Making Our Appeal: The Significance of Interfaith Work as Christ’s Ambassadors

Just a few days ago, Greg and I both wrote a reflection about a photo tweeted around the web depicting young Egyptian Christians linking arms in protection of Muslims praying behind them. A common theme ran through both our posts—that such a display of love demonstrated quite poignantly the love of Christ for humanity. It was a sacrificial love, and in both of our reflections we touched on what we felt to be one of the most important aspects of their actions: that they were representing this love to the world.

The Muslim community in Egypt, who began this exchange of prayer protection over Christmas, are now once again returning this act of love by protecting the Christians while they pray. One act of kindness bore another.

Having grown up in the church, I often hear the term “ambassadors of Christ” used to describe Christians’ social identity. Indeed, Greg and I have even employed the term at various times on this very site. Though perhaps a rather awkward way of referring to a Christian individual to modern ears, the concept makes a lot of sense, and has a lot to bear on interfaith interaction.

The expression itself comes from 2 Corinthians 5:20, which says:

“We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.”

These words (like usual) belong to St. Paul, who writes this in his second letter to the early church in Corinth. If you are like most introspective Christians, the question becomes: But what does it mean to be Christ’s ambassador, exactly?

Being ambassadors of Christ requires something more of us than simply attending church services or calling ourselves “Christian.” Instead it necessitates action, doing. The act of being an ambassador means representing another party—“represent” is a verb.

Though I touched on this briefly in my recent post on evangelism and interfaith work, and will address it again in our upcoming series that focuses on evangelism specifically, all I will say here is that these Egyptians demonstrated what it means to be an ambassador of Christ: they showed that they were willing to act on Christ’s behalf to bring peace into the world, to show the world what the Kingdom of God looks like.

I think the prominent New Testament scholar (and former Bishop of Durham, UK) NT Wright has the right idea regarding what it means to represent Christ as his ambassador. Essentially, he talks about the Kingdom of God as being on earth now, enacted through us as believers, as well as the Kingdom of God as a future event worthy of aspiration. This view makes a lot of sense when you look at Pauline theology (which Wright does a great deal) and understand that this rubric compels us to live a faith in action, a faith that moves here and now to represent the ideal that we hope for in heaven.

All of this is a protracted way of saying that interfaith cooperation presents a perfect opportunity to enact our faith, to live it as those Egyptians lived theirs (both Muslim and Christian). Indeed, interfaith cooperation is the very definition of ambassadorial work—representing Christ to those who do not share your religious tradition. How does the notion of representing Christ affect your life? Does it move you? Does it impact your actions? What does it look like, in your eyes, to be an Christ’s ambassador?

Please join in the conversation, either by leaving a comment here or finding Faith Line Protestants on Facebook!

 

—-

Photo by sanja gjenero (http://www.sxc.hu/profile/lusi)

What Being a Peacemaker Really Looks Like

In the introduction to his book, Acts of Faith, Eboo Patel opens with an account of the trial of Eric Rudolph.  Though perhaps most known for detonating bombs at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Rudolph also bombed several other sites in the two years following the Olympics before he went into hiding in the Appalachian wilderness.  Patel describes how Rudolph showed no remorse for his actions:

“In fact, Rudolph is proud and defiant.  He lectures the judge on the righteousness of his actions.  He gloats as he recalls federal agents passing within steps of his hiding place.  He unabashedly states that abortion, homosexuality, and all hints of ‘global socialism’ still need to be ‘ruthlessly opposed.’  He does this in the name of Christianity, quoting from the New Testament: ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.’”

Rudolph faced a world different from the one he had constructed in his mind.  The moral code he had internalized didn’t match with what he saw going on around him.  And he decided that the way to reconcile these differences was to murder and destroy.

I believe we all face the crisis that Eric Rudolph faced.  When our faith traditions provide guidelines for what is right and wrong, we will encounter others who live by a different standard.  We will find those with whom we disagree.  The tension may be moral, theological, or preferential.

So how do we respond?  Thankfully, very few respond the way Eric Rudolph did.  For Christians, the Bible provides clear direction on why Rudolph’s actions were wrong.  But I know many Christians who would respond with violence of another form.  A violence that others do not see, but exists nonetheless.  I know because I’m guilty of such violence as well.

I’m referring to the violence we commit in our hearts – the judgment we pass as we perceive someone in an act of “wrongdoing,” the pride we feel when we interpret our lives to be more excellent than another’s, the righteousness upon which we gloat as others fall below our personal standards.  While such responses are devoid of the violence that placed Rudolph in prison with four consecutive life terms, they also lack the quality that could have caused Rudolph to build bridges instead of bombs: love.

The Bible tells the story of Jesus and a man named Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10).  Zacchaeus was a tax collector (and possibly a cheating one at that) and the sort of man about whom others muttered under their breath (Luke 19:7).  Whether it was his fault or not, you might say that Zacchaeus was the kind of person with whom religious people disagreed.  But instead of joining in the muttering, Jesus invited himself to be Zacchaeus’ guest, shocking those around him who would rather criticize Zacchaeus than associate with him.

What if Eric Rudolph had a real understanding of the Christian faith instead of a warped understanding of justice?  Imagine how this world would be different if he had pursued peace instead of violence, but with the same determination.  Instead of building bombs, he would have been building relationships, instead of lashing out with violence, he would have been reaching out through service.

In a famous sermon depicted in the New Testament, Jesus says “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9).  I believe that when Christians build relationships instead of condemning those with whom we don’t agree (whether it is morally or theologically), we are being peacemakers.  In a world where violence is used too often to solve issues of religious difference, our faith compels us to be at the forefront of making peace.

Thus, we are also compelled to be interfaith leaders.  And remarkably, when we create interfaith relationships, we find that there is plenty about which we do agree.  These are not realizations that blur the boundaries between religions, but understandings that we are better working together for positive change.  When we are building bridges instead of bombs – that is when we are peacemakers.

—-

Bridge photo by ivanmarn (http://www.sxc.hu/profile/ivanmarn)

A Love Like Christ, a Reflection: What We Can Learn From Egypt’s Uprising

originally posted by @NevineZaki on Twitter.

The media has swollen with stories about the protests in Egypt—millions marching for freedom and peace, the internet being shut down, and, most recently, Anderson Cooper bludgeoned by angry Mubarak-supporters. Even to a reader who likes to keep abreast of world affairs, I must admit that I still don’t fully understand the complex cultural workings that led to this enormous protest, being admittedly rather ignorant to Egyptian political life. It seems that every five minutes, a new take on the whole affair appears on the news sites I follow.

But, while skimming through my Twitter feed a couple of days ago, I caught the image above sent in a link by one of my friends at the IFYC, and it had a profound impact on me. It was an image of poignant truth, yet simple to understand. Regardless of the political motivations behind the movement, the implication of US diplomacy, or the expected outcome of all that has occurred, I could not help but be moved.

Greg’s post on this photo mentioned his great appreciation for Jesus’ exhortation to “Love your neighbor.” These words come from Luke 10:27, in which Jesus says that the two most important commandments from God are to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind,” and to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Later, St. Paul, in his letter to the church at Corinth, echoes love’s importance when he describes its qualities, saying:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

It was Jesus who loved us so deeply that he died for our sins—the demonstration of a love that “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” In the outstretched arms of these young Egyptian Christians I see the same kind of love. And, in a way, they stand in imitation of Christ, bearing their hearts to the world.

What is more profound than this—Christians mimicking the sacrificial love of Christ in such a poignant way?

The people in this photo look my age. As I reflected on what they were doing, I had to ask myself: would I do that, too? Faced with the threat of violence and death, would I link arms with my fellow believers in order to let those of another faith pray to their god? Though I fear my cowardice, I should hope I would rise to the occasion, and I would hope they would do the same. In fact, as Greg mentioned in his post, they already did, back at Christmas when Muslims stood as human shields outside of an Alexandrian church in solidarity against militant extremists.

The love demonstrated in this photograph is a powerful one, one that moves me and motivates me. The bonds of such a love are strong, elemental, transcendent. What compelled the Muslims to defend their Christian neighbors later compelled Christians to reciprocate. How does this motivate you? Does it cause you to reflect on your faith as it did me?

Paul continues in his letter to the Corinthians. His words ring powerfully in my mind as I consider the photograph above:

“And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

Reflections on a Snapshot of Religious Cooperation in Egypt

originally posted by @NevineZaki on Twitter

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t pay enough attention to what is going on in the world around me.  Typically, my eyes are fixed on a pair of computer screens: coding a problem for class on one, a half-composed e-mail sitting open on the other.  Or I’m wrapped up in a textbook, trying to stay awake, note cards scattered around me, studying for that next exam.  I’m an MD/PhD student, so perhaps I have an excuse.  But then again, maybe I don’t.

I do what I can to catch glimpses of the reality beyond my routine.  Which, at best, means grabbing my phone during a free minute or a boring lecture to skim a series of RSS feeds, tweets, and headlines.  This week, one tweet in particular caught my eye and caused me to sit back for a moment to reflect.

At the church where I grew up, there were a few older gentleman who consistently reminded us to be praying for our troops.  It gave me the impression that these fellas sat around all day with nothing else to do, so they made a hobby of following the men and women serving our country and risking their lives outside the States, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan.  But I think that they were actually on to something.  There are bigger things going on in the world – things that, at the very least, deserve our prayerful attention.

Amidst the unrest in Egypt, a picture was tweeted across the globe this week, often with an #interfaith hash tag, showing Christians joining arms to protect Muslims during prayer.  This almost seemed to reciprocate the human shield formed around a Coptic Christmas mass just a few weeks ago by Egyptian Muslims as a protest against Islamic militants.

As I paused for another “what would Jesus do?” reflection, I began to realize what this act represented.  In a society where order is crumbling to the ground and protests are escalating to violence, what is more profound than a bold reminder that many Egyptians dream of a country where people of diverse backgrounds work together to preserve freedom?

As we’ve started to build Faith Line Protestants over the past few weeks, one theme has remained persistent in my thoughts: love your neighbor.  To me, defending another’s freedom to practice their faith – even when that faith is not your own – is an act of love.  As a citizen of a nation built on ideas like religious freedom, I realize the significance of this notion which, depicted in the picture above, inspires me as I pray for safety and peace in Egypt during the days ahead.

How does this inspire you?  Let us know by commenting here or sharing with us on our Facebook page.

Questioning Our Assumptions: Reasons for Interfaith Involvement (Intro)

Why should we want to participate in interfaith efforts? What’s the need for a web site like Faith Line Protestants? Why is interfaith cooperation even important in the first place?

No, this isn’t our first existential crisis. They’re fair questions.

In the past few posts, Greg and I have discussed a number of things that we feel are the commonest barriers between the Christian community and interfaith cooperation. But simply enumerating barriers isn’t enough. For our next series of posts, we will give four reasons why interfaith cooperation is important—and, more specifically, why the Christian community should become involved.

Greg and I believe that the reasons for Christians’ involvement yield tangible and positive results both for the church and the world. Some of the things we’ll discuss are:

  • the ability for the church to act as peacemakers in a world of strife and disagreement
  • what being Ambassadors of Christ has to do with interfaith cooperation
  • the practical and tangible benefits of mobilizing faith groups in service
  • interfaith cooperation’s potential for building local (and global) community, and how interfaith cooperation can work to build religious literacy and promote understanding in religiously diverse world

We’ll also be posting with increasing frequency on topics outside of our series’ scope, hopefully fostering more discussions on different topics that have interfaith implications.

The Christian church has much to offer in the discourse surrounding interfaith cooperation. Join us as we step into a new series making a case for our participation in interfaith work.

Religious Illiteracy and the Mistake of Fearing Interfaith Engagement

My friend Jeff, who is Asian American, is a gifted vocalist and was an enthusiastic member of the University of Illinois Black Chorus during his undergraduate studies.  As I started thinking about literacy and interfaith work, a specific incident from his experience came to mind.

I remember Jeff talking about an upcoming Black Chorus concert one day when one of our friends asked him: “are you the only white person in Black chorus?”

These were poorly chosen words – Jeff is unmistakably Asian American. In this situation, our friend was unaware of the disrespect that was inadvertently embedded in her language. However, my point is not to broach a discussion on racial microaggressions, but to illustrate what I mean by illiteracy.

Naturally, any setting outside of our comfort or experience is going to produce literacy-related apprehension.  Do I know the proper way to act, dress, talk, or eat?  Will I unintentionally offend someone with what I say?  Will my naivety show?

Engaging people of other faiths is a similar situation.  I imagine it is common that many Christians fear being embarrassed by an insufficient understanding of other faith traditions.  In fact, after four years of organizing interfaith programs with Interfaith in Action, a student organization at the University of Illinois, I still occasionally worry that I will make a remark that reflects my incomplete understanding of my friends’ faith traditions.

But we cannot let this fear keep us from pursuing interfaith cooperation. Religious literacy is a goal of interfaith work, not a prerequisite.  And while we must make it our desire to understand other faiths with respect as our goal, the interfaith relationship is the mechanism through which we learn about our neighbor.

Cameron and I mention frequently that we follow a model for interfaith cooperation that has been developed by the Interfaith Youth Core (see Pluralism), which stresses respect for religious identity, mutually inspiring relationships, and common action for the common good.  There is no requirement for an expert understanding of other faith traditions in order to participate; respect is established by asking questions instead of making assumptions.

As a Christian, I feel that this is just another component of “love your neighbor”.  I desire to understand my friends’ faith traditions better because I hope to better understand my friends.  It’s that simple.

Here at Faith Line Protestants, part of our vision is to be a resource for Christians who are struggling to understand how to live in a religiously diverse world.  As a part of that vision, we hope to feature guest bloggers from other faith traditions who can provide some insight into their traditions.  So stay tuned as we continue the conversation, and look for opportunities to learn along the way!

The Great Commission: A Barrier to Interfaith Cooperation, or a Catalyst for It?

16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:16-20 (taken from the New International Version, ©2010)

These verses, typically referred to as the “Great Commission,” are some of the most central to the Christian faith. They represent the theological motivation for evangelism, straight from Jesus himself, and have compelled the church to share the love of Christ with the world. Yet they have also produced great controversy, both within the church and outside of it. How we as Christians evangelize shapes our identity and affects how we interact with culture and society.

Traditionally, evangelism has, at its most basic, meant telling others about Christ, entreating them to join the fold. Yet, in interfaith cooperation, this approach can sometimes come across as insensitive to others who also hold strong beliefs about the sacred. Building mutual respect is crucial for forming strong relationships with other religious (or non-religious) persons. Because the point of interfaith cooperation (especially in community service projects) is not to convert those with whom you work, there seems an obvious and possibly difficult tension here if we as Christians are compelled by our faith to share our beliefs, but prevented from doing so in order to maintain a level of respect for the beliefs of others.

Some may even see this as a strong reason NOT to become involved in interfaith cooperation—why exert the effort if you can’t expect to lead non-Christians to a belief in Christ? While I could give you many reasons (and Greg and I will do just that in our next series of posts) why Christians should be involved anyway, I will refrain and instead point to the issue underlying the belief that interfaith cooperation thwarts any hope for evangelism: the question of what such an evangelism should look like in an interfaith environment.

Though disputed by historians, legend has it that St. Francis of Assisi said this pithy statement regarding evangelism: “Preach the Gospel at all times; when necessary use words.” It is believed that he also said, “It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.” Whether these statements actually came from St. Francis’s mouth does not diminish their meaning—actions speak louder than words, and we as Christians should be conscious of that fact as we strive to represent Christ to others. Showing love and compassion and a deep care for the world would speak far louder to someone of another faith than would an awkward conversation about doctrinal difference and the threat of hell for those who do not convert.

However, one must remember that interfaith cooperation depends upon mutual respect of religious or non-religious identities, meaning that evangelism as a facet of Christian identity must also be respected. Once strong relationships have been established, we as Christians can have opportunities to discuss with those of other beliefs the faith that motivates us and drives us. We share our stories and our tradition’s teachings; we learn from one another. Taken in this way, evangelism does not have to oppose interfaith cooperation. Instead, we simply must ask ourselves what evangelism should look like, and what it would look like to the non-Christian. Jesus tells us in the verses above to “[teach] them to obey everything I have commanded you”—what better way to do this than by example? If we back up our lofty moral ideals with action, then others will take notice, and the Christian community will rise to distinction as one that seeks to promote justice, peace, and love in a world in need of such qualities.

Struggling with Limited Capacity: Why Increasing Interfaith Cooperation Requires Changes to the Schedule

I was involved with a Christian fellowship group for the better part of my undergraduate career – leading Bible studies, going to meetings, and attending leadership training sessions.  I learned the organization’s ministry strategies, the Bible study methodology, and the accompanying social schedule.

I also grew in my faith.  Certain themes began to surface through my experience there that struck me.  Perhaps the strongest were the calls to help people who are in need and to pursue justice in a world where so many are oppressed.  Quickly, I started to ask how I could apply these lessons in my life as a college student.

I was among a group of students who suggested ideas for getting our campus fellowship involved in the community.  We lived in one of the poorest counties in the state of Illinois, which exhibited significant homelessness, unemployment, and healthcare accessibility issues.  But each time the suggestion to go serve in our community came up, we were told that the organization’s focus was on other forms of ministry.  In other words, our campus fellowship didn’t have the capacity for sustained service activities.

I feel that a similar lack of capacity prevents Christian organizations from forming interfaith relationships within their communities and on their campuses.  While most churches I’ve attended have a weekly calendar packed with activities, none of those activities attempt to interact with other faith communities.  Yet if our Christian organizations and their leaders don’t lead the way in building interfaith cooperation, who are we going to follow?

I once heard advice about evangelism suggesting that Christians should do fewer religious activities in order to free-up time to participate in the non-religious activities we enjoy.  Doing so gives us the chance to interact and build relationships with people of different backgrounds, which is part of our obligation to share Jesus Christ with the world.

But I wonder what would happen if we tried to be more creative in planning our agendas.  What about planning that campus fellowship Frisbee tournament with student organizations of other faith traditions?  Or inviting members of the nearby mosque or temple to participate in your church’s weekly soup kitchen?  Or going on a mission trip with the secular humanist organization in your area? (It’s been done!)

Like all Christians, I value time in fellowship, prayer, and worship with other Christians and believe that it is essential to my faith.  But I don’t believe that Christians are called to make themselves busy with the sort of Christians-only activities that keep us from building meaningful relationships with our neighbors – especially our neighbors from other faith traditions.  And my guess is that the Christians-only busyness won’t stop happening until we start making changes to the schedule.