Church, we have new neighbors. What kind of welcome are we going to give?
For most of its life, the United States saw itself culturally and religiously as a part of Western Christendom, though not continuing the hegemony of a union between church and state. As in Europe, Christianity’s main debate inside the US was vis-a-vis Enlightenment humanism, precursor to postmodernism. Christians could see the society around them as comprising either Christians or backslidden Christians who needed to be brought back into the church. And they could safely relegate encounters with other religions to the kind of work belonging under the purview of overseas missionaries, “over there,” away from the reality of our own backyards “over here.” Thus, out of sight, out of mind.
But lately, this has changed, and dramatically. According to Pew Research Center, in 2007 Muslims consisted of 0.4% of the American population; by 2014, that percentage had grown to 0.9%. Hindus were 0.4% in 2007; 0.7% in 2014. We now have in our society a rapidly growing number of devout adherents of world religions other than Christianity. We don’t only live in a Post-Christendom situation; we now also live in a condition of religious plurality. This will increasingly be the case the further we head into the 21st century.
(Side note: Religious pluralism refers to a belief or position that multiple religions share equal positions, whether they be political rights, validity to a seat at the table, or claim to absolute truth. Obviously, each of those mean quite different things and will need further parsing out—but as things stand, they remain a bit muddled, reflecting the state of our collective outlook, probably. Religious plurality refers to a state in which multiple religions exist side-by-side within the same society. This is what I’m focusing on.)
Globalization, immigration and urbanization, especially starting in late 20th century, have brought the world next-door to American Christians, and not only in big cities. In Hatfield, PA, where my institution made its home for many years in the far suburb of Philadelphia until recently, an old South Asian holy man in his robes can regularly be seen walking down Cowpath Road. Temples, mosques, meditation centers, monasteries are becoming a regular part of the American landscape, sometimes literally in the middle of midwestern cornfields, alongside churches. Christian children go to school and learn alongside their Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Jewish friends. American popular culture has incorporated the religions and cultural outlooks the new immigrants have brought with them and normalized them in American society.
How have American Christians responded to their new neighbors? Not as well as could be hoped.
It would appear that many centuries of Christendom, when Western Christians could live without having to deal with other religions, or at least live without dealing with them on somewhat of an equal cultural footing, have left most of us ill-prepared to positively engage religious plurality. As a result, there has been a strong reaction in the West against the new situation and against adherents of other religions.
True, there have been numerous Christian ministries and efforts aimed at providing invaluable practical help to new immigrants and refugees, many of whom hail from non-Christian socio-religious communities. There have also been numerous efforts by churches, parachurch ministries, and individual Christians to advocate for justice and fair treatment for the newcomers in the face of native hostility and injustice.
However, these positive efforts might have been matched, even overshadowed, by a decidedly unwelcoming stance taken by many Christians in the US.
Take, for instance, the church’s response to Muslim immigrants and refugees. Especially since 9/11, Muslims have faced suspicion and open hostility. They have been profiled at our airports. They have been turned away from our borders when fleeing wars and dangers back home. In my city of Philadelphia, at least one of their mosques has had a pig head thrown at the doorstep during a spasm of political and social tension. All of this with the apparent consent of much of the Christian populace, especially white evangelicals.
Evangelical Christians have been ones who have been discussing none too quietly among themselves the specter of Muslims instituting the Sharia law in the US. Evangelical Christians have been ones who have been the most publicly anxious that their idealized vision of US as the bastion of (Western) Judeo-Christian values would further approach its demise with the influx of Muslims, bringing with them their “divergent” cultural views. Evangelical Christians have come to be known for their support of the “Muslim Ban.” Cultural anxieties, xenophobia, and religious biases among evangelicals have combined to create an unwelcoming atmosphere.
As has already been noted numerous times in here at Missio Alliance, this negative response to other religions has been a direct outflow of the assumption that Christianity and Western culture are synonymous—a Christendom mindset. This stance also produced simplistic notions of other religions. On the left, Christians hewed to religious pluralism—the classic liberal notion that said, “There are many paths up the mountain.” Sometimes this has meant minimizing all differences and implicitly demanding all religions come under the umbrella of secularism. But on the right, they hewed to a radical exclusivism, where we could not see other religions as anything other than idolatry that was backwards at best, and spiritually dangerous at worst. This has meant, unfortunately, that adherents of other religions have felt condescension or hostility from evangelical Christians.
Meanwhile, overseas, in what has traditionally been termed “the mission field,” Christian missionaries have been struggling for centuries to learn how better to communicate the Christian gospel to adherents of other religions. Many gained a better appreciation of the people and their cultures, and, yes, even the good that seemed to be inherent in other religions. This renewed perspective was born out of the missionaries’ encounter with other religions not merely as abstract theological ideas but as a reality situated on the ground among lived experiences. They started to ask, instead of a struggle for dominance of Christian ideas (packaged in Western rationalistic categories) over other religions, was there a better way to engage these religions? Was there a way that was more winsome, more persuasive, rather than a colonialistic or polemical approach?Is there a better way to engage other religions? A more winsome and persuasive way, rather than a colonialistic or polemical approach? Click To Tweet
When American evangelicals in recent years with renewed stridency rejected Islam, many missionaries to the Muslim world were aghast. In March 2017, Christianity Today ran an article entitled, “Missionaries Dreamed of this Muslim Moment. Trump’s Travel Ban May End It.” The “Muslim Moment” referred to the unprecedented opportunity wrought by Muslims, many of whom had never met a Christian before, migrating to a place in the US where they now rubbed shoulders with so many who knew the Christian gospel. This had never happened in all of history of Islam. However, many evangelicals didn’t see Muslim immigration as a missional opportunity; instead, they saw it as a threat—something to be feared and rejected. Career missionaries to Muslims saw, to their dismay, that American evangelicals might end up losing this never-before chance.
It’s not just the Muslims, of course. There are many others. Christians in the West now have the missional opportunity, unprecedented since the earliest centuries of the church, to engage in deep and meaningful ways with adherents of other religions, who in God’s providence have become their neighbors and fellow citizens. Are we going to blow it?Christians in the West now have the missional opportunity to engage in deep & meaningful ways with adherents of other religions, who in God’s providence have become their neighbors and fellow citizens. Are we going to blow it? Click To Tweet
Scripture as a Missional Text
New situations like this should force us to go back to the text of Scripture and let its words re-form our understanding, especially what we assumed we already understood. What we will find there, much to our surprise, is that the Bible is a missional text that is in constant dialogue with the religions of its own contexts, from Genesis to Revelation.
Let’s just give a few tantalizing examples. Many of the elements in the creation account and the flood narrative clearly share many similarities with that of other Ancient Near Eastern religious myths, such as the Enuma Elish. What is the biblical author doing in these narratives? Could it be that the God of the Bible is engaging in deep, meaningful conversation with the Ancient Near Eastern religions?
Another example: Gen. 12:6-7. Who is this Melchizedek character? He is said to be the priest of the Most High, and Abraham recognizes his spiritual authority by giving him a tithe, but isn’t Melchizedek one of the Canaanites, worshiping in the Canaanite ways? Yet another example: in Gen. 13:18, it says that Abraham built an altar to Yahweh at the great trees of Mamre. But do we see the religious significance of these trees? Many people who have lived in cultures that practice animistic religions will recognize holy trees, often draped with prayer cloths.
There are many other examples, but let’s simply mention for now the most pointed of them all: Paul in Athens, as told in Acts 17. He preaches the gospel to the Athenians assuming that the Unknown God who takes his place among the Greek Pantheon is in fact the God of Jesus. He quotes Greek poets and claims the lines “In him we move and live and have our being” and “We are his offspring” as referring to the God of Jesus Christ, when, in fact, the original poets had Zeus in mind.
In future articles, I hope to explore the biblical data in more depth. But what becomes clear as we re-read the Bible is that the missional God has sent the Church of Jesus Christ into a world of many religions, to be good witnesses of Christ and his good news in it—not simply to defend a Christian territory or extend it, but to creatively and fearlessly and lovingly engage the religions where they are. Jesus declared, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…”—the nations of many cultures, languages, and, yes, religions. Jesus doesn’t call us to a conquest of these religions, to victory in a clash of civilizations. He calls us to share the good news of Jesus as the Lord of all cultures; he calls us into the work of winsome discipleship, evangelism, and contextualization.Jesus doesn’t call us to conquest or to a clash of civilizations. He calls us to share the good news of Jesus as the Lord of all cultures and into the work of winsome discipleship, evangelism, and contextualization. Click To Tweet
How do we as church reclaim this identity, reconstruct a healthy theology of Christian encounter with world religions, and regain wisdom for living as witnesses among the religions? We need to give this issue much more prayerful attention and study than we have. Every American Christian leader needs to be called to this work, and every church needs to be equipped and sent to engage the religions. It is that urgent. Even as we speak, more are arriving at our shore. Instead of holy huddles, or last bastions of a bygone era, our churches need to become places of hospitality and welcome to these strangers and refugees where Jesus may come to be known as the gracious Host to the nations. When we make that shift, we will gain surprising new treasures of what it means to be missional communities of Christ. I suspect we will come to know Christ in a whole new light.
Church, we have new neighbors. What kind of welcome are we going to give?