“I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” – Mahatma Gandhi
You’re doing Jesus-centered peace making work with people of other faiths. How does the Christian faith relate to your peace making work?
Christianity means very different things to different people. To many, Christianity is a beautiful word. It’s associated with Martin Luther King Jr. and nonviolent resistance, Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day, the outrageously generous community we read about it Acts, and ultimately, Jesus. Christianity began – and for most Christians, is still – centered on Jesus. To many others, however, Christianity seems anything but. It is instead shorthand for intolerance, violence, and hypocrisy, directly responsible for atrocities such as the Crusades, slavery, and the repression of women and minorities. In the Balkans in particular, Christian faith has been deeply associated with the ethnic cleansing and violence that occurred during the Yugoslav wars in the 90s. Christianity is, indeed, a loaded term.
And “conversion” – again, a beautiful word to many. Literally it means, “to turn” or “turn back.” From Jeremiah to Paul, conversion referred to Israel (and then the Gentiles) turning in faithfulness away from idols or whatever it was that had earned their worship back to their one true God. Today, for many Christians, conversion retains this meaning: to convert means to turn away from what sucks life out of you and to turn to the life-giving presence of God. Converting to Christianity is then turning towards a way of life that is centered on God in Jesus.
Yet, to others – Muslims especially – converting to Christianity means joining a group that is responsible for hundreds of years of violence in word and deed. In the Balkans, it is betrayal – it would be a bit like joining the forces that were responsible for killing their families. It is also indeed a “turn,” but one that crushes all connection to one’s family, culture, and nation.
We are, then, seemingly at an impasse. Because the words ‘Christianity’ and ‘conversion’ have a terrible reputation to so many, the concepts they represent don’t translate at all. So much so that we believe we’d do more damage than good if our goal is to ‘convert people to Christianity.’
But what about the beauty hidden beyond the words, the beauty that attracted and motivated people from Mother Teresa to Gandhi but has been, to many, muddied beyond recognition by centuries of Christians’ horrendous actions? We believe that beauty not only still exists, but is retrievable from the negative reputation that threatens to bury it – and what’s more, that it is worth finding again.
This beauty, what we believe is at the heart of Christianity, is the Kingdom of God as heralded and embodied through Jesus. In Israel-Palestine over 2,000 years ago, Jesus introduced to those around him a way of life consistent with the Kingdom of God, one that centered on knowing what God was like, being in right relation to one’s neighbors and even enemies, self-sacrificial love, and servanthood. In short, Jesus invited people to turn away from what sucked life from them and follow a way that would give life, so much that it would overflow for others and the world. Today, in a world in which Christianity and conversion can be so repulsive, Jesus and the Kingdom of God are still captivating the hearts and minds of so many.
This – the Kingdom of God, or God’s reign – was what Jesus was all about. He taught about it, embodied it, and through his life, death, and resurrection, empowers people to “turn” towards it – to join in it. So too, our central motivation in peace making is Jesus and his central focus, the peace (wholeness, shalom, reconciliation of all things) of God’s reign. When we recognize that Christianity is no longer the point, we are free to humbly and transparently follow Jesus, rooted in our faith as Christians, while pursuing the shalom of God’s reign alongside our non-Christian neighbors.
I’m wondering if this whole thing isn’t just a question of semantics. Aren’t Christians the ones journeying and turning toward the Kingdom of God, being transformed by encounters with Jesus? Are you just using new language – “Kingdom” instead of “Christianity” – so Christianity sounds more inviting to Muslims and non-Christians? Read more here: Who’s In and Who’s Out?