Overcoming Religious Tribalism: An Example

Screen Shot 2017-08-19 at 10.54.12 AMIn his new book, Saved by Faith and Hospitality, Joshua Jipp contends for a good example of how to overcome religious tribalism, and the example he uses might surprise many today. I found the same in a book for lay folks. In fact, Jipp’s thesis gets to the heart of the mission of earliest Christianity and at the same time one of its biggest challenges.

His example is the apostle Paul and he bases his very sound observations on the record of Paul in Acts 27-28 and in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, one of the most significant passages one can find in the Pauline pastoral mission.

What he says here deserves careful attention; I hope you buy this book and read it carefully.

So here we go: Paul as exemplar of inter-religious dialogue and hospitality. It begins with the problem of privilege and the desire to be benevolent while not desiring to benefit and receive from the other.

In other words, for those with a sense of power and privilege, we may be tempted to feel as though others are always the beneficiaries of our hospitality, and this can allow us to retain a false sense of superiority. Amy Oden describes this danger clearly: “The feeling of pity and the desire to better the lives of others is a good thing, often inspired by God in one’s heart. But it is seductive, even dangerous, for the host to view herself as the helper. The would-be act of hospitality becomes an act of condescension and failure to see, either one’s own need or the true identity of the stranger as Christ.” But the Bible frequently indicates that God’s people are not only hosts but also guests—sometimes guests of one another and always guests of God.

His concern is religious tribalism, though what he says transcends religions and includes cultures if not also denominationalism.

Our exclusive allegiance to Christ and confession of him as the full revelation of God are commitments that must not be compromised or watered down. But does confession of Jesus alone as Lord necessarily lead, then, to tribalism, to “religious tribalism,” to a form of hostile rejection of non-Christians? Is it actually possible to do good to all people when we have such different visions of ultimate reality? Is it appropriate to engage in meaningful friendships with those outside of the Christian faith, perhaps even sharing intimate forms of hospitality and table-fellowship with one another? If so, how do we engage in deep friendships and simultaneously navigate our different religious commitments and values? Are friendships with the religious other only an opportunity for covert evangelism? 

In this chap Jipp examines Acts 27-28 and 1 Cor 9:19-23.

These two texts, among others, I believe, encourage the Christian to enter into the role of guest with non-Christians and thereby call for friendship, relational engagement, and mission with those who do not share our Christian faith. The New Testament encourages Christians to pursue meaningful friendships and beneficial other-regarding relationships with the religious other for their own sake as well as with the hope that they will encounter the life-giving presence of Jesus. While I am not equipped to make proposals for how to eradicate inter-religious strife, I do suggest that the Christian is called to engage in the risky, difficult, and rewarding task of both showing hospitality to and receiving hospitality from the religious other.

His summary statement:

The character portrait of Paul, within which Luke concludes his work, is of one who benefits the religious other, who engages in friendship and meaningful relationships with non-Christians, and who not only extends but also receives hospitality from non-Christians.

Dip into these texts and don’t just skim over them.

Acts 27:3 The next day we put in at Sidon; and Julius treated Paul kindly, and allowed him to go to his friends to be cared for.

Acts 27:43 but the centurion, wishing to save Paul, kept them from carrying out their plan. He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and make for the land,

Acts 27:20 When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small tempest raged, all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned.

Acts 27:31 Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.”

Acts 27:34 Therefore I urge you to take some food, for it will help you survive; for none of you will lose a hair from your heads.”

Acts 27:43 but the centurion, wishing to save Paul, kept them from carrying out their plan. He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and make for the land,  44 and the rest to follow, some on planks and others on pieces of the ship. And so it was that all were brought safely to land.

Acts 28:1   After we had reached safety, we then learned that the island was called Malta.

There are stereotypes of places like Malta and its barbarians. Luke sets us up for a shift of mind:

Luke activates an impending mhospitality scenario, however, only to overturn it—”the barbarians showed us no small philanthropy” through their provision of a fire to keep the prisoners warm (28:2).

The texts again:

Acts 28:7   Now in the neighborhood of that place were lands belonging to the leading man of the island, named Publius, who received us and entertained us hospitably for three days.

Acts 28:10 They bestowed many honors on us, and when we were about to sail, they put on board all the provisions we needed.

This may be the most important point, and I’m pointing my finger at all of us who think condescendingly of Jews, of Muslims, of Buddhists, and of others:

But it is to say that Luke does not demonize the religion of non-Jews, and in fact presents non-Jews I as capable of rightly responding to the emissaries of the risen Christ even out of their own Greco-Roman cultural and religious dispositions.

Instead, Luke’s Paul is a guest who works within—even as he disrupts their beliefs and allegiances— the cultural and religious logic of the Maltese, a logic that enables them to show kindness to the incarcerated, to recognize the powerful presence of God at work within Paul, to initiate friendship with Paul, and to engage in sharing their possessions with Paul and his crew.

Now to 1 Corinthians.

1Cor. 9:19   For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.  20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law.  21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law.  22 To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.  23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

This “becoming” of Paul is rooted in the “becoming” of Jesus.

Thus, Christ voluntarily became man, became a slave, became obedient to death, became a curse, became sin, and became poor.

What then to do? A big idea and two practical approaches:

Churches today who would continue to embody the same message and values should reflect upon where and how their gifts and resources may be put to use in service of the larger world. Likewise, churches who seek to hear and be shaped by God’s Word in Acts 27-28, might reflect upon whether they are intentionally seeking opportunities to bestow divine hospitality and create friendship relationships with so-called outsiders. Perhaps the church would do well to reflect upon whether soldiers, prisoners, and the ethnically “other” still represent some of the same cultural stereotypes needing to be overturned.

One way in which Christians can share in God’s mission in and to the world is by embracing the posture of guest in one’s intentional pursuit of friendships with followers of other religions.

In our pluralistic society, one important way Christians can embody God’s hospitality is by actively looking for ways to share the gifts of God with the world at large. This embodiment of divine hospitality can be seen in pursuing the good of society at large through, for example, caring for the weak and vulnerable, visiting the imprisoned, and providing food for the poor.

"same way you can train to listen to individual human beings"

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