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A Christian perspective on Interfaith

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A Christian perspective

 

Jesus and other faiths

 

One of the things which struck early opponents of Christianity about Jesus was his willingness to talk to anyone – whatever their gender, or race or religious background. This upset the authorities in first century Palestine, where there were strict rules about who you could and couldn’t talk to because talking to a stranger or to women could make you unclean.

 

Some of Jesus’ most memorable encounters or stories involved those of different faith backgrounds – or none at all. Think of the Good Samaritan, from the hated neighbouring state of Samaria, who looks after the injured man when the local ‘good guys’ have passed by on the other side. Or Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman, where he shocks her and his disciples by asking her for a drink of water. That broke two taboos, one on gender and the other on faith. Or with the Greek woman from Syrian Phoenicia, who seeks healing for her daughter. Jesus asks her, as a non-Jew, whether she thinks she should be preferred to a Jewish woman. He uses the provocative question, ‘Is it right to take the children’s bread and give it to the dogs?’ Her reply rebukes him with bitter irony; ‘Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ Jesus heals her daughter.

 

From the beginning, Christians found relations with people from other faith difficult, complex and likely to provoke conflict: it touched people on the raw. Jesus’ teaching that overwhelming love for God, neighbour and enemy is the only law, led him to embrace Gentiles, foreigners and outcasts. This practice was followed after his death, initially by Peter who had a famous vision in the Roman city of Joppa of all the unclean things for Jews. God commanded him to eat everything: ‘Do not call anything impure which God has created pure.’ Then it was Paul, a Roman citizen as well as a Jew, and the other apostles, who took Jesus’ message to every part of the known world.

 

Engagement or Conversion?

 

Jesus’ dialogues with others were about engagement with people, about preaching faith and love. He was not creating a new Church but encouraging people to face their weaknesses and sins and to turn towards God and a life of love for their fellow men and women, whoever they might be and wherever they might come from. He proposed a way of life, and said: ‘Follow me.’ Baptism was a sign of new life rather than of membership of a religion. But as the early Churches were created, especially once the Roman Emperor had made Christianity the official religion of the Empire, membership of the Church became the main sign of being a Christian. The word ‘conversion’ entered the Christian vocabulary, and thousands, later millions became formal converts.

 

During the Middle Ages, conversion to Christianity became at times a military enterprise, through armed interventions in Northern Europe, and then crusades against the Muslims who ruled Palestine, North Africa and much of Spain. But there were examples of fruitful and polite dialogue such as when St Francis was invited to talk long into the night with Sultan Al-Khamil of Jerusalem. Or the 400 year interaction among Christians, Muslims and Jews in medieval Spain which led to a huge cultural explosion in the arts, with music, philosophy and literature.

 

The fact that other religions at different time were more or less militant gave religion as well as Christianity a bad name in some circles of post-Enlightenment Europe. Later, during the colonial period, conversion once again became a tool of conquest, as whole populations in America, Africa and parts of Asia were invaded and forcibly converted. Then in late twentieth century Europe the persecution and slaughter of religious populations by some overtly atheist (fascist and communist) regimes has fuelled more violence and counter-violence.

 

Learning from each other

 

Most of these wars in fact have not been fought for religious or anti-religious reasons, but in the pursuit of political and economic power. Religious labels may have been used, but even in the nineteenth century, some of those priests and missionaries who went out to ‘convert the natives’ returned having learnt as much as they gave to those they engaged with. Some ‘went native’ and became converts to other religions themselves. (There is the recent example of David Hart, the former Bournemouth chaplain, who tried to serve as an Anglican priest when in England, and a Hindu priest when in India.) Many engaged deeply with those of other faiths and those of no religion, and began the interfaith/belief dialogue which has become a major force in contemporary discourse.

 

Interfaith work today

 

Have we learned anything? Well, today’s interfaith work takes place in a pluralist world. No society can consider itself a unitary, one-faith society in an age of emigration and immigration, constant travel and communication. The interfaith movement is predicated on respect between religions:

  • a recognition that no-one has the right to impose a faith or belief system on anyone else

  • a determination to learn from the faiths and beliefs of others

  • an interest in exploring what faiths and beliefs hold in common as much as what divides them

And some organisations such as AFAN (All Faiths and None) have extended their dialogue and joint action to include non-religious as well as religious perspectives, and previously excluded movements such as Paganism.

 

Today’s interfaith work takes place in an age of religious revival, where militant voices, extremist movements and fundamentalist groups aiming to convert individuals and whole populations are heard again. In such a context, it is perhaps best to go back to the founders of religion(s), none of whom say anything about violence or force or even conversion. All share values of peace, love, care for the sick and the poor. They also share a tolerance and love for those outside their faith or belief tradition and show respect for their traditions. It is only by recapturing the innocence and purity of the original vision and teachings of Jesus (in parables like the Good Samaritan) and the teachings of the other great religious teachers like the Buddha, Muhammad and Guru Nanak that we can ensure that the current revival of interest in belief is about listening to the best of religious (and non-religious) traditions, not perpetuating the divisions of the past.