Author Archives: Rachael McNeal

What makes Evangelicals Different?

I appreciated this piece over at HuffPo by Brett McCracken. He wrties,

Evangelical difference should not be about retreating from or picking battles with the culture, but rather embracing the path of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “the cost of discipleship,” a commitment to living in the footsteps of Christ, even if it means living out of the mainstream of culture.

This is a good reminder for me to consider how I am “set apart” as a Christian while interacting in a relevant way with the world around me. That is why the contributors at Faith Line Protestants are so committed articulating our theology of interfaith cooperation. I do not engage in interfaith cooperation and dialogue so that I can “shed the baggage of my grandmother’s religion,” but rather to (as McCracken writes) “genuinely and passionately follow after Christ, manifesting through their lives something refreshingly different.”

At least that is my hope.

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Glimmers of Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He didn’t bite.

Sigh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where have you seen glimmers of hope lately?

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Rev. Ferguson on Pragmatic Evangelism

What is the role of the Church in times of crisis? Rev. Darren A. Ferguson talks about how his Church dealt with the aftermath of Hurrican Sandy in his New Jersey community in his Sojourners piece “Evangelism After the Storm.”

We served hot Thanksgiving meals to more than 300 residents of Far Rockaway. When I arrived on that day, I walked from the entrance of our lot to the parking area where the tent was set up. I saw people of all colors, cultures, religions, and orientations, working together for the common good. There were no Blacks or Whites, Republicans or Democrats, no Liberals or Conservatives, Straight or Gay, but only people – together. This great quilt of caring lavished love and hope on the people of our community by providing a true Thanksgiving fellowship and meal.

Read the full article HERE.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Really?” asked the receptionist.

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

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

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

These claims aren’t actually wholly true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do not bear false witness against your neighbor.

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

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6 Evangelicals You Should Know

Tom Krattenmaker of the Oregan Faith Report introduces us to 6 Evangelicals who are leading the way into a new generation of evangelicalism. These leaders

Embody aspects of the change under way in evangelical America, and whose work is clearing out a larger space for the common good

Read about these evangelical leaders HERE. What do you think? Is anyone missing?

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More on the Good Samaritan

barettoRev. Dr. Eric D. Barreto offers a commentary on the story of the Good Samaritan in his Huffington Post Piece “Good Samaritans All Around.”

In short, we might discover that loving God and neighbor know no bounds, that if we look at the world with God’s eyes we would see Good Samaritans all around us.

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Rachel Held Evans on Biblical Literalism and Judgmentalism

Rachel Held Evans thoughtfully discusses Biblical interpretation and judgmentalism in “Everyone’s a Biblical Literalist Until you Bring up Gluttony.”

It’s hard to “other” the people we know and love the most. It’s become a cliché, but everything changes when it’s your brother or sister who gets divorced, when it’s your son or daughter who is gay, when it’s your best friend who struggles with addiction, when it’s your husband or wife asking some good questions about Christianity you never thought about before. Our relationships have a tendency to destroy our categories, to melt black and white into gray, and I don’t think God is disappointed or threatened by this.

How can we apply this to our relationships (or lack thereof) with those of other religious and secular identities?

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Principled Pluralism: The Challenge of Religious Diversity in 21st Century America

Eboo Patel, Jim Wallis and Meryl Chertoff discuss last week’s Aspen Ideas Festival and the challenge of religious diversity on HuffPost Religion.

Religious differences can be a potent source of social tension, as evidenced by bloody conflicts from Belfast to the Balkans to Baghdad. However, as with race and gender, religious diversity is a source of strength and richness when properly engaged.

Read it here.

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