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What I like about your Faith Tradition

by Rev. Thomas W. Goodhue
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by Rev. Thomas W. Goodhue

Christians often disagree among themselves about how they should approach other religions. Do we have a monopoly on truth? Are all faiths true in some way? Do we need the insight of all of us to find the truth? Some other faith communities actively discourage conversion, while others—perhaps most—feel obliged to tell the world that their religion is the best. 

Personally, I like something Rabbi Jacob Neusner wrote in World Religions in America: perhaps we should leave it to God to decide who is right and cultivate empathy and interest in  others because “all religions are interesting and important.”

At a National Workshop on Christian Unity in Arlington, Virginia, Rabbi Fred Dobb shared a concept he learned from the Swedish Lutheran bishop Krister Stendahl: “sacred envy.” Sacred envy, Rabbi Dobb explained, means “I am not going to convert, but I see something in your tradition that I really like.” Some people find it threatening, of course, to acknowledge anything good in any other religion or tradition—as if others having something worthwhile means what you have is defective—but I am a better Christians  when I recognize what is good in others. 

So let me as a Protestant (United Methodist) Christian declare, without any intention of abandoning my own church or Christianity, some things I envy:

* I like the way that the Catholic Church and some other “liturgical” denominations see our most sacred rituals, such as the Eucharist or holy communion, as a celebration and insist that clergy are not celebrants. Everyone celebrates; the pastor merely presides at the party.

* This WASP loves the infectious joy of African American parishes. In every black church I have visited, no matter whether they were Baptists in Riverhead, AME Zion in Amityville, or Lutherans in Roosevelt, worship is exuberant. I have found the same among Latino and Korean churches. 

* I love the sense of history I find in Orthodox and Catholic churches. They have a sense of continuity over millennia, “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.” I also love the way Pentecostals, the United Church of Christ, Quakers, and Unitarian Universalists remind us that “God is still speaking.” We need both roots and wings.  

* I am blown away by the generosity of many poor and ethnic-minority churches, who  give affection and cash far more freely than most well-off white congregations. In my denomination, black United Methodist teenagers donate twice as much money to their church as white teens do, even though they generally have less to give. As Jack London said, throwing a bone to a dog is not charity: “Charity is the bone shared with the dog, when you are just as hungry as the dog.” 

* I am inspired by the way Muslims see zakat, sharing 2.5%  of their wealth with the poor, as a matter of social justice rather than personal charity. Christians are far more comfortable with offering charity than we are with challenging the conditions that create hunger, oppression, and despair. As the Brazilian archbishop Dom Helder Camara famously said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

* I love the way that the Latter-Day Saints (a.k.a., the Mormons) empower lay people for leadership, organize themselves to help their neighbors in crisis, and give their youth important work to do. Churches often try to entertain teenagers, but what they need is a challenge to make a difference in the world. Eboo Patel’s Interfaith Youth Core can teach us the same lesson.

* I appreciate the way that Buddhists and Quakers, Jains and Brahma Kumaris gently nudge us to unplug, be quiet, and listen a while. The more that I am bombarded by ads and jangling cell phones, the more I appreciate silent prayer and meditation. I also am inspired by the way they focus on treating others with loving kindness and try to “speak truth in love,” two things we could all use a lot more of. 

 * I admire the way that Muslims and Baha’is focus on doing good rather than avoiding evil, and I am humbled by how racially inclusive their communities are. Many churches have task forces on domestic violence, but the Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury wisely calls their efforts the Domestic Harmony Foundation. Many Christian denominations have commissions on racism, but the Baha’is focus on “race unity—and achieve far more to overcome bias and injustice. Baha’is recognize national, cultural, and linguistic differences–and this faith community includes people from 2100 ethnic groups who speak more than 800 languages–but not racial ones. From a scientific viewpoint, the Baha’is are right: genetically, we are all Africans.

* I am humbled by the way Sikhs feed everyone who comes to their gurdwaras. We United Methodists might offer you a cup of coffee and something to nibble after worship; Sikhs give you a whole meal. They also do this with grace, hospitality, and equality: rich and poor sit side by side, so that those who are hungry are not humiliated. As Sant Rajinder Singh put it, “The prince and the pauper should eat side by side.”

* I am bowled over by the openness of Brahma Kumaris toward people of other faiths. After I listened to a wonderful talk on meditation at Global Harmony House in Great Neck, their guru asked me if there was anything I would like to add. How wonderful it would be if she received this sort of welcome in my church.

* I am amused, bemused, and delighted by the way Hindus seem to see Jains and Brahma Kumaris (and sometimes Sikhs, Buddhists, and everyone else) as fellow travelers on the road to God. The most popular Hindu deity, Vishnu, is said to have ten different incarnations or avatars, one of which was the Buddha. I’ve always admired those who have the “love and wit,” as the poet Edwin Markham put it, to draw a circle that draws other people in. I do believe that distinctions and boundaries can be important, but we Christians have often been too quick to exclude others, both Christians from other traditions and people of other religions. We  sometimes say, “Where we put a period, God puts a comma,” but Hindus really believe this. 

* And last, but certainly not least, I am indebted to Judaism for teaching me that we are called to “do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” And I am grateful for their teaching that we are called to tikkun olam, to repair the brokenness of our world. And for raising a certain Jewish kid named Yeshua (Jesus), the teacher I try to follow.

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