“Build bridges, not walls,” urged Pope Francis last year, when on a visit to my neighborhood (El Paso/ Ciudad Juarez). This is the second post in a series trying to follow his wise advice.
St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church of Leamington, Ontario rents its parish hall to the local mosque for the latter’s services.
That act horrifies some Christians and is approved by others as a progressive step. We Christians don’t agree on how to relate to non-Christians. American Christians have not even had much exposure to this until recent times. My Minnesota hometown was typical of most. It had Christians and people who didn’t go to church. That was it. Larger cities had a scattering of synagogues, Judaism being the one religion that urban Americans, at least, could encounter without exotic travel. Other religions existed in tiny numbers, usually in isolated ethnic communities.
That has changed much in the past half century. Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh and Muslim immigrants have arrived in significant numbers and others have converted to join them. Especially Buddhism seems to have an appeal for many Americans. Other religions have sprung up or revived as well and it is no longer unusual for the average person to interact with non-Christian neighbors, friends and workmates.
It used to be a matter of donations for foreign missions to convert non-Christians in far off lands. That has also changed drastically. Russia has changed from godless Communism to a vibrant Orthodoxy produced by the blood of thousands of martyrs. China hosts a rapidly growing Christianity of many millions. Africa teems with enthusiastic Christians and sends missionaries to the U.S. and western Europe. As participation in Christianity declines among us, it has conversely greatly increased in much of the world. And non-Christian religions are no longer foreign.
Confusing the issue is that many react culturally and politically from the gut, rather than from a perspective of Faith. Not infrequently, “Muslims” are contrasted with “whites,” as if they could be fitted into the color-coded racial profiles cherished by Americans. As demographics change, the instinct to defend a disappearing culture, including religious overtones (but not necessarily Christian values or commitment) expresses itself in seeing others as less American. Last year, it showed itself dramatically in political form, with 80% of white evangelicals voting for Donald Trump, whereas almost 80% of non-white evangelicals voted against him. It is matched in western Europe, where movements to “preserve Christian civilization” attract significant numbers, although few of those participate in church life.
The reality is that before we can ask how the Christian should relate to others, important clarifications need to be made about Christianity. When comparing, the most obvious difference for Christianity is that it is not a religion at all, but rather a way of life. Religions generally are defined as enterprises dealing with a separate spiritual, sacred area of existence apart from the rest of life, with a goal of pleasing a higher power by following a rulebook and/or satisfying the spiritual need in the human soul. But Christianity is a personal love relationship with our saving God in an environment whose totality is sacred, including our whole life, materially and spiritually. Without the anchor of that relationship, cultural Christianity has no center and no real basis for dialog. The state of Christian formation is such that many Christians do not yet understand this.
It leads to confusing sidetracks. Perhaps the most obvious has been the rise of “Christian Zionism,” a support among some evangelicals for the current nation of Israel, usually combined with a specific eschatological view. The founders of modern Israel were secular socialists looking for an opportunity to live in peace as a Jewish community, with little religious interest. Christian Zionism seems in total denial about that and in total symbiosis with the political goals of both Israeli and American political conservatives.
As a result, serious dialog with observant Jews instead happens in other places. But it does happen, often with rewarding results, because Judaism and Christianity not only have a parallel (if often unfortunate) history, but also draw from common traditions which, when approached with openness and a seeking soul can richly cross-fertilize theology for all of us. To speak of America being a “Judeo-Christian” nation is true only in the sense that, historically, the two beliefs have been the predominate demographic. But the potential for real inter-action remains an opportunity for the future, undistracted by political movements and cultural shibboleths.
It is almost equally true that Islam and Christianity have had a parallel, and also often unfortunate, history, absent in the U.S. but abundant throughout the East and even into Spain. In the present climate, where political agendas color much of the interaction both between and within Christian and Muslim cultures, serious dialog (or even neighborly co-existence, as in Leamington, Ontario) is challenging, yet the respect in Islam for Jesus and his Mother make fruitful dialog possible. At the same time, it must be noted that both Muslims and Jews are “people of the Book.” While Christians also revere Scripture, much of the sources overlapping with Islam and Judaism, Christians follow a personal Savior as their ultimate commitment, a drastic difference from the other two.
The long history of the children of Abraham, even on their quite different paths, makes it possible to understand each other, even when we disagree. There is no such history with other religions, and it is incumbent on us, first of all, to simply discover the teachings of the religions originating in the Far East and in North America. As the Russians observed in Alaska already several centuries ago, the latter have a similar worldview to Christianity and respect the earth as the Lord’s, making it possible to build theological bridges quite easily, a fact rarely noted.
In all, we are challenged to live in peace. This, too, is also often misunderstood. To tear down walls among Christians means seeking to reach a unity of Faith, healing the divided Body of Christ and restoring the incarnational integrity of the “one catholic and apostolic church.” Dialog with non-Christians has a different goal, that of tolerance so we can all live in peace and understanding. Such Christian tolerance is not the acceptance of “pluriform truth” (as former Episcopal Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold phrased it). Nor is it the sentiment that “all religions have the same goals” and are all correct “in their own way,” as expressed in the popular cliché, “It doesn’t matter what you believe, just so you believe something.” This is how many solve the problem of living together in a pluralistic society.
But Christian tolerance is not a compromise of the truth. Beyond the logical impossibility of holding opposite viewpoints as equally true, the commitment to loving him who saves us and provides the sacred space of earth for us cannot be fudged by us. Yet neither can that commitment be forced on those who choose not to accept it. Love, including God’s love, can never be forced.
Tolerance is therefore the desire to live in peace with people who have different viewpoints and commitments. Much is achieved in pluralistic societies by people who do not share a common Faith nor worldview. It is certainly the position of Jesus that the Christian is to participate fully in that society, contributing his or her insight as part of the stewardship of the earth, loving all people as creations of God in his image. Only if the demand is made to deny the Lord must we demur.
It is above our paygrade, as Jesus makes abundantly clear (Matthew 7:1-5), to judge others. In this world, we are responsible for proclaiming the Gospel, but not for judging those who do not accept it. We reflect the love of God towards all, whether they agree with us or not. When possible, we work together with others to make the Lord’s earth a better place. Hating, condemning and shunning others are not Christian virtues. Loving God and loving our neighbors are the biggest Christian virtues. Even the neighbors who don’t agree with us. Bridges, after all, exist to span a gulf, not eliminate it.