Lessons From My Evangelical Neighbors
“When other Christians threaten or disappoint me, I work as hard to see God in them as in people of other (or no) faiths. It helps to remember that these are often the same Christians whom I threaten and disappoint in equal measure.” -Barbara Brown Taylor
When asked if I was interested in attending a conference with the purpose of teaching evangelical Christians how to be good neighbors to Muslims, I was hesitant to say the least. My first thought was, “This is something that needs to be taught?” I struggled with the decision for a couple days, taking into consideration the fact that I was still healing from the pain caused by an evangelical community on campus the previous year. Did I really want to surround myself with Christians who needed a whole conference to explain to them why they should love and accept everyone? But attending Neighborly Faith at Wheaton College came with the promise of exploring downtown Chicago and spending time with some of my favorite people, so I decided last minute to attend.
I sound harsh and cynical. Bear with me.
The 24-hour conference consisted of Christians and Muslims speaking to an audience of mostly white evangelical college students. I listened as Christian scholars gave biblically-backed reasons to intentionally engage with the “other” and as Muslim students and professionals discussed their experience with evangelicalism. I watched as the people in the audience nodded their heads, eyes wide with realization and understanding. These reactions were fascinating to me. I realized, as I sat among these students, that they had been raised in a tradition, in a culture, where this really did need to be taught. A post-conference survey showed that nearly half of the conference goers (who participated in the survey) had negative or neutral attitudes towards Muslims. Keep in mind that most of the people who took this survey are conservative, white, evangelical college students.
I find it shocking that someone can have a “negative attitude” towards a person because of their religion, but I suppose this opinion shows my privilege. I was lucky enough to grow up in a Catholic environment that taught me to love and engage with people despite their faith. I’m lucky enough to work in an environment that teaches me to take this a step further and love and engage with people because of their faith. These students don’t have this privilege, and that’s why the conference was necessary. The survey also showed that after the conference, only 6% of conference-goers had a neutral attitude towards Muslims, and none had a negative attitude. Neighborly Faith didn’t change my attitude towards my Muslim neighbors, but it did change my attitude towards evangelical Christians.
One of my favorite moments of the conference was talking to Muslim keynote speaker Shadi Hamid, who is a writer for The Atlantic. We spoke in depth about things we appreciated about other faiths, including his love for Christianity’s concept of grace and my love for Islam’s emphasis on peace. During this engagement, I brought up the term “holy envy.” He looked at me, confused, and asked what that was. I explained that I had first heard the term while I was in Israel over the summer from Dr. Faydra Shapiro, a specialist in contemporary evangelical Christian-Jewish relations. She described it as looking at someone’s religion, recognizing that it’s not yours, and still seeing the magnificence of it. There’s a book I’m currently reading called “Holy Envy” by Barbara Brown Taylor, which expands on this concept. I told Shadi that the emphasis on peace is my holy envy of Islam, and he told me that grace was his holy envy of Christianity.
In that moment, all of my holy envies came flooding into my heart. Judaism’s traditions, Hinduism’s diversity of worship, Buddhism’s compassion. But there was one I felt that I hadn’t noticed before, and didn’t fully recognize until I was debriefing with my advisor after we returned to Elon: evangelical Christianity’s emphasis on love. I think I heard the word “love” about a hundred times throughout the weekend. The whole conference was centered around this idea of loving everyone we come into contact with, no matter who they are or what they believe.
Are their ways of going about this love perfect? No. Of course not. A lot gets lost in translation, especially when it comes to engaging with the LGBTQ+ community and other groups traditionally not accepted in mainstream Christianity. But they try. They are, for the most part, trying to live as Jesus did by loving radically. This love may not always lead to acceptance, but it’s a beautiful and noble effort. I am confident in my identity as a progressive Christian, but I recognize that sometimes we forget about the “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” bit that Jesus taught. I lose sight of this lesson when I’m met with intolerance and injustice, as are most of my progressive friends. And this is not to say that righteous anger isn’t righteous. I also recognize that, as a cis-gendered, straight, white female, I am privileged in my ability to engage with those who I don’t agree with, whereas many people do not feel safe enough to do so. I understand that. But I think we should learn from our evangelical neighbors and remember that Jesus loved Judas as much as he loved Peter.
Before going to the conference, my advisor asked me if I was scared that I was going to hear something that I agreed with. I was, and I did. I heard love, and I heard it loud and clear.