The Great Cloud of Witnesses: The beauty and blessing of interreligious encounter
I felt a bit awkward that first night of our ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship. As a Christian discussing religious differences with Jews and Muslims, I wondered which questions were appropriate and which might be too bold. I silently berated myself for not knowing more about Islam. But as we each took our turn speaking, the tension eased, and our conversation flowed. My questions were answered warmly and enthusiastically. Near the end of the evening’s dialogue, one participant explained a little about his current shared leadership role at his mosque. His pride, commitment, and devotion shone through each word, and this touched me deeply. On the drive home that night, I wondered what it would mean to be that devoted to my church, to take commitments to my faith community that seriously. And my wondering and reflection didn’t stop after the drive home. It stuck with me. I’m still pondering the question.
Later in our interreligious fellowship, I was privileged to attend a Saturday morning shabbat service with a Jewish congregation. The warmth and joy of the service was almost indescribable. It filled the space and filled my heart. I truly felt the presence of God. At one point, the rabbi invited those in need of healing to step forward to the Torah, allowing the sacred Hebrew scriptures to carry some of the spiritual weight of the healing. One congregant walked up and stood near the Torah with the rabbi, both of them draped in a single prayer shawl. I felt so honored to witness this holy moment. The service ended with vibrant singing and clapping, even a little swaying and dancing. At several moments during the service, I felt myself so moved, I was near tears. After I left, I tried to remember a recent time when I’d experienced such warm and joyful worship. And I wondered what, exactly, creates that sense of warmth, joy, and intimacy in worship. What’s the recipe?
On another occasion, I attended an open house at a Christian church of a different denomination. We toured their historic building and cemetery, then visited a strikingly original monument to their former church, which had been destroyed in a fire years earlier. A portion of the burned church’s facade, incorporating two original windows, stood with an engraved marker on the site. The member who led our tour radiated immense love, loyalty, and rootedness to her church and its history, and I felt awed by her faithful witness to those past generations. I couldn’t help wondering how transformative it would be, to feel that connected to a congregation, both past and present. As we worked our way around the monument and among centuries-old tombstones—some so time-worn the names were erased—I thought of the “great cloud of witnesses” our Christian scriptures reference, meaning those who have passed on before us to eternal life, and how this congregations honors and remembers them.
Each interreligious (and intra-religious) encounter during my congregational fellowship with ICJS moved me deeply and led me to reflect on my own faith journey, spiritual practice, and role in my own church. They were encounters in the truest sense of the word, because they contained the unexpected. One meaning of encounter, after all, is to meet someone unexpectedly. Although these meetings themselves weren’t unexpected, I could never have predicted what I would learn, observe, and experience. The connections surprised and inspired me. I will always treasure them.
I hope to continue learning about, participating in, and perhaps even leading interreligious work in my church. This work is important for so many reasons. It can lead us to examine and deepen our own faith and practices. It can build bridges of understanding so desperately needed in our political climate. It can make us more sensitive to religious bigotry aimed at other faiths. And, based on my own experience, it can take us by surprise in the best possible way, revealing sacred beauty in religious traditions very different from our own.
Amelia Franz is a member of St. Francis Episcopal Parish and Community Center and was a member of the 2023 ICJS Congregational Leaders Fellowship. Learn more about the ICJS Congregational Leaders programs here.
Opinions expressed in blog posts by the ICJS Congregational Leader Fellows are solely the author’s. ICJS welcomes a diversity of opinions and perspectives.
Repairing the Breach: An interreligious call for racial justice
“The world has always been a multireligious, multiracial, multicultural world—even if our own religious upbringing has not embraced that reality,” says the Right Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland and ICJS Trustee.
Bishop Sutton says that it is difficult for people who are contained within the walls of their own traditions to think of the world in this way, “Anglican spirituality [of which the Episcopal Church is a part] allows for the openness to see what the Spirit may be saying to us and teaching us from other traditions. We can all learn from each other in our common humanity.”
Bishop Sutton became involved with ICJS when it was the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies. [ICJS added Islam to its mission in 2013.] He realized that he needed to build relationships with other faith leaders. He says that ICJS helped him connect with the Jewish community in Baltimore, cemented by taking a trip to Israel with the Institute.
But in order to realize the “household of God that the Holy Scriptures envisioned,” he said, “we had to include more fully our Muslim brothers and sisters. If we can build bridges with the three Abrahamic faiths, that could be a sign of God’s vision for all people.”
Bishop Sutton focuses a significant amount of his work on justice, nonviolence, and reconciliation; therefore, he says, he loves the vision of ICJS—to build an interreligious society in which dialogue replaces division, friendship overcomes fear, and education eradicates ignorance.
“Nonviolence is very important for that. In order to have peace, you have to overcome ignorance and fear,” he says. “Our society is marked too much by what I call the ‘unholy trinity’—the intersection of poverty, racism, and violence. Where you see one of those, you will be led to the other two. So, in order to achieve that vision, you have to deal with the past. How do you heal the wounds of the past? You have to make restitution for the damage caused by previous generations. You have to repair it.”
This is where another large part of his work—reparations for African Americans—fits into the equation. In 2019, Bishop Sutton testified before the House Judiciary Committee for Congressional Bill HR40, which petitions for the establishment of a national bipartisan commission to study and make recommendations for addressing reparations as a redress for the centuries of slavery and systemic racism experienced by African Americans. Author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, economist and author Julianne Malveaux, among others, testified alongside him.
He sees this principle reflected in Isaiah 58, which “talks about being a repairer of the breach.” In the United States’ case, the breach was made by the enslavement of African Americans and the subsequent century of systemic racism.
“Everybody wants forgiveness and to be reconciled, but you can’t do reconciliation on the cheap. It’s going to have to cost you something. The cost in the racial area is investing in impoverished Black communities when for centuries, society at large has taken resources and money out of the Black community.”
Bishop Sutton draws an interreligious parallel in two ways.
First, he emphasizes that during the Civil Rights Movement, the Jewish community was one of the Black Christian community’s biggest allies.
“To my Jewish brothers and sisters, I want to say, ‘you walked with us on the bridge into Selma. You walked with us and protested to achieve justice. Walk with us again to finish that job of repairing that damage, and for reparations.’ ”
Second, certain things need to be dismantled and torn down before repairs can be made, Sutton says.
“What would it mean if a group of Christians, Muslims, and Jews said, ‘we’ve all come from different pathways to this and we’ve all inherited a racial mess, much of it caused by religion. Let’s commit together to repair that mess that we’ve all inherited. We may not have caused it, but we’re a part of it.’
“It doesn’t make any difference if we’re Jewish, Muslim, or Christian, we’re all in the same boat now. Let’s repair the mess. Let’s all get behind reparations.”
ICJS to Offer Capacity-Building Grants for Chaplains
BALTIMORE—With the support of the Bunting Family Foundation, the Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies (ICJS) is launching a Capacity-Building Grant program for organizations with volunteer chaplains and/or up to three staff chaplains to pay for supplies, professional development, or other resources.
ICJS will offer the grants of up to $1,000 each to specifically address the interreligious needs of chaplains in small organizations with limited access to these and other resources. A recent state-wide survey conducted with the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab at Brandeis University showed that far fewer resources and support are available to chaplains working as volunteers or staff at smaller organizations.
“Chaplains working by themselves or with smaller organizations just don’t have access to the training and support available at larger entities, such as major hospital systems,” said the Rev. Alisha Tatem, Th.D., ICJS’ program director for religious leaders. “We are offering these grants to help fill that resource gap.”
Applications for the first round of Capacity-Building Grants are due by June 30, 2023 and awardees will be announced by the end of August. The funds must be used between September 1, 2023 and February 1, 2024. To apply, complete the grant application form.
# # #
To disarm religious bias and bigotry, the Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies (ICJS) builds learning communities where religious difference becomes a powerful force for good. ICJS envisions an interreligious society in which dialogue replaces division, friendship overcomes fear, and education eradicates ignorance. Through educational programming, public-facing scholarship, and relationship-centered fellowships and workshops, ICJS models a new conversation in the public square that affirms religious diversity in the United States. ICJS is an independent 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. More information is at www.icjs.org.
Upcoming Books by ICJS Scholars
Two of our ICJS scholars, Protestant Scholar Matthew D. Taylor and Jewish Scholar Benjamin Sax, have books that will be published in the coming months.
Matt’s book, Scripture People: Salafi Muslims in Evangelical Christians’ America, will be published by Cambridge University Press in August. In this work, Matt explores the experiences of the Salafi community in America after 9/11 through a comparison with American Evangelicals. He finds a striking similarity in how they approach their respective scriptures, the Qur’an for Salafis and the Bible for Evangelicals. Matt goes into quite a bit of his own history growing up Evangelical and finding a kind of kindred spirit in the Salafi Muslims he meets. You can order a copy when it becomes available here.
Ben’s book, Winged Words: Benjamin, Rosenzweig, and the Life of Quotation, will be published by Brill Press in September. This book, part of Brill’s Jewish Thought and Philosophy series, examines a unique philosophical obsession of German-Jewish intellectuals during the Weimar Republic that focused on how quotation and abstract thought could inspire new ways into how people experienced Jewish tradition and culture. You can order a copy when it becomes available here.
ICJS Launches Support Initiative for Maryland Chaplains
BALTIMORE—The Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies (ICJS) is inaugurating a program to provide support to chaplains and spiritual caregivers in Maryland, especially for smaller organizations with fewer resources.
The ICJS Chaplaincy Initiative will provide interreligious education and networking opportunities to those ministering in diverse communities and institutions, including hospitals and hospices, educational campuses, the military, and fire and public safety departments. Currently, there is no organization in Maryland providing these opportunities to a multi-sector community of chaplains. ICJS, with its expertise and experience in convening interreligious networks, is well positioned to fill this gap.
“Most chaplains are interreligious leaders by default, given they regularly provide spiritual care to people from diverse religious backgrounds,” said Alisha Tatem, ICJS program director for religious leaders. “Therefore, chaplaincy is an inherently interreligious arena that ICJS can uniquely support.”
In preparation for launching the Chaplaincy Initiative, ICJS worked with the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab (CIL) at Brandeis University to conduct a survey to map and assess the needs of chaplains in Maryland.
ICJS and CIL will report on the survey’s findings at a March 1 online event, The Ministry of Presence: A portrait of chaplains in Maryland.
The study found that most paid chaplains were concentrated in the healthcare sector, while most volunteer chaplains worked with state and local police. The chaplains surveyed reported that approximately 40 percent of their time is devoted to serving people from religious traditions other than their own.
The survey revealed that although chaplains in Maryland have rich resources and support to navigate the field, they still encounter challenges that may hinder chaplaincy work:
- Chaplains already work frequently in interreligious spaces, but those in smaller institutions, with a staff of just one or two, say they need more resources and training. Chaplains at larger organizations, such as hospitals, have colleagues of various faith backgrounds they can turn to and have access to more resources.
- Chaplains working in rural settings often feel more isolated and have less access to educational and support resources.
- Chaplains say they receive the highest-quality support from other chaplains, and welcome the opportunity to connect with others in the field both formally and informally.
- Chaplains expressed the need for continuing professional development in dealing with trauma, interreligious issues and interpersonal skills.
Organizations like ICJS can work at the local level to connect chaplains to available resources and existing chaplain networks, because many chaplains are unaware of existing programs and do not have the time or knowledge to become connected.
In the coming months, the ICJS Chaplaincy Initiative will carry out a number of new programs to meet those needs.
To read the results of the Maryland Chaplain survey, visit www.icjs.org/chaplains.
# # #
The Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies (ICJS) works to dismantle religious bias and bigotry to foster an interreligious society in which dialogue replaces division, friendship overcomes fear, and education eradicates ignorance. Through courses, fellowships, online events, and scholarship initiatives, ICJS builds learning communities where religious difference becomes a powerful force for good. ICJS is an independent 501c3 nonprofit organization. More information is at www.icjs.org.
A National Reckoning of the Soul: A Call to the Churches of the United States to Confront the Crisis of Antisemitism
This statement was endorsed by ICJS.
The United States is facing the greatest crisis of public antisemitism in a century. Prominent figures—entertainers, athletes, media personalities, politicians—are using twenty-first century technologies to spread antisemitic lies and conspiracies to millions of people. So-called “Christian” nationalists openly declare that true Christians hate Jews. Jews are being verbally and physically abused in the streets, vilified in social media, attacked on campuses, and assaulted and shot in their synagogues. “The tragic reality [is] that the Jewish community uniquely ends up on the receiving end of hate-fueled attacks from all sides,” FBI Director Christopher Wray recently said, adding that sixty-three percent of religious hate crimes in the country target Jewish people, who make up only 2.4 percent of the American population.
As centers comprised of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scholars and educators dedicated to studying the history of Christian-Jewish relations and to promoting interreligious enrichment and solidarity, the Council of Centers on Christian-Jewish Relations (CCJR) is increasingly alarmed that we may be witnessing the normalization of antisemitism in American discourse, which recalls events that happened in Germany when the Nazis rose to power in the 1930s. History also shows that the dehumanization of one minority group is often accompanied by the dehumanization of other minorities, as is happening today as well.
Many people are unaware that since the Second World War, the majority of Christian churches have affirmed that Jews remain beloved of God because “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29). In numerous official documents, they have recognized Jews as brothers and sisters in covenant with God and urged dialogue and collaboration (see CCJR’s online library Dialogika at www.ccjr.us). We are living in a strange time when there is both a blessed and growing friendship between Christians and Jews alongside a resurgence of antisemitism and neo-Nazism.
The CCJR unanimously issues this urgent “Call to the Churches” to take concrete actions at this critical moment. While we affirm the religiously plural character of the United States, we also recognize that Christianity is the cultural backdrop for issues of religion in our country.
We implore all churches to redouble their efforts to denounce antisemitism publicly as antithetical to the very essence of Christianity itself. We appeal to preachers and teachers to reiterate that hatred of Jews is a sin against God and humanity, violating Jesus’ admonition to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:31)—significantly, a command from the Torah (Leviticus 19:18). We urge them to encourage their communities to speak out strongly against antisemitism when they encounter it and provide them with strategies to do so. We plead for the churches and individual Christians to deepen or develop partnerships with Jews and Jewish communities to further interreligious solidarity. We encourage Christian worship that emphasizes the common mission of Jews and Christians to give witness to God in the world.
There is a further profound reason why all this is morally obligatory for Christians. As students of history, we know that the roots of modern antisemitism and associated conspiracy theories grew out of Christian libels perpetuated against Jews in medieval Europe and out of centuries of Christian religious teaching of contempt for Jews. In Nazi Germany, certain theologians went so far as to call for the “de-Judaization of Christianity,” with some even arguing that Jesus himself was not really a Jew, but an “Aryan.” As many recent official church statements have observed, this anti-Jewish legacy weakened resistance to Nazism even among those Christians who discerned the sacrilegious nature of antisemitism.
Since the long habit of denigrating Jews as blind or faithless is not quickly unlearned, the CCJR believes that Christians today need to examine their own consciences, what ancient Jewish tradition calls cheshbon hanefesh, a reckoning of the soul. At this crucial time, as in the past, there is a danger that preachers and teachers might inadvertently reinforce an image of Jesus as “outside” Judaism—or worse: as somehow opposed to the spiritual traditions of his own people. This could leave Christian congregations susceptible to the divisive anti-Jewish propaganda echoing all around them. Therefore, we offer these questions for self-reflection in Christian communities:
- Do we think about Jesus as if he were an outsider to Judaism, or as a Jew devoted to the Torah and its proper interpretation?
- Do we contrast the teachings of Jesus with the Old Testament as if his own spirituality was not inspired by those sacred texts?
- Do we conceive of the crucifixion as primarily motivated by Jewish figures or as a Roman execution of one more Jew among the thousands of Jews crucified by Rome?
Contemplating these questions with a focus on historical accuracy highlights the Jewish identity of Jesus. This effectively counteracts the subversion of Christian faith by self-declared “Christian” haters of Jews.
We entreat the churches to look inward by examining their preaching, teaching, and theologies to eliminate any traces of anti-Jewish sentiments and look outward to act and speak against all forms of antisemitism they encounter. We ask Christians to reach out to their Jewish neighbors in solidarity and friendship and so follow the scriptural admonition: “let them shun evil and do good; let them seek amity and pursue it” (Psalm 34:12, 14; 1 Peter 3:10-11).
Confronting Christian Nationalism
Christian nationalism is increasingly coming under scrutiny as an ideology and a political movement that is a threat to the American values of democracy and pluralism.
What is Christian nationalism and why is it a cause for concern? Is there anything wrong with being a Christian and a patriot?
A recent ICJS panel, “God on the Ballot? A Discussion of Christian Nationalism Before the Election,” stressed the importance of defining terms.
Panelist Samuel L. Perry, co-author of “The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to Democracy,” said that Christian patriotism can be a good thing if it means
“supporting the founding principles and creeds that unite us as Americans under constitutional democracy… That means we commit to the First Amendment, that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
“Where it becomes Christian nationalism is to either imply or to outright say that America belongs to people like us,” he said. “That includes Christians, but … there are often other kinds of cultural baggage uploaded into Christian,” including white ethnocentric ideologies.
Philip S. Gorski, Perry’s co-author on “The Flag and the Cross,” described Christian nationalism as a “deep story” that attempts to preserve a mythological version of American history: of a country founded as a Christian nation based on biblical principles and blessed with power and prosperity in order to carry out a divinely inspired mission to spread freedom, religion and capitalism to the rest of the world.
Gorski said this deep story relies on three narratives drawn from particular interpretations of the Christian Scriptures. The Promised Land story sees the American colonists as the successors to the ancient Israelites and America as their Promised Land, which they have a divine right to possess, forcing out anyone standing in their way. The End Time story—borrowed from apocalyptic biblical literature—envisions a contemporary cosmic battle between forces of good and evil. And the Curse of Ham story, in which the biblical Noah curses his son’s descendents, was used historically as a theological justification for slavery and persists as a means of othering people of color.
“So what, if anything, does a story have to do with our present-day situation?” Gorski said.
“The idea that the United States is ultimately a country for white people is an echo of the Curse of Ham story. The idea that politics is a Manichaean struggle between forces of good and evil is an echo of The End/Times story. And the idea that the United States is a nation above all others is echoed in various forms of American exceptionalism. It’s very clear that all of this is echoed right up into the present day and into our present politics.”
What is particularly troubling about Christian nationalist ideologies, Perry said, is that they are strongly associated with behavior that is authoritarian, anti-democratic and ethnocentric. This includes extreme xenophobia, a disregard for voter rights, and a desire to suppress votes in some ways, he said. “We also find that [support for] Christian nationalist ideologies is highly associated with patriarchal attitudes and even support for authoritarian violence.”
Panelist Matthew D. Taylor, ICJS Protestant scholar, takes a more focused view on the religious and theological beliefs that inspire many Christian nationalists and on the leaders who espouse them. He finds that much of the leadership of what he calls the “hardened core” of those described as Christian nationalists come from a network of self-described apostles and prophets associated with the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR). NAR is a revivalist movement among Pentecostal and charismatic churches that seeks to imbue Christian values into all segments of society and culture.
This religious influence was on full display on January 6, 2021 during the Capitol Riot, Taylor said.
“They’re doing spiritual warfare, they’re leading worship music, they’re singing,” he said. “It was actually a very ecstatic type of spirituality that surrounded the Capitol Riot, and a lot of the leaders were coming out of this New Apostolic Reformation network of leaders.”
Taylor believes that this movement within charismatic Christianity needs a lot more scrutiny.
“The core of the religious right over the course of the last decade has become much more independent-charismatic than it ever has been. I think we need to pay attention to the particular leaders, particular ideas,” he said. “The idea of battling against demons, battling against witchcraft in American politics, and Christians taking over society comes out of that independent charismatic world,” Taylor said.
“That’s not a historic, mainstream evangelical idea, but it’s very much a mainstream, independent charismatic idea.”
Panelist Amir Hussain noted the confusion of some non-Christians who consider what they know about Christian values about justice, charity and protection of the vulnerable, and measure that against the behavior of nationalists who consider themselves to be ardent Christians.
Hussain, a Muslim who teaches at a Catholic university and studies Christian theology, referenced an essay by his mentor, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, titled “Christian—Noun or Adjective?” that focused on whether Christian actions live up to the Gospels they profess to follow. Smith poses the question, “Are you behaving as Christians are supposed to behave?” Hussain said.
“And that’s where you get this really interesting thing of what’s happening with the behavior of [Christian nationalists]: How is that seen by folks who aren’t Christian, who recognize the history of this country as multi-religious?”
The panel agreed that while outright Christian nationalists may represent a relatively small percentage of the U.S. population, their influence outweighs their size.
“I think a somewhat erroneous objection that you hear is, ‘well, this is just a small group of people,’” Gorski said. “This, I think, just reflects a fundamentally erroneous understanding about how politics works, particularly how authoritarian movements work.
“You don’t need to be an electoral majority. You just need to be a well-organized, well-armed, highly mobilized minority,” he said. “And so the fact that the really extreme white Christian supremacists might only be 15%, and of that maybe only another 10% or 15% are really prepared to engage in political violence, gives me absolutely no comfort.”
LESSON PLAN: Religious Syncretism and Semana Santa
LESSON PLAN: Introduction to the Abrahamic Religions
LESSON PLAN: Fashion and Religion