How Interfaith Cooperation Honors God: An Evangelical's Perspective

I grew up in an interfaith family. I attended an evangelical church with my mother, but was regularly exposed to the Hinduism of my father's side of the family. At school I had friends who were Christian, Jewish, and Muslim. And yet during those formative years I heard virtually nothing from the Christian community about how to live alongside people of other faiths apart from trying to convert them. While biblical Christianity has always been a proselytizing religion, and it is particularly emphasized within evangelicalism, this single idea left no room the notion of dialogue or cooperation with neighbors of other faiths.

Today I am an ordained pastor within an evangelical denomination. And unfortunately many within my community are still unmotivated to talk, let alone cooperate, with those outside Christianity in meaningful ways. But with roughly 30 percent of Americans identifying themselves as evangelicals, any hope of making progress on interfaith work must involve my community. In this post I have briefly outlined three reasons why I believe interfaith cooperation is so vital right now -- and why evangelicals should be helping to lead the way.

Reason 1: The World Needs It

When the Boeing 747 entered service 40 years ago it ushered in an age of affordable intercontinental travel, and the result has been the relocation and intermingling of peoples on an unprecedented scale. Globalization has only accelerated since then with telecommunications and digital technology. And while many have focused on the economic impact of these forces, we must not forget the implications for religion.

Religious communities that had been isolated from other faiths are now intersecting and occupying the same areas. Consider what's happened right here in the US. Although most Americans still identify themselves as Christians, the percentage of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists has risen dramatically over the last few decades largely due to immigration. And countries where the church used to have little representation, like China and India, are now contending with large Christian communities as missionary efforts have accelerated.

But with this shifting and mixing of religious populations comes conflict. As critics of religion like to remind us, a great many wars have been fought over religious differences. And numerous conflicts today are laced with religion from the persecution of Christians in Iraq, to the ongoing tensions between the Israelis and Palestinians, and the genocide in Sudan. And the tensions are escalating in secular free societies as well. The "Ground Zero Mosque" uproar made headlines for months in 2010, as did the threat by a Florida pastor to burn the Koran. France saw a backlash against Muslim women wearing hijabs and "neutral" Switzerland banned the construction of minarets near mosques.

Tragically, 2011 began no better. The bombing of the Coptic church in Alexandria, Egypt on New Year's Day was a shocking reminder that diverse faith communities have a very difficult time coexisting. Some have even framed the broader struggle against terrorism in religious language. They call it a "clash of civilizations" in which the secular/Christian West is battling the Muslim world.

As globalization and intercontinental immigration continues to bring religions into contact with one another, our world desperately needs a different narrative. We can no longer pretend, as so many in secular societies have, that religion is no longer a potent force in the world. Neither can we be idle as conflicts fueled by religion increase. The future depends upon people of faith learning to cooperate and not merely coexist. I believe Christians should be helping to lead the way. It was Jesus who said, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons of God."

Reason 2: The Church Needs It

Since Constantine became the Emperor of Rome in the fourth century, Christianity has enjoyed a privileged position in the West. But that is no longer the case. Over the last 100 years, Europe has become almost entirely post-Christian and North America is on the same heading. As Christianity loses cultural dominance, we are seeing some segments of the church launch into tantrums demanding its moral and theological tenants be universally imposed as they once were.

But alignment with one political party since the 1970s, and fighting a cultural war with no exit strategy, has taken its toll. As reported by Gabe Lyons and David Kinnaman in their book unChristian, most young adults in the U.S. view the church as homophobic, hypocritical and too political. Equally disturbing is research indicating that people raised in the church are leaving after high school (not a new phenomenon) but far fewer are returning once married.

There are many reasons for this exodus of young people, but I wonder if a significant one is the church's failure to prepare young Christians for life in a pluralistic culture. As America has become more diverse, young people are encountering and befriending people of different faiths, and the church (still clinging to the illusion of cultural privilege) has ignored this reality. When it is acknowledged, the church often presents young people with a false dichotomy. The fundamentalist say we should condemn those of other faiths and be careful that they do not cause us to stray from the truth. This is a recipe for either isolation or conflict. The liberals, on the other hand, invite us to put aside our theological differences and find what we hold in common with other faiths. But this "all paths lead to God" approach results in denying the unique claims of Christianity.

I believe the church needs an alternative model -- one that avoids the arrogance and isolationism of the fundamentalists as well as the identity-erasing approach of the liberals. Young Christians must learn how to hold firmly to their Christian faith while living, cooperating, and even blessing those of other faiths. This is what the new form of interfaith cooperation attempts to do. It calls upon us to work together not because we believe all faiths are equal, but precisely because we do not.

There are irreconcilable theological differences between Jews, Christians, Muslims and Hindus. By acknowledging these differences and yet maintaining respect and friendship for one another we can show how to be people of faith in a diverse society. It also means the church's influence will have to come from persuasion rather than raw power. The Constantinian age when the church had the religious market cornered in the West is over. Today, Christian ideas -- whether moral or theological -- will only find acceptance if they have been carried forth in friendship and love, and not simply because fear has driven voters to the polls. If the church and its leaders fail to teach and model this alternative approach, I fear that Christianity will continue to slide into obscurity as more young people are not equipped to live with Christ in a diverse society.

Reason 3: Our Communities Need It

A few weeks ago we learned that a single mother with three children at our public elementary school was facing homelessness. Thankfully, a school social worker helped to mobilize other households and resources were collected to keep this family in their apartment.

When our church learned about the situation, the deacons agreed to match funds that members of the church contributed for the family. The mother and her kids do not attend our church; I do not know if they are Christians. But our church and it's leaders helped because they have a vision for the entire community, and not just church members or fellow Christians.

Apart from the funds contributed by our church, I am certain that many other families in our public school helped -- people from many different faiths. The rallying of communities to help struggling families has become more common in these challenging economic times. But to ensure that our neighbors are cared for, people of every faith must have a vision beyond their immediate context or religious group.

In chapter 10 of Luke's Gospel, we find Jesus' well known command to "Love your neighbor as yourself." But a skeptical listener then asks Jesus, "Who is my neighbor?" In response Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan. The message was both shocking and clear. Jesus defines "neighbor" as the person in need -- regardless of their race, religion, gender, or cultural identity. From a Christian point of view, I believe in interfaith cooperation because I take seriously Jesus' command to love one's neighbor.

While it is entirely appropriate for local synagogues, mosques, and churches to help their own members, they need to lift their eyes to the larger community they inhabit. As businesses, government agencies and schools are feeling the crunch of the recession, more of the burden has shifted to faith communities to help those who are struggling. We all care about the poor, failing schools, and crime in our neighborhoods. When people from different faiths rally together, share resources, and work to alleviate these problems the entire community benefits. But this effort must be championed and modeled by the religious leaders themselves. When we work together it communicates to the rest of our people that interfaith cooperation is normative and God-honoring.

In my view, interfaith cooperation is no longer optional. The realities of globalization and struggling communities mean that people of faith must learn to work together. At the same time, as a Christian, I do not want to deny my theological convictions or have to suppress them in order to engage meaningfully in the world. Instead, I want my interfaith work to be driven by my Christian identity and not in spite of it. And I believe learning to do this will bring strength to the church struggling to find its way in a rapidly changing culture.