Religion is in the news every day, and sometimes the way politicians and news reporters talk about it
shows an enormous ignorance. Religious faith as the media and politicians talk about it sometimes bears little resemblance to the daily lives of billions of faithful people across the world. We live not only next to Muslims, but Buddhists, Hindus, Jews and many others. Sometimes this diversity is seen as a threat. But how do we respond?
Most Christians are not hateful or uncaring to their neighbors. But in these fear-driven times, some truth is a welcome friend. In this study, we will learn a little more about two “neighbors” with whom we share similar ancestry through Abraham—Islam and Judaism—and how Baptists can draw from their heritage to find a way to a more thoughtful and faithful interaction with others.
First, we are affected powerfully by what I have come to call “un-socializing media.” The web has made powerful and wonderful goods to be available to the planet. Unfortunately, it also provides terrible temptations and problems. I’m not simply talking about terrorists and pornographers being able to spread their poison, though that is bad enough. But the damage of half-truths, uncritical forwarding and the anonymity of the internet enables people to “express” things better left to the confessional.
Anger is not made better by expressing it. It must be creatively rechanneled and sometimes simply called. Glance at the “comments” section of any piece on the web, and it won’t be long until it degenrates into profanity, accusation, rage and misinformation.
Second, perceptions and so-called “information” most faster than our capacity to think morally and test ideas. We tend to react more than act, blame before checking, emote when we should count to ten. Nowhere is this truer than in contention between the religions. Even before the web, most of what we knew about others in the world came from people we already agreed with anyway. I learned about Catholics, Jews, Muslims and even Mormons from Baptist preachers growing up who told me “what they believe.”
So to get at truth is challenging. We have to move past fear, gain our own experience of others, and enter into genuine dialogue. This is not, by the way “capitulation” or liberalism or any of the other epithets that fundamentalists (in all religions) tend to hurl at anyone who speaks of dialogue.
For Christians there is a dual dialogue required. The first is with ourselves. I call this “conviction” in the sense that my late friend Jim McClendon meant it–a conviction is that which, if Front Page you gave it up, you would no longer be the same person. For Christians this is Jesus Christ as Lord. But also we need to be as clear and well-informed about what matters and what doesn’t as we can be.
I think it was the evangelist Vance Havner who said, “Some folks tell more than they know, others don’t tell what they know, and still others don’t know enough to tell.” Oddly, the better and more steeped you are in your own faith, the more intelligibly you will be able to talk to someone else. It is striking to me that the greatest recruitment to ISIS among Muslim youth tends to come from people not all that religious who are turning radically to what most Muslim people deem a radical perversion of their faith. When I talk to others, I offer respect and curiosity about their faith. I expect to receive the same. Robust dialogue does not come by glossing over differences, but meeting them head on.
Nowhere is this more evident to me than in the widespread betrayal of the First Amendment on a popular level by many Christian believers. Religious freedom is a principle that rises to the level of conviction for me–without it, my faith is not the same. Beyond the Baptist emphasis from our history, it is a conviction that seems the best for this time, proven again and again. Faith in the separation of church and state is not primarily a negation of religion as much as a suspicion of power. None but God is trustworthy with power over life and death, and to want government preference for one’s faith often amounts to cultural privilege that we want to maintain. Truth does not need entitlement to survive. So our defense of the rights of others, even those whom we believe to be wrong on matters of faith, is non-negotiable. It requires a level of maturity in thinking to hold this.
Then, the matter of “conviction” is to genuinely comprehend what the convictions of others are. While reading about someone else’s faith is useful, it is even more powerful to ask them directly, non-defensively and in a spirit of genuine interest in them as a neighbor. If love is the ultimate truth of Christianity (as most of us believe), then it would follow that love is also the most valuable strategy in proclaiming it to the world.
For me, living next door to a wonderful Jewish family in high school opened my heart. Getting to know a faithful Catholic girl in my classes began to crack the superficial stereotypes about the largest Christian faith in the world. When my wife was a Head Resident at what is now Campbell University in North Carolina in the 1970s while I was in seminary, we met young women from Jordan, Egypt and Iran living in our dormitory. They ate with us, adored our daughters, and were our friends. When I told them I had studied about Islam in a class, they were so pleased. We also found that they and their parents were reassured that we were not like the portrayal of America on television. There parents were terrified that Americans all ride around in their cars, shooting out the windows, are godless and immoral. When they told mother and father that most of us went to church, loved our families and tried to do what is right, they were shocked! Stereotypes go both ways. Only genuine dialogue can destroy them.
Finally, as far as conviction goes, lived conviction is what matters. The power of Jesus Christ in His earthly ministry was the unity of words and actions in an extraordinary life. He was what He said. So conviction asks of us to be genuine in our own faith, not merely arguing about “ideas” about religion. The intellectual issues are enormous and important. But ideas inhabit the brains of persons, real, living human beings. Such engagements are between persons.
Next time here, I’ll talk a little more about my second concept, the place of conscience in the struggle to hold one’s faith and at the same time do right by our fellow neighbors on the planet.
For those living in the Birmingham area, the class is open to anyone interested. Wednesday’s, May 11, 18, 25 at Vestavia Hills Baptist Church 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. This study meets on Wednesday mornings at 10:30 in the Adult Seminar Room across from the Library. It lasts exactly one hour and is open to anyone interested.