Category Archives: Guest Blogs

Reframing our view of Religious Terrorism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SIDENOTE: STOP COMPARING HOLY WARS

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

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

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

ISIS IS NOT ISLAM

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHIFTING THE PARADIGM: CALLING TERRORISM WHAT IT IS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Hannah Pynn, guest writer for Faithline Protestants.

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

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

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

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

A non-christian Campus

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

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

I thought christians were oppressed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christians as the oppressor

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do I do with my christian privilege?

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

Philippians 2:6-8

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

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

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

 

More readings on christian privilege:

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

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

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

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The Elephant in the Room: Christian Privilege & Interfaith Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Schlosser’s list I would add the following:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shalom/Sala’am/Peace,

~ Lisa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

wijnants

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

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

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

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

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

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From polemicist to peacemaker

John publicity photo

John W. Morehead
Guest Author

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Selfishness of Salvation

N_Train_Enters_30th_Avenue_StationThis is a rant mostly relevant to my fellow Christians. Anyone else is welcome to come along for the ride though.

Recently, I saw a young man loudly shouting to the captive audience during the rush hour on the N train. Specifically, he was passionately pontificating on the certain damnation that awaited those who strayed from the Way of the one Jesus Christ, complete with the vivid imagery of fire and brimstone. But the reward if we choose wisely is an eternity with riches in heaven. Accustomed to any and all forms of absurdity, the mix of tired businessmen and women, several young Latina mothers an Orthodox Jewish man and an old Chinese woman with a pushcart of the wares she was vending, seemed rather unimpressed. Afterall, if you ride the subway in Queens, you’ve probably seen it all.

That’s when it struck me. I was quite familiar with the story, as I myself am an evangelical Christian, and remembering being sent to the streets of Portland in middle school to evangelize, complete with a small paper track that described the four-step path to salvation. Granted, our approach was much kinder than the hell and damnation talk we were witnessing this late spring afternoon, when the newly arrived humidity finds itself into the bowels of the city, and into the traincars struggling to air-condition the smell away.

But I was also struck with another thought, a new, perplexing, troubling, thought. Something about the reward of salvation made the whole thing feel a bit self-centered. Salvation was at the center of all Christian theology I was taught. The single most important thing in life was my status as “saved.” The only other thing that mattered was convincing more people to adopt said “saved” status.

While I still identify as an evangelical, my tendency to question has allowed me to grow theologically beyond some of the more common peripheral beliefs of the evangelical movement. It has given the opportunity to hear this language with fresh ears. Upon doing so, salvation-focused theology poses two issues to me.

The first issue dived into the very basis of our morality. As Christians we’re called to live a moral life. Without going into the much larger (and warranted) debate on the nature or morality, morality is most commonly seen as the way one should act to be a good, selfless person. Putting ethical standards above our own wants and needs. However, are we truly selfless in our actions if we are seeking a reward? If I help someone with no desire for a return, then we would assume that’s moral. But if I help someone because I believe next year they’ll give back to be tenfold? It sounds like an investment.

Here lies the challenge of spiritual investment: If we are are only being honest, faithful, loyal and humble for the payment of an eternal mansion in the sky, then are we really being “good people”? If we allow salvation to be our true motive in living moral lives, then I can’t see how we’re not self-serving in the process. Do good, or else.

Which brings me to the second issue, the else. Just as heaven makes a compelling incentive for upright living, hell sure sounds like a scary place. And we can work our way backwards. If my main reason for serving God and living righteously is out of fear of eternal damnation, then how authentic is my devotion?

This is a line of logic that you can take into very murky territory. Is there any good you could do worth risking of your salvation? Today, like everyday, 16,000 children will die of hunger-related causes. Would you risk your salvation to keep them alive? If God would punish you for taking such a risk, is a God worthy of worship? Would you embrace eternal damnation upon yourself to end all human suffering? These hypotheticals should challenge us to ask if we’re really selfless in our daily lives, or just following the rules for the rewards.

This isn’t an argument about how we should look at the concepts of heaven and hell. It’s about motivation. If we let go of whether or not we are saved, or other people are saved, and love as Jesus instructed, perhaps the rest can work itself out. Maybe if we focused on making sacrifice, actual sacrifice from our own comfort for the glory of God in selfless service, rather than shouting at crowd of commuters on the N train, people may actually take notice.

This piece originally appeared here in Huffington Post Religion.

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Thinking Theologically About Interfaith Work (Part 2)

This blog is a re-post from ProdigalPreacher, a blog by Nicholas Price. Thanks to Nick for allowing us to re-post his piece. We’ll close comments for this piece on our site so you can join us in the discussion on the original post at http://prodigalpreacher.wordpress.com/2012/07/03/thinking-theologically-about-interfaith-work-part-2/

What follows is Part 2 of my series “Thinking Theologically about Interfaith Work”, which looks at interfaith engagement from an evangelical Christian perspective.  In this installment I wanted to tackle some of the barriers and opportunities that I see to evangelicals getting involved in interfaith work.  As I was trying to write this section I realize that I can’t simply separate out the barriers and opportunities, because so many of them are intertwined.  So, I thought I would just tackle a couple of the issues head-on and discuss how some of these things could be barriers, if handled poorly, and yet serve as ways forward if handled with care and respect.

While my last post was a little bit more thought out, this one is going to be pretty rough.  So, I hope you all will read it as an attempt at dialogue as opposed to a well-developed explanation of these issues.  So, without further ado, here are a couple of the key issues that could either block or encourage evangelical participation in interfaith work.

Treating the Allergy of Exclusivity

In my experience, there are two groups of people who find themselves quarantined in any interfaith gathering:  atheists and evangelicals.  Though it sounds like the beginning of a bad bar joke, the reality is that both atheists and evangelicals find themselves on the receiving end of suspicious questions and nervous glances at interfaith gatherings.  I think the assumption is that, because of our particular beliefs, we are not very open to meeting with, befriending, or learning from people of other backgrounds.  Atheists because they don’t have any religious beliefs.  Evangelicals because we only accept one religious belief as valid:  namely, ours.

While both of these statements are true, that does not mean that we are not interested in interfaith work.  Furthermore, it does not mean that we are openly hostile to interreligious dialogue.  Just because I might not agree with or accept another person’s religious belief does not mean that I hate the person or that I’m out to destroy positive interfaith work.  I admit that there have been evangelicals who have operated this way, and for those people I apologize and say that I am sorry for the ways in which members of my own community have hurt those of other communities.  But just because someone may hold an exclusive truth claim about their religious tradition does not mean that they cannot or would not want to be involved in interfaith dialogue.

In fact, my suspicion is that there are a lot more exclusivists in interfaith circles than we might immediately think.  The reality is that none of us would hold the religious or philosophical position that we hold if we did not think that what we believed was more right than what someone else believes.  This goes for even the most open-minded universalist.  In fact, it has often been the open-minded universalists who are the most persistant in trying to get me to stop believing what I believe and adopt their own religious or philosophical position.  I dunno….that sounds an awful lot like evangelism to me:p

You see my point.  We all come into interfaith spheres holding beliefs and positions that are incompatible with those held by others.  Yet, when it comes to evangelicals, there seems to be a double standard when it comes to voicing our particular positions.  As long as this double standard exists, evangelicals will shy away from interfaith discussions and common action, not because they don’t believe it is valuable, but because they have been led to believe that they will not be valued.  I would hope that when we enter these kinds of discussions with one another we would find commonalities, but we should not be afraid of encountering differences as well.

And this brings me to my second point…

Similarities AND Differences

If interfaith work is going to be truly substantive, it needs to address both similarities and differences.  Oftentimes the starting point for interfaith dialogue and service is the similarities that span across various faith traditions.  In fact, when I first started working with the Interfaith Youth Core, this was their modus operandi.  At every IFYC event we would talk about what, from our faith traditions, inspired us to serve others.  The underlying assumption:  we would find that we had service in common and should start there.  This was very effective for motivating us toward cooperative action and, honestly, there isnothing wrong with that.

However, too often interfaith work stops there.  We circle around similarities, but do very little to talk about or address our differences.  The result is that our interactions with one another remain superficial and do not move into deeper territory, where we are learning to form relationships in which we understand each other in ways that value the who we are in all of our commonalities and distinctives.  The evangelical community takes its theological distinctives very seriously and, when we find ourselves in an environment where we are not allowed to talk about them or learn about others, we get turned off and don’t feel like we can be truly authentic to our faith commitments.  This is why interfaith workers need to build spaces where we can talk about both our similarities and differences in constructive ways.

If interfaith work is to truly become a force for positive change and interaction between religious communities it needs to equip and train people to learn to talk with one another in a way that build bridges even as we talk about our differences.  In fact, I think that demonstrating that we can disagree and still work together for the common good will be the greatest apologetic for interfaith work’s effectiveness.

This is why I am happy that, as the IFYC has matured, it has adopted a more robust understanding of interfaith engagement that both addresses commonalities and differences.  In fact, one of the best interfaith discussions that I ever saw took place at one of their conferences on interfaith youth work.  One of their panel discussions featured a Jewish rabbi, a Muslim activist, an Evangelical Christian writer, and a Humanist chaplain each talk about why they believe what they believe and what they feel makes their faith tradition/worldview unique.  They then went on to talk about why, even in the face of these differences, they believe interfaith work and engagement is valuable.  It was one of the most robust and exciting discussions I have ever seen, because it meaningfully engaged both similarities and differences in a way that was constructive and enlightening.  I would hope that more and more interfaith events and programs would do likewise.

The Worship Question

Another area that can be a barrier for evangelicals in interfaith work is the idea of “worshipping” together.  While I’ve seen this come up less and less over the years, every once in a while a well meaning interfaith organizer will suggest an interfaith worship service as a way of bringing people of different religious backgrounds together.  As an evangelical, this is just not something that I subscribe to.  When we, as Christians, gather together to worship, we believe that it is incumbent upon us to worship the triune God in Spirit and truth (John 4:23).  As such we believe that worship is a sacred space in which we honor God for who He has revealed Himself to be:  as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, with His ultimate self-revelation coming to us in the person of Jesus Christ.  To water that down by openly saying or even appearing to imply that the God we worship is the same as that of any other faith tradition would be to betray this relationship in our eyes.  As such, we cannot join in this kind of “worship” experience with other communities.

Furthermore, I suspect that evangelicals are not the only ones who feel uncomfortable in such instances.  I’ve had many conversations over the years with devout Muslims and Jews who have also felt some trepidation at participating in these kinds of events because they believe that doing so would be disrespectful to God.  As such, interfaith organizers would do well to be aware of those who would be uncomfortable with such an event and reconsider how best to move forward.

That being said, I think there are other helpful alternatives that can be used in interfaith interactions.  The first is being willing to visit each others’ places of worship in order to learn and understand one another’s faith traditions more fully.  In fact, one of my favorite experiences in college was going to the local mosque every Ramadan with some of my Muslim friends to learn about this important Islamic holiday.   Inevitably, during the fast-breaking meal at the end of the day, we would get into theological discussions and debates about our faith traditions, God, and Jesus.  Yet, these we done so in a spirit of generosity, around a shared meal, and with trusted friends.  And every year I was honored to be invited back.  Again, I had a chance to learn about the significance of prayer and worship in the Muslim community, in a place and time that allowed them to be fully who they were as religious people.  Likewise, I have, on many occasions, invited friends of mine who are not Christians to come to church with me and learn about what it is we believe as Christians and see how we worship God.  In both of these examples, these encounters have  prompted great discussions and exchanges about both similarities and differences, and can serve as a model for other interfaith interactions.

Another alternative would be hosting an event in which various faith communities were invited to artistically express what they believe.  This could be done through visual arts, dance, song, poetry, and so forth.  Oftentimes many of these artistic forms are used in worship within our own communities and it is often as an act of worship that some of the world’s most beautiful religious art is produced.  By doing so we would get a glimpse into what it means to worship God, the divine, etc within each other’s faith communities in an way that allows for learning and engagement, but also does not put us in a position in which we are compromising our deeply held religious beliefs.

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Thinking Theologically About Interfaith Work (Part 1)

This blog is a re-post from ProdigalPreacher, a blog by Nicholas Price. Thanks to Nick for allowing us to re-post his piece. We’ll close comments for this piece on our site so you can join us in the discussion on the original post at http://prodigalpreacher.wordpress.com/2012/06/18/thinking-theologically-about-interfaith-work-part-1/

INTRODUCTION TO THE SERIES

Since college, my path has regularly crossed those of interfaith workers.  I’ve had a chance to work with leaders and pioneers like Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, as well as up-and-coming leaders like Gregory Damhorst, former president of Interfaith in Action and writer at “Faith Line Protestants”.  I’ve also written on the subject at a couple of points, primarily to talk about what interfaith work is and the role it can play in our increasingly inter-related world.

Over the past few years I’ve been immersed in working with InterVarsity, an evangelical Christian movement among college students, so my primary focus has been there.  However, in recent weeks the subject of interfaith work has come up again, specifically from evangelicals asking if they should be involved and, if so, at what level.  In the past I’ve written as an evangelical outsider looking into interfaith circles as well as addressed the practical reasons why evangelicals should be involved in interfaith work.  However, I’ve never really given interfaith work a theological treatment before.

What follows is a three-part series called, “Thinking Theologically About Interfaith Work”.  The first part will deal with some of the biblical passages that I believe provide a Christian framework for interfaith engagement.  The second part will address both the opportunities and the barriers to interfaith work from an evangelical perspective.  Finally, the third part will address my personal hopes for evangelical Christian involvement in interfaith work.

BASIC ASSUMPTIONS

But before I dive into the theological reasons for being involved in interfaith work, I want to briefly address some of my assumptions.  First, I am writing as an evangelical Christian.  That being said, I do not claim to speak for all evangelicals. Some of what I have to say will probably be uncomfortable for interfaith practitioners who are not evangelicals.  Likewise, other points will probably be challenging for my fellow evangelicals.  What I provide here are my own thoughts as a member of this faith tradition and my readers are free to disagree with me on these points.

Second, I am already assuming that evangelicals should be involved in interfaith work.  For my reasons for this, I would direct you to my CrossCurrents article from 2005 (republished on this blog).

Third, I draw my definition of interfaith work and practice from the definition and model articulated by the Interfaith Youth Core and it’s founder, Eboo Patel.  Along with Cassie Meyer, Dr. Patel says that interfaith work, “seeks to bring people of different faiths together in a way that respects different religious identities, builds mutually inspiring relationships, and engages in common action around issues of shared social concern” (Patel & Meyer, 2010).  At points I will both affirm and critique this definition, but it is one of the best that I have seen for positive inter-religious engagement.

My hope for this series is to contribute to the conversation about interfaith engagement.  It is not my desire to be the only word or the final word on the subject.  So, without further ado, let’s look at some of the biblical reasons for evangelicals to be involved in interfaith work.

BIBLICAL REASONS FOR INTERFAITH ENGAGEMENT

What follows is a brief survey of several biblical passages which I believe provide a helpful framework for evangelical engagement in interfaith work.  My reasons for doing this is because of the role the Bible plays in the life of the evangelical community.  We believe that it is God’s authoritative word and that it is trustworthy in its entirety.  As such, we look to it for guidance in every area of life and this includes how we relate to those of other faith traditions.  While there is no explicit passage that I believe encourages interfaith work in the way defined above, there are several passages which lay out principles which point to the need for positive engagement with other faith communities.  While this survey is not exhaustive, I hope it will be helpful for both my fellow evangelicals as well as for those from other faith communities who seek to understand the evangelical community.  For the sake of space, I will point out three texts which I think are instructive, though there are several others that I could cite.

Jeremiah 29:  Beyond Isolationism in Bablyon

“But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exiles, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:7, see also vv.4-6).

This letter from the prophet Jeremiah was addressed to the nation of Israel during a time of great religious and cultural anxiety.  They have been exiled to the enemy nation of Babylon.     Surrounded by a foreign culture, facing incredible pressure to assimilate, and immersed in a religious environment that was very different from their own, the temptation for this community would have been to turn inward:  choosing isolationism as a way of protecting themselves as best they could.

Into these dark circumstances Jeremiah sends the exiles a powerful message:  engage.  God calls his people to engage the surrounding culture and to seek the good and the well-being of their new neighbors, with all of their cultural, political, and religious differences.

In this passage I find a word of encouragment for the evangelical community.  Historically the posture of the evangelical world has been to reject and retreat from the surrounding culture.  While this trend has been changing in the past 20 years, evangelicals have still been reluctant to engage in dialogue and positive social engagement with other faith communities.  However, what we see in Scripture is the call to be involved in the surrounding culture for its benefit, living with and among those we are called to serve.  In fact, the religiously plural environment of ancient Babylon, as well as that of the Roman Empire during the years of the early church, was just as religiously diverse as our present-day American society, if not more so.  And in both the Old and New Testaments, we find the people of God engaging and interacting with their surrounding culture.

During the Babylonian exile alone we encounter examples like that of the prophet Daniel, who actually worked for and served the dictatorship which carried his people off into captivity.  While it is obvious that Daniel did not support every policy, belief, or directive that he was given, he nonetheless worked alongside the Babylonian government, serving it where he felt he could, as a faithful believer in God (you can read his story in the book of Daniel).  His goal was to use his influence for the betterment of the society in which he lived.

We live in an increasingly diverse world and, more and more, our culture is defined by the interactions between various communities and subgroups, not least of which include those of faith.  While there is much difference between these communities, there is also much we hold in common, especially as regards our calling to share and care for the common spaces which we share (communities, schools, political systems, businesses, parks, etc).  Evangelicals should adopt an attitude of creative engagement with these spheres and learn ways to work with their neighbors of various backgrounds for the common good.  For example, if Muslims, Jews, Christians and Hindus all send their children to the same schools, it would be in their interest to work together for the improvement and betterment of that common space.  Creative engagement, not isolation, should characterize our approach when it comes to interacting with various religious communities and people groups.

Matthew 5:  Living as Peacemakers

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
(Matthew 5:9)

In a world that is characterized by the “clash of civilizations”, religious conflict seems to be a disturbingly common occurrence.  Too often religion has been used as a weapon against those who are different.

Interfaith work provides a corrective to this.  With its emphasis on growing in relationships with people of other faith traditions, sharing stories, and working together for the common good, interfaith work provides an alternative story to that put forth by religious extremists and builds relationships across faith lines that can serve as avenues of trust and dialogue when inter-religious conflict rears its head.

As people called to be peacemakers in a violent world, evangelical Christians should be on the front lines of this movement.  Building relationships and working together for peace does not mean we have to sacrifice our religious convictions.  As such, our posture in interfaith work should be one of building bridges and advocating for peace where there is religious conflict.  In doing so, we are able to stay true to our own religious beliefs while also living out this beatitude in regard to our neighbors of other faith backgrounds.

Acts 17:  Religious Literacy in Athens

“People of Athens!  I see that in every way you are very religious…”
(Acts 17:22, see vv.16-34)

Another instructive text for evangelical engagement in interfaith work is found in Acts 17.  In verses 16-34, the apostle Paul is spending time in the Greek city of Athens, a place with a wide variety of religious beliefs and worldviews present.  During his stay there he is invited to share about his own faith with one of the leading intellectual bodies of the city:  the Areopagus.  What follows is an incredible exchange in which Paul demonstrates his own literacy in the religious traditions of the Athenians while also remaining true to his convictions as a Christian evangelist.

While this encounter is a brillant example of humble apologetics and evangelism, it also teaches us something about how we are to approach other religious traditions.  During his defense of the Gospel, Paul quotes two Greek philosophers in his argument:  Epimenides and Aratus.  What is surprising is that he not only quotes them, but affirms the viewpoints that they espoused, using them as a way to build his own case for the Gospel.  While Paul did not agree wholesale with the worldviews of either of these philosophers, he acknowledged that there was some truth to what they taught and he wanted to affirm that.

In Paul, we see that it is possible for evangelicals to affirm some of the truth claims of other faith traditions where those claims align with our own.  This can be a building block toward mutual understanding and respect, as well as a platform from which to begin working together.  Again, it is important not to compromise the Gospel message, but it is also possible to affirm areas of commonality.

As such, evangelicals should have a curiosity about and a desire to grow in their understanding of other world religions.  Interfaith dialogue is a brillant place to start because it begins with a place of sharing and is born out of a desire to increase understanding across faith lines.  As such, evangelicals should not fear entering into such spaces, but can do so with a desire to learn.

CONCLUSION

Again, these were only a few passages among several that I believe can given evangelicals a basis for positive interfaith engagement.  What we see here is that it is possible to remain true to one’s religious convictions while also seeking understanding and building relationships with people from other faith backgrounds.  Furthermore, it is a part of our calling to work together for the betterment of society around us.  Again, doing so does not compromise our core obedience to the Gospel, but can actually serve as a springboard for living it out more faithfully (more on this in coming posts).

In my next entry, I will highlight some of the opportunities and barriers that I see, as an evangelical, to interfaith work.  So stay tuned.

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