How to work and share across differences

The good, the bad, and the ugly of interfaith dialogue

What is the point of building relationships with people who believe differently than us?

As a pastor and a chaplain, I have many opportunities to talk with people who believe differently than me. At the University of Alberta, I meet with chaplains from other Christian traditions and other religions. In working for Syrian refugee resettlement in Canada, I’ve partnered with other churches in Edmonton and with Islamic Family and Social Services Association. This past Remembrance Day, I was honoured to speak alongside Jewish, Muslim and Bahá’í presenters at Edmonton’s Interfaith Prayer Walk as we came together to pray for peace.

In so doing, I’ve learned a few things.

Disingenuous dialogue

As evangelicals, we are often uncomfortable with dialogue. We want to remove differences in order to make people believe the same things as we do. There is something good about this impulse; we want other people to believe the truth!

But there is also a negative side. When we assume we already know the truth, we insist the other person must listen, change and become like us. Dialogue becomes monologue.

Power imbalance

Even when we remember to listen, money, resources and position can wield oppressive influence. When we come to the table to talk, do we come as equals? When material aid is involved, can the other party express themselves openly or do they merely nod along, showing us what we want to see?

When I was working at a hostel for homeless men, the guys would tell me that they had “been saved” again. It was common for a well-meaning Christian to offer the men aid after preaching a “salvation message.” One patron proudly told me he had been saved eight times – and he was sincere! In this pursuit of conversion, conversation produces superficial agreement, but the truth is lost. It can be easy to forget about power dynamics.

Dignity of difference

As we dialogue, we can acknowledge our differences. After all, we are not all the same – and none of us has a monopoly on God. We don’t merely tolerate those who believe differently than us, we need them to reveal aspects of God to us. The Aboriginal community in Australia famously put it this way: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Collaboration for action

This suggests an alternative reason for conversation. In my experience, we talk not to reach agreement but to do something together. Truth is not an abstract principle; it is a lived reality. We communicate truth by sharing and working together. Dialogue makes working and sharing possible.

Openly peculiar

In a class on world religions, my professor was Lutheran, my fellow teaching assistant was Orthodox Christian and I was Mennonite. Despite our different traditions, we were able to work happily together. One day, my Orthodox Christian colleague observed that the Mennonites on campus were easy to talk to about faith. She explained their open acknowledgment of their peculiarity invited others to share about their own distinctiveness.

However, in situations of deep inequality or power imbalance, openly expressing differences can be risky for those who are vulnerable. In these situations, those who have power need to go an extra mile to create a hospitable climate. One way to do that is to move beyond merely identifying differences, to appreciating them.

In Edmonton, the Muslim community is vulnerable. Its members face the risk of discrimination and violence every day. Churches have come alongside Muslims to sponsor Syrians who are fleeing even greater uncertainty in their home region. This is the work of hospitality to which God has called us.

But before we can work together, we have to talk together. We have to learn from each other, and celebrate our differences.

The first time I met with IFSSA, we gathered at a local restaurant owned by a Muslim family who insisted that we should all eat as much as we wanted – for free. That celebration meal happened because of conversations in living rooms months before I arrived – allowing us to work together. At that meeting, I learned from Muslims about the generosity of God’s hospitality.

Later, when our church’s first family arrived at the airport, they had been on a long journey, shuffled from one bureaucrat to another. On arrival, they were expecting to talk to another agent with a clipboard. Instead, they saw a large friendly group with their names on a sign. As their surprise turned to smiles, I learned about finding God’s love in an unexpected place.

As Christians who value truth, we work and share with those who are different than us – with humility and honesty – Kevin-Guentherbecause there is no better way to communicate the truth of God’s love to the world. And dialogue is what makes this working and sharing possible.

— Kevin Guenther Trautwein is assistant pastor at Lendrum MB Church, Edmonton. He and his wife (and co-pastor) Sherri have one young son who teaches them daily how to celebrate difference.

Read about one of Lendrum’s interfaith engagements:

Christians and Muslims gather for dialogue, fellowship and food

One Comment on “How to work and share across differences

  1. “Truth is not an abstract principle; it is a lived reality. ”
    Yes! The same can be said of the Word.
    I’m grateful for the challenging witness observed in this article. Thank you MB Herald and Lendrum MB.

    Bonhoeffer: “[I]t is implicit in the New Testament statement concerning the incarnation of God in Christ that all men are taken up, enclosed and borne within the body of Christ and this is just what the congregation of the faithful are to make known to the world by their words and by their lives. What is intended here is not separation from the world but the summoning of the world into the fellowship of this body of Christ, to which in truth it already belongs”

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