The Rev. Kevin Vogts, Trinity Lutheran Church, Paola: Working as an archaeologist in the Middle East, I met a man who showed unusual interest in our work and asked to share a taxi with me into the city.
We suspected he was a secret police agent assigned to watch us — and the taxi ride just a ruse for a surreptitious interrogation.
Most on the dig were seminary students like me. The excavation’s agreement with the government forbade evangelization, but we could answer questions.
Jostling down a desert track in an ancient taxi, the man quickly turned the conversation to religion.
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“There’s really no difference between our faiths,” he said. “Both say God is great, but we are sinners deserving damnation.” I realized the taxi ride was indeed a ruse, but not to interrogate me.
He was a sincere seeker wanting to ask about the faith, but had to be careful in a culture where converts can be executed. The driver was his friend, also listening with interest to learn from me about forbidden Christianity.
Thinking of Romans 6:23, I agreed that “the wages of sin is death.” The difference is, Christianity doesn’t stop with that condemnation, but like the remainder of that verse goes on with the good news of God’s compassion: “But the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
This verse encapsulates the message all humans need to hear, including those already Christians. Both the bad news of our sin, shattering self-righteousness, and then the good news of our salvation through Jesus Christ.
The question posed above envisions a confrontation between believers and nonbelievers, but really what we need instead is a conversation, like we had in the taxi that day.
As Paul says in Ephesians 4:15, “Speaking the truth in love.”
The Rev. Roger Coleman, Pilgrim Chapel: Nonbelievers, in my experience, are rare birds.
All of us have guiding principles, beliefs that are important in shaping our lives even if they are as simple as “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” or “do no harm” or “thou shall not kill.” We have beliefs, most of them of a positive nature.
Unfortunately, religion, especially in its institutionalized form, rather than building on our commonness or togetherness, seems intent on defining belief in such narrow terms that many of us become nonbelievers by default.
We don’t fit in. Who can believe in a God, for example, that relegates women, minorities or gays and lesbians to secondary status?
When I am confronted by those who define themselves as agnostics or nonbelievers, the scripture I use is from the fourth chapter of I John (4:7-8): “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”
I believe God to be that force in life that calls us into just and loving relationships. The only true nonbeliever, therefore, is the one who does not accept love and respect for others as a guiding principle.
With this understanding, faith becomes a commitment to joining God in doing what it is that God does — overcoming divisiveness and hatred in the world — and then joining together to celebrate our victories and mourn our defeats.
In our judgments and narrowness, some of us who call ourselves “religious” can often be the worst of the nonbelievers.
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