I recently planned a confirmation class exchange between my Presbyterian church and a Reform synagogue down the street. Over a greasy cheesesteak lunch, I discussed with their education director the possibilities for the two sessions—one at each of our respective locations. Definitely some goofy ice-breakers, we thought, with some time for the kids to get to know each other. Certainly, a tour of the worship spaces and an explanation of significant objects therein. “And,” he suggested, “how about a Scripture study?”
"Sure!" I replied emphatically. But in my gut, I immediately became uneasy at the prospect of talking to Jewish kids about Jesus. With the long and heinous history of Christian proselytizing and brow-beating of Jews in the name of Jesus in mind, I felt uneasy. So, I suggested, "How about we choose some passages from the parts of Scripture that we share?"
"Nah. My students read Torah all day long," he responded. "I'd like it if you picked something specific to your faith tradition, and we can all learn together." I left the meeting with a dubious feeling about the exchange, but I hoped that his suggestion would prove to be fruitful.
Dialogue Beyond Disunity
I don’t need to explain here how much the significance of religion in the Western context has shifted. The rise of the "nones," the hopelessness of the spiritually disenfranchised, and the ambivalence of those for whom organized religion no longer plays a role speak volumes. While parts of Latin America and Africa host thriving Christian populations, Europe and the United States continue to drip adherents with each passing year, with a marked decline in the mainline denominations.
Perhaps in reaction to the waning Christian population, recent history has borne witness to increased inter-denominational relationships and ecumenical partnerships. As an ELCA-ordained Lutheran, I take advantage of the benefit of being in full communion with the UCC, the PC(USA), and the RCA. There are also "Lutherpalian" (Lutheran/Episcopalian) congregations cropping up all over the country, where small churches that might not have otherwise survived on their own have joined forces to maintain continuity. In Europe, the trend has gone national, with the United Protestant Church of France, the Protestant Church of the Netherlands, and the Evangelical Free Church in Sweden, all taking form in the last twenty years. Although perhaps born out of need, it is undeniable that a trend towards unity in the Protestant world is taking shape.
This unity is happening in individual churches, too. My particular church is made up of life-long Presbyterians, a healthy dose of former Catholics, and a number of Lutherans and other mainliners. This kind of intra- and inter-church plurality squares with the data, too: according to a 2016 Gallup poll, only 30% of American Protestants identified with a specific denomination, compared to the 50% who did in 2000. I’ve come to not even presuppose any denominational loyalty on the part of my parishioners.
Perhaps, then, even as we lament the crumbling infrastructure of American Christianity, we can recognize that where charity and love prevail, there unity in the Spirit may be found. The prayer that Jesus uttered for his disciples—"Father, let them be one in my name, as you and I are one"—begins to come to fruition in new ways. No longer are the debates over the real presence of Christ in the meal a call for battle lines to be drawn; rather, the table becomes larger. No longer do we feel forced into a choice between God and love, because God is love, and all are at peace on God's holy mountain.
Of course, these shifts have surely affected interfaith interactions as well, particularly for a younger generation who bother little with our previous sectarian divides. Among the Jewish kids in our exchange class, half of them have one Christian or agnostic parent. For them, there is no arduous process of reconciling one faith over and against another. Rather, they see our diversity as allowing us each to see God through a different lens. As a result, the gulfs that were once considered insurmountable have been bridged much more easily by our youth.
The Kingdom Belongs to Such as These
The Bible study portion of the exchange had finally arrived. I had chosen a version of the Feeding of the Five Thousand for our students to reflect upon. I held my breath as the students talked in their small groups, the word "Jesus" popping up every minute or two above the murmur of the gathering.
As we reconvened the larger group to share our thoughts, I guided the conversation towards the idea that we are called to see those who are suffering, to fulfill those needs to the best of our abilities, and to have compassion in our daily lives. I was doing, I thought, a great job of keeping the conversation general and spiritual, pointing not necessarily toward the cross but toward a life of service in love. And then one Jewish girl raised her hand and said, with simple eloquence, "Don't you also think Jesus was trying to tell us not to worry if it looks like we don't have enough, and to believe that God will provide? Like, he was trying to get us to just calm down and trust the Lord?” With that, I finally exhaled my worry into the incredible beauty of this room full of kids, for whom an interfaith Bible study appeared to be second nature.
Whatever one’s thoughts on pluralism, there is much to be learned from a generation that largely rejects our sectarianism. Among those things: if our sectarianism comes at the price of unity in love, then may our walls come tumbling down. May the Holy Spirit bring us together in service to God and humanity, and the knowledge of the Lord be born in us again. And may we be led with the hearts of children toward the kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven.
Ashley Rossi is an ordained minister of Word and Sacrament in the ELCA, serving as the Associate Pastor of Carmel Presbyterian Church in Glenside, PA. She graduated with a B.S. in accounting from the Pennsylvania State University in 2002, and worked as a CPA and financial analyst for 8 years prior to entering the seminary. She holds a Master of Divinity from the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia (2012). Her passions include social justice issues, building community, and re-imagining church in the 21st century. Ashley lives with her husband, three children, and pit bull in Glenside.