A People of God? (The Interfaith Quandary)


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.

The Superior Power of Love


Today we celebrate the life and legacy of civil right leader Martin Luther King. One of my favorite quotes on the memorial wall at the King Memorial in Washington DC states, “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.” A related quote on the wall states, “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” We will want to reflect on these remarkable quotes here in the heart of our national capital right in the midst of the many war memorials glorifying our nation’s wars.

How do these quotes relate to the language of sacrificial love in the Bible? Even as a child I had feelings of revulsion about the sacrificial imagery of Jesus as the slain Lamb of God. And it isn’t that I was that squeamish or over-sensitive kid. I was a farm boy who saw lots of the raw stuff of life, including butchering animals. My doubts are more intellectual. There are ancient traditions of human cultures sacrificing animals and even other humans to placate the anger of their gods. There’s often a magical quality to belief in such sacrifices.

How does such stuff fit into the religious sensibilities of a caring faith community? Does God really demand blood to free us from our sins? What kind of God is that? Many find such images and words repulsive and unbelievable. The idea that God demanded the death of Jesus, the innocent Son of God, as a payment for sin is to believe in divine child abuse.

How do we begin to unravel this tangled ball of yarn? There certainly is sacrificial language in the Bible. In the beginning of John’s Gospel, Jesus is identified as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). This title for Jesus appears to be directly related to the Jewish religious practice of sacrificing a spotless lamb during Passover. Jesus becomes that spotless lamb.

However, the notion that Jesus’ death on the cross placated God’s anger or need for justice because of our sins came centuries later. The so-called “substitutionary atonement theory” was developed by the theologian Anselm in 1097. He claimed that God’s retributive justice requires that the penalty for our sins must be paid from the human side. However, it required a perfect human to make that sacrifice. That’s why Jesus became human to pay the price for our sins.

But we don’t read that in the Bible. Biblical scholar Marcos Borg states, “Implying that Jesus had to die because of our sins and that this was part of God’s plan to ‘save’ us, completely obscures and obliterates the historical meaning of his death. . . Jesus didn’t just die—he was killed. And not killed by a criminal or assassin, but executed by established authority” (Speaking Christian, 99). He was killed by the powers that ruled this world because they saw him as a threat.

Furthermore, Borg explains, “Substitution seriously misunderstands the purpose and meaning of sacrifices in the Bible. They were never about substitution—as if those offering the sacrifice deserved to die, but God was willing to accept an animal as a substitute. More basically, sacrifice means to make something sacred by offering it up to God . . . An animal is offered up to God and becomes sacred in the process”(102). In this religious ritual, participants commune with God and each other through eating the “made sacred” animal, vegetable, or fruit around a common table.

The biblical and early Christian understanding was that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection revealed the power of God’s love and achieved a victory over the forces of evil. It demonstrated that sacrificial love is more powerful than anything the imperial power of Rome or any other destructive power could do to stop Jesus.

In John’s Gospel, according to biblical scholar Robert Kysar, “The Lamb of God is the liberating revealer of God. His freeing function occurs not strictly through his suffering and death but through his very person. To know him is to be freed.” (John: The Maverick Gospel, 37). It’s the victory of the Lamb who reveals God’s powerful, unconditional love. It was this superior power of love that King used so effectively in the civil rights struggle.