“When All You Have is a Hammer, Then Everything looks Like a Nail”

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Texas Muslims on Capitol Visit met by Protests and Hostility

muslimAUSTIN — Texas Muslims rallying at the Capitol on Thursday were greeted by insults from a small group of protesters…  More than 200 people came to the rally, hosted by the Texas chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, to learn about government and political engagement and discuss issues with lawmakers. About two dozen self-identified Christians protested nearby, shouting, “We don’t want you here!” and “Go home!” as children in the crowd grew visibly upset. At one point, a protester grabbed a rally-goer’s microphone to declare Muhammad a “false prophet.” The incidents were unusual conflicts in what is usually a quiet ritual of a legislative session — groups representing interests from religions to professions to areas of the state spending a day meeting lawmakers for citizen lobbying. …It was the seventh straight organized visit to the Capitol by Texas Muslims. A spokeswoman said the hostile reception was a first. …At the rally, which included singing the national anthem and speeches about political engagement, protester Christine Weick nearly knocked over Ruth Nasrullah, a spokeswoman for CAIR Texas, to claim the microphone.  “Islam will never dominate the United States, and by the grace of God, it will not dominate Texas,” Weick shouted.  After regaining control of the microphone, Nasrullah said the outburst reminded attendees why their presence was necessary at the Capitol.

http://www.dallasnews.com

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I learned about “Power Encounters” at the School of World Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary in California when I was a student there in the fall of 1976.  The term “Power Encounter” was first introduced into the missionary conversation by Dr. Alan Tippett, a member of that faculty.  The most comprehensive definition of a “Power Encounter” is the one that Timothy Kamps has proposed –

A power encounter is a spiritual encounter that exposes and calls to account the powers of darkness in their varied forms by the power of God for the purpose of revealing the identity of the one True God resulting in an acknowledgement of and/or allegiance to His lordship by those present.

Some Biblical examples of “Power Encounters” would be Moses in the Court of the Pharaoh (Exodus 7-11), Elijah and the Prophets of Baal on top of Mt. Carmel (I Kings 18), Jesus casting out demons to show that the Kingdom of God had truly come (Matthew 12:22-29) and Paul challenging occult powers throughout Asia Minor and Greece (Acts 13:6-13; 16:16-18; 19:19).

In the history of Christian Mission, “Power Encounters” have often played pivotal roles in the conversion of people groups around the world.  The “poster child” for this approach to mission was St. Boniface in Germany in the 8th century.

St. Boniface was the “Apostle to the Germans” in 1st millennium. A method he used was a form of power encounter. He would aabenter a pagan village, go to the sacred space, usually a holy tree, and cut it down. The argument was that if the gods Woden, Thor, or others of the Germanic pantheon, were so powerful, then certainly they would have stopped St. Boniface from cutting down their tree… or at least smite him after the fact. This is power encounter through desecration.

“Power Encounters” certainly make for exciting reading.  They are a kind of “super hero” approach to evangelism.  You burst in, jump up and down for a while, maybe knock some heads and win the day for Christ!  Go online and watch Christine Weick bully her way to the microphone at the rally of Muslims for civic responsibility last week at the Texas State Capitol (you can find it at  http://www.dallasnews.com/news/state/headlines/20150129-texas-muslims-on-capitol-visit-met-by-protests-and-hostility.ece) and you will see what the misguided application of this approach looks like.  And most of us who are Christians are deeply offended by her shouting and her swagger.  I am especially bothered by her snarling “Jesus loves you” pronouncement at the end of her tantrum.   “The medium is the message” as Marshall McLuhan pointed out.

But if Christine got the chance to “counterpoint” my “point” here, I’m pretty sure that she would call me a spiritual wimp, invoke the example of the table-turning Christ in the Temple, and call into question the depth of my commitment to the Gospel.   But just as quickly and confidently I would respond.

When Alan Tippett first introduced the idea of “Power Encounters” he was talking about a very specific audience for its use – “Animists.”

“Animism is the belief in personalized, supernatural beings (or souls) that inhabit ordinary animals and objects, governing their existence. British anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Tylor argued in Primitive Culture (1871) that this belief was the most primitive and essential form of religion” (http://www.reference.com/browse/animism).

Dr. Tippett was convinced that most Christian missionaries in preaching the Gospel in the ways that they had been trained to think and talk in Western universities and at graduate seminaries were simply not talking about things that animists cared about in ways that animists could even understand.

He wrote about buying a 240 volt generator with which he hoped to run a 110 volt machine in order to make a symbolic application to the conversion of the animist. He said, “A missionary geared to a metaphysical level of evangelism in his generator cannot drive a motor of shamanistic voltage. It is a tragic experience to find oneself with the right kind of power but of the wrong voltage.”  Many Western missionaries are using the wrong voltage in relating to animists. They are communicating about the questions of high religion: Where have we come from? Where are we heading? What is the ultimate meaning of life? And conversion of the animist is taking place on this cognitive, cosmic level.  However, the animist is not greatly concerned with these issues. He is concerned with the immediate problems of everyday life: Why am I sick? What has caused me to be sick? Why did my daughter die? Who caused it? How can I get him to love me? Who or what has caused this extended drought? In animistic settings power is at the very center of a people’s worldview and cannot be neglected. Conversion must be more than an assent to high religious perspectives. It must be a rejection of traditional powers within such contexts and the acceptance of the sovereignty of God. A cognitive, metaphysical message must be coupled with a living belief in the mighty workings of God. The purely metaphysical message is of the wrong voltage in animistic contexts.

In other words, “Power Encounters” have their place in the evangelistic arsenal of the church, but it is not a “one-size-fits-all” tool for every evangelistic encounter with every audience imaginable.  And, in fact, when wrongly applied, instead of serving the cause of Christ, a “Power Encounter” might actually damage it instead.  The abusive and abrasive tactic of Christine Weick with the Muslims last week at the Capitol did not make anyone who has seen it more receptive to the Gospel.   Nobody in the crowd dropped to their knees to invite Jesus Christ into their hearts as their Lord and Savior as a result of what she said and did.  And the reason why is that she was using the wrong tool with the wrong audience.  In that setting with those people the “Power Encounter” tactic that Christine Weick clumsily employed made the Gospel of Jesus Christ more of a club that was used to bludgeon those Muslims than it was a gift of grace that was extended to them.   Muslims are not animists.  Islam, especially in America, is a religion concerned about all of the same “high questions” that we are as Christians. The right approach for this audience is not a “Power Encounter,” but a “Truth Encounter” and a “Love Encounter.” 

A “Truth Encounter” is the clear and respectful presentation of what it is that we believe as Christians about who God is, what God wants and what God has done for us in Jesus Christ to reconcile us to Himself.  The “Round Table” approach that E. Stanley Jones took as a Methodist missionary to India in the first half of the 20th century is the perfect example of a “Truth Encounter” as far as I am concerned.  He described it in his 1928 book Christ at the Round Table

oldWe usually invite about 15 members of other faiths and about 5 or 6 Christians to compose a Round Table… To keep the Conferences from being too wordy we remind them that when Swami Vivekananda was on his quest for God he used to ask men two questions: Have you found God? Can you tell me how to find God?  If the man who was thus questioned started on a long lecture about the attributes of God, or something of that kind, the swami would turn on his heels and walk silently away (26). 

We sit in a group, and soon the untrammeled Christ is before us… (19)

There was not a single situation that I can remember where before the close of the Round Table Conference Christ was not in moral and spiritual command of the situation. (59)

The nail-pierced hand of the Son of man opens the door and bids us to enter… (25)

And even more basic than the “Truth Encounter” is the “Love Encounter.”  We are, after all, called “to speak the truth in love” as Christians (Ephesians 4:15).   As Douglas Hayward explains –

A fair paraphrase of I Corinthians 13 is – “If I have all knowledge (the basis of a Truth Encounter) and power (the basis of a Power Encounter) but have not Love, I have nothing.”  …Love is foundational to establishing the trust that creates the climate by which new information (truth) can be incorporated and embraced making it possible for a truth encounter to take place… There is no room in love for an attitude of triumphalism… that ridicules the beliefs of others or that diminishes what is already good and well-intentioned in them.

For the past five years, on an almost monthly basis, we have been involved as a church in a program of Faiths in Conversations.  An Orthodox Jewish rabbi, a Muslim Imam and I have sat down together to think and talk together about matters of faith.  The next one is on Tuesday evening, February 10th at Temple Shalom at 7 pm (Alpha at Hillcrest).  Our topic will be “Hate and Revenge.”  Rather timely don’t you think?

Truth and love have been the hallmarks of these encounters from their beginning, and not power.  Unlike some interfaith conversations that I have seen, in this one the price of admission is not the checking of our convictions at the door.  True believers of our respective faiths, each of the partners in these conversations is expected to be two things – clear and civil.  We want to be clear about what it is that we actually believe, even when, especially when we don’t agree with each other.  And we are equally committed to being respectful of each other and our beliefs.

These conversation partners have become my good friends through the years of our gatherings.  I love them, and that means that I know what makes them both afraid and sad.  I know what makes them cry.  And it is important for them to know that I cry with them.  And this week, after what happened in Austin last week on the Capitol steps, I am.

DBS+

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