Author Archives: Rachael McNeal

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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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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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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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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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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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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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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