This week my column is an edited version of the sermon I preached at Foothill Presbyterian Church on April 27, 2008. The text for the sermon is Acts 17:16-34,the story of St. Paul preaching in Athens.
If you ever ask me what I like about the neighborhood in which I live the first thing I will tell you is that around the corner from my house and about three blocks from the childhood home of Cesar Chavez, in my overwhelmingly Hispanic neighborhood, there is a house that has been converted into a Cambodian Buddhist monastery. If you are lucky, when you walk by this house, you can see the monks, all dressed up in their bright saffron robes, playing bocce ball in a court that has been built in the front yard.
This is why I like living in East San Jose: we have a graffiti problem and we have gangs; the slump in the housing market has decimated the wealth of equity my neighbors and I had in our homes, but deep in the heart of a very catholic, very Hispanic barrio, you can find southeast Asian monks, playing an Italian game. To me it’s a vision of the future, and if I’m right, if the future looks like Cambodian monks playing bocce ball in an Hispanic neighborhood, then, to my mind, the future will be a friendly and pleasant place. There is hope for the world.
I am aware, however, that not everyone is comfortable with such a future, or even such a present. In particular there are a lot of Christians who worry about the growth of non-Christian religious traditions on American soil. For a significant number of my brothers and sisters in Christ, the presence of a Buddhist monastery would be evidence that Satan had been given a foothold in the neighborhood; Buddhist monks would be seen either as the enemy or as objects of evangelism and conversion—regardless of their bocce ball prowess. And the idea that a Christian pastor would be happy about having a Buddhist monastery for a neighbor—well, that would be further evidence of the Presbyterian Church’s demise.
It’s worth asking, then, how Christians should respond to people of other faiths. This has been a question with which Christians have wrestled ever since the very beginning of the Christian story. Ever since our faith began, there have been Christians who have embraced the idea that ours should be a attitude of conflict and conquest, that the work of evangelism should not just be the work of sharing the good news with others, but should be an effort of confrontation, of spiritual warfare—and physical warfare if necessary—to win souls.
But ever since the beginning there also has been a Christian impulse, starting from a place of respect and the search for commonality, to engage in conversation with those of other religious backgrounds. I think that Christians are at our best when we respect those of other faiths, when we look for commonality, and seek to build relationships. This lesson from Acts is a great example of what it looks like when Christians are at our best.
This story is the earliest record of a Christian’s encounter with a religious tradition other than Judaism. I’m sure it wasn’t the first such encounter, but it is the first that is recorded in detail.
In the story, Paul is in Athens. He was separated from his traveling companions, and he was waiting for his friends to join him. With nothing to do, he started walking around the city, and we are told that he was distressed by the various religious shrines and temples he saw in Athens.
Paul was Jewish, and for a Jew, there was no greater sin than to worship an idol. The first of the Ten Commandments tells us that we are to worship no God but God; the second warns us not to make objects of worship representing deities. Athens was full of people who were violating both of the first two commandments. So of course, Paul was distressed.
But he managed to keep his disgust to himself. Instead of condemning the Athenians, he tried to figure out how to find religious commonality. He looked for a point of contact, a place to start a conversation.
This commonality was found when he came across a shrine to “an unknown God.” While talking religion among the great minds of the city, Paul chose to use that shrine as a starting place, saying, essentially, “I know the name of your ‘unknown God.’” Paul was well received, even if, perhaps, he didn’t convince a whole lot of people to join the Christian Church.
I suppose that you could argue that Paul’s job was to be a missionary—that was his calling. He was supposed to be converting people and starting churches. I’ve heard it said that Paul’s decision not to confront and condemn the Athenian paganism with greater forcefulness was a mistake, that he should have been about denouncing the sin of idolatry from the very beginning of his Athenian discourse. Some point out that only a few people converted, only a few became Christians in Athens, whereas in other cities, when Paul went to his own people, to the Jewish Synagogues, and argued forcefully, the effect was greater. He converted more people, and Jesus’ call to Paul, delivered in a blinding light on the Damascus road, had been to evangelize, to convert people.
Maybe so, but to this day Athens is a predominantly Christian city, and it has been for a long, long time. The Christian presence in Athens started by Paul has never gone away. As far as I can tell, from a perspective of Evangelism, Paul did just the right thing in Athens. He stifled is own misgivings, and when he spoke with people from a different religious tradition he did so with respect and with an eye for commonality.
There is no reason we cannot do the same. As Christians we are at our best when we interact with folks from other religious traditions with respect and with an attempt to find commonality.
The importance of showing respect for and finding commonality with other religious traditions is important in our neighborhoods locally, but it’s also important on a global level, because the world is only getting smaller. The world’s population is growing, our communication technology is causing the distance between us to shrink, and we’re faced with a looming food shortage crisis that will have a lot of us bumping into each other as we scramble for dwindling resources.
And in times such as these—a time of growing population and dwindling resources—there always is a huge temptation to respond with fear to those we don’t know or don’t understand, and that fear quickly can turn into hatred.
It’s already happening. One pastor of a hugely influential mega church in Ohio—a guy by the name of Rod Parsley—has already written a book in which he calls for the destruction of Islam. This guy wants Christians—through evangelism or warfare—to convert or kill 1.5 billion people. That’s one fifth of the world’s population! Almost no one is calling him on this, in fact politicians are lining up to get this guy’s endorsement.
Yet this attitude of “kill or convert” is not what we see demonstrated in the reading from Acts. What we see in this passage is the idea that we should engage in conversation respectfully and by finding commonality with those of different faiths. Paul did this even when he was evangelizing, when he was out trying to get people to become Christians.
And I don’t know about you, but I’m not feeling any kind of urgency to go out trying to convert people of other religious traditions—I have a hard enough time getting Presbyterians to come to church; I don’t know how I can even begin to worry about Buddhists or Muslims, or Jews or Hindus—but if Paul can be respectful and find commonality with folks from another religious tradition while trying to convert them, then certainly you and I can be respectful and find commonality while simply living together as neighbors and friends.
And who knows, perhaps we might even get in a good game of bocce ball while we’re at it.