A member of the congregation recently complimented our hosting a first ever joint Thanksgiving service with Muslims, Jews and Christians for the Lexington, Ky., community (7 p.m. on Nov. 21).
She noticed how the Jews and, more particularly, the Muslims she knew personally were not the stereotyped image of a group of whom to be suspicious and afraid. “I have found them all to be impressively compassionate,” she related.
I responded, “So, would it not be tragic, if we, the Christians, were discovered to be the least compassionate of the group?”
I don’t mean to be smug with this comment. But it grows out of another sentiment I have encountered among Christians when planning collaborative efforts with others in the interfaith community. It is the compromise they question by asking if support of another’s faith is not somehow being disloyal to their primary fidelity to Jesus. They sincerely ask, “Doesn’t acceptance of another’s non-Christian faith imply an endorsement of that very same faith?”
This question grows out of a legitimate struggle and deserves deeper reflection and a clearer articulation, for honestly, I have wrestled at this very same place in my own Christian journey.
One part of this journey remains consistent: I believe and trust in the saving witness and work of Jesus my Lord. In him, I have placed my faith. Even more so, I am more than willing and interested to discuss this faith with anyone and everyone I encounter.
What has changed over the years is how I believe this exchange is best accomplished. First, I must acknowledge the uneven history of times when the Christian message has been twisted and demeaned by a record of some very disturbing non-Christian behavior.
This covers the range of the self-righteous irony portrayed by the character Hilary Faye in the movie “Saved!” who throws a Bible in a fit of frustration by shouting, “I am filled with Christ’s love,” to the far more sinister story of the Crusades and the Inquisition when Christians witnessed by way of armed battle, terror and torture.
Shamefully, when Christians have been in the majority, they have often persecuted minority communities of differing faiths, including at times, other Christians with whom they have disagreed. This record brings dishonor to Christ and erodes the power of our message.
The other approach is an authentic love and respect for others that is willing to listen, relate and befriend the person who is different. It requires a confidence in the validity of one’s faith without an anxious need for its constant endorsement. It seeks to build bridges of friendship, not walls of separation.
It is willing to address the weaknesses and failures as well as the strengths of one’s faith. It mostly affirms that people are not argued into belief in Christ, but called by God through being loved into the kingdom by God’s people.
Our joint service is not an overt proclamation of Christian faith. We have plenty of services and programs to accomplish that purpose. This is an opportunity to be a neighbor and a friend while we respect others who share our common Abrahamic heritage. For if you are going to build a bridge, you have to start on both sides of the divide.
Mark Johnson is senior minister at Central Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky.