Believers behaving badly. How many news items must we read to get the point that believers can behave really badly? From ministers’ deviancies to treasurers’ embezzlements; from denominations’ internecine skirmishes to nations’ religious persecutions; from cult groups’ mass suicides for God to zealots’ suicide bombings for Allah; the portrayal of faith on screen and in print has become ugly.
No wonder “Christianity’s image [is] taking a turn for the worse,” according to the Barna Group and a story in the Los Angeles Times (Oct. 13, 2007). “A decade ago, an overwhelming majority of non-Christians, including people between the ages 16 and 29, were ‘favorably’ disposed toward Christianity’s role in society. But today, just 16% of non-Christians in that age group had a ‘good impression’ of the religion … “
No wonder that outspoken atheism is growing in popularity again.
We could blame the secular media for exaggerating or exploiting our flaws, but we Christians, Jews, and Muslims — the three major monotheistic religions — are providing all the fodder anybody would ever need to discredit us. Indeed, some of us have made the discrediting of fellow believers our own cause célÃ¨bre (see p. 9).
Two stunning news developments reported in the Outlook challenge that bad track record. Both occurred on Oct. 10 and both events signal the attempt to open a new chapter in our witness to the life of faith and devotion.
This edition reports that 138 Muslim scholars from around the world published on Oct. 10 a document that calls for peace with Christians (see p. 8). An unprecedented letter addressed to Christian leaders worldwide, such as Pope Benedict XVI and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, urges them “to come together with us on the common essentials of our two religions” and to proclaim the similarities shared between teachings in the Bible and the Quran. It cites the commands to love God and neighbor as central to the two traditions.
“As Muslims, we say to Christians that we are not against them and that Islam is not against them — so long as they do not wage war against Muslims on account of their religion, oppress them, and drive them out of their homes.”
Reminding that these traditions comprise 55% of the world’s population, the letter declares, “Finding common ground between Muslims and Christians is not simply a matter for polite ecumenical dialogue between selected religious leaders.” World security and survival requires such dialogue. “If Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace.”
The statement concludes, “So let our differences not cause hatred and strife between us. Let us vie with each other only in righteousness and good works.”
Encouraging words! The beginnings of a new chapter?
That same day, a gathering of Christian leaders in our country, folks from the theological left and theological right, released a statement of its own. As summarized in an Outlook news brief last week, “Progressive and evangelical leaders called Oct. 10 for people in both camps to work together on issues that long have divided them.”
The release of a 44-page document called, “Come Let Us Reason Together,” suggests ways to bridge long-standing differences between the rival camps of Christians. Under the sponsorship of “Third Way,” a Washington-based think tank, and based on demographic research that discovered convictions shared in common by the majority of self-identified conservatives and progressives, the document “proposed five cultural issues where evangelicals and progressives could work together: affirming the dignity of gays and lesbians, reducing the need for abortion, placing moral limits on the treatment of human embryos, creating safe spaces online for children, and promoting responsible fatherhood.”
Encouraging words! The beginning of a new chapter?
Our faith communities should have written such a chapter years ago. However, the Islamic community and the American non-Catholic Christian community both lack a central leader, such as a pope, to speak for their adherents. Their multi-sect and our multi-denominational divisions, not to mention internal squabbles within each group, have prevented a concerted effort to draw us together. Plus, any attempt to unite around a common vision and speak through a common voice inevitably stirs naysayers and cynics to scrutinize and discredit.
We at the Outlook would say to the purveyors of hope, “Go for it! Please keep speaking out. Please lift up the graciousness of the faiths to which you and we subscribe.”
In an edition of this magazine that reviews the books written in recent days, we invite our faith community to join with others in writing a new chapter, yea, a new book that builds understanding, that encourages trust, that lifts up hope, and, indeed, suggests that believers can behave blessedly.