Tag Archives: Eboo Patel

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.

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Two Important Books for Evangelicals About Interfaith Cooperation

John Morehead of the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy has written a dual book review of recent books by Brian McLaren and Eboo Patel. Check it out on the Evangelical Channel of Patheos.

And be sure to check out:

Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World by Brian McLaren

and

Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America by Eboo Patel

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A War That Builds Bridges, Not Bombs


Last month, Richard Proudfit stood before a black-tie crowd in Washington D.C. with a medal around his neck and announced that he was declaring war…

Read more at this article’s original location on Sojourners, or read the re-post at Huffington Post Religion.

 

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Thinking Theologically About Interfaith Work (Part 1)

This blog is a re-post from ProdigalPreacher, a blog by Nicholas Price. Thanks to Nick for allowing us to re-post his piece. We’ll close comments for this piece on our site so you can join us in the discussion on the original post at http://prodigalpreacher.wordpress.com/2012/06/18/thinking-theologically-about-interfaith-work-part-1/

INTRODUCTION TO THE SERIES

Since college, my path has regularly crossed those of interfaith workers.  I’ve had a chance to work with leaders and pioneers like Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, as well as up-and-coming leaders like Gregory Damhorst, former president of Interfaith in Action and writer at “Faith Line Protestants”.  I’ve also written on the subject at a couple of points, primarily to talk about what interfaith work is and the role it can play in our increasingly inter-related world.

Over the past few years I’ve been immersed in working with InterVarsity, an evangelical Christian movement among college students, so my primary focus has been there.  However, in recent weeks the subject of interfaith work has come up again, specifically from evangelicals asking if they should be involved and, if so, at what level.  In the past I’ve written as an evangelical outsider looking into interfaith circles as well as addressed the practical reasons why evangelicals should be involved in interfaith work.  However, I’ve never really given interfaith work a theological treatment before.

What follows is a three-part series called, “Thinking Theologically About Interfaith Work”.  The first part will deal with some of the biblical passages that I believe provide a Christian framework for interfaith engagement.  The second part will address both the opportunities and the barriers to interfaith work from an evangelical perspective.  Finally, the third part will address my personal hopes for evangelical Christian involvement in interfaith work.

BASIC ASSUMPTIONS

But before I dive into the theological reasons for being involved in interfaith work, I want to briefly address some of my assumptions.  First, I am writing as an evangelical Christian.  That being said, I do not claim to speak for all evangelicals. Some of what I have to say will probably be uncomfortable for interfaith practitioners who are not evangelicals.  Likewise, other points will probably be challenging for my fellow evangelicals.  What I provide here are my own thoughts as a member of this faith tradition and my readers are free to disagree with me on these points.

Second, I am already assuming that evangelicals should be involved in interfaith work.  For my reasons for this, I would direct you to my CrossCurrents article from 2005 (republished on this blog).

Third, I draw my definition of interfaith work and practice from the definition and model articulated by the Interfaith Youth Core and it’s founder, Eboo Patel.  Along with Cassie Meyer, Dr. Patel says that interfaith work, “seeks to bring people of different faiths together in a way that respects different religious identities, builds mutually inspiring relationships, and engages in common action around issues of shared social concern” (Patel & Meyer, 2010).  At points I will both affirm and critique this definition, but it is one of the best that I have seen for positive inter-religious engagement.

My hope for this series is to contribute to the conversation about interfaith engagement.  It is not my desire to be the only word or the final word on the subject.  So, without further ado, let’s look at some of the biblical reasons for evangelicals to be involved in interfaith work.

BIBLICAL REASONS FOR INTERFAITH ENGAGEMENT

What follows is a brief survey of several biblical passages which I believe provide a helpful framework for evangelical engagement in interfaith work.  My reasons for doing this is because of the role the Bible plays in the life of the evangelical community.  We believe that it is God’s authoritative word and that it is trustworthy in its entirety.  As such, we look to it for guidance in every area of life and this includes how we relate to those of other faith traditions.  While there is no explicit passage that I believe encourages interfaith work in the way defined above, there are several passages which lay out principles which point to the need for positive engagement with other faith communities.  While this survey is not exhaustive, I hope it will be helpful for both my fellow evangelicals as well as for those from other faith communities who seek to understand the evangelical community.  For the sake of space, I will point out three texts which I think are instructive, though there are several others that I could cite.

Jeremiah 29:  Beyond Isolationism in Bablyon

“But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exiles, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:7, see also vv.4-6).

This letter from the prophet Jeremiah was addressed to the nation of Israel during a time of great religious and cultural anxiety.  They have been exiled to the enemy nation of Babylon.     Surrounded by a foreign culture, facing incredible pressure to assimilate, and immersed in a religious environment that was very different from their own, the temptation for this community would have been to turn inward:  choosing isolationism as a way of protecting themselves as best they could.

Into these dark circumstances Jeremiah sends the exiles a powerful message:  engage.  God calls his people to engage the surrounding culture and to seek the good and the well-being of their new neighbors, with all of their cultural, political, and religious differences.

In this passage I find a word of encouragment for the evangelical community.  Historically the posture of the evangelical world has been to reject and retreat from the surrounding culture.  While this trend has been changing in the past 20 years, evangelicals have still been reluctant to engage in dialogue and positive social engagement with other faith communities.  However, what we see in Scripture is the call to be involved in the surrounding culture for its benefit, living with and among those we are called to serve.  In fact, the religiously plural environment of ancient Babylon, as well as that of the Roman Empire during the years of the early church, was just as religiously diverse as our present-day American society, if not more so.  And in both the Old and New Testaments, we find the people of God engaging and interacting with their surrounding culture.

During the Babylonian exile alone we encounter examples like that of the prophet Daniel, who actually worked for and served the dictatorship which carried his people off into captivity.  While it is obvious that Daniel did not support every policy, belief, or directive that he was given, he nonetheless worked alongside the Babylonian government, serving it where he felt he could, as a faithful believer in God (you can read his story in the book of Daniel).  His goal was to use his influence for the betterment of the society in which he lived.

We live in an increasingly diverse world and, more and more, our culture is defined by the interactions between various communities and subgroups, not least of which include those of faith.  While there is much difference between these communities, there is also much we hold in common, especially as regards our calling to share and care for the common spaces which we share (communities, schools, political systems, businesses, parks, etc).  Evangelicals should adopt an attitude of creative engagement with these spheres and learn ways to work with their neighbors of various backgrounds for the common good.  For example, if Muslims, Jews, Christians and Hindus all send their children to the same schools, it would be in their interest to work together for the improvement and betterment of that common space.  Creative engagement, not isolation, should characterize our approach when it comes to interacting with various religious communities and people groups.

Matthew 5:  Living as Peacemakers

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
(Matthew 5:9)

In a world that is characterized by the “clash of civilizations”, religious conflict seems to be a disturbingly common occurrence.  Too often religion has been used as a weapon against those who are different.

Interfaith work provides a corrective to this.  With its emphasis on growing in relationships with people of other faith traditions, sharing stories, and working together for the common good, interfaith work provides an alternative story to that put forth by religious extremists and builds relationships across faith lines that can serve as avenues of trust and dialogue when inter-religious conflict rears its head.

As people called to be peacemakers in a violent world, evangelical Christians should be on the front lines of this movement.  Building relationships and working together for peace does not mean we have to sacrifice our religious convictions.  As such, our posture in interfaith work should be one of building bridges and advocating for peace where there is religious conflict.  In doing so, we are able to stay true to our own religious beliefs while also living out this beatitude in regard to our neighbors of other faith backgrounds.

Acts 17:  Religious Literacy in Athens

“People of Athens!  I see that in every way you are very religious…”
(Acts 17:22, see vv.16-34)

Another instructive text for evangelical engagement in interfaith work is found in Acts 17.  In verses 16-34, the apostle Paul is spending time in the Greek city of Athens, a place with a wide variety of religious beliefs and worldviews present.  During his stay there he is invited to share about his own faith with one of the leading intellectual bodies of the city:  the Areopagus.  What follows is an incredible exchange in which Paul demonstrates his own literacy in the religious traditions of the Athenians while also remaining true to his convictions as a Christian evangelist.

While this encounter is a brillant example of humble apologetics and evangelism, it also teaches us something about how we are to approach other religious traditions.  During his defense of the Gospel, Paul quotes two Greek philosophers in his argument:  Epimenides and Aratus.  What is surprising is that he not only quotes them, but affirms the viewpoints that they espoused, using them as a way to build his own case for the Gospel.  While Paul did not agree wholesale with the worldviews of either of these philosophers, he acknowledged that there was some truth to what they taught and he wanted to affirm that.

In Paul, we see that it is possible for evangelicals to affirm some of the truth claims of other faith traditions where those claims align with our own.  This can be a building block toward mutual understanding and respect, as well as a platform from which to begin working together.  Again, it is important not to compromise the Gospel message, but it is also possible to affirm areas of commonality.

As such, evangelicals should have a curiosity about and a desire to grow in their understanding of other world religions.  Interfaith dialogue is a brillant place to start because it begins with a place of sharing and is born out of a desire to increase understanding across faith lines.  As such, evangelicals should not fear entering into such spaces, but can do so with a desire to learn.

CONCLUSION

Again, these were only a few passages among several that I believe can given evangelicals a basis for positive interfaith engagement.  What we see here is that it is possible to remain true to one’s religious convictions while also seeking understanding and building relationships with people from other faith backgrounds.  Furthermore, it is a part of our calling to work together for the betterment of society around us.  Again, doing so does not compromise our core obedience to the Gospel, but can actually serve as a springboard for living it out more faithfully (more on this in coming posts).

In my next entry, I will highlight some of the opportunities and barriers that I see, as an evangelical, to interfaith work.  So stay tuned.

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Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America

We are excited to see Eboo Patel’s new book go up on Amazon for pre-order: Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America.

From Amazon.com:

An inspiring call for Americans to defend the values of inclusiveness and pluralism by one of our best-known American Muslim leaders

In the decade following the attacks of 9/11, suspicion and animosity toward American Muslims has increased rather than subsided. Alarmist, hateful rhetoric once relegated to the fringes of political discourse has now become frighteningly mainstream, with pundits and politicians routinely invoking the specter of Islam as a menacing, deeply anti-American force. In this timely new book, author, activist, and presidential advisor Eboo Patel says this prejudice is not just a problem for Muslims but also a challenge to the very idea of America. Sacred Groundshows us that Americans from George Washington to Martin Luther King Jr. have been “interfaith leaders,” and it illustrates how the forces of pluralism in America have time and again defeated the forces of prejudice. Now a new generation needs to rise up and confront the anti-Muslim prejudice of our era. To this end, Patel offers a primer in the art and science of interfaith work, bringing to life the growing body of research on how faith can be a bridge of cooperation rather than a barrier of division and sharing stories from the frontlines of interfaith activism. Pluralism, Patel boldly argues, is at the heart of the American project. It is a responsibility we all must share, and Patel’s visionary book will inspire Americans of all faiths to make this country a place where diverse traditions can thrive side by side.

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