by Robert Sellers
How should Baptists relate to persons of other faiths? “Where am I going to meet someone like that?” might be the question of many Baptists, especially in the “Bible Belt” of the deep South. Well, we no longer need to travel internationally to encounter them. Here in this country they are our office colleagues, university classmates, town merchants and healthcare workers, active-duty soldiers, or local firefighters and police officers. They congregate in community centers and shopping districts of our large cities, establishing an ethnic, cultural quarter that is distinct and well-defined. They lobby city councils and zoning boards for permission to build mosques, temples, gurdwaras, or synagogues on quiet, tree-lined streets. They manage play groups and summer camps, participate in science fairs and musical competitions, and conduct food and craft bazaars. Most importantly, such families are living in our suburban neighborhoods, where we meet them at backyard barbecues and pool parties. At school their youngsters become our children’s and grandchildren’s friends and competitors and may one day become our daughters- and sons-in law. None of these new realities should surprise anyone, for this growing segment of our population belongs here, for they too are Americans.
Yet, the increasing cultural and religious plurality in the United States, coupled with recent world events, makes it difficult for many Americans to know just how to relate to minority religious and ethnic groups. My immediate concern here, however, is how Baptist Americans—those of my own religious heritage—think about and treat our neighbors of other faiths.
CERTAINLY NOT WITH FEAR AND STEREOTYPING
There are several ways of relating to religious others. One approach that is totally unproductive and damaging is to react with fear and stereotyping. There is evidence of this negativity all around us. Books that claim to know the “truth” about other religions line the shelves of popular Christian bookstores. Internet “you-won’t-believe-it!” stories about religions and their practitioners are forwarded, perhaps by millions of church members, without regard for whether the accounts are factual or kind—or simply constitute urban legends, political propaganda, or hate-mongering. Regrettably, Baptist leaders—the most recent being Robert Jeffress—make public statements that draw critical reactions and portray an intolerant spirit.
According to Harvard professor Diana Eck: “Without question, some Americans are afraid of the changing face of our country. After all, the first response to difference is often suspicion and fear.”# This nebulous fearfulness expresses itself in stereotypical thinking and unkind generalizations. Reacting with fear and stereotyping, however, is uncivil and unchristian, yet Baptists have not been guiltless in this regard. One particularly harsh judgment, for example, was made by Baptist Franklin Graham, who in the aftermath of 9-11 called Islam “a very evil and wicked religion.”# Speaking to NBC News in 2001, he remarked: “It wasn’t Methodists flying into those buildings, and it wasn’t Lutherans. It was an attack on this country by people of the Islamic faith.”# Graham’s generalization circled the globe via the internet and painted Baptists worldwide in harsh shades of black and white. As an institution dedicated to proselytism, the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board has produced Prayer Guides that direct members of the denomination, especially during the high holy days of individual religions, to pray for “lost” Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, and Muslims who are bound by “confusing and mistaken belief[s]” and who practice “meaningless rituals.”#
Fomenting fear of followers of other faiths by making grossly stereotypical observations and patently untrue accusations—or uncritically passing along such inflammatory material—will not encourage peace or cooperation. May Baptists never build walls when we ought to construct bridges.
NOT EVEN WITH INDIFFERENCE OR TOLERATION
A second possible approach to religious others is to act with indifference or toleration. Perhaps we believe that tolerating differences is the best way, because it is a moral solution with impressive historical roots. The Greek moralist Plato considered the crowning human virtue to be “harmonious action [that] forges a link between [an] individual and [others within society].”# Immannuel Kant, the German Enlightenment rationalist, argued that people should act in such a way that they could be satisfied were their action the universal behavioral norm.# These lofty European ideals were preceded by parallel sentiments from Asia. Confucius taught his followers to cultivate loyalty, humanity, integrity, mutual respect, personal self-restraint, and harmonious family and social relationships.# Similarly, the ancient Buddhist philosopher Shantideva taught that “[i]f you can cultivate the right attitude, your enemies are your best spiritual teachers because their presence provides you with the opportunity to enhance and develop tolerance, patience, and understanding.”# So, tolerating others is certainly better than not tolerating them!
The problem with toleration, however, is that it may just be a polite word for “indifference.” Diana Eck acknowledges that “[a]lthough tolerance is no doubt a step forward from intolerance, it does not require new neighbors to know anything about one another. Tolerance can create a climate of restraint but not one of understanding.”# Tolerance becomes indifference if its mantra morphs from “we all have a right to be ourselves” to “let them just be whoever they want.” Whenever our language turns from talk of “we” to references to “they,” a dichotomy, a chasm, a rift has formed between us and them, between ourselves and the “Other.”
As America becomes more religiously and culturally pluralistic, some Baptists regrettably practice only toleration, mistaking the philosophical moral norm for the ethic of Jesus Christ, which is much more demanding. May we never merely tolerate our multi-religious neighbors, much less treat them with indifference, as if they are not important to God.
BUT WITH COMPASSION AND FRIENDSHIP
How, then, should Baptists relate to religious others? We need to respond with compassion and friendship. Jesus is our model for approaching others. He crossed multiple barriers that separated respectable religious folk of his day from the foreigners, disenfranchised, and marginalized of Palestinian society. Toward a host of persons whom most merely tolerated, and others who were feared, stereotyped, and even violently oppressed, Jesus was inclusive, attentive, helpful, and befriending.
Of course, genuine friendships require honest communication, which necessitates both talking and listening—dialogue instead of monologue. Also, friendships are always more successful where there is mutual esteem and a genuine interest in the other. Such connections require both time and great patience. This kind of relationship that stretches across cultural and religious barriers may be more difficult, but it is adventuresome and hugely rewarding.
Genesis 18, in the Hebrew Bible and Christian Old Testament, records the occasion when Abraham was sitting outside his tent at Mamre, seeking a breeze on a stiflingly hot Middle Eastern day. Three strangers appeared in the hazy distance—perhaps enemies, clearly not a part of Abraham’s clan. But, interestingly, Abraham eagerly went to greet the strangers, first falling down before them in an extravagant gesture of welcome, later offering a warm meal and place to rest in his personal tent. British historian, comparative religionist, and author Karen Armstrong astutely notes that “during the ensuing conversation, it transpires quite naturally that one of these strangers is Abraham’s God. The act of practical compassion led directly to a divine encounter.”#
It is my conviction, one I passionately hold, that most of the people who follow other faiths—like most Baptists—are good people who would like to tear down the walls of separation and build bridges of connection. But in order for us to do our part, we must not react to them with fear and stereotyping. We have to go beyond mere indifference or toleration. The way forward, the way of Jesus, is to respond with compassion and friendship. And, when we risk forging new friendships with our multi-religious neighbors, they will no longer be as strangers to us. Such a bonding can provide an experience of real transcendence, for in acting toward them in a godly fashion, we will be enriched by the evidences of God in them.
Robert P. Sellers is professor of missions and theology at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, and represents Cooperative Baptist Fellowship on the Interfaith Relations Commission of the National Council of Churches, USA. He is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions.