This was the front page story of The Straits Times (Singapore) on February 9, 2010: “ISD calls up pastor for insensitive comments.” The government’s Internal Security Department had called up a church leader, Pastor Tan, after receiving complaints about two video clips he had posted on his church’s website that showed him making “insensitive comments about Buddhism.”
The video clips . . . showed Pastor Tan questioning two church members as they recounted their past experiences as Buddhists.
In the exchange, some of Pastor Tan’s comments — on Buddhist precepts of rebirth, karma, and nirvana — drew laughter from his audience.
The Ministry of Home Affairs said . . . that his comments were “highly inappropriate and unacceptable as they trivialised and insulted the beliefs of Buddhists and Taoists.” (Yen Feng)
Pastor Tan has since removed the video clips from his church website and has apologised to the Buddhist and Taoist communities, promising that such incidents would not happen again.
I tried to track down the video clips but failed. I am reluctant to comment on things I have not seen firsthand. But the incident was another reminder that in a post 9/11 world, Singapore, like many other countries, is working extra hard to prevent tensions between various religious communities.
Followers of Jesus have been commanded to bring the gospel message to all peoples (Luke 24:47). Maybe its time to think afresh how we are to do this. Paul’s preaching on Mars Hill in Acts 17:16 – 34 gives us some guidelines.
First, he respected the spiritualities of the people he was trying to reach. This is how he starts his speech:
So Paul, standing before the council, addressed them as follows: “Men of Athens, I notice that you are very religious in every way . . . (v.22 NLT)
The sentence is ambiguous and can bear a more sarcastic meaning but most scholars see Paul beginning his speech with a genuine compliment. It is hard to see him running down another religion. Indeed there is much we can learn from those of other faiths. I learnt some key lessons about life from a Muslim neighbour and a Buddhist friend.
Next, Paul affirms his common humanity with the Athenians, quoting a local poet that maintained that all human beings are “offspring” of the same god (v.28). Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, we are all sinners estranged from a holy God because of our sin, without hope apart form the gospel of Jesus. There is no place for triumphalism or for ridiculing those who do not know Christ.
God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. (Ephesians 2:8-9 NLT)
Third, we see Paul working hard to build bridges to his audience. When Paul is speaking to Jews, he appeals to the Scriptures but when he speaks to Gentiles, he argues from creation (v24-26), from the audiences religious expression (v.22-23), and from popular culture, quoting two popular poets of the day (vv. 27-28).
This is how Ram Gidoomal, a social entrepreneur based in the U.K., tries to build a bridge for the gospel to his Hindu friends. The following is taken from an interview he did with Andy Crouch for Christianity Today:
In my cultural context, the biggest religious problem is your karma: your karmic debt. What you sow, you reap. You come to this earth with a karmic account, then you die and you’re reincarnated, and that depends on how you’ve done in this life. When I read about Jesus’ death on the Cross, it wasn’t so much the sacrifice for sin that struck me as the sacrifice for karma. The Christians I met spoke of sin in this life, but that was meaningless to me. Karma was what mattered. So I decided, When they talk about sin, I think of karma, and I believe Jesus died for my karma, so I am going to accept him on those terms. (“Christ, My Bodhisattva,” Christianity Today, May, 2007)
Are there risks in building bridges? Of course. Paul could have been mistaken for subscribing to polytheism in what he did in Acts 17:23. And there are those who think that Ram’s approach above distorts the gospel by changing the categories in which it is discussed. What we need to note is that such bridges are just the beginning of a conversation. At some point we will have to explain the gospel in detail. Paul may have begun at the Athenian’s altar to an unknown god but he ends with a clear presentation of the gospel (vv.30-31).
Paul reminds his audience of a final judgement, of their need to repent of their sins and to turn back to God, and that Jesus is the Messiah, a fact established by Jesus’s resurrection. A bridge brings you from one place to another. It is an attempt to help someone journey from his or her woldview to the gospel. But at the end of the journey is the gospel of Jesus Christ.
In a pluralistic world then, whether it is the 1st century of Paul’s time, or the post 9/11 world of our time, the gospel remains the same and we are to share it faithfully. But as Paul shows us, we are to do it while respecting the religious expressions of those who do not know Christ. We do this by remembering the common humanity we share with those we are trying to reach, and by working hard to build bridges for the gospel.
If people want to reject the gospel, let them do so because they refuse to accept the claims of the gospel, and not because they are turned off by the offensive behaviour of those who carry the gospel. The book of Acts also shows that there may be times when followers of Jesus have to suffer for the privilege of sharing the gospel (Acts 5:17-42). After all we follow a Jesus who calls us to carry our cross daily (Luke 9:23-26). But we are also called to love our neighbour and that means sharing the gospel in a spirit of humility and respect. We also follow a Jesus who washed dirty feet.