Fairfax Interfaith Friendship Walk

Interfaith Walk

We had a very successful Fairfax Interfaith Friendship Walk yesterday, connecting eight houses of worship, including Daniels Run Peace Church. Between 200-300 people participated in the 3.5 mile walk. We had 200 tee shirts for participants and ran out. The photo on this blog is of the City of Fairfax mayor David Meyer thanking the participants at the end of the walk. The city police very graciously escorted us through the city streets.

Part of the motivation for the walk was to respond to recent hate speech and hate crimes in the greater Washington DC area. We, however, also wanted to learn to know our neighbors better as a way to work at some of the social challenges in our city. That happened as we stopped at each house of worship along our route and heard a brief presentation about who we are and our different ministries. Some of us have already been collaborating in addressing things such as the challenges of homelessness and affordable housing in our area.

We were encouraged to mingle and talk our neighbors from other churches and faith communities. That really happened and I consider it to be one of the greatest successes of the walk. For example, I walked beside the Father David Whitestone, the parish priest of nearby St. Leo’s Catholic Church for part of the walk and enjoyed connecting with him. I also enjoyed reconnecting with Imam Ankaya Bilal, from the Ezher Mosque, easily within walking distance of our church.

Beyond that, I met and talked with so many other people, including a man who was so interested in our church garden, the edible landscaping we’re putting in, and the fact that our new name Daniels Run Peace Church emphasizes both our commitment to our local ecosystem and our religious tradition as a peace church.

Advertisements

Following Jesus in a Pluralistic World

We live in an increasingly shrinking and pluralistic world. The world in all its colors is coming to us and there’s now a Buddhist temple and a Muslim mosque right next door. Our congregation is gradually building relationships with both. We have recently joined our Muslim neighbors in an Iftar dinner breaking their fast during the month of Ramadan.

How do we follow Jesus in our pluralistic world? We begin with integrity. I honestly confess that, for me, Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life—the revelation and embodiment of God and God’s way (John 14: 6). The life and message of Jesus, as it is contained in Scripture and lived out in the lives of those who follow him, is indeed good news to people who are looking for life and hope.

Such good news, however, can’t be prepackaged and distributed like Coke or four spiritual laws. That quickly becomes a huge turn-off. This good news needs to be continually unpacked in relation to the world we live in and to our own journey of faith. Saying that Jesus is the “way” becomes triumphalistic when we take it to the next level and claim that all other people are outside of God’s grace.

So how do we understand Jesus’ statement, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to [God] except through me?” One approach is to counter this seemingly exclusive claim with a counter passage like Romans 2:14 where Paul argues that the Gentiles are justified by their own experience of God and their adherence to God’s law written on their hearts.  It’s a good reminder to not build our theology on one scripture passage.

We will also want to consider the question Jesus was responding to. It wasn’t, “Lord, will the Muslims and Buddhists also be saved?” Instead, it was a heartfelt response to an existential question. He had just announced his impending death—that he was going ahead to prepare the way. Thomas responded, “But Lord, we don’t know where you’re going. How can we know the way?” Jesus answered, “Can’t you see? I am the way!”

Another consideration is how John’s Gospel presents Jesus. In the prologue or beginning of the Gospel, John talks about Jesus as the Logos or Word that was with God from the beginning. Jesus is the creative power and love through which God creates, sustains, and recreates the whole world. This Logos is present and active in ways that we have only begun to imagine.

Religious scholars often distinguish between three different ways of understanding our Christian faith in relation to other religions. The first emphasizes Jesus’ uniqueness. This is depicted as an “exclusive” position. Jesus alone is the way. Those who do not confess Jesus as their Lord and Savior cannot know God.

A Hindu friend once accusingly told me that both Muslims and Christians are exclusivists who claim we are the only true religion. He said we’re always trying to proselytize and convert others. This raises the profound difference between honestly sharing our faith and trying to convert people or thinking we’re the one true faith.

The second is an “inclusive” position which builds on the Christology of John’s Gospel. It holds that the same Logos or Word which we know and experience in Christ is also present in other religions. In this respect, Catholic theologian Karl Rahner raised the possibility that devout adherents of other religions may be “anonymous Christians.” Some Muslims has a similar understanding of devout people from other religions as being “submitted to God” or Muslim.

The third is a “pluralist position which emphasizes the distinctiveness of each religion. It doesn’t want to combine them or flatten them out as somehow basically the same. Each religion has its own unique merits and is, in its own way, an expression of God’s love and grace. Each religion, including Christianity, however, also contains elements that are less than good and even evil.

These three positions are often seen as distinct but Bill Cenkner, my religion professor at Catholic University, taught me to see them as overlapping models. There are parts of each model that we find to be true but all are inadequate by themselves. As a Christian I confess that Jesus is the way. Through Jesus I understand God and God’s way in the world. This is good news that I freely share with others. In this sense, Jesus is unique. But that does not mean that I think people who do not believe in Jesus are going to hell.

This is where the inclusivist position helps me. God’s Spirit is greater than any one historical religious expression of faith. If we confess that God is the creator of everything we should expect God’s Spirit to be present and active in all cultures and their religious traditions. Many devout people from other religions have a winsome faith and moral integrity that can put Christians to shame. We might understand such faith as an expression of the same Logos or Word of God that we have come to know in Christ.

Still, I get uncomfortable when we speculate that people from other religions may be anonymous Christians. This is not because I want to insist on the exclusive claims of my Christian faith but rather because I want to respect and understand people from other religions for who they are. In that sense I’m a pluralist.

When we do that we can have mutually respectful relationships and honest conversations with all kinds of people in our pluralistic world—including those who profess no faith. We will often be profoundly impressed by their moral integrity and their deep faith. We will want to be open to the possibility that God’s Spirit can also speak to us through them.

I have found that when we approach others with such respect they are also open to hear about our faith and about what it means to follow Jesus in all of life. We don’t always get it right but we discover that, through such relationships, we grow in maturity as God’s people and that our faith in Jesus is deepened.

Welcoming Refugees

Last evening I attended a lively interfaith forum on “Welcoming the Stranger: Refugees and Immigrants in Our Midst” sponsored by the American Turkish Friendship Association and the Rumi Foundation. Moderator Sandy Chisholm, director of the Fairfax County Community Interfaith Coordination Program, reminded us that according to US Census Bureau statistics about one in four households in the DC area are recent immigrants, which is much higher than the national average.

The three panelists represented the Abrahamic faith traditions. Representing the Jewish faith, Rabbi Gerry Serotta, Executive Director of the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, began by stressing how central welcoming the stranger is to Judaism and all three Abrahamic religions. This is rooted in Abraham and Sara’s experience of living as sojourners and strangers in the land of Canaan as well as the experience of the Israelites of being slaves in the land of Egypt. We can never forget that our religious ancestors were refugees.

Patricia Maloof, Program Director of Migration and Refugee Services for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington, representing the Christian tradition, built on this by emphasizing that the child Jesus and his parents Mary and Joseph were refugees. Furthermore, there is the clear teaching that we see Jesus and serve him when we welcome and serve the stranger in our midst. Representing Islam, Naseem Rizvi, from the Open Society Foundation, added the experience of the early Muslim community living as refugees in Medina.

The current situation of millions of refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war and other conflict areas in the Middle East animated the forum and the discussion following the panel presentations. Given that welcoming strangers is so central to all our religious traditions, why are we refusing to allow Syrian refugees to enter our country? We will want to advocate for greater openness and to match our words with action by showing that our faith communities are prepared to collaborate in sponsoring and helping to resettle refugee families.

Those of us who want to put our faith into action will want to attend the Community and Interfaith session “Refugee Settlement in Northern Virginia – How Faith Communities Can Help” on Wednesday, March 9, 1:30 – 3:30 pm at the Fairfax County Government Center, 12000 Government Center Parkway, Fairfax, VA 22035. You can register at: www.fairfaxcounty.gov/hscode/ereg/registration.aspx?groupid=26

An Interfaith Garden

ZOE_0091

I have been enjoying laying out and planting the community garden at our church but on Sunday afternoon I participated in a different kind of garden planting event at the Institute for Islamic and Turkish Studies up the street from our church. It was an interfaith forum on countering religious extremism. The resource people on the panel that spoke to us represented the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faiths. We’re three different religions with similar roots. As Rabbi Gerald Serotta reminded us, we all trace our faith back to Hagar and Sarah. We sometimes refer to ourselves as the Abrahamic religions but it’s good to remind ourselves that women bear children.

All the panelists emphasized our shared humanity. We all recognize that we’re created in God’s image. Drawing from the creation story, Imam Talib Shareef emphasized that God created women and men, and saw that it was very good. He talked about how a child bonds with its parents. He reminded us that this bond can be broken through neglect or abuse, setting in place a destructive chain reaction.

Gail Hambleton, Vice President of the Global Peace Foundation–USA, drew on her peacebuilding work in Africa as well as with the Interfaith Alliance to Abolish Human Trafficking. She emphasized the need to recognize our shared humanity in order to deconstruct the national, ethnic, racial, religious, and social walls that keep us from working together for the common good.

Rabbi Serotta talked about the need to confront the violence in all our scriptures. This is especially problematic when such scriptures are taken out of context to legitimate our actions against people we consider to be our enemies. For Jews and Christians, this includes texts that command the complete destruction of idol worshippers, including small children. The Koran also has texts that can be understood in this way and we see people like the Islamic State group acting out on them in barbaric ways. The problem arises when we take such texts out of context and read them literally. We all have ways of interpreting these kinds of texts in ways that reject such ugly conclusions.

Imam Shareef said that Muslims need to also consider the life and example of the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, other early Muslim leaders, and our own reason. Other parts of the Koran remind us that Allah (God) values human diversity. God could have made us all one but chose not to. Rabbi Serotta said that the long history of Jewish Midrash or interpretation forbids us from taking violent biblical texts literally. And finally, Christians need to interpret violent texts though the nonviolent life and teaching of Jesus, the itinerate Jewish rabbi from Galilee.

There’s a valuable lesson in this for all of us. We need to be humble and listen carefully to each other as we struggle with such problems in our religious traditions. And that brings me back to the community garden we’re creating at our church. One church member with a delightful sense of humor began referring to our garden as “Veggie Village”—a place where many different vegetables and flowers flourish together in harmony. As can be seen from the photo above, it’s still a work in progress but holds lots of promise. May our equally diverse human community also find ways to flourish together through mutual respect and understanding.

Joining the Peace Insurgency (part 2)

Plowshares

When Christians accuse other religious traditions of being violent we conveniently overlook our own long history of violence. We dare not forget the violence and oppression that many experienced from so-called Christian people through the centuries. It includes my own Anabaptist spiritual ancestors who were brutally tortured and killed by other Christians.

When the Anabaptist leader Michael Sattler was put on trial for his faith in Rotenburg, Germany in 1527, one of the charges brought against him was that he “had taken the side of the Muslim Turks who were the greatest enemies of the holy Christian faith.” He responded to that charge with these words, “As to me saying that if waging war were proper I would rather take the field against the so-called Christians who persecute, take captive, and kill true Christians, than against the Turks, this was for the following reason: the Turk is a genuine Turk who knows nothing of the Christian faith” (The Legacy of Michael Sattler, 72).

Several days later, Sattler was found guilty, brutally tortured by having his tongue cut out, branded with hot irons, and dragged through the streets behind a cart. He was then burned at the stake. One could hardly device more violent torture. And this atrocity was committed by people who thought they were pious Christians. One caveat we need to add is that Sattler appears to have been unaware of longstanding Muslim Turk resources for peace that also too often were not honored or followed in this historic struggle.

This is becoming grim but there’s one more troubling thing I need to bring to our attention before looking to the example of Jesus in my next blog post. Our Bible includes horrific examples of genocide carried out in the name of God. The Christian lectionary rightly skips over these passages but an unfortunate result is that we tend to forget that these things are actually in our Bible.

We love the inspiring story of Moses delivering the Children of Israel from slavery in Egypt but there’s a much uglier part to this story that we ignore or tell in ways that cover up the atrocities involved. These former slaves themselves become horrific oppressors. The conquest of Canaan by the Israelites, as it’s depicted in the Bible, was nothing less than genocide.

In Deuteronomy 7:1-2 they’re instructed, “When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations . . . seven nations more numerous and mightier than yourselves, and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.”

All the human suffering, displacement, and death that we see in the Middle East today hardly sinks to the level of totally annihilating whole nations in the name of God as depicted in Deuteronomy. As a people of peace, how do we respond to such violence in our own history and in our Bible? Jesus gives us an example of how to do that.

Faith in Jesus in a Pluralistic World

For me, Jesus is the way, the truth and the life—the revelation and embodiment of God and God’s way in the world. The message of Jesus, as contained in the Bible and lived out in the lives of those who follow him, is certainly good news to people who are searching for life and hope. I continue to experience the difference it has made in my life as well as the lives of others. I can still see the face of a young man who had recently committed his life to Christ after years of struggle. He was finally in touch with God, with himself, and the world around him. There was magic in that moment.

Such good news, however, can’t be prepackaged and distributed like Coca Cola. Our faith needs to be continually renewed and deepened in relation to the kind of world we live in as well as our personal journeys of faith. Our confession that Jesus is the way becomes toxic when we make the doubly exclusive claim that all who have not confessed Jesus as savior are outside the grace of God.

I once had a conversation with a college student who was a new Christian. She was so happy and sure about the faith she had found in Jesus. But she was deeply concerned that her Jewish grandparents might be going to hell because they didn’t believe in Jesus, even though they were very loving and moral people. My heart ached for the young student and her family. Who had taught her such ugly theology?

There are various places where I have found wisdom for negotiating this new interfaith world as a follower of Jesus. One is the tight-knit Old Order Mennonite community I grew up in. Old Order people are very reticent about any claims of being “saved” and say that such questions or claims about our eternal destiny are best left in the hands of God. I remember my Dad lecturing me about that after a neighboring farmer who was not a church member committed suicide.

Another source of wisdom is the book, The Open Secret, by the British mission scholar Leslie Newbigin that I read before going on our first mission assignment in the Philippines. He told us that it’s a fallacy to think we will be bringing God to the places where we go to serve. God’s Spirit is present and at work among a people and their culture long before we arrive and will still be there after we leave.

Yet another is the Catholic theologian Hans Küng who wrestled with the exclusive ancient Christian dogma that there is no salvation outside the church. He says we should not use such a teaching to condemn people from other religions. Instead, he turns it into the positive confession that he has personally found salvation here.

I find wisdom in such approaches. Let’s stick to our personal confession of faith and let the rest in the hands of our just and gracious God. With that, let’s consider words of Jesus in John’s Gospel that are often used by people making religiously exclusive claims, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14: 6). How do we understand that?

I especially appreciate what Diana Eck, a well-known religion scholar and church woman, has to say about this in her book Encountering God. According to her, we need to consider the question that Jesus was responding to. It’s wasn’t, “Lord, will the Muslims, the Buddhists, and the Hindus also be saved?” Instead, it was Jesus’ response to personal faith crisis. He had just announced his impending death—that he was going to leave them. He was going ahead to prepare the way.

Thomas panicked, “But Lord, we don’t know where you’re going. How can we know the way? Jesus lovingly assured him, “Can’t you see? I am the way!” An important part of this consideration is the way John’s Gospel presents Jesus as the Logos or Word which has been with God from the beginning. Jesus embodies the creative power and love through which God creates, sustains, and recreates the world. Gandhi’s word Satyagraha “soul-force” comes to mind. Encountering this divine presence or Word in Jesus does not preclude encountering it in other places.

Models for Interfaith Relations

Religion scholars distinguish between three different ways of understanding our Christian faith in relation to other religious traditions. I first learned this from Calvin Shenk who taught world religions when I was an undergraduate student at Eastern Mennonite University. I still have fond memories of the field trip he took us on to visit a Buddhist temple and a Muslim mosque. Some of us were very nervous about whether or how we should participate in such religious observances.

The first position is an exclusivist position that emphasizes Jesus’ uniqueness. Jesus alone is the way. Those who do not confess Jesus as Lord cannot know God.

The second is an inclusivist position that builds on John’s Gospel. The same Logos or Word of God, which we have experienced in Christ, is surely also present in other religious traditions.  Some Christian theologians even speculate that devout, loving, and righteous people from other religions are anonymous Christians. Interestingly, some Muslims have a similar understanding of devout people from other religions being submitted to God or Muslim. The Arabic word Islam means submission to Allah or God.

The third is a pluralist position that emphasizes the distinctiveness of each religion. It refuses to combine them or flatten them out as basically the same. Most people who hold this position insist that every religion is, in its own way, an expression of God’s grace. They also recognize that each religion, including Christianity, contains elements that are less that good or even evil. Calvin Shenk used to tell us that we should never compare what we consider to be good in our religion with that which we consider to be bad in another religion.

These three positions are often seen as fixed paradigms that exclude each other. I prefer to see them as overlapping models. There are parts of each that I find to be true but I also find that each is inadequate by itself.

For example, I personally confess that Jesus is the way the truth and the life. I understand God and God’s way in the world through him. This is the good news that I freely share with others. In this sense, Jesus is unique. Like Catholic theologian Hans Küng, I confess that I have found salvation here.

Yet, the insight that God’s Spirit is greater than any one religion is also persuasive. If we believe that God is the creator of the whole world, we should expect God’s Spirit to be present and active in all cultures and their religious traditions. We might even understand this as the same Logos or Word of God that we have come to know in Jesus. In this sense, it may include much more than we imagine.

Still, I get uncomfortable when we begin speculating that people from other religious traditions are anonymous Christians. It’s not because I want to insist on an exclusive claim for my Christian faith but rather because I want to respect and understand people of other religious backgrounds on their own terms. I want to honor our religious pluralism.