When doing the Christian thing isn’t the right thing

707084_12414975I used to be a Bible study leader.

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

But what I remember most vividly are Thursdays.

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

But we haven’t learned to communicate the Gospel.

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

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

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

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

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

 

This piece originally appeared at Sojourners.

Image credit.

Listen to Barbara Brown Taylor on the Good Samaritan

If you’re looking for a mid-week sermon fix, check out this powerful message delivered by Barbara Brown Taylor at Riverside Church in New York City last Sunday.

Here’s a preview:  “I became a Christian in my twenties and I was always told to get my beliefs in order before I did things…but based on the story of the Good Samaritan, I wonder if things don’t work the other way around.  Maybe our lives are designed to upset our beliefs, not to reinforce them.”  Click on the link to hear the whole sermon: “The Right Answer”

Rev. Ferguson on Pragmatic Evangelism

What is the role of the Church in times of crisis? Rev. Darren A. Ferguson talks about how his Church dealt with the aftermath of Hurrican Sandy in his New Jersey community in his Sojourners piece “Evangelism After the Storm.”

We served hot Thanksgiving meals to more than 300 residents of Far Rockaway. When I arrived on that day, I walked from the entrance of our lot to the parking area where the tent was set up. I saw people of all colors, cultures, religions, and orientations, working together for the common good. There were no Blacks or Whites, Republicans or Democrats, no Liberals or Conservatives, Straight or Gay, but only people – together. This great quilt of caring lavished love and hope on the people of our community by providing a true Thanksgiving fellowship and meal.

Read the full article HERE.

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

surfer

And God spoke all of these words…You shall not give false witness against your neighbor. Exodus 20:1, 16

Several months back I overheard a conversation in an office waiting room. A young 20-something guy entered the waiting room with his board shorts on and his windblown hair haphazardly tucked beneath his backwards baseball cap as though he’d just come in from surfing – not uncommon in the beach community of Jacksonville, Florida. He strolled confidently to the receptionist and asked her a question about the availability of a person he wanted to see, made an appointment and it seemed his business was done and he’d be on his way. Instead he asked the receptionist where she was from, if she liked her job, and then talked about the weather. He then began to tell her about a Bible study he was leading and a little about his faith journey – for the longest time he felt lost, was starting to get in trouble, then he found Jesus, was born again and began to set his life straight.

After sharing his testimony he asked the receptionist, “What religion are you? She looked surprised then hesitant.

“I guess you could say I’m a Christian,” She replied.

“Oh, that’s cool,” said the surfer boy, “you know I used to think I was a Christian. I went to church sometimes, and my parents and everyone I knew were Christians, so I just figured I was Christian too, but I wasn’t saved, I wasn’t really a Christian.” The surfer boy paused to make sure the receptionist was following. “But now I’m saved because I told Jesus that I’m a sinner – I recognized all my sins- and then I professed Jesus as the son of God and the savior of the world, so now I will go to heaven and I know I’m a Christian.”

“I see,” said the receptionist, “well I also think it’s really important to be a good person.”

“Well sure,” responded the surfer boy, “we should all be good people, but that’s not going to get us into heaven. Take Judaism or Islam, for example, in Judaism and Islam you have to follow a set of laws in order to get into heaven. There’s no grace there, it’s all about doing things on your own and trying to get into heaven based on merit.”

“Really?” asked the receptionist.

“Yeah, totally. Muslims have to pray 5 times a day or they don’t get into heaven, and Jews have to keep all of the Old Testament commandments or they don’t get into heaven. Can you imagine having to keep up with that? No one can get into heaven on their own – it’s impossible to be perfect.”

With that, the surfer boy invited the receptionist to attend his church, bid her a good day, and was on his way: just another Tuesday afternoon.
__________________________________________

I’m very familiar with this routine, it’s one I know well. I used to be quite skilled in turning a seemingly mundane encounter with another person into an opportunity to evangelize. While this is no longer part of my everyday routine (I don’t personally feel called to this style of witness) I really don’t think there is anything wrong with this kind of evangelism. That being said – did you catch what the surfer boy said about Islam and Judaism?

Take Judaism or Islam, for example, in Judaism and Islam you have to follow a set of laws in order to get into heaven. There’s no grace there, it’s all about doing things on your own and trying to get into heaven based on merit.

These claims aren’t actually wholly true.

To start with, in Judaism there are various understandings about how to observe Torah. The religion of Judaism isn’t theologically singular as many assume. There are many sects of Judaism and many teachings on how one can or should follow Torah. Some are quite strict while others are more flexible. For example, in Reform Judaism, many do not even keep Kosher. The concept of grace, however, does exist in Judaism (where do you think we Christians got it?). Many Jews believe God chose the nation of Israel to be God’s light in the world and to lead the way in righteousness, not because Israel was the greatest nation, or the mightiest or because of anything Israel did or was (Deuteronomy 7:7), rather God chose Israel because God simply favored Israel. Further, the goal of observing Torah is not necessarily to get into heaven – many Jews do not even believe in heaven; nor is the goal to gain favor with God. According to Jewish theology, as a Jew, one is already part of God’s favored people.

It is true that in Islam Muslims are called to pray fives times a day, but this does not guarantee them entrance into heaven. A Muslim woman once told me that Muslims believe that no matter what we do here on Earth, or no matter how much faith we have in God, none of us are guaranteed entrance into heaven, there is always the possibility that we will end up in Hell. Therefore, if we do enter heaven – then it was because we did something good and because ultimately God allowed it according to God’s goodness. Again, we mustn’t assume that Muslim theology is singular.

While I do not pretend to be an expert on Jewish or Islamic theology, in fact, I’m far from an expert (I’m barely literate) but I bring up the story of the surfer boy and the receptionist as an illustration of a mistake us evangelicals regularly make – bearing false witness against our neighbor. Yes – that pesky ninth commandment can be such a pain in my rear, but it’s one we should really take seriously. The Ten Commandments is the foundation of the Judeo-Christian values system (is there one Judeo-Christian values system? probably not – but I digress) and as the foundation of said values system, each one should be considered carefully.

The ninth commandment is often paraphrased as, “do not lie,” but the more accurate translation from the Hebrew is “do not bear false witness against your neighbor.” If this sounds like legal language to you, you would be right. It is widely understood that this is a reference to ancient Jewish court systems. In a court case the accuser also acted as witness, so to bear false witness would also include wrongful accusation. While this particular commandment pertains specifically to the court of law – it seems fair to say that the sin carries forward into the ins and outs of daily life. Just as it is sinful to bear false witness and bring wrongful accusation in court, it is sinful to do so outside of court.

What does any of this have to do with living Christian in a religiously diverse world?

It is sometimes the case that in the attempt to share the Gospel with another person, or bring them to Jesus, that we talk about Christianity in relation to other religions – we compare and contrast. This a pretty common sales tactic used to convince consumers your option is the best option. It may seem distasteful to describe evangelism as sales – but in many ways that’s often the Evangelical’s hope, is it not? To “sell” others on the idea of Christianity? So it’s natural in many ways to say, “hey, yeah Christianity is a religion – like Judaism, Islam, or Hinduism – but it’s actually different from these other religions and here’s why.” And I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with comparing.

What’s wrong…actually let’s take this a step further…what’s sinful is comparing Christianity with other religions in a way that is dishonest, untrue, or misrepresents other religions, or the followers of those other religions. In other words, it is a sin to bear false witness against your neighbor’s religion.

That ninth commandment is one of the reasons I find interfaith cooperation and dialogue so important. A professor of mine at Princeton Theological Seminary, Dr. Richard Young, introduced me to this idea in a class I took called “Pluralism, Dialogue and Witness.” We are not good neighbors, we do not love our neighbors, when we are bearing false witness against them by sharing untruths about them to others.

Bearing false witness against another’s religion while acting as a witness to the Gospel, in the end, is not really witnessing to the Gospel. After all, the Gospel of Jesus is supposed to reveal truth in its most ultimate form. The truth of God is love and grace and redemption – themes that aren’t really congruent with claims of non-truth.

It is incredibly easy to bear false witness against your neighbor, or your neighbor’s religion, when you don’t know your neighbor. I truly believe that it is the rare case when a person bears false witness against another religion, or one of its followers, it is on purpose. The truth is we are almost always ignorant of our ignorance. We don’t always know the truth about the truth claims we’re making.

Interfaith dialogue, building interfaith friendships and relationships, gives us ample opportunity to know our neighbors and to better understand their ideologies (both religious and non-religious). The new knowledge, insights, and understandings gained from these relationships better equip us to obey the ninth commandment in a new and profound way.

So I would really challenge you to think about what you’re saying about other religions before you say it. Where did you get your information? Why are you sharing it? Remember those words from God – the ones God spoke to Moses and Moses carried all the way down from that mountain,

Do not bear false witness against your neighbor.

Consider speaking the truth when sharing the Gospel, and if you don’t know that you know the truth, consider speaking to the truth of the Gospel without sales tactics that may cause you to inadvertently sin.

Chris Stedman on Q Ideas: “Want to talk to Non-Christians?”

Chris Stedman offers some valuable insight from an atheist perspective on Q Ideas. I could probably write an entire blog post about each of his six points. What really struck a chord this morning:

Recently, I participated in an interfaith dialogue with someone who responded to my bristling at evangelizing by saying:
But, Chris, it strikes me that the problem there is with the definition of evangelization. If we think of that word as a synonym of hectoring and finger wagging and a holier than thou attitude, I completely agree with you. But what if evangelization is itself a mutually enriching dialogue in which the promises of the Church (that is, of Christ) are put forward as proposals, as encounters, not as edicts? Then we are taking about the manner, not the fact, of evangelization, aren’t we?

He is absolutely right. This is a distinction that I am hearing articulated more and more often by members of religious communities that see evangelizing as central to their faith—and it is one I welcome with gratitude. Maintaining a general orientation toward encountering diversity with inquiry and empathy, rather than lecturing at it, can facilitate a more productive dialogue. That will require listening from both sides and recognizing we have much to learn from one another. For starters, perhaps we can learn how to talk to, and listen to, one another in a more constructive and friendly manner.

From my perspective, you’ve captured it precisely, Chris. I asked in a recent blog post:

And we have been asking what would happen if we approached our friends who are Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, Sikhs and Buddhists with the same humility that Jesus modeled. What if there was a way to talk about faith in which we could communicate respectfully and authentically? What if we found ourselves in a situation where we not only talked about compassion, but we also practiced it by serving alongside those we’ve been taught to try to convert, asking questions, and sharing stories?

Would it water-down our message? Or would it strengthen it?

For me, as an evangelical, this is the promise of interfaith engagement. We don’t need to not evangelize to get along. instead we need to rethink evangelism. And when you really look at the Christian tradition of evangelism and you ask what is effective, what really communicates the message we Christians want to get across… The gospel I know can’t be communicated by hectoring and finger wagging.

If we evangelicals really step back and look at the way Jesus did things, I think we can identify three themes: service, storytelling and relationships. Those also happen to be the core principles of the interfaith movement. So if that’s how Jesus communicated the gospel, isn’t that how Christians should also? For me it’s a no-brainer.

Read Chris’s whole piece at Q Ideas: http://www.qideas.org/blog/can-christians-and-atheists-be-friends-this-atheists-thinks-so.aspx

Hearing Stories and Telling Stories: How Polarization Erases Personhood

Unsure of the public’s reaction in the days immediately following 9/11, Dr. Saleh Sbanaty and his family refused to go outside for fear of violence, heckling, or worse. One day, however, necessity got the better of them and they traveled to the grocery store to pick up a few things. While walking the aisles toward the cash registers,  Dr. Sbanaty felt a hand on his shoulder.

He froze.

He turned around to see a woman he had never seen before. She looked him in the eyes.

Though for a moment time seemed to slow to a halt, Dr. Sbanaty’s pulse quickened. Would she yell? Would she spit? Dr. Sbanaty did not know.

“You are welcome in this community,” she said.

Instead of insults and hate, she spoke words of encouragement and acceptance, even though she knew nothing of the man before her– a professor of engineering at Middle Tennessee State University and a devout Muslim. She was able to see him as a person, not a talking point.

Picture can be found at [http://www.islamophobiatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Islamic_Center_Murfreesboro2.jpg].

During FLP’s hiatus, we’ve seen religiously-motivated violence, political unrest, anti-American protests, massacres, shootings, the bizarre national argument over same-sex marriage fought over a fast-food chicken sandwich, debates over foreign and domestic policy, bombings, landmark Supreme Court decisions and more– and all the while we argue and denigrate one another as we disagree. Much of it has left me confused and disappointed; everything seems so broken, so irreparable.

This feeling of disappointment at humanity’s ability to talk about tough issues hits home for me. Many of you will have heard of the controversy that began some time ago surrounding the construction and opening of the mosque and Islamic community center in Murfressboro, TN. I’ve even written about it a couple of times on Faith Line Protestants.

During my orientation at Sewanee last August, we heard from Dr. Saleh M. Sbenaty, a professor at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro who has advocated for the building of the mosque and spoken on its behalf to the media on numerous occasions. The story at the beginning of this post comes (albeit slightly paraphrased) from the talk he gave that day a couple of months ago.

His daughter, Lema, a strong, proud, hijab-wearing young woman, joined him at our orientation and delivered the powerful story of her experience in the Murfreesboro community as both a student at the university and as a worker at a local pharmacy. She too has spoken publicly on behalf of the Murfreesboro Islamic Center, and has even appeared on CNN and other prominent news outlets to share her story and fight common misconceptions that follow Muslims in this country.

It brought tears to my eyes to hear how she had been treated– how customers had refused her service at the pharmacy, and how people stared and jeered and taunted. The Sbanatys aren’t strangers to the Murfreesboro community; indeed, Dr. Sbanaty has lived in Middle Tennessee for around a quarter of a century, and the area is the only home his children have ever known. Lema spoke with as much of a drawl as any good country girl I know, seeming just as at home in her cowboy boots and fashionable jeans as she did in her head scarf. Yet she and her fellow Muslims have found themselves treated in recent years as outsiders rather than neighbors.

In addition to his identity as a Muslim and a university professor, Dr. Sbanaty is also from Syria, having obtained his undergraduate education at Damascus University. You could see the pain in his eyes when he talked about the current struggle plaguing his home country. I felt ashamed that here in America we couldn’t offer him something more than just less persecution, less danger, than what he would now face in his home country.

Despite their recent struggle with parts of the community and country-at-large, Lema and her father had positive stories to tell in addition to their sad ones– stories of the mountains of support they have seen from local churches and other groups that have come in to advocate on their behalf.

Yet this support seemed betrayed when the construction of the mosque hit so many snags. Arson, vandalism, and legal obstructionism have all taken their toll on the Muslim community in Murfreesboro, despite the opening of the mosque last summer. It makes me think: with all the arguing, name-calling, and ill-informed discussion, what do we lose in the background? What stories go untold, unheard? Surely something gets lost among our soundbites and rapid-fire commentaries.

Something Dr. Sbanaty said about the situation in Syria struck me rather deeply. He urged us to consider that, despite the simplistic narratives fed to us in the drone of endless news cycles, the actual environment in many of these countries that produces such violence comes not simply from the Muslim faith, but from the years of oppression, mis-management of funds, militarism, and complex socio-political and even tribal contexts that produce what we have seen in everything from the Arab Spring to the anti-American sentiment prevalent in some of the region. (Our own military intervention in these countries might also have something to do with it, I’d wager.)

What gets lost among the rubble of our terrible discussions, I think, is personhood. Polarization erases personhood. Whether it be in Murfreesboro, TN or Damascus, Syria– polarization pushes stories and individual experience out of the way for an easy stereotype or an easier cliche. What this presupposes about human dignity should give us pause.

As a Christian, I believe in the inherent worth of all God’s children.Therefore I also believe in the inherent worth of all these children’s stories, their lives. Just as Frank Fredericks’ wonderful post earlier this week about the parable of the Good Samaritan challenges us, I too want to challenge us to think: what goes unnoticed when we are unwilling to listen? What stories go untold?

Interfaith work can be a way of telling those stories. Tell them. Hear them. Share them.

Amen.