This past weekend I had the exceptional dining pleasure of chipped beef on toast (with eggs over easy) at the Dry Dock restaurant in Duluth, Minnesota. It followed morning worship (of God) then proceeded to the afternoon worship (of football) with the Vikings-Ravens game on one screen and the Packers-Lions’s game on another. I rooted with equal fervor for both the Packers and the Vikings and my waitress asked me, with hand on hip, “What are you doing?” “Cheering for the Packers and the Vikings,” I proudly proclaimed. “You can’t do that!” she accused. Rolling her eyes, she said, “You can’t be both a Viking’s fan AND a Packers fan. You have to pick a side!” She marched back to the bar and I heard her tell the bartender, “he’s rooting for the Packers AND the Vikings,” with as much contempt as if I’d said I liked trampling baby bunnies. Being a fan — shorthand for being a fanatic — is serious business. We defend the home team as if it were the most important thing on earth. Every other team is “the enemy.” We want our team to not just beat opponents, but to annihilate them! When two teams are in the same division, like, say, the Vikings and the Packers, the animosity is greater as is the sense of who is good and who is not.
This same level of fanatical passion exists with some in the church. (It is well to remember that religious fanaticism is the root of the word “fan” to begin with.) I am constantly amazed by the passion with which Christians — some United Methodists among them — denounce and despise members of other faiths. I have long been a proponent of interfaith collaboration and understanding. I believe that Christ destroyed the dividing walls of hostility, and I am sadly distressed by Christians (including United Methodists) who devote much of their time and energy to rebuilding new dividing walls of hostility. Why do Christians want to undo what Christ did?
Years ago one of my colleagues at the General Board of Discipleship came into my office to discuss a project. She was visibly upset within moments of entering my office. I tried to get her to tell me what was wrong, but it was only through the rumor-mill that I found out what was wrong. In my office were icons and images from many religious groups that I have worked with over the years. I have a labyrinth — from ancient Sufi tradition. I have a carving of Ganesha, the Hindu god. I have a beautiful Buddha given to me in honor of my efforts to foster interfaith dialogue and understanding. I have a Star of David from Israel, a beautiful symbol made by a poor, mentally challenged man in Jerusalem. Each and every one of these symbols of religious belief offended and irritated my colleague. She “ratted me out” as being a “blasphemous traitor.” (her words).
I love inter-religious encounters as a way to witness to the love of Jesus Christ. I love learning of other beliefs to know what motivates people to live in positive, healthy, and productive ways in our world. I want to find common ground — ways to build bridges between the people who want the world to be a better place. What I realize is that there are a lot of Christians who don’t want the same thing. A man in a recent workshop was obviously deeply offended that I would entertain the idea of working with Hindus, Buddhists, or Muslims, as I promoted ecumenical and interfaith collaboration. To him, these people were enemies. These people were Packer fans to every good Vikings fan in the congregation. The dividing wall of “us” versus “them” was both crystal clear and unassailable.
We have many people in our denomination who feel this way. I remember a meeting a few years ago when I was talking about the need to listen — to build bridges — with people of other faiths. I was talking about special challenges in some areas, and I mentioned that in Colorado dialogue with Buddhists was imperative. A well respected and renowned evangelist from our denomination cut me down, saying, “Those people have absolutely nothing we need to hear. They need to listen to us! They’re just waiting to deceive us. We’re Christians and we have the truth. We don’t need to listen to anyone else.”
I received an email a few years ago in response to a positive review I made of a book written by a Buddhist monk. The book advocated unconditional love, acceptance, and compassion for street-people with mental disorders and challenges. Here is a quote from that email. “Why are you promoting unChristian thinking? This is a book of blasphemy and sin. The man who wrote it is Buddhist. This is a pagan sinner, and we should not listen to his instruction. For you to promote his teaching is sin. Caring for the poor is only valid if it is Christian.” This was from an ordained United Methodist pastor. It fascinates me that the message is conditional upon the messenger. If a Christian says something, it is true and valid, but if a non-Christian says it, it is not?
When I was a teenager, I asked a pastor who was teaching about sin in the world, “what part of the world did God not create?” He said many parts of the world decided not to follow Him. I asked, “So these people are outside God’s power and grace?” The pastor told me, “Of course not.” My response, even then, was, “So why are we afraid to talk to people who don’t believe what we do? Shouldn’t these be the very people we want to be with?” He hemmed, hawwed, then changed the subject. We don’t want to witness to people who are different. We seem to only like those who already agree with us.
I honestly believe we have no future as The United Methodist Church that is not ecumenical in the best sense of the word — that is, also inter-faith. I shared a story of Hindus, Christians and Muslims uniting to save the lives of children at risk and a United Methodist woman yelled at me that I was trying to destroy the church. She actually said it would be better for a child to die than for its life to be saved by the efforts of sinners, and that for “our church” to work with sinners made her want to leave the church. I wish she would. I believe that Jesus Christ is the one true Son of God and that salvation comes through faith in Christ. But I do not believe that my blessed brothers and sisters around the world who believe differently than I do are evil or hateful or blasphemers. I want to be with them. I want to witness to the power of Jesus Christ in my life to be a source of light and life and hope and grace and joy. I want them to see how great our God can be. I cannot conceive of a single reason to hate them, to spurn them, to ignore them, or to refuse to work with them. Jesus destroyed the dividing walls of hostility. Why do Christians want to build them back up? Christianity isn’t a team sport. We aren’t well served by fan(atic)s. We need people who just “love the game,” and can root for all sides. We need a church that roots for the home team, but doesn’t “hate the opposition”… for if there wasn’t opposition there wouldn’t even be a game.