Respecting other religions

January 15th, 2016

A resurgence of fear and hostility

Since the Paris attacks perpetrated by ISIS and the shooting attack at the San Bernardino social service center, fear of and hostility toward Muslims in the United States have increased. Soon after the Paris attacks, mosques in Florida received telephone threats. A Muslim student at the University of Connecticut found the words “killed Paris” written on his dorm room door. Leaders of an Islamic center near Austin, Texas, found a desecrated Quran at the entrance. Some presidential candidates have encouraged tighter restrictions on Muslims, and one even suggested banning their entry into the country.

In the face of such responses, many Muslims live in fear for their families and for themselves. One mother with young children said, “This is one of my biggest fears: being physically attacked in front of my children because I wear the hijab and then having to explain to my children why that happened. How do you explain to a three-year-old that people hate you because of how other people acted?”

In this time of increased misunderstanding and fear of other religions, particularly Islam, how do we foster good relationships with and acceptance of people of other faiths? How do we respect other traditions without compromising our own faith?

Fostering good relationships

Finding ways to connect with and get to know people of other faiths goes a long way toward building respect for them and their religions. For more than 10 years, I was a volunteer with the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, a widely diverse, ethically driven organization working to promote public policies that better serve low-income, vulnerable, and underrepresented communities in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Membership in this nonprofit includes individuals and congregations from a variety of denominations and from Judaism and Islam. Working with the Virginia Interfaith Center allowed me to get to know people from those faith traditions in ways I never had before and to realize how many common concerns we have.

Respecting other traditions

Our United Methodist heritage provides the theological understanding for an attitude of respect and tolerance of other religions. John Wesley taught prevenient grace — that God is active in the world through the Holy Spirit and that God’s grace “goes before” all persons.

This attitude of respect and tolerance is affirmed in the United Methodist Social Principles (¶162.B), which make this statement regarding the rights of religious minorities: “Religious persecution has been common in the history of civilization. We urge policies and practices that ensure the right of every religious group to exercise its faith free from legal, political, or economic restrictions. We condemn all overt and covert forms of religious intolerance, being especially sensitive to their expression in media stereotyping. We assert the right of all religions and their adherents to freedom from legal, economic, and social discrimination.”

Called to be neighbors

Resolution 3141, “Called to Be Neighbors and Witnesses: Guidelines for Interreligious Relationships,” in The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church, 2012, offers extensive guidance on respecting other religions. The resolution points out that global problems of human suffering are such that no single faith group can solve them. However, tensions between groups often thwart efforts at cooperation that are necessary for constructive response. “Can we, of different faith traditions, live together as neighbors, or will diverse religious loyalties result in mutual antagonism and destruction?” (page 270).

The resolution states that neighborliness is required. Being a neighbor to other religious groups “means to meet other persons, to know them, to relate to them, to respect them, and to learn about their ways, which may be quite different from our own” (page 271). It means creating a sense of community in our neighborhoods, towns, and cities, and it means creating social structures that encourage justice for all.

Our participation in the work of the Holy Spirit “suggests that we United Methodist Christians, not individually, but corporately, are called to be neighbors with other faith communities (such as Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Native American), and to work with them to create a human community, a set of relationships between people at once interdependent and free, in which there is love, mutual respect, and justice” (page 272).

Called to be witnesses

In addition to calling United Methodists to be neighbors, Resolution 3141 also calls us to witness to our faith in Jesus Christ. For many people, these two callings are difficult to hold in tension. Some people fear that by respecting another religion and being neighborly to its followers, they’ll lose their faith or will at least fail to be faithful to it. However, it’s possible to be both neighbor and witness simultaneously.

This resolution points out that witnessing means bridging boundaries. “The Gospels tell story after story of Jesus crossing boundaries and reaching to outsiders.” It continues, “We are to proclaim and witness to the God who has bound humanity together in care for one another, regardless of the differences between us.” The resolution acknowledges that too often “our witness has been unneighborly, how much we have talked and how little we have listened, and how our insensitive and unappreciative approaches have alienated sincere truth seekers and persons who already have strong faith commitments. We become aware that we frequently communicate attitudes of superiority regarding our own faith, thereby perpetuating walls and hostilities between us as human beings.” When we build and perpetuate these walls and hostilities, we “restrict Christian witness” (page 272).

Resolution 3141 lifts up dialogue as a way to be both neighbor and witness. Dialogue is “an approach to persons of other faith communities that takes seriously both the call to witness and the command to love and be neighbors. To be engaged in dialogue is to see witnessing and neighborliness as interrelated activities” (page 273). The resolution emphasizes that dialogue is not a betrayal of witness.

People of other faiths may suspect that dialogue is a tool for conversion; however, this isn’t the case if it’s done in a context of learning truth and wisdom from the other as well as sharing our own truth and wisdom. We leave the rest to the Holy Spirit. We can do that because of our Wesleyan understanding of prevenient grace. The Holy Spirit is at work in the church and in the world. God’s grace “goes before” all people.

Challenges and opportunities

Being a neighbor and being called to witness are inseparable for United Methodists. In our pluralistic world, we’re faced with challenges and opportunities — learning how the Holy Spirit works among all peoples of the world; reading holy texts of other religions; and opening ourselves to the insights in their images, stories, and rituals.

Resolution 3141 offers these guidelines for interreligious relationships:

  1. Identify the faith communities in your area and help your congregation learn about them, perhaps through some planned experiences together or through study groups to introduce other faith traditions. 
  2. Enter into dialogues with other faith communities. 
  3. Work together with people from other faith traditions in practical ways, such as soup kitchens, food pantries, Habitat for Humanity, and so forth. 
  4. Plan community celebrations with people of other traditions. 
  5. Develop new models of community building to strengthen relationships between people who live together and to help them honor the integrity of their differences. 

The intent of respecting other religions by being neighbors and witnesses isn’t to amalgamate all faiths into one. Interreligious dialogue isn’t about endorsing or denying the faith of other people. Instead, it’s a path to increased understanding and peace in our communities, nation and world.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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