Article 3 in our series: The Ethics of Global Engagement
Five things to avoid in our witness to people of other faiths. A Middle East Christian advises us.
The world has gotten smaller. People of other faiths who used to live in faraway places now live next door to us. Ease of transport means more than ever that many of us have opportunities to travel to other countries with majority religions different from our own.
The Gospel mandate means that as Christians we want to share our faith with others, believing that Christ has come to be the Saviour for all peoples. As those who take his commands seriously, we want to be good witnesses for Christ.
But being human means that a complex web of unspoken tensions can impact, shape and sometimes hinder the Gospel mandate and the Christ-likeness we want to demonstrate. So how can we avoid them? First, by recognising them and then by reflecting on our personal attitudes and looking to God’s Spirit to transform us.
Below are some of the key ones to be aware of as we seek to take Christ to all nations:
Assumption of moral superiority
Christians aren’t alone in this. People of all faiths and world views are vulnerable to starting from a sense of moral superiority from people who differ from them. A Christian can see him or herself as more righteous than others, or even assume that Christians are the only ones who are seeking to live a life honouring God, seeking holiness to avoid sin. This is neither biblically nor practically true. We are all fallen. Christians are no less sinners than followers of other faiths, and are in no less need of salvation now and in the future than any other person on earth. What separates us from others is not our walk with Christ nor our progress in holiness or spirituality, but His redemptive work of salvation and the mercy and grace we find in Him. Feeling that somehow Christians are holier or better people than atheists, Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists is pride and a sin. When others think we feel ourselves superior to them, what they will hear and see is not the Gospel of Christ but only our sinfulness.
A very common mistake Christians make is not seeing the traces of God and many truths and good things found in other religions. In fact, if you were to read their sacred texts, you would see a lot of views that are very similar to Biblical truths about morality, piety and how to live. So we have to respect and listen to people of other faiths, because we can sincerely learn from them and the different way they are approaching similar issues. Truth is ultimately God’s truth. Wherever it is found, it still belongs to God. This is not relativism. Christ remains as the ultimately difference we will always have from any other religion. However, this is humility and an honest acknowledgement that Christians don’t know everything, nor are they always in a position to teach, correct and guide others.
Sadly, there are Christians who think that if only they can prove other people to be wrong, illogical or ignorant, they are being smart witnesses to the Gospel. Wrong: attacking other people and their faith ultimately never works. Yes, if you were to attack the sacred texts of another religion and ridicule their beliefs, you might attract marginal and disillusioned individuals, but most of the time you would only block people’s ears and hearts to the Gospel. If you win an argument, it is not Christ who won; you have only outwitted someone else. Our calling is to present Christ and help others to see Him. If someone walks away from a sermon, conversation, or book not moved by Christ but by our arrogance and smugness, we have betrayed the Gospel. More often than not, ‘smart’-sounding arguments have serious logical and factual flaws, and someone knowledgeable from another faith would see right through them.
Human beings are by their nature, communal beings. We derive meaning from belonging to a community, whether on ethnic, geographical, economic or religious lines. We often set the boundaries of this community in relation to another community that differs from us. The differences give us certainty on who we are. Every community sees itself to be different, special and privileged by factors of history, ownership, entitlement. Sadly, this also involves a sense of entitlement to a special God, who blesses our community, sets it apart, makes it right and special. World history is full of wars and violence caused by people groups who thought God and right was on their side and believed they could do whatever they wanted in the world.
Christians, too, are vulnerable to this and often fall into thinking that their nation or people deserve special privileges because they are a majority in the population or somehow their country is free from moral challenging. Once again, this is based on a sin, a collective form of pride, and a sense of “ownership” of Christ. No community owns Christ, not even Christians. He is the Lord of all – all nations, all countries, all people. He loves a Muslim, Hindu as much as a Christian. What separates us from everyone else is that we are called to share His love and complete His work on earth, which means, we are called to embrace others in His name, not see Him as champion of our pride and significance.
Our rights versus theirs
Sadly, our urge to belong and see our community as privileged also results in a blind spot where we see our own rights as important and in need of protection but the rights of others and abuse of others do not bother us. While we lobby and speak up for the right of Christians around the world to worship, share their faith and live free from attacks and intimidation, often we don’t show the same desire to do this for people of other faiths. This is a theological failure (we are called to love our neighbour as we love ourselves), a serious ethical blind spot (we are turning a blind eye to suffering of others while helping our own), and counterproductive (Christians will only be free and safe when all other people are free and safe). While we speak up and ask for the freedom to open churches in Turkey, we should also speak up for the opening and protection of mosques in Greece. In fact, to this date, there is not a single mosque in Athens, where hundreds of thousands Muslims live.
These are some of the most common issues we see. When we reflect on them, we see that most of them are rooted in our sinful nature, not the Gospel. The Gospels inspire us to fix our eyes on Christ and speak about him to others, not from a conviction of privilege but from the deep humility of knowing that we are saved by grace just as anyone else can be, and we want others to experience his redemption, just as we have. True evangelism is about Christ and our duty is to make sure that we remain faithful to that.