There’s a local radio talk show that broadcasts in the evenings here in Dallas that makes my ears bleed and my head explode. It’s on one of my preset buttons on the car radio because the station that broadcasts this show also broadcasts a couple of daytime talk shows that I really like to listen to. I don’t always agree with everything that the hosts of these daytime shows say, but they are intelligent and I enjoy the exchange that their different points of view encourage. But this show that’s on in the evenings is hosted by arguably the most abrasively opinionated and least informed talk show hostess that I believe I have ever heard anywhere. Her peculiar blend of religion (Evangelical Catholicism) and politics (Tea Party Conservativism) is stunning in its unsubstantiated assertions, and one of her favorite topics is Islam.
She routinely says that whenever she sees a person of Middle Eastern origin out in public that she likes to approach them to ask if they are Muslim. If they say “yes,” she then asks them if they are terrorists who want to kill her! The intent of this awkward exchange is not to foster honest dialogue, but to criticize and condemn. And she is quite confident that this is the “Christian” thing to do.
Is it, really?
The “Great Commission” informs a Biblical Christian’s sense of obligation to non-Christians. We are commanded as Christ’s disciples to go into the world preaching the Gospel. The old missionary hymn “We’ve a Story to Tell” captures the spirit of the church’s traditional understanding of her “Great Commission” mission –
We’ve a story to tell to the nations,
That shall turn their hearts to the right,
A story of truth and mercy,
A story of peace and light,
A story of peace and light.
For the darkness shall turn to dawning,
And the dawning to noonday bright;
And Christ’s great kingdom shall come on earth,
The kingdom of love and light
The evangelistic hesitation of the mainline church in recent decades arises not from a failure of technique. It’s not that we have forgotten how to “tell the story to the nations.” It’s rather that we have stopped believing that it is necessary to do so. Theologian Gabriel Fackre describes what the mainline church suffers from as “Christological heart failure.” With the loss of sin as a significant personal category and the elimination of hell as a possible final destination for human beings, there’s just no need for a Savior. If the New Testament’s claim that Jesus Christ is the “only begotten Son of God” who “died for our sins,” and that the Gospel’s invitation to believe in Him as Lord and Savior in order to be reconciled to God and receive the gift of eternal life are judged to be mistaken, then the Great Commission becomes completely unnecessary. There’s no Good News to share.
Now, I myself don’t happen to believe any of this. I still regard sin to be a real problem, hell to be a distinct possibility, and Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, to be the only name under heaven by which people can be saved (Acts 4:12). But just because I believe this, that the New Testament’s claims are true and that the Gospel’s invitation remains both valid and urgent, don’t throw me into the camp of that “Christian” radio talk show hostess here in Dallas who makes my head and heart hurt.
The Great Commission is not an excuse to be ignorant or arrogant. In fact, it’s only when we remember that it was the same Lord Jesus Christ who commanded us to go into the world preaching the Gospel who commanded us to also love our neighbors as ourselves that evangelism becomes at least as much about compassion as it is about passion. The Great Commission without the Great Commandment can make sharing the Gospel an abusive assault. But when the Great Commandment to love our neighbors becomes the underlying spirit with which we become obedient to the Great Commission, then the ministry of evangelism becomes more like what the world Methodist leader D.T. Niles (born in Sri Lanka 4 May 1908, and died Vellore, India, 17 July, 1970) described – “just one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread.” And spiritual beggars can’t be spiritual bullies, so long as they don’t forget that they are still just beggars.
My approach to interfaith relations was deeply informed by the teachings and the example of the Methodist missionary to India, E. Stanley Jones (1884-1973). His approach to people of other faith traditions was not to condemn their beliefs as false or to condemn their practices as evil and/or stupid, but it was rather to engage them in serious, respectful and sustained conversations at a “roundtable” where he believed that if the Gospel could just get an honest hearing that the attractiveness of Jesus Christ would shine forth for all to see quite clearly. He believed that in the free marketplace of ideas, Christianity could make the case for itself. But he also recognized that Christians with their uncharitable actions and uncivil attitudes have a remarkable capacity to clog up the channel through which the honest presentation of the Gospel has to flow.
To illustrate this point E. Stanley Jones told the story of standing on the deck of a ferryboat waiting to cross the Gangeswhen he saw a group of Christian missionaries standing on the shore throwing rocks at the lotus blossoms that had been reverently strewn into the river upstream by a group of Hindu worshippers. And so E. Stanley Jones said that he got off of the boat and went upstream to where those Hindus were watching in dismay at what these Christians were doing. He introduced himself to them as a Christian missionary himself, and then he asked them for a lotus blossom which he promptly placed in the river. And then he turned to those Hindus and told them that while his faith’s convictions were really quite different from theirs, that he had nevertheless placed the flower in the river as a sign of his respect for them and their convictions. And I dare say that he was forever viewed differently by those Hindus after this act of respect than were those other missionaries after their act of disrespect. As a friend and colleague of mine from the Gay and Lesbian Community in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) told me, “You can’t clobber me, tell me that you love me, and then expect me to believe you.” And it seems to me that this is good advice whenever Christians are out clobbering anybody.
It was the French lay theologian Jacques Ellul (1912-1994) who reminded Christians that one of the roles that we are called to play in the world is that of the lamb. Jesus said “I am sending you as sheep in the midst of wolves” (Matthew 10:16). And reflecting on this text, Jacques Ellul wrote –
It is the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, who takes away the sins of the world. But every Christian is treated like his Master, and every Christian receives from Jesus a share of His work. He is a “sheep” not because his action or his sacrifice has a purifying effect on the world, but because he is the living and real “sign,” constantly renewed in the midst of the world, of the sacrifice of the Lamb of God. In the world everyone wants to be a “wolf,” and no one is called to play the part of a “sheep.” Yet the world cannot live without this living witness of sacrifice. This is why it is essential; that Christians should be very careful not to be wolves in the spiritual sense – that is, people who try to dominate others. Christians must accept the domination of other people, and offer the daily sacrifice of their lives, which is united with the sacrifice of Christ. (The Presence of the Kingdom – 10-11)
It is not “wolfish” to be “Jesusy,” to borrow the clever term coined by author Anne Lamott to describe her fascination with and devotion to everything about Jesus Christ. In fact, what Jacques Ellul is suggesting in that quote is that it’s simply impossible to be genuinely “Jesusy” and “wolfish” at the same time. But that’s just half of the equation. The other half is that Christians by definition must be “Jesusy,” or to use the language of Gabe Fackre that I introduced earlier, Christians have got to get over their “Christological heart failure.”
Timothy Tennent, the President of Asbury Theological Seminary, in his book Christianity at the Religious Roundtable (Baker Academic 2002), began his exploration of Interreligious Dialogue with the observation that most of the Christian participants in the process “simply do not affirm the historic Christian confessions,” and that “even scholars among the non-Christian religions have begun to recognize this phenomenon” (9).
For example, Grace Burford, a practicing Buddhist scholar, comments on this in a recent Buddhist-Christian dialogue titled Buddhists Talk about Jesus – Christians Talk about the Buddha. Her chapter is insightfully titled “If the Buddha Is So Great, Why Are These People Christians?” She bluntly asks these scholars, “If they were so taken by Buddhism, why did they hang on to their Christianity?” Her remarks are limited to the Buddhist-Christian dialogue but could easily be observed throughout the whole field of interreligious studies. Why should people be prepared to surrender every central claim of historic Christianity and yet be so doggedly determined to remain spokespersons for Christianity? (190)
It is not “wolfish” to be “Jesusy.” “Shelving” Jesus Christ is not required to love our neighbors of other faith traditions. But it is “wolfish” to be “Jesusy” in a way that is disrespectful, domineering and demeaning like this Dallas radio talk show hostess is every time she ventures an opinion about Islam and Muslims. There’s substantial ground to be occupied by faithful Christians between “shelving” Jesus and “shoving” Jesus, and when we find the space, we are exactly where God can best use us.