It is much easier to publicly broadcast acts of evil than acts of good. More specifically, it is easier to notice inter-religious violence than inter-religious cooperation. An attack or shooting, bombing, or vehicle hijacking can take place in a single day or a single hour, while cooperation involves months and years of commitment, relationships and perseverance.
Maybe this simple observation has some moral and theological importance. Morally, we read in the gospels to “not let your right hand know what your left hand is doing” – don’t broadcast or show off good works, but let them speak for themselves, quietly and in their own effectiveness. Theologically, evil and violence are public, flashy and attention grabbing, whereas goodness and peace don’t often get the same public concern. God, as often recalled in scripture, most explicitly and challengingly in the person of Jesus, is patient, steadfast, faithful and not coercive. God’s goodness operates at a deeper and more permanent level than evil, though it’s often difficult to see.
What does this mean for interfaith cooperation and dialogue? It is a call for us to be patient in our work for goodness and to recognize that our hope comes not simply from seeing stories of inter-faith cooperation on the evening news, stories which would directly counteract or cancel out inter-faith violence. Because goodness is deeper, more patient, more persevering than evil, we should not expect goodness and evil to be exchanging blows on the same playing field. Rather, we should understand our investment in interfaith cooperation as long-term, faithful and, for that reason, often unappreciated work.
A GOOD NEWS STORY
At the risk of ignoring Jesus’s command to keep good works secret, I want to share an example of my campus ministry group. For the past two years the Christian and Muslim clubs at my university have partnered together on a service project. We collect donations of toiletries, toques, gloves and socks, assemble them into bags, and hand them out at a local mission to the poor and homeless. Along the way, we have opportunities to develop friendships with the Muslim students, share a common goal and also make somewhat public the presence of both our clubs on campus.
Such an activity may get a mention in the bi-weekly student newspaper, but nothing much more than that. We know it’s a small act of goodness. If measured in terms of the good accomplished here versus the evil perpetuated in any violent attack, it won’t seem as though goodness comes out ahead on the scoreboard. Goodness seems to be fighting a losing battle.
THE OPPOSITE OF FEAR AND EXCLUSION
But again, what is important here is not success on worldly terms. We should notice that the life of Jesus did not constitute a worldly success, especially considering his humiliating and lowly death. But the hope of the resurrection is that God, God’s goodness, is identified with the life of Jesus. Jesus’ resurrection life, which lives on in the presence of Holy Spirit, empowers his followers to live a new life and a new way of being in relation to God and to each other. This way of life is marked not by fear and exclusion, but by mutual respect and offering, as modeled in Jesus’ self-offering unto death. Which, again, seems to be the opposite of worldly success.
This new way of relationship expands from the Christian community, the church, to all people – hence, the importance of interfaith dialogue and cooperation from a Christian perspective. The human race as a whole is a theatre for God’s redeeming activity in Jesus, because God-in-Jesus was and is fully human, bound to the human race.
In this context, we need to recall the point above, about how God and goodness operate on a quiet almost secret level compared to the intimidating bravado and public attention of evil. Because of Jesus and his new form of relationship and community, we can trust that this quiet, secret goodness is in fact deeper, more powerful and more persistent than the shallow, flashy nature of evil.
Since God in his goodness is at work in quiet and persistent ways, we ourselves should be willing to see God’s faithfulness at work in unfamiliar places – not in the places where we normally look. We should be willing to confess that we don’t always know where to look for God. We didn’t know to look for God in the suffering man on the cross, nor do we look for God often enough in the poor and lonely people of the world, nor perhaps in faith communities which seem so different from our own. But if goodness is an often shrouded and hidden thing, as the crucified Christ helps us to see, then these strange places are perhaps precisely where we ought to look for God and for goodness.
Interfaith work can and should follow the model of Jesus – creating and discovering new connections, new relationships and attuned to how the goodness of God is flowing quietly but unrelentingly through all of creation and all people, including people from other faiths. This won’t always be easy and it will rarely reach headlines – neither in a national newspaper nor in a church bulletin. But, perhaps, headlines are not the most important or meaningful thing to reach.
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