Interfaith Dialogue and Youth Ministry

Photo by Rachael K. McNeal

Photo by Rachael K. McNeal

Growing up an Evangelical Christian I understood evangelism as a spiritual practice central and essential to my Christian identity. My experience with people of different religions was limited and in my few choice encounters with religious non-Christians, I am ashamed to say I saw them only as souls to save.

Though as a student at Flagler College I was a Religion major, minoring in youth ministry, it was not until my junior year of college that I was introduced to interfaith dialogue and to theologians such as Jacques Dupuis and Thomas Merton. I liked the idea, but wrestled with interfaith dialogue, questioning its relevance to Christian practice when the goal of such interactions was not conversion of the other.

Then I met Rabbi Mark.

Rabbi Mark Goldman, a Reform Rabbi and adjunct professor at Flagler, challenged his students to better understand their own faith by engaging in relationships with people of other faiths. To this day I admire his love of God and passion for people. His great ability to articulate his own faith and what it means for his life challenged me to better articulate my own.

Yet even in light of my relationship with Rabbi Mark, I continuously compartmentalized my two areas of study, rarely understanding one to be relevant to the other.

Then I took a class here at Princeton Theological Seminary called “Engaging Youth in Interfaith Leadership.” The class, co-led by IFYC’s Cassie Meyer and Eboo Patel and Seminary professor Kenda Dean, gave my fellow graduate students and me an opportunity to explore concepts of interfaith dialogue and how they are relevant for youth ministry.

Our class wrestled to understand how interfaith work is relevant for Christian faith and ministry. Many of us expressed that we understood interfaith work and dialogue as important but were unable to theologically articulate why. Instead we danced around the idea of interfaith dialogue with reasons having seemingly nothing to do with our Christian faith. Some in the class, including myself, had come to realize interfaith dialogue as fruitful and important, but had compartmentalized our interfaith relationships from our Christian faith and practice.

It was at this point that Eboo asked us, “What is it about Jesus that makes you want to do interfaith work?”

I then realized that for me Jesus had been the missing link between interfaith dialogue, Christian practice and youth ministry. Jesus tells us in Mark 2 that the two greatest commandments are to love God and to love our neighbor. The kind of love to which Jesus calls me is a relational love. Christ’s love in the Gospels exemplifies love in God’s Kingdom. As Christians we are called to love as Christ loved.

The love of God accepts all people, embraces all people, and hopes for all people, including those of other faiths. Interfaith dialogue is essential to Christian practice because love and relationship is essential to Christian practice. When I made this connection, it was not difficult to make the next connection to youth ministry.

In Matthew 5:9 Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called Children of God.” Interfaith work gives young people an opportunity to be peacemakers in a very real and very practical way. Isn’t the role of Christian youth ministry to equip young people to understand their role as Children of God in the Kingdom of God?

I have come to understand that interfaith work in youth ministry enables young people to be paradigms of peace in a violent world while equipping them to be examples of God’s love and a glimpse of God’s kingdom.

This post was originally published on Interfaith Youth Core’s Blog on June 1, 2011

Creating a Culture of Unity Through Interfaith Cooperation

http://www.sxc.hu/photo/925147

There’s no question — our country is divided. Tension hangs in the air over every conversation about the budget, gay marriage, immigration, and gun control. Of course, difference of opinion is nothing new in the U.S. This is a democracy after all. With the celebrated First Amendment as the cornerstone to our rights as Americans, we can freely shout our differing views from the rooftops — though in this day in age, shouting exists rarely on rooftops, but on the 24-hour news cycle, Facebook, YouTube, blogs, and Twitter. It seems to me that this pervasive exposure to differing opinions, partnered with increasingly more polarized party politics, has created a culture of division in our country.

Many Americans, particularly the younger generations, are disturbed by this culture of division and desire a more united, less polarized, America. The question becomes: how do we deconstruct our culture of division and build a culture of unity? Jim Wallis, in his piece, “On God’s Side: For the Common Good,” claims that much of the division felt in this country is because so many people audaciously claim that they are on God’s side with their politics, actions, and words, and that those who don’t think, act, and vote like them, are disobeying divine order. In an effort to move the country forward to unity, Rev. Wallis suggests that instead of making claims about being on God’s side, we should start asking “are we on God’s side?”

What would it mean to be on God’s side? Rev. Wallis’s answer is to focus on the common good:

Not just in politics, but in all the decisions we make in our personal, family, vocational, financial, communal, and public lives. That old but always new ethic simply says we must care for more than ourselves or our own group. We must care for our neighbor as well, and for the health of the life we share with one another. It echoes a very basic tenet of Christianity and other faiths — love your neighbor as yourself — still the most transformational ethic in history.

I agree with Rev. Wallis — focusing on the common good is a good step toward answering the question of how to be on God’s side, and solving many of our nation’s greatest points of division. In a country as diverse as ours, however, it can be challenging to know what the common good actually is. As individual participants in society, we all come to the table with different ideological structures for framing our understanding of what is commonly good. Those structures are often built around religion, philosophy, and our beliefs and understandings about existence, mortality, and the cosmos. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that we live in, arguably, the most religiously diverse nation of all time.
Yes, Jesus has called me to love my neighbor as myself, but what does that really mean when my neighbor is Mormon, Muslim, Jewish, atheist, secular humanist, or Hindu?

Religion is often blamed for the world’s greatest conflicts, and rightfully so. One doesn’t have to look far to see conflict or violence that is linked to religious motivations or sentiments in some way (think the tragedy at the Boston Marathon or the Sikh man that was murdered shortly after 9/11 because he was wearing a turban). In a country that becomes more religiously diverse every day, it is easy to allow conflict to arise between different religious and non-religious groups. It is true, difference in religious and philosophical ideology can be a cause of great division. But what if I told you it doesn’t have to be that way?

I believe that amidst all of our nation’s diversity, we must be able to find, or create, common ground among us in order to focus on the common good. This is exactly what the American interfaith movement aims to do. According to the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), a non-profit organization whose mission is to make interfaith cooperation a social norm, the interfaith movement seeks to build religious pluralism in the U.S. IFYC understands religious pluralism to be respect for others’ religious and non-religious identities, mutually inspiring relationships between people of different backgrounds, and common action for the common good.

Religious pluralism, in its most ideal form, not only paves the way to common ground but also creates action for the common good through personal relationships. Pluralism is necessarily relational: it only manifests itself in the give and take of relationships between people of different religious and non-religious identities.

Interfaith cooperation is the path to religious pluralism and a path toward ending the hostile ideological environment in which our country finds itself. It can be scary or intimidating for people of different religions to meet each other half way and to have a conversation. IFYC suggests creating interfaith service projects where Atheists, Christians, and Muslims can work alongside each other in the context of a service project that benefits their mutual communities (a soup kitchen, for example). The service becomes the common ground on which personal relationships across difference are built. In the safety of their common ground, they can then begin to have dialogue and discover each other’s true selves; thus paving the way to developing mutually inspiring relationships between people of different backgrounds and respect for others’ religious and non-religious identities, backgrounds, and beliefs.

Don’t be fooled. You don’t have to leave your own unique religious (or non-religious) identity at the door to engage in interfaith cooperation. In fact, it requires you to be authentically yourself, religious identity and all. You can fully and genuinely respect another’s identity while simultaneously holding your own differing religious identity. I, an evangelical Christian, can appreciate, and even be inspired, by the dedication of my Muslim neighbor to pray five times a day, while at the same time wanting them to know Jesus. What interfaith cooperation does require is to listen openly, check presumption at the door, and suspend pointing fingers and placing blame on your interfaith cohorts for the ills of the world.

Interfaith cooperation is evolving all the time. With the daily growth of religious diversity in the country, and the growing awareness around the interfaith movement, new voices are being added every day to the conversation about religious pluralism, interfaith cooperation, and their roles in creating common action for the common good. In light of this evolution, what remains consistent and clear is that having personal relationships across religious difference creates religious literacy and interpersonal understanding; such understanding fosters compassion while cultivating a more peaceful and united society. These relationships become our common ground.

I challenge you to help create common ground by building relationships across religious and ideological difference, and to help lay the foundation on which we can build our understanding of the common good and begin to build a stronger more united America.

“This blog post is part of The Huffington Post’s ‘Common Good’ series and Sojourners’ Common Good Forum, inspired by Jim Wallis’ latest book, “On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good.” Click here to read the rest of the blog posts in the series.”

Who Would Jesus Hate?

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Lately I have been hearing some rather outrageous assertions made on the behalf of God from supposed “Christian” leaders. Pat Robertson called the Haitian earthquake God’s judgment on the nation he claimed “made a pact with the Devil.” Most recently, the Christian Right’s favored child Glenn Beck instructed Christians to abandon congregations that encourage “social justice” as a part of their teachings. While many Christians have out against them, I think there may be a bigger picture not being seen.

These men represent only the most recent string of extreme statements by Christian leaders that appear to conflict with the core tenets of Christianity itself. Quite often, however, these statements are widely embraced, especially by followers of the Evangelical orientation. As a person who comes from that tradition, having attended Christian high school and Evangelical services, I often got the idea that Jesus was most angry with the gays, the godless liberals, and the Lady Gagas.

I know how I felt about such ideas, seeing them as hateful, unproductive, and un-Jesus-like. However, I felt that in order to properly address such concerns, I had to explore them in theological terms. So I asked myself, who would Jesus judge? Who would He hate?

It’s interesting to note who Jesus didn’t judge: first, Jesus did not judge the woman caught in bed with a man who was not her husband (John 8:1-11), but rather chose this opportunity to teach us the association of judgment and hypocrisy.

He announced, “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.” Thus, in an opportunity of condemnation, Jesus chose to love. His expression of love occurs while acknowledging her wrongdoing but choosing forgiveness. Jesus makes a pattern of this. Another example of this is when He met the Samaritan woman at the well, who was divorced and living with a man (John 4:7-28). What is so telling about this verse is that Jesus bestowed love to one who was not a Jew but a Samaritan, someone from a religious community considered apostates. (The Samaritans were formerly enslaved by the Persians, taken from Israel at the end of Hoshea’s rule in 722 BC [2 Kings 17:1-2].) So who is Jesus judging?

According to the Gospels, Jesus did not refrain from judging, but he chose two distinct groups of people to target with his judgment: religious leaders who were hypocrites, and those who profited off the sacred.

Jesus really had it out for the Pharisees, whom he admonished for judging others, giving false teachings, and acting in pride. He reserved such phrases for them as “hypocrites,” and “den of vipers”! Pretty strong language for the Prince of Peace. Jesus also grew furious at the sight of the money changers at the Temple for their attempt to profit off of the religious observance of others.

So who are the Pharisees today, and who are the moneychangers? I would argue that religious leaders who abuse their pulpits for political propaganda, promote violence, or push a hateful agenda fit the Pharisee profile. Also, those who take the cross as a sign of salvation and cash it in as a merchandising opportunity are our contemporary moneychangers. Our concern should be with forked tongues of false teachers like Robertson, and our conflict with Christian consumerism, trading prophets for profits.

Similarly, who are the forgiven sinners? Who are the Samaritans? If Jesus forgave those acting outside of marriage, why can’t we embrace our brothers and sisters from among the LGBT community? Disagreement of lifestyle does not need to transcend into ostracizing loved ones or lobbying against civil rights. Likewise, the antagonistic language towards Islam, Judaism, Catholicism, or even atheism obstructs us from learning from our fellow Americans as modern day Good Samaritans.

This notion turns a lot of the beliefs of the Christian community in America on their head. Perhaps if the Second Coming were today, it is Pat Robertson who’d get the cosmic ass-kicking, not Perez Hilton.

This piece originally appeared here in Huffington Post Religion
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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.

Two Important Books for Evangelicals About Interfaith Cooperation

John Morehead of the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy has written a dual book review of recent books by Brian McLaren and Eboo Patel. Check it out on the Evangelical Channel of Patheos.

And be sure to check out:

Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World by Brian McLaren

and

Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America by Eboo Patel

New Posts on the “Nones.”

Hello all!

I’ve got a piece or two in the queue, waiting until after I finish up a ten page Church History paper to find their way onto FLP. In the meantime, check out this reflection I wrote for The Huffington Post, “A Call to Confession: A Reflection on the Rise of the ‘Nones’ From Someone Who Should Probably Be One.” 

ALSO

Check out this companion piece I wrote on my personal blog. It elucidates the thrust of my HuffPost piece, while also posing some more direct questions regarding church leadership.

A question to ponder: How does the rise of the “Nones” impact interfaith cooperation? Does it matter?

I’m still puzzling it out.