Stephen A. Fuqua (SAF) is a Bahá'í, programmer, and conservation and interfaith advocate in the DFW area of Texas.

November 28, 2004

Left Behind

In Wednesday's New York Times (2004-11-24), editorialist Nicholas D. Kristoff wrote about the Left Behind series of books (and assorted merchandise), which are the best selling books for adults in the United States. These books paint a grim picture of the Second Coming of Christ based on the authors’ interpretations of some passages in the Gospels and, in particular, the revelatory language of St. John the Divine.

Kristoff writes: “If Saudi Arabians wrote an Islamic version of this series, we would furiously demand that sensible Muslims repudiate such hatemongering. We should hold ourselves to the same standard.” But let me digress.

I feel lucky and blessed that my strongest early impressions of Christianity were of love and compassion. Growing up in my early days amidst Southern Baptists, Bible Churches, and devout yet more pluralistic Methodists and Episcopals, I managed to latch onto Matthew 22:36-40. I managed to see the love in God's grace and mercy as expressed through the salvation offered by His Son.

That I am not a Christian today is not important at the moment.

I feel blessed that I have known many good Christians, particularly in the context of interfaith dialogue, and that from a young age I was exposed to the beauty of Christ’s message. But I am beginning to feel more empathy (beyond the intellectual understanding) for those who did not grow up with this message, who instead only heard the hatred – especially for those who did not grow up as Christians, and were subjected to day after day of scorn, whispers behind their backs, forced prayers. I wish I could appropriately express the anguish and anger of people I know who grew up constantly subjected to taunts, damnation, and dismissal (particularly those of Middle-Eastern extraction, for whom the epithet “terrorist” was added to “heathen.”)

Thus I say this to you, my friends who are good and wonderful Christians everywhere: be strong! Be forthright in your faith! Reach out to your Christian brethren with your equally (more?) valid message of pluralism, love, and hope. This doesn’t mean you must bless everyone’s religious choices; it doesn’t mean that you should accept other faiths as having equal “access to God.”

In the Nostra Aetate of His Holiness Pope Paul VI, it is written:

“The Church reproves, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against men or harassment of them because of their race, color, condition of life, or religion. On the contrary, following in the footsteps of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, this sacred synod ardently implores the Christian faithful to “maintain good fellowship among the nations” (1 Peter 2:12), and, if possible, to live for their part in peace with all men (cf Roman 12:18) so that they may truly be sons of the Father who is in heaven (cf Matthew 5:45).”

This is a message that seems to speak to all Christians, regardless of what authority they place in the Bishop of Rome. But to be a non-Christian living in the climate that has created and is abetted by Left Behind is not to live in good fellowship and peace. It is rather the birthplace of anger and resentment perhaps equally strong as that created amongst Christians in reaction to Muslim jihadists.

Most of our traditions have some placeå where fundamentalism and/or fanaticism can break the bonds of fraternity. Thus it is that we must all continue to deepend our intra-religious dialogue even as we engage in the inter-religious kind.

The full Kristoff article (which is a bit more pointed/angry than my little exposition) can be found at http://www.nytimes.com/2004/11/24/opinion/24kristof.html?ex=1259038800&en=c982a8d18d38c2c4&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland. Please note that this link bypasses the Times' normal registration/logon process and should work even after Wednesday (articles normally require payment after 7 days).

8 Comments

Thanks for the heads-up; the Muslim double standard is particularly appropriate. One phrase of your piece caught my eye:

"That I am not a Christian today is not important at the moment."

Reminds me of a time I heard a prominent (read: nationally authoritative) Baha'i make a similar comment along the lines of

"Growing up, it was hard being a non-Christian."

When I heard him say that, I was shocked. I looked around the room to see if anyone else was similarly puzzled. In what way is a Baha'i not a Christian? In what ways are they even separate communities, given that each works to establish the same vision of God's Kingdom? Surely the interpretation of the Bible varies from believer to believer and congregation to congregration, but the deviation is not significantly greater than that which exists in the interpretation of Baha'i scriptures within their community. Doesn't divine unity mean knowing that there is no distinction between Christians and Baha'is, even if only the Baha'i realizes it?

[My $0.02]

Quick thoughts while watching Monday Night Football…

The point you make has merit. In working to create a community of unity, is it really worth emphasizing the technical difference? But I do insist that in this circumstance it is appropriate to label myself as “non-Christian.”

My brief statement about not being a Christian, to some extent, actually means the opposite of what I am saying. That was my rhetorical device for indicating why I am calling on others to combat this attitude. It was my way of acknowledging that I am not part of this particular community — no matter how strong my belief in Christ, I am not a part of the Christian community. If it truly wasn't relevant, I wouldn't have mentioned it. Yet I wanted to minimize it so as to not trumpet the fact as much as I did in an early draft.

In this context I was speaking of childhood. Now, I know that you grew up as a Baha'i, and perhaps you did not experience that personal denigration of your religion that others have. We all know that children can be nasty and brutish in separating the in group from the out group. They are not always so, and can often show remarkable strength, dignity, and even inclusiveness.

In the negative extreme, children do not recognize the commonalities between Baha'is and Christians. They see what the Left Behind attitude shows them—they see children with “wrong” and completely different beliefs. Amongst children I suspect the prevailing attitude would be that one is or isn't a Christian. No grey middle. And clearly if you are religious but don't go to church (or substitute some other appropriate Bible-centered practice), then you are not a Christian. Children understand that, rather than specific theological distinctions.

Likewise, even my most pluralistic Christian associates would not accept it, I think, if I were to call myself Christian in a public forum (originally e-mail), without taking time to explain myself. Even then, my experience has been one of dismissal when I have tried this. The attitude I have received in response is one of disbelief in the genuineness of my dialogue, at least when engaged with a church-going Christian. On the other hand, the more “new age” Christians I have dialogued with have been more interested in looking at this kind of commonality, and have been more willing to grant my Christianity.

Nevertheless, I do think that you suggestions is completely valid in the right context, regardless of whether the audience is composed of new age or more traditional Christians. But one most likely will have to take the time to explain oneself, and do so anew each time a new party joins in the discussion.

I do not claim to be an expert in this of course =). This is just my experience.

"But I do insist that in this circumstance it is appropriate to label myself as “non-Christian.”"

I realize the purpose of including the statement originally helped you make your point, I get it. Kids give each other hell. But I'm not sure it's ever appropriate to make the distinction. Because then, when one wishes not to make it, one becomes inconsistent and the effect is akin to saying, "They're really two separate communities, but when it serves my purposes -- such as not pushing Christians away from the beginning, in the hopes of converting them, by emphasizing commonality -- I can say that they aren't." And that's a turn-off.

"Even then, my experience has been one of dismissal when I have tried this. The attitude I have received in response is one of disbelief in the genuineness of my dialogue, at least when engaged with a church-going Christian."

Doesn't matter. Seems to me if it's true, then it's always true, and the difference is one of perspective, as you say. Whether a progressive or fundamental Christian, it's not important that she appreciates the reality, only that you do, and that all your actions consistently come from that understanding.

The purpose of the Revelation of Baha'u'llah is to remove the artificial distinctions that separate the children of men, whether of nation, race, religion or worldview, not reinforce them.

Cf. paragraph 42 (or page 114 of _World Order_) of "The Dispensation of Baha'u'llah":

"[The Baha'i Revelation] regards [the religions that have preceded it] in no other light except as different stages in the eternal history and constant evolution of one religion...of which it itself forms but an integral part. ..Its teachings do not deviate a hairbreadth from the verities they enshrine...Far from aiming at the overthrow of the world's religious systems, its avowed, its unalterable purpose is to widen their basis, to restate their fundamentals, to reconcile their aims, to reinvigorate their life, to demonstrate their oneness, to restore the pristine purity of their teachings, to co-ordinate their functions and to assist in the realization of their highest aspirations."

My gut reaction still is that this idea doesn't work so well for real interfaith dialogue. Gut might be wrong though. Furthermore, I'm not really all about dialogue at this point. I see the interfaith movement as embracing dialogue but also moving past it. In the post-dialogue movement this may indeed be the best/most unifying approach.

In Studies in the Babi and Baha'i Religions vol 8, Seena Fazel summarizes Leonard Swindler's three goals of dialogue as: “(1) to know oneself more profoundly... (2) to know the other ever more authentically... (3) to live ever more fully.” These are goals I believe in. And my immediate reaction in that light is to agree with you. If I deny my “Christian-ness” even in full dialogue, then I am not living up to any of these goals, if I truly believe in that Christian-ness of self.

Just as intrafaith dialogue is necessary for the Christian community, it is necessary for the growth of all religious communities.

i understand the desire to apply the concept of this being the changeless faith of god, and i also understand that the guardian wanted us to be a distinct community, and the bab, baha'u'llah, & abdul baha all used the language of distinction during the course of their revelations... here's some gems:
((love to all,
me))

Unfolding Destiny, by Shoghi Effendi, p. 42:

Due to the reason that Shoghi Effendi hopes to build in the near future the grave of Dr. Esslemont on his behalf and on behalf of all the friends, our Guardian would like very much to have the design chosen by the family of the deceased. Of course you would let them know that through certain considerations it would be best to have the design devoid of any cross as that in this country would particularise it to the Christian faith. You would let the family know that the expense would be defrayed by the friends all over the world and by Shoghi Effendi himself.

16

A closer study of the text of the decision will, however, reveal the fact that coupled with this strong denunciation is the positive assertion of a truth which the recognised opponents of the Bahá'í Faith in other Muhammadan countries have up to the present time either sedulously ignored or maliciously endeavoured to disprove. Not content with this harsh and unjustifiable repudiation of the so-called menacing and heretical doctrines of the adherents of the Bahá'í Faith, they proceed in a formal manner to declare in the text of that very decision their belief, that the Bahá'í Faith is a "new religion", "entirely independent" and, by reason of the magnitude of its claim and the character of its "laws, principles and beliefs," worthy to be reckoned as one of the established religious systems of the world. Quoting various passages judiciously gleaned from a number of Bahá'í sacred Books as an evidence to their splendid testimony, they proceed in a notable statement to deduce the fact that henceforth it shall be regarded as impossible for the followers of such a Faith to be designated as Muslim, just as it would be incorrect and erroneous to call a Muhammadan either Christian or Jew.

Unfolding Destiny, by Shoghi Effendi, p. 248:
growing closer to the Faith. A friendly contact with him should always be maintained. Regarding his cable concerning Hussein: he has been very surprised to note that the terms "low-born Christian girl" and "disgraceful alliance" should arouse any question: it seems to him that the friends should realise it is not befitting for the Guardian's own brother, the grandchild of the Master, an Afnán and Aghsán
Unfolding Destiny, by Shoghi Effendi, p. 248:
whom so much was expected because of his relation to the Family of the Prophet, to marry an unknown girl, according to goodness knows what rite, who is not a believer at all. Surely, every Bahá'í must realise that the terms low-born and Christian are definitions of a situation and in no way imply any condemnation of a person's birth or the religion they belong to as such. We have no snobbery and no religious prejudice in our

The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, by Shoghi Effendi, p. 101:
of life into all things, were I to be assured that in the day of His manifestation thou wilt deny Him, I would unhesitatingly disown thee and repudiate thy faith.... If, on the other hand, I be told that a Christian , who beareth no allegiance to My Faith, will believe in Him, the same will I regard as the apple of Mine Eye." In one of His prayers He thus communes with Bahá'u'lláh: "Exalted art Thou, O my Lord the Omnipotent!

The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, by Shoghi Effendi, p. 20:
to the world. Should we look back upon the past, were we to search out the Gospel and the Qur'án, we will readily recognize that neither the Christian nor the Islamic Dispensations can offer a parallel either to the system of Divine Economy so thoroughly established by Bahá'u'lláh, or to the safeguards which He has provided for its preservation and advancement.

One conclusion that is clear from the quotations Brian has so lawyerly-researched is that Baha'is must be unequivocally clear in their recognition of membership in a distinct (though inclusive) Baha'i community & religion. The Guardian is very clear on this point. Nevertheless, in understanding our relation to other Faiths, especially when attempting to explain to those who are less familiar with the fullness of the concept of progressive revelation, it may be valuable (and true) to say "I am a Christian, if by Christian you mean follower and lover of Christ."

In 'Abdu'l-Baha in London*, the Master says

"You must not dissociate yourself from it [the questioner's church]. Know this; the Kingdom of God is not in any Society; some seekers go through many Societies as a traveller goes through many cities till he reach his destination. If you belong to a Society already do not forsake your brothers. You can be a Baha'i-Christian, a Baha'i-Freemason, a Baha'i-Jew, a Baha'i-Muhammadan. The number nine contains eight, and seven, and all the other numbers, and does not deny any of them. Do not distress or deny anyone by saying 'He is not a Baha'a!' He will be known by his deeds. There are no secrets among Baha'is; a Baha'i does not hide anything."

The meaning of this passage is clarified by the Guardian's advice that declared Baha'is not longer be members of a church:

"… we, as Baha'is, must not have any affiliations with churches or political parties. … We, as Baha'is, can never be known as hypocrites of as people insincere in their protestations and because of this we cannot subscribe to both the Faith of Baha'u'llah and ordinary church dogma. The churches are waiting for the coming of Jesus Christ; we believe He has come again in the glory of the Father. … We should, therefore, withdraw from our churches but continue to associate, if we wish to, with the church members and ministers.

Our belief in Christ, as Baha'is, is so firm , so unshakable and so exalted in nature that very few Christians are to be found now-a-days who love Him and reverence Him and have the faith in Him that we have. It is only from the dogmas and creeds of the churches that we dissociate ourselves; not from the spirit of Christianity." (from a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to the Baha'is of Vienna, June 24, 1947; Lights of Guidance, p159)

We must make it absolutely clear that we are not claiming to be Christians in the sense of belonging to the Christian community or to the Christian churches. At the same time, perhaps there is safety and usefulness in declaring our love of Christ by beginning with "I am a Baha'i, which means that I am a Christian" (9 includes 8…).

When it comes to a statement such as "Growing up, it was hard being a non-Christian," there can be no doubt that this was true. The speaker was most likely speaking of belonging to the Christian community, of being recognized as a part of the "in group." And yet I cannot but agree that "divine unity mean[s] knowing that there is no distinction between Christians and Baha'is."

* a non-authoritative text

fascinating, the bit from abdu'l baha about masons... shows the role of the covenant & the evolution of the baha'i revolution through the expounder & the interpreter... at first blush it looks like abdu'l baha'i is saying "go on with your bad mason self", but he ends the passage with: "There are no secrets among Baha'is; a Baha'i does not hide anything." ... the master is at once upholding the principle of brotherhood & unity, encouraging baha'is not to backbite or criticize each other about it, and finally laying a gentle reminder that to me would help a believer to maturely realize "if baha'i's don't have secrets, how can i be a part of a secret society?"... and down the road the guardian makes clear that:

Dawn of a New Day, by Shoghi Effendi, p. 145:
Baha'is Cannot Become Freemasons The Guardian does not consider it advisable for Baha'is to become Freemasons . Reviewing of Baha'i Books

which is fascinating as well because the guardian is still being gentle enough (in my opinion he was the sternest of the central figures, due to his role in establishing the administration and the need for that to be distinct, along with the worldwide spread of the faith) to use the word "become", which is still consistent with the tone of the master's statement.... however, by the end of the guardian's life, his tone was much firmer and direct, in addressing what i feel was the master's point from the outset:

1388. Baha'is Requested to withdraw from Masonic and other Secret Societies (lights of guidance)

"As regards your question about Masonry, the Baha'is, the Guardian feels very strongly, must learn at the present time to think internationally and not locally. Although each believer realizes that he is a member or one great spiritual family, a member of the New World Order of Bah'u'llah, he does not often carry this thought through to its logical conclusion; which is that if the Baha'is all over the world each belong to some different kind of a society or church or political party, the unity of the Faith will be destroyed; because inevitably they will become iinvolved in doctrines and policies that are in some way against our Teachings, and often against another group of people in another part of the world, or another race, or another religious block.
Therefore, all the Baha'is everywhere have been urged to give up their old affiliations and withdraw from membership in hte Masonic and other secret Societies in order to be entirely free to serve the Faith of Baha'u'llah as a united Body... the Guardian wants the Baha'is to disentangle themselves rom anything that may in any way now or in the future, compromise their independent status as Baha'is and the supra-national nature of the Faith."....
and further:
the friends must realize that now that the Faith is over 100 years old, and its own institutions arising, so to speak, rapidly aboveground, the distinctions are becoming ever sharper, and the necessity for them to support whole-heartedly their own institutions and cut themselves off entirely from those of the past, is now clearer than ever before..."
and finally:
"...the point is not that there is something intrinsically wrong with Masonry.... the Baha'is should be absolutely independent... that is why they are requested to withdraw from membership in the church, the synagogue, or whatever other previous religious organization they may have been affilliated with... it protects the Cause; it reinforces the Cause, and it asserts berfore all the world its independent character"

gotta go...
your g,
be

ps- that should've been "evolution of the baha'i revelation" not "revolution", although both could be applicable, i suppose... ;)