I get some of the most interesting mail. Sometimes a person wants to tell me about something he has seen in Scripture that no one else has ever discovered – usually about Revelation or the end times. I rarely respond to these. Sometimes it’s a former student who wants to catch me up on his or her life. I usually respond to these. Then there are those letters of solicitation for good causes. Since I regularly send these on behalf of Central Seminary, I at least try to read them even if I cannot respond to each request.
This past week I received a letter from the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, a leading center for Jewish thought and education. Through the Christian Leadership Initiative sponsored by the American Jewish Committee in conjunction with Shalom Hartman, I have come to appreciate the breadth of this work in Jewry. In the body of the letter were these words: “as a fellow Jew, you are aware . . .” I also received a letter from the Abbot of Conception Abbey, a Benedictine monastery that I visit regularly. In the P.S., which includes a final, personalized appeal, it said: “Father Molly, we are so blessed by the sacrifices you make for us . . .” As you might guess, although moved by the message, I chuckled at the default mode; if you are a reverend, then you are a father.
“The days of viewing our faith as the remaking of the world into our image are long past, thanks be to God.”
Actually, I was honored to receive the letters and even more by the inclusion, even if in error. It signaled my ecumenical and interfaith commitments. I seek to align my practice of faith with the best of these religious traditions while stalwartly remaining Baptist. Roman Catholics have traveled much further in constructive relations with Jews than have Protestants, and we would do well to study the wonderful document Nostra Aetate that came out of Vatican II, signaling a new epoch in relationship. Rather than a conversionist approach in which one faith vanquishes the other, it honors shared history between Jews and Christians and seeks ongoing rapprochement.
Sometimes it can be a good thing to be claimed by others. I once had a male seminary student write so sensitively about feminist theology that his readers thought he was female. He asked me how he should respond to that. I suggested that he take it as a compliment that he could so identify with the oppression women have experienced in the intellectual heritage of the faith and the life of the church. Moving closer to the wounds and concerns of others is an instrumental means of grace; it protracts the incarnation.
Over the past couple of weeks writers from the Central community have been publishing blogs following the theme “Jesus Draws the Whole World Together.” It strikes me that this is the mission of Christians today – to build bridges of understanding and service with all God’s people, whether Christian or not. The days of viewing our faith as the remaking of the world into our image are long past, thanks be to God.
The lectionary texts of the season do draw unlikely persons together. There are traditionally religious persons like Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph. There are political rulers like Emperor Augustus and Quirinius, Governor of Syria; the sectarian political leader, Herod; shepherds, non-descript in their religious commitments and ethically suspicious as erstwhile thieves; and then the seekers of knowledge and adventure, the Magi. All in some way or another participate in the tableau Christians celebrate as God with us.
“Moving closer to the wounds and concerns of others is an instrumental means of grace.”
That is God’s pursuit in Jesus Christ: reconciling the world, removing walls of division that we might recognize that we are equal bearers of the image of God. God’s light encounters every pilgrimage of faith.
Regrettably, and to our shame, our vision of Jesus has at times been an instrument of oppression, such as capturing Africans for the purported higher purpose of their salvation, when the slaveholders only wanted to commodify black bodies. Christians have exploited Jesus when converting Native Americans to our way of life, confiscating land and destroying culture as means to a better end for their souls. Christians have spoken of our religious persuasion in such superior tones, looking down on the spiritual affections of others, that our attitude has been a barrier to the merciful invitation of our founder.
In my judgment, our call as Christians today is to find ways to work for the common good with the values Jesus instituted in the inbreaking Reign of God. This reign is not triumphalistic; rather it calls for humble service and empathy with the stories of others. That is how Jesus can continue to draw the world together.