By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
After President Trump’s State of the Union address, the question left hanging in the air is “What is truth? It’s a question that has resonated down through the ages ever since Jesus stood before Pilate, and one that we must answer in our democracy. Our faith shapes our standards of political legitimacy with God’s truth, and interfaith dialogue can help us find that truth.
Americans seem to have agreed to disagree on issues of politics, morality and religion. Politics in America are polarized and reconciliation seems beyond reach. More than 70% of Americans claim to be Christians, but white evangelical Christians elected a president who has demonstrated narcissistic immorality that makes a mockery of Christian standards of legitimacy.
Christianity in America is so diverse as to defy definition. It is no longer the coherent religion that once defined the American civil religion. Traditional Christianity has been hijacked by a materialistic prosperity gospel promoted by the supporters of Donald Trump. It more closely resembles the objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand than the gospel of Jesus.
The prosperity gospel echoes ancient Jewish beliefs that rewarded faithfulness with worldly prosperity and power. It was evident in the rich man who came to Jesus seeking eternal life but did not give up his wealth to follow Jesus. (see Mark 10:17-27) Jesus identified with the poor and powerless, and emphasized spiritual rather than worldly rewards for faithfulness.
The greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, including our neighbors of other races and religions, is a summary of the altruistic and universal teachings of Jesus. It is a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, and the foundation for a politics of reconciliation. Jesus emphasized the primacy of love over law, and the Qur’an considers Jesus a prophet like Moses and Muhammad. (see 43:59-65; 57:27)
Interfaith dialogue can relate the altruistic teachings of Jesus as the word of God to a world that loves wealth and power. In our materialistic and hedonistic culture, the prosperity gospel has eclipsed the gospel of Jesus. Jesus knew that his teachings would not be popular, but the church, in its zeal to make Christianity a popular religion, has made worshipping Jesus as God more important to salvation than following Jesus as the word of God.
Evangelicals have become the voice of Christianity by default. That’s because mainline Protestant churches have avoided contentious issues of faith, morality and politics since the civil rights era and the Vietnam War. The interfaith dialogue group can fill this void in religion and politics by discussing volatile issues in a way that promotes religious and political reconciliation.
Jesus was a radical Jewish rabbi who never promoted his own religion or condemned any others. He sought to put the altruistic love for others at the heart of Judaism. John Wesley sought to do the same thing in his 18th century Anglican Church. He organized his Methodists into small groups that met weekly to discuss social and political issues and to hold each other accountable for regular acts of discipleship. It was a precedent for the interfaith dialogue group.
Theoretically the church is an excellent venue for interfaith dialogue, but in spite of the Wesleyan precedent, United Methodist churches seem reluctant to promote interfaith dialogue. Ideally the interfaith group is a small group of six to twelve people who have different religious backgrounds but who want to share their journey of faith with those of other religions.
To assist those interested in forming an interfaith dialogue group, the Resources provided at http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/p/resources.html include a study guide, The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, along with The Interfaith Fellowship: A Model of Purpose and Process for Interfaith Dialogue. The website offers 166 topics on Religion, Legitimacy and Politics that address interfaith issues.
The search for truth in a democracy contaminated with fake truths is a daunting mission, but one essential for people of faith in their stewardship of democracy. The interfaith dialogue group is for all whose journey of faith has taken them beyond belief in one true faith. It can enable people of all faiths to explore together the dynamic world of religion and politics; and just maybe it can help people of faith save their democracy from themselves.
Mustafa Akyol has explored the relationship between religion, morality and politics in Turkey, and reached conclusions that are analogous to religion and politics in the U.S.: “The religious conservatives have morally failed [and] become corrupted by power. But power corrupts more easily when you have neither principles nor integrity.” He noted that “religious texts often have moral teachings with which people can question and instruct themselves. The Quran, just like the Bible, has such pearls of wisdom. A person who follows such virtuous teachings will likely develop a moral character, just as a person who follows similar teachings in the Bible will.” But Akyol notes that for some people “…religion works not as cure for the soul, but as drug for the ego. It makes them not humble, but arrogant.” ...In legalistic religious traditions, like Judaism and Islam, this problem occurs when religion is reduced to the practice of rituals. An exceptional Jewish rabbi who lived two millenniums ago, Jesus of Nazareth, spotted this problem. Those practicing Pharisees who are ‘confident of their own righteousness and look down on everybody else,’ he declared, are not really righteous. This kind of ‘us vs. them’ mentality can corrupt and radicalize any religious community. Conscientious believers in every tradition need to stand against the toxic urges that turn religion into a hollow vessel of arrogance, bigotry, hatred and greed. Otherwise, more and more evil will be done in their faith’s name. And more and more people will ask, as many young Turks are asking these days, what religion is really good for.” See https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/28/opinion/does-religion-make-people-moral.html.
In opposing radical Islamists who promote an exclusivist Islam that condemns other religions, Akyol has cited a provision of the Qur’an that accepts other religions of the book and desires Jews, Christians and Muslims “compete with each other in doing good.” See Qur’an 5:48, cited at p. 285 in Akyol, Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty, Norton, NY, 2013.
Mustafa Akyol has described what Jesus can teach today’s Muslims on putting love over law: “He called on his fellow Jews to focus on their religion’s moral principles, rather than obsessing with the minute details of religious law. He criticized the legalist Pharisees, for example, for ‘tithing mint and rue and every herb,’ but neglecting “justice and the love of God. …Muslims need to take notice because they are going through a crisis very similar to the one Jesus addressed: While being pressed by a foreign civilization, they are also troubled by their own fanatics who see the light only in imposing a rigid law, Shariah, and fighting for theocratic rule. Muslims need a creative third way, which will be true to their faith but also free from the burdens of the past tradition and the current political context. …But no Muslim religious leader has yet stressed the crucial gap between divine purposes and dry legalism as powerfully as Jesus did. Jesus showed that sacrificing the spirit of religion to literalism leads to horrors, like the stoning of innocent women by bigoted men — as it still happens in some Muslim countries today. He also taught that obsession with outward expressions of piety can nurture a culture of hypocrisy — as is the case in some Muslim communities today. Jesus even defined humanism as a higher value than legalism, famously declaring, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. … If Jesus is ‘a prophet of Islam,’ as we Muslims often proudly say, then we should think on these questions. Because Jesus addressed the very problems that haunt us today and established a prophetic wisdom perfectly fit for our times. See https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/13/opinion/what-jesus-can-teach-todays-muslims.html?rref=collection%2Fcolumn%2FMustafa%20Akyol&action=click&contentCollection=Opinion&module=Collection®ion=Marginalia&src=me&version=column&pgtype=article. Generally, see Akyol, How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims: The Islamic Jesus, St. Martin’s Press, NY, 2017.
Deidre McPhillips has cited a recent survey that found most people consider religion the primary source of global conflict today, since “spiritual beliefs create an ‘us versus them’ scenario. …More than 80% surveyed said that religious beliefs guide a person’s behavior.” Because religion is a source of conflict, McPhillips advocates faith–based dialogue for interfaith reconciliation. See https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/articles/2018-01-23/tribal-divisions-created-by-religion-most-harmful-in-global-conflict-experts-say.
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