February 23, 2010

Moving Beyond Tolerance

                I had a remarkable opportunity as a Christian theologian this past Sunday and Monday to participate in an interfaith gathering with a Jewish scholar and a Muslim Imam.  As three traditions rooted in a relationship with the Abrahamic covenant, we were invited to offer a presentation on how our discrete faiths can and should counteract a culture of violence. I presented the following resources from Christian faith:

1.       Faith teaches justice.

Care for the “least of these” is crucial to Christian faith (dependent upon the Hebrew prophets, of course).  The early Christians were known for their attentiveness to the poor—so much that the Romans and Greeks were amazed by their industry in providing for those on the margins.

About 125, Aristides, wrote in Apology 15:

“their oppressors they appease and make them their friends; they do good to their enemies…they love one another, and from widows they do not turn away their esteem; and they deliver the orphan from him who treats him harshly. And he, who has, gives to him who has not, without boasting.  And when they see a stranger, they take him in to their homes and rejoice over him as a very brother; for they do not call them brethren after the flesh, but brethren after the spirit and in God. And whenever one of their poor passes from the world, each one of them according to his ability gives heed to him and carefully sees to his burial…”

2.       Faith creates space for otherness.

The scriptural tradition encourages welcoming the other—whether it is Ruth the Moabite who returns to Bethlehem with Naomi or Philip the early evangelist welcoming the Ethiopian enough, their “otherness” does not hinder inclusion.

3.       Faith encourages persons to “fear not.”

When angelic messengers show up in the Bible, they usually begin with “fear not.” We must reclaim this language. As Psalm 46 puts it: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear…”

4.       Faith invites us to practice hospitality.

The Spirit invites our participation in God’s life of peacemaking and justice building. As followers of Jesus, we are to be the embodiment of God’s hope for the world. Whatever else the Gospel is about, it is essentially about welcome, about inclusion.

5.       Faith values this created world.

One criticism of Christian missionary activity in Myanmar is that the noble spiritual virtue of ecological practice (held by Buddhism) was ignored.

Where we place toxic materials—or allow them to remain—says a great deal about what and whom we value.

6.       Faith believes in redemption.

We cannot wait and hope that the “end of time” will put things to right in the world. Clear steps now—even small actions such as tutoring or providing space for youth—can be transformative.

7.       Faith requires humility to work with God in the mending of the world.

Here is a delicate balance—God works and we work. God has so created the world that our effort matters even though it is always surrounded and surpassed by grace.

Amazingly, as the other two speakers offered their perspectives, we learned of the commonality of our traditions when we authentically practice its spiritual pathway. Each tradition has valuable texts and practices that eschew violence. We also learned that tolerance is too little to strive for; exchange, encounter, even embrace are better as we treasure our discrete understandings of the ways of God. In considering how Christians can reflect on other ways of faith and their own promise in God’s providence, I am helped by Mark Heim’s insight in his fine book, The Depth of the Riches:  “…every human response to the manifestation and revelation of God meets affirmation from God: the ‘yes’ of grace…”

As we travel to Myanmar this week, I desire that we learn from the practices of Burmese Baptists who have long lived as a religious minority with understanding and empathy. They understand that tolerance does not go far enough when seeking peace, with justice.

                Molly T. Marshall

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