I'll begin with a true story about Columbia Washington, now of Ottawa, who recounted it in more detail last week at a "Making a Difference" breakfast here in Montreal.
At the age of 15, Columbia, who is a great great grandson of the renowned American educator, Booker T. Washington, his parents and twin brother moved from France to Liberia in the mid-1990s. Literally on their first night in Monrovia, all but Columbia were killed and he barely managed to escape into the street. A kindly person took him into his home and managed to get him aboard a ship bound for Lagos and carrying about two thousand other refugees from the violence in Liberia. The governments of no country on the coast of West Africa would allow any passenger to disembark and about two months later those who were still alive--food became very short-- were put ashore in Liberia. While the representatives of Medicins Sans Frontiers were seeking a safe refuge for them, rebels came and machine-gunned most of them to death.
Columbia survived again and spent the next five years in refugee camps, swimming across rivers and in other difficult circumstances. American officials were interested in his name, but disputed his connection with the US because he then spoke no English; French ones refused to rescue him because of his name. Eventually, a CIDA official from Canada listened to his odyssey and helped him obtain refugee status for Canada. He also explained how and why during those years he went from being a strong atheist to an equally strong believer in God.
But how is Christianity generally doing around the world today? The answer at one level would be that it has probably never been stronger. Statistically, one reads estimates (source: The Universal Almanac on World Religions) that there were even a decade ago worldwide 1.5 billion Christians.
It has been my immense good fortune to visit more than a hundred countries on all continents over four decades. Whether in Africa, Asia, Europe or the Americas, I've been struck by the the optimism and spiritual vigour of local Christians.
This is not to say for a moment that in some of these countries Christians have it easy – quite the contrary – but at least there is now frequently more tolerance for spirituality of all kinds and even if they must in some lands meet in secret. For example, several of us Canadians were permitted to speak of Christianity a decade or so ago at a private dinner with National Peoples' Congress officials in the Great Hall of the People in China's capital. In Moscow, the Christian Embassy of Canada hosted in the 1990s a brunch for members of the State Duma. One of those attending had earlier distributed Bibles to a fairly large number of members of the Russian army.
The collapse of ideological competition has virtually everywhere made it easier for all faith communities. The "crisis of the soul", to use the phrase of Aleksandr Yakovlev (the advisor to Mikhail Gorbachev and former Ambassador to Canada), which affected the Russian people for decades had clearly begun to change. Unfortunately, the news now coming out of Russia is disheartening on virtually every issue of human dignity and religious rights. Some 72 faith organizations, for example, were recently banned by the Kremlin. The independent report that David Matas and I did on organ pillaging from Falun Gong practitioners, who combine spirituality and physical exercises, was also proscribed (anyone can access it in nineteen languages, including Russian, at www.david-kilgour.com).
Persecution of Christians
Bob Harvey some years ago reminded readers of the Ottawa Citizen that fully half the Christians who have died for their faith since AD 33 probably have done so since 1900.
What has been happening in Orissa, India, to Christians in recent months is both a terrible tragedy and contrary to the religious pluralism, rule of law and democracy for which the world's largest democracy has long stood.
The estimate of those martyred in the 20th century is more than 35 million – about 163,000 per year at current levels. If all Christian denominations around the world were to speak out everywhere with one voice on this phenomenon, we'd have a far greater impact than speaking as individual denominations. Why not establish an inter-denominational task force on persecution in all countries with significant Christian populations?
Christianity in Canada
How is Christianity doing across Canada today? A fair answer to the question is difficult. None of us is prevented legally from practising our Christian faith. The Charter of Rights protects freedom of religion, but believers of most faiths, including our own, have plenty of constant critics in the media and among some academics. I'm not so familiar with the Montreal media, but both the Ottawa Citizen and the National Post today show a good deal of positive interest in religious issues. Christian Week is a welcome addition to the Ottawa scene as is Christian radio station CHRI 99.1.
Statistically, I understand that more Canadians attend church services weekly than sports events. Many who don't are non-practising believers, although others would argue that it's impossible to be a Christian all by yourself.
Canada bears the imprint of many different Christian communities, each of which in their own way molded Canada's character. Our society today has the values, ways of thinking and living inspired by numerous religions. Our national character owes its roots to a pluralist religious education based on various concepts and attendant ethical systems. I pay tribute here to those many pioneers who, basing their work on the tested values of various spiritual traditions, founded towns, cities, universities and a host of other institutions and breathed into them the inspiration that sustains them still.
Much of Canadian society continues to reflect these principles. They have lost none of their validity. We might, therefore, in adapting them to current conditions, encourage people to understand what our country is and what its creative energy is founded upon.
The 2001 national census by Statistics Canada dealt in part with the state of religion across the country; its conclusions released in mid-2003 provide many interesting insights. Despite large immigration from mostly non-Christian countries since the 1970s, seven out of ten Canadians as of five years ago still identified themselves as Catholic or Protestant. Almost 13 million claimed to be Catholic; 8.7 million self-identified as Protestants. Those who said that they were simply "Christian" more than doubled from the 1991 census to 784,000.
The denominational patterns among Protestants are mixed, in part, concludes Statistics Canada, because their members are mostly descendants of immigrants who arrived before 1961. Between the 1991 and 2001 censuses, Baptists increased by a tenth to 729,500 across the country. The number of United Church adherents dropped 8 percent to approximately 2.8 million. Anglicans fell 7 percent to about two million; Presbyterians, to about 409,800. Pentecostals rather surprisingly fell 15 percent to 369,500. Lutherans dropped by one-twentieth to 606,600.
In The Churching of America: 1776-1990, authors Rodney Stack and Roger Finke assert that fewer than one-fifth of Americans were active in churches in 1976, compared to more than 60 percent in 1990. The ongoing link between faith involvement and "the American way" of life remains very strong. Weekly church attendance in the 1990s among Americans—40 percent nationally—is higher than in the 1930s (35 percent). Congregational membership at 69 percent is only slightly lower than in, say, the 1950s (73 percent).
Reg Bibby of the University of Lethbridge notes that about 30 percent of Americans belong to conservative Protestant churches, which manage to stay in close touch with the spiritual concerns of their members—compared to only about 7 percent of Canadians. He notes the now well-known phenomenon that both attendance and religious belief are stronger in countries like Canada and the U.S. where there are numerous competing churches.
Just over seven in ten Canadians nationally continue to believe in God. The Project Canada survey conducted by Reg Bibby found that about 70 percent of Canadians across the land, as of 1990, believed there is life after death, with only 14 percent ruling out the possibility completely. The same percentage—70 percent—said that there is a heaven and almost half—46 percent—of Canadians say there is a hell.
In 2001, 16 percent of Canadians, or about 4.8 million individuals, reported having no religion. The country of origin was no doubt a factor because a fifth of the immigrants who came to Canada between 1991 and 2001 reported having no religion, particularly those born in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Interestingly, males were more likely to report no religion than females. The jurisdictions with the highest proportion of "none" were Yukon (37 percent), British Columbia (35 percent), and Alberta (23 percent), which contrasted noticeably to Newfoundland and Labrador (2 percent) and Quebec (6 percent).
Statistics Canada went further to sample persons over 15 living in private households in all 10 provinces on their frequency of attendance at religious services. Nationally, one-fifth of those sampled—or about 6.4 million individuals, assuming, no doubt to err on the high side, that the same attendance level applies to those under 15 as over—attend religious services on a weekly basis. Even if there is exaggeration in the total of those reporting weekly attendance, no other voluntary activity across the country would appear to attract anything like this number of regular participants. Most of our media unfortunately continue to overlook this phenomenon.
The author Ron Graham concluded in his book, God's Dominion, a number of years ago that "for all the talk of Canada as a secular and materialistic country there seems to be more and more attention to spiritual issues". Do you not agree here too with C.S. Lewis: "I have discovered that the people who believe most strongly in the next life do the most good in the present one."?
One of the nine books Bibby has published, Restless Gods, sets out how Canada's various religious communities can build on an emerging religious renaissance which he and others are documenting. On the important weekly attendance at services by members of selected faiths, for example, Bibby compares surveys done in 1990 and 2000:
| ||1990 ||2000 |
|Nationally ||24%||19% |
|Outside Quebec||35||29 |
|Quebec ||26 ||14 |
|Mainline Protestant||16||18 |
|Anglican ||14||18 |
|Lutheran || 18 || 21 |
|Presbyterian|| 24 || 25 |
|United ||15||14 |
|Conservative Protestant||50|| 48 |
| || || |
|Other Faiths||26||27 |
|Jewish||12 ||8 |
Bibby adds that two Statistics Canada surveys, with samples 10 times larger than the two he used, corroborated these findings. In a question asked in 2000 of persons who attend services once a month or more on whether their own congregation is growing or declining, the trends were mixed:
| ||Growing Staying the same Shrinking |
|Catholics || 24|| 33||43 |
|Outside Quebec||33 || 35 ||32 |
|Protestants||47 ||31 || 22 |
|Conservative Protestant||59||28||13 |
|Mainline Protestant||32 ||36|| 32 |
The approximate weekly attendees of various faith communities across Canada in the mid-1950s, according to a March 1957 Gallup poll, and 2000 survey were as follows:
| ||Mid-1950s ||200O|
|Nationally ||10,000,000||6,300,000 |
|Catholics ||6,600,000 ||3,700,000 |
|Outside Quebec||3,000,000|| 2,500,000 |
|Quebec ||3,600,000 ||1,200,000 |
|Protestant ||3,300,000 ||2,500,000 |
|Conservative Protestant||700,000|| 1,500,000 |
|Other faiths ||120,000||85,000 |
Bibby here refers to the American congregational expert Lyle Schaller and his argument that a new religious renaissance is taking place in both Canada and the U.S. Schaller's list of indicators of this trend includes:
- many worship services are changing, going from dull to exciting
- new era in religious music
- emergence of mega churches
- more ecumenical initiatives coming from congregations and ministers
- increased number of independent congregations
- laity more involved in ministry
- positive impact of television on churches
- bestselling books having religious messages
- growing interfaith cooperation
- priority given by adults and teens to prayer groups.
In very brief summary then is the place of the Christian faith currently in the third millennium as I see it.
Christians engaging on public issues in 2009
How should Christians engage on public issues today? One answer is "carefully". More seriously, I think a strong case can be made that the institution of democratic government and civil society in this and other lands ultimately depend upon, and come from, religious principles shared by many of the world's great religions, including our own. Modern Marxists, for example, are rarely democrats-- and vice versa.
It seems to be too little known, for example, that there are quotations from the Bible carved on fully three sides of the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill. One is "Without a vision, the people perish". Elsewhere in the public square, numerous Canadians before and since Confederation founded schools, colleges, universities, and a host of other institutions out of religious convictions. The YMCA and YWCA are but two of many such institutions. The Christian faith sustains many of these organizations today.
Interestingly, however, one of the myths Christians of all denomination must still often dispel today is the notion that being religious makes one intolerant. The American pollster, George Gallup, demonstrated years ago that practising Christians are much more accepting of other creeds and philosophies than are non-believers. Gallup's study also indicated that people of what he termed "strong" religious convictions were more ethical in personal dealings, more tolerant of persons with different backgrounds, more apt to perform charitable acts, more concerned about the betterment of society and happier than others.
Data gathered by Reg Bibby, the Canadian researcher on religion mentioned several times yesterday, indicates that teenagers who attend church services regularly "are considered more likely than teens who never attend services to place a higher value on such traits as honesty, forgiveness, concern for others, politeness and generosity". Any thoughtful parent, teacher, legislator, social worker or young person should be interested in such a conclusion. Should we believers not share such information?
Sadly, Canada has one of the highest teen suicide rates in the world; only New Zealand and Finland evidently are higher. The number of teen suicides in our country, moreover, has been rising steadily and has in fact increased about four-fold since 1960. Psychologists point at problems with relationships, depression and poverty as probable causes. Youth pastors and other Christians can often be helpful here.
Family issues generally, moreover, will continue to be important in the new millennium. One expert with 60 years of experience, the late Benjamin Spock, thought voters in the U.S. and presumably elsewhere should influence legislators through letters, visits, etc. to assist mothers/fathers who would prefer to stay home with young children. He thinks American children get their consumerism, competitiveness and brutality from television. Spock: "parents can make a profound difference by teaching social and spiritual values – helpfulness, cooperation, generosity, love throughout childhood."
Public Square Today
It is highly probable that most elected individuals in representative democracies around the world today would identify themselves as Christians or members of some other of the world religions. If asked how their religious faith affects their daily work, however, a good many of the Christians among this group might well reply truthfully: "not much". This nominal believer phenomenon today is both a challenge and an opportunity for all spiritual communities.
Early in the twentieth century, Abraham Kuyper founded the Christian Democratic Association in Holland on the conviction that there is no area in human life where Christ does not say "mine". In 2009, even politicians who take their religious faith seriously often differ on what the Scripture says on a host of contemporary issues. The Bible makes it clear that various acts are sins, but Jesus also warned his followers not to judge others. Are Christians, moreover, not to 'hate the sin and love the sinner'? We also have a duty to be fair, especially when it involves applying our principles in the political arena where truth is often the first victim.
In my view, Christians should avoid saying: "the Christian view of issue X must be Y" on issues where it's difficult to say with real confidence what Jesus himself would say. I believe it harms Christianity if its followers insist that the Bible requires us to favour one side or the other on certain public issues. On other issues – "ethnic cleansing", child pornography, slavery and environment degradation come readily to mind – Christians, like believers of all other faiths, should be much more assertive.
My own view, doubtless induced partly by a long experience in the religious/cultural climate of Canada, is to be cautious about mixing church and state. If one wishes to make the case, say, that Hollywood values ("If it feels good, do it") have caused considerable havoc across the world, why not do so on an empirical or common sense basis? There is good evidence that the media's constant glamourization of violence has had very serious ripple effects, especially among the young. Is it not better advocacy to support tougher laws to fight, say, child pornography on the readily-identifiable evidence of what it has already done to our communities? Believers of all known religions are already convinced on such issues.
In an age of almost daily regional violence somewhere in the world, believers are achieving much to resolve disputes peacefully. For example, in South Africa before the 1994 elections which brought Nelson Mandela to the presidency, a bloodbath was probably avoided when Chief Buthelezi agreed at almost the last moment to allow his Inkatha Freedom party to compete at the ballot box. Buthelezi, who might have missed a crucial meeting with a fellow Christian (Washington Okumy of Kenya) if his aircraft had not developed mechanical problems in the air, later used the Jonah experience in the Bible to explain how God had brought the two of them together. A South African MP later reminded an astonished Canadian parliamentarian: "Eighty percent of South Africans are Christians."
An important book, Religion, The Missing Dimension of Statecraft, offers other case studies from Asia, Europe, Central America and Africa in which spiritual factors played an important part in resolving conflicts and achieving non-violent change. In former East Germany, for example, where religion was persecuted severely for decades, a number of churches positioned themselves to play a major role in the peaceful revolution of 1989-1990.
Part of the eventual success came from a steadfast insistence by their leaders following World War II that in view of the Hitler experience Christian churches must never again be compliant partners of governments of any political stripe. A period of schizophrenia for some denominations occurred, but during the 1980s a genuinely independent peace movement grew up among many East German believers. By 1988, large prayer meetings were being held weekly in a dozen cities across the country and the Evngelische Kirche was daring to call for the rule of law, limits on state authority, democratic elections, free media, and environmental protection. The "Magna Carta" for the revolution of 1989 was in this fashion prepared largely by Christian and other faith communities.
On October 9, 1989, fears of a Tiananmen-like massacre swept through Leipzig when several thousand police took up posts outside five downtown churches, most notably "St. Nicholas' Church". An estimated 10,000 men and women met inside for their weekly prayers. The beatitudes were read and sermons stressed peaceful protest only. The crowd outside eventually swelled to 70,000, but miraculously the only violence was attempted by security officials of the regime seeking to incite the crowd. It was soon stopped by the protesters. The authority of the churches, which counted for more than all the government troops placed around the city, thus became a key factor in encouraging the peaceful transfer of power to the democratic side. A banner was later hung across a Leipzig street, evidently by non-believers: "Wier Danken Dir, Kirche" ("We thank you, church").
In summary, there is probably a greater need for committed Christians in every walk of life today than at most other points in human history. Christian politicians everywhere can help by acting as a brake upon forces that daily threaten to overcome civilization. In addition to speaking out or voting, we believers in our own lives must place a high value on the empathy, kindness and numerous other qualities associated with Christianity. Our lives must somehow manage to remind others that there is a Redeemer for our "tormented public and private world."
Should Christians each in our own way and space not also attempt to do what the Apostle Paul and millions of lesser-known believers have done down through the ages? We could use C.S. Lewis as a model for our age. If Lewis was the twentieth century's most influential Christian author, was he not also, as Dorothy Sayers put it, "God's terrier"? Believers in any situation should be terriers for our Saviour too. Each day presents new opportunities for ministry.
The unity for which Christ prays allows for different cultures, preserving individual historical organizations, cultures, ecclesiastical interpretations of worship style. Our common acknowledgement is that Jesus is the Son of God and our only Saviour. In Christ, as God reminds us through the Apostle Paul's writing, "there is no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free. There is common Good News that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son's life to redeem it."
How do we come together? How do we bridge the Right/Left gap? It is an important challenge for it is clear neither side alone has the answers which are needed to address the critical problems of our society, problems such as loneliness and poverty to name only two. Those who advocate personal spiritual renewal while turning their back on issues of social justice reject the direct revelation of God as given in Micah 6:8: "He has showed you, O man, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."
Those who focus on personal spiritual renewal, while ignoring social justice needs, are rejecting this divine word. Those who speak only of social justice distort the Gospel of personal faith. Our denominations desperately need an ecumenical movement showing these two views, called left and right – the evangelical and social activist – are parts of the whole, inseparable if Jesus' work is to be done effectively.
What is urgently needed in our churches is a renewed ecumenical movement which seeks to find common ground between the Left and the Right, between the evangelical and the liberal, between those whose primary concern is social justice and those whose main concern is personal faith.
Can common ground between the so-called Left and Right in many congregations not be found in the "prophetic spirituality" which is described in so many of the stories of the Old Testament, where concerns for righteousness and justice are melded into one? Is not such common ground epitomized in the person of Jesus himself, who not only preached personally turning to God in faith, but also proclaimed good news for the poor who were oppressed by systemic injustice?
When someone attacks a Christian – or any – faith community anywhere in our own country unfairly, wouldn't it be more effective if members of other denominations – or better perhaps the leaders of them – were to reply immediately? More specifically, if a media outlet ridicules, say, the Catholic church, Protestants should come to its defence thoughtfully but with vigour.
None of us here needs to be reminded of the awful things done in the name of our faith in the past, including the Inquisition, the Crusades, and Canada's residential schools. Virtually all of us deeply regret these acts. Today, like you, I'm delighted when Christians stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other faith communities on issues of persecution of any human being for their faith. In Edmonton, for example, Christians participated with Muslims and perswons of no faith in a large rally at city hall years ago over the persecution of Muslims in ex-Yugoslavia. Afghanistan is on all our minds today. Christian MPs and senators of all parties were members of the Parliamentary Group for Soviet Jewry in the 1980s, and so on!
Yes, there is much we can do, but at the same time we know the individual churches to which we belong are good places to be. Philip Yancey's book Church: Why Bother?, has much to say to us. He notes that when critics say a particular parish fails to live up to the New Testament's high standards in some respect, "anyone who enters the church expecting perfection does not understand the nature of that risk or the nature of humanity. Just as every romantic eventually learns that marriage is the beginning, not the end, of the struggle to make love work, every Christian must learn that church is also only a beginning." None of us has perfect parents, children or spouses, so why give up on a parish church because of imperfections? Many have done so. Let us do everything in our power to invite them to give the church a second look.
I am reminded here of something that one of Canada's greatest writers, the late Gabrielle Roy, noted in her autobiography, Enchantment and Sorrow, about her return to the church: "Many years later, God's presence throughout this world seemed very clear to me, leading me to consider the Church's practices not so puerile after all, since they had helped keep the light at its nucleus alive for me. I won't deny that when I returned it was partly from a nostalgic desire to be kneeling again beside my dead mother, and how could I do this except through God. "
The New Testament holds up the model of a church which exists primarily for the sake of non-members. Most parishes fall short here, but many have enormous outreach in their communities. In Greater Toronto, I understand churches are involved in shelters for the homeless, ministries to street people, safe places for abused women and food banks to name only a few. I am especially impressed with the work of L'Arche founded by Jean Vanier. The late Henri Nouwen of Toronto's L'Arche community wrote often about lonely abandoned people without people to love them. Nouwen tells of a young minister who has nothing to offer an old man facing surgery except his own loving concern. "No man can stay alive when nobody is waiting for him," he wrote. All of us, priests, ministers, and laity, can fulfil this role of eating tears for someone.
Yancey thinks our parishes should ideally be "God's neighbourhood bar, a hangout like the television show Cheers for people who know all about your lousy boss, your mother with heart trouble …, and the teenager who won't do what you tell him; a place where you can unwind, spill your life story, and get a sympathetic look, not a self-righteous leer." Can anyone disagree? The suggestion has been made that AA in its meetings is very close to the early Christian Church such as the one in Corinth.
No-one can be a Christian alone for long. Parish churches exist primarily to worship God; His reconciling love transcends all differences of nationality, race, age and gender. In the words of Blaise Pascal "the real strength of Christianity is that it is adapted to all."
Desmond Tutu has noted about our increasingly borderless world: “We are bound up in a delicate network of interdependence.” Miram Adeney of Christianity Today says, “we’ve been hit in the solar plexus with the truth that we are globally connected and cannot cut loose.” Despite this, there is still a major lack of attention in the media paid to the relationship between globalization and faith groups. We Christians must also become more fully acquainted with rapidly changing global faith trends. Another necessary step if other faiths friction and violence is to be reduced is more effective bridge building between faith communities.
I’d like now to turn to a book by Phillip Jenkins entitled: The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. Jenkins, who is a professor at Penn State University, argued that the present global trends of Christianity will have an impact on the world similar to major religious movements such as the Reformation.
For Jenkins, the twenty-first century will be seen as a time in history when religion replaced the importance once occupied by ideology. Christianity will have a major impact on all of the world’s belief and ideological systems.
It barely registered on Western consciousness until recently that Christianity is growing with phenomenal speed in Africa, Asia and Latin America. In Africa, according to the World Christian Encyclopaedia, the present net increase of Christians on the continent is an astounding 8.4 million a year, or 23,000 persons a day. Put another way, there were about ten million African Christians in 1900; in 2000 there were 360 million. My friend Sam Okoro, from Nigeria, asked why, says it’s partly because Africans have lost confidence in governments. Only faith in God, he says, provides hope.
Below the Equator, Christianity is moving towards a belief system based on divine authority, literal interpretations of the New Testament, super-naturalism, neo-Orthodoxy, mysticism, personal devotion, and communal relationships. This Southern approach is in direct contrast to the liberalism of the North both in a theological and ethical perspective. In particular, Southerners are experiencing an exponential rise in Pentecostal churches. Jenkins’s notes, “...Pentecostal expansion across the Southern Hemisphere has been so astonishing as to justify claims of a new reformation.” The sense of family and fellowship that is felt within Pentecostal communities is key to its attraction for millions.
Southern membership in Pentecostal and independent churches already runs into the hundred of millions; within a few decades, Jenkins thinks they could represent a majority of Christians worldwide. He notes that there were only a handful of Pentecostals in 1900, but according to some projections they could number more than a billion by 2050. Jenkins argues that as a result of this phenomenon, the North will increasingly be viewed by the South as being heretic in nature and in need of re-evangelization, which is happening to some extent already. Jenkins’s argues that the current trends in Southern Christianity will not be reversed.
In highlighting this growth, Jenkins notes: “By 2025, 50 percent of the Christian populations will be in Africa and Latin America, and another 17 percent in Asia.” In other words, the centre of gravity of the Christian world will be deep in the Southern hemisphere, creating new pockets of influence and power. Until now, the foolish stereotype in the North was, as Jenkins says, that Christians are “un-Black, un-poor and un-young”. In fact, before too long, the phrase “a white Christian” may be something of an oxymoron.
A word about Asia, South Korea in particular. The book notes that there were only about 300,000 Christians in the whole of Korea in 1920, but that today there are 10-12 million. In fact, when I was in Seoul recently, I was told that almost half of the population are now Christians, which could put the figure above 20 million. The Fall Goyee Central Church in Seoul, notes Jenkins, now has half a million members. The Presbyterian Church I attended in Seoul has about 7000 members and they offer five or six services each Sunday.
Christianity and Islam
One of the consequences of the phenomenal growth of both Christianity and Islam is that the two great religions are competing intensely for converts in many nations. Unfortunately, this could lead to civil wars and horrific international conflicts. Says Jenkins: “Imagine the world of the thirteenth century armed with nuclear warheads and anthrax. In responding to this prospect, we need at a minimum to ensure that our political leaders and diplomats pay as much attention to religion and to sectarian frontiers as they have to the distribution of oil fields.” Can anyone disagree?
Jenkins’s concludes his book with this: If there is one overarching lesson from this record of changing fortunes, it is that Christianity is never as weak as it appears, nor as strong as it appears. And whether we look backward or forward in history, we can see that time and again, Christianity demonstrates a breathtaking ability to transform weakness into strength. For indeed we know, as Paul said in 2 Corinthians 12:10: "For when I am weak, then I am strong."
Role of Christians
We as Christians in the North should address these global trends and play a useful role. As Miriam Adeney of Christianity Today argues, “of all people, Christians are to love our neighbours. When our neighbourhood expands to include the globe, then we’re called to love globally.” Christianity should no longer be viewed as being a European and North American faith. In particular, we need to reach this conclusion as a united community and formulate an appropriate response to this transformation.
Christian communities everywhere should concentrate on maintaining a dialogue on where the future of the faith lies and as a result become better qualified to address complex issues of the future. Christians must assume active roles in addressing whether the level of global awareness present in all of our institutions, including at the educational and church levels, is appropriate or needs to be improved upon.
In expanding our contacts with communities around the world, it is important to reflect on the power of forgiveness in past strained relationships. As Bishop Tutu once said: “the past, far from disappearing or lying down and being quiet, has an embarrassing and persistent way of returning and haunting us unless it has been dealt with adequately. Unless we look the beast in the eye we find it has an uncanny habit of returning to hold us hostage.” Are these words not equally applicable to Canadians?
For example, at the time of Nelson Mandela’s inauguration on May 10, 1994, he was joined by numerous heads of sate and prominent world figures. Included was a former jailer of the president. Mandela demonstrated his capacity to forgive and work towards achieving reconciliation from those who had harmed him in the past.
We are not called to forget the past; we all know that there is inherent danger in forgetting misdeeds. We are called to drop the burdens of anger and resentment that weigh us down and direct our will towards reaching forgiveness and reconciliation.
Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “unless we learn to live together as brothers [sisters] we will die together as fools.” In building stronger relationships and a deeper level of respect and understanding among other faith communities and persons of different languages and cultures, one does not need to sacrifice beliefs; instead, we should view it as an opportunity to enrich our faiths. People with whom we rub shoulders ought to see in us God’s message of kindness and unconditional love for humankind. One does not need to travel abroad to make a useful contribution towards inter-faith dialogue. As a community, inter-faith dialogue needs to begin at home.
In closing, Miroslav Volf of Croatia argued in his wonderful book, Exclusion and Embrace,“there can be no peace among nations without peace among religions. Since religious peace can be established only through religious dialogue... reconciliation between the peoples depends on the success of the inter-religious dialogue.” For reconciliation to take place, the inscriptions of hatred must be carefully erased and the threads of violence gently removed.
God bless the work of your ministries richly.