Understanding world religions encourages dialogue, peace

interfaith tree

By Joe LaGuardia

Last week I wrote about violence against Christians and Muslims in Nigeria.  It wasn’t the only time I wrote about conflict on the global stage, nor will it be my last.

I feel that, as an author on the religion page, it is one of my jobs to educate you, dear reader, in what is going on beyond our community to remind all of us of the work of God and the cause of peace that remains before us, even if it is not at our doorstep.

I am not ignorant to the fact that conflict has always been an issue for us humans; and I fear that it will be around far longer than I will walk this earth.  Yet, I also believe that we assess conflict in our world differently than we have in years past, sometimes to our detriment.

Yesteryear, people learned about conflicts by reading newspapers and watching a couple of broadcasts.  When the Vietnam war was underway, people got news from a media that largely agreed on the facts that made for headline news.

These days, our news comes to us in snippets through a variety of sources ranging from traditional media to the internet.  This does make us a more-informed people, but it can also be confusing.

Our large planet grows ever smaller with 24-hour news cycles and real-time reporting.

In order to make sense of this fragmented source data, however, cable news networks now provide “commentary” on the news.  But it is commentary that is biased, often to the extreme poles of our unique ideologies.

This makes for exciting news, but not for news that promotes peace and reconciliation in local and international communities.  Often, this kind of news-reporting does the opposite: It creates “sides” in debates and adds fuel to (in)tense conflicts that can sometimes get blown out of proportion.

One “victim” of this type of sensational media is our understanding of the world’s largest religions.  I bet if you were to poll a bunch of people, you would get various opinions about, say, Christianity — opinions formed not by the truths that exist in the belief system itself but based on caricatures of Christians from the news.

In fact, some of these surveys already exist.  Surveys of people ages 18-34, for instance, consistently show that a majority of people in this age group have a negative perception of Christianity.  This negativity stems not from the reality of what Christians believe, but on what those who are surveyed perceive to be true about Christians based on what they’ve heard in the news or the movies.

Same can be said of Islam.  Although a majority of people have a favorable view towards American Muslims, only 44% of evangelicals have a positive view of Muslims, according to a report in the Christian Post.  A majority of people who are religious also fear living near a Muslim mosque.

One of the ways to combat the misunderstanding of any religion is to be educated on what religions are really about.  Although every religion has a radical minority longing to convert others by means of violence, intimidation, or coercion, a majority of the world’s religions are positive, peaceful contributors to society.

Yet, if our only information of the world’s religions come by way of a sensational media or neighbors who believe in stereotypes rather than the reality of what religions are all about, then our misinformation can foster greater conflict rather than dialogue and healthy community formation.

A well-rounded education is essential, and understanding provides a path to greater conversations grounded in reality.

And with a world torn asunder by conflict, religious or otherwise, it becomes ever more important to learn about the religions of people who are our neighbors, allied nations, and–perhaps someday–our very friends.  May the Prince of Peace guide our path.

Dr. Joe LaGuardia serves as Interfaith Congregational Liaison for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia.  

He is also pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, which is hosting a 10-week seminar “Tour of World Religions” free and open to the public beginning Wednesday, January 7th, at 6:45 PM.  

Bringing Reconciliation in a Divided World

113CongressSeveral weeks ago the results of a major mid-term election allowed Republicans to take the Senate, incumbents to get the boot or barely hold on to their seats, and pundits to have a field day diagnosing the issues related to campaigns and candidates alike.

While people surmised why votes went one way or another, nearly every local election made one fact clear: We are living in a divided nation.  Every winner can’t claim a total victory.  Sure, if you win by 51% of the vote, you win; but at the end of the day, it likely meant that you garnered only half of the voters at the ballot box.

This divide in American politics may strike fear in the hearts of people who simply want their representatives to govern.  Others find the results to be disheartening, hinting at continued gridlock in our nation’s capital.

But what if, from the point of view of the church, this division is an opportunity to help people find their way back to the Lord?

Think about it: The media enjoys divisive politics because it means attracting more viewers.  Politicians can rally their electoral base.  Even we viewers at home like a little drama in our politics as we tune out people who are either boring or non-confrontational (or have common-sense solutions, for that matter).

In all of this, there are few institutions that promote reconciliation and peacemaking.

Enter the church.  God’s purposes for the church not only transcend our society’s politics, they also seeks to bring reconciliation in places divided by all sorts of barriers.

This happened very early on: The day Jesus ascended to heaven, the disciples received the Holy Spirit and starting speaking in a variety of languages.  To those gathered in Jerusalem at the time, it was a unifying moment: Each person heard the same gospel in their native tongue.  For once they had something in common.

As the church matured over time, the egalitarian nature of Christian community became a beacon of hope throughout the Roman Empire.  While citizens of the Empire thrived on inequality and hierarchy to manage power and prestige, the church gave everyone–regardless of socio-economic stature, race, ethnicity, or gender–a place at the table.

It was in his letters to the Corinthian churches, in particular, that Paul encouraged the church to spread the Gospel by bearing witness to the unity, harmony, and peace that Christ ushered into the world through the Holy Spirit.

The Bible says, “From now on, we regard no one from a human point of view…All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Corinthains 5:16, 18-19).

In other words, when a person becomes a Christian, she is not a product of her culture or society any longer.  She is redeemed to Christ and brought into a relationship with God.  She is a new creation; and as a new creation, she becomes a citizen of the kingdom of God.

As citizens of the kingdom, Christians are called to be agents of reconciliation in a divided–and divisive–world.

Instead of taking sides, we are to stand on the side of Jesus.  Instead of touting our political victories or condemning the opposing team, we are to remind people that they are ultimately held accountable to God, who doesn’t claim any political party.

Christians are outsiders looking in, objective players who have a bigger vision than those who govern in the moment.

“So we are ambassadors for Christ since God is making his appeal through us” (v. 20).

An ambassador is one who goes to a foreign land to help people make peace with another nation.  In this context, Christians are to be peacemakers that help reconcile people to one another and, ultimately, to God.

Postscript:  I wrote about two weeks ago.  This week, I was disheartened to hear that the events surrounding the death of Michael Brown have escalated protests and violence in major cities, including here at the ATL.   The church needs to encourage local communities in reconciliation, foster conversations between neighborhoods and law-enforcement agencies, and promote honest conversations about responsibility, accountability, the threat of a sensational media, and race relations.  We will be in prayer for all the families involved in injustice and the on-going consequences of America’s love affair with guns and gun violence, which seems to be at the heart of most–if not all–of these conflicts of late.  –JVL

Building Christian coalitions is at critical juncture in Middle East

Iraq Christians

Please click on the picture for news source and more information about Christians in Iraq.

By Joe LaGuardia

Every week, a group of us from Trinity Baptist Church gather for coffee in Old Town, Conyers, to discuss whatever is on our minds.  Sometimes we try to solve the world’s problems.

This past week, conflicts in the Middle East came up for discussion.

As expected, it focused on ISIS, war in Iraq, and America’s tenuous Arab allies.

Everyone broached the issues in the news, but there was an overwhelming silence regarding a community that may just hold the key to a greater avenue of peace in the Middle East: Christian communities, some as ancient as the land upon which they walk, throughout the Arab world.

These Christians get very little press.  Sometimes they make the news–perhaps to highlight ISIS’s barbarism–but, as a whole, the Christian community in the Middle East is a community without a voice.

This is a tragedy in itself because Christians make up the second largest religious group in these parts, about 5% of the population.  They have deep roots, and they are usually the first to be persecuted (along with other religious minorities, including minority Mulsim sects) from Islamic radicals.

When ISIS swept across northern Iraq, for instance, Christians in the ancient town of Nineveh (the same Nineveh in the book of Jonah), were executed or forced to leave.  Nearly 200,000 Christians and thousands of Muslim minorities were displaced.

One Catholic news source noted that this past season was the first in which Christians did not take communion in the city for nearly 2000 years.

The temptation for us Americans is to assume that these, and other Middle Eastern, Christian communities look and worship like we do.  That is not the case.  Often, these Christian communities have rituals that go back beyond the founding of America, and their ties to political parties and tribal loyalties are deeply embedded.

This came out in a symposium hosted by a new organization, “In Defense of Christians“, last month.

The symposium consisted of a coalition of Christian leaders throughout the world who intend to advocate for religious freedoms for all religious minorities.

They partner across inter-faith lines, including Jewish and Muslim leadership; as well as political parties and coalitions.

One keynote speaker at the symposium, Senator Ted Cruz, did not understand the complexity of this coalition and got heckled for undermining the diversity of the crowd when he pushed an agenda for the state of Israel.  The hecklers–a vocal minority not representative of the organization–were then silenced by the crowd.  It was too late, as Senator Cruz walked off the stage.

The Senator’s message was not inherently negative or controversial (and most of his speech received positive praise)–and the leaders of “In Defense of Christians” quickly apologized for the unruliness–but it did reveal a profound lack of understanding of the audience’s breadth of loyalties, theologies, and ideologies.  (For thorough coverage on this incident, also see http://www.theamericanconservative.com/coppage/ted-cruz-crashes-defense-of-christians-summit/)

Aside from the many differences that exist between the Western Church and her Middle Eastern  brothers and sisters in places both strange and foreign, Christian communities–and the growing number of leaders that are seeking peace initiatives and reconciliation–may just hold the key to sustainable peace in the Middle East.

As a nation, the United States does not naively put all its eggs in one basket, and our nation will always defend its secular interests.  But when it comes to the sacred, we must begin having conversations with a Church that has existed for as long as we’ve had the Bible.

It’s time to invest resources and time in understanding how we can advocate for those who are dying daily for their faith–be it our own faith or that of others–on the margins.

Joe LaGuardia was recently named the Interfaith Congregational Liaison of the Baptist-Muslim Committee of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia.  For more information regarding Joe’s interfaith work with the CBF-GA, please visit his website.