Dialogue with Bad History


Teaching a class on Dialogue with Asian Religions, a question was brought up by one of the students (one raised as a Christian in a country where Christians are most definitely a minority faith). How does one effectively have dialogue (and possibly evangelizing) with someone who is focused on bad history with other Christians, or perhaps are focused on the challenging history between Christianity and the other person’s faith?

I don’t know that I have awesome answers. But I can start with one answer I believe is really wrong. When I took Intro to Evangelism class, the textbook author stated if the other person brings up such things, toss those issues aside. They are a distraction. But I really don’t think they are a distraction. Perhaps they are, but commonly they are brought up because the concerns do actually matter to the person. Completely ignoring them seems pretty insulting. People like to be heard and acknowledged.

Of course, one can’t really go into a 3 hour discussion of the moral issues of colonization, or who is at fault in the Crusades, is not really helpful either. There may however, be a middle ground.

  1. Jesus talking to the Samaritan woman in John 4 used the past to move things forward. The woman brought up the disagreement between Jews and Samaritans regarding place of worship. Truthfully, she was being pretty diplomatic (as would be culturally expected). After all, 200 years before, Jews had destroyed the Samaritan temple— a pretty awful thing to do. Jesus did not attempt to defend the Jewish position. Jesus diplomatically (again) noted that the differences are real and relevant… but times are changing. The barriers between Jews and Samaritans are being torn down (elsewhere noting that Jewish temple will be torn down… much as the Samaritan temple was)— the argument of Mt. Zion versus Mt. Gerizim will soon be moot.
  2. I have always liked a story I heard years ago about a college chaplain (I would love to think that the story could be true). Incoming students have a meeting with the chaplain. Commonly the conversation would go something like this…. After the orientation spiel, the students says, “Thanks chaplain, but you won’t be seeing much of me in the future.” The chaplain responds, “So why is that?” The student explains, “Well, I don’t believe in God anymore.” The chaplain responds, “Tell me about this God you don’t believe in.” After a bit of confusion, the student describes God as he or she was led to understand. Perhaps this God is harsh, judgmental, and unloving. After this the chaplain says,
    “Well, that is good. I don’t believe in that god either.” Sometimes at least, that helps establish a positive relationship with the chaplain. After all, they now share something with the chaplain they did not think they did.

If one brings the two points together, it can be useful to explore the problems, explore the history. For example, if the other person had a Christian neighbor who was a horrible person, it can be useful to let that story be told. It is honoring to hear their story and to affirm what one can affirm. Frankly, a good person… a good Christian… would reject the behavior of that bad neighbor. Additionally, acknowledge the past while still moving the conversation into the future. After all, the past is important, but the potentialities of the future are even more important.

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