I once participated in a summer course called “Doing Theology under the Bo Tree” in Myanmar. One class activity was visiting a Buddhist monastery. We Westerners had to learn how to sit on the floor and position our legs and feet during our audience with the abbot. I asked him about Catholic theologian Hans Küng’s claim that we will not be able to achieve peace in our world until there’s peace and cooperation among the religions. He smiled and said it shouldn’t be hard because practicing peace is central to every religion.
I have since often reflected on his answer and pondered why it’s so hard. It’s especially difficult for those of us who trace our religious heritage back to Abraham and the call to be a people of God. A common critique that I heard when I lived and served in India was that Christians and Muslims are especially exclusivist. We think we alone are God’s chosen people. For Christians, this is further complicated by our past association with British colonialism in South Asia.
Believing we’re a chosen people creates unique challenges for any faith community. This quandary has been central to my life as a pastor, a religious scholar, and a follower of Jesus. We wrestle with how to have a healthy sense of being God’s people without being exclusivist and claiming we’re the “only” people of God. It’s related to but slightly different from the religious separatism of cultural minorities like the Amish. Separatism and exclusivism are much more problematic in large faith communities as expressed in the Roman Catholic dogma of being the “one true church.”
Efforts to strengthen ecumenical and interfaith relations in order to work together for peace and justice always need to negotiate such tensions. A robust sense of being God’s people should not lead us to disrespect others. Such disrespect, instead, indicates that we have an inferiority complex and a far too narrow understanding of our God in relation to all people and all faiths.
Every faith community has the ongoing challenge of forming and maintaining a distinct religious identity that shapes our life and service in the world. When we lose that, we no longer have anything to contribute or say. We become so identified with our society that we lose our ability to resist and respond courageously to those things that are socially and spiritually harmful. Exclusivism, in this sense, is good.
Still, the conviction that we’re a people of God needs to go hand-in-hand with valuing and serving others. Even more importantly, if we would claim to be a people of God we must be equally committed to a life of nonviolence that mirrors God’s patience and suffering love. The ever-present task is figuring out how to walk that walk. My next post will look at that through the life of Jesus and the early church.