Author Archives: Cameron Nations

More Dispatches from Abroad: Why Interfaith in America Matters

As I mentioned in my earlier post about the Three Faiths Forum [link], I’m studying in York, England this semester on an exchange program through the University of Illinois. I’ve loved my time here: the history, the people, the pubs, and, yes… even the food.

Upon arriving in the UK, I expected to meet loads of Brits and immerse myself in British culture—and to a large extent, I have done just that. Yet much to my surprise I have met and befriended nearly as many international students as I have homegrown English ones, the likes of which come from places as far-flung as Italy, Turkey, France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, India, Switzerland, and Sweden.

Being thrust into a social group comprised of so many nationalities and identities made me scramble to position myself as an American within this expanded cultural context. What did people know of America? What did I know of their countries? They all asked me questions, they all seemed curious. What did I stand for in their eyes? There had to be  more to me than someone who doesn’t mean “soccer” when they say “football,” right?

In my flat, there are also four other American students, as well as about ten or so others from the UK and EU. Among these is a Somali-born Muslim girl around my same age who lived for a number of years in Holland. The first few days I arrived, she proved a welcome companion: she went with me on my first trip to the grocery store, helped me get adjusted to my life in a new place, and extended warmth and hospitality to me when I could have felt alone and far from home. We got along well.

Thus I was surprised when, one day, she told me in passing that she had been worried when she found out that so many American students were moving in. She said she didn’t know how we would react to her or treat her as a Somali Muslim. Though she continued on with the conversation, I stopped her there. “Wait,” I said, “why were you worried?”

She responded by saying that she didn’t think Americans liked Muslims. She hadn’t said it sarcastically; her words were tempered with honesty. “But you’re all right,” she said with a smile.

Though the conversation changed course after that, I couldn’t get her words out of my head. It bothered me that she viewed my country as prejudiced and intolerant when I had always taken pride in its idyllic virtues of freedom and justice for all. Were these virtues illusory? As a white male from an upper-middle class family in the suburbs of Chicago, I suppose it would be easy for me to see the freedom America grants. I have known privilege.

Whether a true title or not, the United States does in fact carry the label of being predominantly Christian. In some sense, what happens there does not just come across as political, but carries with it a religious tone. Other countries notice when our president says “God bless America,” and remember it well when we declare war or make policy decisions. As Christians, we must consider this. America is a big stage with a broad influence—what we do matters, what we say matters, and, more importantly, both of these things come back to reflect our faith.

Could I fault my flat mate for her less-than-positive perceptions of the United States? I thought back to last year, when Terry Jones, a Florida pastor, threatened to host a “Burn the Koran” day. His statements garnered international attention, despite the fact that back in the US he pastors a church of only 50 people. If not for his ridiculous anti-Islamic antics, he would be known by nearly no one. Yet I’m sure that his actions played heavily into my flat mate’s worries about having Americans living down the hall. And now, the protests in Orange County, the Radicalization Hearings in Washington—it’s hard not to see where she’s coming from.

Indeed, I can’t help but feel similarly about other countries that persecute Christians. Yet they don’t proclaim liberty, justice, or freedom in the same way America does. And, as someone contemplating a vocation in the church, I can’t help but think that the US should set an example for religious tolerance and cooperation, not show itself to be a less-violent version of the same prejudiced principles.

We can stand as a beacon of peace, or we can come across as the world’s wealthiest hypocrites.

While we as American Christians engage with those of other faiths in a peaceful, loving, and proactive way, we not only uphold the virtues America is said to possess, but we also demonstrate Christ’s love. Greg and I often mention Christ’s commendation “Blessed are the peacemakers” and his exhortation to love our neighbors as well as our enemies. Remember that we live in a big world, and that these virtues bear immense significance within it. How can we be better peacemakers? How can we better love our neighbors? How can we make stories of compassion and cooperation louder than stories of bigotry and strife? Join us; help answer these pressing questions.

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Interfaith from Across the Pond: My Time With the Three Faiths Forum

Copyright © Three Faiths Forum 2010

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked by David Fraccaro of the IFYC if I could travel to London for an event put on by the Three Faiths Forum, a UK-based organization similar in mission to IFYC who was trying to launch campus interfaith initiatives at universities across London. Not surprisingly, I agreed.

When the day finally came, I hopped on a train and arrived in London just after lunch. A quick jaunt through the Underground on the Northern Line, and I emerged in the quiet neighborhood of Belsize Park, where the event was taking place. I checked in to the retreat center, met briefly with David, and then headed inside to sit in on some of the training sessions to get a feel for the conference’s trajectory.

I met some really great people—everyone welcomed me warmly and graciously allowed me to hang around. I participated in a few of the group challenges, like when we sorted through a pile of questions and phrases, teasing out those we felt demonstrated the greatest and least respect before discussing those we felt floated on the margins of either category. It was an eye-opening experience to see the myriad assumptions that go into even our most simple questions.

I found it interesting that the Three Faiths Forum not only works to promote interfaith cooperation amongst religious groups on university campuses, but also runs programs in London-area secondary schools (among other things). These programs bring speakers from various faith traditions into classrooms, where they share their stories and spend time teaching the value of mutual civility and the art of asking respectful questions. The aim is to get the students thinking about what they say and how they view people other than themselves. I thought it was a great, though albeit rather bold, thing to do, as I can’t imagine doing something similar in American high schools.

I gave a brief address during an informal panel discussion—a story about how I became involved in interfaith work and where I hoped to go with it in the future—and fielded a few questions regarding the pragmatics of mobilizing campus and community groups to engage in large-scale service projects.

After our sessions ended for the day, we headed to dinner, and I had a chance to get to know everyone better. The next day (and the last day of their conference), everyone shared their ideas for reaching out to their campus communities and demonstrating the power of interfaith cooperation. Their ideas were incredible and original, inspiring me to consider implementing a few of them at U of I when I return next semester.

My favorite idea was one that involved making t-shirts emblazoned with the symbol of your faith tradition on it and then building a full-size archway out of cardboard bricks (or something similar) in a prominent campus location, the display of unity coming from the concerted effort to build an object that requires all of its parts to stand (as an arch does). I imagine this could be a pretty powerful demonstration on the quad at University of Illinois.

My time with the Three Faiths Forum reminded me that interfaith is also international. It isn’t a movement consigned to American university campuses or even London secondary schools, but is something that involves the entire world. (I think the recent stories of Muslims and Christians standing together in the Middle East proves this.) And I know that we talk about it as being a global movement all the time, but I must admit that it didn’t quite hit me until I sat in a room with students from another country who shared the same values as I do about interfaith cooperation.

When we as Christians participate in interfaith work, we participate in an international discussion. Our efforts to form relationships with those of other religious and non-religious traditions may not seem like much at first, but once the example has been set in one place, it can be followed in another. Just think of Martin Luther King Jr following the example set by Gandhi; one individual’s witness for their faith can resonate throughout the world.

You can find more information on The Three Faiths Forum at their website here, as well as watch some great and informative videos on their YouTube channel.

 

 

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Overreaching Our “Outreach:” Rethinking Evangelism in Interfaith Cooperation (Part II)

In part I of this series, I talked about how what Greg and I call the “homework” model of evangelism fails to address the specificities of a scenario involving an interfaith dynamic. To better understand how this task-based way of evangelizing would come off to others, I try to put myself in the shoes of an outsider.

For instance, what if I was a practicing Hindu, one of my Christian friends invited me to an event, and I agreed to go. Suppose that the thrust of this event was to show the inadequacies of my life without Jesus and then propose that I renounce my current beliefs in order to mend my problems and prevent me from landing in hell for all eternity. Beneath the whole premise of the event sits a peculiar but powerful thing: a critique of my own Hindu beliefs and identity—beliefs that hold great significance and meaning to me, and that have allowed me to live a happy and fulfilled life.

Furthermore, (and the aspect that I think conflicts most with the intersection of evangelism and interfaith cooperation) this way of evangelizing only works with one particular people group—those who have little convictions of their own, have deep wounds for which they seek spiritual healing, or those who probably already spend time on the fringes of Christianity anyway. Thus the common aim of evangelism becomes a simple persuasion to become more involved than before or to convince someone they should pray a prayer to accept Christ.

Someone who already possesses a strong (or even moderate, for that matter) belief in another religion or tradition will not simply surrender those views at the drop of a hat, especially if they possess no perceived need. And that’s okay. I believe that an attempt at manipulating them to do so by an appeal to pathos, eliciting a strong emotional response, isn’t genuine.

Hence our first reaction should not be “here, this is why you’re wrong,” but to show through our actions, “this is how our faith transforms.” We must demonstrate why we are a positive force in the world that can change and revolutionize lives for good. Again I say: would it not be more powerful to lead by example, to showcase my faith by the way I live than to tell someone why they should believe in it?

If we allow for dialogue and discussion—for give-and-take—then the playing field becomes more level. Each person is inquiring, each person answering. No one is put at a disadvantage, personal story becomes the strong bonds between various faiths, and all participants in the discussion retain their agency. These types of discussions are central to the IFYC’s model of interfaith dialogue. And don’t we as Christians already place significance on the power of testimony in our tradition? So long as you refrain from setting a goal at the end of telling it, a perfect platform exists to share.

I know that this is a contentious topic, and there are plenty of things in these two posts with which to take issue. That’s good. I’ve only put forth a half-expounded idea that I hope can spark quality, civil conversation. Telling people about Jesus Christ is part of our identity. The question is: how do we embrace it, both in an interfaith context and otherwise? Please, contribute and join the discussion.

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Overreaching Our “Outreach:” Rethinking Evangelism in Interfaith Cooperation (Part I)

We had sung some songs, played a silly game, watched an edgy, well-edited video montage peppered with pop-culture images and distressed teens. The speaker told a few jokes and threw in an anecdote about a time in his childhood when he had done something really embarrassing. He came across as charming and easy to identify with. As he discussed Scripture, one could see his passion for the message; he stressed—emphasized repeatedly— God’s deep love for creation. In fact, he said that God’s love was so immense that he sent his only Son to die for our sins.

And then he asked for us to bow our heads in prayer. He had the band come back to the stage, and right on cue came a few arpeggiated chords from an acoustic guitar, joined by a soft synth pad. One moment later came the melodic electric guitar, dripping in reverb and ping-pong delay. “Now I know that for some of you tonight, God is calling you to his presence. He’s asking you to [insert reference to anecdote/Bible story] and follow him…”

But you know the rest. If you have grown up in the church, there is almost no way you would have avoided this kind of situation (or one quite similar), the likes of which permeated my own adolescent church life. We were encouraged to bring friends to these events—often billed as “outreach” events— with the idea that by getting them in the seat, we could somehow get them to commit their life to Christ.

Greg and I have elsewhere referred to this common kind of evangelism as the “homework model,” and must admit that we don’t necessarily agree with it. In this version of evangelism, you are given an assignment—in this case, to tell an un-churched friend about Christ— and you fulfill your task either by sharing your faith with said person or bringing them along to your outreach event next week.

The emotional experiences described above are not inherently wrong—I’ve had my share of meaningful moments at church retreats and the like—but that they aren’t always appropriate. When dealing with others of strong conviction (whether religious or not) we must act and approach things differently.

As I discussed in an earlier post, the Great Commission poses an interesting issue with interfaith work; it asks us to examine how we represent Christ to the world, and doesn’t mean that evangelism stands in opposition to interfaith cooperation.

For me, the problem with the “homework” model of outreach evangelism lies in its assumptions. It presupposes a rather weighty purchase on the valuation of the sacred that says you possess the only real truth in the world, and, for others to get it, they must come to you. This automatically puts the other person at a kind of disadvantage. Regardless of whether we as Christians do in fact have all the answers is irrelevant—the point here is not that we hold the truth, but that it is disrespectful by proffering it in this way.

So how do we as Christians interested in interfaith cooperation rethink this model? What would it look like if we taught young Christians how to emulate Christ in the world through service and compassion instead of charging them with a requirement to bring a friend in order to be affirmed as a good Christian next week? Check back for Part II, where I’ll explore this topic further.

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It’s a Small World After All: Why the Importance of Interfaith Grows with the Population

(Photo courtesy of the NOAA.)

Seven billion. That’s the number that our population will hit at some point this year. And afterward, it will continue to grow. That’s seven billion lives, seven billion stories, and seven billion beliefs about the world in which we will all inhabit. With rapid communication and fast travel, our world has already grown smaller, just as the population has ballooned larger. Apart from being an ecological concern for the population-at-large, this expansion of the world’s citizens carries quite a bit of significance specifically for the interfaith community. What do we do as the world becomes more crowded, when differing opinions and ideologies come closer and closer to one another than ever before? What do we do when clashing viewpoints meet in the public spheres of our society–not just the physical ones, but also the electronic spaces frequented by an ever-expanding percent of the global populace?

This is where interfaith cooperation becomes crucial. Sociological pluralism of the sort we advocate at FLP (and that you will find outlined in our pages above) will become a social necessity if humanity is to live and work and grow together as we move into the future. Why not get a head start? Greg and I have outlined a few reasons why we think interfaith work worthwhile– from our call as Christians to live as ambassadors of Christ, to the simple practical benefits of service– and this one perhaps encompasses them all.

As a prominent faith community– the Christian community– we should begin considering these challenges that the future poses. The population increase, expected by some sources to reach nearly ten billion by 2050, will bring with it a host of new issues, many of them ecological. We will have to be better stewards of our resources, and we will have to look to our moral rubrics for guidance. In our case, that means turning to Scripture and discussing what Christ’s example can teach us about a Christian ethic on an enormous (and enormously diverse) planet. We will have to decide what the church looks like in a dynamic world.

To solve these issues and truly progress into a better age than those that came before, we cannot continue to fight and oppose one another. Dissidence breeds only more problems. In his last entry, Greg talked about the incredible outpouring of support surrounding UIUC’s “Million Meals for Haiti” event, which saw people from every walk of life come together to solve a problem, to right a wrong and better the world in which we live. To flourish, we will need more of these events. I believe that acts of service like this must become normal rather than exceptional for us to powerfully transform our world.

We have the ability to write the story of our future; we can choose to promote peace or allow violence. It’s up to us. Interfaith cooperation provides an opportunity to forge strong relationships with those different from you. If enough people did this, then the bonds of the global community would be much stronger than they are now. Perhaps things like “Million Meals” could seem commonplace. From within our Christian identity we can pull together to make this seven billion strong–seven billion united in our differences–instead of seven billion reasons to disagree. So what do you think the world will look like? How will the Christian community respond to the issues faced in this growing world, and what are some ways to join people of different beliefs and traditions together to address them?

As an aside, here’s an excellent video put together by National Geographic as part of their series “Seven Billion”:7 Billion, National Geographic Magazine

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Making Our Appeal: The Significance of Interfaith Work as Christ’s Ambassadors

Just a few days ago, Greg and I both wrote a reflection about a photo tweeted around the web depicting young Egyptian Christians linking arms in protection of Muslims praying behind them. A common theme ran through both our posts—that such a display of love demonstrated quite poignantly the love of Christ for humanity. It was a sacrificial love, and in both of our reflections we touched on what we felt to be one of the most important aspects of their actions: that they were representing this love to the world.

The Muslim community in Egypt, who began this exchange of prayer protection over Christmas, are now once again returning this act of love by protecting the Christians while they pray. One act of kindness bore another.

Having grown up in the church, I often hear the term “ambassadors of Christ” used to describe Christians’ social identity. Indeed, Greg and I have even employed the term at various times on this very site. Though perhaps a rather awkward way of referring to a Christian individual to modern ears, the concept makes a lot of sense, and has a lot to bear on interfaith interaction.

The expression itself comes from 2 Corinthians 5:20, which says:

“We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.”

These words (like usual) belong to St. Paul, who writes this in his second letter to the early church in Corinth. If you are like most introspective Christians, the question becomes: But what does it mean to be Christ’s ambassador, exactly?

Being ambassadors of Christ requires something more of us than simply attending church services or calling ourselves “Christian.” Instead it necessitates action, doing. The act of being an ambassador means representing another party—“represent” is a verb.

Though I touched on this briefly in my recent post on evangelism and interfaith work, and will address it again in our upcoming series that focuses on evangelism specifically, all I will say here is that these Egyptians demonstrated what it means to be an ambassador of Christ: they showed that they were willing to act on Christ’s behalf to bring peace into the world, to show the world what the Kingdom of God looks like.

I think the prominent New Testament scholar (and former Bishop of Durham, UK) NT Wright has the right idea regarding what it means to represent Christ as his ambassador. Essentially, he talks about the Kingdom of God as being on earth now, enacted through us as believers, as well as the Kingdom of God as a future event worthy of aspiration. This view makes a lot of sense when you look at Pauline theology (which Wright does a great deal) and understand that this rubric compels us to live a faith in action, a faith that moves here and now to represent the ideal that we hope for in heaven.

All of this is a protracted way of saying that interfaith cooperation presents a perfect opportunity to enact our faith, to live it as those Egyptians lived theirs (both Muslim and Christian). Indeed, interfaith cooperation is the very definition of ambassadorial work—representing Christ to those who do not share your religious tradition. How does the notion of representing Christ affect your life? Does it move you? Does it impact your actions? What does it look like, in your eyes, to be an Christ’s ambassador?

Please join in the conversation, either by leaving a comment here or finding Faith Line Protestants on Facebook!

 

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Photo by sanja gjenero (http://www.sxc.hu/profile/lusi)

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A Love Like Christ, a Reflection: What We Can Learn From Egypt’s Uprising

originally posted by @NevineZaki on Twitter.

The media has swollen with stories about the protests in Egypt—millions marching for freedom and peace, the internet being shut down, and, most recently, Anderson Cooper bludgeoned by angry Mubarak-supporters. Even to a reader who likes to keep abreast of world affairs, I must admit that I still don’t fully understand the complex cultural workings that led to this enormous protest, being admittedly rather ignorant to Egyptian political life. It seems that every five minutes, a new take on the whole affair appears on the news sites I follow.

But, while skimming through my Twitter feed a couple of days ago, I caught the image above sent in a link by one of my friends at the IFYC, and it had a profound impact on me. It was an image of poignant truth, yet simple to understand. Regardless of the political motivations behind the movement, the implication of US diplomacy, or the expected outcome of all that has occurred, I could not help but be moved.

Greg’s post on this photo mentioned his great appreciation for Jesus’ exhortation to “Love your neighbor.” These words come from Luke 10:27, in which Jesus says that the two most important commandments from God are to “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 to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Later, St. Paul, in his letter to the church at Corinth, echoes love’s importance when he describes its qualities, saying:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

It was Jesus who loved us so deeply that he died for our sins—the demonstration of a love that “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” In the outstretched arms of these young Egyptian Christians I see the same kind of love. And, in a way, they stand in imitation of Christ, bearing their hearts to the world.

What is more profound than this—Christians mimicking the sacrificial love of Christ in such a poignant way?

The people in this photo look my age. As I reflected on what they were doing, I had to ask myself: would I do that, too? Faced with the threat of violence and death, would I link arms with my fellow believers in order to let those of another faith pray to their god? Though I fear my cowardice, I should hope I would rise to the occasion, and I would hope they would do the same. In fact, as Greg mentioned in his post, they already did, back at Christmas when Muslims stood as human shields outside of an Alexandrian church in solidarity against militant extremists.

The love demonstrated in this photograph is a powerful one, one that moves me and motivates me. The bonds of such a love are strong, elemental, transcendent. What compelled the Muslims to defend their Christian neighbors later compelled Christians to reciprocate. How does this motivate you? Does it cause you to reflect on your faith as it did me?

Paul continues in his letter to the Corinthians. His words ring powerfully in my mind as I consider the photograph above:

“And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

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Questioning Our Assumptions: Reasons for Interfaith Involvement (Intro)

Why should we want to participate in interfaith efforts? What’s the need for a web site like Faith Line Protestants? Why is interfaith cooperation even important in the first place?

No, this isn’t our first existential crisis. They’re fair questions.

In the past few posts, Greg and I have discussed a number of things that we feel are the commonest barriers between the Christian community and interfaith cooperation. But simply enumerating barriers isn’t enough. For our next series of posts, we will give four reasons why interfaith cooperation is important—and, more specifically, why the Christian community should become involved.

Greg and I believe that the reasons for Christians’ involvement yield tangible and positive results both for the church and the world. Some of the things we’ll discuss are:

  • the ability for the church to act as peacemakers in a world of strife and disagreement
  • what being Ambassadors of Christ has to do with interfaith cooperation
  • the practical and tangible benefits of mobilizing faith groups in service
  • interfaith cooperation’s potential for building local (and global) community, and how interfaith cooperation can work to build religious literacy and promote understanding in religiously diverse world

We’ll also be posting with increasing frequency on topics outside of our series’ scope, hopefully fostering more discussions on different topics that have interfaith implications.

The Christian church has much to offer in the discourse surrounding interfaith cooperation. Join us as we step into a new series making a case for our participation in interfaith work.

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