The question above is the topic I was asked to address at the Global Faith Forum, held at NorthWood Church in Keller, Texas, last week. It was not a little ironic that the author of Jesus Mean and Wild, not to mention this often controversial column, should be asked to address the topic. But I accepted before the conference organizers could change their mind, because I thought maybe I could stir things up!
Seriously, the following is my attempt explore this, yes, serious question, especially in the context of Christians' relationship to Muslims and Jews, a relationship too often characterized by insults and anger, not to mention death and destruction in many parts of the world.
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Those of us who are Christians, whenever we ponder how to act or speak, naturally wonder, "What would Jesus do?" In this case, how did the Prince of Peace communicate with those with whom he had deep differences? How did the one who described himself as "gentle and lowly of heart" speak to his co-religionists in an Abrahamic faith when they found themselves divided over fundamental issues? Maybe Jesus can give us guidance in these days when Muslims and Christians often look at each other in terror and fear.
Naturally, one's mind immediately travels to passages like Matthew 23, where Jesus, speaking to co-religionists, said, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people's faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in" (ESV).
And this: "Woe to you, blind guides," which he later changed to "blind fools," then moved on to call them "hypocrites"—not once, not twice, but four times!—before winding up with, "You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?"
Or take another passage that jumps to mind: Jesus' reaction when he thought his co-religionists were desecrating the temple, the supreme house of worship in Judaism:
And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. [John, in his Gospel, notes that Jesus also made a whip and drove people from the temple area.] And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. And he was teaching them and saying to them, "Is it not written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations'? But you have made it a den of robbers."
The reaction he got is not surprising: "And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him" (Mark 11:15-18).
This is not the Jesus we want to talk about. But unfortunately, we cannot NOT note these incidents if we want to think about how Christians should share their faith with others.
But there are other examples from Jesus, no less disturbing to our hopes for peaceful co-existence, that are maybe even more disturbing, because they show that Jesus seemed indifferent to many of our ideas about peacemaking. Take another, lesser known, incident from Mark's gospel:
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man with the withered hand, "Come here." And he said to them, "Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?" But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. (Mark 3:1-5)
This is a most interesting moment in Jesus' ministry if we're looking for lessons in peacemaking. Jesus recognizes that these religious leaders, the Pharisees, are playing "Gotcha," trying to catch him breaking the Sabbath so they might have grounds to accuse him. And surely Jesus is aware of the simplest way to diffuse this volatile situation: Just wait until the sun sets, when the Sabbath is officially over, and then heal the man.
It isn't as if the man with the withered hand needed to be healed immediately. There was nothing life threatening about his condition. He'd been living with his disability for decades. It's not going to kill him to wait another few hours before getting healed. Just wait until sunset: The man gets healed, the Pharisees are not provoked, and God gets the glory—a win-win-win!
Even more interesting is this: the man with the withered hand has not even asked for healing. Maybe he's just come to the service for a little peace and quiet at the end of a trying week. Maybe he doesn't like to draw attention to himself or his handicap. Maybe he is mortified that Jesus is singling him out for attention! That's all speculation, of course, but what's clear is that he hasn't asked for healing. Jesus just points to him in the congregation and says, "Come up here."
Jesus clearly is exploiting the moment to humiliate the Pharisees. He could have simply healed the man and moved the service on to the next hymn—or better, the offering! The Pharisees are smart men; a simple demonstration of Jesus' power would have been enough to make his point: that he is Lord of the Sabbath. But no, Jesus not only sticks the knife into their pride, but turns it: He asks them, in front of God and everybody, "Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?"
This is trick question, of course, intended to back the Pharisees into a corner—let's face it, to make them look like fools. Well, it works, because, as Mark notes, "They were silent." They weren't about to say that the Sabbath was designed by God to bring death. And they weren't going to say the obvious—that God made it to bless life—because this would just play into Jesus' hands.
Their obstinacy just makes Jesus angry, at which point, Mark notes, Jesus turns to the man and heals him. Is it any wonder that Mark concludes this episode by noting, "The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him" (Mark 3:6).
A simple reading of this story, and a few others, suggests that the gentle Lamb of God, the Prince of Peace, could have used a few lessons in how to communicate without being denigrating or inflammatory!
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The point is this: There were moments in Jesus' ministry when he denigrated—that is, according to the dictionary definition, "attacked the reputation of another"—and inflamed—"excited to excessive or uncontrollable actions or feelings." What we find in the Gospels is an uncomfortable reality: There is something about Jesus that makes some people want to kill him.
This is a long way of saying something that needs to be said whenever we think about how to have peaceful relations with people of other faiths: Those of us who follow Jesus, if we're faithful to him, are occasionally going to find ourselves in the same troubled waters. This will come about not because we want to denigrate and inflame, as if we get a kick out of making people angry. It will come about simply because we are trying to be like Jesus, doing what Jesus is calling us to do, and saying what he's calling us to say. When we do that, sometimes, it's just going to make people as mad as hell.
We get no pleasure from this. We are saddened and grieved when it happens. But as followers of Jesus, we recognize that the ultimate goal is not to cover over deep-seated feelings and beliefs, to pretend that there is always a peaceful solution to every problem, to end our meetings with hugs and cheers. No, the goal of all conversation is for people to meet Jesus Christ. And when people meet Jesus Christ, there's no telling what will happen. Sometimes that encounter ends in peace and reconciliation—thank God! But let's face it, sometimes it ends with people stomping out of the room or plotting our demise.
I cannot speak from the Muslim perspective, but I don't think I'd get much of an argument looking at it from that point of view. I know enough about Muhammad to know that he infuriated people in his day from time to time. As for Jews—well, they have the heritage of the prophets, who were not exactly famous for their peacemaking skills! The point is that Muslims and Jews too, if they are faithful to their traditions and honest with themselves and with us Christians, will sometimes feel called to say things that will offend us.
There is a lot to be said about "how to talk about our faith without being inflammatory"—and I'll write more about that in the next edition of this column. But before we arrive there, we are wise to note this other reality. Sometimes we have no choice but to begin our peacemaking with some troublemaking—speaking the truth to the point of risking offense. The first relational issue in interreligious dialogue is not, "How do I talk so that I don't offend others?" If we are going to talk with each other from our deepest convictions, and speak frankly about how we see things, we're going to do that from time to time. No, the really important question is, "How do I respond when I have heard something offensive?"
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Again, I cannot speak for Muslims or Jews on this point. But I do know that Christians have unique resources to grapple with this question. Jesus' teaching about turning the other cheek and about forgiving seventy times seven are just a beginning. We live in a time when such resources should be employed with vigor.
Ours is the victim's age. There is no easier way to put someone on the defensive than to say, "You've hurt me," or, "You've offended me." The sensitive, cosmopolitan modern peacemaker—especially the Christian who images himself or herself as a loving person!—will feel a rush of guilt and wonder how immediately to undo the damage. No doubt, we each say things that do indeed hurt and offend, and for this we Christians, of all people, must be quick to apologize and make amends. But similarly, as Christians, we are unwise to play the victim card ourselves very often.
The reasons for this are many, but one large one is this: The New Testament spends relatively little ink instructing us on how to speak without offending. Speak the truth in love, yes, but when Jesus and Peter and Paul actually modeled that, it often led to hostility! All three had decidedly unpeaceful relationships with their co-religionists. On the other hand, the New Testament admonishes us time and again to forgive and to take no offense. And of course, if there were no verses on this specific point, the image of Jesus on the cross, silent and humiliated before his enemies, would be more than enough to guide our response when we are even falsely accused.
This strikes me as a good balance. Yes, there are times when honesty requires us to tell another that we have indeed been hurt or offended. You cannot have frank dialogue about honest differences without expressing that on occasion. But it seems to me that the more excellent way—one that likely will lead to fruitful dialogue and long term peaceful coexistence with people of other faiths—is to not take offense in the first place.
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today, and author of the forthcoming Chaos and Grace: Discovering the Surprising Work of the Holy Spirit (Baker, 2011).
Copyright © 2010 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Galli earlier wrote a dispatch from the Global Faith Forum.
Previous SoulWork columns include:
Hopeless Prayer | What the rescue of the Chilean miners didn't teach me. (October 13, 2010)
Holy Incarnation! | It may be impossible not to "demean God" since he mixed it up with sinners. (September 30, 2010)
Did the Spirit Really Say … ? | God's will is harder and easier to discern than we imagine. (September 2, 2010)