What Would Jesus Blog?

While we as Evangelical Christians discuss frequently on our site the importance of interfaith relationships – including relationships with those of a secular tradition – we are reminded that not everyone sees things the way we do.

Earlier this week, our friend Chris Stedman, a secular humanist and a leading voice for the involvement of the nonreligious in interfaith cooperation, was the target of an open letter written by Frank Turk, contributor to a Christian blog “PyroManiacs” (tagline: “Setting the world on fire…”). We wanted to respond – not because a response was invited, but because we are Evangelical Christians, we disagree with the approach to religious difference that particular Christians (“PyroManiacs” included) have taken, and because we are offended by the idea that someone representing Jesus Christ would make some of the statements that were made toward Chris.

Turk’s “Open letter” centers on a tweet posted earlier this month that read: “Exciting to hear about how @ChrisDStedman is reshaping the conversation between religious and nonreligious.” While Turk seemingly attempts to belittle Chris’s work by calling out his sexuality and tattoos, we are reminded of the very need for reshaping just such a conversation. Turk asks “Is that really ‘reshaping’ anything?”—in other words, is Chris really making a difference? And later implies that dialogue won’t change humanity’s propensity to, as he calls it, “err,” calling into question the very efficacy of the interfaith endeavor. We contend that Chris Stedman is in fact reshaping the conversation, and that constructive dialogue is playing a great part in this.

The conversation “between religious and nonreligious” as mentioned in the tweet is not a two-way discussion between Christians and atheists; rather, Christians and atheists are simply two pieces of a much broader discourse among peoples of all different faith traditions, worldviews, philosophies, and perspectives. Whether it is a church being bombed in Egypt, a pastor threatening to burn the Qur’an, or the recent protests of a Muslim community fundraiser in California, we would say that conversations around religious differences still need some major remodeling. And in the arena of atheists’ relationship to religion in particular, Chris is doing phenomenal work to show that being a non-religious person does not mean one has to be aggressively anti-religious. As a religious man himself, Turk should at least grant this much in Stedman’s favor.

We believe that interfaith cooperation efforts—and atheists/humanists’ involvement in them— are relevant, timely, and crucial in today’s global society, and that they stand in line with the values espoused by Christ to love one’s neighbor and bring peace to the world. Chris Stedman has contributed greatly to the cause of interfaith cooperation, making it a visible and vibrant part of the discussion happening on university campuses all across the country.

Because the model for interfaith cooperation to which we adhere depends upon mutual respect, value judgments on the morality of human sexuality or concern with one’s personal choices lie largely beyond the purview of the discussion. We, like Chris, simply advance the message of peace and sociological pluralism. Our concern is not with individual religious practice or belief or widespread social concerns except where they intersect with violence, strife, and bigotry. Our own Christian religious identity informs our desire to build bridges of cooperation with those of other traditions and worldviews, but does not in any way muddy our own values or compel us to entreat them on others.

Dialogue, though discounted in Turk’s letter, has the power to produce empathy through understanding. Part of the goal of interfaith cooperation is not simply an end to something (i.e. violence), but is actually a positive, proactive movement built around service that aims to improve our world and address the problems we face. (See Greg’s post on the Million Meals for Haiti even at UIUC for an example of this.)

As devout Christians, we understand the desire and imperative to point to Christ as the answer to any perceived iniquity; we want our friends to know Christ and his saving grace. Yet we often struggle with the way the church presents these messages of salvation to the world, having been frustrated by our own past experiences.

Chris Stedman, once a church-going Christian himself, doesn’t need a lesson on the teachings of Christ or what the Christian church believes about salvation; doubtless he has picked up on these things through his years as a member of the church and as a student in religious studies programs both at the undergraduate and graduate levels. We, like Turk, desire for Chris to know Jesus as his savior—Chris knows that full well.  But to see the gospel tacked on the end of a Bible-brandishing diatribe in which the author takes jabs at both Chris’s sexuality and his body art comes across as condescending.

The Bible states in 1 Peter 3:15:

“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect”

We’d like to suggest that the conversation of interfaith cooperation – the precise conversation that Chris Stedman indeed does work to shape – presents a better opportunity for giving that answer mentioned in 1 Peter than the method observed in Turk’s “open letter.”  Ironically, this verse can be found on one of the “Pyromaniacs” logos plastered all over their site. Yet it seems they’ve forgotten this respect in their determination to criticize our friend and wave the gospel in his face.

Jesus’ ministry placed a heavy emphasis on relationships. He beckoned Zacchaeus down from the tree in order to have dinner with him. When at Mary and Martha’s house, he praised Mary for sitting and talking to him. One of the central sacraments of the church—the Eucharist—is in celebration and remembrance of a meal he had with his disciples. Indeed, relationships undergird the very reason Jesus had disciples, and God’s desire for relationships with all of us is in some sense the reason Jesus died for our sins.

Dialogue—or conversation— is implicit in relationships. In some sense conversing with God is what we do when we pray. What then does Turk mean when he asserts in his closing paragraph that Jesus isn’t “looking for a dialog?” Such a claim seems rather spurious. Also spurious is when Turk posits that leading an ethical life without God is not possible. Though a difficult, complex issue in its own right—one that we could write about at great length—looking at Chris’ work and Turk’s letter makes it seem clear that a belief in God, or lack thereof, doesn’t necessarily correlate with ethical behavior.

When reading Turk’s letter, we would ask: Does it work to build a strong relationship with Chris (or anyone, for that matter), or does it operate sans any personal ties? Does it do anything constructive, or does it attempt to deconstruct? Does it display a level of respect, or does it assume a moral high ground? Most importantly, for a Christian: does it seem to emulate Jesus?

Which of these approaches to dialogue—Chris’ or Turk’s—seems to embody Jesus’ compassion, vision for service, and emphasis on personal relationships? To us, it’s obvious.

Interfaith from Across the Pond: My Time With the Three Faiths Forum

Copyright © Three Faiths Forum 2010

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked by David Fraccaro of the IFYC if I could travel to London for an event put on by the Three Faiths Forum, a UK-based organization similar in mission to IFYC who was trying to launch campus interfaith initiatives at universities across London. Not surprisingly, I agreed.

When the day finally came, I hopped on a train and arrived in London just after lunch. A quick jaunt through the Underground on the Northern Line, and I emerged in the quiet neighborhood of Belsize Park, where the event was taking place. I checked in to the retreat center, met briefly with David, and then headed inside to sit in on some of the training sessions to get a feel for the conference’s trajectory.

I met some really great people—everyone welcomed me warmly and graciously allowed me to hang around. I participated in a few of the group challenges, like when we sorted through a pile of questions and phrases, teasing out those we felt demonstrated the greatest and least respect before discussing those we felt floated on the margins of either category. It was an eye-opening experience to see the myriad assumptions that go into even our most simple questions.

I found it interesting that the Three Faiths Forum not only works to promote interfaith cooperation amongst religious groups on university campuses, but also runs programs in London-area secondary schools (among other things). These programs bring speakers from various faith traditions into classrooms, where they share their stories and spend time teaching the value of mutual civility and the art of asking respectful questions. The aim is to get the students thinking about what they say and how they view people other than themselves. I thought it was a great, though albeit rather bold, thing to do, as I can’t imagine doing something similar in American high schools.

I gave a brief address during an informal panel discussion—a story about how I became involved in interfaith work and where I hoped to go with it in the future—and fielded a few questions regarding the pragmatics of mobilizing campus and community groups to engage in large-scale service projects.

After our sessions ended for the day, we headed to dinner, and I had a chance to get to know everyone better. The next day (and the last day of their conference), everyone shared their ideas for reaching out to their campus communities and demonstrating the power of interfaith cooperation. Their ideas were incredible and original, inspiring me to consider implementing a few of them at U of I when I return next semester.

My favorite idea was one that involved making t-shirts emblazoned with the symbol of your faith tradition on it and then building a full-size archway out of cardboard bricks (or something similar) in a prominent campus location, the display of unity coming from the concerted effort to build an object that requires all of its parts to stand (as an arch does). I imagine this could be a pretty powerful demonstration on the quad at University of Illinois.

My time with the Three Faiths Forum reminded me that interfaith is also international. It isn’t a movement consigned to American university campuses or even London secondary schools, but is something that involves the entire world. (I think the recent stories of Muslims and Christians standing together in the Middle East proves this.) And I know that we talk about it as being a global movement all the time, but I must admit that it didn’t quite hit me until I sat in a room with students from another country who shared the same values as I do about interfaith cooperation.

When we as Christians participate in interfaith work, we participate in an international discussion. Our efforts to form relationships with those of other religious and non-religious traditions may not seem like much at first, but once the example has been set in one place, it can be followed in another. Just think of Martin Luther King Jr following the example set by Gandhi; one individual’s witness for their faith can resonate throughout the world.

You can find more information on The Three Faiths Forum at their website here, as well as watch some great and informative videos on their YouTube channel.

 

 

Communicating Christ: Reflections from Northwestern University

Last Thursday, I had the great privilege of sharing my passion for interfaith cooperation with a group of evangelical students at Northwestern University’s Multi-Ethnic InterVarsity.

As I described the need for interfaith relationships to combat religious violence and tension, the barriers that keep evangelicals from engaging in interfaith work, and the ways in which interfaith cooperation allows us as Christians to communicate Christ with others, I was met with an encouraging response.

Afterwards, I chatted with one student who desires to build a sustainable project to serve the homeless in Northwestern’s surrounding community of Evanston, IL.  We talked about the great opportunity to grow the impact of one campus fellowship’s efforts by reaching out to student organizations of other faith traditions and creating an interfaith project to serve the homeless.

Another student reminded me of Jesus’ words in the New Testament: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full,” reflecting the notion in my faith tradition that, because I am a Christian, my life reflects a quality that no other’s does, and that simply living a life motivated by the example of Christ, I am providing a witness to the core values of my faith.  How exciting, then, to follow the example of Christ by serving others in an interfaith context?

These conversations are the first steps in changing the broader evangelical perspective on a religiously diverse world.  We must tell the stories of positive interaction between faith communities, cast the vision for a world where inter-religious conflict is overcome by enriching relationships, and encourage opportunities to show Christ to the world through our actions.

This gets me thinking.  How would the global church be different if our youth groups organized service projects in their communities with groups from the nearby mosque or temple?  What if our campus fellowships coordinated social events with religious student organizations from other faith traditions?  What if our churches were more hospitable to their neighboring congregations?  What if religious leaders, clergy, and secular leaders alike were getting together to talk about how we can better meet the needs of our communities?

Would we, as Christians, be seen differently?  Would we spend less time quarreling about church budgets and communion practices and more time living, serving, and loving?  Would we be communicating the love of Jesus in a clearer, more effective way?

I think so.  What do you think?

Overreaching Our “Outreach:” Rethinking Evangelism in Interfaith Cooperation (Part II)

In part I of this series, I talked about how what Greg and I call the “homework” model of evangelism fails to address the specificities of a scenario involving an interfaith dynamic. To better understand how this task-based way of evangelizing would come off to others, I try to put myself in the shoes of an outsider.

For instance, what if I was a practicing Hindu, one of my Christian friends invited me to an event, and I agreed to go. Suppose that the thrust of this event was to show the inadequacies of my life without Jesus and then propose that I renounce my current beliefs in order to mend my problems and prevent me from landing in hell for all eternity. Beneath the whole premise of the event sits a peculiar but powerful thing: a critique of my own Hindu beliefs and identity—beliefs that hold great significance and meaning to me, and that have allowed me to live a happy and fulfilled life.

Furthermore, (and the aspect that I think conflicts most with the intersection of evangelism and interfaith cooperation) this way of evangelizing only works with one particular people group—those who have little convictions of their own, have deep wounds for which they seek spiritual healing, or those who probably already spend time on the fringes of Christianity anyway. Thus the common aim of evangelism becomes a simple persuasion to become more involved than before or to convince someone they should pray a prayer to accept Christ.

Someone who already possesses a strong (or even moderate, for that matter) belief in another religion or tradition will not simply surrender those views at the drop of a hat, especially if they possess no perceived need. And that’s okay. I believe that an attempt at manipulating them to do so by an appeal to pathos, eliciting a strong emotional response, isn’t genuine.

Hence our first reaction should not be “here, this is why you’re wrong,” but to show through our actions, “this is how our faith transforms.” We must demonstrate why we are a positive force in the world that can change and revolutionize lives for good. Again I say: would it not be more powerful to lead by example, to showcase my faith by the way I live than to tell someone why they should believe in it?

If we allow for dialogue and discussion—for give-and-take—then the playing field becomes more level. Each person is inquiring, each person answering. No one is put at a disadvantage, personal story becomes the strong bonds between various faiths, and all participants in the discussion retain their agency. These types of discussions are central to the IFYC’s model of interfaith dialogue. And don’t we as Christians already place significance on the power of testimony in our tradition? So long as you refrain from setting a goal at the end of telling it, a perfect platform exists to share.

I know that this is a contentious topic, and there are plenty of things in these two posts with which to take issue. That’s good. I’ve only put forth a half-expounded idea that I hope can spark quality, civil conversation. Telling people about Jesus Christ is part of our identity. The question is: how do we embrace it, both in an interfaith context and otherwise? Please, contribute and join the discussion.

Overreaching Our “Outreach:” Rethinking Evangelism in Interfaith Cooperation (Part I)

We had sung some songs, played a silly game, watched an edgy, well-edited video montage peppered with pop-culture images and distressed teens. The speaker told a few jokes and threw in an anecdote about a time in his childhood when he had done something really embarrassing. He came across as charming and easy to identify with. As he discussed Scripture, one could see his passion for the message; he stressed—emphasized repeatedly— God’s deep love for creation. In fact, he said that God’s love was so immense that he sent his only Son to die for our sins.

And then he asked for us to bow our heads in prayer. He had the band come back to the stage, and right on cue came a few arpeggiated chords from an acoustic guitar, joined by a soft synth pad. One moment later came the melodic electric guitar, dripping in reverb and ping-pong delay. “Now I know that for some of you tonight, God is calling you to his presence. He’s asking you to [insert reference to anecdote/Bible story] and follow him…”

But you know the rest. If you have grown up in the church, there is almost no way you would have avoided this kind of situation (or one quite similar), the likes of which permeated my own adolescent church life. We were encouraged to bring friends to these events—often billed as “outreach” events— with the idea that by getting them in the seat, we could somehow get them to commit their life to Christ.

Greg and I have elsewhere referred to this common kind of evangelism as the “homework model,” and must admit that we don’t necessarily agree with it. In this version of evangelism, you are given an assignment—in this case, to tell an un-churched friend about Christ— and you fulfill your task either by sharing your faith with said person or bringing them along to your outreach event next week.

The emotional experiences described above are not inherently wrong—I’ve had my share of meaningful moments at church retreats and the like—but that they aren’t always appropriate. When dealing with others of strong conviction (whether religious or not) we must act and approach things differently.

As I discussed in an earlier post, the Great Commission poses an interesting issue with interfaith work; it asks us to examine how we represent Christ to the world, and doesn’t mean that evangelism stands in opposition to interfaith cooperation.

For me, the problem with the “homework” model of outreach evangelism lies in its assumptions. It presupposes a rather weighty purchase on the valuation of the sacred that says you possess the only real truth in the world, and, for others to get it, they must come to you. This automatically puts the other person at a kind of disadvantage. Regardless of whether we as Christians do in fact have all the answers is irrelevant—the point here is not that we hold the truth, but that it is disrespectful by proffering it in this way.

So how do we as Christians interested in interfaith cooperation rethink this model? What would it look like if we taught young Christians how to emulate Christ in the world through service and compassion instead of charging them with a requirement to bring a friend in order to be affirmed as a good Christian next week? Check back for Part II, where I’ll explore this topic further.

Where We’re Headed: Beginning a Conversation on Evangelism and Interfaith Work

Faith Line Protestants was born early one Friday morning at a coffee shop at the University of Illinois.  Cameron and I had just represented the U of I at the IFYC‘s Interfaith Leadership Institute in Washington D.C., and had realized we had something in common– an evangelical perspective on interfaith work.

So as we talked over coffee, we shared our experiences: church congregations that quarreled amongst themselves more than they served others, evangelism strategies that made sharing the gospel seem unnatural and awkward, and the excitement of interfaith work as a new arena for living out our faith.

Hoping to change the discussion regarding interfaith and the evangelical Christian community, we decided to start writing about our thoughts and experiences.  But that’s not because we have it all figured it out.  Cameron and I have discovered something exciting in interfaith work: a practical model for inter-religious cooperation which suggests that religious violence can be ended, social issues can be addressed, and meaningful relationships can be established between disparate peoples.

Though at first we thought we’d be simply making the case for interfaith involvement, we’re really beginning a journey of exploring the intersection of interfaith work and evangelism.  There seems to be an unnecessary tension between the Biblical imperatives to “make disciples of all nations” and to “love your neighbor,” to proselytize and to practice respect.  Individually convinced by the reasons for interfaith involvement discussed in our previous posts, we’ve dived in and have been unpacking this tension along the way.

While we don’t yet have a thorough way of articulating our discoveries, we realize that we are compelled to be not just participants, but leaders of interfaith cooperation.  And we would like to suggest that honest participation in interfaith work might even be a better witness than many of the “best practices” for evangelism which we have been taught through our Christian education.

This is a call to other evangelicals who are sick of seeing the man on the quad, holding a sign that says “God hates gays” and yelling about an impending hell.  It is a call to those who struggle with the awkwardness of forced spiritual discussions and cold-turkey proselytization.  It is a call to those who desire to make known the love of Christ in a genuine way.

We move forward with further discussion on the evangelism-interfaith tension; we have stories of relationships and convictions, frustrations and inspirations.  We’ll look to current events and Biblical themes for an understanding of how and why we approach interfaith work as evangelicals.  You are invited to respond, to argue, and to discover with us.

 

—-

Photo by pop catalin (http://www.sxc.hu/profile/catalin82)

It’s a Small World After All: Why the Importance of Interfaith Grows with the Population

(Photo courtesy of the NOAA.)

Seven billion. That’s the number that our population will hit at some point this year. And afterward, it will continue to grow. That’s seven billion lives, seven billion stories, and seven billion beliefs about the world in which we will all inhabit. With rapid communication and fast travel, our world has already grown smaller, just as the population has ballooned larger. Apart from being an ecological concern for the population-at-large, this expansion of the world’s citizens carries quite a bit of significance specifically for the interfaith community. What do we do as the world becomes more crowded, when differing opinions and ideologies come closer and closer to one another than ever before? What do we do when clashing viewpoints meet in the public spheres of our society–not just the physical ones, but also the electronic spaces frequented by an ever-expanding percent of the global populace?

This is where interfaith cooperation becomes crucial. Sociological pluralism of the sort we advocate at FLP (and that you will find outlined in our pages above) will become a social necessity if humanity is to live and work and grow together as we move into the future. Why not get a head start? Greg and I have outlined a few reasons why we think interfaith work worthwhile– from our call as Christians to live as ambassadors of Christ, to the simple practical benefits of service– and this one perhaps encompasses them all.

As a prominent faith community– the Christian community– we should begin considering these challenges that the future poses. The population increase, expected by some sources to reach nearly ten billion by 2050, will bring with it a host of new issues, many of them ecological. We will have to be better stewards of our resources, and we will have to look to our moral rubrics for guidance. In our case, that means turning to Scripture and discussing what Christ’s example can teach us about a Christian ethic on an enormous (and enormously diverse) planet. We will have to decide what the church looks like in a dynamic world.

To solve these issues and truly progress into a better age than those that came before, we cannot continue to fight and oppose one another. Dissidence breeds only more problems. In his last entry, Greg talked about the incredible outpouring of support surrounding UIUC’s “Million Meals for Haiti” event, which saw people from every walk of life come together to solve a problem, to right a wrong and better the world in which we live. To flourish, we will need more of these events. I believe that acts of service like this must become normal rather than exceptional for us to powerfully transform our world.

We have the ability to write the story of our future; we can choose to promote peace or allow violence. It’s up to us. Interfaith cooperation provides an opportunity to forge strong relationships with those different from you. If enough people did this, then the bonds of the global community would be much stronger than they are now. Perhaps things like “Million Meals” could seem commonplace. From within our Christian identity we can pull together to make this seven billion strong–seven billion united in our differences–instead of seven billion reasons to disagree. So what do you think the world will look like? How will the Christian community respond to the issues faced in this growing world, and what are some ways to join people of different beliefs and traditions together to address them?

As an aside, here’s an excellent video put together by National Geographic as part of their series “Seven Billion”:7 Billion, National Geographic Magazine

Feeding the Hungry: an Example that Compels us Toward Interfaith Work

Just over a year ago I was on a train home to visit my parents in the Chicago suburbs when my cell phone rang. It was my mother, who was calling to gauge my interest in a family service project packaging meals for Haiti.

Envisioning a room somewhere in a church basement with a pile of canned goods, miscellaneous boxes, and a junior high youth group, I was shocked when we walked into a former hardware store in Elgin, IL to roughly 1,000 energized volunteers filling box after box with packages of a nutritious rice, soy, vegetable, and vitamin blend – all the while chatting and dancing excitedly.

Somewhere along the way, the excitement caught me. Coming from a student organization at the University of Illinois–Interfaith in Action–with a rich history of organizing service projects, I wanted to see such an endeavor staged on my campus.

This is where the story of interfaith cooperation catches fire.

I brought the idea to a small group of friends – the “executive committee” that organized Interfaith in Action’s programs. We were an Evangelical Christian, a Catholic, a Buddhist, a Hindu, and a Humanist, and we set out to plan an event at which our campus could package these meals for Haiti.

I got a hold of the cell phone number for Rick McNary, founder of Numana, Inc., with whom I discussed the logistics of the project. We started a search for facilities to host the event, the money to fund the event, and the volunteers to staff the event. During the process, we connected with the regional office of the Salvation Army who connected us with the local corps at the same time that a phone call from Washington, D.C. out of the Salvation Army World Service Office confirmed that a federal grant was going to fund our project.

With that, a community-wide, multi-faith endeavor was born. The event was moved to an abandoned Hobby Lobby building on the west side of Champaign and staff from Numana, Inc. flew in prepare for the event.

In a single weekend, 5,112 volunteers from every walk of life, faith and philosophical tradition passed through that site to lend a hand. In less than 12 hours, 1,012,640 meals were packaged for shipment to Haiti where they were protected by the 82nd airborne and distributed by Salvation Army humanitarian workers.

This is a story of coming together, it’s a story of cooperation, and it’s a story of interfaith work. As an evangelical, this is a snapshot of how I desire to live out my faith. To do so alongside people who I desire to show the compassion of Jesus makes it an even more compelling endeavor.

Jesus said “I was hungry and you brought me something to eat.” Consider the significance of inviting others to join in such an activity. If you ask me, this is a simple yet profound way to communicate the compassion of Christ, meet the needs of the world, and build a better community.

—–

More photos of the Million Meals for Haiti event in Champaign,  IL can be found here or by navigating www.uiucinterfaith.org.