Posted by Arthur Brown
Readers of our blog over the last few weeks will be aware of our focus on the “Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World” document, published jointly by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, the World Council of Churches and the World Evangelical Alliance. This week IMES will be hosting an event that explores the content of this document, within the Lebanese context. Two of the writers of the document, Rosalee Velloso Ewell and John Baxter-Brown will be presenting the document at the event. This will be followed by a discussion on the themes emerging from the document by representatives of the Maronite, Orthodox, Baptist and Sunni communities in Lebanon.
Rosalee is Executive Director of the Theological Commission with the World Evangelical Alliance, and John is a consultant on evangelism and mission, who has worked with the World Council of Churches, the WEA and others.
I caught up with John and Rosalee and asked them about the document and its significance.
[Arthur Brown] Could you tell me briefly how this document came into being and your role in this?
The drafting of the document was prompted by incidents related to accusations that Christians from many traditions were using manipulative methods in trying to convert people from other faiths. Though small in number, sadly some of these accusations were true. So to help and support those Christians working for the common good and to build stronger inter-faith relationships, PCID and the WCC started a process of examining the issues at hand. Into this process they invited the WEA and it became a historic work of the 3 bodies in examining the ethics of evangelism.
The whole process started in 2006 and lasted about 5 years. The official launch of the document was in June 2011. Both of us were involved in the drafting team of the document.
[AB] If you had to summarise the main message of the document in one or two sentences, how would you do so?
“More evangelism; better evangelism”. To paraphrase the words of 1 Peter 3:15: it is the joy and duty of every Christian to evangelize. We must be prepared at all times to give an account of the hope that is within us, but we must always do so with gentleness and respect. The document is about what this gentleness and respect look like, especially in contexts of religious diversity and tensions.
[AB] In your opinion why is such a document necessary, and what do you hope it will achieve?
This document is unique and its necessity lies in its nature: it is genuinely a mission document, it is genuinely an ecumenical document, it is genuinely an inter-religious document and it is a historic document. Despite its brevity and simplicity, it is necessary in that these things have never been said jointly, by these three bodies who represent about 95% of Christians worldwide.
It is our hope that the document will stimulate further discussion and thought about how Christians live as genuine witnesses to Jesus, embodying the service and the love that Jesus himself demonstrated in his earthly ministry. Over the past two-and-a-half years we have already seen this happening in various parts of the world. We also pray that Christians in all parts of the world will continue to find ways to appropriate the document and think anew about the particularities of witnessing in their own contexts.
[AB] What were some of the challenges you and your colleagues at the WCC, the WEA and the PCID faced in the development of the document?
The process of developing this document was just as important as its final outcome. The implications of this are directly tied to the challenge of building relationships of trust, of genuine friendship such that we could learn to listen, to be challenged and to challenge those who come from traditions so radically different from our own. Together we learned to give and receive criticism about our conduct among people of other faiths, and this learning wasn’t always easy.
Though there were challenges in learning to become friends with people of other traditions, perhaps the greatest challenges came from the criticisms we received from those within our own communities. That is, sadly there was more opposition from our own constituencies about engaging in this process than from people who were “outside” our traditions.
[AB] Since its publication how has the document been used – have you seen its impact in various contexts around the world?
Over the past two-and-a-half years the document has been studied and appropriated in many places: Brazil, India, Norway, Thailand, Nigeria, Myanmar and various other places. Different church bodies have used the document to draft their own codes of conduct; mission agencies and international relief organizations have also adapted its content and used it as a study guide for staff working in inter-religious contexts. In some cases the meetings to discuss the document and its contextualization have been the very first truly all-Christian gathering in that country.
[AB] Have you had any negative reactions to the content of the document? Why do you think this might be?
Of course, there have been critics of both the text and the process. As mentioned earlier, many of these critics have come from within our own communities. The document assumes the position of non-violence and non-retaliation and the way of Jesus and some Christians find this very hard to accept. Others have been critical of the content and found it lacking a clearer definition of “mission” or “church” or even “gospel.” It is understandable that such criticisms would come up, but they fail to understand the nature of the document itself and the importance of its process. It is NOT [a] theological treatise nor is it intended as a top-down manual for Christians in inter-religious contexts. For this reason its subtitle is “Recommendations for Conduct”. The whole point is for churches and Christian organizations to study the document and to think about issues that it raises within the particularities of where those churches are, and then to adapt and appropriate as needed, in a grass-roots sort of movement.
[AB] How would you like to see this document, and what it stands for, used specifically in the Middle East?
We were very mindful of the struggles of many of our sisters and brothers around the world as we tried to draft this document. On the drafting team of 10 people, only 3 were from the west. The urgency of the issues raised in this document and the delicate situation of Christians in the Middle East were part of the context of the writing of this text. It is our prayer that the document could be a gift for Christians in the Middle East and that even as you appropriate and contextualize it here, that the rest of the world might learn more about how to be faithful witnesses to Jesus from your work here. We also hope that it helps Christians find better ways to work through the disagreements between us and that it serves to equip Christians here and everywhere to have more confidence in the gospel and more grace in working for the justice of the kingdom of God.
The event, hosted jointly by IMES and World Vision Lebanon, will take place at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary from 7pm on Tuesday 11th February. Later this week we will post a brief report of the event. We look forward to reading your thoughts and comments on this blog.