Love Thy Neighbor is a collaborative series by Shared Justice, an initiative of the Center for Public Justice, and Neighborly Faith, an organization helping evangelical Christians to be good neighbors to people of other faiths. Recognizing that we live in a religiously diverse and pluralistic society, this monthly series will explore how Christians can embody and advocate for hospitality in principle, practice, and policy.
BY KEVIN SINGER AND KATIE THOMPSON
Shared Justice is asking what it means to "do justice" as citizens in a diverse political community. Neighborly Faith is asking the same question, but with one added word: What does it mean to “do justice” as citizens in a religiously diverse political community?
For too long, Christians have seen non-Christian religious communities as problems to solve, rather than talented and moral people who can contribute to public justice in our society. We’ve been told that Christians have the corner on the market on justice, but this simply isn’t true. Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, religious “nones” and others are also interested in addressing many of the same injustices that tug on our hearts. In the same way, the effects of injustice are not borne by one religious (or non-religious) community. When new mothers and fathers are not afforded paid family leave, or when payday loans trap borrowers in a cycle of debt, this is a burden that all religious communities share and all have a stake in addressing.
Sharing in the call to address injustice is just one piece of what faith communities in America can accomplish together. Zoom out 30,000 feet, and what we’re really talking about is the exciting promise of pluralism. Pluralism is a word and a vision for society that has gotten a bad rap because it is deeply misunderstood. Some have confused pluralism for relativism, the belief that no claims to moral or religious knowledge are absolute, or universalism, the belief that all religions are equally valid and ultimately lead to the same divine source. This is not pluralism.
Pluralism, according to Diana Eck from Harvard, is “the energetic engagement of diversity through the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference.” Philosopher John Rawls referred to the “fact of pluralism” as a “plurality of conflicting, and indeed incommensurable, conceptions of the meaning, value, and purpose of human life.” Pluralism doesn’t assume sameness, but in fact the very opposite. It also doesn’t assume that agreement or cooperation will come easily. Given the social and political forces working to tear everyday Americans apart, every small moment of partnership across our differences is a hard fought victory.
Important to our understanding of pluralism is the recognition that it has both an interpersonal and an institutional dimension. Public justice, the animating framework of Center for Public Justice, is the guiding principle for government’s work. This framework holds that “Government is authorized by God to promote what is good for human flourishing” and is uniquely tasked to promote policies that contribute to the common good. However, public justice also requires that government upholds “the ability of other institutions and associations to make their full contributions to human flourishing”; in other words, government must be committed to institutional pluralism, recognizing that civil society is comprised of institutions like the family, church, faith-based and nonprofit organizations, all of which uniquely contribute to human flourishing.
Inherent in the principle of public justice is the recognition that citizens are religiously diverse, and as a result, so are the institutions of which they are a part. The reality of this diversity makes it imperative that government honor the religious freedom of, and make space for, the contributions of religiously diverse schools, nonprofits, families and faith-based organizations.
The Love Thy Neighbor series will explore how we, as committed Christians, can be good neighbors to other faith communities in our increasingly pluralistic society. This includes stewarding our shared commitment to seek justice in our schools, workplaces, and government. However, seeking justice together requires that we actually know each other well enough to identify and organize around our shared interests. Many committed Christians aren’t there yet; they don’t actually know a Muslim, a Jew, or a Hindu. Therefore, some of our content will focus on helping Christians build relationships of trust with other faith communities, so that partnerships for justice can actually be established.
Essential to building authentic relationships and working towards justice in the public square is the recognition of the contributions of diverse institutions of civil society that are embedded in our communities. A commitment to pluralism must present not just in our interpersonal relationships, but also in the institutions in which we live our lives. As the Center for Public Justice’s Guideline on Religious Freedom explains,
Government should not treat human beings merely as individual citizens; human beings also exist as family members, faith-community members, economically organized employers and employees, and in dozens of other capacities and relationships. ‘Principled pluralism’ means that government is obligated to do justice to society's nongovernmental organizations and institutions as a matter of principle.
The Guideline continues, “The religion of others may entail obligations to serve their neighbors, educate their children, and carry out their work and civic duties as part of an entire way of life in obedience to God. Whatever the case, government does not have the authority to define true religion and thus must protect the religious freedom of all citizens.”
As a result, we have a responsibility to call government to honor the distinct contributions of faith-inspired institutions in civil society, including the Muslim relief or service organization, the Jewish private school, and the Christian adoption agency. In “What a Pagan Food Bank Can Teach Us About Diversity”, the Chelsea Langston Bombino, Director of Sacred Sector, an initiative of the Center for Public Justice, highlights the contributions of diverse faith-based organizations addressing food insecurity. “Whether a religious food-assistance organization serves out of a calling originating in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Paganism, or another faith tradition, each of these faith-based food banks is serving because their faith calls them to do so,” she writes. “There is something intangibly religious in providing people tangible nourishment. Thus, for these faith-based food providers, providing material sustenance is not just an act of service, it is a religious expression.”
This series will explore how we can be good neighbors — on both a personal and an institutional level — with those with whom we may disagree with or hold different truth claims. We believe that Christians continue to play a critical role in bringing about a society that is fair, just, and safe for people of all beliefs. For one, we as Christians believe that all people are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and possess inherent dignity and worth. Our concern is for the flourishing of all people, including those outside the Christian faith. Even more, Dr. Kristen Deede Johnson, Professor of Theology and Christian Formation at Western Theological Seminary, notes in her book Theology, Political Theory, and Pluralism, that in a pluralistic society, “Christians offer a radical love for the other, a radical hospitality and generosity towards those who are different, guided not by their own strength but by participation in the God whose very life was given freely and without violence for those who considered themselves God’s enemy.” Christians, at our best, do not just work to eradicate the injustices inflicted on fellow image-bearers; we are also motivated by our Savior to love others beyond what is expected of us — to be the light of the world, “so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:15).
Love Thy Neighbor is designed to expand our political imagination to partner with and uplift individuals of different faiths in our pursuit of public justice and to shed light on how different faith groups and institutions can work together to promote flourishing. According to Dr. Eboo Patel, founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, this becomes easier when we imagine America as a potluck supper rather than a melting pot. In Patel’s Out of Many Faiths: Religious Diversity and the American Promise, he writes, “The genius of this nation is not in how it vanquishes minority religions but rather in how it welcomes their contributions. The setup is like a potluck supper. For the larger community to eat, everybody needs to bring a dish...as the demographics of the population shift, so will the flavors of the food on the table.
We hope you will join us as we imagine a society in which Christians are in relationship with other faith communities far more than we are right now, both for the sake of Gospel advancement and the health of our shared democracy, which we all depend on in ways we may not even recognize. Together, we can write a new story about the Church in a pluralistic age; one that Dr. Matthew Kaemingk, assistant professor of Christian Ethics and Associate Dean at Fuller Theological Seminary (Houston) and author of Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear, imagines will “defend the rights, dignity, and humanity of their [neighbors] without downplaying their exclusive commitment to Christian orthodoxy” or the important differences that exist between us.
Kevin Singer is Co-Director of Neighborly Faith and has taught world religions at two community colleges since 2012. Kevin is also a PhD student in higher education at NC State University, where he serves as a Research Associate for the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Study (IDEALS), a national study of how college students are affected by religious diversity on campus.
Katie Thompson is the Program Director and Editor of Shared Justice, the Center for Public Justice’s initiative for Christian 20- and 30-somethings exploring the intersection of faith and public justice. She is a co-author of Unleashing Opportunity: Why Escaping Poverty Requires a Shared Vision of Justice.
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