Author Archives: Greg Damhorst

Unfavorable Opinions

This piece was originally posted by Faith Line Protestants co-founder Greg Damhorst on the Interfaith Youth Core blog at http://www.ifyc.org/content/unfavorable-opinions.

Yesterday the Pew Forum released a Global Survey of Evangelical Protestant Leaders that caught my attention. I was first intrigued by a headline that read: “Evangelical Leaders see Secularism as Greater Threat than Islam,” but as I read on, I realized there was something even deeper.

I am constantly intrigued with the interaction of evangelicals and people of other faith traditions, including those from non-religious traditions. Especially in the interfaith movement – a movement that seeks to make interfaith cooperation a social norm – I am fascinated by the role the evangelical tradition will play.

The Pew Forum has given the world a subtle glimpse of why I feel this way:

“On the whole, the evangelical Protestant leaders express favorable opinions of adherents of other faiths in the Judeo-Christian tradition, including Judaism, Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity. But of those who express an opinion, solid majorities express unfavorable views of Buddhists (65%), Hindus (65%), Muslims (67%) and atheists (70%). Interestingly, the leaders who live in Muslim-majority countries generally are more positive in their assessments of Muslims than are the evangelical leaders overall.”

Survey results from Pew Forum Global Survey of Evangelical Protestant Leaders

These statistics represent views held by 2,196 evangelical leaders toward faith communities. But when I look at these numbers, I don’t see communities – I see faces.

65% of evangelicals have an unfavorable view of Buddhists and 65% have an unfavorable view of Hindus, but when I think of those traditions I remember the Buddhist and the Hindu who I worked with to start a project to provide relief to earthquake survivors in Haiti last year.

67% of evangelicals have an unfavorable view of Muslims, but I can’t ignore the Avicenna Community Health Center, which reaches out to the uninsured in my community alongside religious and non-religious folks who are passionate about bringing health to those who can’t access care.

And while the 70% of evangelicals who view atheists unfavorably can likely blame the anti-religious rhetoric of a few individuals, I can’t help but look at the non-religious in a different light because of my relationships with people like Chris Stedman, Adam Garner, and Chelsea Link (the latter two have joined me in the new class of Better Together coaches this year!)

I’m willing to bet that these unfavorable views do nothing to enhance the evangelistic efforts of my fellow Christians – that they only hinder our ability to genuinely communicate the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And I’m willing to bet that those who hold these unfavorable views don’t have meaningful relationships with people from other faith backgrounds.

When I look at the example that Jesus set – the example I work hard to emulate – I see relationships. In fact, they were often relationships with the people whom pious folks viewed unfavorably.

It is significant that evangelical leaders in Muslim-majority countries are more positive about Muslims than the worldwide trend. In my opinion, it’s probably because those evangelical leaders actually have Muslim friends.

It’s time for the evangelical community to stop being afraid of perceived threats to our faith and to start engaging with the world in a positive way. Relationships are the key to changing our perspectives. My prayer is that we all would understand the power they contain.

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The Tension of the Kingdom

Photo credit: Eve Anderson

 

Despite the fact that I made a point out of the believers who had so confidently preached the message of a “Bible-guaranteed” (i.e. Harold Camping-guaranteed) rapture last week, they were on to something: the second coming of Christ is something Christians look forward to experiencing.

That is because the second coming of Christ, which is foretold in the New Testament, promises the full arrival of the kingdom of God.  But wait!  The Bible describes Jesus as saying:

Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.” (Luke 17:20-21)

This notion of “now, but not yet” (i.e. that the kingdom of God has come but is still coming) is a tension that, in his book Kingdom Come, Allen Wakabayashi analogizes to getting a pile of presents on Christmas morning as a kid but only being allowed to open two of them.  The kingdom of God (“God’s dream society on earth” to borrow the words of Scot McKnight) came with the coming of Jesus (described in the gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) but won’t be fully realized until Jesus comes again – an event awaited eagerly by all Christians because it means restoration for all of God’s people.

So what does this “now, but not yet” tension have to do with Faith Line Protestants?

First, this tension is essential to understanding the message of the kingdom of God that Jesus was preaching.  And, to restate my central thesis on FLP for the past several months: the message that Jesus was preaching is the message that we as Christians should be preaching.

Second, this tension confuses us as Christians.  It seems like one must choose between (a) preaching to the world its sinfulness and it’s need for repentance or (b) trying to act out of concern for the earthly needs of others through acts of social justice.  Rarely does one hear from Christian teachers that these two concepts can be brought together without contradiction. In my experience, it’s typically (a) a fixation with “winning souls” because judgment is coming or (b) a way of living out faith only by serving others without concern for eternity.  Neither tells the full message of the gospel.

But the full message is apparent.  Indeed, we see that the restoration of an individual soul and the restoration of a broken world are wrapped into a single man (who was both human and divine) through his life, death, and resurrection.  In Christ, these two seemingly opposite notions eternal need and earthly need find harmony.

If you’re of the (a) type, you don’t see the benefit of interfaith work because it’s not an activity that embraces your desire to point out everyone’s sin, and if you’re of the (b) type, you might engage the interfaith movement passionately while missing the mission of communicating a message.  (Actually, I think this exercise of categorization, although never perfect, can be really helpful in understanding Christian life in a religiously diverse world.  It can also be dissected a bit further.  That’s a teaser for my next series, where I’ll draw help from Gabe Lyons’ new book The Next Christians.)

If we, as Evangelicals, want to communicate the message of Jesus Christ to the world around us, we must speak – and live – the whole message.  The tension of a kingdom that is being realized but is not fully here is the great paradox of the kingdom message.  How do you understand the tension of the kingdom?  How does it influence the way you live?  I’ll wrap up this series the kingdom of God in my next post as I suggest some answers to these questions.  In the meantime, we’d love to hear what our readers think.

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What Harold Camping Taught me About Being a Christian

Harold Camping is still here.  For that matter, so am I.

The world’s population of Christians wasn’t “raptured” last Saturday night as 89-year-old civil engineer-turned Bible numerologist Harold Camping predicted, which leaves at least a few Christians dumbfounded, embarrassed, and several thousand dollars poorer.

Naturally, I didn’t buy-in to Camping’s game, which is seemingly directly contrary to Matthew 24:36, and I even took the time for a chuckle on Friday when a friend pointed out the post-rapture service Eternal Earthbound Pets.

But sadly, several believers were featured in the media this weekend as having spent their life savings on placards and advertisements to warn the world of a “Bible-guaranteed” May 21, 2011 apocalypse that Camping was “utterly, absolutely… absolutely convinced” was going to happen.

As a Christian, I’m embarrassed.  Here at Faith Line Protestants, Cameron and I like to talk about evangelism and our relationships with people of other faiths – opening a can of worms that we don’t necessarily know how to close.  But the sad demonstration by Camping and his followers this week has pointed once again to the thesis that Cameron and I are trying to articulate to other Christians:

It’s missing the point.

For all the media buzz and interviews I saw leading up to May 21, 2011, not once do I remember hearing the message of the kingdom of God – the message that Jesus was preaching.

It’s not a message that denies Jesus’ second coming or the notion of judgment.  It’s not a message that ignores the need to recognize one’s imperfections, the requirement of repentance, or the truth that redemption is found only in Christ.

But it is a message that talks about restoration, about compassion, about forgiveness.  It means restoration for the individual soul and the whole world.  And it’s so much more than a ticket to heaven (whether you’re boarding that train at Jesus’ second coming or via the more… traditional method).

As a Christian, I feel a responsibility to communicate to people of other faiths and traditions (including those of no faith at all) that the message of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection was a message far greater than what Family Radio billboards were preaching.  In fact, I believe that when this message is communicated clearly and effectively, people of other faiths and traditions (including those of no faith at all) may even be interested in knowing more.  When it’s a message presented through scare-tactics however…

Gabe Lyons and Jonathan Merritt said it well in their reaction piece on the Washington Post’s On Faith:

It seems this charade provides both Christians and the watching world with a teachable moment. Christians need to recognize that fear-based conversion tactics may work on young children, but they rarely resolve rational thinkers’ long-term concerns about faith. Those who went running for the rapture must now sit to wrestle with the serious questions that plagued them before. We must learn that it’s easy to rile people up with future headlines of destruction, but it’s better to inspire people with God’s will for our lives in the present.

When Christians succumb to thinking that sees escape as the answer to the world’s brokenness, we know we’ve taken a wrong turn. Jesus didn’t shrink from talking about future realities, but it’s hard to ignore that he spent the majority of his life restoring brokenness, rather than running from it. Christians often become so focused on the afterlife that they stop investing in their current life. Harold Camping will have done us all a favor if this serves as a wake-up call to Christian escapists and fear-peddlers.

Restoring the brokenness, not running from it.  That’s the message I want my life to preach.

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Reflecting on the Death of Osama bin Laden

Screen capture from digital edition of The Daily Illini. May 2, 2011.

 

Sunday night found me fixed to my computer.  A friend’s email tipped me off to breaking news, so, naturally, I turned to the authority in up-to-the-minute news: Facebook.

A few hints of Osama bin Laden’s death had already leaked, and a Google search confirmed the rumor by sheer magnitude even before I landed on something reputable.  When I finally came to the live stream at whitehouse.gov and waited for the President to speak on the matter, I pondered what this means to our country – a symbol of terror and extremism finally put to rest.

Later, as I watched celebrations unfold in major cities across the country and on Facebook profiles around the globe, I quickly began to search for a place of deeper understanding in light of mixed emotions.

My faith teaches me to love my enemies.

Jesus said:
“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, 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. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:43-48.
So while my thoughts jump between September 11, 2001 and May 1, 2011, I can’t help but wonder if we’ve missed the point. 

The death of Osama Bin Laden is certainly a significant development in the global war on terror.  It is an incident that was long ago deemed necessary by those responsible for making such decisions, a task for which I thank God I am not responsible.  But we must not allow ourselves to believe that another murder is going to solve the problem.  There was no victory on May 1, 2011.

Destruction of our enemy, although perhaps necessary to quell the threat of terrorism in the present day, will only motivate a violent response and serve as fuel for the voices of evil that teach young children to kill others out of national pride or religion.  It will not prevent terrorism in the future.

If we want to destroy terrorism, our fight does not involve a gun or a missile.  It involves relationships. I have often mentioned Terry Jones, a Florida “pastor” who put the Koran on trial.  And often I ask — what if he had a Muslim friend?  How would his actions be different?

The same must be granted Osama bin Laden.  What if he had lived in a world where no one is portrayed as the “other,” where all are granted respect by default, where bigotry and prejudice did not exist?  What if he had a friend who could put a face, a name, a personality, or a life to the populations he has dedicated his life to destroying?  For a man who had become so evil, it would have had to begin early – before the ideology of extremism claimed him.

If you cut off the head, another will take its place.  But if you teach a generation the language of cooperation, the technique of service, and the power of love, then you train an army that will change our world to a more peaceful place.

As a Christian, I believe that the love Christ demonstrated is the key to bringing peace to the world.  And in Jesus that love manifested as compassionate service, was communicated through a story, and ultimately, profoundly demonstrated in personal sacrifice.  So let’s start in the same way – with acts of service, with compassion, with stories.  Let’s reach across faith lines and show the disciples of extremism that the differences which led them to destroy can inspire us to work together.

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God is on the Move

Part III in a continued series on the kingdom of God and the interfaith movement.


I can’t stop thinking about the kingdom.

Like I’ve discussed in my recent posts, it’s been on my mind ever since my interfaith work intersected with the church of my youth as I was reflecting on my relationships and experiences in light of North Park University theologian Scot McKnight’s ideas put forth in his book One.Life.

And I’ve been pulling out some books – old and new.  On my desk in my office, you’ll find papers from Lab on a Chip intercalated with articles from Christianity Today and printouts of from the White House’s recently announced Interfaith and Community Service Challenge.  You’ll find books on following Jesus stacked with an anatomy atlas and a box of cereal (because, yes, I do practically live at my desk on campus).

And as a good graduate student should, I am chipping away bit-by-bit at everything – skimming a bit here and there, thinking, reading, highlighting (and occasionally remembering to eat breakfast).  And amidst the bustle, I am finding a pervading sense that it all fits together, though I am only slowly gaining the ability to articulate it.

But I’d even venture to say that the common thread in all these things has something to do with the kingdom of God.  Today, I want to take another look at the kingdom message.  As Allen Wakabayashi in his book Kingdom Come begins to explain the meaning of the kingdom of God, he draws on C.S. Lewis’ great allegory The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe:

“Four children stumble into a magical land called Narnia.  The true king of the land is Aslan, a magnificent lion, the Christ figure.  Yet at the time of the story, Narnia is under the rule of the White Witch, who has cursed the land so that it is perpetually in a bitter cold winter with no Christmas.  But at one point in the story, Christmas does come as Father Christmas comes, dispensing gifts.  Then springtime begins to melt, the trees release their snow covers, flowers bloom and birds chirp.  What is going on?  Father Christmas explains, ‘Aslan is on the move!  The Witch’s magic is weakening!’  We come to understand that wherever Aslan draws near, springtime breaks out in the midst of the bitter winter of the White Witch.”

Just as the effects of Aslan’s movement are seen in the restoration of Narnia from winter back to spring, Wakabayashi suggests that the kingdom of God is about the “reinstatement of God’s intentions for his entire creation.”  It is a continual process of renewal.

As a Christian, I have hope for the melting snow, blooming flowers, and chirping birds that signify the kingdom of God.  They are things I have experienced in my own spiritual life: forgiveness, fulfillment, purpose. Yet they are also things I see God bringing piece-by-piece to the world around me, often administered through one person serving another.  Perhaps it’s even reflected in the mess on my desk: technologies for promoting health, training that enables the service others, a personal search to further understand God.

This is also the message that I want to communicate through my interfaith work – especially through the structured service and storytelling I mention repeatedly:  God is on the move.

Restoration has come and is coming.  This, I think, is the message of the kingdom of God.  It’s also the story I’m telling to others, with both words and actions, as a Christian in the interfaith movement.

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Investigating the Kingdom

Part II in a series on the kingdom of God and the interfaith movement

It's got something to do with a mustard seed...

Roughly two weeks ago, I suggested that a clearer understanding of Jesus’ ministry would help us to understand better this idea of evangelicals doing interfaith work.  Today, I continue that discussion with a closer look at the idea of the kingdom of God.  It’s been a busy time, so I apologize for the delay in writing, but look for this discussion to pick up in the coming weeks.

I’d like to focus this current exploration of Jesus’ ministry with two questions:

1.       What was Jesus preaching?  (i.e. what was his message?)

2.       How did Jesus preach? (i.e. how did his words and actions communicate that message?)

I began to answer question 1 with enigmatic statements about the “kingdom of God,” referencing Scot McKnight’s One.Life where he suggests that a message that communicates only a directive to accept Jesus (in order to escape hell) and live a pious life is a truncated version of what Jesus was preaching.

But the whole gospel – the gospel of the kingdom of God – is a holistic message of God’s desires for our world.  It’s a message of restoration for the individual soul and the whole society.  It’s a message that I believe was not only reflected in Jesus’ sermons and stories, but his relationships, his healing of others, and his death and resurrection.

But we’ll get into how the kingdom message was communicated in coming posts.  For now, I want to borrow from Kingdom Come, by Allen Wakabayashi, where some key examples from Jesus’ parables discussing the Kingdom of God are outlined.

“In fact, when we consider Jesus’ public teaching we find that the kingdom of God was central to his ministry.  Jesus used parables as his primary means of public teaching, and most of them are about the kingdom of God.  For instance, he compares the kingdom of God to the following:

These parables are one way Jesus communicated the message of the kingdom of God.  Each one needs unpacking and, although I won’t promise a dedicated post on each one, I guarantee that my future writing will take a closer look.  For now, I invite you to follow the links for each passage to an online Bible resource to investigate these parables on your own.

Before signing off for the day, here’s a reminder of where we’re headed:

The interfaith movement is an invitation to serve others and share stories with people from other faith traditions.  Jesus too was a storyteller and a servant.  And while the interfaith movement wasn’t founded for spreading the Christian gospel, Evangelical Christians are invited to the table to tell stories and serve others, thus it becomes a space for communicating the gospel in a unique way.

But we must look to Christ as a model for how to do this.  How did Jesus communicate the good news?  How did he present the message?

The interfaith movement doesn’t seem to be compatible with evangelism that manifests as a crusade to accuse the world of its sinfulness.  Sin – a failure to live up to God’s standard – is a part of the message, but if our mission as Christians is only to tell the world what it has done wrong in our eyes, I don’t know that our voices will be heard.  Jesus, however, was heard by many (although not everyone… another discussion for later perhaps?).

Let’s continue to look to Jesus’ example and seek an understanding for how evangelicals are called to interfaith work.

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The Kingdom and the Interfaith Movement

This really has nothing to do with Mickey Mouse - I promise.

 

As a Christian, I think that the Kingdom of God has something to do with the interfaith movement.

Okay, let me explain:

I talk to (well, okay… I really hear about much more than I actually talk to) many Christians who aren’t interested in the interfaith movement because of two primary reasons:

1. Fear that participation in the interfaith movement represents a condoning of spiritual practices and/or theological systems that are inconsistent with the Bible

– AND –

2. A lack of appeal, as the interfaith movement doesn’t set an obvious place for a traditional notion of evangelism

Now, reason 1 is easy to address– we simply need more Christians who have actually given the interfaith movement a chance and who understand and practice a model for interfaith cooperation that does not blur the lines between faith traditions and does not require you to state that you’re a-okay with anyone and everyone believing anything and everything they want to believe.

Reason 2, on the other hand, is trickier.  And as we’ve been gnawing away at reason 2 for a few months here at FLP, I’ve started to discover something: the Kingdom of God has something to do with the interfaith movement.

But what?

First, let me be up-front with what I am not saying.  The Bible does not paint a picture of a society in which people of different faith and philosophical traditions work together to make the world a better place and then call it “God’s Dream Society On Earth.”  If I were saying this, I would be fabricating a faith tradition that wasn’t Biblical, and I would have created a cheap derivative of Christianity.

So here’s what I am saying: the Bible, more specifically the New Testament–and even more specifically, the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John)– do start to paint a picture of what we might call “God’s Dream Society On Earth.”  And it’s called the Kingdom of God…but it’s not the interfaith movement.

Yet there’s a connection here:  Jesus preached the gospel, which is not to be confused with the gospels, the written accounts of Jesus life, death, and resurrection (i.e. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John).  “Gospel,” translated from the Greek euangelion , also the source of the English word “evangelism,” means “good news.”  And Jesus preached it.

Jesus preached the gospel, which is to say the he preached the good news, and this good news was about something – it was about the Kingdom of God.

So Jesus preached the good news of the Kingdom of God.

And now, I have something to argue with my faith tradition: what are WE preaching?

Are we preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God?  Or are we preaching something else – an incomplete gospel, or a misguided gospel, or a mistaken gospel?

You see, I think that the failure to see an opportunity to be evangelical (i.e. telling the good news) in the interfaith movement reflects a failure to preach the gospel that Jesus was preaching, as well as a failure to see the gospel that Jesus was preaching.

Scot McKnight says in his book One.Life: “After years of speaking at churches and teaching classes, I’m convinced the average person doesn’t know what Jesus meant when he used the word kingdom.”

And Scot later continues to put it plainly (and in a way we can all understand):

“By kingdom, Jesus means: God’s Dream Society on earth

A comment on one of our recent posts said “nobody has a monopoly on the proper method of evangelism.”  I agree.  But I’m also convinced that if the “good news” our evangelism is preaching is only the “accept Christ to avoid hell, and then lead a pious life” track, then we are missing a crucial part of the story.  The Kingdom of God is something bigger.

So what is the Kingdom of God?  This piece is meant to be a teaser – because I think the only way to really understand the Kingdom of God is to return to the source through which it is communicated – the Bible.  So, here’s an invitation: join me in a little journey as I go back through the gospels over the next several weeks for a look at exactly what Jesus’ Kingdom of God message is all about.  Until then, I leave you with something to think about:

I believe our job as Christians is to communicate the good news of the Kingdom of God, just as Jesus did.  And what were some of the primary techniques Jesus used?  Storytelling and service.

These are precisely the tools of the interfaith movement.  The interfaith movement invites us to come to the conversation to serve others and to tell stories, and to do that service and tell those stories in context of relationships with people of other faith traditions.

Does anyone see where this is going?

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Dialogue or Debate?

Last spring, there was a public conversation between atheist John Loftus and Christian Dinesh D’Souza on my campus.  It was well-publicized and well-attended – packing the 1,936 seat auditorium with an audience from all walks of life.

Such a buzz, however, produced little.  It took the form of a debate: a minister-turned-atheist who attempted to use his vast education in the Christian tradition to legitimize his conclusions about the nonexistence of God and an academic Christian who presented his faith with an air of intelligence and logic.

Their banter got my thoughts churning about why I believe what I believe, but I walked out of the auditorium the same person I was when I entered – although perhaps a little more frustrated.  And at many points during the debate, especially when their exchange began to seep into ad hominem attacks instead of formal debate, I wondered what the hundreds of students here were hoping to accomplish by attending.

Interfaith work, rooted in respectful dialogue, presents a different kind of conversation about religion.  My friend Chris Stedman, a secular humanist, once said:

“This is the difference between dialogue and debate: debate is sharing in hopes of convincing; dialogue is sharing and listening in hopes of increasing understanding. In my opinion, we need more of the latter and less of the former.”

I agree with Chris.  And here’s why: history has shown us that little is accomplished in debate.  I’m willing to bet both sides of the issue, especially when that issue is the existence of God, walk out of the room more frustrated and annoyed than enlightened.  Dialogue, however, has the potential to inspire, build understanding, and develop relationships.

But let’s step back for a moment.  As an evangelical, I believe that the world needs to hear the message that my faith teaches.  I believe that it’s something of eternal consequence, and I believe that the loving approach to my neighbor is to communicate that message to them.  So when it comes to a choice between debate with the hope of convincing, and dialogue with the hope of increasing understanding, which do I choose?

For some time I would have chosen debate.  Naturally, an issue of eternal consequence carries a sense of urgency.  But since I began doing interfaith work, I have come to question the effectiveness of debate.  And I’ve heard it said that it is a symptom of insecurity that I’m not interested in arguing my faith’s validity against its greatest critics.  So is it a cop-out?

No, I choose dialogue because of my security in my faith.  I choose dialogue because it is an ally more powerful the soundest argument.  I choose dialogue because Jesus spread a message of love through listening, serving, and telling stories, not attacking, condemning or criticizing.  I choose dialogue because I believe that Jesus is the Truth and that understanding the truth is more powerful than being persuaded of it.

I have found that being a Christian in interfaith work does not mean putting evangelism on hold–no, it means understanding better what evangelism is all about, and taking the message of Jesus Christ to a table where ears are open and lives can be changed.

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