Part I: Are We Really a Public Church? Ministry in a Multi-Faith North America

[1] The ELCA is called to be a public church.1 As we are “created by God in Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, called and sent to bear witness to God’s creative, redeeming, and sanctifying activity in the world” we are propelled into the public to do ministry in our local civic contexts.2 This public often includes a variety of communal organizations, both secular and religious, with whom we work and in many cases share our physical resources. The religious communities might be ecumenical or from different faith traditions. These non-Christian religious communities are very much part of the public, and they are becoming much more active now than even just a few years ago.

[2] In 1989, the Methodists Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, published Resident Aliens. This work was ground breaking among those going into public ministry at the time. Hauerwas and Willimon called for the church to go on “an adventure” and go public and political, but not in terms of joining particular political parties. Rather, Hauerwas and Willimon argued that the church, as a countercultural community, has a role in responding to secular individualistic unbelief. Christian knee-jerk reactions to hold on to a Constantinian era, as defined by a dominant white, conservative Christian culture, should be opposed. Using a surprisingly violent image of colonization, the authors asked us to conceive of ourselves as a “colony” called to work with a distinct public in the midst of the nation.3

[3] While I have found some ideas in Resident Aliens helpful and others theologically problematic, one item that I find jarring is Hauerwas and Willimon’s apparent assumptions about the United States. The argument of the book is based on an image of the U.S. as a Christian nation, albeit only nominally Christian (with various forms of corrupted Christianity, including a dominant, white Constantinian culture), or as atheistic. Yet, ironically, in the first few pages of their work, the authors reflect on an experience with a rabbi who shared how difficult it was to maintain a Jewish identity in “Bible-belt” Greenville [South Carolina].4 Hauerwas and Willimon’s response to their interlocutor was that it was just as difficult to be counter-cultural Christians in a rising secular America. However, rather than seeing their rabbi colleague as a religious counter-cultural compatriot the book moves on, focusing only on the Christian challenges in a secular nation. As I re-read their work, it struck me how the book could well have been written by Jewish, Mormon, Muslim, or Buddhist authors with their own particular theological or philosophical self-identity of being a counter-cultural religious “colony” in America. The lack of awareness of other faith communities in our neighborhoods has led to “parallel play” where each community has their own “colony” fighting the good fight of faith. While we may talk about being a public church, in reality most of our congregations function as private “colonies,” to use Hauerwas’s term, when it comes to interreligious engagement.

[4] Thinking about other faith traditions has not been a traditional part of the dominant culture’s theological education. Yes, there have always been “mission” classes where we are taught about other religions “over there!” But the implication has been that we trained and sent specific kinds of Christians, that is, missionaries, to deal with people of other religions. Theology courses on other religions were, in my experience, relegated to electives. Thinking about other faith traditions as a regular part of one’s pastoral ministry was certainly not on the radar screen. This lacuna in theological education has had a negative impact on how congregations have engaged with their now fellow American citizens of other faiths. A 2013 survey undertaken at the Virginia Theological Seminary (a seminary of the Episcopal Church, U.S.A.) noted that priests who did not have any courses on world religions or interfaith dialogue did not feel confident in leading their own communities in the area of multi-faith engagement.5 I have already argued elsewhere that doing Christian ministry in 21st century North America requires awareness of, encounter with, and sensitivity to people of other faith traditions.6 People of various faith traditions are increasingly part of our families and primary relationships, and are now intimately intertwined into what used to be considered an exclusively Christian community. In this article, however, I would like to focus on more than simply those individuals and families of other faith traditions who we already know and love. It is time for us to think about the numerous religious communities in our areas that make up our public.

[5] In this article I raise the question of what it means to do public ministry in a multi-faith context. I propose that thinking about ministry in a multi-faith North America actually provides opportunities for the authentic Christian witness and a faithful Christian life that I believe Hauerwas and Willimon were arguing for a generation ago. To do so, I will focus on the field in which I teach and have experience, the encounter between Christians and Muslims, and my own Lutheran heritage and theological commitments. In a subsequent article, I will address what multi-faith ministry is not, what it is and what it requires of religious leaders.

A Multi-Faith North America

[6] American Christians are finally waking up to the fact that we no longer, if we ever did, live in a nation that completely identifies itself as Christian. The signs of a changed and changing American nation are all around and well noted.7 This reality has created much anxiety and fear. It scares some of us so much that we will do anything to get back to “the good ole days”, when we all sang, “God bless America” in school, when all the stores were closed on Sunday to honor the Sabbath, and when clergy provided theologically Christian-centered prayers at the town center Memorial Day parade. That being said, the anxiety over a religious paradigm shift in Americana has focused on the “rise of the nones.”8 The assumption has been that there are unchurched, underchurched, or lapsed Christians from other denominations for whom we can help make the Church appear more welcoming. I am not against this type of ministry. However, a growing segment of American life is composed of vibrant non-Christian communities who also see themselves as playing a role in the public life of America.

[7] Why is it that congregations do not inherently pursue inter-faith relationships in our communities? The sociologist Robert Wuthnow has proposed some practical answers. Firstly, congregations are already too busy, with most of their energy spent on already ongoing ministries, or simple survival. Alternatively, it is perceived that there is “not much interest” for such activities. In addition, the leadership may feel that members will be theologically uncomfortable. Finally, in today’s polarized political society, such an endeavor might be felt as a threat – spiritually, culturally, or politically.9 Yet, congregations engage their local ministry context on any number of levels and work with a wide variety of secular and ecumenical communities on projects that are not perceived as spiritually threatening. As the nation continues to become more culturally, ethnically, and religiously diverse, ministry will require renewed concepts for engaging the public or else face becoming (or remaining) a private church for only those like us. Many of the people that we already encounter in our ministry contexts are people of faith– of another faith — and delightfully so. Their faith makes sense to them and provides direction and meaning to their lives. In addition, more often than not they already belong to a religious community that is involved with their own public outreach. These communities are no longer “over there” where missionaries will engage them, but “here” as members of our own public. We might just find these other communities to be important partners in a vision of peace and justice, working toward a common good that is reflective of what we believe is the intention of our Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. In addition, and not surprisingly, throughout this process we will discover what makes Lutherans uniquely and wonderfully Christian.

Christian Responses to Multi-Faith Realities

[8] In 1977, the World Council of Churches issued its seminal “Guidelines for Dialogue with People of Living Faiths and Ideologies.” The document opens with the recognition that Christians believe that the Triune God has created, redeemed and continues to sustain the world. However, it is in the midst of the reality of diverse human communities that God is present and active. The statement recognizes that Christians often live among people of other faiths, many times even within their own families.

Men and women are all born into relationships with other people. Most immediately there are the members of their families, but quickly they have to explore wider relationships as they go to school or begin work. This may take place in the complexity of relationships within a village society, or within the modern urban centres of town and city which attract ever larger populations. They experience still wider associations within nation, race, religion, and at the same time they may belong to different social classes or castes which condition their ideological outlooks. …10

[9] The World Council of Churches perspective followed the work of the Roman Catholic Church done at Vatican II (1962-1965). Several statements from that Council addressed the issue of the Roman Church in relationship with other religious traditions. The most notable statement was that of Nostra Aetate, which made the bold proclamation in response to the reality of religious pluralism that:

One is the community of all peoples, one their origin, for God made the whole human race to live over the face of the earth. One also is their final goal, God. . . . The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all. . .

The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons [and daughters], that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these [believers].11

[10] There is much more that could be reflected upon, responded to, and critiqued in these statements. Yet, the wonderful gift of Nostra Aetate was the recognition that people of other faiths are creatures like us, in search of truth and a holy life that can be respected, even while we stand firm in our Christian beliefs.

[11] Of course, there has been a great deal of Christian reflection on religious pluralism. What makes Christians different? What makes Christ distinctive in a religiously plural society? These are vital and important questions for Christians. But, these questions do not arise out of thin air. Such questions arise when there is practical and direct inter-faith or multi-faith engagement. Very few people sit together in worship on Sunday morning and are troubled, provoked, or even excited about the questions of religious pluralism. Why should we be when we are all professing the same Creed? But when faced with other religious communities we cannot help but ponder the questions. As the Catholic theologian Peter Phan has put it:

The issue at stake is whether the plurality of religions is to be regarded as a merely historical accident or as belonging to God’s intention and purpose for humankind itself. If the former, then religious pluralism may be viewed as a curse to be overcome in order to achieve religious uniformity; if the latter, such pluralism is a blessing to be joyously and gratefully accepted.12

[12] Religious plurality is now a public issue and it impacts daily ministry. The 1992 World Council of Churches document Issues in Christian-Muslim Relations reminds us that “we can no longer speak as if Muslims are not listening; everything we say and do must be in the knowledge that they are partners, whether directly or indirectly.”13

Public Ministry in a Multi-Faith America

[13] Any pastor or lay minister who has worked or volunteered in a hospital has experienced the reality of providing pastoral care to members of other religious traditions. Whether as a CPE student, volunteer chaplain, a pastor visiting a parishioner, or a professional chaplain, the need for spiritual care and support for those who are ill or in the midst of trauma quickly extends beyond one’s own denominational confession. A dying African-American Muslim woman requests a recitation of The Fatihah. The Indian Hindu family asks the chaplain for a Hindu priest to be brought into the ICU. A Lutheran-Catholic-Jewish family celebrating the birth of a child wants to commemorate, celebrate, and engage in the sacrament of baptism. These are the moments of chaplaincy that require mature responses to provide comfort and guidance for others, while remaining faithful to one’s own religious identity.

[14] To accept this reality of public ministry is to recognize that pastors not only interact with and provide pastoral care to individuals and family members of other faith traditions, but that they interact with religious communities who also have a stake in the local contexts.14 “Aunt Sally” belongs to the local synagogue and “my friend Al” goes to Juma’ah prayer at a local mosque downtown. When we look around, whether in the immediate vicinity of our congregations, outside our “five mile bubble” or hidden behind the store front store that now serves as a worship space in the inner city, we might be surprised at the number, diversity and vitality of different religious communities in places we never expected.15 Many of these newly discovered religious communities are even purchasing Christian church buildings, including Muslim communities who turn such resources into new Islamic centers.16 These religious communities are an integral part of our public. If we are serious about doing public ministry, then engagement with these religious communities requires having antennae that anticipate and are sensitive to these communities. I remember once providing pulpit supply for a congregation in upstate New York. In preparation for my visit, I did a quick search of the religious communities in the area and was astounded at the incredible religious diversity that was reflected in various religious organizations and associations. When I inquired with the president of the church council about their relationships with other religious communities, the leader responded – much to my sadness – “that there were not many people like that around here.”

[15] Religious diversity might spawn denial, fear, or anxiety; or it might create curiosity and interest about others, and about our own uniqueness. For some Christians there has arisen the narrative that current religious diversity means that Christianity is under attack.17 For others, the presence of people of other faiths creates concern about social morality or ethics. For others, there can be a fear that by associating with people of other traditions we might be tainted, or worse. Of course, some of these responses are driven consciously or subconsciously by racism, xenophobia, or Islamophobia.

[16] It is a false assumption that to talk publicly between religious communities is ultimately to offend one another, or that religious diversity will lead to a breakdown of traditional values. Certainly, there are important theological and practical differences between religions. It is not what we believe that keeps our faith communities apart, but our assumptions that we have nothing in common, or that it is impossible to bridge our belief gap. Responding to the reality of religious diversity requires maturity, something that I will return to in a subsequent article.

[17] Eboo Patel, in his latest work, Interfaith Leadership, highlights the importance of the “narrative identity” theory of the French philosopher Paul Riceour for interfaith engagement. Patel rehearses Riceour’s ideas, that in telling our own story and in listening to the stories of others we develop identities of our and their place in the world.18 Patel provides examples of powerful stories of people whose identities were transformed by moments spent in the presence of a religious other.19 Pastors and ministers know full well the importance and power of people’s stories. In this atmosphere of Islamophobia, I have witnessed Muslims tell their stories to gathered skeptical congregations, and see the community moved by the humanity and authenticity of that individual’s story. Be they Iraqi refugees, African American youth, or a white middle class convert, these Muslim stories become the reality of the embodiment of God’s creation in our midst.

[18] One’s exclusive theological beliefs need not negatively impact one’s social disposition toward people of other faiths. On the contrary, we seek to be authentic and inclusive. It is precisely because of our theological position, our belief in the love of God in Christ made manifest for the world through the suffering of the Cross, that Lutherans are provided with the courage and freedom to engage “for love of God and love of neighbor.” As Darrell Jodock states so well in the resource Engaging Others: Knowing Ourselves: A Lutheran Calling in a Multi-Religious World:

Lutherans are particularly well-equipped for this new experience. For one thing, they celebrate God’s unmerited grace … This gives Lutherans the freedom to make mistakes and to err on the side of generosity rather than fearing unforeseen consequences. … The person who has experienced generosity is equipped and expected to show generosity towards others. Lutherans have a solid theological foundation for the practice of [such] radical hospitality.20

[19] It is a Theology of Glory, on the other hand, that seeks to dominate, to exclude, to intimidate the many who do not adhere to its ideology. Such a theology will not accommodate diversity. We know where such social and national Theologies of Glory end.

[20] In conclusion, to retain a true Lutheran Theology of the Cross in this time and place in North America, we must adhere to a public proclamation that promotes our awareness of, encounter with, and sensitivity to other religious communities that are often under-represented or victimized by a dominant culture and other Theologies of Glory in a climate of racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia. After all, where are Christians to look for Christ other than among those who are under-represented or victimized in the public sphere?21

David Grafton

David D. Grafton is the Professor of Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations at the Duncan Black Macdonald Center, Hartford International University for Religion and Peace, Hartford, Connecticut.