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How my Muslim Friends Helped Me Become a Stronger Christian

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This November, we are examining what strong-benevolent Christian identity looks like in our pluralistic world. Many of this month’s contributors attended a conference with Brian McLaren, author of Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?, on October 15th at George Mason University and will be reflecting on their experiences there. 

By Amy Beth Willis

One evening during my Senior year at Emory University, my friend Nasir, a practicing Shia Muslim, asked me pointedly, “If Jesus was God incarnate, why did he plead with God on the cross, ‘Oh Lord, Why have you forsaken me?” Perplexed, I struggled to respond, recognizing that he had brought up a critical difference between the Christian and Islamic understandings of Jesus. His question prompted a lively, late-night discussion centered around theological differences between Christianity and Islam. Throughout my years at Emory, conversations like these transformed my faith identity in ways that resound today.

At Emory I was blessed to become friends with people from multiple faith traditions different from my own: Catholic, Hindu, Reformed Jew, and Sunni Muslim, to name a few. Through their eyes, I began to not only learn about the traditions and beliefs of other faiths but also to respect and learn from them deeply. I fasted with my Muslim friends during Ramadan and attended Navratri celebrations with my Hindu friends. One weekend, I attended Friday Shabbat at the Hillel center, discussed the Quran on Saturday, and went to a Methodist service on Sunday. I was joyfully immersed in multiple cultures and faiths.

Amy Beth participating in a Muslim Student Association event with her Emory peers

Amy Beth participating in a Muslim Student Association event with her Emory peers

Conversations about faith with friends of other faiths forced me to articulate and understand Christianity in a way that going to church never had. Moreover, I had to grapple with exclusivity of my Christian upbringing’s understanding of the path to God. Jesus’ command to love God and to love neighbor gained new meaning: how could I love my friends and also believe their souls were destined to eternal torment? I was forced to reckon with the purpose of Christianity if not to help others know Christ.

These relationships led me to a Christian faith much stronger and deeper than I had known: a faith rooted in the praxis of working for God’s kingdom of justice and peace on Earth. This faith affirms the sacredness of Jesus as God incarnate, a hope for all people, but is inclusive of all those that seek the divine. This stronger faith also pushes me to seek the divine in other faiths. Now, I could beautifully end a hopeful thought with “Inshallah,” meaning “God willing” in Arabic. Now, I could watch the devotion of fellow students to the Hindu goddess Durga and find beauty and depth in this female vision of God. Now, I could cheerfully sing “When we eat we say Bismillah (In the name of God), when we’re done we say Alhamdullillah (Thanks be to God),” a tune taught to American Muslim children in the same manner I was taught, “God is Great, God is Good, let us thank him for our food.” Engaging in these practices furthered my relationships with my friends that confessed these faiths as their own.

This benevolent and strong Christian faith allows me now to work in an interfaith advocacy context on Capitol Hill at the Presbyterian Office of Public Witness as a Young Adult Volunteer. I can articulate the Christian theological rationale for caring for unaccompanied children arriving at the U.S. border, while I learn the Jewish rationale. Our voices for political change are stronger together.

If we seek a more just and peaceful world, we must seek understanding between and among faiths. In a more diverse and globalized world, these kind of interfaith and intrafaith relationships are the first steps on a path towards global reconciliation. Misunderstandings fuel wars, death, and destruction around the world. Muslim rebel groups clash with the majority Buddhist government in Thailand; Protestants and Catholic communities are still separated by “Peace” walls in Belfast, Northern Ireland; the state of Israel continues to forcefully push the boundaries of its illegal settlements into the olive farms of Palestinian farmers.

By developing strong relationships with people of other faiths, I am able to birth into this world my understanding of the kingdom of God—people of all faiths joining together as one human family, seeking peace and justice as one. This is the Christian identity I can now proudly claim.


 

Amy Beth WillisAmy Beth Willis is a 2nd year Young Adult Volunteer through the PC(USA) in Washington, D.C., having served her first year in Tucson, AZ. A born and bred Baptist, she hails from Murfreesboro, Tennessee and is passionate about music, education, zumba, and her amazing family and friends.

 

What?!? You Don’t Want To Take Responsibility for Centuries of Christian Oppression, Pogroms and Genocide? I Can’t Imagine Why Not!

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This November, we are examining what strong-benevolent Christian identity looks like in our pluralistic world. Many of this month’s contributors attended a conference with Brian McLaren, author of Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?, on October 15th at George Mason University and will be reflecting on their experiences there. 

By Jarrett McLaughlin

The church where I serve is currently reading Brian McLaren’s Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross The Road together in small groups. After getting about two weeks in, our Director of Spiritual Growth met with the group facilitators to get some feedback – the leaders reported a discomfort among several participants that echoed what I heard around my table at McLaren’s Lecture at George Mason earlier this month.

In Chapter 9 – “How a Liberal Arts Education Ruined My Opinion of Christopher Columbus” – McLaren relates the experiences of going to college where his course work invited him to swap out the childhood tale of Columbus sailing the ocean blue in fourteen hundred and ninety two for first-hand accounts of the enslavement, rape and torture of the local Taino population. The point is that the way we remember and tell and shape young minds in the patterns of our history…all of that matters. If history is truly prologue to the present, then we need to tell the truth about our prologue – and the Christian Church needs this as much as any one else if we are to cultivate a “strong-benevolent” Christian identity.

It seems, however, that more than a few people experience some discomfort with this idea – and perhaps I have a simplistic view of the objections, but I believe it mostly boils down to a sense that “that was then and this is now – why should I take responsibility for the crimes committed by people who lived hundreds of years ago?” Some responses to that question:

  • “Because Jesus Does It All The Time” – A Doctrinal Response From Scripture

In 2 Corinthians 15, Paul speaks about the ministry of reconciliation and penned some incredible words (pardon my selective editing, I have a word limit) – “…in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors of Christ, since God is making his appeal through us…for our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

It’s difficult to overstate how tremendously huge this is. God made Jesus to take on sin that was not his own and only by doing so was there ever going to be a chance at reconciliation. Without getting into the mechanics of exactly how this all works, the general sense is that Jesus is sinless and yet Jesus takes on the sins of others in order to create an environment where peace might be possible and where reconciliation becomes a reality. If we are following Jesus to the other side of the road, then surely we must follow in these footsteps as well.

  • “What Does it Hurt?” – A Practical Response From Scripture

Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian Church is filled with many beautiful and memorable passages – about the body and its members, about the greatest of these being Love, but the part that gets very little air time is chapter 8 in which Paul addresses the seemingly anachronistic topic of whether Christians can eat meat sacrificed to idols. At the end of the day, Paul says idols are not real gods and so, of course, eating that meat doesn’t hurt you in the least.

If, however, somebody else who is less certain in their faith sees you eating that meat, will it cause that person to stumble and give up the Gospel because of your example? If the answer to that is Yes – as it must have been in the Corinthian community – then maybe one small sacrifice you can make for the greater good would be to give up eating meat offered to an idol. It will not hurt YOU, but it might hurt somebody else – and that is reason enough to temper that particular liberty.

In the same way I would ask what it really hurts to acknowledge to somebody of another faith – “You know, the Church has not always been the most faithful in its witness to the Gospel…I wish it had been in that time and place and I hope that it will be different in this time and in this place.” I can’t help but wonder how a confessional posture might open the conversation in a way that a defensive or even a distancing posture might now allow.

  • “Because Christians Do This All The Time” – A Liturgical Response

The posture of confession may be a practical way to engage in more healthy and productive interfaith engagement, and the good news is that it’s not really as difficult as it might seem – Christian worship has given us great practice at assuming the sins of another. Every week, many churches offer a prayer of confession – and the common critique is not so different from the discomfort here – “I don’t do those things, why should I have to read this prayer that indicts me for things I did not do?”

When we confess our sin together in corporate prayer, we’re not necessarily confessing our individual sins but rather the sinfulness that is always a part of us. One way or another, we take responsibility for the actions of others all the time. It’s in our worship; it’s in our theology; and thanks to Jesus Christ, it’s in our genes, too…thanks be to God.

 


Jarrett McLaughlin Jarrett McLaughlin and wife Meg Peery McLaughlin are co-Pastors at Burke Presbyterian Church in Burke, VA.  

 

Wrestling with Christianity’s Issues

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This November, we are examining what strong-benevolent Christian identity looks like in our pluralistic world. Many of this month’s contributors attended a conference with Brian McLaren, author of Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?, on October 15th at George Mason University and will be reflecting on their experiences there. 

By Yena Hwang

I attended the Brian McLaren conference at George Mason University in October, having enjoyed his book “Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road.” I have heard Brian McLaren’s “talks” at various events in the past, so I knew that the conference would be good and that I would benefit from what he had to share and teach. As expected, Brian McLaren’s presentation helped me to gain a deeper insight and helped me to acquire new vocabularies and ideas to engage in more meaningful interfaith dialogues. The structure of the conference, where participants were invited to listen to Brian’s presentation and then invited to engage in more intimate conversations through table discussions, provided a good framework to help me digest the contents being presented.

What I realized through this conference is that we as Christians need to do a better job of understanding our own issues, before pointing our fingers at others’ religious issues. At the beginning of one of our table discussions, each participant was asked to share a personal story involving our encounter with a religion that was different than our own. This is the story I shared.

My encounter was not with a different religion. I was a freshman in college and had joined a campus Christian fellowship geared towards Korean Americans, called Agape Ministry. It was customary to share our joys and concerns at the weekly gathering, where we sang praise songs, listened to someone’s testimony and shared fellowship. That particular night, I had shared a prayer request for my mother, who just learned that her brother, my uncle, had died in Korea. My mother’s grief was compounded by the fact that she had hoped to visit him and share the Gospel with him, but she had missed that opportunity. I shared that it was comforting to be visited by our pastor and that we had a service at home, since my mother could not attend the funeral being held in Korea. At the end of the night, during the free fellowship time, someone came up to me and said, “I’m sorry about your uncle…but you know that he is going to hell, right?” I don’t remember how I responded, but I do remember how I felt. I felt confused. I felt sad and then angry.

That night, I decided that there was something wrong with our understanding of Agape God, that there had to be more than just orthodox teachings and doctrines heaven and hell and about salvation in general. That was the beginning of my journey into questioning and wrestling with my Christian belief and faith and identity. How do we encourage fellow Christians to engage, struggle, strife, and wrestle with our own Christian issues? Until we come face to face with our own demons, name them and claim them, we will continue to live in a fear-based, “strong and hostile” attitude towards those ideas and beliefs that are foreign to us. Until we work through unpacking our own baggage and sift through what is valuable to keep and what is no longer useful, we will not even be ready to understand that “strong and benevolent” Christian identity is possible.

As someone from our table shared, we need to be the best Christian that we can be–the kind of Christian who puts into action/practice the greatest commandment to love God by loving our neighbors as ourselves, no matter what that neighbor’s religious beliefs are and most certainly, no matter what that neighbor may look or sound like. May it begin with me. May it be so. Amen.


 Yena-HwangYena Hwang is the Associate Pastor of Christian Formation at Fairfax Presbyterian Church. Yena was born in Seoul, Korea and moved to the United States with her parents when she as 11 years old. Yena received her M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary and a M.A. in Marriage and Family Therapy from Louisville Presbyterian Seminary. Yena is married to Rick Choi and together, they are parents to two children, Justin and Nathan. 

“Will You Kiss the Leper Clean?” — On Ebola and Our Tribes

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This November, we are examining what strong-benevolent Christian identity looks like in our pluralistic world. Many of this month’s contributors attended a conference with Brian McLaren, author of Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?, on October 15th at George Mason University and will be reflecting on their experiences there. 

By MaryAnn Mikibben Dana (This post was first published on October 16th on MaryAnn’s blog, The Blue Room. )

President Bartlet: Why is a Kundunese life worth less to me than an American life?
Will Bailey: I don’t know, sir, but it is.

-The West Wing, season 4 episode 14, “Inauguration, Part 1″

Yesterday I attended a workshop led by Brian McLaren, author of Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?*: Christian Identity in a Multi‐Faith World.

McLaren likes to mix things up in his work, blending Bible, theology, history and anthropology. He talked about our evolutionary history as a species—a story of expansion and migration from the southern part of Africa to all of the world’s major land masses in about 130,000 years. What allowed this expansion to happen? Our identity as tribal beings, McLaren argues. We cohere into groups. We put on our “tribal paint.” Sometimes that’s literal identifying marks—gang signs? hipster glasses? tricorn hats and NRA t-shirts? Sometimes it’s a religious or political doctrine to define who’s in and out.

And we band together against common enemies and threats. “When people feel that a group they value — be it racial, religious, regional or ideological — is under attack, they rally to its defense, even at some cost to themselves,” he said, quoting this article by Jonathan Haidt in the New York Times, called “Forget the Money, Follow the Sacredness.”

There’s evidence that this tribalism is hard-wired. Young children naturally gravitate to people who are like them, racially and socially.

Jesus, by contrast, breaks down this tribal identity in the gospels, constantly lifting up the dignity of those on the margins and outside of the club. It’s interesting to relate this posture of Jesus to the idea of his being “without sin,” or fully divine as well as fully human. Is there something about our tribal, with-us-or-against-us mentality that is fundamentally flawed, even sinful?

Sure, it’s the evolutionary mechanism by which we expanded and thrived as a species. But now a new evolutionary shift is necessary—because our tribe is the whole human race. Globalism means that what impacts people across the world will inevitably affect us here, sooner or later. Just look at climate change. Yes, more vulnerable populations will feel those effects sooner than more affluent ones. But we will all be affected, no matter what our tribe.

Or take Ebola. This past summer, when the death toll was confined to West Africa, I heard lots of genuine concern and sadness expressed… often followed by the sotto voce comment: “I just hope it doesn’t come here.”

Well, Ebola is on our shores now. How could it not be thus? As David Wilcox sings,“There is no more far away.” We may still have our tribes, but these tribes mix and infiltrate and bump up against one another on a massive scale, the likes of which we’ve not seen in those 130,000 years. Our ability to survive and thrive will depend on our ability to transcend our own tribalism, in effect to go against our own evolutionary wiring.

As a Christian, I see Jesus as the model for that work, though there are other models as well. But we know it when we see it—stunning examples of people going beyond their own self-interest and those of their immediate tribe. Sacrificial love. Love that costs something.

Consider this heartbreaking story from StoryCorps about nurses in Sierra Leone, and how difficult it has been not to offer basic human expressions of care to those who are grieving. Imagine not being able to hug someone who’s lost 10 members of their family.

One day, an Ebola-infected mother brought her baby into a hospital, Purfield recalls. The mother died, and the baby was left in a box.

“They tested the baby, and the baby was negative,” says Purfield. “But I think the symptoms in babies and the disease progression in babies is different than adults.

“So the nurses would pick up and cuddle the baby. And they were taking care of the baby in the box,” she continues.

Twelve of those nurses subsequently contracted Ebola, Purfield says. Only one survived.

“They couldn’t just watch a baby sitting alone in a box,” Dynes says.

The title of this post is from a popular Christian hymn called “The Summons” by John Bell. It’s been going through my head since the Ebola outbreak began. Those nurses who cared for that infant, refusing to let it just be a baby in the box, “kissed the leper clean.” But it may have cost them their lives. I hate that it did—I want such heroic love to be rewarded. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s not helpful for the good ones to die—we need their like to propagate. And I want nurses and doctors to take appropriate precautions.

But perhaps such stories can live on, to tug at our humanity and to inspire and direct us to seek out the path of sacrificial love, regardless of tribe.

~

*Why did they cross the road? To get to the “other.”

 

 


 

mamdMaryAnn McKibben Dana is a pastor, writer and co-chair of NEXT. Connect with her at her website, The Blue Room.

Strong Benevolent Faith Identity

By Marranda Major

I have taken it for granted that interfaith dialog has been a vital part of my spiritual formation. I was fortunate to have church mentors who encouraged my curiosity about other faiths and one Sunday school teacher who even devoted an entire year’s worth of curriculum to letting us explore world religions and the diversity among different Christian beliefs. During that year, my teacher often quoted Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, “test everything that is said, hold on to that which is good,” (5:21). That idea was huge for preteen Marranda and highly influential in shaping my worldview to be open, curious, and inquisitive. Learning how other religions relate to the divine and trying out different spiritual disciplines and practices helped me to become more rooted in my faith. I’ve never doubted how valuable these interfaith conversations were in shaping my Christian identity; but I have questioned what I have to offer to these discussions when there are so many Christian voices already at the table.

At my small liberal arts college, I had a very different experience of being one of few Christians present in discussions of faith. It was a bizarre sensation to be in theology seminars where very few (if any) students publicly identified as Christian. Within the intellectual conversation surrounding the violent history of the Church as an oppressor, it was easy to detach my beliefs and experiences of my home church from the institutional Church. When my classmates demanded a Christian response to critiques of hierarchical structures in the Church that have promoted sexist, racist, imperialist ideologies for the past millennium, I was not prepared to answer.

I struggled to own my public identity as a Christian, and I know I’m hardly the first person to be challenged to articulate my faith. A 2010 Pew Research report shows that Christians make up 31.5% of the world’s population: statistically, we are living in a more diverse, pluralistic society and our public faith identity is becoming ever more important. This November, writers for the NEXT Blog will take on strong benevolent faith identity and explore what that looks like in the public sphere.

 

Photo Credit: ARISE Campus Ministry

Photo Credit: ARISE Campus Ministry

This topic is inspired by a recent conference in which NEXT Church partnered with George Mason University’s ARISE campus ministry as well as several Northern Virginia area churches to bring Brian McLaren to speak about Christian identity as examined in his books Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World and Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words. The conference was open to local clergy and church leaders as well as GMU faculty and students. Most of this month’s contributors attended and will be blogging about the ideas struck them from McLaren’s talks, small group discussions, and dialog with the interfaith panel.

Have you had an interfaith encounter that informed your faith? What does your public Christian identity look like? Tell us in the comments section and join us this November as NEXT writers explore strong and benevolent faith identity!


 

Marranda MajorMarranda is the Young Adult Volunteer serving with NEXT Church.