Tag Archives: Christian identity

Creating a Culture of Unity Through Interfaith Cooperation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What do we call ourselves?

I really enjoyed this from Skye Jethani: Why Are There No “Christians” on Twitter?

He notes that in his wanderings of Twitter profiles, “Very few used the word Christian, and no one used the word Evangelical” to describe themselves.

And then he brings up a great point, which is that “Evangelical is applied so broadly that few seem to believe it holds much meaning,” which presents an interesting issue to our discussion of evangelicals and the interfaith movement.

To add to Skye’s point, my Twitter profile identifies me by my activities and not explicitly by my faith:

MD/PhD student at the University of Illinois. Leading @globalhealthIL, co-founder of @flprotestants, long-time @uiucinterfaith enthusiast.

But I resonate with Skye’s point that the term evangelical is tricky – it seems to carry a lot of baggage in addition to holding a rather vague definition. What’s interesting to me is that I’m most comfortable calling myself an evangelical in the interfaith setting. Why?

Because I know that folks who do interfaith work aren’t going to immediately jump to conclusions based on how I describe my faith. Outside of an interfaith context, I don’t have that luxury: I fear that people will jump to conclusions and ascribe certain qualities based on some of the more prominent (and abrasive) so-called evangelicals. I’ve talked about this a little bit in the past.

At the end of the day, I’m interested in showing people the characteristics of the compassionate, loving example I follow in Jesus and to communicate the message of the gospel in the same manner. I hope that choosing to call myself an evangelical won’t lead people to jump to negative conclusions about my character before I have a chance to do that.

Perhaps this is just another reason why we need more evangelicals doing interfaith work. It’s also another example of why actions must speak louder than words.

In case you missed the link, Skye’s blog is here: http://www.skyejethani.com/why-are-there-no-%E2%80%9Cchristians%E2%80%9D-on-twitter/1204/

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5 types of Christians: The insiders (part 1 of 6)

This article is part 1 in a series inspired by Gabe Lyons’ The Next Christians. As I read this book, I felt like Lyons’ insight was particularly relevant to our discussion of evangelical involvement in the interfaith movement. Be sure to check out The Next Christians and check back here for part 2 of this series!

Click on photo for credits

 

I’ve never found it sufficient to simply state that I’m a Christian when meeting someone new. Inevitably, saying so always leads to a question of brand or persuasion that, more often than not, seems to be accompanied with an assessment by my new acquaintance. People draw many conclusions from one’s denominational affiliation, and in the case of meeting other Christians, they want to know whether you are “one of theirs” or not. After all, we’ve all met that Christian who we just can’t quite stand to be around, right?

The sociology of Christianity fascinates me, and the only thing preventing me from writing a doctoral thesis on the subject is a lack of calling (and the fact that I’m currently training as an engineer and a physician, so don’t get your hopes up). The way that Christian doctrine has manifested itself in Christian living varies so greatly from person-to-person that it’s mind-blowing – something Gabe Lyons recognizes during a consulting gig with a film producer described in his book, Next Christians.

Despite the complexity of it all, Lyons provides a brilliant assessment of Christians in America that will enlighten our discussion on evangelicalism and the interfaith movement, and I’d like to jump right in.

Lyons describes two major types of American Christian, each followed by more specific sub-types: “separatist” (including “insiders,” “culture warriors” and “evangelizers”) and “culturalist” (including “blenders” and “philanthropists”). I’ll unpack each of these as we discuss this analysis in light of the interfaith movement. I’ll begin with the label that best describes my childhood: the insiders.

The Insiders

In general, I grew up an insider. My favorite time of the week was Sunday night youth group, with Wednesday night dinners at church coming in a close second. My friends were almost entirely from the church crowd – and in a small congregation like ours, that meant I hung out with the kids from the five or six families I saw every Sunday morning.

My first CD purchase was a Jars of Clay album, and for a while I owned nearly all of the Steven Curtis Chapman albums (or at least the ones that had been released since I was born…). I had the WWJD? wristband, the cheesy Christian slogan t-shirt, and a set of home-made Bible verse magnets I had created on the computer. Sounding familiar to anyone?

As an insider, I lacked a sense of the religious diversity around me. When I thought of the brown-skinned guy in my reading class, I thought that being Arab and Muslim were the same thing. When the Thai girl in my homeroom was teased for being Buddhist, I didn’t even think of speaking up.

As an insider, I didn’t care about my classmate’s beliefs and traditions. To me, the only real world was the world of the church. I still can’t remember how I conceptualized a lifestyle centered on a different god, or, for that matter, the absence of one. It didn’t matter to me, almost as if those people didn’t have any real depth – as if they lacked real values. And although I was involved in community service throughout high school, the “why?” discussion about the motivation behind the action didn’t matter to me. I didn’t realize that others might cite reasons to serve that were different from my own.

It is incredible to see how my lifestyle – and my faith – has changed from being an insider. From eagerly awaiting each day spent at church (Wednesdays and Sundays) as an elementary school kid to finding excuses to skip campus fellowship meetings in college because I was increasingly irritated with the lack of interest in what was happening outside of our doors – people in need of restoration, relationships we were called – as Christians, as “restorers” – to build (a major theme in Next Christians).

It was when I came across interfaith dialogue that I realized there was so much more to people than what I observed from within my cultural “bubble.” It was also when I learned that Jesus called me to sacrificial service that I began to care why others were driven to serve as well.

Yet I still encounter the insiders. And the lack of interest in interfaith cooperation is all too familiar. It makes me wonder if the bubble which makes us comfortable on the inside is also keeping the “outsiders” out.

Articles in this series:
Part 1: The insiders
Part 2: The culture warriors
Part 3: The evangelizers
Part 4: The blenders
Part 5: The philanthropists
Part 6: Restorers

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Unfavorable Opinions

This piece was originally posted by Faith Line Protestants co-founder Greg Damhorst on the Interfaith Youth Core blog at http://www.ifyc.org/content/unfavorable-opinions.

Yesterday the Pew Forum released a Global Survey of Evangelical Protestant Leaders that caught my attention. I was first intrigued by a headline that read: “Evangelical Leaders see Secularism as Greater Threat than Islam,” but as I read on, I realized there was something even deeper.

I am constantly intrigued with the interaction of evangelicals and people of other faith traditions, including those from non-religious traditions. Especially in the interfaith movement – a movement that seeks to make interfaith cooperation a social norm – I am fascinated by the role the evangelical tradition will play.

The Pew Forum has given the world a subtle glimpse of why I feel this way:

“On the whole, the evangelical Protestant leaders express favorable opinions of adherents of other faiths in the Judeo-Christian tradition, including Judaism, Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity. But of those who express an opinion, solid majorities express unfavorable views of Buddhists (65%), Hindus (65%), Muslims (67%) and atheists (70%). Interestingly, the leaders who live in Muslim-majority countries generally are more positive in their assessments of Muslims than are the evangelical leaders overall.”

Survey results from Pew Forum Global Survey of Evangelical Protestant Leaders

These statistics represent views held by 2,196 evangelical leaders toward faith communities. But when I look at these numbers, I don’t see communities – I see faces.

65% of evangelicals have an unfavorable view of Buddhists and 65% have an unfavorable view of Hindus, but when I think of those traditions I remember the Buddhist and the Hindu who I worked with to start a project to provide relief to earthquake survivors in Haiti last year.

67% of evangelicals have an unfavorable view of Muslims, but I can’t ignore the Avicenna Community Health Center, which reaches out to the uninsured in my community alongside religious and non-religious folks who are passionate about bringing health to those who can’t access care.

And while the 70% of evangelicals who view atheists unfavorably can likely blame the anti-religious rhetoric of a few individuals, I can’t help but look at the non-religious in a different light because of my relationships with people like Chris Stedman, Adam Garner, and Chelsea Link (the latter two have joined me in the new class of Better Together coaches this year!)

I’m willing to bet that these unfavorable views do nothing to enhance the evangelistic efforts of my fellow Christians – that they only hinder our ability to genuinely communicate the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And I’m willing to bet that those who hold these unfavorable views don’t have meaningful relationships with people from other faith backgrounds.

When I look at the example that Jesus set – the example I work hard to emulate – I see relationships. In fact, they were often relationships with the people whom pious folks viewed unfavorably.

It is significant that evangelical leaders in Muslim-majority countries are more positive about Muslims than the worldwide trend. In my opinion, it’s probably because those evangelical leaders actually have Muslim friends.

It’s time for the evangelical community to stop being afraid of perceived threats to our faith and to start engaging with the world in a positive way. Relationships are the key to changing our perspectives. My prayer is that we all would understand the power they contain.

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What Does It Mean To Be Evangelical?: Defining Terms, Understanding Identities Pt II

Seemingly everyone is middle class. Ask someone who makes $75,000 a year and someone who makes double that amount, and both will tell you they’re “middle class.” And, it seems, even millionaires in the US claim to be middle class, as this 2007 survey indicates (I’d like to see what people would say now, in a post-recession economy). So who is right? What defines “middle class”?

Based upon data collected in surveys like the one above, “middle class” has come more to define a mentality than a dollar amount. If you feel middle class and act middle class, then you are, regardless of income, considered middle class—it has become a kind of sensibility. Does a similar notion also apply to evangelicals?

I think so.

I feel that, in some way, all Christians are evangelical, Catholic or Protestant, progressive or conservative, like it or not. We can’t escape the fact that evangelism is encoded within the DNA of the Christian faith, regardless of difference in denominational belief. Yet the definitions of the word that float through society don’t always accommodate this diversity.

As I see it, there are two easily identifiable definitions of the word “evangelical,” and one that is much harder to pin down: the first easily recognizable definition is used predominantly within the church community and the other is used predominantly outside of it. We will address the third one in a moment.

The first definition aligns rather closely with the one given in the OED, and stresses biblical inerrancy, salvation by faith alone, etc.

The second definition uses “evangelical” in a broad and often ambiguous way to describe basically any protestant who professes to be a Christian.

One can see this second definition come through in the recent flurry of activity surrounding Harold Camping’s rapture predictions. Multiple media outlets (here are just two examples: one, two) have referred either to Camping himself or/and to his media organization as “evangelical,” and I’ve heard it tossed around regularly in conversation that it’s those “evangelicals” who are at it again predicting the end of the world. And in some way, I can see where this assumption/association comes from: was it not the evangelicals who ate up the Left Behind series? Did not Camping’s followers harness evangelistic tactics to get their message out? Do they not conform to the OED’s definition? Are we not at least broadly discussing the same group of people?

Yet most evangelicals thought Camping was (and is) a loon. Even Tim LaHaye, the author of the  Left Behind series and prominent avowed evangelical, denounced Camping’s predictions as ridiculous.

I think you can see the difficultly here. If the word currently holds two meanings, but neither is stringently adhered to, then the word only leads to confusion and mis-categorization. I, for one, have quite a lot of Christian friends who might deem themselves “evangelical” in some sense of the word, but certainly don’t want to find themselves roped into Camping’s gang… or even Tim LaHaye’s gang.

This is where we find a third definition lurking in the background of this discussion. I represent that third definition. I am inclined to think of myself as an evangelical by virtue of the fact that I place importance on both sharing and living the Gospel, I believe in the transforming power of my faith, and I make no effort to hide my faith from others—I am, if you will, more than publicly Christian. I have many friends who would say the same for themselves; however, none of us would ever want to draw an association between us and the oft-stereotyped “evangelical” that demands donations on TV or hearkens back to the days of the Moral Majority. We don’t own that definition, and consequently, we don’t really own the one given in the OED, either.

Thus for us the question of mis-association becomes more pronounced. Is it necessary to say that someone must believe in total depravity of the human soul or biblical inerrancy as prerequisites to sharing their faith with the world? This assumption seems silly and needlessly exclusive. To me, those theological appendages fall subordinate to the importance of the gospel narrative.

While I’m certainly no lexicographer, I believe we need to reshape the word “evangelical” around this more universally Christian foundation (the one found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), as it seems strange to use such a narrow definition of a term that can be applied to so many different Christians in as many different contexts. It only leads to confusion and ambiguity. If we fail to extend the definition to those outside the more fundamentalist box—or for that matter the Calvinist box or the biblical inerrantist box or the anti-gay box or the televangelist’s health and wealth box—of the Christian faith, then I believe we endanger ourselves in a media-saturated world where terms get tossed around without much thought to their association or meaning.

As a Christian attempting to strengthen interfaith relationships, I become attuned to categories and their oftentimes-harmful connotations. I also see how categories can come to define one’s identity. I believe that interfaith cooperation is a way of evangelizing. However, Greg and I have encountered those who seem skeptical of this—what we’re trying to do, some say, is more assimilation that evangelization. And while I don’t buy it, such a criticism does pose the questions: What does it look like to evangelize? Who is an evangelical? In some ways, finding answers to these two issues undergirds all that Greg and I do at FLP, and gets at our very identity as Christians.

Anyway, this has run on too long. You now have my opinion on the matter— I’d love to hear yours! Should “evangelical” have an inclusive definition that accommodates to some extent all Christians, or do you think it should describe a narrow sect of the Christian faith? What do you think are the implications of both? Weigh in below!

(Also check out this great blog by renowned Baylor theologian Roger E Olson, which Greg found after I had written much of this post. Dr. Olsen explores much these same issues—I highly recommend giving it a read.)

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