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Navigating the Waters of Interfaith Activity

Written by Matthew Weiner & Matthew Dunbar
March 15, 2015

by Matthew Weiner and Matthew Dunbar
Originally published on December 11, 2008 in Sightings
When liberal religious groups work together, it is assured that they agree on one thing: proselytizing is against the rules. The history of Christian evangelism has led to extreme sensitivity on this issue, especially amongst Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus. A Buddhist monk, who is also a parliamentarian in the Sri Lankan government, even introduced a bill to make proselytizing illegal.
Liberal religious communities assume that in order to engage in honest dialogue, one cannot think one’s faith is superior, let alone try to convince the other participants that one’s religion is the only true faith. But there are problems with this assumption. Moreover, far more theologically conservative religious communities also work across religious lines these days. Many of them believe their faith to be superior to the faiths that they encounter. How do these participants reconcile the conflicting objectives of working together honestly and preaching their faith? And how do liberal religious leaders navigate such difficult waters? If interfaith activities seek to move beyond the usual liberal context, these are essential questions to pursue.
Imam Backi is an African American Imam who has been participating in interfaith programs for years. Recently, at a social justice retreat, he said that it was a requirement of Islam to do dawa, which literally translates as an “invitation to Islam.” Many in the room were offended, but he went on to explain that after he practiced dawa, he would expect to work with others on shared terms. Another Muslim leader, Sheikh Drammeh, disagreed with Backi. While he too wished that people would convert to Islam, he did not see an interfaith retreat as the place for it. This response was not greeted with much more enthusiasm from participants. Drammeh said, in response to a grumbling crowd, “Yes, I am a bit prejudiced in favor of my faith. And you should be for yours.”
Vivian Donaldson is a Pentecostal minister in Brooklyn whose church is in an all-Jewish neighborhood. Donaldson also joins the retreats that Backi and Drammeh attend.  And while she does not openly proselytize in the way Backi does, when speaking to the group she clearly testifies about the power of Jesus in her life. Yet Donaldson also feels a strong affiliation with her surrounding Jewish community.  She sees them as a vital link to her Christian faith and enjoys learning about Judaism. She incorporates some Jewish prayers into her daily life. And unlike many evangelicals, she does not openly seek their conversion. In fact, she would even deny that this is any goal of hers. Yet Donaldson believes that at the end of time, Jews will be reconciled with Jesus.
Proselytization is not always blatant or conscious, and rules that ban it or even shared assumptions that frown on it do not prevent its more subtle forms. Buddhists are fond of saying that meditation is not a religious practice.  But it leads to Nirvana – Buddhist salvation. Is having a Buddhist lead a meditation at an interfaith retreat proselytizing? What did the Buddha mean when he called for disciples to “spread the teachings”?  Buddhism, often seen as a more historically tolerant faith, is nevertheless one of the world’s most successful missionizing faiths. But it also illustrates how ambiguous the category of “evangelizing” can be.
Perhaps the most serious problem with anti-proselytizing rules is the assumption that no real work can be done without them. One Hasidic Rabbi who was to attend a retreat was warned that while the program was about social issues of shared concern, and that this was why everyone was there, there were still a few leaders who may say something that he would find distasteful. The rabbi pursed his lips and dismissed the fear with a wave of his hand. “What will they do? They may try to convert me? Then they will fail. Then? Then we will get down to business.”