Michael A. Smith, senior pastor at Central Baptist Church of Fountain City and well-published author, outlines a model of conversation and true friendship for inter-religious relationships. Smith’s interfaith work with Rabbi Rami Shapiro led to the co-authorship of their book, ”Mount and Mountain,” which details their conversations about the Ten Commandments over the past eight years.
By the time I took my first post-seminary post as a pastor, I wanted interfaith dialogue to be part of my life. In the following years, I participated in interfaith ministerial associations, worked with a variety of people to bridge religious divisions in various cities, and established relationships with persons from other faith traditions.
What have I learned along the way? Three sentences capture my answer: Choose conversation. Learn to see God in all others. Make friends.
Choose conversation. In my experience, ongoing conversations advance interfaith relations. Conversations may occur over a shared meal, via email and blogs, or while traveling together. They ebb and flow, take detours, and cover whatever topics engage the attention of the conversationalists. A good conversation may include intense debate, information exchange, stories about grandchildren, politics, commentary on a recent movie or book, and stories from childhood. Along the way, we learn a about our religions. Through conversations, we do something more than learn about one another’s faith tradition: we get to know, accept and care for one another. Given the option between attending a week-long interfaith dialogue or going to lunch every other week for a year with a person of another faith, I’ll choose the lunch!
Learn to see God in all others. Genuine conversation changes how we see others. At some point they cease to be subjects for study and become human to us, living souls, if I may draw upon biblical language. The moment that happens, we start to see the image of God in them. I scarcely can describe the difference wrought by such a change in perception, but I’ll try. Until we start to perceive the image of God in others, we find it all too easy to speak of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and the like. We find it easy to make generalizations about them (“The Jews do this…,” “all Muslims are…,” etc.). The moment we see another as an individual bearing God’s image, we start to use his or her name. Soon, we may well feel our hearts prompting us to enter into friendship.
Choose friendship. Friendship entails risk, for it requires us to choose to trust and to be trustworthy, assume loyalty and give loyalty, and sacrifice for the good of our friends. Genuine friendship challenges culture’s current focus on divisions. I’ve learned to choose friendship anyway. Friendship is the deepest, personal reward of interfaith conversations. With luck, we may pass the gift of friendship to our children and grandchildren, who in turn may do the same for their progeny. Perhaps we may draw some others into an expanding friendship web. My guess is that such expanding circles of friendship may prove the most effective antidote to religious prejudice and persecution over time. Most of us cannot affect the world on a large scale. We can, if we will, create pockets of friendship, and trust God to do more through such friendships than we could ever imagine.