This article was first published in Mission Focus Annual Review, vol. 8, 2000, 107-18. It appears here with permission.
Christians who pursue missional endeavor do well to ponder questions like the following. Do we promote genuine respect and understanding between people of living faiths, or do we subtly or unconsciously prompt or allow ill will to rankle? Is our sense of religious loyalty burdened by critique of those who differ from us, or does it welcome the diversity that the One God of all nations deemed to create? Who attends to the children caught between religions and ideologies that clash?
The dilemma surfaces for Christians depending on long-term patterns. Depending on historic ecumenical endeavor, Protestant groups might unite for common witness to Jesus the Christ or further entrench divisions. Some smaller groups hold fast to their cultic or doctrinal distinctions rather than envision a more unified witness across denominational lines. Some Roman Catholics and Protestants deny that the other is Christian. Just as mode of baptism or the meaning of Eucharistic elements can sever good will, Christians split over how to relate with people of living faiths. Some seriously negate religious people who know God through forms or names different from Yahweh. How do children caught in these webs break free to develop healthy religious loyalty?
Whether to credit God’s work among living faiths has caused discord within mission meetings, among American and other people committed to God’s mission (Missio Dei). When I as a board member with Mennonite Board of Missions openly confessed God’s being vital to and interactive with people of faiths other than Christian, an executive session of the board was called to assess whether my theology was compatible with being an MBM board member. Surprised to have my sincere faith in God questioned, I silently vowed to explore God’s limits to or breadth of salvation.
For instance, I examined reports from the International Missionary Council, a series begun in 1910. The IMC meeting held at Madras Christian College in Tambaram, India in 1938 records perspective: “As to whether the non-Christian religions as total Systems of thought and life may be in some sense or to some degree manifesting God’s revelation, Christians are not agreed.”1 Conflicts persist between western Christians with little direct experience among people of other living faiths and those, for example, from India2 who daily engage across faith lines. An affirmation proposed in 1983 as “. . . we recognize God’s creative work in the religious experience of people of other faiths” had to be compromised to “. . . we recognize God’s creative work in the seeking for religious truth among people of other faiths.”3 Theologians developed another proposal in 1991: “We affirm that God has been with them [peoples and nations] in their seeking and finding, that where there is truth and wisdom in their teachings, and love and holiness in their living, this, like any wisdom, insight, knowledge, love and holiness that is found among us, is the gift of the Holy Spirit.”4 Not all religious people would credit that Spirit. Through effort, the particular and universal journeys of interreligious and ecumenical dialogue continue. And innocent children are taught to ‘take sides.’
Mennonites who hold to the conviction that only through Jesus is God’s salvation possible express a particular faith statement. But will they stifle the voice of another Mennonite who, firmly committed to Jesus the Christ’s radical message, also joins a Hindu friend to honor the Gita’s insight into duty toward the neighbor? Charges and counter-charges rebound in church circles as terms like relativism and postmodern recur. Fear tactics and exaggeration and misrepresentation enter to embellish distrust. Traditionalist and anti-foundationalist terms highlight conversation about universal truth claims as potential for idolatry silently hovers. While the idea of Lordship becomes offensive to one Christian, another nearly worships it. How do teens unravel the dichotomy of convictions that they observe acted out toward Jewish or Muslim people of faith?
The twentieth century was likely the most violent in history. Of the almost 540 million children throughout the world, one in four lives in an unstable situation, wrote T. K. Rajalakshmi in a recent issue of Frontline, a journal from India.5 During the past ten years, two million children died in wars. What if governments were as determined to establish academies to pursue peace as to wage war? What if adherents of world religions were to convey to children genuine understanding and respect for each other? If future global peace depends on present interreligious goodwill, what re-vision for missional effort is required?
A Family Pledge of Nonviolence (from Families Against Violence Advocacy Network) expects interfaith dialogue to create new histories out of religious traditions, crediting diverse texts, prayers and rituals. It invites each person of faith to know others in their ‘otherness,’ recognizing but not being threatened by differences. It anticipates building new memories, burying the desire to feel superior while providing pleasant encounters. As children absorb the Baha’I focus on humanity’s oneness, support the Muslim goal of harmony with other people and the Creator, pursue the Jewish tikkun olam (repair of the world), or join Buddhists in listening to the heart (to practice peace) while suspending judgment, what war resistance might follow? Gandhi identified nonviolence as “the power that manifests itself in us when we become aware of the oneness of life.”
What a contrast from labels often attached to religious ‘others,’ as noted by Roy Hange, a Mennonite Central Committee worker in Syria from 1991-97. “People are prone to fight over whatever they consider sacred: ideologies, beliefs, a motherland, some economic benefit or the rights of a nation state. To the extent that war always involves sacrificing the young in battle and generating resources for the struggle, war is strongly religious in the way it motivates and demands ultimate sacrifices.”6
Writing about religious identity and emerging conflicts, Hange observes that Muslims think of Christians as Crusaders while Europeans target Muslims as invading Turks. Hindus perceive of Muslims as ancient invaders and Christians as recent colonizers, while Jews mark Christians as those who organize massacre. Christian children who are taught that “the Jews killed Jesus” form impressions hard to change. Intolerance occurs later, as with a school principal in Alabama who disciplined a teenage, Jewish child by requiring him to write an essay on “Why Jesus loves me.”
Because religions cause problems, they must contribute to solutions. Robert F. Smylie of New York City7 sees the vulnerable state of childhood as the responsibility of entire communities. Adults of whatever religion recognize children who steal in order to survive, who die during African droughts. Adults also support a Jewish rabbi who wonders whether to utter the traditional prayer for the dead for children who disappear. A Japanese Buddhist leader ponders how to account for dependent children; Christians face millions of street children in Brazil; and Middle Eastern children live without protection under occupation. War cannot be the solution for conflict, adults of faith confess anew.
Common problems resolved through dialogue in action go beyond religious self-perceptions. Every religion thinks that its tradition is peaceful and avoids war. Every religion supports human rights and care for the environment. Yet, honest conversation between people loyal to religions requires self-exam, often leading to repentance for historic failures. Belief in the sacredness of life enables conscientious actions. Actions might include diverting a major portion of a country’s military budget to meet children’s needs. Or, actions might ratify and further implement the United Nations’ Rights of the Child or the World Summit for Children held a decade ago. At a 1990 event held at Princeton, titled “The World’s Religions for the World’s Children,” James Grant asked why so little rage accompanies the news that 280,000 children die each week, many in settings of war or poverty that follows.
A study by psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar from India addresses religious conflict between Hindus and Muslims.8 Kakar’s “toy construction” of dolls represents two families (marked by religious identifiers), a soldier, a policeman, two masked men, and a few animals. Each child involved in the study arranged the dolls while telling an imagined story. Kakar (a Hindu) observed that the older the child, the more aware s/he was of personal religious features and prejudice toward another religion. Whereas fighting between Hindu and Muslim dolls appeared in two-thirds of the boy’s accounts, the girls’ stories dealt more with relationships involving the non-family dolls. While forty percent of Muslim girls and twenty percent of Hindu girls created scenes of conflict, twenty percent of Muslim boys and seventy percent of Hindu boys enacted religious conflict. Muslim children were less informed than Hindu children of ‘causes’ of Hindu-Muslim conflict. Local issues did not instigate conflict in the children’s minds, but the ‘essential’ nature of being Hindu or Muslim surfaced. Personal experience as a victim in a riot prompted religious hatred. Direct interreligious conflict in India tends to be of shorter duration than in some global settings, but centuries of confrontation and resolve lie behind outbursts.
To evaluate a child’s benefits from religion is not simple. Author Evelyn Kaye believes that much depends on the honesty and awareness conveyed by teachers.9 Prior to adolescence, few children understand different beliefs; they mostly repeat what they have been told. Yet, religious ideas taught to children and values they observe in parents or significant adults do stay with their emotions and affect development throughout life. If exposed to diverse cultures, traditions, or religious thinkers, children learn to value varied human beings. The outcome differs for those exposed to only one sacred path or who ‘blindly’ obey demands rather than consider issues and options. While a person is an emotional or intellectual adherent of a faith, a measure of trust in the unknown enters that experience. So, heritage and decisions shape both the teacher and child.
Kaye names two family attitudes or styles of accepting or rejecting religion—the Oaks and Willows. The former restricts religious expression and freely judges others, while the latter reflects openness to views beyond personal loyalty. Rigid, detailed instruction limited to personal worldview characterizes the Oaks. Not only do they hold the right answers to most questions, consider themselves superior in morals, and fault the outside world for error, they suspect and critique anyone outside their view and resent if their own children counter their teachings. They anticipate the day when everyone will claim their beliefs. Willows expect children and adults to choose faith expression that is right for them, based on guiding principles combined with freedom to process ambiguous, complex issues. Concerned with ethical behavior germane to different religious sources, they believe that diverse ideas and practices openly accepted produce a better world.
One type of religious identity, Oak or Willow attitudes shape children’s understandings. Enmity between them is possible. Judgments expressed can hurt; left unhealed, they become part of memory. Misunderstandings or prejudice grow, along with age change, adding stress to minds that resist plurality, that define peaceful co-existence as sameness. Religion affects the character of people and nations. It shapes ethnic identity and political stance. Ideologies like secularism, democracy, or nationalism appear beside religious view. How these combine or compete may cause conflicts. People fight over what is sacred to them; they sacrifice themselves for beliefs or ideologies.
Roy Hange discusses how religious identities “both propel various conflicts and are used by factions to aid a dangerous build-up of resentment.” He ponders the global struggle to see which will gain primary influence—secular nationalism or a religious-oriented worldview. [In the Indian context secular refers to the government’s maintaining an equal distance from or equal crediting of all existing religious groups.] Hange observes that whereas ideologies had replaced religion as the prime source for many nations’ ethos, religion is again reclaiming prominence within the triad of identities: political-national, ethno-cultural, and religious. Instead of justifying conflict in order to “keep the world safe for democracy” or to “gain independence from a colonial power,” the cause now operative establishes or expands an Islamic, Jewish, or Serbian Orthodox state. The goal for a Christian America, Jewish Israel, or Hindu India determines actions.
Although children have little influence on such a shift, they and women suffer the most from interreligious conflicts or wars that occur. A recent documentary, titled “Children in War,” created by Alan and Susan Raymond clarify this point.10 Raymonds want viewers to image the jarring scenes that children repeatedly saw, to be upset through the voices of children who try to survive in Bosnia, Gaza, Rwanda, and Northern Ireland. The nearly four-year war in Bosnia (former Yugoslavia) killed fifteen thousand children; civilians were ninety percent of the casualties. Forced to sit in underground locations, children could neither study nor play. Sent to get water or supplies exposed them to snipers and shelling. Those in refugee camps know little about their fathers’ whereabouts.
One creative, adult method used to relieve the anguish of Bosnia-Herzegovina emerged with a fifty-member interreligious choir. The Pontanima, Latin for “spiritual bridge,” choir brought together members and music of Roman Catholic, Serbian Orthodox, Islamic, Jewish, Protestant and Far East religions. Expelled in 1992 from a seminary in Sarajevo, the Franciscan priest who started the choir in 1996 spent the intervening years trying to prevent conflicts, organizing humanitarian activities, and assisting peace movements. Nine relatives including his father, thirty-two neighbors, and eighty-two parishioners of his native parish were killed during the war. Intent to forgive, he assisted Muslim refugees, visited Serbs, and created a non-governmental organization—Face to Face Interreligious Service.
Committed to dialogue and ecumenical living, choir members who are secure in their spirituality witness to diversity and openness to one another. From their common tragedy, they effectively sing reconciliation. (That dissent occurred in a Mennonite chapel where Pontanima performed on tour, because Allah was addressed within Christian ‘space,’ would likely pain singers who work hard to overcome grief and hurdles beyond insulated bigotry.) With Josip Katavic as director, the choir transitions from:
“Moses and the children of Israel chanted to Thee. . .:’Who is like Thee, Lord, among the mighty,” and then
“Only God is the greatest / There is no God but Allah / Allah is the greatest / Give thanks to God,” and then
“Hail Mary, full of grace. . . Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners . . .,” and then
“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love . . .”
Since Israel’s origin, terrorism has been part of children’s lives. Raymonds’ sensitive questions document three generations of children from Gaza refugee camps; half of the campers are children. The uprising (intafada) begun in 1987 involves children. With all traumatized, twenty percent of the boys have been seriously injured. Palestinian girls fear attack en route to school. Seven of the twenty-nine Muslims shot in a mosque were children; suicide bombings disturb all.
Writers reflecting on the current scene verify the Raymond documentary.11 With the photo of a father trying to protect his son appearing on our TV screens, Jim Hoagland wrote: “All wars are cruel, some are senseless and a few qualify as insane.” Because people often think in racist terms, some Israelis who think of Palestinians as less than human beings falsely charge parents for sending children to the front. But Foreign Service reporter Keith Richburg hears that many children are being injured or killed without their being near the site of clashes. An uncle of one sixth-grader killed when returning from school said: “The soldiers at the crossing decided who to kill . . . They are afraid of this next generation, the children.”
Raymonds also document the 1994, three-month, mass killings by Hutu extremists. Among a half-million Tutsis slain, 300,000 were children. Another million Rwandan people fled to camps; one-fourth of over a hundred thousand children ‘lost’ for over a year have been re-united with family members. Some children in hiding worked for soldiers or joined the army. No child could refuse to obey an adult’s demand to kill. To reintegrate twenty-four hundred Tutsi child soldiers, ages seven to seventeen, will be no small task. One orphanage stands across the road from a mass grave holding four thousand victims.
Although small Celtic kingdoms constantly fought over territories in Ireland from late BCE (Before Common Era) and early CE, Raymonds’ work focuses on the past three decades of direct conflict between the majority Protestants and minority Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland. While some are scarred for life, other children were among the more than three thousand deaths. Children believe that their imprisoned fathers fought for a worthy cause. Despite many attempts for peace, one teenager cannot expect “the other side” to back down; another believes that peace will come; and a third wishes to leave, rather than rear another generation amidst such violence and fear. Raymonds conclude from these settings: “Children weren’t just caught in the crossfire. It was deliberate.”
A recent source titled Lost Lives12 describes every person killed in the Troubles—who died, how each died, and by whom killed. A profound perspective revealed by the recital is that violence became an end in itself. Not primarily about history, religion, or sovereignty, the Troubles had by 1995 injured or killed a member of one-fifth of all the Northern Ireland families. The “intimacy, duration, and, at times, savagery” of the Troubles (not actually war) reveal a democracy deeply touched by “politically motivated violence.”
What trends regarding the increase of religious conflict are noteworthy? Half of those named by Hange will be mentioned here. First, religious and political leaders make increased comments that threaten or prompt religious conflict. Discussion of each Trend ends with a Result, in the first instance: “When political or religious leaders set the framework of any conflict in religious terms, the prejudices of many people are validated and the development of hate for the other on religious grounds seems justified by their leaders’ statements.” Hange lists six examples from Europe or the Middle East in 1995.
An example from India recalls the Prime Minister’s word that discrimination against religious minorities is alien to Indian culture. Yet, a recent issue of Frontline reports on a Hindu fundamentalist group’s plan to lay the foundation stone for a Hindu temple last December 24, having destroyed a Pentecostal church on December 6 to make space for it. The dates themselves spark conflict, the one being the day before Christians celebrate Christmas while the other commemorates the day that Hindus destroyed a Muslim mosque in the city of Ayodhya. That event in turn prompted major riots and deaths in 1993.
Political or religious leaders foster prejudice among religions. Pope John Paul II proclaimed, during a 1999 visit to India, that Jesus Christ is humanity’s “only savior.” He defied some Asian bishops’ warning that such a Christian faith statement would only create conflict with the majority Hindu population. Why, Hindus wonder, do Christians limit God’s manner of offering salvation to the only way that Christians know? Do they therein usurp God’s plan, therein practice idolatry? The trend recurs in the United States as with attempts by Southern Baptists to negate and/or convert Jews, Muslims and Hindus on their holy days, or to convert Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The resentment spawned by such behavior only adds to the cycle of violence between living faiths.
A second trend mentioned by Hange notes an increase in physical or verbal attacks on places of worship, religious symbols, and religious leaders. Again, the Frontline reports that a Hindu meeting provoked the destruction of twenty-four churches or chapels, physical attacks on Christian tribal people, and looting of their property in India’s state of Gujarat, on Christmas and New Years day. When efforts to intimidate minority communities multiply, minorities join forces. For example, a Catholic bishop condemned a recent attack on a Muslim apartment complex in Gujarat.
That religious identity increasingly shapes political loyalty suggests another trend away from neutrality. Hange sees veiled attacks on secularism within Christian attacks on liberalism in North America. Waning secular influence increases fundamentalism and religious militancy. As religio-ethnic groups consolidate, creating a distinct separation of peoples along religious lines, a fourth trend emerges. To decrease the presence or strength of plurality reduces the potential for understanding others; ‘others’ are then more easily targeted as ‘enemy.’
Knowing that religions divide, will people of faith gather to dialogue about new styles of peacemaking? Since women and children suffer most from wars, will they become prime creators of new vision and methods? Sr. Ardeth Platte directly connected the mass violence of war and increased violence among American youth with encouraging youth to handle weapons at events like the 1999 Department of Defense Joint Services show. Anne Bancroft found wisdom in the Buddhist vow to never seek private salvation because “there can be no peace for the self until the world too has peace.” Booker Prize winning author Arundhati Roy, shortly after India’s nuclear ‘blasts’ in 1998, prophetically spoke: “Making bombs will only destroy us. It doesn’t matter whether we use them or not. They will destroy us either way. . . . The nuclear bomb is the most anti-democratic, anti-national, anti-human, outright evil thing that man has ever made. If you are religious, then remember that this bomb is Man’s challenge to God.13
Children have also spoken. Several months after the 1993 post-Ayodhya bloodbath in India, correspondent Ramesh Menon talked with children deeply affected by the Hindu-Muslim carnage. A child who trembled in the corner while her parents were butchered and another trying to cope with her parents’ being stabbed raised questions that Menon verbalized: “What turns human beings into beasts? Why did no one help us? Why did my neighbors allow it? Where did so much hatred come from all of a sudden?” While some teens become mentally crippled, torn by nightmares and numbed by fear, others express profound compassion. One fifteen-year-old said: Anger will not help me get back my family. Hate only consumes us. I have forgiven the killers.” Inner flexibility and strength to absorb pain may later reveal embedded scars. Menon found little revenge among innocent children, but his title “Silence of the Lambs” speaks.14
While some adults loyal to different religions embrace each other, what warrants attacks on people of different religions, sexual orientation, race, or sex? Why does peaceful co-existence succumb to bigotry? What psychological factors permit or denounce using children as targets of religious conflict?
To recall details from Nazi Germany may help to explain the reality. There, ideology of a pure race, hatred toward a religious group, and disregard for a generation to come combined. Many people of faith became blind to a leader’s domination. The message and medium recur though targets of intolerance shift, often blessed by bankrupt religious loyalty. David Rausch perceives the dynamics that shape universal prejudice.15 The Holocaust provides facts about the spread of ideology, the reality of evil, the risks inherent within religion in the public sector, and the interplay between present and absent morals.
Ideology depends on promotion. Through mass media, truth subtly twisted, direct lies, slogans, persuasion, and bombardment, recipients of an idea come to experience doubt, fear, revenge, advantage over others, and shifts in conviction and passivity. Previously passive about a target, a person comes to believe that the other deserves to be denigrated. Earlier-held moral principles succumb to the law of least resistance. Coerced to deny the plight of others, enamored by a leader figure’s power, stripped of the armor of conscience, freed of responsibility through ‘simply following orders,’ blinded by distortion—seeing an apostle of peace in a ‘dictator’—such patterns bless conflict and war. Might some current emphasis on Christology, at God’s ‘expense,’ or Christian insistence on Jesus’ being the only way for God to provide salvation, with denunciation of other sacred views, have seeds of this process? Do our Anabaptist ideas at times interfere with needed ecumenical vision?
Religion can either enable (as Mother Teresa personified) or dupe (as Marx observed). Religion as interpreted can provide a Source on whom/which to rely, a sense of belonging, a motivation for living, a channel for both belief and action, a sense of destiny—and more. Religion as interpreted can provide an escape, a dependency or false security, a channel for condemning those who differ, a justification for conflict and war, a source of confusion about loyalty—and more. In other words, religion is not neutral. People determine whether it benefits or hinders the self, others, a divine Being, or the natural environment.
What prompts people to give assent to or dissent from what they perceive as evil? They determine what for them is perverse which means that they first develop a keen sense for the good and right. They acknowledge shades or degrees of depravity. They claim or expect consequences of wrong for self, other, and nature. They set limits or form criteria—perhaps ‘run’ a red light, not patronize a ‘red-light’ district. They choose their mentors—martyrs of faith and peers with wisdom. They lose their jobs when conscience persuades them that an employer, though ‘blessed’ by others, perpetuates injustice disguised as concern. They refuse to join their country’s war machine.
In Germany’s Nazi era, some people believed that persecution had gone too far: of Jews, children of mixed marriages, people not thought to be of ‘pure’ stock. Some church leaders encouraged Christians to converse with, or to learn and buy from Jews. Some preached against “mercy-killings.” Many housed fleeing targets of hatred. Some, like the reformer Luther, shifted position—from early opposition to mistreatment of Jews to later diatribes against them, influential for years to come. Some repented then for the contempt Christians divulged through blaming the whole Jewish people for Jesus’ crucifixion by Roman soldiers (rather than await a Pope’s confession); they too died.
And what images of children linger? How did those who had no diary or attic for hiding react? That U.S. high school drama groups continue to perform “The Diary of Anne Frank” suggests a drawing quality: people hope never to forget what happened to the German-Jewish girl betrayed and discovered in a secret attic of an office building in Amsterdam. Other details reveal the pain experienced. Jewish mothers encouraged their youth to “hang on to life.” Freezing children stood dumbly. Indoctrinated children demonstrated against Jews. Hitler bellowed: children “belong to their mothers and . . . to me.” SS men smashed skulls of Jewish children against a wall before returning home to cuddle their kids.
War destroys children around the globe. After the U.S. bombed Hiroshima, children saw sights too cruel. They cried, “Give me water.” Student survivors later wrote: “I hate the very word ‘war.’ . . . . It was hell on earth . . . . I wonder why human beings make wars.” Khmer Rouge fighters swung infants by the feet against trees, in Cambodia in the late 1970s. Many youth deported to the U.S. during El Salvador’s decades of civil war returned, importing a gang culture that makes their country more violent now. An eight-hour carnage in Assam (northeast India) in 1983 left three thousand Muslims slaughtered; corpses of innocent children lay in rows. During Liberia’s seven-year civil war, 35,000 children between ages seven to eighteen became fierce fighters, thousands more were left orphans.16 Guerrilla leaders destroyed the child soldiers’ sense of community when ordered to raid their own villages. Present sanctions ‘assist’ one of four infants in Iraq to be malnourished. In 1996 approximately 250,000 children were active in armed conflicts globally.
The horror of inhumanity thrust upon innocence raises a stark plea for increased interreligious respect and understanding. Rabbi Rami M. Shapiro says, “We must learn to be different . . . to utilize our differences for the greater good.”17 Peace is not achieved by erasing human diversity but by learning to nonviolently manage tensions inherent within sacred coexistence. Will current missional vision and action concur?
What is involved for Mennonite missioning activity to concur? What is at stake for those who oppose fighting wars yet desire to creatively manage inevitable tensions? Perhaps we would first confess our poor record of dealing with internal discord and then be careful not to limit God’s Wisdom in offering salvation to all nations. Will Mennonites with a heritage of martyrdom due to religious conscience be more or less open to people of other living faiths who also, due to conscience, hold to sacred texts or rituals not founded on Jesus the Christ? Will we with our history of multiple splinters be more or less inclined to honor differences with others while in faith affirm our faith and invite others to affirm theirs? Will we strive to follow Jesus in acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with God?
How will we engage with those who differ from us? Will we freely hear and perpetuate snide comments or counter them on principles of justice? One speaker at the “Practicing Truth” conference held at Eastern Mennonite University in March of 1998 revealed desperate opposition when he charged that theologian Gordon Kaufman “takes it for granted that the Christian Gospel is not true” and that “without discussion [of it], the Bible has nothing to contribute.”18 How unjust! Will Christians similarly denounce another whose perception of truth includes advaita or nirvana? Will we be as concerned to first overcome our ignorance of concepts important to other living faiths as to proclaim about salvation, a vital aspect of Christianity’s worldview not shared by all religions?
Do we repent for past efforts that gave negative meanings to the term proselytize? Will we genuinely listen to and comprehend why others are offended by our modes of outreach, or justify the tension with a text about the Gospel’s potential to divide? Do we train mission personnel not to coerce or exploit others but to honor their conscience, including when it holds sacred meanings that puzzle Christians? If we cannot witness to what we ‘hold dear’ without being triumphal or share how we experience God without manipulating another’s autonomy or freedom to decide, Christianity deserves rejection. Any free society expects to include people with varied religious commitments and requires decency in the art of persuasion.
Can Mennonites value being more ecumenical in the future? To believe in the same Jesus calls us to worship across separations of doctrine or ritual. Most Christians who live in a community long-term become members of one congregation of a particular denomination. That commitment and a church’s program can deprive us of healthy exchange with people loyal to groups that also follow Jesus. Whereas some believers define “being Christian” by the scope of their personal experience, efforts to be ecumenical hold distinct loyalties lightly within the broader framework of global and local religion.
Questions snowball. Need we be threatened when some Roman Catholics in Central America live out more convincingly than we the peace posture that Mennonites proclaim? Do we fear the loss of distinct community or welcome more flexible boundaries that promote accountability to neighbors within universal diversity? Will we join with Christians who insist on Jesus’ being God’s only channel for salvation or with Christians who accept God’s saving acts in the Old (First) Testament as part of their story and therefore, for example, affirm “Divine presence and activity beyond historical Christianity”?19
How detrimental to interreligious well-being is dependence on the concept of unique? The idea of one or only or unique usually suggests that that which is described is first in sequence or importance or that none other is fully comparable, especially in worth. Many Christians hold tenaciously to this language, almost as if to share value diminishes it. Nor could those ardent ones recognize or value similarly a distinctive quality that is true for another living faith. The psychological need for them to claim an only stance for Jesus becomes more important than clarifying the truly radical life (Way) that he lived. Rather than calmly claim the truth that he only among religious leaders arose after death, they determine (presume to limit) whom God might save. They turn a particular, Christian confession (John 14:6) into a universal statement that disregards the broader biblical Truth that God chooses all people. They further tend to idolize Jesus as they overlook the fact that Jesus always proclaimed and looked toward the completion of God’s coming. Such witness (that distorts Jesus’ message) is bound to offend people of other living faiths.
Tables turn. Muslims strongly uphold monotheism. They see the Christian multiple figures of a triune Godhead as offensive because not singularly One. Are Christians duly offended when critiqued for an inadequate view of God? For some Jews, the unique covenant stance with the One God of the ancient and present world was interpreted as their distinct prerogative or privilege. Other Jews clearly see that being chosen for that covenant relationship meant utter responsibility to convey to all the nations the universal and inclusive quality of God, distinctly named Yahweh by them. Toward which stance do Christians respond more warmly, or with which will dialogue likely prompt greater understanding?
Keeping in mind that this article focuses on how children suffer through wars that often emerge from conflicts between religions, the point of how religious loyalty is conveyed matters. Will we teach children to distinguish Christian missioning that is engaged in through verbal interreligious dialogue or that promotes first the uniqueness of Christ? Not wishing primarily to polarize, I think that the goal of each approach differs. One wishes the partner to come to agree that Jesus is unique; an ‘oughtness’ lies imbedded. The other promotes comparable learning and telling about two religions, with information from the Christian about who Jesus was in life and is, related to God and that believer. The witness to Jesus is expressed positively and relies on God, just as witness from the partner to what has personal meaning is received with an expectation that God will interact with (teach) the hearer about it. This stance reinforces how mission is God’s (Missio Dei).
With both approaches, conviction is central though the starting point and method differs. Being intent to emphasize Jesus’ uniqueness draws one more directly into being over-against (especially if the Christian chooses not to value what is unique about the other’s religion), though kindness will characterize the speech. It presumes that the speaker knows what the other needs to claim about Jesus’ uniqueness, without reflecting a mutual ownership of need. It expects to tell rather than to primarily mutually listen to what is vital to or sacred for each party. Within it lies potential judgment of the hearer for not claiming Jesus’ uniqueness. Dialogue partners begin with a mutual openness to views that both differ from and resemble each other. Prior to the dialogue, partners each seriously explore knowledge about the other’s religion. Each internally forms and processes conviction about content (a vital dialogue in itself). When together, each expects to verify or correct, in addition to increase, insight into both one’s own and the other’s religion. Framed within a stance of honor for the other’s integrity, dialogue partners express conviction (witness), develop trust, and learn. They leave with a desire to meet more often.
My bias is clear; it has grown through experience, observation, study, and reflection with God. For me, Jesus the Christ is the channel through whom I most clearly understand God, through whom I am coming to know wholeness. My hope is that as Christians meet people of other living faiths, we will act justly, love tenderly, and walk humbly with God.
For the sake of all God’s children.