Review of Meeting Our Multifaith Neighbors by Brice H. Balmer

This appeared in Mennonite Quarterly Review July 2007, 474-76. and appears here with permission.  Published by Herald Pr., Scottdale, PA, 2006.

Brice Balmer’s book title anticipates content. To meet distinguishes the approach from academic study or lecture alone. People gather for exchange of distinct or similar experience—religious practice and thought—that matter to each participant. Multifaith welcomes all religions present in a particular setting. Writing from Ontario, Canada, Balmer illustrates guidelines from faith groups that make up Interfaith Grand River (IGR) of the Waterloo Region. While our neighbors suggests proximity, it also implies interpersonal, shared activity. People discuss topics like water or light vital to all religions or engage in common projects.

The book provides pastoral Wisdom to Christians; Mennonites with a history of being more separate especially can benefit. As the number of people loyal to diverse living faiths increases in North America, safe places or organizations (now over 500) appear for sharing complexities of worship, beliefs, and practice. As we openly discuss our faith in ways equally concerned to respect and learn from a neighbor’s faith, the spiritual journey of each moves toward trustworthy friendship. Such trust enables community tasks like a peace walk or retreat, or plans for a private room for caregivers of whatever religion at a local hospital.

For Balmer, the idea of IGR grew out of chaplaincy work with House of Friendship, a Christian agency that serves low-income people. Organized by the Kitchener/Waterloo Council of Churches, IGR enables leaders of diverse religions to show hospitality and cooperate during crises. Members become open to each other’s festivals and family events; although Christians may not understand the Arabic or Punjabi used in another’s worship setting, they meditate while observing what has meaning for their neighbors. They reflect on other’s spirituality and find their own faith renewed or deepened. From experience, I know such results.

Brice Balmer’s meeting with multifaith neighbors shows a deep understanding of issues like isolation, hostility, and power. For genuine dialogue to transform people loyal to diverse faiths, being isolated—determined that one’s right truth frees one to dismiss others—needs to change toward partnership. Partners grant each other’s integrity, though different. To love God and the neighbor as the self recognizes the “image of God” in every person. Immigrants or those loyal to a minority faith often become victims of fear-filled hostility in the west. Majority people who wish to manipulate, to create distance or a sense of being superior, expect others to assimilate. Such attitudes bring to mind Wesley Ariarajah, noted Christian leader from Sri Lanka. He sees Christianity’s need for grace to be one among multiple ways that God chooses to enable people toward their destiny. Intent to mutually listen, to be vulnerable, to share power, Balmer calls people of faith to see others’ strength, to clarify rather than compete, to reflect or discern together rather than just declare one’s view. As Jonah needed release from his desire to destroy Ninehvites (toward whom he felt superior), so Peter’s judgment of those who differed needed redemption through a dream (Acts 10).

But conviction from experience may be difficult for Christians prone to bias to hear: “Multifath discussion and action cannot take place if a principal concern of participants is conversion.” (73) Being intent to convert often operates from a stance of superiority about faith; it can fail to respect another’s sacred experience. Noted spiritual leader Henry Nouwen encourages people of diverse religions to combine an active seeking of and openness to God’s presence with profound concern for all people. Such involvement enables dialogue; it counters debate. It values witness without arrogance. As not all people are teachers or preachers, I propose that not all people relate effectively with those who differ. Those gifted with freedom to confess conviction that welcomes another to hear, alongside genuine openness—generous toward crediting new spiritual insight and eager to enrich personal faith—merit blessing for the holy task of exchange.

Human experience, not theory or principle alone, recurs in this book. One chapter finds Christian parents reflecting on their son’s marriage with a Muslim woman. As the younger ones remain firm in their faiths, the parents’ process of learning to accept difference unfolds. Many Hmong (500 refugees have been sponsored by Mennonites) and Sikh people have migrated to Canada during recent decades. Animist traditions continue to shape Hmong experience, traditions for others to respect even when not upheld. Sikhs have endured ridicule and false judgments, as from journalists who ignore complex cultural or religious traits—like five symbols important for men who practice Khalsa. Balmer also reflects out of his short, recent Middle East sojourn in part through Cedar, a Palestinian Christian. Known as descendants of Philistines and Canaanites, her people find reading parts of Old Testament history to be difficult; they wonder about God’s compassion for Israel’s enemies.

Several literary features of this book to note: Questions for discussion end each chapter as a review of key ideas. While one might wish that readers were ‘beyond’ the need to credit others’ religious strength, being invited to name ways that God already works among neighbors or noting signs of spirituality within people of other faiths can move toward deeper respect—always a key hope of Balmer’s. Four Appendix sections highlight dialogue and action, a brief history and Statement of Purpose of IGR, and guidelines for religious ceremonies where multifaith groups are present. Although many other books are available, a good bibliography appears. Balmer takes time to define significant terms; I might wish that he had drawn from feminist interpreters of biblical accounts about women, as with Sarah and Hagar. Unfortunately, a number of typos appear. Photos that begin most chapters could helpfully be identified.

I believe that Meeting Our Multifaith Neighbors is a timely resource for Mennonites. Decades ago theologian Gordon Kaufman acknowledged that since no one possesses absolute truth, we must engage with religious others; understandings benefit mutually. As Mennonites admit weaknesses of both isolation and presumed privilege, plus welcome others to share their traditions in their own terms, community building follows. To promote community is the most important task for Christian theology, Kaufman believes. Balmer’s book is a practical example of the process. Germane to his being, he proceeds without overstating either Mennonite or Christian.

Not only themes of Who is God? or How do people exist?, theologians also identify the central question: “How are we to live?” Long-term Mennonite witness in France Neal Blough suggests (in Seeking Cultures of Peace) that the first century’s key church/mission question was “How do we live together with strangers or enemies?” He calls Mennonites today to more ecumenical relationships. He asks how peacemaking among communities is possible for those who might dominate others or claim that their way of understanding the world and God has ultimate truth. Balmer discerns how claims that call others’ truth inferior can violate sacred being.

Rabbi Marc Gopin (in From the Ground Up) realizes the risk of mild efforts to missionize that turn to demonizing the other who chooses to retain current loyalties or views. He observes that Mennonites involved in peacebuilding might perceive the danger of power over another as well as the deep need to understand another’s Otherness. Again, Balmer’s approach meets the Other not as stranger, convert, or adversary but as neighbor deserving of respect.

The last paragraphs lead me to comment on Stanley Green’s “Afterword” in Meeting Our Multifaith Neighbors. I understand the Mennonite Mission Network executive director to endorse Balmer’s practical dimensions of relating with people of diverse faiths. He wants Mennonites to read this book. I also experience his Afterword as critique: Balmer ‘fails’ to absolutely witness to Jesus’ final authority or revelation of God’s purposes. Without endorsing several of Green’s implicit criticisms, I commend the author’s answer that being a follower and witness of Jesus in a multifaith society calls for deep respect (not Green’s term tolerance) and open engagement with others. Never did I doubt Balmer’s Christian witness to Jesus’ truth about God. What he expects in addition, that I miss in Green’s approach, is genuine expectation that people loyal to other religions will also teach him from their insight into God’s purposes, their movement toward wholeness, their unique experience with the Divine (in their own terms). Intent to pattern Jesus’ compassion toward others, Balmer reflects no need to express his confession of the Christ through judgment about the Other—superior lingo like final, complete, only, or extraordinary.

For, meeting multifaith neighbors builds on radical, self-emptying solidarity.