Religious Liberty Is Meaningless if Christians Only Seek Justice for Themselves

Christians have viewed non-Christian religious communities as problems to solve, rather than as co-laborers fighting for a just society.


Last week, the first Sikh sheriff’s deputy in Texas permitted to wear articles of faith while on duty was shot and killed during a traffic stop. Ten-year veteran Sandeep Dhaliwal was a highly respected member of his law enforcement community, the Sikh community, and the broader Houston community. Dhaliwal has been hailed nationally as a hero and a trailblazer, and his family received condolences across the political spectrum from figures like Beto O’Rourke and Ted Cruz.

It is in moments like this that Christians should reflect on and celebrate the fact that we are not the only religious people seeking justice in our society. We can celebrate the life, courage, and heroism of Dhaliwal and give thanks to our God that he was a protector and defender of justice in our country.

We’ve been told that Christians have the corner of the market on justice, but this simply isn’t true. Sikhs, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, religious “nones,” and others are also interested in addressing many of the same injustices that tug on our hearts. In the same way, the effects of injustice are not borne by one religious (or non-religious) community. For example, guns being in the wrong hands is a burden that all religious and nonreligious communities share and all have a stake in addressing. It is not just Christian police officers that get murdered during traffic stops.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that all religions understand justice or pursue justice in the exact same way. Rather, I’m leaning on the doctrine of common grace, in that all people have the capacity to comprehend and perform moral virtue, as well as Biblical vignettes of Jesus praising the good deeds and character of others, like the Roman centurion in Matthew 8:5-13 and the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37.

Some Christians are hesitant to engage seriously with religious others out of fear of theological compromise and disloyalty to Christ, which I empathize with because I used to have those fears myself. However, when non-Christians exhibit exemplary moral character, we have freedom and a clear example in Christ to applaud them publicly in our churches, campus ministries, and community organizations. Celebrating the goodness of our neighbors is one easy way to love them and show them we care, without the added pressure of sending a disingenuous theological message in the process. The rationale is simple: If Christ praised the goodness of “others,” even religious others, we can too.

Even more, we can actually partner with other faith communities to address justice issues. The clearest examples as of late are religious freedom and immigration.

Christians joined other faith communities to demand justice for Muslims on death row after Domineque Ray’s request to have an Imam at his side during lethal injection was denied; only the prison’s Christian chaplain was allowed in the room. In The New York Times, Southern Baptist Pastor Alan Cross lamented, “I am not a Muslim. I am an evangelical Christian minister in Alabama. But my religious freedom — everyone’s religious freedom — took a hit when my state decided that instead of slowing down to accommodate religious difference, the execution, which is final and irrevocable, had to go on as scheduled.”

“Every time we want the state to favor Christianity over other religions, the result is a loss of religious freedom for all,” Cross tweeted.

Christian immigration agency World Relief and U.S. Director of Church Mobilization Matthew Soerens have been very vocal against the Trump administration’s immigration and refugee resettlement policies, including travel bans on predominantly Muslim countries. In an op-ed for the Washington Examiner, Soerens wrote, “Many Americans are likely aware that the number of Muslim refugees allowed to enter the United States is down dramatically. … What most Americans likely do not realize is that persecuted Christians have also been shut out by recent changes to the U.S. refugee resettlement program.”

“Christians believe that each person is made in the image of God with inherent dignity. This means the lives of Muslim refugees are worth protecting,” Soerens added.

It is time that Christians consider more seriously what being a good neighbor looks like in a religiously plural society. For some Christians, this will require abandoning the notion that society is a war between two camps: Christian conservatism and a godless secularism. Even religious “nones” have greater spiritual impulses than they are given credit for. “Just because the nones don’t profess a faith doesn’t mean that they’re not interested in spirituality or participating in symbolically resonant rituals,” Tara Burton wrote for the Religion News Service. “Seventy-two percent of nones profess belief in some sort of higher power — even if that higher power isn’t necessarily a traditional, major faith deity.” In framing society as a tug-of-war between Christianity and the godless, we miss opportunities to steward a shared commitment to seek justice with other religious and spiritual communities.

However, seeking justice together requires that we actually know each other well enough to identify and organize around our shared interests. Many Christians, and particularly Evangelical Christians, aren’t there yet; they don’t actually know a Sikh, Muslim, or someone else from a non-Christian religious community. Another hurdle for Christians, as with any community, is measuring why they’re better off working on justice issues with other religious communities than working alongside Christians alone.

I believe the answer to this question is found in Jesus’ words to his disciples in Matthew 5:14-16: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (ESV, italics mine). 

If Christians refuse to labor for justice alongside their neighbors, then their neighbors will not see their good works. They also won’t see the person of Christ animated through us. If it’s true that Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of radical love, hospitality, and generosity to the other, others won’t see this unless we show them. It’s also likely the case that if they’re not seeing us, we’re not seeing them. We’re more likely to fear and oppose our neighbors if we’re not sure what they’re contributing positively to our society. The truth is, other religious communities are already contributing to the welfare of our society in remarkable ways, but our lack of political imagination prevents us from recognizing or appreciating their contributions.

In his book Out of Many Faiths: Religious Diversity and the American Promise, Eboo Patel implores us to reimagine America not as a melting pot, but as a potluck supper: “The genius of this nation is not in how it vanquishes minority religions but rather in how it welcomes their contributions,” he writes. “The setup is like a potluck supper. For the larger community to eat, everybody needs to bring a dish. … As the demographics of the population shift, so will the flavors of the food on the table.” 

To bring about a just society for all, Christians need a bigger bus, one with enough seats for people of other religious and spiritual beliefs to come along and contribute; people like Sandeep Dhaliwal, who died defending justice in our society.

The question, of course, is whether we are willing to extend the invitation, and whether we know anyone outside of our Christian community to extend the invitation to. This is a challenge, but it can be overcome. Like Jesus as he traveled through Samaria, we simply need to keep our eyes open along the way.

Photo by mwfearnley

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    Written by Kevin Singer

    Kevin Singer is co-director of Neighborly Faith, an organization helping Evangelical Christians to be good neighbors to people of other faiths. Follow him on Twitter: @kevinsinger0.

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