Prison life tends to magnify religious diversity. In many prisons, inmates must choose one religious affiliation (out of 22 at our local state prison) and stick with the activities and services of that religion. Even non-religious inmates have an incentive to choose a religion because it will provide extra opportunities to be out of their cells. The outcome of this system is unavoidable close contact between religious groups that, on the outside, might never come into contact. The inevitable result of this contact is tension and confusion.
“Roots down, walls down.” The origin of this saying is unknown, but its meaning is clear. Navigating an environment of diverse perspectives demands that we are deeply rooted in our own beliefs. Hostility, fear, anger, defensiveness, and other dialogue destroyers are all expressions of our insecurities that we may not be able to answer for our faith.
Come to think of it, maybe this is not just a prison problem. If we ever hope to reach folks, we cannot do it from behind our walls. Maybe we all need to grow deep roots and bring our walls down.
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” — John 14.6 (ESV)
Many Christians are insecure about Jesus as the Way. Exclusive and intolerant are dirty words thrown at Christians who insist on one way to God through Christ. Our roots are often not firmly planted in Jesus as the Way so we are combative, defensive, or avoidant when it comes to alternative ‘ways.’
Many Christians are insecure about Jesus as the Truth. Our culture tells us that truth is fundamentally personal and experiential. The only truths that are in any sense universal are the laws of nature which science explores. Christians are often so shallow in truth of Christ that they feel threatened by other truth claims.
Many Christians are insecure about Jesus as the Life. Abundant life for many Christians (in their own minds) means having what everyone else wants (money, sex, and power) except without the lying and the cheating, and with the peace of heaven in our hearts. When Jesus fails to produce this sort of abundance, secretly they become very uneasy about affirming Jesus as the Life. When confronted with alternative means of attaining abundant life, they usually leap at it and Christianize it (to ease their conscience). When the alternative means is another religion they try to find ways to prove that people in that religion are as unhappy as they are.
Affirm Jesus as the Way.
Our roots must be deep in the way of Jesus of Nazareth. We are his ambassadors. We should always show respect to others knowing that love is primary. Our duty is representing the person of Jesus of Nazareth. We represent by both proclaiming and demonstrating the truth. Having the ‘right answer’ does not release us from the demand of Christ-like behavior.
We should also refuse to create straw men. If Christ is indeed the Way, then we can be honest and generous in our portrayal of other religions and perspectives. Even in their best expressions they are still tragically false!
[A straw man is a type of argument that is based on misrepresentation of an opponent's position. To "attack a straw man" is to create the illusion of having refuted a position by replacing it with a superficially similar yet inequivalent position (the "straw man"), and refuting it, without ever having actually refuted the original position.]
Affirm Jesus as the Truth.
Our roots must be deep and firm in the solid truths of our faith. Be absolutely fixated in awe of the grand majestic things of God. Don’t ever let yourself ‘get over’ the magnificence of the Gospel. Don’t ever let yourself believe that you get to decide what Christianity is and is not. Believe and defend what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all Christians.
Root out the sectarian spirit. No one of us, nor the whole group of us is the gold standard of Christianity. It is simply unjustifiable for any of us to uphold ourselves as the universal standard of faith. Disagreement with ‘us’ does not condemn someone. Agreement with ‘us’ does not save someone. Salvation does not require a perfect system of belief or practice. If it did no one would be saved!
Affirm Jesus as the Life.
Our roots must also be down in the life of Christ’s eternal kingdom. We must refuse to use Jesus as a means to personal selfish ends, particularly a worldly sense of the abundant life defined by money, sex, and power. Jesus is not a means to anything. “From him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.” (Romans 11.36, ESV)
This also means acknowledging that we cannot breathe new life into people! By the power of his Word working together with his Spirit, the Lord creates new life in people. Our insistence, persistence, and passion will not accomplish this on their own.
Finally, it is imperative that we identify the true enemy we fight (John 10.10). He is the one who steals, kills, and destroys abundant life. No person is ever the enemy; Satan is the enemy! People are tragically deceived and held under his dominion. Fight the enemy, win the people!