Baptists occupy a rare space in the public square for a fortuitous challenge in 2016.
Heated opposition to the resettlement of Syrian refugees, swelling desire to ban all Muslims from entering the U.S., and exasperation over the global persecution and killing of Christian minorities in Islamic and Buddhist majority countries boil over in the public square.
Globalization pits people of different faiths and cultures into tricky daily encounters.
These realities press us to reflect on how we navigate peaceably with other faith traditions. What do we do when our deepest held beliefs, values and practices differ sharply from others? How do we live justly and kindly when things seem like they are falling apart?
As an evangelical and global people, Baptists believe in Christian conversion. That means missions, soul-winning, revivals, praying publicly, quoting the Bible, inviting neighbors to church.
American political correctness, denominational in-fighting, theological ambiguity in the academy, declining baptisms and church attendance, and increased materialism have all compromised the historic evangelical fervor among U.S. Baptists and left us with haziness about how we do church, how we live in a multi-faith world.
A large chunk of U.S. Baptists backed away over the years from interfaith engagement.
Soon after the fundamentalists took over the Southern Baptist Convention, they disbanded the Home Mission Board’s interfaith witness department.
Soon after that, fundamentalists pursued efforts at converting Jews on their high holy days, said the pope taught a false gospel, and attacked one of their own leaders who sought collaboration with Catholics in the culture wars.
While fundamentalists retreated into purity, moderates waffled.
When the Baptist World Alliance met in Prague in 2008, a vigorous off-the-record, two-hour discussion was held over whether to respond formally to the Common Word initiative issued by Islamic leaders to Christian leaders.
Two moderate Baptists spoke strongly for responding favorably. On their return to the United States, however, their verbal confidence vanished. They issued not a public word of advocacy for interfaith engagement with Muslims.
Later, when EthicsDaily.com released “Different Book, Common Word: Baptists and Muslims,” many moderates remained passive about promoting the documentary’s TV broadcast and showing it to their churches.
Faith convictions and global realities are at loggerheads. No wonder rank-and-file churches have been slow to engage the issue.
But what a wonderful opportunity now to work and witness in the public square – asserting the church’s agenda apart from the agenda of political candidates and special interest, ideologically driven advocacy groups.
Let’s seek some clarity about the Baptist way of interfaith engagement.
First, interfaith engagement doesn’t require us to water down our faith.
That’s what an Islamic leader told us in an interview for our documentary.
“People think that in order for Baptists and Muslims to agree in doing anything that I have to water down my religion,” said Mohamed Magid, imam of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, about how pastors and imams fear interfaith dialogue because they think it leads to theological compromise.
The reverse is true for both faith groups, he said. “By working with other people, you assert your own belief … you dig deeper in the Scripture … loss of ‘my own’ religion comes from unfounded fear.”
If a leader of the Islamic Society of North America can make that claim, why can’t Baptists connect with Muslims without fear of theological compromise?
Former BWA president David Coffey’s first of five principles for interfaith dialogue is to share our faith with conviction that Jesus is the only way.
Second, interfaith engagement is a concrete application of Jesus’ moral imperative to love neighbor. Jesus said love your neighbor. Period.
He didn’t say love your neighbor as a means toward conversion. We love our neighbor because it’s the right thing to do. We do so when we seek their well-being.
Third, interfaith engagement is a justice issue. Justice requires that we acknowledge our own sinfulness, another point Coffey makes.
We need to confess that we, Christians, have historically committed atrocities against Muslims and in recent years we have spread negative narratives about them.
Justice necessitates that we confess our sin and speak up against false narratives.
Fourth, interfaith engagement advances religious liberty.
The first Baptist leader, Thomas Helwys, wrote King James I of England about religious freedom. His letter appealed to the rights of Turks – as Muslim were then called.
Writing to King James in 1612, Helwys penned, “For men’s religion to God is between God and themselves. The king shall not answer for it. Neither may the King judge between God and men. Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure.”
Tony Peck, general secretary of the European Baptist Federation, wrote of Helwys’ letter: “Helwys’ plea for religious freedom is truly remarkable because nobody was really discussing it at that time in England.”
Peck added, “It is important to see that someone putting this forward in that context would not only be guilty of spreading dangerous religious ideas, but would be seen as threatening the security of the state, which was seen to depend on religious uniformity.”
When 21st century Baptists advocate for religious liberty for Muslims, we are being faithful to our tradition that dates back more than 400 years. Then as now, we are at the forefront of challenging the predominant culture.
Fifth, interfaith engagement by U.S. Baptists strengthens our global Baptist partners as well as moderate Muslims.
The Western world has proven that it can’t win the war against Islamic extremists with drone strikes and military firepower alone.
Overcoming terrorism must include Christians in the civil society collaborating with goodwill Muslims. In a way, interfaith engagement is an expression of peacemaking.
Let’s prioritize interfaith engagement in 2016 – the Baptist way.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.
Editor’s Note: See earlier editorials on interfaith dialogue: