture from Matthew 5. Identifying as a marginalized, oppressed, or persecuted population is part of Christian DNA. Yet, Christians in the U.S. enjoy many privileges and comforts (for a list of those comforts see here). Christianity in many ways has entered the realm of the mainstream in the United States – especially when it comes to Christmas.

So when we see a billboard in Times Square posted by Atheist.org that says, “Who needs Christ during Christmas? Nobody” -of course it is easy and understandable (and perhaps even justifiable) to respond to this kind of antagonism with defensiveness, but I also think we cling to it as proof that despite our privileged position in the U.S. we are indeed “persecuted because of righteousness.” Though we feel the need to cling to this martyr identity, I think we are really just afraid to lose our comfortable, privileged position as Christians in the United States. I think we are afraid of disappearing into the margins of society. I mean – who wouldn’t be?

In 1870, Christmas was established by law as a federal holiday along with Thanksgiving, New Year’s Day, and Independence Day. With this law, Christmas became a patriotic day, rather than simply a Christian holy day. None of us should be surprised that when the government of what is now the most religiously diverse country on the planet (and possibly ever) established Christmas as a federal holiday, Christmas entered the arena of the mundane. New myths of elves, and a jolly fat man who drove a flying reindeer -led sleigh, grew out of its foundation in an effort to make Christmas something all Americans could participate in. Of course, as a consequence, our free market took hold of the neck of Christmas and squeezed as much profit as they could out of Christmas, and so thousands of marketing campaigns developed to create a mad consumer dash to the finish line each Christmas season.

Christmas, a day to celebrate the birth of a little Galilean boy who would eventually preach the coming of the Kingdom of God, heal the sick, dine with tax collectors and prostitutes, teach forgiveness and then give the ultimate gift to humankind And so a season intended to remind us of grace and hope in the midst of the darkness and longing of winter, has become an American civic holiday filled with greed, selfishness and secularity.

So I ask you – which Christmas exactly, is this oft-spoken of “war” on? As far as I can see, the Christmas that is currently celebrated here in the United States, might not be worth saving. Perhaps we should let “them” (whoever “them” is) wage their war.

(Bear with me.)

When we say “they want to take away our holiday” – what exactly do we mean? As far as I can tell, what we really seem to be afraid of is Christmas being taken off the list of federal holidays. There are currently 11 federal holidays – Christmas, New Year’s, Thanksgiving, Independence Day, President’s Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Veteran’s Day, Inauguration Day, Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Columbus Day (This list begs the question, which of these things are not like the other?). Officially, federal holidays were created to honor different parts of American heritage which helped form the U.S. as a nation and as a people (read more here: http://www.senate.gov/reference/resources/pdf/Federal_Holidays.pdf). Additionally, being a “federal holiday” simply means that all federal employees are required to be given that day off by the government with pay.

So would it really be so bad if Christmas was taken off the list of federal holidays?

As a federal holiday, Christmas belongs to the entire citizenship of the United States, Perhaps the entrance of Christmas into public life is what led to its commercialization, so removing Christmas as a government recognized holiday could be a step toward reclaiming some of the holiness of the day (let’s remember that “holy” means “set apart”). If Christmas was no longer a day that most Americans had off from work then Christians would actually have to make a bit of a sacrifice to honor and celebrate this day; something non-Christian Americans have always had to do in order to take off work to honor their holy days. Perhaps taking Christmas of the list of federal holidays would be one step toward loosening consumerism’s grip on our Christmas traditions. Perhaps we would actually honor Advent as a time of meditation, anticipation, and preparation for the return of Christ.

I’ll I admit it – I love Christmas – sacred and secular traditions alike. I enjoy baking the cookies, buying the gifts, decorating the Christmas tree, watching the Christmas themed movies. I like hanging my stockings and dreaming up ways I’ll play along with myth of Santa Claus with my children. I love it all. But none of those things I just listed do anything to help me honor and celebrate the birth of Jesus, my Christ. I love all of those things because I did them as a child with my family, and I feel like I’m participating in tradition. Perhaps the “secular Christmas” has merit as a time to gather with family and celebrate the previous year.

And I’m not suggesting we rally and sign a petition asking the Federal Government to take Christmas off the list of federal holidays.

What I am suggesting is, if “they” were to take away Christmas as a federal holiday, would it really be so bad? Thanks to the first amendment, we would still have the right to celebrate and honor this day just as much as Jews, Hindus, Muslims, etc. all have a right to celebrate and honor their special days. So would it really be so bad? And should Christians really get special status in the U.S. among these religions?

I am also suggesting that perhaps it’s time to drop the “War on Christmas” noise and focus on the sanctity of this time. Defensiveness and fear are not in the spirit of Advent, nor are they in the spirit of our beloved Jesus.

This Advent season, as we prepare for Christmas, rather than focusing on what could be taken away – let’s focus on what we have, and what we can give to others – hope; hope of a Kingdom where justice, mercy and peace will rule eternally under the Christ’s reign. This Christmas let’s honor the hope that was born in a barn that day in Bethlehem by dropping all grudges, shedding all defensiveness and reflecting the light of the hope we know is true – Jesus is coming.

Merry Christmas.

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Not Just Fancy Kitchen Gadgets

This blog originally appeared on IFYC.org.

Most of my friends know my strong affinity for finding a good bargain, negotiating prices, and thrifting (the practice of frequenting thrift stores and scoring high quality merchandise for a low price). My money-saving intensity has earned me the nickname “Budget Hacker,” and inspired me to launch a blog cataloging my thrifty practices.

But one thing I love spending money on? Christmas presents. I look forward to this season every year. I look forward to figuring out the perfect presents for my friends and family. A family member who marveled at one of my kitchen gadgets back in February will find an exact replica perfectly wrapped under the Christmas tree while I wait in gleeful anticipation until she opens the box with joy and surprise.

While I love buying gifts, I know too well how easy it is to get sucked into the never-ending hamster wheel of shopping, buying, and wrapping. How easy it is to lose out on not only the true meaning of Christmas, but also of Advent. Advent is one of the most important times on the Christian calendar, beginning on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, a time for Christians to prepare and wait for Jesus’ birth into the world.

Growing up in North Carolina, I loved my family’s Advent traditions. I would look forward to lighting the weekly advent candle on our church’s advent wreath, which symbolizes the passage of the four weeks of Advent. As we got closer to Christmas, my family would read the story of Jesus’ birth from the New Testament books of Matthew and Luke in the Bible. It didn’t matter that I could recite the Christmas story verbatim – I loved hearing it again and again. My little sister and I would argue over who had the honor of moving the little mouse on our Advent calendar and might be the lucky recipient of a chocolate surprise. On the final night of Advent, we would visit our church’s Christmas Eve service, where we would sing carols at our church at the candlelight service. As we left the dark church holding our candles and softly singing Silent Night, I could feel in that moment the hope, excitement, and anticipation of waiting for our Savior’s birth.

This Advent, I am excited to prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ, my Lord and Savior. I hope to continue exploring what it means for me as a Christian to observe Advent – to worship, to love, and to give. Not just fancy kitchen gadgets, but what it means to give more of myself to my family, friends and community.

God came into this world as a shivering, helpless baby. Our King of Kings, Mighty God, Holy One, Emmanuel, was born outside in a manger and came to bring hope, love, and salvation to the world. And that’s a gift greater than any other. That’s a gift worth waiting for.

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Advent, Apocalypse, and Interfaith Cooperation?

As a seminary student, I have spent a lot of time in the classroom learning about the Bible. But this past Sunday I just preached for the first time at the main service of my Episcopal church in New York City, standing on a high-rise lectern in front of 150+ churchgoers. It didn’t make it any easier that this week was a pretty important one in the liturgical calendar—Sunday was the first day of the entire church year, and the first Sunday of Advent (the season that leads up to Christmas). The fascinating thing about the lectionary texts that kick off the New Year is that they are apocalyptic—they’re not about fresh starts or new beginnings; instead, they warn believers to prepare for judgment at the end of the world.

As I worked on my sermon, it struck me that the Second Coming of Christ is probably not a topic of many interfaith discussions. But why isn’t it? I started to realize that Christian anticipation of the Second Coming actually has a lot to do with building a future of interfaith cooperation.

The Second (or final) Coming is the idea that Jesus will return to earth at some unknown time to the finish the work he began over 2,000 years ago. While most mainline Christian denominations agree that Jesus will return, the exact nature of that return is heavily debated. Some churches emphasize their belief in the idea of a rapture in which the people of the world will be divided. These traditions hold that there will be war, fire, and severe suffering until Jesus arrives to establish the Kingdom of God with those who have remained faithful.

Other Christians envision a broken world that is miraculously revived through the return of Jesus, who is able to establish his Kingdom of love, peace, and justice for all people on earth.

In both cases, and in all the many beliefs not cited here, Christians are asked to bear witness to the possibility that the end of world, as we know it, is drawing near. This means that Christians are called to live in a way that continuously prepares for the return of Jesus. We have to ask ourselves, to what world do we want Jesus to return? What do we want the world to be like when our Savior arrives?

If you are part of a Christian tradition that observes the liturgical calendar, then you know that Advent is our main season for preparation—but Christians are called to prepare for the Coming of the Lord at all times, not just at appointed seasons. I want to prepare a world for Jesus in which Christians are kind neighbors to those of other religious traditions. I want to prepare a world in which there is an end to poverty, an end to bullying, and an end to greed. I want to prepare my own heart for Jesus by striving to spend more time in prayer than I do on social media, more time building community than I do complaining about how my communities aren’t strong enough.

How will you prepare for the Coming of Christ? In what kind of world do you want to meet Jesus?

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What is an evangelical?

I usually sit down to write for this blog with a specific message to communicate, but today I have a few questions.

In a recent meeting with other interfaith organizers on campus, a progressive Christian minister – for whom I have great respect – questioned whether inviting an evangelical Christian speaker would be appropriate for our annual interfaith conference. “After all,” he pointed out, “when I think of evangelicals…”

You can probably complete the sentence.

My first thought was to defend the individual we had been discussing, an evangelical who has had a significant impact on me as an interfaith organizer. Without realizing it, I tried to explain that this particular individual was an exception: cooperative, respectful…

But as I’ve thought more about this encounter, some further questions have resurfaced regarding the way the world perceives evangelicals. Is a respectful evangelical really a misnomer? Or is it just blowhard public figures who have perpetuated this idea that evangelicals aren’t interested in being your friend (unless if you convert)? Running parallel with this same train of thought is a question of my own identity: do I want to identify as an evangelical?

It will always be true that I grew up an evangelical – albeit my church community could hardly be characterized as aggressive or charismatic. And I’ve continued to call myself an evangelical despite – like many in my generation – growing disenchanted with many habits of the evangelical church. I’ve also learned (largely thanks to Facebook) that the members of my childhood congregation represented the full spectrum of political and social opinions, though rarely did controversial topics come up in church activities. On the other hand, I’ve been through evangelism trainings, been told to keep a list of friends I want to convert, and been challenged to do cold-turkey evangelism.

So my experience with what it means to be an evangelical has included a broad range of people with varying political views, spiritual practices, and methods for communicating the gospel. And I continue to call myself an evangelical because of the way I view my faith, and because of how I interpret the gospel regarding the way I should live my life: that there is good news to be shared. This is a theme that has been at the core of many of the things I’ve written on this site and will continue to be so. Furthermore, I’ve been interested in involving other evangelicals in these dialogues with people from other religious and non-religious traditions because, among several reasons, I believe the idea that is at the core of evangelicalism – communicating the gospel – is best accomplished in these settings.

So when I find myself in a conversation where one’s compatibility with interfaith cooperation is questioned because they are an evangelical, how should I react? Should the image of evangelical Christians be defended by pointing out that there are – and presumably always have been – “nice” evangelicals? Or should we abandon the label altogether? Does the name “evangelical Christian” require some sort of makeover, how can that be accomplished, and who will lead it?

I’m not a sociologist or a theologian, and I can’t cite to you the way either scholar would define an evangelical Christian. But how many of the ¼ of Americans who call themselves evangelicals could?

This is something I hope to learn from my fellow contributors and readers of this blog: what do you consider to define an evangelical?

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Strive to Love

 I work for a public university in Florida full-time in their Interfaith Center. I am the Programming Coordinator which means it is my job to put together programs and events for students in order to promote religious pluralism on campus. On a daily basis I engage with students of diverse religious and non-religious identities from Atheist to Baha’i, Christian to Jewish, Mystic to Muslim, Secular to Unaffiliated and everything in between.

Engaging with students of so many different religious and non-religious backgrounds and understandings is the most exciting part of my job. I learn something new every day about how young people understand themselves and the world around them: what’s more, I learn something new every day about how I understand myself and the world around me.

I also identify as an Evangelical Christian. And I’m not really that shy about sharing my religious identity with my students. I want them to be comfortable sharing themselves with me, so I try to model how to talk about their identity as a religious or non-religious identity by doing so myself.

Since I’m not shy about sharing my own religious identity, naturally a lot of question come up. In particular, I have been asked by many people…

                        How can you be a Christian and do full-time interfaith work?

Sometimes this is asked out of genuine curiosity, sometimes it’s asked more as an accusation than an actual question, and other times it’s asked by Christian students who genuinely want to participate in interfaith dialogue and cooperation while holding onto their Christian identities and need help understanding how to do so.

I don’t mind being asked this question. In fact, I’m grateful that I’ve been asked so many times since I started my job over a year ago. Being asked this question enables me to take a moment to stop, take a step back, and reflect. I use this question to keep myself accountable to Christ’s calling on my life. Is my work enabling me to act as Christ’s witness, or is it hindering me? How do I follow Christ and do my job? Or, what’s better – how do I follow Christ by doing my job.

You see, I take my Christian identity (or role as follower of Christ) very seriously. I like to consider it my first identity- more important than my identity as a wife, daughter, sister, female, etc. When engaging with the normalcy and routine of life, sometimes it’s easy to lose track of who we are in Christ; what God’s call on our lives has to do with the mundane; how our actions reflect something about who our God is – the list goes on. Interfaith work is my job. It has become a very normal part of what I do on a daily basis.

So it’s important for me to ask myself, as often as possible, “Why do I do what I do?”

Of course in every person’s life there is a series of events and relationships which creates a path, a journey, that leads them to where they are, wherever that is. And my case is no different.

So of course there is a story about how I got here.

Though when you walk into the church in which I grew up today, demographically (I emphasize “demographically!!”- not in substance) it’s very much like a saltine cracker – white and plain (with few exceptions)-it wasn’t always like that. When I was very young the church was a pretty international and diverse church (unless my memory serves me poorly). There were all sorts of different people – artists, scientists, musicians, black, white, asian. India, Uganda, China, Puerto Rico, England were all places people within our congregation called home. Five of the Seven Continents were represented, and I think this is, at least in part, what drew my parents to this place. I can’t help but think it was this early exposure to ethnic and international diversity that fostered a desire within myself to bridge gaps and understand difference – because I saw what a community can be capable of when difference (at least certain kinds of difference) is embraced rather than feared.

I didn’t always have such cushy feelings towards other religions. And of course certain relationships brought me to a place where I was able to start opening up to other faiths and to see them as an opportunity for learning and cultivating understanding rather than as a conflict or something to change to be more like me.

But the most important relationship I’ve had that brought me to a place where I saw this work as necessary, was my relationship with Jesus.

I know it sounds hokey-but I don’t believe that it is.

Jesus loved with everything; with his whole self. Jesus was (and I believe-is) the embodiment of love. I want to love others the way Jesus does; and though I know this is impossible, I want to spend my life striving to do so.

He said the two greatest commandments were to Love the Lord your God, and to love your neighbor.

I truly believe that by serving and loving my neighbor – Hindu, Jewish, Baha’i, Muslim and so on- I am loving God and serving Christ.

There’s a whole lot of ugly in this world, and often that violence and ugliness are created at the fault of the religious (and even at the fault of Christians – gasp!). As a religious person I want to bring people of different religious backgrounds together to serve the community, the country, and the world, rather than breaking it.

So I do this job as a Christian seeking a way to serve God and serve God’s children to the best of my ability.

And that’s how I do full time interfaith work as a Christian – by striving to love as Jesus loves me.

“So in Everything – Strive to Love,” I Corinthians 14:1

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Christian privilege at college: Interfaith work needs more than good intentions

By Hannah Pynn, guest writer for Faithline Protestants.

I want to first identify myself as a protestant christian who is wrestling with my privileged identity. Being raised in a christian family, I was immersed in a christian community throughout my childhood, attended a christian school for eight years, and experienced my faith development in a religiously homogenous environment wherein being white, being christian, and being “American” seemed inseparable identities.

Walking through a critique of my protestant christian identity is an intimidating process that is connected to all other aspects of my identity. My gender, race, sexuality, cultural, and even professional identity all face examination through this process.

As a higher education professional that is specializing in student spiritual development, I acknowledge that my value for this aspect of holistic student engagement is strongly tied to my privileged christian identity. During my undergraduate experience, resources and relationships were available to me that enabled me to progress through stages of my christian faith, and there by cultivated my passion for college student spiritual development.

As I continue to deconstruct my christian privilege, I hope the process will shed light on how I might give voice to those that my privilege has oppressed and that, like Jesus, I can act as a humbled advocate for the agency of all people. I’ve chosen to not capitalize the word “christian” in this text to emphasize my hope to diminish the dominance and oppression of my faith.

A non-christian Campus

On my college campus, I have to attend classes on Sunday mornings. We have a winter break, but I don’t get Christmas day off. Last year I had a midterm on Easter Sunday. The university seal has a symbol of a foreign God on it and is prominently placed on the front doors of my student union. I wanted to run for an officer position in my academic club, but a rumor started to circulate that I was a religious extremist and only wanted to convert people. At the beginning of university ceremonies, the president of my university steps aside for a priest to chant a prayer that I do not know or understand. There is a small christian student group on campus that I go to for support, but I have to drive to a bigger city that’s an hour away to attend church.

Okay, this isn’t my university. If it was, I think that I would feel incredibly isolated and it would take a lot more effort to practice my faith. I have not had this experience because of my christian privilege in higher education. Replace the names of the holidays, symbols, and prayers in the paragraph above and this describes the experience of university students, faculty, and staff who do not identify as christians in the United States.

I thought christians were oppressed

When I first heard of christian privilege, I argued with the concept. I have been taught my whole life that christians have been an oppressed people since Jesus walked on earth. We are counter-cultural, we have customs and values that non-christians don’t understand, and it takes sacrifice to be obediently committed to God. However, when I began developing genuine interfaith friendships without the agenda of proselytizing, I started to see how easy I had it, especially on the college campus where I work. I began listing out some of the individual, institutional, and societal privileges for me as a Christian (Blumenfeld, 2009; Schlosser, 2003)

*Some of these are adapted from the “Beginning List of Christian Privileges” (Schlosser, 2003) to specifically articulate christian privilege in higher education environments.

1. I have Sundays and major christian holidays off, therefore I don’t have to rearrange my school or class schedule to observe my holy days.

2. Course reading assignments have references to the christian God, the bible, and portray christians as the dominant faith that has won wars and shaped classic literature.

3. If I want to find christian friends on campus, I have multiple denominational and non-denominational student clubs and organizations to choose from.

4. It is easy to find a romantic partner who shares my christian faith. (Ok, this may not be easy, but chances are there is more than one other christian on campus that is of dating age.)

5. When someone on my campus refers to God, I can assume they are referring to my christian God.

6. My college or university very likely has a history of being a christian institution and may have christian symbolism in their traditions or ceremonies.

7. There is a chapel on my campus or a christian church in very close proximity.

8. It is easy to see others on my campus wearing christian symbols on their jewelry, clothing, or body art.

9. When displaying christian symbols as a form of personal expression, I do not have to worry about being physically harmed or assaulted.

10. I can find people reading bibles in the public areas of my campus buildings.

11. If I wanted to choose a christian college or university, there are many denominational options available in my state.

12. People on my campus know the names and dates of christian religious holidays.

13. Philosophical or religious debates on my campus have a representative from the christian faith.

14. My christian holidays are considered “normal” and are observed by my government and my culture.

15. I have the option to vote for christian politicians who are making decisions about my education system and its government funding.

16. My christian faith is never regarded as exotic or foreign.

17. My personal expression of my christian faith is viewed as a personal choice, not as a cultural mandate.

18. Volunteer projects and service opportunities at christian-based hospitals, organizations, or businesses are readily accepted as valid educational experiences and can even be counted for credit.

19. I can choose if I want my christian identity to be public or personal at school.

20. If I get married young, people do not assume that my christian faith creates a system of marital oppression.

21. I am viewed as a complex person, not viewed solely by my christian identity.

22. When I tell others that I am a christian, they ask about my denominational affiliation and understand that there is diversity within the christian faith.

23. As a christian, I am encouraged as part of my religious duty to persist in sharing my faith with classmates, friends, and acquaintances, regardless if it makes them feel uncomfortable.

Christians as the oppressor

These privileges do not come easily; they come at a cost for people of other faiths and belief systems. In order to gain these privileges, christians limit the freedom of others under the good intentions of telling people about Jesus on their college campus.

I have met christians who sign up to be conversation partners with international students with the hope of sharing the gospel with them. International students sign up for these programs to learn English, and christians take advantage of their desire for friendship and language support.

I have met christians that have protested Pride Centers on their campus because they say they shouldn’t have to pay student fees to support something that is against their religious beliefs. The LGBTQ student community is a group of people who are highly at risk for poverty, homelessness, mental illness, and depression. The reason for their suffering is largely because of the christian community using political leverage to limit the rights they have as United States citizens.

I have met christians who have participated in social justice programs but are not willing to acknowledge the need for racial, LGBTQ, environmental, and women’s rights justice. Addressing social justice issues like abortion and human trafficking without fighting all systems that oppress and disenfranchise vulnerable populations prioritizes the value of some humans over others.

I have met christians who attend events put on by other religious student organizations so they can carry their bible and start up conversations about Jesus with non-christians. There are a multitude of other ways that christians can develop relationships with people who believe differently, invading their safe spaces to carry a christian agenda is disrespectful at best and threatening at worst.

These actions are examples of christians (knowingly or unknowingly) leveraging their dominance on college campuses. Christians believe that they have the right to take these oppressive actions because they have the good intentions of getting out the message of Jesus.

What do I do with my christian privilege?

I often hear stories from my interfaith friends who experience prejudice, hate, and marginalization from the christian majority that surrounds them. It is a painful process for me to acknowledge that my grace-based faith had been used as a tool of oppression to try to gain dominance over others. But I believe that identifying myself as someone who benefits from and has even leveraged my own christian privilege, is the first step in aligning myself with the humility of Jesus.

Philippians 2:6-8

6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!

Jesus humbled himself and did not leverage political power, privilege, or strength in order to make known his good news. Jesus loved, listened, and served. As someone who works on a college campus that is full of all creeds and faiths, I hope to give support and access to all students.

What do you do with your christian privilege on your college campus? How will you repair the damage that christian privilege has done to other faiths?

 

More readings on christian privilege:

Blumenfeld, W. J. (2009). Christian privilege in the United States: An overview. In Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (pp. 3–22). The Netherlands: Sense P.

Schlosser, L. Z. (2003). Christian privilege: Breaking a sacred taboo. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 31, 44–51.

Seifert, T. (2007). Understanding Christian privilege: Managing the tensions of spiritual plurality. About Campus, 12(2), 10–17. doi:10.1002/abc.206

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Proselytism and Interfaith

This piece was originally posted to Interfaith Youth Core’s blog, www.ifyc.org/stay-informed on October 16, 2013

Thanks to IFYC’s Alumni Professional Development Fund, I was recently attended the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge Gathering in Washington, D.C. The Gathering brought together staff, faculty, administrators and students from universities all over the country who are participating in the President’s Challenge. The two days were spent in plenary and breakout sessions listening to panelists from various college campuses discuss what their schools are doing to work across lines of religious and non-religious difference for the common good of their communities.

Though it was great to hear a number of inspiring stories about the work of young people who are able to come together in their difference, see a need in the community and work to fill that need, I left the Gathering knowing there is still much work to be done.

During one of the breakout sessions a question was posed to the panel that went something like this: “How do you get people of different religious identities together in a room to dialogue—and what do you do about those who are there to only proselytize?” While the panel offered some helpful advice about how to recruit students for dialogue, the panel never answered the question about proselytism. I am not criticizing the panelists here, but it reminded me that there is still much work to be done in how we deal with proselytism. It is a topic we love to brush under the rug. This is a common frustration of mine as an Evangelical Christian.

At interfaith gatherings I regularly hear interfaith professionals talk a big game about making safe spaces for students of different religious and non-religious identities to express themselves authentically, but in the next breath say something denigrating about Evangelical Christians or other “conservative types.” At the same time, interfaith professionals regularly complain that they cannot seem to get Evangelicals involved in interfaith work.

There’s an obvious disconnect here.

While we can agree that interfaith dialogue is not a place for proselytism, we still have to be intentional about making sure those whose spiritual practice involves proselytism can still have a place at the interfaith table. How can we allow Evangelical Christians, and others who proselytize (let’s remember that this is not only a Christian practice), to participate in interfaith work while being authentically themselves? One of the ways we can do this is by affirming that proselytism is a central spiritual practice for some.

Gatherings like the President’s Challenge Gathering at Georgetown last month are a great way to be reminded of the wonderful interfaith work being done across the country. We can be motivated by the interfaith work of others to do better interfaith work ourselves. Let’s remember that this is a young movement, and there is still much to learn about how to be the best movement we can be. One thing we can work on is our reception of Evangelicals (and other proselytizing groups) and how we talk about proselytism within the interfaith movement.

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Born Again Christian + Interfaith Activist = Not Mutually Exclusive

This blog originally appeared on Talking Taboo, a forum for Christian women to explore the unspeakable experiences of their faith.

There’s a moment when I meet someone new and I’m asked what I do for a living where I look down at my watch and calculate whether or not I have enough time to explain that I work for an interfaith organization – and what that means for me as a born again Christian.

I’m a medium sized town Baptist girl from North Carolina. I made my profession of faith when I was nine years old by asking Jesus to come into my heart and hopping into our church’s beloved “dunking booth” to be baptized. I’m a born again Christian who does interfaith work for a living at an organization in Chicago called Interfaith Youth Core, which seeks to make interfaith cooperation a social norm, and I’ve been at it now for almost seven years. When I tell some of my Christian brothers and sisters what I do for a living, I get a range of reactions: furrowed brows, polite head nods, enthusiastic reactions, and challenging, critical statements about my chosen career path. Here are some of most common examples of push back I get within my own community and how I respond:

 “You aren’t a real Christian if you do interfaith work.” There are common misconceptions about interfaith work – that it means everyone should all be a part of one big religion or it implies that everyone essentially believes the same thing we’re just taking different paths. Neither of these definitions describes the interfaith movement I belong to.  At IFYC, we define interfaith as respect for people’s diverse religious and nonreligious identities, mutually inspiring relationships between folks of different backgrounds, and common action for the common good. That means that you don’t have to water down your identity to come to the table of interfaith cooperation – whether you’re an evangelical, Muslim, Hindu, Jew, or an atheist – and you don’t have to compromise what you believe (or what you don’t believe). We may not agree about who gets into heaven, or if heaven exists at all. We may be divided across political lines. But we can all agree that hunger is a problem in our community and we should tackle it together because when we start from a place of shared values and combine our social capital, we are better together.

“Interfaith work isn’t biblical.” There are many biblical arguments for interfaith work. My friend and IFYC alum Nick Price, former InterVarsity staffer and pastor in training, wrote a three part blog series on sharing his theological framework for interfaith cooperation. My theology of interfaith cooperation starts at the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus tells the parable in response to an expert in the law who wants to know how Jesus defines the “neighbor” that you are called to love as you love yourself. There are four Greek words for love in the Bible – the specific word for love used here is “agape” which means a full and complete love. And who is our neighbor? In the story, the Samaritan, who was someone from the oppressed group in that time, showed compassion and mercy to the Jewish man who was robbed and left for dead. Jesus is emphasizing the importance of caring for your neighbor especially when that person is from a different background and tradition from your own. Engaging in interfaith work gives me that opportunity to love and serve alongside those that are my neighbors, as well as to talk about Jesus as the inspiration for my life.

 “You’ll get converted if you do interfaith work.” Engaging in interfaith work has only strengthened my identity as a Christian. Many non-Christians have asked me questions about my faith story and different tenants in my tradition that have challenged me to go back to my Christian community to get answers. My favorite question was from a young Muslim girl who wanted me to explain the relationship between Jesus and Santa Claus. Learning about other traditions hasn’t made me want to convert or let go of my faith, in fact, quite the opposite. For example, when I learned that many of my Muslim friends pray five times a day and I juxtaposed that against my paltry two prayers a day, that inspired me to take a hard look at my own prayer life and consider how often I’m spending time with my Lord and Savior. Another example was when I first started at IFYC and encountered a Catholic mother who was reticent to send her son to our programs. He was barely interested in church as it was, she explained, and she didn’t want him coming away from the faith. After spending time with folks from other traditions and talking about his faith in a new way, this sixteen year old kid came home and expressed an interest in going to seminary. She promptly called our office and asked if we could get her other son immediately involved in our programs.

I believe the Christian community has a biblical calling to interfaith work. I also believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and the light. I don’t have to compromise my deeply held beliefs to engage in interfaith work. I am a born again Christian. I am an interfaith leader.  I do interfaith work not despite the fact that I’m a Christian, but I do it because I am a Christian. Many other folks in the Christian community are starting to recognize the importance of engaging in interfaith work. I invite you to join us.

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The Elephant in the Room: Christian Privilege & Interfaith Work

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself. ~ Luke 10:27

Interfaith engagement calls me and fascinates me, yet also troubles me. For me, it’s rooted in the above words, which ground love of neighbor as the heart of my faith. Interfaith engagement was also the basis of my thesis project at Chicago Theological Seminary. I studied Christian privilege and the ways such privilege disrupts the full potential of interfaith work, and my full potential to offer love to all my neighbors, Christian and non-Christian.

Christian privilege is a touchy subject because acknowledging privilege makes us squirm. I’m a white woman. When I first heard the term “white privilege,” I resisted. Since I love and care for people regardless of skin color, I felt somehow exempt from white privilege. I didn’t see white privilege as part of a system of oppression impossible to step out of or avoid. Because racism works to push one group of people down, privilege is the necessary “up” side to that equation. People of color are systematically disadvantaged in our society as evidenced in endless ways including access to education, housing, medical care, and in our criminal justice system. Where people of color are disadvantaged, white people are more advantaged. It’s a simple equation, but it’s difficult for whites to feel our advantage. Our privilege has become normalized.

A similar phenomenon hangs over interfaith work. Christians in the United States, even those of us deeply committed to religious pluralism, are steeped in privilege. In spite of our best efforts to foster religious tolerance and mutual respect, Christianity is normalized and reinforced as the default and expected religious identification of Americans. Other religions are exactly that; they are “other.” And just as it’s difficult for me as a white person to see my white privilege, it’s difficult for me as a Christian to see the ways our culture privileges my Christian identity.

To illuminate these enculturated advantages, psychologist Lewis Schlosser created a list helpful in naming and understanding Christian privilege. The statements are designed to be read in a true-or-false fashion, with true statements indicating the benefit of religious privilege. I include a sampling from his list and invite readers to consider the validity of these statements vis-á-vis their own lives:

  • I can be sure to hear music on the radio and watch specials on television that celebrate the holidays of my religion.
  • I can be sure that my holy day is taken into account when states pass laws (e.g., the sale of liquor) and when retail stores decide their hours.
  • I can assume that I will not have to work or go to school on my significant religious holidays.
  • I can be sure that when told about the history of civilization, I am shown people of my religion who made it what it is.
  • I can easily find academic courses and institutions that give attention only to people of my religion.
  • I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my religion most of the time.
  • I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a ‘credit to my religion’ or being singled out as being different from other members of my religious group.
  • I can buy foods (e.g. in grocery store, at restaurants) that fall within the scope of my religious group.
  • I can travel and be sure to find a comparable place of worship when away from my home community.
  • I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my religion will not work against me.
  • I can be fairly sure that if I ask to talk to the ‘person in charge,’ I will be facing a person of my religion.
  • I can remain oblivious to the language and customs of other religious groups without feeling any penalty for such a lack of interest and/or knowledge.1

To Schlosser’s list I would add the following:

  • I can feel confident that I will receive fair and due process under the law and will not be detained or interrogated due to my religious identity.
  • In film and television, I am likely to see positive portrayals of members of my religion.

Sharing this list is not meant to shame Christians. The forces that constructed and reconstruct our privileged position have lengthy historical, political and social roots. We Christians, like those of us with white skin, have been thrust into this system involuntarily. However, acknowledging the existence of this troubling phenomenon is the first step toward undoing its corrupting power.

Attempting to view Schlosser’s exercise from the perspective and experience of a non-Christian opens our eyes to the often invisible power and punch of Christian privilege. This list helps me to imagine living as a non-Christian in American society and the daily bombardment of messages, subtle and overt, that a non-Christian religious identity is somehow less worthy.

Perhaps more importantly, this list pushes me to ask how I can show love to my neighbors who are steeped in a culture that says my religion is better than theirs. How can I help to foster authentic interfaith engagement—based in principles of mutuality, interdependence and respect for difference—when the larger culture declares the opposite of those principles? How can I offer hospitality and welcome when our culture normalizes my Christian identity and alienates other identities? What does it mean to extend love of neighbor from a privileged position? Time and again Jesus refuses privilege and “lowers” himself according to societal standards: washing feet, eating with sinners, healing lepers. How am I called to actively resist my privilege in ways that challenge systems and give value to those whom society devalues?

These questions trouble me. I hope that individual Christians and communities of faith will discuss this list, perhaps reading it in parallel with the Good Samaritan story. The troubling questions it raises do not have easy resolution but they must be considered, confronted, and wrestled with. “For I was a stranger [or made to feel strange] and you welcomed me.

May we work together on love, and welcome, and the dismantling of all forms of oppression.

Shalom/Sala’am/Peace,

~ Lisa

Lisa Seiwert serves as the Director of Recruitment & Admission at Chicago Theological Seminary, where she earned an MDiv and STM with an emphasis in interreligious engagement. As of October 24, she will be an ordained minister with the United Church of Christ. She has worked in faith-based community organizing and ministered with The Night Ministry, a Chicago-based outreach program serving homeless and vulnerably housed youth.

Chicago Theological Seminary has a long-standing commitment to interfaith work, and a vibrant and engaged Center for Jewish, Christian & Islamic Studies. The institution recently received a grant to develop curriculum intersecting ecological and interfaith commitments. Known as “ECOmmunity: The Ecology of Theological Education in a Religiously Pluralistic World,” the program expands social outreach, increases curricular offerings and education in interreligious and ecological studies, and increases religious diversity. For more information about this new initiative or other programs at CTS, visit the website at www.ctschicago.edu or contact Lisa at lseiwert@ctschicago.edu.

1Lewis Schlosser, “Christian Privilege: Breaking a Sacred Taboo,” Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, Volume 31(January, 2003), 48-49.

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When Hunger Action is Interfaith Collaboration

A friend once told me that religious institutions outnumber hospitals one thousand to one in some developing countries. While I don’t know where I’d begin to find verification of this statement, I don’t have a hard time believing it. And as an MD/PhD student interested in global health, it has me thinking.

Religious institutions can bring structure, leadership, and accountability to people and communities. They can also have a tremendous influence on congregants or followers. For a negative example, consider the Texas megachurch which appears to be at the center of a recent measles outbreak, and the role of the congregation’s culture may have played in discouraging immunization. One might imagine the potential impact on health if the cultures promoted by religious institutions worldwide encouraged healthy lifestyles or even provided the infrastructure for prevention, screening, diagnosis or treatment of certain diseases.

As activists on my campus turn to emphasize a related issue this month – food insecurity – the same thought experiment applies. September has been deemed Hunger Action Month by Feeding America in order to promote awareness and action around hunger issues in the United States, and it has me thinking about how religious institutions have been engaging this problem in my own community.

For example, Sola Gratia Farm is a community-supported agriculture initiative of the St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Urbana, IL which donates at least ten percent of its crops to the Eastern Illinois Foodbank and promotes healthy lifestyles through community programs. Or take for example the St. John’s Catholic Newman Center in Champaign, IL, which is opening a food pantry this fall to address largely overlooked food insecurity among college students. Or the Wesley Evening Food Pantry, operating out of the Wesley United Methodist Church and Foundation on my campus, which engages people from all walks of life, including the Unitarian Universalist Church and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to serve more than 1,000 individuals who are struggling to make ends meet at the end of each month when SNAP benefits are running low.

Perhaps the most compelling are these examples of the way that religious institutions have turned to interfaith collaboration to address food insecurity in our community. The First Mennonite Church and Central Illinois Mosque and Islamic Center, situated on opposite sides of one of Urbana’s busiest streets, took advantage of their proximity to collaborate on a community garden, donating produce to a local women’s shelter. Meanwhile, student organizations like the Muslim Students Association, Jain Students Association, Dharma (a Hindu students organization), Interfaith in Action, and others across campus have collaborated to hold fundraising fast-a-thons or to package food to send to local food banks and pantries.

I won’t pretend that I know the solution to hunger in any context. But I do believe that religious institutions and interfaith collaborations in Champaign-Urbana are demonstrating an approach worth considering. And as a Christian, I view this less as an opportunity and more as a responsibility. Yet I fear that there are still too many churches sitting on the sidelines and watching.

What if religious institutions like the First Mennonite Church or the Central Illinois Mosque and Islamic Center were the norm instead of the exception? What if hunger action was something that religious communities saw as a necessary part of their role in the broader community? What if we all expected our institutions to invest in efforts with both religious and non-religious collaborators? What if all Jesus followers fully embraced the Christian call to feed the hungry and were willing to do it alongside people of other traditions?

I believe religious institutions possess the capacity to make a difference in our society, and that interfaith collaborations can motivate fundamental change. I also believe we can all agree that no one should go hungry. So what will you do this month to help realize this potential we collectively bear?

Image from http://www.flickr.com/photos/foodbankcenc/ available under Creative Commons.
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Glimmers of Hope

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

I’ve been doing full-time interfaith work at a university for a year now. During the week my days are filled with conversations about pluralism and interfaith cooperation, dialogue and safe space, civic action and religious and non-religious identity. It is my job to plan events and programs for college students in order to promote religious pluralism on campus, religious literacy (that includes understanding around religious and non-religious identity), and common action for the common good across religious difference. This is my normal.

I am so convinced of the importance of my work that I often take it for granted, but the truth is – not everyone is convinced that interfaith dialogue and cooperation are necessary or even relevant. After a year of full-time interfaith work I’ve heard from a lot of different reasons why interfaith work is a waste of time. One could assume that I’d be used to it – but every time I encounter yet another person with yet another reason to be skeptical of interfaith work I’m still caught off guard.

A few weeks back I was (wo)manning a table for the Interfaith Center at a training workshop for higher education professionals. I was there to provide information on the Interfaith Center and what it offers to students as far as programs, services and events. One by one trainees came by my table and I was pleased with the amount of enthusiasm with which people were responding. The responses were so overwhelmingly positive that I was almost shocked when one particular trainee’s attitude didn’t match those of prior encounters.

At first it seemed (let’s call him Bob) Bob and I were on the same page – we agreed that the university has students of diverse religious and non-religious backgrounds (believe it or not it can be difficult to get some people to recognize this). Our conversation developed into misconceptions of Islam, “In fact,” he continued, “what many students, or people in general don’t even realize, is that Islam was founded as one of the most peaceful religions in the world.”

I nodded, “Yes there’s so much students don’t know about other religions, that’s why we’re here – to help them learn and understand these differences in an interactive, engaging, and personal level.” He looked at me quizzically – though I initially mistook his look for one of agreement, so I went on, “One of our programs is called Coffee and Conversation. Once or twice a month throughout the Academic Year we bring in a religious leader, faculty, or staff member to lead a one hour casual conversation about a particular religious or non-religious identity or current event relating to religion. We’re having a hard time finding people to participate this year and since you seem to have so much knowledge on religion – perhaps you’d be interested in leading one of these Coffee and Conversations?”

Bob smiled weakly, “Yeah – I seriously doubt it. I’m one of those who are of the opinion that religion has done, and does, more harm in the world than good. I wouldn’t find something like that to be productive.”

I persisted, “but that’s exactly the point. A lot of people are in agreement with you – that religion does more harm than good – but I think it’s actually fear, misunderstanding, lack of education and interpersonal relationships that does the harm, not the religion itself. If we work hard to build understanding across difference, then a lot of that division, and violence, and hatred, and harm, can be prevented.”

He didn’t bite.

Sigh.

It’s easy to feel a little defeated after encounters like these. Sometimes I almost feel convinced that perhaps I’m being naive and too idealistic to think that interfaith dialogue and cooperation can have any kind of impact.

But then I’m usually given a glimmer of hope.

The news coming out of Egypt the last month has been grim. I, like many others, have not kept up with the news as much as I should. I would catch glimpses of the goings-on in Tahrir Square and the rest of Egypt on NPR during my morning commute, CNN and various articles found on my Facebook and Twitter feeds. Every bit of news seemed more bleak than the last.

But then a particular photo went viral. I’m sure you’ve seen it – a group of Egyptian Muslim men wearing traditional white garb are holding hands circling an Egyptian Catholic Church in an effort to protect the church and the Christians attending mass inside from the threat of pillaging at the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. There is news of this happening all over Egypt – Muslims protecting Christian churches from destruction. Equally encouraging was the response of some Christians to those Muslims risking their lives to save their church buildings. In response Christians encouraged Muslims to not put themselves in danger in order to protect their church building. I also saw another beautiful image – one of Christians holding hands in Tahrir Square circling Muslims during prayer who would be left vulnerable during protests.

In the midst of the grimly bleak news out of Egypt – these images stand as our glimmers of hope. These images beautifully illustrate the importance of interfaith cooperation. Building understanding and love across religious difference has real consequences.

I disagree with Bob. Religion doesn’t do more harm than good; further, religious and non-religious difference doesn’t have to do more harm than good. When presented with these images I had to ask myself – as a Christian would I be willing to risk my life to protect a Mosque? Would I be willing to risk harm to myself to stand guard around a group or praying Muslims? I hope I would, but I can’t be too sure. I truly believe Jesus would – and I believe Jesus would urge me to do the same. [John 15:13]

I also know that I am passionate about cultivating a generation that would answer “yes” to that question without hesitation. There is hope in interfaith cooperation. For every act of interfaith conflict and division I believe there stands an illustration of interfaith cooperation and unity – our glimmers of hope.

And where those illustrations of cooperation and unity don’t yet exist, I believe that with a little work, persistence and yes, prayer, they can exist.

Where have you seen glimmers of hope lately?

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Mission Trip Potential

This summer, I went on two mission trips with my church youth group through Sierra Service Project.  SSP was founded in 1975 by a group of United Methodists (now it is more ecumenical) who wanted to provide young people with the opportunity to serve with others in rural and urban communities.  Last week, we slept on a gym floor in Chiloquin, Oregon, where we served members of the Klamath Tribes (a few weeks ago, we were in Susanville, CA serving the Susanville Indian Rancheria).  All of the youth are split up from the church groups they came with and put into work teams.  My team helped stack firewood and painted a shed for an elderly woman with painful arthritis.  The work teams labored from 9am to 4pm everyday, shared a simple PB&J lunch at the worksite alongside a midday devotional, came back to shower, and then participated in evening programs, which included cultural programming from a representative of the Klamath Tribes.  Oh, and lest I forget that the youth have their cell phones taken away on Day 1.

We had a wonderful time learning from our homeowners, about God, and more about each other, but there was one thing that really amazed me about the SSP experience: the youth bonded very quickly.  There was something magical about a gym floor being the great equalizer.  On the first night, the staff encouraged everyone to take off their “cool jackets” and put on their “social sweaters” instead.  There was programming that talked about dismantling stereotypes.  The theme of the week was “Just Love, Just Serve,” which connoted the idea of a simple (of course, we know its not that simple!) love of our neighbors and also love and service that enacts justice for all in our world.  The youth participants really took this to heart and a very welcoming environment was developed quickly.  After six days, there were tears in many youth and adult eyes, knowing that this glimpse of God’s love in human community was over until next summer.

Since SSP is a Christian organization, many of the themes had a scriptural basis.  Each workgroup developed a covenant based on 1 Corinthians 13 (“Love is patient, love is kind…”).  We had discussion and an art project based on Micah 6:8.  On a spiritual walk, we interpreted the Lord’s Prayer and discerned what God might be trying to tell us directly.  The last night ended with a Love Feast, an old Methodist ritual (we are known for our potlucks, after all!), where we served each other in community a sweet treat (vanilla wafers and peanut butter, in this case) to show how sweet God’s grace is in our lives.  Overall, it was a well-blended mix of faith, love, and service with enough take-aways to continue similar work in our local church settings.

For myself, I know that United Methodist camping ministry has been a huge part of my faith formation.  It is where I was affirmed most and where an inkling of my own call to ministry began.  There is just something about getting away from one’s quotidian life and taking an adventure with little expectations and seeing what you can discover about God and yourself.  For teenagers and young adults, these experiences are priceless.

Being an interfaith leader and a contributor for this blog, my SSP experience got my intellectual and dreaming wheels turning.  What would be the benefit of weeklong (or longer) camping/service trips with an interfaith focus?  Would there be a benefit?  I think there would be immense benefit, but such a program would have to be very tactful and intentional.  Much like faith formation in any tradition, forming a young person for leadership in a religiously diverse world is not to be done halfheartedly.  Needless to say, I think organizations like Sierra Service Project have a really good model from which an interfaith focus could begin.

Are there any thoughts from other interfaith leaders out there?

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Interfaith Work is Child’s Play

I have heard Jesus’ famous statement in Matthew 18 about becoming like little children in order to enter the kingdom of heaven many times, but this verse has taken on special meaning for me over the last few months. Unlike many other seminary students who use their long summer break to take extra classes, work for a local parish, or even complete their Clinical Pastoral Education–I decided to take another route.  I have spent the entire summer babysitting.

I work for a few families each week and, with some other odd jobs here and there, have managed to make it a more than full-time gig. To be honest, babysitting has been more challenging than any other job I’ve held. Of course it is fun and enriching in many ways, but it can also be draining, frustrating, and confusing. When Jesus instructed us to become like little children did he mean that we should throw temper tantrums when our caretakers refuse to buy us ice cream (after we already had an ice cream earlier in the day!)? Did Jesus mean that we should refuse to go to bed until someone has read us every single book we own, sung us all of our favorite songs, and made several trips to the kitchen to get us water and snacks even after we’ve brushed our teeth? Did Jesus mean we should refuse to share our toys with other kids at the park, or say mean things to our siblings? Okay, enough complaining. I know that Jesus meant he wanted us to become trusting, open-hearted, and earnest in that way that is difficult for even the most thoughtful adults, but seems to come to kids so naturally. Jesus wanted us to have the kind of awe for God’s creation that is part of each child’s journey through the world. But maybe Jesus also knew that children don’t always fit the angelic trope that many readers of Matthew 18 would like them to.  Children fight, lie, cheat, and do mean things, just like the rest of us.

Matthew 18:4 continues: “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus actually instructs us to become “humble” or “lowly” like children, to become small. Despite their eccentricities, children are undeniably humble. They ask tons of questions and they aren’t afraid to say so when they don’t understand. They let their curiosity and their imaginations lead them into new relationships and new experiences, regardless of difference. One of the girls I babysit makes friends everywhere we go by approaching a child and asking: “How old are you?” After the child answers, she says: “Oh, I’m four. Not four and a half, just four. Do you want to play with me?” She is bold and confident, but so completely childlike in her direct approach to friendship.

I think we Christians can learn from children as we explore interfaith cooperation. As we strive to become like children, let us learn to take a couple steps back. Let’s ask questions, let’s seek out new friendships without letting our judgments and intellects get in the way; let’s figure out how to play and work together.

 

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When doing the Christian thing isn’t the right thing

707084_12414975I used to be a Bible study leader.

And per the undergraduate campus fellowship tradition, it kept me busy: Sunday brunch community building, Monday night small groups, Tuesday leadership meetings, and Wednesday training sessions. Discipleship, one-on-ones, social activities, all-campus worship, weekend retreats, week-long retreats, all-day retreats, evangelism workshops, work day, capture the flag, scavenger hunts, and prayer meetings.

But what I remember most vividly are Thursdays.

 

Every Thursday. The evening walk through campustown, past bars and restaurants beginning to fill with my peers, through a door almost hidden to the unaware, flanked by a man sitting on the ground. The man is dirty and unkempt. Sometimes he’s panhandling. Sometimes he’s asleep. On one occasion, he eats, still alone, from a small bag of popcorn one of my fellow Bible study leaders had brought to him.

The man catches my attention, yet I don’t show it. I don’t ask his name, or where he goes when he doesn’t sit by the door, or how he manages to stay warm through Midwestern winters. Thursdays are obligatory for Bible study leaders, so maybe that’s why I try to ignore the man. Maybe that’s why I feel I can’t stop to ask him his name. Or maybe being a Bible study leader is just a convenient excuse to keep walking.

So every Thursday I climb the stairs behind that door, leaving the man below, allowing him to fade into the background until he is just another distant person, indistinguishable from those filling the pub across the street or sleeping on their textbooks in the library across the quad. Suddenly the band is on stage, the rhythm of worship distracts me, channeling an energy which gives way to reflection, to reverence, to calm. Every Thursday.

And then it’s over. And like all good Bible study leaders, I greet friends, practice fellowship, welcome newcomers. We leave in groups to study or socialize. I don’t notice if the man is still there when we leave.

 

This man has come to represent many things to me in my faith journey, and something I’ve encountered this week brings my thoughts back to him.

There is a certain logic among many Christians which says that it is necessary to proselytize on account of our tradition’s teaching that our truth is exclusive. Because our exclusive truth teaches us that the consequence is damnation for those who do not subscribe, we feel we must convince others of our truth. At all costs. At any length. Whatever it takes. To not do so, we reason, would be unloving.

I happen to agree – to a certain extent – with this logic. But I also happen to disagree with where this logic has led many Christians: to the notion that we must be aggressive, abrasive, disrespectful and judgmental.

I believe that the problem evangelicalism faces today is that we have forgotten the very example that we claim to follow. The example of a servant, preacher, and prophet who was a friend of those that religious leaders considered sinners and outcasts. In fact, Jesus seemed to value relationships over regulations and rituals, whether that relationship was with someone of a different tradition, someone society hated, or someone religious leaders considered immoral.

What we Christians fail to see is that the most important way to relate to a person who believes differently is not to convince them of how they are wrong, which we have tried with every method available—approaches which ironically seem to make our message even less convincing. What is more important is to communicate the message of our faith, the Gospel (hint: it’s about more than just being a sinner).

But unfortunately, we haven’t been taught how to communicate the Gospel. We’ve been taught how to lead Bible studies and have fellowship, how to run prayer meetings, and draw the bridge diagram.

But we haven’t learned to communicate the Gospel.

Why do I say this? Because the Gospel is not only communicated through words, but also how we live our lives. And when I was faced with the opportunity to live according to the Gospel, I felt obligated to abandon it on the street, on my way to being a good Bible study leader.

I credit two people with teaching me how to communicate the Gospel. One of them is a Christian living in the slums of Philadelphia, and the other is a Muslim.

So that’s why I quit being a Bible study leader. Not because it’s the wrong thing to be, but because it kept me too busy to do the right thing. Because while I participated dutifully in Christian activities, a homeless man sat outside in the cold and ate popcorn. Because Shane Claiborne reminded me that Jesus would have quit being a Bible study leader too, to sit alongside that man, if for no other reason than to ask him his name and eat popcorn together.

And because Eboo Patel taught me that you don’t have to do that alone. Even if you’re the only Christian eating popcorn with a homeless man while your fellow believers sing songs and socialize upstairs, if you invite them, there are Jews, Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, Jains, and Buddhists who will join you. And the funny thing is that authentic dialogue begins to happen in these sorts of situations – you build relationships and you share stories, simply because you all agree that no one should have to eat popcorn alone in the cold.

And even though you might not observe the conversion experience your evangelism training taught you to expect, your actions have communicated something deeper than your words, and your stories have taken on fuller meaning. And there’s a good chance that you’ve convinced them all of something about the Gospel.

 

This piece originally appeared at Sojourners.

Image credit.

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Do Not Bear False Witness Against Your Neighbor: The Surfer Boy and the Receptionist

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And God spoke all of these words…You shall not give false witness against your neighbor. Exodus 20:1, 16

Several months back I overheard a conversation in an office waiting room. A young 20-something guy entered the waiting room with his board shorts on and his windblown hair haphazardly tucked beneath his backwards baseball cap as though he’d just come in from surfing – not uncommon in the beach community of Jacksonville, Florida. He strolled confidently to the receptionist and asked her a question about the availability of a person he wanted to see, made an appointment and it seemed his business was done and he’d be on his way. Instead he asked the receptionist where she was from, if she liked her job, and then talked about the weather. He then began to tell her about a Bible study he was leading and a little about his faith journey – for the longest time he felt lost, was starting to get in trouble, then he found Jesus, was born again and began to set his life straight.

After sharing his testimony he asked the receptionist, “What religion are you? She looked surprised then hesitant.

“I guess you could say I’m a Christian,” She replied.

“Oh, that’s cool,” said the surfer boy, “you know I used to think I was a Christian. I went to church sometimes, and my parents and everyone I knew were Christians, so I just figured I was Christian too, but I wasn’t saved, I wasn’t really a Christian.” The surfer boy paused to make sure the receptionist was following. “But now I’m saved because I told Jesus that I’m a sinner – I recognized all my sins- and then I professed Jesus as the son of God and the savior of the world, so now I will go to heaven and I know I’m a Christian.”

“I see,” said the receptionist, “well I also think it’s really important to be a good person.”

“Well sure,” responded the surfer boy, “we should all be good people, but that’s not going to get us into heaven. Take Judaism or Islam, for example, in Judaism and Islam you have to follow a set of laws in order to get into heaven. There’s no grace there, it’s all about doing things on your own and trying to get into heaven based on merit.”

“Really?” asked the receptionist.

“Yeah, totally. Muslims have to pray 5 times a day or they don’t get into heaven, and Jews have to keep all of the Old Testament commandments or they don’t get into heaven. Can you imagine having to keep up with that? No one can get into heaven on their own – it’s impossible to be perfect.”

With that, the surfer boy invited the receptionist to attend his church, bid her a good day, and was on his way: just another Tuesday afternoon.
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I’m very familiar with this routine, it’s one I know well. I used to be quite skilled in turning a seemingly mundane encounter with another person into an opportunity to evangelize. While this is no longer part of my everyday routine (I don’t personally feel called to this style of witness) I really don’t think there is anything wrong with this kind of evangelism. That being said – did you catch what the surfer boy said about Islam and Judaism?

Take Judaism or Islam, for example, in Judaism and Islam you have to follow a set of laws in order to get into heaven. There’s no grace there, it’s all about doing things on your own and trying to get into heaven based on merit.

These claims aren’t actually wholly true.

To start with, in Judaism there are various understandings about how to observe Torah. The religion of Judaism isn’t theologically singular as many assume. There are many sects of Judaism and many teachings on how one can or should follow Torah. Some are quite strict while others are more flexible. For example, in Reform Judaism, many do not even keep Kosher. The concept of grace, however, does exist in Judaism (where do you think we Christians got it?). Many Jews believe God chose the nation of Israel to be God’s light in the world and to lead the way in righteousness, not because Israel was the greatest nation, or the mightiest or because of anything Israel did or was (Deuteronomy 7:7), rather God chose Israel because God simply favored Israel. Further, the goal of observing Torah is not necessarily to get into heaven – many Jews do not even believe in heaven; nor is the goal to gain favor with God. According to Jewish theology, as a Jew, one is already part of God’s favored people.

It is true that in Islam Muslims are called to pray fives times a day, but this does not guarantee them entrance into heaven. A Muslim woman once told me that Muslims believe that no matter what we do here on Earth, or no matter how much faith we have in God, none of us are guaranteed entrance into heaven, there is always the possibility that we will end up in Hell. Therefore, if we do enter heaven – then it was because we did something good and because ultimately God allowed it according to God’s goodness. Again, we mustn’t assume that Muslim theology is singular.

While I do not pretend to be an expert on Jewish or Islamic theology, in fact, I’m far from an expert (I’m barely literate) but I bring up the story of the surfer boy and the receptionist as an illustration of a mistake us evangelicals regularly make – bearing false witness against our neighbor. Yes – that pesky ninth commandment can be such a pain in my rear, but it’s one we should really take seriously. The Ten Commandments is the foundation of the Judeo-Christian values system (is there one Judeo-Christian values system? probably not – but I digress) and as the foundation of said values system, each one should be considered carefully.

The ninth commandment is often paraphrased as, “do not lie,” but the more accurate translation from the Hebrew is “do not bear false witness against your neighbor.” If this sounds like legal language to you, you would be right. It is widely understood that this is a reference to ancient Jewish court systems. In a court case the accuser also acted as witness, so to bear false witness would also include wrongful accusation. While this particular commandment pertains specifically to the court of law – it seems fair to say that the sin carries forward into the ins and outs of daily life. Just as it is sinful to bear false witness and bring wrongful accusation in court, it is sinful to do so outside of court.

What does any of this have to do with living Christian in a religiously diverse world?

It is sometimes the case that in the attempt to share the Gospel with another person, or bring them to Jesus, that we talk about Christianity in relation to other religions – we compare and contrast. This a pretty common sales tactic used to convince consumers your option is the best option. It may seem distasteful to describe evangelism as sales – but in many ways that’s often the Evangelical’s hope, is it not? To “sell” others on the idea of Christianity? So it’s natural in many ways to say, “hey, yeah Christianity is a religion – like Judaism, Islam, or Hinduism – but it’s actually different from these other religions and here’s why.” And I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with comparing.

What’s wrong…actually let’s take this a step further…what’s sinful is comparing Christianity with other religions in a way that is dishonest, untrue, or misrepresents other religions, or the followers of those other religions. In other words, it is a sin to bear false witness against your neighbor’s religion.

That ninth commandment is one of the reasons I find interfaith cooperation and dialogue so important. A professor of mine at Princeton Theological Seminary, Dr. Richard Young, introduced me to this idea in a class I took called “Pluralism, Dialogue and Witness.” We are not good neighbors, we do not love our neighbors, when we are bearing false witness against them by sharing untruths about them to others.

Bearing false witness against another’s religion while acting as a witness to the Gospel, in the end, is not really witnessing to the Gospel. After all, the Gospel of Jesus is supposed to reveal truth in its most ultimate form. The truth of God is love and grace and redemption – themes that aren’t really congruent with claims of non-truth.

It is incredibly easy to bear false witness against your neighbor, or your neighbor’s religion, when you don’t know your neighbor. I truly believe that it is the rare case when a person bears false witness against another religion, or one of its followers, it is on purpose. The truth is we are almost always ignorant of our ignorance. We don’t always know the truth about the truth claims we’re making.

Interfaith dialogue, building interfaith friendships and relationships, gives us ample opportunity to know our neighbors and to better understand their ideologies (both religious and non-religious). The new knowledge, insights, and understandings gained from these relationships better equip us to obey the ninth commandment in a new and profound way.

So I would really challenge you to think about what you’re saying about other religions before you say it. Where did you get your information? Why are you sharing it? Remember those words from God – the ones God spoke to Moses and Moses carried all the way down from that mountain,

Do not bear false witness against your neighbor.

Consider speaking the truth when sharing the Gospel, and if you don’t know that you know the truth, consider speaking to the truth of the Gospel without sales tactics that may cause you to inadvertently sin.

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Hearing Stories and Telling Stories: How Polarization Erases Personhood

Unsure of the public’s reaction in the days immediately following 9/11, Dr. Saleh Sbanaty and his family refused to go outside for fear of violence, heckling, or worse. One day, however, necessity got the better of them and they traveled to the grocery store to pick up a few things. While walking the aisles toward the cash registers,  Dr. Sbanaty felt a hand on his shoulder.

He froze.

He turned around to see a woman he had never seen before. She looked him in the eyes.

Though for a moment time seemed to slow to a halt, Dr. Sbanaty’s pulse quickened. Would she yell? Would she spit? Dr. Sbanaty did not know.

“You are welcome in this community,” she said.

Instead of insults and hate, she spoke words of encouragement and acceptance, even though she knew nothing of the man before her– a professor of engineering at Middle Tennessee State University and a devout Muslim. She was able to see him as a person, not a talking point.

Picture can be found at [http://www.islamophobiatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Islamic_Center_Murfreesboro2.jpg].

During FLP’s hiatus, we’ve seen religiously-motivated violence, political unrest, anti-American protests, massacres, shootings, the bizarre national argument over same-sex marriage fought over a fast-food chicken sandwich, debates over foreign and domestic policy, bombings, landmark Supreme Court decisions and more– and all the while we argue and denigrate one another as we disagree. Much of it has left me confused and disappointed; everything seems so broken, so irreparable.

This feeling of disappointment at humanity’s ability to talk about tough issues hits home for me. Many of you will have heard of the controversy that began some time ago surrounding the construction and opening of the mosque and Islamic community center in Murfressboro, TN. I’ve even written about it a couple of times on Faith Line Protestants.

During my orientation at Sewanee last August, we heard from Dr. Saleh M. Sbenaty, a professor at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro who has advocated for the building of the mosque and spoken on its behalf to the media on numerous occasions. The story at the beginning of this post comes (albeit slightly paraphrased) from the talk he gave that day a couple of months ago.

His daughter, Lema, a strong, proud, hijab-wearing young woman, joined him at our orientation and delivered the powerful story of her experience in the Murfreesboro community as both a student at the university and as a worker at a local pharmacy. She too has spoken publicly on behalf of the Murfreesboro Islamic Center, and has even appeared on CNN and other prominent news outlets to share her story and fight common misconceptions that follow Muslims in this country.

It brought tears to my eyes to hear how she had been treated– how customers had refused her service at the pharmacy, and how people stared and jeered and taunted. The Sbanatys aren’t strangers to the Murfreesboro community; indeed, Dr. Sbanaty has lived in Middle Tennessee for around a quarter of a century, and the area is the only home his children have ever known. Lema spoke with as much of a drawl as any good country girl I know, seeming just as at home in her cowboy boots and fashionable jeans as she did in her head scarf. Yet she and her fellow Muslims have found themselves treated in recent years as outsiders rather than neighbors.

In addition to his identity as a Muslim and a university professor, Dr. Sbanaty is also from Syria, having obtained his undergraduate education at Damascus University. You could see the pain in his eyes when he talked about the current struggle plaguing his home country. I felt ashamed that here in America we couldn’t offer him something more than just less persecution, less danger, than what he would now face in his home country.

Despite their recent struggle with parts of the community and country-at-large, Lema and her father had positive stories to tell in addition to their sad ones– stories of the mountains of support they have seen from local churches and other groups that have come in to advocate on their behalf.

Yet this support seemed betrayed when the construction of the mosque hit so many snags. Arson, vandalism, and legal obstructionism have all taken their toll on the Muslim community in Murfreesboro, despite the opening of the mosque last summer. It makes me think: with all the arguing, name-calling, and ill-informed discussion, what do we lose in the background? What stories go untold, unheard? Surely something gets lost among our soundbites and rapid-fire commentaries.

Something Dr. Sbanaty said about the situation in Syria struck me rather deeply. He urged us to consider that, despite the simplistic narratives fed to us in the drone of endless news cycles, the actual environment in many of these countries that produces such violence comes not simply from the Muslim faith, but from the years of oppression, mis-management of funds, militarism, and complex socio-political and even tribal contexts that produce what we have seen in everything from the Arab Spring to the anti-American sentiment prevalent in some of the region. (Our own military intervention in these countries might also have something to do with it, I’d wager.)

What gets lost among the rubble of our terrible discussions, I think, is personhood. Polarization erases personhood. Whether it be in Murfreesboro, TN or Damascus, Syria– polarization pushes stories and individual experience out of the way for an easy stereotype or an easier cliche. What this presupposes about human dignity should give us pause.

As a Christian, I believe in the inherent worth of all God’s children.Therefore I also believe in the inherent worth of all these children’s stories, their lives. Just as Frank Fredericks’ wonderful post earlier this week about the parable of the Good Samaritan challenges us, I too want to challenge us to think: what goes unnoticed when we are unwilling to listen? What stories go untold?

Interfaith work can be a way of telling those stories. Tell them. Hear them. Share them.

Amen.

 

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Our Beloved Samaritans: A Vision for Evangelicalism in the 21st Century

“Frank, there’s something I wanted to tell you tonight.  I’m gay.”

Sitting across the table from my friend Bart, I quickly glanced from my food to his face, almost as if by reflex.  “What?” I uttered without thought.

“This last year has been really hard for me.  After having my first experience with a guy, as confusing and heartwrenching as that was, I’ve realized that I am attracted to men.  I broke up with Sarah a few weeks ago.”

“Are you sure it’s not just a phase?” dark words I still wish I could take back.

“Truthfully, I don’t know.”  As we paused a moment to let both our meals and thoughts digest, I realized that Bart has just become the first of what would be several of my friends to come out me.

Bart and I were no strangers.  While he eventually became one of my groomsmen, we met when we both were voted to freshman hall council, him vice president and me president.  Even in the most stressful situations, he’s a guy who can’t lose his cool, and his integrity never falters.  Also, I owe my penchant for solid-color fitted dress shirts to him (see any picture of me…ever).

What’s so pivotal of this experience isn’t how this experience impacted how I saw Bart, but how I saw the LGBT movement at large.  My understanding was largely built on awkward exchanges with strangers, marriage law debates, and some absurd notion of “the gay agenda.”  It wasn’t my moral opinion on the issue that was troubling, it was my complete lack of empathy and humanization.  And this is of not much surprise if you take into account where I came from.

I grew up outside of a small town north of Portland, Oregon, called Battle Ground.  Our idea of religious diversity in the area was the one catholic church and one mormon church in the entire northern half of the county.  As a young evangelical, I attended Portland Christian High School, where I was given more apologetics than critical thought, and even less empathy.  Only years later did I discover the irony of finding how unJesus-like the place was, considering it was named after the guy.  Instead of loving as Jesus loved, I carried with me a judgment of those different myself.

I feel this otherism has plagued the Christian community on all sides.  To this day, evangelical leaders throw the word “atheist” around like an epithet, nomenclature of shame for the morally void.  Whether it’s the presumption that morality is only possible with faith, or the mad assertion that God punishes cities of “heathens” with natural disasters, too many voices seem content to pin with prejudice all wrong among the non-religious.

And yet it gets worse still.  If “gays have an agenda” and atheists are pissing off God, Muslims are vehemently despised compoundedly so, like a gay Darwin in a kafiya.  This has been especially true in the post 9/11 era, as we’ve seen in the Park51 debate, the Murfreesboro mosque protests, and the Burn the Quran Day.

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And yet, throughout all of this, the clear example of Jesus is missing.  While diversity may feel “new” in America, the Gospels are littered with examples of how Jesus engaged with people different than Himself. It wasn’t just lived out in His actions, but a central component of His teaching.  None was more quoted than the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

As a brief recap, this parable told in Luke (10:29-37) talks of a man who is beaten and robbed, and left for dead in the road.  A priest, then a Levite (also a religious leader), simply walked around the man and continued on their way.  It was a Samaritan, a sect seen as apostates by the Jewish community, who stopped to take care of the man.  The two who walked by could have used religious law to justify their inaction, as touching an injured or possibly dead person would be seen as “unclean.”  But Jesus didn’t praise them.  Rather, he focused on the one who took care of someone, putting a stranger’s need above their own.  Jesus finished the parable by saying, “go and do likewise.”

Most important to the parable, is that Jesus made the good person a Samaritan, not a Jew or Christian (or one of his followers, since ”Christianity” didn’t exist yet).  But why would Jesus do that?  It illuminates a question for us in our own time.  Who are the Samaritans of today?  Could a Muslim show me how to live more Christ-like?  Can I learn how to be a better spouse to my wife from Bart?  If the answer isn’t a resounding yes, then we really need to check our prejudice.  It should bother us how easy it is for Evangelical leaders in the media to dismiss our modern day Samaritans with such disdain.

It’s pretty hard to learn from someone if we only see them by their external identity.  Bart isn’t my gay friend, he’s my friend who just happens to be gay.  Without this level of humanization, we’ll never have a chance to build community with others, learn from them, and be able to be Christ-like examples in their lives or our own.

So here is our dilemma.  If we define ourselves through diminishing the humanity of others, not only are we damning Christianity to become a relic of times past, but we’ve unequivocally failed to follow Christ’s example.  Rather than a sect defined by opposition, we can become a community embraced as benevolent.

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From polemicist to peacemaker

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John W. Morehead
Guest Author

Recently Greg Damhorst asked me if I’d be interested in submitting an essay to the relaunch of Faith Line Protestants, and I was all too happy to do so. The topic I wanted to interact with is my theology of interfaith cooperation, and where I find my motivation to engage in this process the way that I do.

I am in a very different place in regards to interreligious encounters than I was years ago. Previously I worked for one of the larger ministries addressing “cults,” those new religions considered heresies, and toward which an apologetic refutation was presented, often in the name of evangelism. This seemed like the best and most biblical way to engage members of such groups, and I spent countless hours with Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others, exploring and refuting their doctrine from my Evangelical perspective. I also taught many Christians to do the same as a guest speaker in churches across the country.

But I have always been fairly self-critical, and widely read, and this eventually led to discomfort with this confrontational way of engagement. The more I set aside popular apologetic volumes and read the history of Christian missions, missiology, sociology of religion, and religious studies, the more I felt like I was creating a caricature of various religious groups, and being needlessly confrontational in interaction with their adherents. I eventually experienced a paradigm shift, moving from “cults” to cultures, and came to see people in new religions, and world religions too, not so much as members of deviant religious systems, but as people involved in dynamic religious cultures.

But perhaps the most significant motivation for me in my current way of engaging those of other religions is Jesus. I recognize that no matter how a Christian interacts with Muslims, Mormons or whoever, they believe they are doing so in a way that reflects Christ. But many times our assumptions here don’t line up with the reality of the Gospels. Yes, there are times when Jesus uses rebuke, such as with the Jewish religious leaders, but we’ve been applying such texts out of context. A fresh reading of the Gospels shows that Jesus’ harsh rhetoric is reserved for those leaders inside his own religious community (Mt. 23:27). To the marginalized and the outsider he offers compassion.

This is most striking with a consideration of Jesus and his encounters with Gentiles and Samaritans. Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman (John 4:4-42) is especially illustrative. He breaks with his own religious community’s taboos concerning a frowned upon religion, he informed about his conversation partner’s religion and culture, he demonstrates respect rather than denunciation (while retaining disagreement), and his exchange involves listening as well as presentation.

Through a careful reassessment of the example of Jesus I came to embrace a different way of interreligious engagement. My concern for orthodoxy has not diminished, but my confrontational orthopathy (theology of emotion and attitude) has transformed into a benevolent one. In my shift from polemics to peacemaker (Mt. 5:9) and ambassador (2 Cor. 5:20) I now try to pursue more faithfully the imitation of Christ in our multi-faith world.

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A different kind of conversation

You may be familiar with a narrative in which Christians don’t play nice with other people. Evangelicals in particular can be an aggressive bunch, always seeking the last word or the loudest voice, and it often hasn’t reflected well on those who identify as followers of Jesus. But as one of those followers of Jesus, I have hope that the narrative can change.

My friend Cameron Nations and I founded Faith Line Protestants in a coffee shop on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign nearly three years ago. It was the result of mutual experiences with interfaith cooperation and a shared sense that the Christian tradition does not always get it right. We fail to have an awareness regarding how to approach people who believe something different than what we believe. We fail to consider the experiences of others, and we fail to respect what others consider sacred.

This lack of awareness has often resulted in a choice to employ communication methods that convey criticism, judgment, and self-righteousness. It seems the younger generation of Jesus followers, myself included, are fed up with awkward encounters and the blow-hard rhetoric which has often taken place from a seat of privilege in our country. We’re a generation that’s asking ourselves if the Jesus we follow would have chosen the same words or even the same message that many Christian leaders are contributing via an ever-increasing number of media outlets. Furthermore, when we look honestly at the Christian scriptures depicting the life of Jesus, we catch a glimpse of a different kind of conversation: something relationship-oriented, kind, and loving.

And we have been asking what would happen if we approached our friends who are Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, Sikhs and Buddhists with the same humility that Jesus modeled. What if there was a way to talk about faith in which we could communicate respectfully and authentically? What if we found ourselves in a situation where we not only talked about compassion, but we also practiced it by serving alongside those we’ve been taught to try to convert, asking questions, and sharing stories?

Would it water-down our message? Or would it strengthen it?

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have all the answers, but I’ve realized that there is a toolset available which seems to fit the description of a relationship-oriented approach to communicating the gospel, and it’s called interfaith cooperation. At first it seems counterintuitive for many of us raised in evangelical traditions: I have trained to be a “Contagious Christian”, dabbled in apologetics, and practiced conversion conversations, yet never once did I practice having genuine dialogue.

This week we are re-launching Faith Line Protestants as we seek to reignite enthusiasm for a conversation which encourages evangelical Christians toward relationships with people of other worldviews and faith traditions by engaging in social action based on shared values reflected in Jesus’ example of compassionate love.

And whether you’re skeptical of the concept or you find it refreshing, I hope that you’ll join us in this conversation. We’ve only waded into the shallow waters of a deeper discussion that is already overdue. It’s a discussion that deals with privilege and the common good, equality and bigotry, respect and meaning-making. And for me it all comes back to the realization that the One after whom I strive to model my life was a storyteller, relationship-oriented, and a servant.

I hope you’ll join us as we re-launch this conversation about following Jesus in a religiously diverse world.