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.

ISIS & the War on Islam

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

It’s been hard for me to watch the news lately. Even going on Facebook has been difficult. Every time I go online I hear of more disturbing stories emerging from Iraq and Syria as the militant group ISIS continues to oppress minorities, rape women, and violently execute innocent men, women, and children. But what has made these horrific acts even more difficult to watch is the conversation swirling around them. Over and over again I have watched friends, colleagues, media personalities, and news outlets call ISIS the face of Islam. More and more people have begun to say things like, “This is what Islam is really about. They are finally showing their true colors to the world.” And as I have seen this picture of Islam painted over and over again I have actually begun to wonder, “Are they right? Is this truly what Islam is all about?”

What terrifies me about that thought is just how pervasive it is. For someone who spent his undergraduate studies focusing on Islam to suddenly start to wonder if this faith tradition is truly, at its core, a religion of violence says something about the power of this narrative. It is one that has begun to make me question even my own understanding of Islam.

And so, it has taken a conscious effort on my part to remember my past. I remember the late night conversations in the dining hall with my classmate Umar as we talked about the shared emphasis on social justice within both Christianity and Islam. I remember my Malaysian roommate, Adzwan, and how he would play religious music from his home country while I would share worship songs from my own faith tradition. I remember all the years of visiting the local mosque during Ramadan, only to be greeted with warm hugs, delicious food, and long conversations about the need to promote peace and advance humanitarian causes around the dinner table. I remember reading beautiful Sufi poetry, learning about Muslim leaders in nonviolence, and reading books by pioneering activists like Farid Escak, Eboo Patel, and Feisal Abdul Rauf.

And then I am confronted with ISIS, and my question suddenly becomes, “How do I respond to this, in light of all I know and all I have experienced?” The answer comes when I slow down and think carefully about what I am seeing. ISIS is an abbreviation of the name “The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria”. More recently, this group has shortened its name to “The Islamic State.” And suddenly it becomes clear what the real agenda of this organization is. They are seeking to define Islam for the world. They want their extremist brand of religion to be the face of Islam to people the world over. They want to steal the heritage of this faith tradition and narrowly define it for their own violent and bloodthirsty ends. And, sadly….I think they are winning.

They are winning every time a Western news media outlet calls these fanatics “Muslims.” They are winning every time a person thinks, “This is the truth about Islam.” ISIS wants us to see them as the authoritative voice of how Muslims think, act, and behave in the modern world. And every time we charge them with being the true face of Islam, we give power to their voice while silencing the countless Muslims around the world who work for peace, nonviolence, and social justice.

So how do we change this trend? I would argue that the first thing we can do is call these people what they are: psychopaths, murderers, and rapists. They are not Muslims. They are not religious fanatics. They are genocidal maniacs. Pure and simple. We need to stop equating them and their violence with a faith tradition that is far more diverse and beautiful than the horror they would export. We need to rob them of their voice and their attempts to usurp the name “Islam” from the countless men and women who honorably and peacefully bear the name of “Muslim”.

Second, we can learn from, support, and work alongside the countless Muslim leaders who oppose groups like ISIS. I think of leaders like Feisal Abdul Rauf, Eboo Patel, Farid Esack, Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, and Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, who are all leaders in the Muslim community and who have advanced the cause of peace both in the West and abroad. In doing so we can advance the cause of peace and work for greater understanding between people of all faith communities.

Thirdly, we need to get to know our Muslim neighbors. As one of the largest religious communities in the United States, it is likely that every one of us has at least one Muslim neighbor, coworker, or friend. I think it might be worth asking them about their faith and how it informs their life. Take some time to stop and listen to their stories and allow them to give you a broader perspective on what it means to be a follower of Islam. I think that this will not only strengthen your friendship, but will help redefine how we think about one another in a world where extremists are seeking to steal the mic.

My hope is that ISIS will not win the war against Islam. But that will only happen when we begin to interact with each other and work together to combat their propaganda campaign. May we truly stand united against the threats from terrorists everywhere.

Ripples of Peace: Confess, Repent, Learn, Speak Up

Let us make every effort to do what leads to peace…-Romans 14:19

 

Real talk – it’s not looking good

In fact, it’s looking pretty damn bleak.

The headlines these last few weeks have gone from bad, to worse, to downright depressing.

Particularly distressing for Christians around the world, and specifically Christians of my Facebook newsfeed, is the violent persecution of Christians in Iraq. I’m sure you’ve noticed a particular Arabic letter acting as your friends’ profile pictures, or the use of the hashtag #WeAreN. This comes from reports that ISIS militants were marking the homes of Iraqi Christians with the arabic letter “N,” meaning “Nazarene” or “Christian,” in order for those homes to be targeted. Apparently, Christians are being told to convert, or die, and many have been killed (there is an informative interview with the creator of the #WeAreN hashtag which you can read here and can offer you some more context).

I think it’s important for Christians to remember the universal church community of which they are a part. Often times our own American nationalism, and our Protestant denominationalism, can keep us from remembering our role in the greater body of Christ. That being said, I also think it’s very important for us to remember that Christians aren’t the only religious minority being driven from their homes, and killed.

When we peer out from behind the safety blanket of our first amendment into the lives of others and see such ruthless, meaningless violence against people simply because of their religious beliefs, it’s natural for us to want to do something. But we don’t know what the heck to do. So we resort to things like changing our profile picture, or using social media to spread awareness. these things (like changing our profile picture) can be helpful, and they can help us feel like we’re doing something to create a ripple of peace in this world – and I think that’s okay.

However, I wanted to make a few suggestions for simple ways (simple- not always easy) you can begin to make ripples, and hopefully eventually a tide, of peace.

1.  Confess:

Admit what your prejudices are – say them aloud to a friend, to yourself, to God. When we name our prejudices aloud, we realize so many of those prejudices are based on fear and misunderstanding. When we confess our prejudices aloud, we have an opportunity to learn how we ourselves perpetuate a culture of intolerance through our own ignorance, misunderstanding and fear. When we confess our prejudices aloud to God, we are opening our hearts to see others the way God sees them.

2.  Repent:

Once you have acknowledged your prejudices – repent. Repentance humbles us before God and others, reminding us that we are often in the wrong. Not only must we feel regret for the prejudice we’ve felt and believed, we must turn away from them completely. As Christians in a religiously diverse world, it is easy for us to believe we are always in the right, but history has shown us that that is definitely not true (think Spanish Inquisition, theologically defended slavery in the U.S., etc.). Pride is a dangerous road which often leads to violence. Pride and peace are like oil and water and pride is an oily slippery slope. Turn away from pride; instead, humble yourselves in service to others.

3.  Learn

Once you’ve confessed your prejudices and repented, you can humble yourself before others by learning. There are two ways in which I believe learning can help us create more peace in the world. First, learn about the believe systems of others. I’ve noticed that “open-mindedness” is often confused with wishy-washy political correctness (I actually believe political correctness can be very important for inclusion – but that’s a different topic). I believe, on the other hand, that open-mindedness is actually a willingness to check our presumptions at the door in order to listen and learn about others. We don’t have to not believe what we believe in order to be open-minded. Learning about others, particularly the belief system of those from different worldviews (religious or non-religious), can lead to more positive attitudes about others, thus leading to positive relationships with others (see more at www.ifyc.org/about). What’s the worst that could happen if you decide to learn more about another person – you make a new friend? Being willing to learn more about others helps us understand more fully that we are all created in God’s image and we might have more in common than you might expect. What better way to create more peace in the world than through new friendships and relationships?

Second, learn about the hardships of other people groups (whether those are religious groups, ethnic groups, etc.). Believe it or not, one of the things that all religious/non-religious groups in the United States have in common is that every group has experienced some kind of religious intolerance. Religious intolerance is understood broadly; it takes many different forms. Vandalism of religious buildings, stereotypes, misrepresentation in the media, discrimination, violence – these are ways that people experience religious intolerance. Feeling persecuted because your biology professor scoffs at your Christian view of creation? Learn about the experiences of Muslim girls getting their hijabs torn off in their school hallways. Or read about the persecution the Christians, Yezidis, Turkmen, minority Muslim groups and others in Iraq at the hands of the Islamic State currently. You’ll soon find out that you’re not the only one experiencing religious intolerance. Perhaps your experience will help you feel empathy for others – even those you would not normally identify with. Perhaps this empathy will inspire you to act on behalf of others as well – whether it’s through prayer, writing, community organizing, raising aid funds, etc.

4.  Speak Up for Others

I’ve heard a lot of fellow Christians get really offended by the lack of coverage about the persecution of Christians in Iraq (heck – I know I have). Thankfully it seems the media has finally taken notice. However, I’ve noticed Christians are very quick to spread the news about the persecution of their brothers and sisters in Christ, yet I rarely see a fellow Christian talk about the Yezidis or other Muslim minority groups also experiencing violence and even death because of their religious identity in Iraq (not to mention religious violence experienced by Muslims in Mynmar, or Muslims and Christians in India, etc.). I’m not blaming them – I get it. As I listened to NPR yesterday morning they talked for several minutes about the persecution experienced by Yezidis in Iraq, and there wasn’t a single word about Christians in Iraq. Now, I have heard NPR cover the persecution of Christians in the last few weeks, but in that moment I immediately felt alienated.

But why should I feel alienated?

It’s important people know what’s happening to Yezidis, just as it is important for people to know what’s happening to religious groups all over the world who are experiencing extreme persecution.

All that to say – I think it would say a lot more about what it means to follow Christ if we as Christians were just as quick to stand up and speak up for all groups who experience violence, discrimination, and displacement on account of what they believe. It’s important for us to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Christ who are being killed and displaced because they believe in the same gospel we do; it’s important that we spread the news of what’s happening to them. I think it’s just as important, however, to speak up for others, even those we would not normally identify with.

Proverbs 31:8 tells us to “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.” With social media a mobile device away – it’s easier to speak up for others now more than it ever has been.

Let’s stand against violence by speaking on behalf of others in the name of peace, and in the name of the coming Kingdom we so fervently are hoping for. Let’s drop all defensiveness, pride, and prejudice, tear down the wall of division and build a bridge of peace, remembering that it is our duty as Christians not only to stand up and speak out on behalf of each other, but also for others.

It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the violence and hatred in this world. It’s easy to feel bogged down by the enormity of it all and simply sit, paralyzed to do anything. But I believe if we confess, repent, learn and speak up on behalf of others – then we can create small ripples of peace in our own lives. Who knows – maybe this way we can create ripples of peace in other lives too.

photo credit: ecstaticist via photopin cc

6 Chaplains Walk Into a Hospital…

What do you get when you put two Reform Jews, three Episcopalians, and a Presbyterian together in a hospital to minister to the sick and grieving for ten weeks?

I haven’t been able to come up with a punchy one-line answer yet—but let me know if you can think of any.  This has been my summer so far. In early June, six of us from Jewish and Christian seminaries around New York City embarked on our first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE)—a requirement for most clergy-in-training that involves offering pastoral care to people in need, in a clinical setting. Our hospital ID badges say “Chaplain Intern,” but what it means to be a chaplain—as I have learned over and over again—is ambiguous, and often has more to do with what the person we happen to be serving wants (or needs) us to be, than what we believe we are.

When someone asks us about our faith traditions—even though we are all deeply connected to specific traditions—we are instructed to say something along these lines: I am an interfaith chaplain and I’m here to serve the spiritual and emotional needs of patients in the hospital, no matter what their faith or philosophical tradition may be. Still,patients often project their own faiths onto us—there was the Episcopalian chaplain who has been repeatedly called Rabbi, the Jewish chaplain who was thanked for her work and her inspiring faith in Jesus; I have had multiple patients assume I am Catholic. For the most part, we don’t correct these assumptions, not because we don’t care, but because our job in the hospital is not to share our identities with others, but to listen, to pray, and to walk with those who are suffering. Why should a patient who is just coming out of a four-week coma after a stroke care if I’m an Episcopalian, or even a Christian for that matter? Much more important is that the patient can express her feelings and know that God is with her and is listening to her prayers.

That’s not to say that it has been easy to “set aside” our faith traditions. There are times that I have wanted to talk about Jesus or quote New Testament scripture and have had to hold back. But being able to talk about Jesus isn’t what makes me a Christian. I am a Christian because my beliefs and my relationship to Jesus inform the way I live my life and interact with others. Even if I don’t tell a patient that I am Christian, my Christian beliefs are what “get me in the door,” so to speak. My personal faith is the ground I stand on when I meet with patients. It is what helps me to understand the suffering I witness; it is what allows me to love each patient I encounter, regardless of our differences; it is what challenges me to keep coming back. In that way, I haven’t had to set aside my faith at all.

Throughout our first four weeks, each of us has been challenged to define our own theologies of pastoral care, of suffering, and of grief. Many of us have been with family members at the time of a loved one’s death; we have listened to patients who are experiencing excruciating pain, who have been diagnosed with incurable diseases, who feel hopeless about the possibility of healing—and we have to figure out how we can find the tools within our personal faith traditions to be a presence of God’s love to those we encounter. So, what do you get when you put two Reform Jews, three Episcopalians, and a Presbyterian together in a hospital to minister to the sick and grieving for ten weeks? You probably have to be there for yourself to know for sure—and even then, it’s hard to articulate. But I can say that, in my own experience, not being able to talk directly about my faith has forced me to figure out how to live my faith in a way that speaks louder than words. I can’t say that I always do it well, but I am committed to trying as hard as I can. Perhaps what you get is a group of people who can’t hide behind their intellects and religious platitudes—perhaps you get raw, real religion.

Jesus CAN Co-Exist: A Response to the Rev. Karl Schaffenburg

The Rev. Karl Schaffenburg, the rector of Grace Church in Sheboygan, WI, published a short opinion piece in an early May issue of The Living Church, a popular publication among Episcopalians. The piece, entitled simply “Why Jesus Would Not Coexist,” takes aim at the popular blue and white “Co-Exist” bumper stickers one finds on automobiles, Facebook posts, and t-shirts all over the country to say that the Christian faith remains incompatible with the idea of pluralism.

Fr. Schaffenburg’s critique actually raises some common concerns about pluralism and the place of Christianity in a pluralistic society I hear rather often while doing interfaith work, and so I thought it might be helpful to engage with him to see if his assertion that “Jesus Would Not Coexist” reflects the most accurate reading of the Gospels or a positive definition of pluralism.

To begin, Fr. Schaffenburg introduces the concept of the law of non-contradiction found in classical logic (that two contradictory claims cannot be simultaneously true). He then briefly explains the differences in the ways that the Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) view Jesus. He argues on the basis of John 14:6 (“I am the way, and the truth, and the life…”) that “Jesus cannot coexist with contradictory claims to truth made in other faiths. If Jesus had been content with coexistence he might have escaped crucifixion. We should live peaceably with all people (Rom. 12:18), but we ought not reduce this peace to a glib assertion that all paths lead to God. The assertion that all faiths are the same and there is no exclusive truth is itself a doctrine, and one that excludes all but the universalist. It represents an incoherent quest for tolerance.”

I would have to agree with Fr. Schaffenburg that such a view indeed “represents an incoherent quest for tolerance,” yet I’m not so sure that the crucifixion stands as the best example to support his claim, nor that “tolerance,” however conceived, necessitates universalism. If what Fr. Schaffenburg aims to do is point to the veracity of the Christian faith, I stand with him in this claim; I think it is the “true” faith (otherwise I wouldn’t be one). That said, to be a Christian does not mean I cannot exist alongside other faiths in a positive and productive way that includes cooperation and collaboration.

To his credit, Fr. Schaffenburg does grant that elements of truth can be found in other faiths (this, he notes, is a “classical Christian doctrine”). Yet ends his piece by labeling the “real danger of COEXIST” as “its underlying assumption that how we live is ultimately a matter of human agency,” arguing that the “lessons of history… make it clear that we will never achieve peace and harmony on our own.” He critiques the view held by some Christians that attaining piece on earth is equivalent to the kingdom of Heaven, and concludes by saying, “Coexistence that treats Jesus Christ merely as an important moral teacher disregards that he revealed himself as God and reduces the saving act of God to a set of rules. It claims that if we live in a certain way we will attain salvation, thus toying with Pelagianism. For this reason, COEXIST is unworthy of anything more than a bumper sticker.”

There’s a lot to tease out in Fr. Schaffenburg’s critique. In fact, I would argue that the biggest issue I have with his editorial is that it simply sets out to do too much—arguing against universalism, certain views about salvation, the Kingdom of God, and Pelagianism—all in a short piece about a bumper sticker.

But there’s something else here, too. Beneath Fr. Schaffenburg’s many aims lies the assumption that pluralism—to “coexist”—requires one to give up the tenets of their own faith or, in the case of the Christian, to relegate Jesus Christ to the margins for the sake of an ideal of world peace.

Yet I would argue that this is not the sentiment that lies behind the “Coexist” bumper-sticker, nor is it the understanding of pluralism that undergirds our work at FLP… or even of Fr. Schaffenburg himself.

We coexist every day—at work, at school, in airports, in the grocery store. My convictions as a Christian do not limit me to interact only with other Christians, but rather informs the way that I work in the world. Indeed, Jesus himself coexisted with those he encountered; it was they who could not coexist with him.

Perhaps a healthier view of pluralism and coexistence can be found on this very website, on the “Pluralism” tab at the top of the page. Permit me to conclude by quoting it.

When we say pluralism, what do we mean? Good question.

We follow a model of interfaith engagement developed by the Chicago-based non-profit named the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC).

IFYC’s approach to interfaith engagement pulls heavily from the work of Harvard scholar Diana Eck and revolves around three components:

            1.) Respect for individual religious or nonreligious identity.

Respect for identity means that everyone can bring their full identities to this work. There’s space for people to believe that they are right and others are wrong, and that their beliefs are true and others’ are not. Interfaithcooperation is not syncretistic or relativistic; no one has to concede exclusive truth claims to be part of it – whether you are an Orthodox Jew, a conservative Christian, or an atheist, you are welcome to the table of      interfaith cooperation.

                 2.) Mutually inspiring relationships.

Interfaith cooperation builds relationships across religious and nonreligious   boundaries, while creating space for real conversations about disagreements and difference and a sense that each person gains from the relationship.

            3.) Common action for the common good.

Interfaith cooperation is based on the conviction that people of different religious and nonreligious backgrounds have shared values that call them to make the world a better place. By working together on local and global        projects based on these shared values, individuals learn to connect to those    who are different from them while strengthening their communities.

Their idea is simple: face-to-face interaction, as well as conversations with those with whom we disagree, can be a means for mitigating hate and increasing understanding. We think it’s a pretty good idea.

IFYC focuses on shared values and does not suppose or support shared theologies. So do we.

We believe that you don’t have to water-down your own religious tradition in order to participate in interfaith cooperation. Instead, you are encouraged to fully embrace your own tradition and share its distinctives with others. This is our idea of pluralism.

One day (God willing and the people consenting!) I hope to be a priest with as much experience as Fr. Schaffenburg, and I hope that I can carry a constructive definition of coexistence with me in my ministry that facilitates interactions with those of other traditions to work for the greater good while still retaining the potency and vitality of the Christian faith.

 

 

3 Reasons Evangelicals Don’t Do Interfaith Dialogue & 3 Ways Forward

FLP is excited to feature a guest blog by Josh Daneshforooz. Josh is an author and international speaker on leadership, peacemaking and personal development. Author of the Loving Our Religious Neighbors curriculum, he spearheads social change campaigns between disparate religious communities. Josh is also founding partner at East Africa Property Partners and founder of All Nations Education, an organization that empowers young adults through mentorship and higher education in developing countries.

“Evangelicals are consistently the most difficult community with whom we attempt to collaborate,” an executive of a well-respected interfaith organization recently told me on a phone call.

As I’ve become increasingly engaged in the movement for peace among different faith communities, I’ve noticed there’s one regularly absent Christian community: evangelicals.

Most people who attend the big interfaith conferences such as the Parliament of the World’s Religions, who co-organize local community service projects and who participate in dialogue sessions are of a liberal persuasion—both Christian and non-Christian alike.

But what about the more conservative types, like me? More specifically, and more relevant for this post, what about the 100 million evangelicals in the US and the other 400 million around the world? Why has our seat at the table remained empty for so long?

With an American evangelical mother and an Iranian Muslim father, I grew up straddling two worlds. Though I was shaped in certain ways by both sides, the main spiritual community that shaped my values and beliefs was a large evangelical church in Las Vegas.

As a child I developed a subconscious fear that intentionally building relationships of mutual respect and learning across religious boundaries was somehow not consistent with the teachings of Jesus. Throughout the past ten years, I’ve attempted to understand this fear. Along the way, I’ve met many other evangelicals who share my concerns.

After learning to overcome my own fears, I created the Loving Our Religious Neighbors (LORN) curriculum as a resource to enable others to overcome theirs too. Today LORN empowers evangelical communities to build lasting relationships of conviction and respect with non-Christian religious communities as they work together to serve the poor and tackle social problems.

Leading LORN campaigns throughout the United States has taught me that evangelicals typically don’t do interfaith work for three reasons. In response to these three concerns, I’ve developed approaches in LORN for equipping evangelicals to take their place at the table of peace.

1. Don’t Want to Compromise the Teachings of Jesus

“When you hear the phrase ‘interfaith’ or ‘interreligious dialogue’, what usually comes to mind?” This is the question I ask at the beginning of every LORN campaign.

Krista, a member at a church in Boston, responded, “The first thing that comes to mind when I hear those phrases is that all religions lead to the same mountaintop. All religions are the same. Mixing theologies. But I just don’t believe that. So I don’t usually get involved in interfaith initiatives. I don’t want to compromise my faith.”

Evangelicals often equate interfaith work with theological relativism, and as a result, those who do participate are frequently faced with judgment from their own community.

The essence of evangelicalism teaches that faith is life and life is faith. Asking an evangelical to put her faith, her life, aside in the name of dialogue is like asking the body to remove the heart and continue to circulate blood.

How Do We Overcome This Concern? 

Establish a biblical foundation. Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). In LORN campaigns, we are empowering evangelicals not to water down their faith but to put it into practice as peacemakers as we take ownership of our title as “children of God.” The LORN curriculum also lays a biblical foundation in the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23).

2. Don’t Want To Abandon Sharing the Good News

Evangelism, or sharing the Good News of the Gospel, is a pillar of the message of Jesus: “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). Pastors and leaders are constantly strategizing new ways of inviting people into authentic community, growing the Church and ultimately spreading the news that the Kingdom of God is at hand (Matthew 10:7).

This message is the foundation of the evangelical growth paradigm and, I hope and pray, the major motivation for expansion. Today many megachurches have multiple campuses. Central Christian Church where I grew up, for example, has grown from one thousand members and one campus when I was 10 years old to 15 thousand weekly attendees and 10 campuses not only in the Las Vegas valley but also across the U.S. and around the world.

The word “evangelical” comes from the Greek word meaning “good news.” Asking an evangelical to put aside sharing the Gospel in the name of dialogue is like asking an Olympian to stop competing in the middle of the Olympics. Sharing the good news is just what we do—because Jesus teaches us to.

How Do We Overcome This Concern? 

Imagine new ways of sharing the Gospel. Instead of using older forms of evangelism, LORN, among other things, equips Christians to share their “Public Testimonies.” I define public testimony in LORN as the “skill of communicating your faith with conviction and respect (1 Pet. 3:15) in a multi-religious society.”

3. Fear of Violence 

Sam is an active member at an evangelical church in Texas. After hearing his senior pastor talk about the importance of building respectful relationships with local Muslims, Sam became fearful and asked, “Why would I become friends with them? They blew us up. I’m not going to let them anywhere near my family.”

Many evangelicals like Sam have never met a Muslim or a Buddhist or a Sikh or even a Catholic or liberal Protestant. The only Muslims they know are the suicide bombers whom they see in the media daily. So they make generalizations such as, “They blew us up.”

Our ignorance often breeds fear, and our fear can cause us to express violent attitudes and use violent speech. This is often true of human beings in general, conservative Christians not being an exception. Some evangelicals fear violent and forceful Muslims, yet they project violent and forceful attitudes out of fear.

How Do We Overcome This Concern? 

Meet your religious neighbors. I’ve learned that the single most powerful way to overcome misunderstanding and prejudice is to develop lasting friendships.

After Sam met Muslim families in his suburb, he said, “I get it. These people are normal, just like my family. They’re not violent. Now I’m on board with what our pastor is teaching: We can remain committed Christians while being friends with our neighbors who come from all over the world.” This is precisely why LORN is not simply a book; it’s a curriculum that’s used in a 5-week campaign that culminates in a day of multi-faith community service and relationship building with our religious neighbors.

1 John 4:18 says, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear…. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” If we respond out of fear to our religious neighbors, we are not responding out of our faith. Instead we are reacting out of our fallen humanity because we have not been perfected in love. When the waves of fear come crashing down on the seashore of multi-faith engagement, let us stand on the rock of the One who casts out all fear.

Will You Join Us?
Start A Loving Our Religious Neighbors Campaign Today
 

LORN is now available! We are in the process of launching in evangelical churches and on college campuses across the United States. Go to the following link for the 3 Steps to Start a LORN Campaign.

Also, click here for a video on “How to Launch and Sustain a LORN College Campus Team.”

And click here for a video on “How to Launch LORN at a Church or in a Christian Organization.”

Or email me directly to get involved: josh@lorneighbors.com.

Visit www.LORNeighbors.com to get a copy of the curriculum.

“I will, with God’s help”

As a member of The Episcopal Church and someone involved in their ecumenical and interreligious work on a national and global level, I have begun to delve deeper into my own tradition for sources that nurture our work to foster mutual understanding amongst our brothers and sisters of other faiths.

While The Episcopal Church has an important historical legacy for building interfaith understanding and relationships – one that I cannot fully go into here – I have found that one of the best places for Episcopalians to begin interfaith work is, you guessed it, our liturgy.

In the Anglican tradition we hold fervently to the motto “praying shapes believing”. It comes from the Latin: lex orandi lex credendi, which translates to “the law of praying is the law of believing.” It means that the words we utter together to God hold profound weight in our life. Verbal and communal markers, they carve deeper into the bedrock of our belief through repetition until our hands and feet respond to the flood.

Just as a stream wends its way through rock and soil to carve a path, gradually building its momentum and depth into a river, so also I believe our liturgy can embed itself in us, molding and moving us into action, directing and expanding our imaginations, hearts and wills towards a greater collective theological and social consciousness.

So if our prayers, beliefs and actions are so closely knit together, then what are we praying?

This is exactly where I, and many others past and present, have found the words of the Baptismal Covenant to be a deep well and foundation for enabling, fashioning, and sustaining our work to build bridges and mutual understanding amongst those of other faiths.

I was baptized as an infant so I do not recall the memory well (or at all). But I hold this liturgy dear today, knowing that my family and community prayed it over me all those years ago so that I can now claim it as my own, confirm the faith of my baptism, and strive to live out these promises moving forward.

The Baptismal Covenant is found in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the hallmark resource which embodies the corporate, liturgical, sacramental and ordered Anglican moral vision (the 1979 version is distinctly Episcopal). It is comprised in true catechetical form: it begins with an affirmation of belief in the classical Christian doctrines of the Apostles’ Creed and then includes a question-and-answer format with five ethically-driven questions at the end.

It is this question-and-answer portion which I find particularly compelling, and offer it here as a guiding prayer, resource and resolve for crossing the borders of difference and ministering in interfaith contexts.

Celebrant    Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and
fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the
prayers?

People        I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant    Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever
you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?

People        I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant   Will you proclaim by word and example the Good
News of God in Christ?

People       I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant  Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving
your neighbor as yourself?

People       I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant  Will you strive for justice and peace among all
people, and respect the dignity of every human
being?

People       I will, with God’s help.

(Book of Common Prayer, pp. 304-305)

As we continue to renew our faith this Easter season, it is my hope that Christians of all backgrounds would find the boldness to make these promises over and over again – only and always with God’s help – and let the praying shape the believing as we seek and serve Christ in all persons, even those most different from us.

Carrie Diaz-Littauer is a member of The Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission for Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations. She is currently an editorial consultant for various international and ecumenical NGOs in Geneva, Switzerland. She holds an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary.

Lord Bring your Kingdom: A Holy Week Reflection on Overland Park

Palm Sunday inaugurates Christian Holy Week each year. It commemorates Jesus’ triumphal entry into the city of Jerusalem the week before his death and subsequent resurrection. I love Palm Sunday because it is not only the beginning of my favorite time in the Christian liturgical calendar, but because it celebrates peace. It celebrates that Jesus was not only the incarnation of eternal Love, but that he was the full embodiment of peace. Palm Sunday not only initiates the events of Holy Week, but foreshadows the eternal Kingdom – a Kingdom of peace, where redemption, mercy, justice, and of course love, are ever-present in the world, and darkness is cast away. As Christians, we believe it is Jesus, the Christ – our messiah – who initiated this Kingdom into being with his resurrection, and will eventually bring the Kingdom to its fullness when he returns in his Second Coming. So, on Palm Sunday, we wave our palm branches and shout, “Hosanna, blessed is the One who comes in the name of The Lord,” in recognition that Christ is our King who shall one day reign forever in the name of peace.

This past Sunday, as in every Palm Sunday that I can remember prior, I did just that: I celebrated the peace that is present, and fullness of peace that is coming. I waved my palm branch and sang Hosanna alongside my husband and brothers and sisters in Christ at First United Methodist Church in St. Augustine. On the walk home in the warm Florida sun I felt optimistic and hopeful, and full of love.

It was a normal, peaceful Sunday until a Twitter notification told me that several people I follow tweeted the same news story – the headline read “Shootings reported at two Jewish Centers in Overland Park, Kansas.” As I continued reading I learned that 3 people had been killed, and that the shootings were being investigated as a hate crime. Reports say the man yelled “heil, Hitler” as he was arrested, and that he has a long history of bigoted hatred.

When I guest teach college courses on religious pluralism, I often start by talking about religious intolerance. I define religious intolerance very generally. It could be stereotyping, discrimination, verbal abuse, or even violence of a person or people because of their religious or non-religious identity. I often do an exercise to illustrate all the ways different groups experience religious intolerance. I explain that in 6 different states Atheists are prohibited from running for public office; Christians experience misrepresentation in the media; Muslims often have to show up at the airport earlier than other folks because the know they’re going to be extra screening at “random,” while many a Muslim girl has had her hijab ripped off her head in a high school hallway; more than one Sikh has been killed or brutally beaten in the United States because they were wearing a turban after 9/11; Jews are ridiculed for being greedy and often experience vandalism of their synagogues and temples. I could go on and on and on. Students are often shocked to hear about the level of religious intolerance that exists in the United States. Many of them have experienced religious intolerance themselves, but believed that it was only their group that experienced hatred, fear or misunderstanding because of what they believed. Religious intolerance in the United States, believe it or not, is actually a common thread among all of our religi
ous/non-religious identities.

While I do full-time interfaith work, and religious intolerance is something I’m keenly aware of, it is still a shock when I see such ruthless violence because of religious hatred; particularly on a day when peace is to be celebrated. It reminds me that there is a long history of Holy Week related violence. In the Middle Ages in Europe, on Good Friday Christians would go out and beat or kill Jews after becoming impassioned by a Good Friday sermon, which taught them that Jews were responsible for Christ’s death (they were never reminded that Jesus himself was Jewish). While religious violence and hatred are nothings new, there are new ways to prevent and correct such hatred. The new Interfaith Movement can move us in the direction of religious peace and understanding in our country, and even world.

I am reminded this Palm Sunday about the WHY of Interfaith. Interfaith dialogue and cooperation is about promoting religious literacy; meaning, creating a world where we seek understanding about our religious and non-religious neighbors, rather that perpetuating assumption which often leads to fear, misunderstanding, and ultimately hatred. Scripture teaches us that what lives in our heart is just as important as what we act out in our lives (“Anyone who hates his brothers or sister is a murderer,” I John 3:15).

Maybe you’ve never pulled a trigger on someone because they were a different religion than you, but any time you have felt a hint of hatred, or judgment, or distaste about someone because of what they believed – you have sinned and sin is the Great Enemy of peace.

As Christians, it is our role to reflect the Kingdom we so eagerly look forward to. It is our duty to be embodiments of peace. I believe that Interfaith dialogue, relationships and cooperation is one avenue through which we can reflect God’s Kingdom of Peace.

Ask your Muslim or Jewish neighbor to coffee this week as an act of love and get to know them. Ask them what they believe – what is their religion all about? And not as a way to gather intel for conversion ammunition later on, but as a way to truly know them, and to truly love them. This is how we can make this a world where people don’t get shot because they’re Jewish, or Christian or Atheist, etc.

Let us meditate this Holy Week on Christ’s triumphal entry, which was an action sermon that preached peace. While we mourn the loss of life in Overland Park, and mourn the horrifying hatred demonstrated there, let us pray, “Lord bring you Kingdom.” And until that Kingdom comes in its fullness, let us act peace mediators by actively loving our diverse religious and non-religious neighbors.