Preaching in a Multi-Faith Context

A talk given to Methodist preachers in London on 4 Sept 2013 (World Hijab Day)

  1. What was Jesus’ Context?

Let’s think of Jesus’ context first. I gave a talk called ‘Jesus and the Samaritans’ to a large group of Muslims, mostly imams. This is what I said to them.

The Samaritans were neighbours to the province of Judaea, they were the descendants of those who repopulated the northern kingdom after it was invaded and taken over by the Babylonians. They retained Jewish practices and customs but didn’t have anything to do with the Temple, they had a different sacred place. They were hated, marginalised and lived parallel lives. One of the themes of the Gospel is how Jesus identified with the marginalised. Like the Samaritans too, Jesus was not ‘kosher’ we might say, he came from a very ethnically mixed part of the country, it was called ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’ after all. So, Jesus singles out a Samaritan in his most famous parable. But, when we read it, we need to put on other people’s shoes. Jesus tells this story to his own people, it makes a strong point about difference and challenges all our perceptions. It is the wrong way round.The legal expert, after Jesus has told the story, cannot bring himself to say ‘Samaritan’, he might as well have said, ‘heretic’, alien, stranger. Jesus has embarrassed him into giving the right answer, he expected Jesus to say his countryman, someone of the same ethnic group, the same religion. This is a huge multifaith challenge which Jesus lays down, as religious people it should not be possible for us to hear it and do nothing. So the Samaritans are really important for us still, and if we seek to follow Jesus we should see those who are radically different from us as just like us. Jesus’ people had some big differences with the Samaritans but Jesus shows us that love and humanity comes first, that difference and identity are for others, not against them. Did Jesus Christ encourage us to pass by on the other side when our sister or brother needs us, even if we don’t know them? When he said ‘love your enemies’ he was challenging the whole idea of having enemies, it is not for the follower of Jesus to make enemies, or invent enemies. In the society of Jesus the idea of neighbour was tightly drawn, people not of the same religion and ethnicity were unclean, you would avoid them if you were on your way to prayers. Jesus’ message was to stand all of that on its head. So the Christian message is to welcome, to seek radical equality, and make a place for the other. Some people say that inter faith is a modern idea, something designed for days of reducing church attendance, for liberals who want to water down and compromise their faith. Well, you can tell that they have not experienced inter faith, have not wrestled with what it means to my faith to see ‘the Samaritan’ binding up the wounds of the assaulted or for me, God willing, to be someone else’s Samaritan. ‘Love God and love your neighbour’ is the most radical message possible, it is present in both our faiths and for me is the Gospel, telling me to welcome and make space for the other. So who is the Samaritan? When I gave this talk I suggested that Muslims are the modern Samaritans.

2. What about our context?

Jesus lived and ministered in a multifaith context and so do we, especially in London, but also in Ghana, the Gambia, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Korea. Our neighbours of other faiths see us on our way to church, just as we see them on the way to Friday prayers. They see us returning home from church, with our families, and at work. Do they wonder what we are like, if they don’t already know, what we do, how we live our faith, what we say about them as people and followers of another religion? I live in a small 90-plus percent white market town north of London, but my optician is a Muslim. It turned out on one visit that she asked me if she had seen me on the television, and I had been on a Shi’a channel talking about Imam Hussain. I had a responsibility to her, as my neighbour (and perhaps as my ‘Good Samaritan’) to speak well of Hussain and Islam. The other part of this story is that I was filmed at the front of my church just before our Bible study and worship session, with church members looking on. My other responsibility was to speak well of Hussain and Islam while I was with my church neighbours, I wouldn’t want them to hear anything untrue or unfair either.You might say that, as Director of the Christian Muslim Forum, I have a special responsibility, and that’s true. However, my Christian responsibility comes first, to love my neighbour, but I cannot do that without knowing them, otherwise they are just strangers. In mainstream society we have much in common with everybody else, whether they are religious or not, we don’t trouble too much to find out if they are humanists, agnostics, atheists or nominally religious. This isn’t true in the same way for minority ethnic and religious groups where there may be significant religious, cultural and language differences. We are conscious of some big gaps and preachers are all about gaps, so let’s ask …

3. What is the Preacher doing?

Preachers are bridge-builders, they take the scripture and they build a bridge from it to the congregation. Sometimes the congregation are already standing at the other end of the bridge, if they’re very prepared they may even be in the middle of the bridge. But some of the gaps are so big or unfamiliar that people think, I don’t want to build a bridge here, I don’t want to go anywhere near that great gulf. And preachers have much in common with their congregations, we all sat on a pew before getting up in the pulpit, and the preacher herself says ‘Oh no, I’m not going there’, or he says, ‘This is a gulf too far for me and my flock.’ And this is very understandable, sometimes society moves on and we’re not prepared for it, like the small inner city congregations where the local neighbourhood is 95% Muslim. But the preacher is a woman, or man, of vision, of exploration and, sometimes, risk-taking. They also lead the way, we hope. Where the preacher goes the congregation thinks, ‘OK, if the preacher can do it, then I can try it’ or if the preacher won’t go there, then the congregation will stay away. This is one of the reasons why the Christian Muslim Forum is so keen to work with preachers and ministers. As preachers, we don’t want our members to be saying uninformed or hateful things about Jews or Muslims or Hindus. I’m glad that I took no notice of my minister in the 1980s who said that if Muslims didn’t like it in the UK they could go back where they came from. No one likes to hear bigotry, prejudice, racism, anti-Semitism or Islamophobia from the pulpit. We have a responsibility, we have a calling and we have an opportunity, to speak well of those who are different, to remind our congregations that the people who worship differently to us are our neighbours, sisters, brothers and, hopefully, also dialogue partners, campaigners for the common good, people who are concerned as much as us about the local neighbourhood, for a people-friendly society and the name of a loving God. God has expectations of us, as my friend the imam often says, ‘to walk the walk and be the change we want to see.’

4. How do we witness?

In the end, it all comes down to witness. Following in the footsteps of the prophets and apostles before us, both women and men, we are God’s witnesses. Whatever we say or do may be all that an individual ever sees of God or of our faith. We may give people the idea that we worship an angry God full of hate, or we may have spread the message that those who are different to us worship a wrathful God and that they hate us. Having put these side by side I think we can see what is wrong with these ideas, and I’ve heard them all over the place, and why this is not what God wants, not the example of Jesus and not how Christians should be.

So let’s make this a little more specific — we may not be bothered about our misunderstandings of, say, Hinduism and Buddhism, although in sharing in them we may be party to prejudice and slander. But, how happy would we be if Hindus and Buddhists really understood our faith, if they were our friends and wanted to know more about Jesus? If we take real mutual witness seriously it enables others to witness to us about the joy of Buddhism, the beauty of Islam, the devotion of Sikhism. And if we are open to their witness we are open to the possibility and risk of being changed by it. Just as we may hope others come to faith in Christ, they will hope that we may wish to convert to Buddhism or Islam. On one level it is only fair, but it is also absolutely honest. If we put up walls we will not interact, potential for and openness to change are part of all true relationships.

Our Ethical Witness Guidelines

A few years ago, we held a preachers’ seminar and did multifaith preaching first-hand. We were equal numbers of Christians and Muslims and heard a sermon from a minister and an imam, then discussed the whole process of developing a sermon, preaching it and our experience of listening to two preachers from two different religions, it was a great privilege. Our partner from the College of Preachers wrote a reflection for our report of the event (which I have just re-read) and this is what he said: ‘Dialogue without dilution’ slips easily off the tongue, but for people of faith it contains a paradox. For some it is a threatening paradox. For how can you honestly enter into dialogue with someone else unless you are willing to allow your mind, your perception of things, to be changed through the dialogue? If you do not allow the possibility of your mind being changed, then it is not dialogue. Yet, if you admit the possibility of your mind being changed, are you not opening the possibility that your faith in the things you hold dear, on which you stake your life, may be undermined? We preachers in both faiths have a special responsibility, for we are, by our calling, communicators. We have a special responsibility to address the paradox, and to live a life of dialogue without dilution; to affirm publicly our respective faiths with all our conviction, and at the same time call those to whom we speak in our own communities of faith to enter into the adventure of dialogue.

5. What does ‘the other’ mean to us?

One of the earliest talks I gave on our multifaith context, at my own church, contained these comments: We should at least be polite when encountering other faiths, we will then be able to have a conversation, they might respect our religion too. Would it not be embarrassing if having expressed negative views about people of other faiths they still respond graciously and respectfully to us as friends and neighbours, manifesting the love and grace of God? Jesus also said — Stop judging, so that you won’t be judged (Mt 7:1); and, my favourite, the biggest challenge to our Christian, but post-Jesus outlook — But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first (Mt. 19.30). Another important verse is: Malachi 1.10 "I wish that someone among you would shut the Temple doors so that these worthless sacrifices could not be offered! I am not at all pleased with you,” says the LORD Almighty, “and I will not accept your offerings. 11 But my name is honored by people of other nations from morning till night. All around the world they offer sweet incense and pure offerings in honor of my name. For my name is great among the nations,” says the LORD Almighty.

There is a similar verse in the Qur’an — 22.40 — which mentions churches and synagogues to the same effect. This is very radical, it is intended to shock, it is prophetic after all. God, through the prophet is saying I do not like your religion, your religious practices, it would be much better if you didn’t bother at all. I hope that God is not saying that to us today. But, he goes on, these other people, foreigners, people of other faiths, honour my name from morning till night. All around the world they offer sweet incense and pure offerings. Some Bible translations seem to have a problem with this and use ‘will honour’ and so on. But the text is pointing to the current situation. God’s chosen people are making a mockery of worship, have even betrayed the ‘true’ faith, while the ‘heathens’, people of other faiths, are truly worshipping God.

See more discussion of the Bible and inter faith here: Inter faith for the Cautious

This is what we don’t want to see happen:

When we see violence, hatred, war, persecution and oppression then the dialogue has broken down. Society becomes inhumane, people listening to preachers of hate when we should be listening to preachers of love, this permeates the whole of society, we see it on television and the news (I don’t mean actual ‘preachers’). When extremists take over, when excessive (impersonal) religious demands are made which do not respect and value others, when there is no place for the ‘other’ — and we are all other — there is an urgent need for us to speak well of each other, to be gracious and generous, to model good relations, to be loving people committed to dialogue and living the heart of our traditions.

Julian Bond, Director, Christian Muslim Forum


Originally published at www.christianmuslimforum.org.