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Religious pluralism in the United States and other lands: a challenge for Baptists and other Christians in the 21st century: my paper concentrates primarily on prospects rather than retrospects for two reasons.

First, I have dealt with this subject in a number of previous essays. Second, Baptists, like other evangelicals, have given their primary attention to evangelism, missions, and personal conversion rather than to interreligious dialogue and other nonevangelistic endeavors. By and large, Baptists have been far more concerned with their responsibility to take or proclaim the gospel to all people, including the followers of other faiths, than to study thoroughly or consider objectively what other people believe.

Until the last half of the past century, except for missionaries, businesspersons, and government representatives, Baptists had little direct contact with peoples of other faiths. After World War II, however, migration from-Asia and Africa to the West began to change the demographic character of most predominantly Christian countries, including Western Europe and North America. The most dramatic upsurge of Asians and Africans entering the United States, however, came after the change in the immigration laws in 1965. And though no one knows precisely how many Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus there are today in the United States, it is generally conceded that there are at least six million followers of Islam, a million to two million Hindus, and a slightly lesser number of Buddhists. Moreover, these numbers continue to increase, and the visible evidences of other faiths are all around us. You may be surprised to know, for example, that the largest Baptist university in the United States, Baylor University, located in Waco, Texas, had in their student body last year 72 Muslims, 68 Buddhists, and 67 Hindus, (1) a momentous change from a generation ago.

Unfortunately, if most Baptists have any knowledge of other faiths, it is academic or anecdotal. Southern Baptists through the Interfaith Witness Department of the Home Mission Board did during the 1970s attempt some interfaith dialogues. But during the 1980s, these efforts were dropped in favor of evangelism.

Given the fact that this country--as most countries in the West--is becoming increasingly multicultural and multi-religious, how we Christians relate to non-Christians will determine whether we are able to live together in a truly pluralistic society or whether we will become a tangle of competing, mutually suspicious, antagonistic neighbors. Because of these possibilities, I want to concentrate on the future of Baptists and peoples of other faiths.

Three years ago I was invited to give the Scherer Lectures at the Chicago Lutheran Seminary, lectures sponsored by the Theological Consortium composed of the Lutheran and McCormick seminaries, as well as by the Chicago Theological Union. The theme I chose was the challenge of religious pluralism in North America. The two lectures were subsequently published in the Lutheran school's journal, Currents in Theology and Mission 25 (April 1998).

In the first lecture, I addressed the question of whether genuine religious pluralism is desirable or even possible in the United States. In the second discourse, I tried to allay what I consider to be instinctive as well as incited fears about religious, cultural, and ethnic pluralism by accentuating the missiological possibilities that a genuinely pluralistic context offers.

This last September, I had the privilege of giving "the Baptist Lecture" at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton Centre, Massachusetts, and it is the essence of that lecture that I am offering here today. It is not, however, exactly the same because of things that have happened within the intervening months. Today, I will focus specifically on Baptists and why the multiplicity and growing numbers of peoples of other faiths in this country represent a particular challenge for Baptists. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that only Baptists are challenged, and it would be a mistake to conclude that Baptists in other lands do not face the same or similar challenges. Our roots are those of Christians and Protestants in general, but we are also beneficiaries of a specific heritage from Congregationalists in terms of church polity, and Presbyterians and Congregationalists in terms of theology. We are Congregationalists in polity and modified Calvinists in theology, that is, most Baptists hold to a modified form of Calvinism. Moreover, migration in the world today is as high or higher than anytime in history. Thus the incidences of peoples of multiple faiths living in close proximity to each other is not diminishing. It is increasing.

Pluralism Defined

One of the terms often used imprecisely in church circles is the word "pluralism." What is pluralism theologically speaking? It is not a passive or even intentional toleration or formal acceptance of others--be they Asian, African, European, Latin American, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, or Jew--because we believe that basically all human beings, cultures, and religions are essentially the same. This appears to be how some understand pluralism. What is it, then?

Philosophically, pluralism rests on the assumption that ultimate reality is many, multiple, that is, more than one or two. There is evidence that some of the early Greek philosophers were philosophical pluralists, such as Empedocles in the fifth century BCE. (2)

Socially and politically, pluralism implies that diverse ethnic, racial, social, political, and religious groups not only can live together in relative harmony as each group maintains its individual identity--ethnically, racially, culturally, religiously, and in some case linguistically. Pluralism also means that each group can legitimately endeavor to preserve and perpetuate its own beliefs, values, and customs, and, if necessary, defend its particular interests, while at the same time each contributing to the development and enrichment of the total society. Instead of the "melting pot" imagery, pluralism suggests the image of a "tossed salad." I am not sure which of these the founders of this country envisioned, but I believe they hoped for the first--a melting pot--and thus the motto, E Pluribus Unum. But legally they made provision for the second--a tossed salad kind of society. Admittedly, a genuinely pluralistic society has always eluded us, and it seems to me that the prevailing view is that pluralism is nothing more than a quixotic, romantic, unrealizable dream.

Currently, we are witnesses to the difficulty--some would say the Impossibility--of maintaining even an approximation of a socially pluralistic society. For social pluralism appears not only unpopular these days; it seems to be under siege all over the world.

If you think this is hyperbole, listen to the talk shows in this nation, and count the number of hate groups with home pages on the World Wide Web. Think of the senseless killings and maimings that have taken place in the last two years in Texas, Illinois, California, Wyoming, and Colorado. Then reflect on what has happened and is happening in the former Yugoslavia as well as in several republics of the former Soviet Union. Note the difficulty or difficulties on both sides to implement the peace accords between the Palestinians and Israelis. Consider the violence that has occurred and is occurring in India and the threat of war between India and Pakistan. Think of the hundreds and thousands of East Timorese who were killed or driven from their homes and land last August and September.

Underlying all these conflicts, all this violence, and all this needless suffering is a simmering and often erupting hatred of others who are different. Today, pluralism appears to be out and separatism appears to be in. Tragically, separatism--ethnic, racial, and cultural--is frequently justified as well as intensified by religion.

What then is religious pluralism? One of the clearest definitions I have read is that of Mark Heim when he says,
 ... pluralism in a true sense means that we live with each other and accept
 each other though we see clearly that we are not the same. America is a
 pluralistic nation, not because underneath cosmetic appearances we all
 think and feel and act the same, but because we do not. There are real
 differences in our families, our histories, and our convictions about
 ultimate matters.

 True pluralism does not mean coming to terms with my Buddhist neighbor
 by affirming that underneath it all we believe exactly the same thing. If
 that is so, we are not really distinct and plural. Pluralism means living
 with real distinctions, conflicting answers about what is most
 determinative for our lives. (3)

Religious pluralism remains an elusive objective even in this land. It is my belief, however, that Baptists have a unique contribution to make and therefore a unique responsibility for the future.

We Live in an Increasingly Segmented and Fragmented Society

Perhaps these are not significant, but I cannot ignore the growing number of indications of our ethnic, racial, cultural, and religious distinctions. If you visit Raleigh, and you have the opportunity to pass what is known as Capitol Square in downtown, you can see there a dramatic illustration of our social and religious fragmentation. Facing the state capitol on the east side are two church sanctuaries: First Baptist (predominantly black) and Christ Episcopal. To the back of the capitol are First Presbyterian (PCUSA) and another First Baptist (formerly SBC and now CBF), (predominantly white). Then on the perpendicular side street of Edenton are the Church of the Good Shepherd (also Episcopal) and the Edenton Street United Methodist Church. One block from the capitol grounds on the street running parallel to Edenton Street is Hillsborough Street on which is located Sacred Heart Cathedral (Roman Catholic). Thus within a radius of two blocks surrounding the North Carolina capitol building are seven churches representing two races, three branches of Christianity (Roman Catholic, Anglo Catholic, and Protestant), and six different Christian denominations. Religiously, we professing Christians are a segmented, segregated people.

Driving from Raleigh to Durham a few weeks ago, I could hardly miss the widely advertised "Expo of Black Businesses." Recently, the Raleigh newspaper carried articles such as "Scarcity of Latinos on TV Triggers Boycott"; (4) the NAACP protested the absence of blacks in this year's new television offerings. These tell the story without having to read a line of the articles themselves. Three years ago, Daniel Zwerdling interviewed Harvard University's Gary Orfield about how schools in the U.S. are rapidly becoming segregated again. (5) Last fall, NPR aired a story entitled "Selective Segregation" describing the ethnic and racial divisions evident in university and college fraternities and sororities, a ten-minute segment on NPR's "Morning Edition." Recently, I became a member of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Raleigh to represent the Interfaith Alliance in this distinctly Hispanic organization.

Christian "Yellow Pages"; black business expositions; white, black, and Hispanic fraternities and sororities; ethnic chambers of commerce--what do these suggest? A melting pot, a tossed salad, or a balkanization of our country? Incidentally, which part of the U.S. do you think is more segregated? According to an analysis of the 1990 national census, the most segregated cities in the U.S. are in the Northeast, not in the South. (6)

I am not implying that any of one of these alone should be regarded as necessarily indicative or even ominous. But I am saying that the U.S. as a "melting pot" or even as a "tossed salad" is giving way to a society that is increasingly divided into self-contained and too often competing units of culture. To question these trends and advocate something different is to risk the ridicule and rejection of some very vocal and sometimes hostile groups.

The phenomenon of fragmentation is complicated by what I sense to be a growing resentment and dislike of immigrants to this country. It is to be expected, of course, that some people will be angry about and will protest immigration into the U.S., despite the fact that all of us, with the arguable exception of Native Americans, are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants.

Were it not for having the opportunity to be in many parts of this country over the past three decades, I might well mistake the manifestations of what I call "neo-nativism' i.e., the renewed opposition to immigration, as being a southern phenomenon and southern problem. It is, unfortunately, a national problem. (7) All it takes, or so it appears, is for an ethnic group to move from being relatively invisible, remaining in the shadows or on the margins into the spotlight for these neo-nativists to begin to chillar or squeal. In July 1999, for example, our newspaper ran a story regarding the growing number of Burmese refugees coming to the Triangle (Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill). This was followed the next day by an account of a new Hindu temple--the second in Raleigh--that is under construction in the Raleigh suburb of Cary. A week after the two stories appeared, the following letter to the editor was published. Before sharing the letter, I should note that the Raleigh News and Observer regularly reports on the mistreatment and exploitation of Latin Americans, residents and migrants, in North Carolina. (8) Hence the reference to Latin Americans by the letter writer.
 On July 11 and 12 you published articles that most readers might
 conclude are a continuation of a pro-immigration, multiculturalist agenda.
 Past N&O articles appeared to empathize with illegal Mexicans. In both the
 Burmese piece ("Continuing conflict swells influx of Burmese refugees") and
 the piece on the Hindu temple ("South Indians to build a temple of. their
 own in Cary") it was reported that more immigrants would follow. From
 another source I read that a thousand Hindu temples are either built or
 planned across this nation.

 I am certain I do not have to remind you of who did most of the
 settlement and development of, and dying for, this country. And in spite of
 the gate being wedged open in President Lyndon Johnson's days (with 25
 million illegal and legal immigrants since then), America is still mostly
 white, black and Christian. Of course, there are other major religions, and
 we have always been multiracial. But this is not about temple and certainly
 not about race. It's about massive unchecked immigration.

 Therefore, it's only fair that you tell the rest of us, i.e., natives
 and legal and assimilated immigrants, just how much dilution of and
 adverse change to traditional America, its heritage, culture, lifestyle,
 language base and environmental impacts due to crowding you wish to

 The temple piece ended with a leader quoted as saying that they desired
 to preserve their traditions for the next generation. Imagine that.
 American needs to get smart and elect a president and a Congress with the,
 courage to lean on the gate before balkanization sets in. (9)

I will refrain from commenting on the letter except to say the writer was correct in noting the sharp rise in non-European immigrants into the United States since 1965. For it was during that year that the national quota system, which had long favored immigrants from Europe and severely restricted Asians and Africans, was replaced by a more equitable system which permits many more peoples from Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Though we have estimates of how many non-Jewish and non-Christian peoples of faith are now in the United States, the fact is no one knows how many there are. No questions regarding religion are included when a national census is done every ten years. Thus, no one really knows how many Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, or Taoists are here. Some of them publish statistical information about their numbers. Most do not. Moreover, the samplings and estimates vary widely. (10) Although for several years a number of scholars and researchers, such as Professor Diana L. Eck of Harvard, have attempted to gather more reliable data, their statistics are at best indicative and may be far off the mark. What seems clear is that there are as many as six million Muslims in the U.S. today, over a million Hindus, and more than a quarter of a million Buddhists, together with smaller numbers of Sikhs, Jains, Baha'is, (11) and others. If one is looking for "mission fields," they are all around us.

These Demographic Changes Represent a Summons to Baptists and Other Christians

Most Christians, including many Christian leaders, appear to be oblivious or uninterested in the dramatic migration to this country and the changing composition of our society. For some Christians, however, these swelling numbers of peoples of other faiths represent a serious threat. Christians, they say, will be enticed away from the one true faith. For other Christians, large numbers of non-Christians mean head-to-head competition or a growing pool of potential converts. We must win them to Christianity before they win us, or we must win them to Christian faith because that is what Christians are supposed to do, viz., evangelize. Finally, the changing religious composition of the U.S. is a summons, a new call to mission, and, I believe, a call to new forms of mission.

For those who see Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam as threats, opposition to immigration as well as restricting religious freedom are instinctive responses. For those who see non-Christian faiths as potential competitors or potential converts, mission is usually reduced to evangelism. (12) But for those who see peoples of other faiths as indicators of a kairos moment, mission can take many forms, only one of which may be evangelism.

For Baptists, because of our history, the summons is much more complex. We are summoned to reaffirm and be advocates of religious freedom for everyone in this nation, Christian and non-Christian. When, therefore, a city or town zoning or planning board denies a Muslim group a permit to open an Islamic center--as occurred in the mid-1980s in Starkville, Mississippi, (13) and in the 1990s in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Baptists should be among the first to protest this kind of religious discrimination. Moreover, if those being discriminated against file a suit against the city--as the Muslims did in Mississippi--Baptists should be the first to file an amicus curiae brief in their behalf. The reason is simple: governments that deny Muslims their rights can just as easily deny the rights of Jews or Christians.

Admittedly, there will be occasions when it will be difficult for Christians to support or to advocate religious freedom for some groups and some people. But unless we have religious freedom for everyone in this land, no one is truly free--Christian, Jew, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, or whatever. And though it may "stick in our craw," the same is true for the followers of the so-called pagan religions, such as Wicca. (14) Religious freedom in this country is not a concession. It is a right guaranteed by the Constitution. (15) We are called to support and defend, if need be, this right for everyone.

We are summoned to address openly and honestly the nettlesome, complex issue of religion in the public schools and religion in "the public square." Few issues today are as divisive as the matters of prayer in the schools, the posting of the Ten Commandments in publicly-owned buildings, and the provision of tuition vouchers or credits for children attending religious schools. It is almost impossible to have an open forum or a civil discussion of these issues.

Three years ago, The Washington Post published a story about a rancorous debate in the South Carolina state Board of Education. Some were insisting that the Ten Commandments be exhibited in the schools, while other board members questioned the legality and the propriety of doing so. They pointed out that the Ten Commandments are inseparably connected to the Judeo-Christian tradition, and to post these commandments would be a violation of the Constitution and an affront to non-Christians and non-Jews. A member of the board, Dr. Henry Jordan, a surgeon, responded in rage: "Screw the Buddhists and kill the Muslims." Then to underscore his point he said, "And put that in the minutes." He concluded by declaring, "What I want to do is promote Christianity as the only true religion. This nation was founded to worship, honor, and glorify Jesus Christ, not Mohammed, not Buddha." (16)

Baptists--together with many others-have insisted that it is not the role of government to promote Christianity, or, for that matter, to promote any religion. Jordan, along with many other people in this land, sees it differently. Although congressional legislation favoring "prayer" in public schools and the display of the Ten Commandments has not mustered enough votes to pass Congress, allowing the use of school vouchers may well be approved by Congress and allowed by the Supreme Court in the near future.

Underlying this legal quagmire is an issue that the Court until the summer of 2000 had adroitly sidestepped, namely, what forms of aid can local, state, and the federal governments provide without violating the principle of church and state separation? Until 1947, state courts as well as the Supreme Court consistently denied financial aid to religious schools. The case of Everson vs. the Board of Education was first filed and decided in New Jersey against the plaintiff. The decision was appealed and the ruling handed down in 1947. The Supreme Court agreed by a razor-thin margin of 5-4 that public funds could be used to transport parochial school students.

Everson therefore marked the first breach in the wall of separation between church and state. The Court allowed that the New Jersey school board could use public funds to reimburse parents of parochial school students for their transportation to and from school. (17) More than a half-century and dozens of cases and decisions later, we may have just witnessed the inclination of the Court. While advocates for school vouchers not only appeal to the precedent established in 1947, the federal courts have rendered a series of conflicting decisions. The Supreme Court has declined to hear some cases, none more puzzling than its refusal to consider the case involving the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, voucher program. (18)

Those who favor change point out that many church leaders appear to want things both ways. They are quite willing to benefit from laws that exempt churches from paying property taxes and laws that allow ordained clergy to claim a parsonage allowance. (19) Also, churches, like other nonprofit organizations, take advantage of significantly reduced postage rates. Are these not forms of government subsidy? critics ask. Why are they not a violation of the First Amendment? And are religious school children that are handicapped not provided the same special help they would receive in public schools, and does the government not already pay for nonsectarian textbooks for all children whether in public or parochial schools? Also, are subsidized school meals not available to needy children regardless of where they are enrolled? (20) Why then are you strict interpreters of the First Amendment not protesting these forms of government aid?

Opponents of change respond by pointing out that the Supreme Court has not overturned its own 1973 decision that ruled unconstitutional a New York tuition reimbursement grant program to parochial school students from low income families. It is difficult, opponents to change say, to see any substantive difference in the 1990s Milwaukee voucher program and the 1970s program in New York that the Court declared violated the establishment clause. (21)

It is impossible to predict what the Court will decide in regard to the complicated issue of school vouchers. Meanwhile, instituting voucher programs is being discussed and tested in a number of states. Wisconsin and Ohio already have such programs, though in the case of Cleveland, Ohio, U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver Jr. suspended the program, but then allowed students who had been receiving the aid to continue receiving it the first semester of this school year or until the courts resolve the issue. (22)

Meanwhile, Arizona has sanctioned what are called school tuition organizations (STOs) and a state tax credit of up to $500 per year for those who give to support an STO. A STO is a legal entity to which parents can apply for aid to send their children to private and/or religious schools.

Despite what Justice Black said, the wall of separation has not always been impregnable, and increasingly the lower courts are urging the Supreme Court to clarify what has become a maze of seemingly contradictory decisions.

I am not a constitutional lawyer, and neither am I prepared to come down on one side or the other of these complicated cases. But I see several small clouds on the horizon that appear to signal an approaching storm which has the potential of destroying the so-called wall of separation between church and state, first in education, then in welfare and other areas as well. Likewise, such a storm could contribute to the further deterioration of the public school system. And finally, it could accelerate the growing racial, class, and religious divisions in this country.

I wonder if the conservatives who lobby so fervently for government aid to their religious schools are prepared to see tax monies going to Hindu, Muslim, and Jewish religious schools--all of which should by law have the same privileges claimed by these conservative Christians.

We are summoned likewise to join with all persons of good will against the purveyors of hate and discrimination, especially those who sow hate in the name of religion. You may expect me to refer at this point to the growing number of "Christian identity" groups that seem to be appearing everywhere, or to say something about people like Buford O. Furrow who on August 10, 1999, entered the North Valley Jewish Center in Whittier, a suburb of Los Angeles, began shooting, amazingly wounding only five people but not killing anyone. I would not minimize the harm these sick and deranged people have done and can do. What comes to my mind, however, is an experience and conversation I had at the Conference on Baptist Distinctives at the American Baptist Assembly, Green Lake, Wisconsin, August 17-23, 1996, with a well-known Baptist leader from the Bay Area of California. The theme of the week's conference was "Preserving Baptist Distinctives," but this person was determined to shift the issue to homosexuality. When he failed to gain a following, he resorted to threats and intimidation. It was my first face-to-face contact with an American Baptist who was unbending and unwilling to engage in respectful dialogue.

No less shocking was a copy of a newsletter I read recently. It is a monthly published by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (nee, Christian Life Commission) of the SBC. The headline read, "Hate-Crimes Efforts Threaten Traditional Morality," and included "Ten Reasons to Oppose Hate Crimes Legislation," because, e.g., "It advances the radical, well publicized agenda of homosexuals to gain acceptance for and legal recognition of homosexuality as a normal lifestyle." In other words, Baptists are admonished to oppose federal legislation against "hate crimes," because to support such legislation is equivalent to promoting homosexuality.

Baptists of all people should remember what it is like to be a despised and scorned minority. Furthermore, regardless of one's position on homosexuality, gay people are human beings, and they are citizens who are often targets of violence because of their sexual orientation. No one would be advocating "hate crime" legislation were it not for the fact that some people are victims of crimes perpetrated by people who hate. Do we as Baptists, therefore, have any contribution to make in this divisive debate? Are we going to remain mute about the need for hate crime legislation simply because we fear that it will somehow benefit homosexuals?

We are summoned, I believe, to continue to reflect theologically and experientially on the meaning of the uniqueness of Christ. To put it another way, as Baptists we should be slow to finalize our beliefs as if we have all the light and all the truth we need. In a word, we ought to be fearful of dogma, for dogma has a way of shutting down discussion and closing off new insights and perspectives. One of my former Ph.D. students now teaches in a Presbyterian seminary. He called me recently and told me that he is suffering from "presbyopia." I thought he was joking. But he went on to explain that presbyopia is a visual problem caused by a loss of elasticity of the lens which prevents or slows down the focusing of the eye. The worse the condition becomes, the more time it takes for the object of vision to come into focus. We all suffer to one degree or another from theological presbyopia. It takes time for difficult questions to come into focus.

"Is Christ the Only Way?" is a question that is always relevant and never finally settled. From the reading I have done, it is a question to which Baptists have given a variety of answers, none of which I am ready to anoint or endorse as the last word on the subject. As a matter of fact, the wisdom of E. Stanley Jones, Methodist missionary to India, one whom I have admired since I was an adolescent, addresses this question. Avoiding the debate regarding the nature of Christ and the enigmatic doctrine of the Trinity, Jones spelled out the significance of Jesus by saying:
 We know now that God is like what we have seen in Jesus. God is Christlike.
 God is a good God and trustable.... Strange, a person lived among us, and
 when we think of God we must think of God in terms of this person, Jesus.
 [In fact], we may transfer every single moral quality in Jesus to God
 without loss or degradation to our thoughts of God. On the contrary, by
 thinking of God in terms of Jesus we heighten our view of God. (23)

If we insist that our view of truth is the only view, that our doctrine has exhausted and explained God's revelation in Jesus Christ, we will close ourselves off to new light and we will continue to place in the path of many sincere people impediments to following Jesus.

Opportunities in the Coming Decades

The presence of so many people of different faiths in this country offers virtually everyone the kind of opportunity once enjoyed only by missionaries, government or international business people, and travelers to foreign lands.

For broadening and enriching our lives and cultures. Exceptions exist, of course, but I can think of no experience or series of experiences that have increased my understanding, enhanced my sensitivity to others, and enriched my life more than the years my family and I have lived outside this country. We had to give up some things to be sure; primarily we had to sacrifice being geographically close to family and friends. But separation from them was ameliorated by our becoming members of a new family and by the tremendous enlargement of our circle of friends. A similar experience has been mine here in the United States since becoming involved in interfaith work. Our friendship with Imam Amad Chebli, with Rabbi James Diamond, with Buddhist leader Ami Trime in Princeton was an educational as well as religious awakening. Then after moving to Raleigh, I have had the opportunity to know and work with people like Dr. Ghazala Sadiq, a Muslim woman and engineer; Imam Oliver Muhammad, chief Muslim chaplain for the NC Department of Corrections; Rabbis Lucy Dinner and Deborah Cohen, Martin and Judi Jacobs, a Jewish couple; Murali Bashyam, a Hindu attorney; and Dr. Padmini Srinvasan Hands, a Buddhist professor at North Carolina State University--these persons have added an invaluable and incalculable dimension to my life.

For creating and nurturing interfaith coalitions. Several years ago I decided to dedicate much of my time and energy to interfaith work. Even before we moved from New Jersey to North Carolina, I learned of a fledgling interfaith organization in Raleigh. So after we moved I began to attend the meetings. After a couple of meetings, I saw that the organization was so divided that it was in danger of collapsing altogether. After several months the number of faithful participants had dwindled to five. We decided to reorganize.

We discovered several things. First, we found that to have an effective interfaith group we had to be clear about our purpose. (24) This meant (1) sharpening and refocusing our vision; (2) developing a concise and explicit missions statement; (3) specifying and defining our goals; (4) recruiting personally and prudently board members; (5) selecting officers who were willing to work and who could work together; and (6) planning events and engaging in projects that would challenge, inform, and involve grassroots people of faith in activities that were interfaith, but that would also be significant and relevant to their lives. In a word, it means having events and projects that moved us toward our stated goals.

Second, we discovered also that interfaith work does not appeal to great numbers nor is it high on the agenda of many Christian pastors. This has been especially true of Baptist pastors in Raleigh. Fortunately, some pastors have ecumenism and interfaith activities as a part of their job descriptions, and others become involved because they see these as crucial aspects of their ministry.

Third, we also found that not only are there impediments to coming and working together between Jews and Muslims, Protestants and Catholics, Christians and peoples of almost any other faith, but also that there is deep suspicion in the black community of well-meaning but naive and insensitive whites. My main focus these last several months has been given to bridging the racial divide in our city.

The progress we have made in the past two years has, nonetheless, been gratifying, and the payoffs have been multiple and in some respects incredible. It has been worth all the effort, for we have established a presence and an image, and now with regularity we receive calls for information and for help as well as invitations to be a part of interfaith endeavors.

For demonstrating the workability of pluralism. As Mark Heim says, authentic pluralism is not erasing or ignoring our religious, theological, and cultural differences. It is rather living together, accepting each other, and working together despite the fact that we are different. Poverty and prejudice are not problems only for whites or blacks, Christians or Jews, Muslims or Hindus. These are human problems, and we are called to work with all people of good will to resolve or at least reduce the incidences of these conditions.

For engaging in authentic and effective Christian witness. Most of us recognize that there are various ways to witness, some good and effective, some dubious or controversial, and some counter-productive. Recently, the International Mission Board of the largest Baptist convention in the country produced a number of small pamphlets. The first, ostensibly a call to pray for Jews, was entitled, "Days of Awe. Prayer for Jews." According to the writer, the eighteen-page pamphlet was designed to help Southern Baptists pray for and "share the gospel" with Jews.

When some Jewish leaders in this country learned about this, they were annoyed and publicly protested what they deemed was an arrogant and disrespectful targeting of them and other Jewish people for evangelism. Their objections were, first, that the prayers and the evangelistic efforts were to be engaged in during the highest holy days of the year for Jewish people, the ten-day period that begins with the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and ends with the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. In the second place, these Jewish spokespersons objected because the photographs were stereotypical and the text reinforced Christian pride and condescension toward the Jewish faith. They objected also because they interpreted statements such as, "Build authentic friendships with Jewish people. Love them as you would an unsaved relative" (25) as code language for developing disingenuous and manipulative relationships with Jewish people or, even worse, as a prelude to discrimination and oppression. This kind of "evangelism" is unfortunately not uncommon in Christian relations with peoples of other faiths. (26)

The reaction by Hindus to the pamphlet calling on Southern Baptists to pray and work for the conversion of Hindus was no less negative. Since that time, the IMB has published pamphlets calling for prayer for Muslims and Buddhists.

There are, I believe, better, less offensive, and more Christlike ways to witness, and some were specified three-quarters of a century ago by the well-known Hindu leader, Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948).

In his biography of Gandhi, E. Stanley Jones tells of his first meeting with Gandhi who much later came to be known as "Mahatma" (or "The Great-souled" one). I think this incident occurred sometime after Gandhi's 1915 returned to India from South Africa, that is, between 1915 and 1920. Jones said, "I was giving addresses in St. Stephen's College, Delhi, and Principal Rudra said rather casually: `Mr. Gandhi ... is upstairs. Would you like to see him?'" Jones seized the opportunity.

When he entered the room where Gandhi was staying, Jones found the thin, unpretentious, and ascetic-looking man "seated on a bed surrounded by papers. He greeted me with an engaging and contagious smile," says Jones. Presently, Jones, always a missionary, posed the principal reason for his wanting to meet the Indian leaden He had a question to ask--a crucial, astonishing, and daring if not presumptuous question. "How can we [Christians], Jones asked, "make Christianity naturalized in India, not a foreign thing, identified with a foreign government and a foreign people ...? What would you as one of the Hindu leaders of India tell me, a Christian, to do in order to make this possible?"

Gandhi's response was forthright and timeless. "First," he said, "I would suggest that all of you Christians--missionaries and all--must begin to live more like Jesus Christ. Second, practice your religion without adulterating it or toning it down. Third, emphasize love and make it your working force, for love is central in Christianity. Fourth, study the non-Christian religions more sympathetically to find the good that is within them, in order to have a more sympathetic approach to the people." (27)

I know of no better prescription to give to Christians today than this candid and probing advice from the Mahatma.

(1.) See Julie J. Everitt, "Keeping the Faiths," The Baylor Line 62 (Summer 2000): 38-44.

(2.) Whereas for Thales ultimate reality was water; for Heraclitus, fire; and for Anaximenes it was air; Empedocles rejected all these notions and insisted that reality consisted of four elements: earth, water, air, and fire.

(3.) Is Christ the Only Way? Christian Faith in a Pluralistic World (Valley Forge, Penn.: Judson Press, 1985), 29.

(4.) The [Raleigh] News and Observer (September 10, 1999): 2A.

(5.) Orfield was one of the authors of the Harvard study, "Deepening Segregation in American Public Schools," sponsored by Harvard. Aired on "Weekend All Things Considered," April 5, 1997. See www.npr/

(6.) "Cheryl Corley Reports on a Study Based on the 1990 Census." See www.npr/

(7.) Although the Associated Press reported in June of 1997 that most Americans were more tolerant of immigration then, than in years previously ("America's tolerance of immigration rising, poll says." The News and Observer (June 16, 1997): 6A, the poll on which this optimistic declaration was based indicated that this was the view of 45 percent of those polled, while 42 percent said immigration was harming the nation, and 10 percent said the effects were mixed.

(8.) An example is David Cecelski, "Marta Galvez: We Can Outlast," The News and Observer (September 12, 1999): 10D, about the abuse of Latinos by the chicken processing plants in N.C., and how Mart Galvez, a Guatemalan woman helped organize a union in the Case Farms plant in Morganton, N.C. The news story is an excerpt form the "Listening for a Change" segment of the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

(9.) "Diluting Our America," a letter to The News and Observer (July 20, 1999): 10A. I suspect that the letter writer, John Parker, was even more disturbed when he opened the "Faith Section" of his paper on September 3, and saw the multicolored photographs and the story, "Temple Blessings," describing in more detail the size and cost-$2 to $3 million-of the new Hindu temple. Curiously, Parker's reference to leaning "on the gate" is reminiscent of Thomas Bailey Aldrich's 1895 poem, "Unguarded Gates," in The Poems of Thomas Bailey Aldrich 1 (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1907): xx.

(10.) See, for example, The Williamsburg Charter Survey on Religion and Public (Washington, D.C.: The Williamsburg Charter Foundation, 1988); James D. Hunter, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (New York: Basic Books, 1991); The Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, 1998 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998); "Surprises Surface in Religious Study," Chicago Sun Times (April 7, 1991), Microfiche: NEWSBANK 1991, Soc 40:32; "Free-Form Freedom of Religion," USA Today (November 18, 1993), 2D. The Princeton Religious Research Center (George Gallop's organization) study, "Religion in America 1996," says nothing about the numbers of Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, et al. Many have depended on the annually published Yearbook by the National Council of Churches for these data. But, according to Derek Lander, associate editor of the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches (Nashville: Abingdon), "we based our statistics [regarding the number of adherents of non-Christian religions in the North America] from the Encyclopedia Britannica, we became less and less content with their figures." Telephone interview, September 7, 1999. All of the figures were "rounded off" which suggests estimates, not hard data.

(11.) Jainism is a sixth century BCE India faith which emerged from Hinduism and is best known for its emphasis on ahimsa or nonviolence to all living creatures. Jainism also emphasizes strict aceticism in order to gain control over the appetites of the body. "Jain" means conqueror (over the flesh). Sikhism is a derivation of, or reaction to, Hinduism that appeared in the northwest part of India, in Punjab, during the late-fifteenth and early-sixteenth century. The founder, Guru Nanak (1469-1538), sought to bring Muslims and Hindus together in a single brotherhood under the one true God. Sikhism therefore teaches monotheism and rejects all forms of idolatry and caste. Sikh means disciple. The Baha'i faith originated in Persia, now Iran, in 1863 among Shia Muslims. Followers believe in the unity of all humankind, that the world was created for all human beings, and that in essence all revealed religions are the same, and that the worship of God is best seen in serving others.

(12.) Even humanitarian efforts are regarded proto-evangelism, that is, as ways to open nonbelievers to the gospel.

(13.) See "Islamic Center of Mississippi, Inc. v. City of Starkville, Mississippi," No. 87-4083, United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit, March 23, 1988, in the 840 Federal Reporter, 2d Series, 293-303.

(14.) The followers of Wicca, proudly "pagans" who worship gods and goddesses and claim 50,000 according to the American Wiccans in Berkeley, California. They celebrate two festivals a year during the vernal and autumnal equinox, insist they do not worship the devil nor permit human or animal sacrifices. They were recognized as a legitimate faith three years ago by the Department of Defense and have covens on five military bases, but at Fort Hood in Central Texas, the Army had to increase security recently "to deter members of Christian groups from intimidating" Wiccan witches. Current News Summary by the editors at, May 21, 1999.

(15.) Roger Williams's analogy of a group of Christians, Jews, and Muslims traveling on the same ship together comes to mind. Refusing to come to the prayers led by the ship's captain or conducting prayers distinct from those read at such occasions does not threaten the welfare of the passengers or the crew.

(16.) "Official Rejects Non-Christians," The Washington Post (May 17, 1997), and was cited in the Baptist Joint Committee's Report from the Capital, June 3, 1997.

(17.) Mr. Arch Everson contended that such uses of public funds violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The majority of the court, however, did not agree. Justice Hugo Black wrote the majority opinion: "The First Amendment has erected a wall of separation between church and state. The wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach." But Justice Black saw no breach in the New Jersey law for, he reasoned, providing transportation for parochial school children does nothing to establish religion. It merely accords the children and their parents their rights. To decide against them would be equivalent to denying them equal rights on the basis of their religion, and this the Constitution prohibits.

(18.) See "Parochial School Vouchers," The New York Times 9 (August 29, 1999): 14wk.

(19.) One of the more curious tax benefits accorded clergy in the U.S. is the "parsonage allowance." Not only can an ordained minister avoid paying income tax on what is spent for housing, but can "double-dip" by deducting from his or her income property taxes and insurance on that property. Also, the amount considered "housing allowance" could be added in if the amount is needed to qualify for paying maximum self-employment or Social Security taxes.

(20.) When the Court opens in October 2001, there will come before them a number of cases involving what is called Title VI programs. In summary, the issue is whether the program can legally provide instructional equipment, such as computers, to private/religious schools as well as to public schools. The first of these cases began to wind its way through the courts in 1985. But it was not until 1997 that a decision was rendered, and then it was in a U.S. District court, only to have the 5th Circuit Court reverse the District court's decision. The case now is in the lap of the highest court in the land.

(21.) "Parochial School Vouchers," The New York Times (August 29, 1999): 14wk.

(22.) The Cleveland, Ohio, plan grants up to $2,250 for children of parents with low incomes, and the amount is available for education in public or parochial schools. The Wisconsin plan is similar with a few more restrictions, such as, stating that children attending religious schools cannot be required to attend religious services or events, and that schools must attempt to have a religiously diverse student body. Upheld as legal in 1998 by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, the U.S. Supreme Court set aside a petition to review the case.

(23.) E. Stanley Jones, The Christ of Every Road (New York: Abingdon, 1930), 67.

(24.) A small number, two of our faithful, were committed to making the Interfaith Alliance the principal adversary of the Christian Coalition. When we decided to make our mission "actionary" rather than reactionary, we lost one of these.

(25.) "Days of Awe. Prayer for Jews," International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention (August 1999), 5.

(26.) In a recent issue of a well-known Baptist missionary magazine, I was stunned to see a small article on page one, just inside the cover. The article was entitled, "Know your enemy." And who was the designated enemy? It was Hindus. "'The Gods of India' is a video over-view of Hinduism, which holds 774 million people worldwide in spiritual darkness. For more information, e-mail ( or write World Christian News, P.O. Box 26479, Colorado Springs, Co 80936." The Commission (September 1999): 1.

(27.) Originally published as Mahatma Gandhi-An Interpretation (Nashville: Abingdon, 1948) and later as Gandhi: Portrayal of a Friend (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1983), 51-52.

Alan Neely is Henry Winters Luce Professor Ecumenics and Mission Emeritus, Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, New Jersey.
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Date:Jan 1, 2001
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