Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Do We Really Know What We're Saying?

Over the last couple of years I have begun to see more and more "COEXIST" bumper stickers appear on vehicles and print media, with the letters made up of symbols of various faith systems. My first thought when I began seeing these was "hmmm...that's, uh...interesting..." which is usually a signal to those who know me that I find it hard to believe anyone could seriously think that these differing beliefs, which often understand even common terms that we just toss around in daily speech, and come to some kind of understanding as to what we mean. It seemed like perhaps this was a bit of a reach.

That was my initial thought. And I didn't pay it much more attention, until I started seeing them more and more. I even got into an argument over what it really meant with someone who, I assume, believes it.

Finally, last week as I was at the MINE Conference for the Free Methodist Church, some fellow pastors, my wife and I, went out to lunch together and we saw one of these stickers. That undoubtedly provoked a conversation, one that got me thinking about it in a deeper way.

First, I want to say that the whole idea behind "COEXIST" is not a bad one, if what is meant by the word is that there are differing religious views, beliefs, and practices that exist together at the same time and that we should foster an understanding of them when engaging in interfaith dialogue so as not to approach such dialogue in ignorance, then I am in agreement. And just because one might look at the faith, beliefs, and practices of others doesn't mean we agree with them. I am thoroughly a Christian and I am not afraid to say that it is through Christ and Christ alone that one has relationship with God.

Yet, if that was in fact the meaning, it would not be interesting or provocative for the simple fact that for thousands of years many of these faiths have, in fact, coexisted with each other, though not always in a peaceful manner. There is nothing new presented in that statement.

So, perhaps what Peacemonger, the company behind the "COEXIST" and other like minded messages, is that the differing systems of faith, belief, and practice as they are understood need to set aside their differences and work toward unity and peace together.

Yet, there is a major fundamental problem with that. In fact, there are several.

The first that comes to mind is what does peace and unity even mean to the various faith groups represented on those bumper stickers? When you use abstract concepts without defining what you mean by them, the greater the misunderstanding will be.

On top of that however, there may not always be an agreement of what peace and unity is even within a particular faith. For example, Islam has been severely fractured since the death of Muhammad over who the rightful leader of Islam is. There are two main camps that support differing views: Sunni Islam and Shia Islam. These two factions have been warring with each other since nearly the time of Muhammad's death, and that continues to the present day. They do this despite being in agreement on all major points of their doctrine. That's just one example of many more. If a faith has a difficult time coexisting with its own factions, what makes someone think that they could coexist in a manner that the bumper sticker desires?

Second, the solution presented is at best a bandage that covers up but does nothing to address the underlying problems that proponents for coexistence see. The big, complex problems are left alone. It isn't actually enough to set aside the things that make us different, it isn't enough to see beyond the things that divide. And, if you truly practice any of those religions (and again for the record I mostly absolutely practice Christianity) the last thing you want to do is sacrifice any part of your belief for a concept that is easily manipulated. That is if you think religion and faith is more than just man made constructs, which brings me to my third point.

I actually have my fellow pastor friend Chris Pulice to thank for bringing this up, and the more I thought about it, the more I agreed. If one really sees their faith and their religion as something that comes to them outside of their own constructs, then the idea that each of the religions represented on the bumper sticker can be unified together in something that isn't very well defined and does nothing to address the so called problems is anathema. The idea that we can all simply get along with each other is not motivated by any faith or belief in anything divine, rather it is rooted in faith in human secularism. Again, there may not be a whole lot of agreement across the board as to what the broad, abstract concepts mean. What we might think of as peace and love and harmony could have much different meanings in other cultures. Goodness may not be seen as good enough.

And finally, really what does it mean simply to "COEXIST"? Looking back on the Cold War, the United States coexisted with the Soviet Union, and two radically different ideologies were at the forefront. Sure there were various peace talks, but every little blip on a radar screen could raise tensions and bring with it fear that we might not see tomorrow. It took someone willing to call communism evil and demand that change be made. And just as much as President Reagan put political pressure on Gorbacev, Pope John Paul II was also influential in bringing down communism.

What the world needs is not a bandage, it needs a solution. COEXIST does not provide any answers to the things that are really at the heart of what divides us and separates us from truly providing lasting peace and sacrificial love toward one another. Even though Jesus brought with Him a message of peace and hope, He also on multiple occasions stated "I did not come to bring peace, but division." If that doesn't sound like the Jesus you have heard of, well then maybe you have been trying to make Jesus in your own image.

It isn't that Jesus' message isn't one of peace, it's that His is a lasting peace that goes beyond anything we could implement ourselves. The people wanted Jesus to be a political revolutionary, to overthrow the Roman government and establish Israel as an independent country again. But Jesus' message is one that forces us, even more so than with any other religious figure, to come to a decision on whether or not Jesus can be trusted (He went so far as to claim He was and is God), or to look at Him as Pilate did and say right to Him "What is truth?"

We need to consider carefully the things we say, the things we advocate, and consider whether or not they actually line up with what we believe as Christians, or merely places our faith in the buffet of world beliefs.


  1. Thanks for your thought, Chris. There is a lot of tension stirring in the midst of our world today. I am learning that clarity is so very important!


    1. Clarity is important, essential even. I don't believe that the Holy Spirit confuses things, but helps us see clearly. I really appreciated your thoughts last week on the "COEXIST" sticker and, I mulled it over for almost a week. Plus you are quite insightful and what you bring to the district is really really good. I always get a lot out of our conversation and fellowship.