Category Archives: Stories

Prophets, Questions, and a Dream

As we continue to reflect on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. this week, check out this Sojourners post by Joe Kay, “Prophets, Questions, and a Dream.”

Here’s a taste: “Prophets are always asking questions. Tough questions. Unsettling questions. Questions that they pose to themselves, then try to answer by how they live.”

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Mission Trip Potential

This summer, I went on two mission trips with my church youth group through Sierra Service Project.  SSP was founded in 1975 by a group of United Methodists (now it is more ecumenical) who wanted to provide young people with the opportunity to serve with others in rural and urban communities.  Last week, we slept on a gym floor in Chiloquin, Oregon, where we served members of the Klamath Tribes (a few weeks ago, we were in Susanville, CA serving the Susanville Indian Rancheria).  All of the youth are split up from the church groups they came with and put into work teams.  My team helped stack firewood and painted a shed for an elderly woman with painful arthritis.  The work teams labored from 9am to 4pm everyday, shared a simple PB&J lunch at the worksite alongside a midday devotional, came back to shower, and then participated in evening programs, which included cultural programming from a representative of the Klamath Tribes.  Oh, and lest I forget that the youth have their cell phones taken away on Day 1.

We had a wonderful time learning from our homeowners, about God, and more about each other, but there was one thing that really amazed me about the SSP experience: the youth bonded very quickly.  There was something magical about a gym floor being the great equalizer.  On the first night, the staff encouraged everyone to take off their “cool jackets” and put on their “social sweaters” instead.  There was programming that talked about dismantling stereotypes.  The theme of the week was “Just Love, Just Serve,” which connoted the idea of a simple (of course, we know its not that simple!) love of our neighbors and also love and service that enacts justice for all in our world.  The youth participants really took this to heart and a very welcoming environment was developed quickly.  After six days, there were tears in many youth and adult eyes, knowing that this glimpse of God’s love in human community was over until next summer.

Since SSP is a Christian organization, many of the themes had a scriptural basis.  Each workgroup developed a covenant based on 1 Corinthians 13 (“Love is patient, love is kind…”).  We had discussion and an art project based on Micah 6:8.  On a spiritual walk, we interpreted the Lord’s Prayer and discerned what God might be trying to tell us directly.  The last night ended with a Love Feast, an old Methodist ritual (we are known for our potlucks, after all!), where we served each other in community a sweet treat (vanilla wafers and peanut butter, in this case) to show how sweet God’s grace is in our lives.  Overall, it was a well-blended mix of faith, love, and service with enough take-aways to continue similar work in our local church settings.

For myself, I know that United Methodist camping ministry has been a huge part of my faith formation.  It is where I was affirmed most and where an inkling of my own call to ministry began.  There is just something about getting away from one’s quotidian life and taking an adventure with little expectations and seeing what you can discover about God and yourself.  For teenagers and young adults, these experiences are priceless.

Being an interfaith leader and a contributor for this blog, my SSP experience got my intellectual and dreaming wheels turning.  What would be the benefit of weeklong (or longer) camping/service trips with an interfaith focus?  Would there be a benefit?  I think there would be immense benefit, but such a program would have to be very tactful and intentional.  Much like faith formation in any tradition, forming a young person for leadership in a religiously diverse world is not to be done halfheartedly.  Needless to say, I think organizations like Sierra Service Project have a really good model from which an interfaith focus could begin.

Are there any thoughts from other interfaith leaders out there?

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When doing the Christian thing isn’t the right thing

707084_12414975I used to be a Bible study leader.

And per the undergraduate campus fellowship tradition, it kept me busy: Sunday brunch community building, Monday night small groups, Tuesday leadership meetings, and Wednesday training sessions. Discipleship, one-on-ones, social activities, all-campus worship, weekend retreats, week-long retreats, all-day retreats, evangelism workshops, work day, capture the flag, scavenger hunts, and prayer meetings.

But what I remember most vividly are Thursdays.

 

Every Thursday. The evening walk through campustown, past bars and restaurants beginning to fill with my peers, through a door almost hidden to the unaware, flanked by a man sitting on the ground. The man is dirty and unkempt. Sometimes he’s panhandling. Sometimes he’s asleep. On one occasion, he eats, still alone, from a small bag of popcorn one of my fellow Bible study leaders had brought to him.

The man catches my attention, yet I don’t show it. I don’t ask his name, or where he goes when he doesn’t sit by the door, or how he manages to stay warm through Midwestern winters. Thursdays are obligatory for Bible study leaders, so maybe that’s why I try to ignore the man. Maybe that’s why I feel I can’t stop to ask him his name. Or maybe being a Bible study leader is just a convenient excuse to keep walking.

So every Thursday I climb the stairs behind that door, leaving the man below, allowing him to fade into the background until he is just another distant person, indistinguishable from those filling the pub across the street or sleeping on their textbooks in the library across the quad. Suddenly the band is on stage, the rhythm of worship distracts me, channeling an energy which gives way to reflection, to reverence, to calm. Every Thursday.

And then it’s over. And like all good Bible study leaders, I greet friends, practice fellowship, welcome newcomers. We leave in groups to study or socialize. I don’t notice if the man is still there when we leave.

 

This man has come to represent many things to me in my faith journey, and something I’ve encountered this week brings my thoughts back to him.

There is a certain logic among many Christians which says that it is necessary to proselytize on account of our tradition’s teaching that our truth is exclusive. Because our exclusive truth teaches us that the consequence is damnation for those who do not subscribe, we feel we must convince others of our truth. At all costs. At any length. Whatever it takes. To not do so, we reason, would be unloving.

I happen to agree – to a certain extent – with this logic. But I also happen to disagree with where this logic has led many Christians: to the notion that we must be aggressive, abrasive, disrespectful and judgmental.

I believe that the problem evangelicalism faces today is that we have forgotten the very example that we claim to follow. The example of a servant, preacher, and prophet who was a friend of those that religious leaders considered sinners and outcasts. In fact, Jesus seemed to value relationships over regulations and rituals, whether that relationship was with someone of a different tradition, someone society hated, or someone religious leaders considered immoral.

What we Christians fail to see is that the most important way to relate to a person who believes differently is not to convince them of how they are wrong, which we have tried with every method available—approaches which ironically seem to make our message even less convincing. What is more important is to communicate the message of our faith, the Gospel (hint: it’s about more than just being a sinner).

But unfortunately, we haven’t been taught how to communicate the Gospel. We’ve been taught how to lead Bible studies and have fellowship, how to run prayer meetings, and draw the bridge diagram.

But we haven’t learned to communicate the Gospel.

Why do I say this? Because the Gospel is not only communicated through words, but also how we live our lives. And when I was faced with the opportunity to live according to the Gospel, I felt obligated to abandon it on the street, on my way to being a good Bible study leader.

I credit two people with teaching me how to communicate the Gospel. One of them is a Christian living in the slums of Philadelphia, and the other is a Muslim.

So that’s why I quit being a Bible study leader. Not because it’s the wrong thing to be, but because it kept me too busy to do the right thing. Because while I participated dutifully in Christian activities, a homeless man sat outside in the cold and ate popcorn. Because Shane Claiborne reminded me that Jesus would have quit being a Bible study leader too, to sit alongside that man, if for no other reason than to ask him his name and eat popcorn together.

And because Eboo Patel taught me that you don’t have to do that alone. Even if you’re the only Christian eating popcorn with a homeless man while your fellow believers sing songs and socialize upstairs, if you invite them, there are Jews, Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, Jains, and Buddhists who will join you. And the funny thing is that authentic dialogue begins to happen in these sorts of situations – you build relationships and you share stories, simply because you all agree that no one should have to eat popcorn alone in the cold.

And even though you might not observe the conversion experience your evangelism training taught you to expect, your actions have communicated something deeper than your words, and your stories have taken on fuller meaning. And there’s a good chance that you’ve convinced them all of something about the Gospel.

 

This piece originally appeared at Sojourners.

Image credit.

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

surfer

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.
__________________________________________

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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A War That Builds Bridges, Not Bombs


Last month, Richard Proudfit stood before a black-tie crowd in Washington D.C. with a medal around his neck and announced that he was declaring war…

Read more at this article’s original location on Sojourners, or read the re-post at Huffington Post Religion.

 

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Exploring the [non] Religious Landscape: Thoughts on CNN Belief’s 1st Birthday

Photo courtesy of CNNBelief blog (http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/06/08/10-things-the-belief-blog-learned-in-its-first-year/)

 

Being a young blog, FLP still has more than a few lessons to learn. Thus it caught my eye when I came across a post on CNNBelief by CNN.com Religion Editor Dan Gilgoff entitled, “10 things the Belief Blog learned in its first year.” When an established news site throws around any kind of advice, it’s perhaps best to take it, so I clicked.

Though some of Gilgoff’s observations didn’t surprise me, I found many of them rather compelling for their relation to interfaith concerns. (See specifically numbers 1, 2, 5, 6, and 7.)

And as Religious Literacy Chair of Interfaith in Action (the student interfaith organization at University of Illinois of which Greg and I are a part), I was personally quite interested in numbers 3, 4, and 5 of Gilgoff’s list, which were not all that encouraging to someone who makes it a goal to promote religious understanding.

Yet the points I thought most noteworthy for FLP, and the ones I will focus on in this post, are the following (along with my commentary):

1. Every big news story has a faith angle.

I love that this is number one. Why? Because one’s faith (or lack thereof) is perhaps the single most significant aspect to shaping how one views the world. “Faith angle[s]” are part of every news story because they are part of every person’s story. It is this use of story that underpins much of interfaith cooperation and understanding.

2. Atheists are the most fervent commenters on matters religious.

Why is this one pertinent for the mission of FLP? Because the non-religious as well as the religious should—and can—participate in interfaith cooperation based around shared values of service. Our friend Chris Stedman is working tirelessly to inject interfaith cooperation into the conversations taking place in the atheist community. (Check him out at Non-Prophet Status, in our “Friends” bar at the top of the page.)

4.   Most Americans are religiously illiterate.

The first step to cooperation is understanding. Ignorance breeds ill-will, and I can’t express how difficult it can be to achieve any level of understanding if one has no context from which to work. Can you understand Christianity without understanding where it derives its ethic? Without understanding Christ and his teachings? I would say “no.”

Through sharing personal stories, the IFYC’s model for interfaith service projects seeks to build religious literacy while also building relationships. Until one has an intellectual framework to build upon (made from stories of individuals or from the pages of a textbook), it is foolish to expect any sort of peaceful coexistence or cooperation among those of different beliefs.

5. It’s impossible to understand much of the news without knowing something about religion.

This one links closely with the number preceding it. Misunderstanding the teachings and beliefs of those in other countries (and even at home) contributes to the “othering” and alienation of those different from us. To fully understand things like the Arab Spring, for instance, one must know a few things about Islam. (Which, clearly, we don’t. See no. 4 above and no. 7 below.)

6.  Regardless of where they fit on the spectrum, people want others to understand what they believe. That goes for pagans, fundamentalist Mormons, Native Americans, atheists – everyone.

I would say that this acts as a kind of proof or confirmation of my assertion above that to not understand someone is to make them more alien. I think that people desire to be heard because they desire to be taken seriously—no one enjoys feeling misunderstood, and thus looked down upon, because of their difference from others.

7. Americans still have an uneasy relationship with Islam.

This is perhaps the most obvious one to discuss on a blog that promotes interfaith cooperation, and sadly makes even more sense on a blog that focuses on the Christian community’s involvement in interfaith cooperation more specifically. I know that many in the Christian community don’t have any problem at all with their Muslim neighbors; however, this sentiment is by no means a general rule. Prominent public figures continue to make disparaging and uninformed statements about the Islamic community that only further strife and division, even going so far as to place Islam on trial. (For more on this, see my recent post on Herman Cain.) Hate crimes continue to occur at mosques all across the nation. Clearly, we have still not come to understand that those who attacked us in September of 2001 were not Muslims, but extremists.

So what does one take away from this list?

I believe this list gives numerous reasons for reflection, but the one that sticks out most is this: there is much work to be done. We seem more hateful, more religiously illiterate, and quicker to judge than we should be. What do you think? Do you agree with this assessment? What do you make of the list featured in the article?

More importantly, how do we change it? How does our faith impact or inform Gilgoff’s observations? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Dust and Ash: Reflections on Terry Jones’ “Trial” of the Koran

Image Taken from the HuffPost. (Links below.)

 

I can imagine the dust—both the desert dust and the ash of the burned book.

The Bible says that God made us from dust; recently the church calendar celebrated a day of dust—Ash Wednesday—in which we were reminded of the transience of life by the smearing of oil, water, and ash on our foreheads. The liturgy in my tradition tells us: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

But instead of following in the footsteps of Jesus, giving up something for Lent in a symbol of solidarity with Christ’s temptation in the desert, Florida pastor Terry Jones and his congregation held a trial. A trial for the Koran. In the end, they deemed it “guilty,” and burned it.

In a piece I posted a few weeks ago, I reflected on my time abroad and shared a few stories of my experiences as an American in a foreign country. I titled it: “More Dispatches from Abroad: Why Interfaith in America Matters.” It didn’t garner many readers or spur any sort of discussion, but in light of recent events, perhaps it will now.

My closing statements used Terry Jones as an example, warning that the world takes notice when America makes threats to burn holy books or, as in the case of Peter King, put a faith group on trial. If we are to diffuse the hate and negative reputation that follows the US as a bigoted and hypocritical country, then we have to saturate the discussion with stories of cooperation and peace. The world watches us. They hear us. And now that Jones has in fact burned a Koran (and others did in fact take notice)—with the result that 12 people are now dead—I think the discussion becomes evermore pertinent.

We are now on day four of the violent protests. Since I began this piece on Saturday, the death toll has climbed to over 20 people and counting, and 80 have been injured as the protests have turned to riots.

There is in this situation a tendency to point at the Afghan Muslims as fulfilling Jones’ perceptions of them as being violent, rash, and hateful toward the US. However, I would say that this characterization of Islam is unfair; it’s the equivalent of shoving someone on the playground and then being surprised when they retaliate.

Make no mistake, I am in no way saying that these Afghan’s actions were justified—they certainly were not. Nothing can justify what they did, not even the burning of a sacred object. To argue that somehow the Afghans were right to act out would be to say that human life is less sacred that wood pulp and ink, and that is simply false.

But it does give one pause.

The political situation in Afghanistan toward the United States was tenuous at best before Jones started advertising his “Burn the Koran Day,” and now by actually following through on his threats he has sent a very dangerous signal to the Afghan Muslims that has the potential to paint the “War on Terror” as a holy war. And all of this elevated tension comes just as we start withdrawing our troops.

The actions on both sides speak to severe dysfunction. Both parties highlight the need for dialogue and understanding. If Terry Jones and his congregation actually knew anything about Islam, then they wouldn’t have entertained the idea of burning a Koran. And likewise, if the Afghan Muslims knew that the vast majority of Christians in the US condemned Jones’  actions, perhaps they wouldn’t allow their anger to lead to murder.

Most disappointingly, the Christian community has largely balked at any sort of response (probably because there is no unified Christian community to issue one), and seems awkwardly silent in the wake of such a terrible tragedy. The statements coming from Jones’ church are calloused, insensitive, and woefully unapologetic. They just don’t seem to get it. What they did cost people their lives, and continues to perpetuate harmful relations between the Christian and Muslim communities.

I will repeat it again: interfaith cooperation in America matters. We need to set the example. Otherwise, the voice of intolerance and hate rings louder than the voice of peace.

For more information on this story, follow these links: CNN, HuffPost.

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More Dispatches from Abroad: Why Interfaith in America Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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