A particularly powerful Gospel story recounts Jesus meeting with a Syro-Phoenician woman. Central to that story is where their encounter takes place: on the borders of Samaria. For Jesus, Samaria was a foreign territory, both in terms of ethnicity and religion. In his encounter with this woman, he is standing at the edges, the borders, of how he then understood himself religiously.
I believe that this is where we are standing today as Christians, on new borders in terms of relating to other religions, not least to our Islamic brothers and sisters. The single most important agenda item for our churches for the next 50 years will be the issue of relating to other religions: Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, indigenous religions in the Americas and Africa, and various forms, old and new, of Paganism and New Age. Simply stated, if all the violence stemming from religious extremism hasn’t woken us yet, then we are dangerously asleep. We have no choice. The world has become one village, one community, one family, and unless we begin to understand and accept each other more deeply we will never be a world at peace.
Moreover, for us as Christians, the threat of hatred and violence coming from other religions isn’t the main reason we are called to understand non-Christian believers more compassionately. The deeper reason is that the God we honour calls us to do that. Our God calls us to recognise and welcome all sincere believers into our hearts as brothers and sisters in faith.
Jesus makes this abundantly clear almost everywhere in his message, and at times makes it uncomfortably explicit: who are my brothers and sisters? It is those who hear the word of God and keep it … It is not necessarily those who say “Lord, Lord” who enter the Kingdom of Heaven but those who do the will of God on earth. Who can deny that many non-Christians do the will of God here on earth?
But what about the extremism, violence and perverse expressions of religion we frequently see outside Christianity? Can we really consider these religions as true, given the awful things done in their name?
All religions are to be judged, as the scholar Huston Smith submits, by their highest expressions and their saints, not by their perversions. This is true too for Christianity. We hope that others will judge us not by our darkest moments or by the worst acts ever done by Christians in the name of religion, but rather by all the good Christians have done in history and by our saints. We owe that same understanding to other religions, and all of them in their essence and in their best expressions call us to what’s one, good, true and beautiful – and all of them have produced great saints.
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