Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Belief and Charity in a World of Religions

This article appears in this month's issue of the Mission Herald, the denominational newspaper of the national baptist convention.

It speaks particularly to Christian believers, but the essential truths regarding strong personal and particular faith and interfaith consciousness can apply universally for believers of all faiths.

Belief and Charity in a World of Religions
Frank Kaufmann

No one ever said that life as a Christian was meant to be easy. In fact, throughout history, right up to our present time persecution and martyrdom remain possible for Christians.

Yet even though the path of the true Christian always has shadows of extreme sacrifice lurking as a possibility, and surely always the challenges of renouncing "the world," there is another sense in which the Christian life can be said to be "easy." (Mt. 11:30) Faithful and devoted Christians are spared the uncertainty, the confusion, the relativism, and the bewilderment about purpose, and about life itself. There is a peace and clarity in Christian life that differs from the chaos and the cacophony in our rapidly changing world dominated by mind-boggling upheavals in communications technology and lifestyles. This reliable access to standards, ideals, community, and purpose are some of the very important ways in which Christian life is "easy," a light yoke to bear. The Christian life is calm, without fear of turbulence (Mt. 8:26).

But today there has arisen a special wrinkle in the Christian experience that makes our lives as Christians "difficult" in ways hitherto unknown. This is not the type of "difficult" that would characterize persecution, or material hardship resulting from Christian commitment. This is the sort of thing we are used and and trained in. It is part of a 1000's year old tradition.

The difficulty to which I refer comes from the fact that, for the first time in history, we are trying to live as Christians, surrounded in our daily lives by believers from a great many religions.

In earlier times to use the term "unsaved," and to use the term "unchurched," could refer to approximately the same group of people. If we set out to "save" someone who "does not know Jesus," generally it meant that we would be reaching out to a person imprisoned by self-indulgence, vices, and various means of self-destruction. In our present world however, the landscape has changed from this simple binary reality. Today in the simple course of going about our daily lives we are confronted by a constant stream of brothers and sisters from other religions. These are people who are devout, who seek God, who lead prayerful and upright lives, who raise their children to be morally pure, and to resist the wiles and temptations of the fallen world. These are the Sikhs in our PTA meetings, the Jewish girl checking out our groceries or our library books, the Muslims on my daughter's soccer team, and the blond, blue eyed Buddhist who works in my office.

Sure we still choke at the glut of consumerism, materialism, and outright Godlessness that encroaches on our families from all sides, but this latter battle is one with which we are more familiar. Far more challenging is navigating our responsibilities to the great commission among those who are devout believers, our sisters and brothers from the world religions. To make matters even more complicated, at least two of our sister religions have their own distinct claims and positions about Jesus of Nazareth! And do not think that this is a theoretical matter. Likely every reader has a family member already believing a different world tradition. This is a unique challenge facing serious Christians today.

It is not enough simply to be insular and sectarian, confined solely to the local affairs of my own church. That is no more correct a response than if one were to behave this way in the face of social sin and decay. In just the same way, it is not sufficient to ignore the believers around us, to live in some sort of self imposed ignorance with no understanding or plan as to how this multi-religious reality impacts Christian life.

It is the responsibility of caring, and spiritually and socially engaged Christians to think through the implications of this unprecedented global and local reality. Are our fellow believers who are not Christians friends? Enemies? Allies? Targets for conversion? What exactly do they count for in terms of what the Bible teaches us about "your neighbor" (Mk 12:31)?

If I want my teen-aged daughter to be morally upright and do well in school, isn't it better for her best friend to be a Muslim or a Hindu girl who does not drink, does not smoke, and does not engage in wanton sex, than it would be for her best friend to be a girl who does all of these but claims to come from a more or less Christian family? Which is more dangerous? Is it more likely for your daughter to convert to Islam? Or is it more likely that she'll smoke, drink, and engage in wanton and dangerous, premature sex?

While this is not a simple subject, and one that needs us to study and read many more articles and books than just this brief reflection, it surely is an area that we must ponder seriously. At this there should be at least some simple starting guidelines.

We can start by asking a basic question: What are the elements of a true Christian witness?

The answer is this:

A true Christian witness is comprised of
1. The truth of the Gospel, and
2. The Imitatio Christi - compassion, self-sacrifice, humility

Of these two elements of witness, only focus on "truth" has the capacity to divide, to create enmity, hostilities, tension, disrespect, and distance. Surely an eventual testimony to the Gospel of salvation will be a beneficial part of how we relate to our sisters and brothers from different beliefs and traditions, but only in its proper time and place (Eccl. 3:1). It is not the responsibility of Christians to be disrespectful, intimidating, or lacking the common propriety of respectful discourse when seeking to represent the loving compassion and sacrifice of Jesus Christ. A person living patiently in Imitatio Christi for the sake of her brother's or sister's eternal life naturally will be guided by the Holy Spirit as to when her neighbor comes to thirst for greater understanding. It is not our mission to be impatient (1 Cor. 13:4). There are times we might have to speak the truth even at the risk of our lives, yet at other times we may be guided to serve quietly, patiently, even silently. It is for this reason that must train ourselves in a relationship with the Holy Spirit.

So does the simple and minimal obligation to treat our neighbors on different paths of devotion with respect mean that we are absolved of our responsibilities to the great commission? NO! By no means. It means that there are times, (sometimes long periods) in which we must devote ourselves to the far more challenging and demanding dimensions of the Christian witness. We must testify to the transformative power of Jesus Christ, and the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives solely through our actions. If we have the courage, fortitude, clarity, and humility to live consciously for the sake of our neighbors of different religions, even in those time when it is inappropriate to engender the divisive energies of insisting on being “right,” then the living Christ will be abundant in the world and in us.