The American public mind has been consumed this summer with the fallout of religious hostility: the shooting at the Sikh gurdwara in Wisconsin as well as the hostilities exchanged between conservative and progressive Christians in response to Chick-fil-A's recently highlighted stance on gay marriage. Events such as these are disturbing to people of faith, and we must ask ourselves why such hostilities prevail? Are we consigned to believe, with noted atheist Sam Harris, that religion itself is necessarily "a living spring of violence," "a continuous source of bloodshed"?
Brian McLaren, in his important and extraordinarily timely new book "Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World" (Hardback: Jericho Books, Sept. 11, 2012), argues to the contrary, that for Christians at least, it is possible imagine a faith that thrives on peace and benevolence toward others. Looking back on the history of Christianity, he observes that: "my religion has, over its first two thousand years of existence, spent too little energy making peace and too much erecting and perfecting walls of separation, suspicion and hostility."
McLaren observes that most Christians exist somewhere on the spectrum between a conservative faith that has a strong Christian identity, but hostility toward other faiths and a liberal faith that has a weak identity, but a benevolent posture toward other faiths. Between these extremes we find a wide variety of Christians who tend to moderate both the strength of their Christian identity and their approach to people of other faiths. The position that McLaren defends in this new work is one that discards this whole spectrum in favor of a faith that is deeply and distinctively Christian and also benevolent to those in other faith traditions. McLaren maps out a course for us to begin moving toward this new sort of Christian identity by helping us to reimagine our doctrine, liturgy and mission. His intent is the recovery of Christian faith that is defined more by the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, than by the oft-hostile Western tradition of Christianity that can be traced back at least as far as Constantine. McLaren is hopeful for the flourishing of a Christian identity that is "marked first and foremost by Christ-likeness -- so that we experience spiritual formation in Christ-like character, Christ-like vision, and Christ-like virtues and values" (italics preserved).
As the late theologian Walter Wink has noted, the myth of redemptive violence, of avenging blood with blood, only leads us into a world of escalating violence and bloodshed. As I write this afternoon, the Internet brings newsflashes of yet another public shooting, this one at Texas A&M University. Humanity, and indeed the whole of creation, cries "Enough!" and yearns for a different way, a way like that which Jesus taught, which is rooted in loving our enemies and not returning evil for evil. McLaren takes these simple and straightforward words of Jesus and tries to untangle the mess of convictions that we have wrapped around it over the centuries and to foster a new sort of Christian imagination that seeks to make friends with those of differing faiths and ideologies, not enemies. Brian McLaren's new book is therefore a soothing balm for the searing pain of our times; it may sting as it rubs up against our hostile convictions about justice, but ultimately, if we let it settle under our skin, it will begin a healing work.
One of the most striking things about this new work is that in choosing to argue for a strong Christian identity, a standard position of evangelical theology, McLaren's work deserves the attention of astute evangelical readers, even those who might have overlooked this book because of the association of McLaren's name with emerging or progressive Christianity. Granted evangelical readers may not track with every doctrinal, liturgical and missional twist that McLaren proposes over the course of his argument, but if they can trust his insistence on a strong Christian identity and his bold and unwavering Christology, it seems there is plenty of room for conversation about how to move forward together in the direction that McLaren offers, in spite of our theological quibbling. And in extending this olive branch of sorts to the evangelicals, McLaren's book practices what it preaches. Although the book is explicitly about interfaith relations, its message is also one that desperately needs to be heard within the broad tradition of Christianity. The Chick-fil-A debacle was a vivid reminder of the deep ideological divides within those who identify themselves as followers of Jesus. The wisdom of McLaren's work is that if we are patient with it and attentive to its message, it will slowly bring the healing of Christ to all the deep fractures -- religious, political, ideological -- of our fragmented times.
For all those who mourn the recent deluge of violence in our land, and particularly those who identify themselves as followers of Jesus, Brian McLaren's "Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road?" is essential reading. The time has come for us to repent of our hostile ways, and to immerse ourselves in all our diversity into the conversational work of imagining a new Christian identity that is marked by peace and kindness toward the other. McLaren's work will serve well to launch us into the thick of this conversation.