That’s the Old Team Spirit

jesusThis 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.

24 replies

  1. Rev Dick

    Further Proof the person of the Trinity is a huge Notre Dame fan. Rumor has it if you look toward the inzone you will find Jesus with arms up high!! Now if this isn’t definitive proof that he takes sides I don’t know what is!

  2. Rev Dick

    As a general rule of thumb from location of menomonie wis onto the south Dakota border GENERALLY this is Vikings country. Unfortunately you appear to reside outside of that area therefore you will be forced to support the PAck. OR……Or….you could follow my lead and be a Patriots Fan.

  3. John, I hear that my question may seem arrogant and I certainly don’t want to suggest that “exclusivists” (nice word, by the way) don’t have a deep faith in Christ at many levels. I recognize entirely from my own experience as a fundamentalist that deconstruction which suggests that truth may exist outside the fold can create a crisis of faith. There is indeed much complexity involved. At the same time, my experience in these conversations has more often than not been with persons not particularly rooted in a deep knowledge of and experience with the scriptures, persons who focus on snippets rather than trying to understand the broader story of faith, often demonstrated in a “proof-texting” approach to the scriptures rather than a living engagement with the Story. Yes, I am over generalizing, which I recognize is a problem. And yet far too often in Western expressions of faith, Christianity have been about winning and losing, which seems to me to fly in the face of a gospel in which God created and loves all. We do have a place where we recognize that we don’t have the mind of God, and that (at least as I read the scriptures) ONLY God will have a say in who holds the truth in the end.

    • At the same time, my experience in these conversations has more often than not been with persons not particularly rooted in a deep knowledge of and experience with the scriptures, persons who focus on snippets rather than trying to understand the broader story of faith, often demonstrated in a “proof-texting” approach to the scriptures rather than a living engagement with the Story.

      No argument from me that this happens. I’ve had the same conversations. And, at times, I’ve probably been the guilty party.

      I think there is much truth in your observation that the way we present the faith – in the Western church and elsewhere – leads to some of the behaivors we now say we don’t like. How we teach the faith has consequences.

      I am sorry for my poor wording before. I did not mean to call you arrogant. I did want to broaden the conversation about an important question, though.

  4. Whenever I am confronted by people who don’t think that Christians should have anything to do with people of other faiths, I am reminded of the story in which Jesus says he has “sheep in other pastures.” This speaks to me of the cosmic, post-Easter Christ, whose invitation extends far beyond the Chosen People of Israel.

    I want to weep when I read about people whose faith is so narrow that they would permit suffering and sorrow to continue because those offering care and comfort are not Christian. Surely this is the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit, not to be able to see the Image of God in those who are unlike us. If God created the entire cosmos, as we affirm, then how can anyone be undeserving of divine mercy, no matter the earthly label of those who bring it?

  5. This is another example of your unfitness to be a United Methodist pastor. There should be some serious inquiry into your status as an ordained clergy person. If you are accepting of un-Christian beliefs, why are you a Christian? Jesus Christ is the one, true path to God. There is no other acceptable path to God. If you don’t believe this, why are you a pastor? We should not encourage interfaith interactions that give any indication that we approve of the beliefs of non-Christians. I agree with the pastor who said we don’t need to listen to Buddhists. They do need to listen to us. The only justifiable reason to be with members of other faiths is to teach them about Christ and to invite them to repent their sins and become Christians. Here in Texas, we know what it means to be Christian, and we are more than willing to accept anyone who will renounce their sinful beliefs to become Christian, but we have no interest in compromising our beliefs to pretend that other faiths are acceptable.

    • Don,

      I’m not sure which chargeable offense you believe Dan should be brought up on. It turns out there is nothing in the doctrinal standards of the United Methodist Church that says hanging out with Hindus is violation of the doctrine of the denomination.

      Did you read his entire post? You seem to have missed the part where he talks about his faith in Christ and his witness among non-Christians.

  6. Seems to me I remember reading somewhere about a guy named Jesus who hung out with the wrong people as well, totally ticking off the established religious leaders. They got so over wrought about it they conspired with the government to have him killed… pity that we still have some Pharisees walking around today.

    That whole “love your neighbor” thing. I think God meant us to do that. Kinda hard when you refuse to associate with them.

  7. We are a cognitive species; we depend completely on a model we build of our environment. We are a social species; our survival strategy is keyed to belonging to a group. We are a competitive species; our hierarchical social model rewards selective aggression and exclusion.

    Challenging a model raises the specter, at a primal level, of death and extinction, causing fear and anxiety. Moving to reduce the anxiety, it takes less energy to reject the challenge than to adapt the model. The resistance, and anger, in reaction is proportional to that difference of energy. In a social setting, the path of least resistance is to reject the challenge by excluding the challenger. One who resists the exclusion joins the excluded. Those excluding are rewarded with higher status, greater authority, and proportionally more resources. (Original sin?)

    Love, forgiveness, inclusion, all contradict the ingrained mechanism. To truly hold such principles means risking exclusion from society, sometimes violently. To associate with someone who holds such principles yields the same results. Thus, our faith is lukewarm and we resist evangelizing.

    I know a man who said “Let’s love each other.” The people nailed him to a tree.

    The choir said he didn’t sing very well. The praise band said they heard a rumor about him. People prayed for his recovery from cancer, until they heard it was him. People avoid him because he “acts funny”. A gentle soul, though wounded, he looks for company, companionship, compassion. He just wants to share Jesus. The pastor said “Don’t bother me with trivialities.”

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