Jesus on Interfaith Dialogue and Cooperation

I’ve been working with a team of local clergy to bring together the next Peace for Peoria event – a town hall style Q&A on May 16th at the Peoria Civic Center. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be writing about interfaith issues.

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Last week, I had the opportunity to sit on a panel for a class at Illinois State University on interfaith dialogue. I sat on the panel with an Imam and Rabbi from Peoria. The question we were each asked for our opening remarks was something like this: what in your religious tradition draws you to interfaith dialogue? Here’s what I said:

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I need to start by owning my story. I grew up in a very xenophobic religious context. For example, I remember religious tracts from my youth that depicted the pope burning in hell. While we didn’t strictly believe we were the ONLY faithful remnant, we sure were wary, even of those in other Protestant traditions. But as I grew up, went to a more broadly evangelical seminary, and got to know people in other faith traditions, my horizons expanded.

I’m just saying, I’ve grown in my understanding of things, and I’m sure I will continue to grow. So these thoughts are still being formed. But to answer the question, I think there are generally three theological camps when it comes to interfaith dialogue, and Jesus has something to say to each.

The first is that “they” are our enemies. A Presidential candidate who says, “I think Islam hates us,” is choosing to propagate a narrative that says “they” are our enemies. When I wrote a post about the open house at one of the mosques here in Peoria a couple of weeks ago, I had a couple different people contact me with questions out of this perspective. And one of the things I heard is a common Christian idea about Islam, that “Muslims may say they are peaceful, but they’re just saying it to get power, and once they do, they’ll implement Sharia law.”

Even if this is in fact reality, Jesus couldn’t be more clear in the Sermon on the Mount that we are to love and pray for our enemies. And if, for the sake of argument, I grant the premise, it just feels like an excuse not to love. And yes, what it means to love and pray for ISIS is super complicated. But it’s much less complicated to love and pray for our Muslim neighbors in the Midwest.

So, even if you believe that Muslims are your enemy, if you identify as a follower of Jesus, then you are compelled to find ways to show love to Muslims in our community.

A second theological idea is that those of other faiths are not enemies but, rather, are just misguided. For example, many people I know are able to look past the rhetoric of conservative media and understand that Muslims and ISIS are not one and the same (just like Christians and the KKK are not one and the same). Many Christians believes Muslims (and those of other traditions/religions) are wonderful people who are simply on the wrong path.

I would suggest then, that our theological compulsion in such cases should be driven by Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan. If we believe someone is misguided, don’t we have a Christian responsibility to reach out and care for them, even at personal cost?

FInally, I believe there’s yet another way to view interfaith dialogue and cooperation. I was thinking the other day about these verses in the Gospel of Luke:

“Master,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.”

“Do not stop him,” Jesus said, “for whoever is not against you is for you.”

-Luke 10:49-50

Whatever you may think about demons, can we all at least agree that in the context Luke is written, driving out demons is a good thing? So, Jesus seems to be saying that anyone doing good things is “for you.”

I was thinking about the blog post I wrote a couple weeks ago. If the local Imam is doing something to promote peace, isn’t he then my co-laborer as a peacemaker? If the Rabbi is doing something good in the community, isn’t he “with us”? It seems Jesus is pushing his disciples to think of “us” as a much bigger concept than “those with whom we agree.”

I know it’s challenging for those of us who grew up with a strong sense of “our group is right” to think this way. But I’m challenged by Jesus’ words. I think our mentality most of the time is “If you’re not with us somewhere close to 100%, then you’re against us.” But Jesus said almost exactly the opposite.

Hmmmmmm.

So what do you think? Does your theology drive you toward interfaith dialogue and cooperation? Why or why not?

 

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Know Islam. Know Peace (in Peoria)

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall inherit the earth.”
— Jesus

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Several months ago, I heard a report from the BBC that vandalism crimes against mosques in America were on the rise. You don’t have to be an avid follower of the news to know that anti-Muslim rhetoric is getting increasing airplay in certain sectors of American society. In fact, just in the past few weeks, in a neighboring city, one man caused an uproar when he posted silhouettes in his yard of a man holding a gun to another man on his knees wearing a turban. In news reports, he defended his lawn decorations by quoting the Bible and Jesus.

Ugh.

Given the rising rhetoric, in December I finally took the initiative and sent an email to one of the local imams: “Hi. We’ve never met, but given the current anti-Muslim climate of this country and the mandate of my religion to be a peacemaker, I just wanted to say that I’m your friend. Let’s meet for lunch sometime.”

Within about a week I found myself having a long lunch with Imam Kamil Mufti, during which he challenged me to use my voice, to speak up for peace, to educate people to think differently about Islam. And he told me about his idea to have an open house at his mosque sometime in the next couple months.

Tonight was that open house.  The event was called “Know Islam. Know Peace.”

I’ve never been so proud of my community.

Local news is reporting that in excess of 700 people showed up at the Islamic Foundation of Peoria. I, and nearly everyone I talked to at the event, was blown away by the number of people who turned out to show support for Muslims in our community.

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I’m writing this just a couple hours after the event and here are a couple of my impressions:

First, I was blown away by the hospitality shown by the Muslim community. From the minute we arrived, they were the ever-gracious hosts, welcoming us, giving tours, answering questions, circulating the aisles handing out water during speeches and then feeding all of us amazing Afghani food. Just this past Sunday, I was teaching our church out of Luke 22 and one of the things we noted is that Jesus defined leadership as those who serve. I saw that lived out tonight. I felt honored and humbled to be the recipient of their kindness.

Another impression had to do with the speeches. The room was full of civic leaders, religious leaders and politicians and the dais was filled with the same. When I first saw the long list of those who would be giving speeches I thought to myself, “Oh no, this is going to be a long night.” But I was so caught up in the event, that I forgot to look at my watch until about 75 minutes in, just before Rabbi Daniel Bogard of Anshai Emeth took the stage to finish out the evening. Nearly all the speakers had something significant to add to the evening.

And finally, it struck me tonight that Jesus’ words, – “Blessed are the peacemakers” – don’t have any qualifiers. He didn’t say, “Blessed are the Christian peacemakers,” or the “American peacemakers,” or anything else. He just said that those who make peace are blessed. So, tonight, I was struck that the Muslim community is blessed. And Imam Mufti is particularly blessed I know others have worked with him, inviting those they know, but Imam Mufti and his community are the ones who reached out to build a bridge for peace.

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When Mayor Ardis stood up tonight to give his speech, he was visibly moved, as I think many of us were. I know I had goosebumps throughout the night. And he said to us, “I don’t know that I exactly have the words to describe what I feel.” He went on to talk about how proud he was of our community – both the Muslims in Peoria for hosting the event and also of everyone who showed up at a mosque – many of us for the first time in our lives.

I said it at the top, but it’s worth repeating. I’ve never been more proud to be a part of this community. It was beautiful to see people of all kinds of faiths supporting, honoring and defending each other’s rights to religious expression and being peacemakers.

There may be a world full of ugly, ignorant anti-Muslim rhetoric “out there,” but in tiny Peoria, IL, there are at least 700 of us who will stand up for peace, stand up for love and refuse to demonize “the other.”

I think this is the way of Jesus.

(To learn more, go to peaceforpeoria.com)

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Peace in a World Gone Crazy

At church this past Sunday, we lit the second candle in the Advent Wreath – the one that represents peace. Ironically, peace seems fragile in the world right now. It feels like extremists of all types are hellbent on saber rattling, stereotyping and pandering to fear and violence.

This morning, I’m little overwhelmed by everything in the news. The world seems to have gone crazy. It’s almost beyond belief. It’s almost beyond belief that there have been more shootings than days in America in 2015. It’s almost beyond belief that Christian leaders are calling for more guns in hopes they can “teach them a lesson if they ever show up here.” It’s almost beyond belief that the leading Republican candidate called for a ban on Muslims (both American and foreign) entering America. It’s almost beyond belief the comments and conversations on my newsfeed.

And so, on this second week of Advent, when the church calendar tells me that I’m supposed to be thinking about “Immanuel” – God with us – and peace, I’m struggling with how to live in the world and yet at the same time take Jesus seriously.

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I understand that the world is a complicated place. I understand that when it comes to political solutions, nothing is simple, especially when we’re talking about peace and safety and terrorism and the like. I understand that when it comes to gun ownership, there are devout, level-headed Christians who disagree. I’ve had deeply respectful, loving discussions with people all over the political spectrum.

In fact, I think the argument can be made that the only people who don’t see it as complicated are the extremists – the fundamentalists – on either side of any given debate. To the right wingers and left wingers, to the conservatives and the liberals, the solutions are general, sweeping and simple. But to the vast majority of us who don’t overly identify with either side, being peacemakers is complicated.

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What grieves me most this morning, as a pastor, is how we subvert or just ignore Jesus in all of this. You don’t really need to be all that religious or devout in order to say that Jesus is one of the most important ethical teachers in the history of the world. (I think he’s much more than that, but for this conversation, we don’t need to go any further.)

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” I wonder how you take that seriously and then talk with humor about “killing those Muslims.” Maybe you sincerely believe that you should defend yourself. We can debate that. (I’m actually not an all-the-way pacifist.) But there shouldn’t be a celebration of that harsh reality. There shouldn’t be joyful anticipation of the opportunity to kill someone to “teach them a lesson.” I believe if we are put in that situation, it should grieve us. It should trouble us to no end that we might be asked to violate “thou shalt not kill.”

Jesus also said, “Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.” I wonder how we’re supposed to do this in reality. It is undoubtedly difficult, but that doesn’t mean I just get to ignore it. And I’m pretty sure praying for my enemies doesn’t mean killing them or stereotyping them.

This is a really small thing, but today I reached out to a local imam, just to say, “How do I bless you in a time where many want to persecute you? I don’t know what will come of this, but just maybe, in a small way, it will help foster peace in our community.

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I was arguing in my head with someone who wrote something on my Facebook page about how violent Jesus was, quoting the Hebrew Scriptures and Revelation 21 as justifications to set aside – or at least to minimize – the pacifist leanings of Jesus.  And I had this thought:

What if the disciples had their concealed carry permits? What if the disciples had defended Jesus with deadly force? Oh, wait. Peter did, and Jesus told him to put away his sword.

It’s really, really hard to read the gospels and ignore the non-violence of Jesus. My goal here isn’t to shame those who aren’t pacifists, or even to advocate for pacifism, really.  I understand that theology is complicated and people see it differently. I mainly want to say:  let’s keep it complicated.  Let’s keep going round and round with the hard stuff, even if we think we’ve landed on a position. I think the faithful response to Scripture and tradition is to keep talking, debating, arguing and loving each other the whole time.

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At the very minimum, and maybe especially when the world is as it is right now, we ought to daily pray the prayer of St. Francis:

“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

Where there is injury, pardon;

Where there is doubt, faith;

Where there is despair, hope;

Where there is darkness, light;

Where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek

To be consoled as to console,

To be understood as to understand,

To be loved as to love;

For it is in giving that we receive;

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;

It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.”

AMEN?

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