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An essay donated by Jeanne Forsberg

Understanding Christians of a different tradition

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I once had a wonderful conversation with two people from Lebanon.  They were both Christians.  In fact, they called themselves Phoenecians and not Lebanese to distinguish themselves from Muslims who were also born in Lebanon.  They told me that they are direct descendants of the very first Christians and assured me that their style of worship and their theology was more "authentic" than Protestant, Catholic or even Orthodox Christianity.  I eagerly asked for more information.

They were proud of the fact that their country was religiously tolerant.  They went to school with people of many different religious backgrounds.  They told me that they believed their country had a good chance of remaining peaceful because they grew up being friends with people from different religions.   (This belief was very strong in spite of the fact that one of them was living in the United States by choice as political refugee and the other was the son and grandson of refugees.)

I come from a very conservative evangelical Christian background which has long felt too narrow for the world in which I find myself.  I was fascinated by their very different understanding of Christianity, the Bible and what it means to practice their faith.  I asked them about conversion.  Does anyone ever change from one religion to another or does anyone ever fall in love with someone from a different religion?  Apparently this does happen occasionally, but it is a very big problem.  Although they go to school with each other, each religion lives in a separate part of town and they all have last names that identify their religion.  Each of them had relatives who had married into another faith tradition and I got the idea that those relatives were not really welcomed into their families anymore.

This struck me as both more and less tolerant than my own evangelical tradition.  I grew up believing that I had a moral mandate to convert everyone I met -- for their own good!  It was unthinkable for me to pass up an opportunity to save someone from the fires of Hell.  So religious tolerance in my youth was practically nonexistent.  On the other hand, I can't imagine abandoning a relative because they married a non-Christian or choosing what house I buy based on the religion of my neighbors!

It seemed to me that they were saying that peace and religious tolerance were preserved by a careful balance of "separate but equal."  This flew in the face of everything I had learned as a child about the importance of saving everyone we met.  I asked them what they thought happened to their Muslim friends when they died.  They both looked at me blankly as if the question had never occurred to them.  Then one of them said thoughtfully, "Well, I suppose they go to their own heaven."

This conversation was a real turning point for me.  I certainly didn't become an expert on Phoenecian Christianity in one conversation!  But I learned it is possible to agree and disagree without desiring to change another.  It is possible to learn something new without accepting everything you hear the other person say.  It is possible to appreciate and respect a point of view you do not entirely share.  It is actually delightful to have a conversation with people who are different from me, to understand them a little better and to see myself a bit more clearly and walk away without changing them at all.

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References

  1. More information on the Phoenician Christians can be found at the web site titled "Phoenician Christians, The First Converts Outside the Jews" at: http://phoenicia.org/

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Originally posted: 2011-AUG-14
Latest update: 2011-AUG-14
Author: Jeanne Forsberg

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