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The Man of the Year and the Joy of the Gospel: Thoughts on Evangelii Gaudium of Pope Francis

This synopsis of the Evangelii Gaudium of Pope Francis was composed by Trustee of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, Dr. Leo D. Lefebure. Part 1 emphasizes the mission of the Catholic Church in the world, and Lefebure explores Pope Francis’ stance on Interreligious Relations in part 2.

Naming Pope Francis Time Magazine’s Person of the Year for 2013 was a celebrated move by Catholics and interfaith advocates around the world. Time Magazine/Week of December 11, 2013

This week, Time Magazine announced its selection of Pope Francis as the Man of the Year for 2013, commenting: “Rarely has a new player on the world stage captured so much attention so quickly—young and old, faithful and cynical—as has Pope Francis.

In his nine months in office, he has placed himself at the very center of the central conversations of our time: about wealth and poverty, fairness and justice, transparency, modernity, globalization, the role of women, the nature of marriage, the temptations of power.” (Read more: The Choice: Nancy Gibbs on Why Pope Francis Is TIME’s Person  of the Year 2013 | TIME.com)

Earlier, on Nov. 24, 2013, Pope Francis issued an Apostolic Exhortation, the first of his Pontificate, and the first major statement of his program. The great theme of Pope Francis is expressed in the title: Evangelii Gaudium, The Joy of the Gospel. For Francis, this is the central Christian response to God’s coming into our lives. In the Catholic tradition, popes regularly promulgate an Apostolic Exhortation in the wake of a particular Synod of Bishops; but rarely if ever has an Apostolic Exhortation aroused the type of interest, both positive and negative, that The Joy of the Gospel has evoked.

I. The Mission of the Church in the World

Despite the overarching tone of joy, Pope Francis has grave concerns about the world today. At the beginning of the Apostolic Exhortation, he sets forth a stark warning:

The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades (#2).

Francis laments that too often Christians do not witness to the joy and beauty of the Gospel. He calls for Christians to witness to the Gospel not by proselytization but rather by attraction through living lives of joy and beauty (#15). He endorses the “way of beauty” (#167). Francis warns: “There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter” (#6). While he is aware of the difficult times in all lives, he trusts: “Joy adapts and changes, but it always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved” (#6). The ancient prophet Zephanaiah promised that God will rejoice over us as at a festival, and so Pope Francis tells us evangelizers should not look like they are coming from a funeral!

The basis of the mission is the love of God that comes to Christians a sheer gift and offers us friendship with God, who brings us beyond ourselves, frees us from our narrowness and self-absorption. Francis invokes the ancient principle: “Goodness tends to spread” (9). He quotes from the document issued by the Fifth General Conference of the Latin American and Caribbean Bishops in Aparecida, Brazil, in 2007, which he had a major role in drafting: “Life grows by being given away, and it weakens in isolation and comfort. Those who enjoy life most are those who leave security on the shore and become excited by the mission of communicating life to others” (#10).

Francis calls Christians to reach out to everyone without exclusion, stressing what is beautiful, grand, appealing, and most necessary (#35). He recalls that Thomas Aquinas taught that mercy is the greatest of all virtues and should be at the center of the presentation of the Gospel (#37). Francis calls Christians to be like the Prodigal Father in the parable (#46). He tells us that “the Church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is room for everyone, with all their problems” (#47).

Francis affirms that the Church has a mission to all, especially to the poor. Francis repeats to all of us what he used to tell the priests and people of Buenos Aires: “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security” (#49). He notes that the call of Jesus echoes through the centuries to us:

“Give them something to eat” (Mk 6:37; #49).

Francis also reflects on the economic structures that perpetuate poverty. He questions why we worry more about the stock market going down by a few points than about the poor who die on the streets. He recalls the commandment not to kill as a call to safeguard the value of all human life. Francis applies this commandment against an economy of exclusion and inequality, stating: “Such an economy kills” (#53). He questions: “Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown out while people are starving?” (#53) He warns against the globalization of indifference and the idolatry of money as a new golden calf (##54, 55). Francis sets forth the basic principle: “Money must serve, not rule!” (#58)

Despite the stern warnings against these and other dangers, Francis rejects pessimism, recalling the words of Pope John XXIII in opening the Second Vatican Council in October 1962, looking beyond the predictions of gloom to the hope: “In our times, divine Providence is leading us to a new order of human relations” (#84). It is this hopeful note of confidence in God’s grace that shapes Francis’s message.

Francis reflects on the implications of the Incarnation: “The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness” (#88). Francis stresses the dignity of baptism as the foundation of Christian identity and the mission of lay people in transforming the world (##102-104). He calls on all Christians to “listen to young people and the elderly. Both represent a source of hope for every people. The elderly bring with them memory and the wisdom of experience, which warns us not to foolishly repeat our past mistakes. Young people call us to renewed and expansive hope, for they represent new direction for humanity and open us up to the future, lest we cling to a nostalgia for structures and customs which are no longer life-giving in today’s world” (#108).

II. Interreligious Relations

Pope Francis situates the mission of the Church in the context of fostering respectful and friendly relations with other religious traditions. He affirms the special bond between Christians and the Jewish people because of our common heritage: “We hold the Jewish people in special regard because their covenant has never been revoked, for ‘the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable’” (Rom. 11:29; #247). He deplores the past hostility in this relationship: “The friendship which has grown between us makes us bitterly and sincerely regret the terrible persecutions which they have endured, and continue to endure, especially those that have involved Christians” (#248).

Pope Francis strongly supports interreligious initiatives in the context of seeking peace and the flourishing of life for all: “An attitude of openness in truth and in love must characterize the dialogue with the followers of non-Christian religions. . . . Interreligious dialogue is a necessary condition for peace in the world, and so it is a duty for Christians as well as other religious communities” (250). Francis endorses the interreligious attitude commended by the Catholic bishops of India of “being open to them, sharing their joys and sorrows” (#250). Francis explains the hoped-for result of such an attitude of openness: “In this way we learn to accept others and their different ways of living, thinking and speaking. We can then join one another in taking up the duty of serving justice and peace, which should become a basic principle of all our exchanges. A dialogue which seeks social peace and justice is in itself, beyond all merely practical considerations, an ethical commitment which brings about a new social situation” (#250).

Francis stresses the importance and the transformative power of listening: “Efforts made in dealing with a specific theme can become a process in which, by mutual listening, both parts can be purified and enriched. These efforts, therefore, can also express love for truth” (#250). Francis is aware of the important differences among various religious traditions and does not wish to ignore or minimize them: “A facile syncretism would ultimately be a totalitarian gesture on the part of those who would ignore greater values of which they are not the masters. True openness involves remaining steadfast in one’s deepest convictions, clear and joyful in one’s own identity, while at the same time being ‘open to understanding those of the other party’ and ‘knowing that dialogue can enrich each side’” (#250; quoting Pope John Paul II). Regarding how to handle the disagreements among different religious traditions, Francis stresses honesty, mutual respect, and trust.

Pope Francis emphasizes the importance of good relationships between Christians and Muslims: “We Christians should embrace with affection and respect Muslim immigrants to our countries in the same way that we hope and ask to be received and respected in countries of Islamic tradition” (#253). Francis acknowledges the difficulties in relations in many settings and advises: “Faced with disconcerting episodes of violent fundamentalism, our respect for true followers of Islam should lead us to avoid hateful generalizations, for authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence” (#253).

According to Pope Francis, the grace of God that Christians experience in Jesus Christ can nurture and shape the lives of followers of other religious paths as well. Christians do not have a monopoly on grace and can learn from other traditions: “The same Spirit everywhere brings forth various forms of practical wisdom which help people to bear suffering and to live in greater peace and harmony. As Christians, we can also benefit from these treasures built up over many centuries, which can help us better to live our own beliefs” (#254).

Francis also reaches out to those who do not belong to any particular religious tradition: “As believers, we also feel close to those who do not consider themselves part of any religious tradition, yet sincerely seek the truth, goodness and beauty which we “believe have their highest expression and source in God. We consider them as precious allies in the commitment to defending human dignity, in building peaceful coexistence between peoples and in protecting creation” (#257). Francis trusts that reflection on ethics, art, and science and about the human search for transcendence can serve as “a path to peace in our troubled world” (257).

Despite all the difficulties facing the global community, Francis encourages us:

“Challenges exist to be overcome! Let us be realists, but without losing our joy, our boldness and our hope-filled commitment” (#109).

He closes the Apostolic Exhortation with a prayer to Mary:

“Give us a holy courage to seek new paths,

That the gift of unfading beauty

May reach every man and woman” (#288).

About Author Dr. Leo D. Lefebure:

Leo D. Lefebure is the Matteo Ricci, S.J., Professor of Theology at Georgetown University and a priest of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago. He is the author of four books, including Revelation, the Religions, and Violence and The Buddha and the Christ. His next book will be Following the Path of Wisdom: a Christian Commentary on the Dhammapada, which is co-authored with Peter Feldmeier. He is an honorary research fellow of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Save the Date for Parliament of the World’s Religions Anniversary Benefit


Come celebrate with the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions!

We are gathering to commemorate the birth of Interfaith in Chicago, the 1893 and 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions, and to honor the passion and work of new interfaith leaders today. Join us as we honor old friendships and build new ones for a bright and peaceful future!

Questions? Please contact Molly Horan, molly@parliamentofreligions.org

Looking for a New CEO for the CPWR

Looking for a new CEO for the CPWR

The Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions (CPWR) has launched a search for a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) to lead the organization through transformational change in order to advance the interreligious movement on a global scale.

The mission of CPWR is to cultivate harmony among the world’s religious and spiritual communities and foster their engagement with the world and its guiding institutions in order to achieve a just, peaceful and sustainable world. In fulfillment of this mission the Council convenes a Parliament event every five years attracting up to 10,000 participants from all the major religions and from as many as 70 Countries.  A variety of other programs have grown out of the Parliament events including a Partner Cities Program and a Social Cohesion project.

Within this mission framework, the CEO will manage the organizational affairs of the Council implementing the policies of the Board of Trustees.   He/she will supervise all the departments of the organization with special emphasis on financial management, fundraising and institutional vision.

CPWR is based in Chicago and operates with a small but flexible staff on an annual budget of approximately $500,000, with significant increases in years in which a Parliament is scheduled.

 The Parliament of the World’s Religions began in 1893.  Today it convenes the largest interreligious gatherings in the world.  The most recent Parliament events have been held in Chicago, USA(1993), Cape Town, South Africa(1999), Barcelona(2004) and Melbourne, Australia(2009).  For more information see www.parliamentofreligions.org

Job Requirements

Qualifications for the position include: successful management experience in a business or not-for-profit setting, familiarity with principles of organizational development, demonstrated financial/fundraising skills and experience or interest in serving the interreligious movement.

APPLY FOR THIS JOB:

Contact Person: David Erickson-Pearson Phone: 303-703-6165
Email Address: epdavid@earthlink.net

 

The Mission of the Parliament

The Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions was created to cultivate harmony among the world’s religious and spiritual communities and foster their engagement with the world and its guiding institutions in order to achieve a just, peaceful and sustainable world.

To accomplish this, we invite individuals and communities who are equally invested in attaining this goal.

The Vision

The vision of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions is of a just, peaceful and sustainable world in which:

  • Religious and spiritual communities live in harmony and contribute to a better world from their riches of wisdom and compassion
  • Religious and cultural fears and hatreds are replaced with understanding and respect
  • People everywhere come to know and care for their neighbors
  • The richness of human and religious diversity is woven into the fabric of communal, civil, societal and global life
  • The world’s most powerful and influential institutions move beyond narrow self-interest to realize common good
  • The Earth and all life are cherished, protected, healed and restored
  • All people commit to living out their highest values and aspirations.

September 24th, 2012 at 8:33 pm

Bussy-Saint-Georges, the Town with Built-in Religious Harmony

Photography Credit to Philippe Wojazer/Reuters from the Guardian.

Workmen prepare the European Regional Temple in Bussy-Saint Georges.

by Stephanie Le Bars
from The Guardian Weekly

Hugues Rondeau is the Radical party mayor of Bussy-Saint-Georges, a new town in the Paris suburbs. His taste for “ordered urban space” has led to an innovation: the multi-faith district. On a plot of land just beyond the built-up area, he has authorised the construction of several places of worship.

“Here there will be two Buddhist temples, a mosque, a synagogue, a Chinese evangelical church and an Armenian cultural centre,” said the mayor, a practising Catholic who is convinced that in a secular state the government should not turn a blind eye to religious fact. “Our 30,000 inhabitants are mostly of foreign origin with 45% from Asia,” he said. “We couldn’t deprive them of their religious practice.”

Click here to read full article

Coffee Shop Religion: Interfaith of the Everyday

Author Saumya Arya Haas. Photo from Google Images.

by Saumya Arya Haas
from Huffington Post

I never learned much about religion until I started hanging out at Muddy Waters Coffee Shop on the corner of Lyndale and 24th in Uptown, Minneapolis.

I was raised to be a priestess (of Hinduism), grew up surrounded by world scripture and philosophy, and was taught by learned scholars and mystics. But my religious education didn’t really begin until I started talking — and listening — to other people from other ways of life. I had a great foundation but it had to evolve beyond what I could experience as an individual. Understanding is a journey, and it’s nice to have company if you can get it.

When Muddy’s opened in the late 80s, it was grungy, grubby and the bathroom was frightening. The only food on the “menu” was Pop-Tarts and SpaghettiOs. Punks, goth kids and all the other wonderful misfits of Minneapolis risked splinters from the rickety picnic tables to enjoy caffeine and conversation in precious Midwestern sunlight. I would come with my friends but talked to everyone. I got over my fear of homeless people and started seeing them as just people. Some reminded me of the wandering sages of my almost-native India, people who lived by choice or necessity on the fringes and accumulated hardship wisdom the rest of us shied away from.

All the scriptural education in the world is not worth one good hour-long conversation with a stranger about their beliefs.

Click here to read the full article

My Neighbor’s Faith: Double-Edged Daggers

Valarie Kaur

Valarie Kaur

by Valarie Kaur
from Huffington Post

This essay is based on an excerpt from the author’s journal when she was sixteen years old.

Usually on Sunday mornings, my father’s outside on a tractor, my mother’s making aloo pronthas, my brother’s watching cartoons, and I’m sleeping in. Sometimes, my mother crams the whole family into Baba Ji’s room to sing shabads and recite Scripture together. But on this Sunday morning, my grandfather has asked me to come with him to the gurdwara, a Sikh house of worship some miles away. At sixteen years old, I dutifully follow.

I’m still rubbing the sleep from my eyes as I slip off my shoes. Wrapped in a long head scarf, I follow my grandfather inside. One step takes us from our small farming town in California’s Central Valley into an entire world transported from India.

Inside, the congregation sits on the floor. On the right, a sea of men in turbans of black, saffron, blue and red cloth; on the left, women in silk and cotton, solid-colored, tie-dyed and embroidered chunnis of all different colors draped over long braids and jooras. Children sit next to their mothers and fidgeted. A little boy runs around islands of praying people before escorted out to the jungle gym. The elderly lean against the walls, eyes closed; while the younger folks listen to the prayers, the older ones seem to reside within the prayers.

The whole room revolves around the sacred space that holds the “living Guru”: the 1,400 pages of Sikh verse known as Guru Granth Sahib Ji. The sacred book sits on a table draped in fine silvery blue cloths folded back to reveal the sacred lines of Gurmuki script whose poetry is read, sung and contemplated. Hanging from the ceiling over the sacred book is a magnificent blue canopy embroidered with a single brilliant character in Punjabi script, the first mysterious and profound word of our holy text. Ek Onkar: God is One. As ever, its two linked circles dropped from a top line, the stem connected those shoots up and umbrellas over in a long elegant stroke.

As I wait in line to bow my head before the Book, my eyes fall on the swords and daggers displayed at its base. Sikhs wielded these kirpans to defend the faith for hundreds of years in India, and I grew up hearing epic tales of battle and torture and martyrdom: Guru Arjan Ji tortured in a red hot caldron, Guru Gobind Ji’s young sons bricked in alive, Baba Deep Singh holding his own severed head in hand as he fought in battle. These blood-soaked legends of Sikhs resisting the Moghul empire came down to us as stories of resilience and sacrifice — our ancestors died so that we might live. The kirpans represent an enduring commitment to fight injustice and stand tall for faith and community. But it’s hard for me to eye the sharp edge. Sikh girls aren’t taught to fight like that. I drop my dollar on the pile of donations, close my eyes, bow my head to the floor and whisper the only words I can summon: Ek Onkar.

I follow my grandfather and sit with him on the men’s side — my modest act of defiance in a culture that too often divides women from men despite the Scripture’s teachings on equality. We listen to the granthis, singers flown from India to sing shabads from the Scriptures accompanied by the tabla and harmonium; their voices — sad, meditative and beseeching — rise, dip and waver. As the voices soar, I close my eyes and move into deep reflection.

Click here to read the full article

The New Face of Interfaith Dialogue

Mitch Randall, left, and Imam Imad Enchassi greet each other before a panel discussion on Sept. 11, 2011 in Norman, Okla. (Photo by Kyle Phillips of The Norman Transcript)

by Jeff Brumley
from Associated Baptist Press

Interfaith dialogue is on the rise, not just in formal conversations led by judicatory leaders but in local communities where friendships forge as ministers of various faiths work together for common goals amid increasing religious diversity in the Bible belt.

Kyle Reese, pastor at Hendricks Avenue Baptist in Jacksonville, Fla., has been highly visible in community interfaith efforts, especially in his dialogue with Muslim and Jewish spiritual leaders. He refers to Imam Joe Bradford as “best friend” – as he does a rabbi and an Orthodox Christian priest.

Pastor Steve Jones, who made headlines working with Jews and Muslims to tackle social injustice in Birmingham, Ala., said the same about Rabbi Jonathan Miller. “I am closer to these guys than I am with many other Baptist ministers,” said Jones, the senior pastor of Southside Baptist Church.

Click here to read the full article

The Rabbi And The Christian Cab Driver

Author Rabbi Brad Hirschfield. Photo from clal.org

by Brad Hirschfield
from the Huffington Post

I flew into Syracuse, N.Y., on a windy evening in October of 2000. After we landed, I hailed a cab. This not being New York City, where I am from, there was no cab line, no wait and no time to look at the car I was jumping into.

As soon as I was in the cab however, I noticed that pretty much every surface of the car’s interior was covered with a JESUS LOVES YOU sticker, that there was a crucifix mounted on the dashboard and there were even little green pocket bibles hanging on strings at the point where the windshield meets the frame of the car. This wasn’t just a cab, it was a rolling cathedral!

Part of me thought I should just jump out of the car, but we were already pulling away from the curb and I didn’t want to cause any trouble or cost the driver his fare.

As he pulled out of the airport, the cabdriver, a middle-aged man with a scraggly beard, lo
ng greasy blond hair and wearing a red checkered shirt, cut off at the sleeves, was checking me out in the rearview mirror. He was actually using his rearview mirror to see if what he thought he saw on the back of my head (a kippah/yarmulke/skullcap) was really there.

Having decided that it was really back there, which it was, he finally asked in the raspy voice of a heavy smoker, “So, what do you do?”

Click here to read the full article

What Is Scripture: Muslims and Mormons

The Qur'an. Image from Wikimedia Commons

The Compilation of Latter-Day Saints's Standard Works. Image from Wikimedia Commons

by James Faulconer
from Patheos.com

Because of the alliterative relationship between the words “Mormon” and “Muslim” and because of widespread ignorance among Americans about both groups, it isn’t at all unusual for people to confuse Mormons with Muslims. Given events of the last ten or fifteen years and the current political campaign, that ignorance is abating for both groups.

Most people know that Mormons are not Muslims. And, probably partly because of Mitt Romney’s campaign, they fear Mormons less than Muslims. Sixty percent of those polled are comfortable or somewhat comfortable with a Mormon presidential candidate. Only 38 percent feel that way about a hypothetical Muslim candidate. So Mormons have less work to do explaining themselves than Muslims, but both share the need to do that explaining.

It isn’t unusual to have Muslim visitors come to Brigham Young University, and because of my work at the university, I’m sometimes asked to help host them. When I first started doing this, I was a little nervous. I wasn’t afraid of Muslims, but I was ignorant of them. As a result I was nervous about how to talk with them. Everything I knew about Islam was merely factual, stuff I learned in school and from books, and from reading the Quran about fifteen years ago. To my knowledge, I had visited and talked with a Muslim face-to-face only once in my life before four years ago.

Click here to read the full article

How Should Baptists Relate to Persons of Other Faiths?

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.

CONCLUSION

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.