Today’s guest blogger is Skye Jethani, an ordained pastor, author, and speaker. He serves as senior editor for Leadership Journal, a publication of Christianity Today International.
I am an ordained pastor within an evangelical denomination, but unfortunately many within my community are still unmotivated to cooperate with those outside Christianity in meaningful ways. But with roughly 30 percent of Americans identifying themselves as evangelicals, any hope of making progress on interfaith work must involve my community. In this post I have outlined three reasons why I believe interfaith cooperation is so vital right now–and why evangelicals should be helping to lead the way.
Reason 1: The World Needs It
Globalization and intercontinental immigration is causing religious communities to mix and collide. Consider what’s happened right here in the US. Although most Americans still identify themselves as Christians, the percentage of Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists has risen dramatically over the last few decades. And countries where the church used to have little representation, like China and India, are now contending with large Christian communities.
But as critics of religion like to remind us, religion and conflict tend to go together. Religion is a key factor in the persecution of Christians in Iraq, the ongoing tensions between the Israelis and Palestinians, and the genocide in Sudan. And the tensions are escalating in secular societies as well. The “Ground Zero Mosque” uproar comes to mind, and the French backlash against Muslim women wearing hijabs.
As globalization brings religions into contact with one another, our world desperately needs a different narrative than the “clash of civilizations” spun by the media. The future depends upon people of faith learning to cooperate and not merely coexist. I believe Christians should be helping to lead the way. It was Jesus who said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons of God.”
Reason 2: The Church Needs It
Since Constantine became the Emperor of Rome in the fourth century, Christianity has enjoyed a privileged position in the West. But that is no longer the case. As Christianity loses cultural dominance, we are seeing some segments of the church launch into tantrums demanding its moral and theological tenants be universally imposed as they once were.
But alignment with one political party since the 1970s, and fighting a cultural war with no exit strategy, has taken its toll. As reported by Gabe Lyons and David Kinnaman in their book unChristian, most young adults in the US view the church as homophobic, hypocritical, and too political. Equally disturbing is research indicating people raised in the church are leaving at an accelerating rate.
There are many reasons for this exodus, but I wonder if a significant one is the church’s failure to prepare young Christians for life in a pluralistic culture. The church often presents them with a false dichotomy. The fundamentalist say we should condemn those of other faiths. This is a recipe for either isolation or conflict. The liberals, on the other hand, invite us to put aside our theological differences in favor of an “all paths lead to God” approach. This results in denying the unique claims of Christianity.
I believe the church needs a third alternative–one that avoids the arrogance and isolationism of the fundamentalists as well as the identity-erasing approach of the liberals. Young Christians must learn how to hold firmly to their Christian faith while living, cooperating, and even blessing those of other faiths. Interfaith cooperation is vital not because we believe all faiths are equal, but precisely because we do not.
The ability to acknowledge our theological differences and still maintain respect for one another is essential in a pluralistic society. It also means the church’s influence will have to come from persuasion rather than raw power. Christian ideas, whether moral or theological, will only find acceptance if they have been carried forth in friendship and love, and not simply because fear has driven voters to the polls. If the church leaders fail to teach and model this approach, I fear that Christianity will continue to slide into obscurity as more young people are not equipped to live with Christ in a diverse society.
Reason 3: Our Communities Need It
A few weeks ago we learned that a single mother with three children at our public elementary school was facing homelessness. When our church learned about the situation, the leaders agreed to match funds that members of the church contributed for the family. The mother and her kids do not attend our church; I do not know if they are Christians. Apart from the funds contributed by our church, I know that many other families in our public school helped–people from many different faiths.
In Luke’s Gospel chapter 10, we find Jesus’ well known command to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But a skeptical listener then asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” In response he tells the story of the Good Samaritan. The message was both shocking and clear. Jesus defines “neighbor” as the person in need–regardless of their race, religion, gender, or cultural identity. From a Christian point of view, I believe in interfaith cooperation because I take seriously Jesus’ command to love one’s neighbor.
While it is entirely appropriate for local synagogues, mosques, and churches to help their own members, they need to lift their eyes to the larger community they inhabit. As commercial and government sectors feel the crunch of the recession, more of the burden has shifted to faith communities to help those struggling. We all care about the poor, failing schools, and crime in our neighborhoods. When people from different faiths rally together, share resources, and work to alleviate these problems we all benefit. But this effort must be championed and modeled by the religious leaders themselves.
In my view interfaith cooperation is no longer optional. The realities of globalization and struggling communities mean that people of faith must learn to work together. At the same time, as a Christian, I do not want to deny my theological convictions or have to suppress them in order to engage meaningfully in the world. Instead, I want my interfaith work to be driven by my Christian identity and not in spite of it. And I believe learning to do this will bring strength to the church struggling to find its way in a rapidly changing culture.
The content of this blog reflects the views of its author and does not necessarily reflect the views of either Eboo Patel or the Interfaith Youth Core.