Skye Jethani makes a powerful case on the "Religion" page of The Huffington Post that evangelical Christians should help lead the way in interfaith cooperation. Adventists, as much or more than any group, need to hear his message, and if we were to heed it, we would be building on a sometimes-overlooked but authentic strand of our heritage.
The expanded points of contact between people of different religions that globalization and intercontinental immigration bring about multiply the enormous potential of misguided religious zeal for generating violence. "The future depends upon people of faith learning to cooperate and not merely coexist," writes Jethani. Christians cannot claim to be peacemakers without taking creative initiative against the sources of interfaith violence. The "Ground Zero Mosque" controversy is but one of several recent examples of how rapidly inter-religious conflict can spark the danger of violence throughout the world.
The world's need for an antidote to religious violence is utterly compelling in itself, and the thoroughly international scope of our movement should position Adventists to make a valuable contribution. Yet it was Jethani's insights on the necessity of interfaith cooperation for the identify and vocation of the church in the world that most grabbed my attention. The difference of Christian faith from other religions, he contends, is reason for fostering cooperation rather than for resisting it.
For this project, we need an alternative both to "the arrogance and isolationism of the fundamentalists" and to "the identity-erasing approach of the liberals," says Jethani, who is editor of Leadership Journal, published by Christianity Today International. Believers "must learn how to hold firmly to their Christian faith while living, cooperating, and even blessing those of other faiths." Clear about a distinctive identity that recognizes fundemental differences between world religions while "maintaining respect and friendship" along interfaith lines, "we can show how to be people of faith in a diverse society" and how "the church's influence will have to come from persuasion rather than raw power."
As Adventists we have a long tradition of critical distance from ecumenical endeavors. It is a tradition we can honor as a check on the imperialistic tendencies of early and mid-twentieth century ecumenism to "erase" differences that matter and failure to distinguish clearly the kingdom of God from the American Republic.
Unfortunately, that tradition has also manifested the sort of "arrogance and isolationism" that Jethani decries. But was that development at the impulse of the "spirit of prophecy?" An incident in 1887 is but one evidence suggesting otherwise. The context: the Woman's Christian Temperance Movement has become a powerful interdenominational movement and has expanded its agenda beyond temperance to include a broader social program that included endorsement of the drive for a national Sunday law. Surely this would be the time for Adventists to renounce all connection with an organization supporting such a sinister scheme.
Here's what Ellen White had to say about it at the annual meeting of the Adventists' American Health and Temperance Association held that year in Oakland: “You say they are going to carry this [temperance] question right along with the Sunday movement. How are you going to help them on that point? . . . How are you going to let your light shine without uniting with them in this temperance question?” (“American Health and Temperance Association,” Review and Herald, 14 Febr. 1888, 11-12)
Ellen White believed that Adventists could learn much from the WCTU women and at the same time had much to offer them. Realization of this important mutual benefit, she wrote a few years later, required a “discretion” and “Christlike tenderness” that honors the nobility of their work and their spiritual integrity rather than a disputatious spirit that treats them as enemies of the truth, creating alienation. (Letter from E.G. White to A.T. Jones, 18 Apr. 1900, published under the heading “The Work to be Done for the W.C.T.U.,” in Loma Linda Messages, 235-36)
What does this line of "testimony" from the Lord's messenger mean for us today? Will we listen, discern, and act?