Living peaceably with all in the face of division

On October 15th, 2021, my hometown’s Member of Parliament, Sir David Amess, was murdered by an Islamic terrorist while holding a constituency meeting at a local Methodist church. After 38 years in service, Sir David was one of the UK’s longest standing MPs and was described by our then Prime Minister as, “one of the kindest, nicest, most gentle people in politics.” Sir David was also a devout Catholic whose Christian values powered his service of the community, and the positive impact he left behind is reflected in his now being nominated for sainthood.[1] Notably however, the nomination is not by a fellow Catholic, but by a Muslim constituent. 

The Saint David Amess Peace Initiative is believed to be the world’s first interfaith sainthood nomination and aspires to act as a “powerful gesture of unity and tolerance that promotes peace and helps combat extremist ideologies and violence.”[2] The gesture is predicated on the belief that Sir David died violently in odium fidei and thus qualifies for Catholic sainthood consideration as a martyr. The nomination has garnered support from religious leaders across the world: the United Arab Emirates Islamic Ministry has issued a fatwa (religious ruling) in support, and the former head Rabbi of Ireland, David Rosen, who currently serves as the Interfaith Director of the American Jewish Committee in Jerusalem, commented that he is privileged to be associated with efforts of honoring Sir David Amess and his “exemplary life.”[3]

Sir David’s Catholic faith was central to his ability to transcend religious differences for the service of others, and the reverence this fallen politician has amassed from other faiths is implicit in the project set up in his wake. As Christians, what role are we to play, and how important is interfaith work in applying the teachings of Jesus?

The topic of interfaith engagement is especially pertinent in modern America. The United States was founded partially as a Christian colony to provide refuge against persecution in Europe, and through mass immigration has since become a religious and cultural melting pot. We are in a unique and privileged position of being in the midst of this melting pot, and shouldn’t waste this opportunity to advance the powerful cooperation this country was built on. Previous interfaith attempts have been made that we can draw inspiration from, such as the Parliament of Religions, held in Chicago in 1893 as an effort at smoothing over religious conflict. Despite some criticism, such as a lack of representation of certain faiths, the gathering was an important step towards bringing world religious leaders to work on common grounds.

However, the Bible should always serve as our main reference point for how to approach interfaith relations. Indeed, one of Jesus’ most famous parables is an example of the necessity for interfaith cooperation: The Parable of the Good Samaritan tells us of a man who, when left robbed and injured on the side of a road, was ignored by members of his own community, and ultimately helped instead by his cultural ‘enemy’ (Luke 10:30–35). This is one of many biblical examples that Jesus gave of extending love and grace to those who may be different from you, or even against you. The context of the parable sheds further light on our neighborly relations, as it was shared as an explanation of the second most important commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (Matthew 22:39). In this parable, Jesus helps us to identify our neighbor as anybody who needs our help, regardless of background or belief. Therefore, to live out the values that Christ has instilled in us, we will necessarily be called to impact in situations of interfaith cooperation.

I believe we are also called to engage in interfaith works in an active manner, not just when relied upon for help. In Romans, Paul beseeches of us the following:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
—Romans 12:14–18

In order to cooperate peaceably and honorably in the sight of all, it is crucial that we must truly understand one another. Often, when confident in our own faith, complacency leads us to remain ignorant of others’ beliefs. This simple, arms-length tolerance is unsatisfactory, and its consequences include the mischaracterization of others (which can cause hostility in itself), and the inability to effectively share the Gospel with them. Interfaith dialogue in pursuit of understanding is the first step towards an acceptance that is conducive to living peaceably and spreading Jesus’ truth.

The difference between dialogue and cooperation is slight but important: to engage in interfaith dialogue is to promote understanding between faiths, whereas interfaith cooperation is to use that understanding in joint efforts and projects. Many Christians find themselves already engaging in interfaith cooperation through community outreach, as volunteers from varying religions come together to administer projects to support the poor and otherwise needy. However, with cooperation comes caution. Some argue that interfaith work can be at odds with the exclusive fundamentals of the Christian faith, as the risk of legitimizing other paths to salvation can be shrouded in the positive promises of peace. When interfaith efforts incorporate conflicting doctrinal matters, we jeopardize confusing the Gospel message of peace that reconciliation with God is only attainable by grace through faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:8–9). It is therefore critical to enter such engagements holding fast to Jesus’s teachings that He is the way, the truth, and the life, and that no one comes to the Father except through Him (John 14:6). In doing so, the truth will not be compromised, and we can confidently participate in interfaith work as disciples of Christ. 

When Jesus’s teaching is to love your neighbor no matter which barriers may set you apart, it appears that interfaith missions are required of us if we are to live Christ-like lives. Loving your neighbor and living in harmony surely means to work in the best interests of others, to strive for a positive world that mitigates polarization, violence, and sin. In a world seemingly increasing in all those attributes, we are compelled to participate in interfaith collaborations for the greater good of both society and personal salvation. 

When viewed through the Bible’s teachings it appears that Sir David embodied these interfaith community values; he meaningfully impacted his diverse constituents while serving as an ambassador of his faith. It is therefore not surprising that The Saint David Amess Peace Initiative seeks to honor him, and by building on his legacy, stands to be a historic benchmark for interfaith cooperation. We too can draw inspiration from this unprecedented initiative, to create a positive impact in our daily spheres by living out Jesus’s love and striving to live peaceably with all.

[1] The Roman Catholic view of sainthood is different from most Protestant denominations. Protestants believe that anyone who puts trust in Christ’s atonement for sins is a saint (Romans 1:7), whereas the Catholic church operates under Rome’s claim of their right to recognize particular saints through their canonization process.
[2], [3]

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