Those Who Are Different, Those Who Are Evil, and How to Tell Them Apart

Graduating students, their family and friends, as well as faculty and staff of Central Seminary gathered on Saturday, May 18, for Central Seminary’s 111th Commencement ceremony.  Held at Community Christian Church next to the Plaza in Kansas City, Missouri, Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, the Spehar-Halligan Visiting Professor of Ecumenical Collaboration in Interreligious Dialogue at Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry and former General Secretary for the National Council of Churches, gave the Commencement sermon, Those Who Are Different, Those Who Are Evil, and How to Tell Them Apart.  Based on Romans 12:9-21, his prophetic words challenged the graduates and guests. 

Below is the Commencement sermon by Rev. Dr. Kinnamon’s sermon.

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Those Who Are Different, Those Who Are Evil, and How to Tell Them Apart
Central Baptist Theological Seminary
May 18, 2013


Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ!


I want to begin by inviting you to join me in a brief litany. Your response is “Thanks be
to God!” And please say it with all the joy and energy appropriate to such a celebration.
For the ministry God has done and will do through the persons graduating here today–
thanks be to God!

For the gifts God has given to each of them for their various ministries–thanks be to
God!

For the decision they have made to use these gifts in service to the church–thanks be to
God!

For Central Baptist Theological Seminary where their faith has been deepened and
expanded and their pastoral skills sharpened, where they have learned to be both
ecumenical and evangelical–thanks be to God!

And for all of those, family and friends, who have supported them in this time of study
and preparation–thanks be to God!

Ryan, Wilson, Robert, Steven, Nakeesha, Melina, Ronald, Kymberly, Geraldine, and
you who will receive ministry certificates, today we properly celebrate the fact that you
have responded to God’s call, that you have chosen to use your gifts for leadership in
the body of Christ. But, in the final analysis, the real celebration is for God’s call and
God’s gifts. And so, with the Psalmist, we “sing aloud a song of thanksgiving and tell of
God’s wondrous deeds.”

I, personally, am grateful for the invitation to be with you in this historic and dynamic
seminary, and especially on an occasion when you are highlighting your partnership
with my own church tradition, the Disciples of Christ. Having said that, I hope we agree
that names like “Baptist” and “Disciples” and “Methodist” are glorious adjectives, but
idolatrous nouns. We are not Baptists or Disciples. We are Baptist Christians and
Disciples Christians and Methodist Christians and UCC Christians, related to one
another as sisters and brothers through our common Lord.

That already expands our family, doesn’t it? And this graduating class further reminds
us that our family table stretches from here to Kenya and Myanmar and the Dominican
Republic. We who are gathered here may seem like a small part of the church, but,
friends, there is nothing small about the church we are part of! And for that we also
say–thanks be to God!
* * *
I begin with a personal story. I had just turned twenty years old, a junior in college,
when I went for a year of study at the Tel Aviv University, my first time outside North
America. I understood myself to be a Christian, but in an unfocused sort of way–mainly,
I suppose, because my father was one. There in Israel I met Arnie, who became a very
close friend. Arnie might have said he was a Jew because his mother was one, but
what I experienced in him was an unshakable conviction of God’s presence in his life
that I found enormously attractive.

At the same time I was getting to know Arnie, I was also starting to explore my own
Christian roots–quite literally explore them by spending days and days in the Old City of
Jerusalem or along the Sea of Galilee. And often Arnie went with me, which forced me
to see this newly-discovered heritage through the eyes of one who looked at Christians
with considerable mistrust. Arnie had grown up in the middle of Queens (New York City)
and had never before had a close Christian friend, just as I had grown up in rural Iowa
which (to let you in on a secret) in not the center of Jewish life in America! Arnie
associated Christianity with boys who occasionally made fun of him and his friends
because of their yarmulkes, and one time beat him up.

Sometimes we did the reverse: I would go with Arnie to visit Jewish sites or
communities, including the ultra-Orthodox section of Jerusalem, called Mea Shearim,
where he passed me off as a Reform Jew with no Yiddish and bad Hebrew. This is a
God-saturated community, but religious in a way I had never experienced, never
imagined! Finally, after several months of growing friendship, I went with Arnie to a
kibbutz near the Lebanese border that has a small museum dedicated to the Holocaust.
And there, surrounded by pictures of crematoria and heaps of emaciated bodies, he
revealed to me that his mother was a survivor of the Nazi death camps.
Why start with this story? Because my friendship with Arnie has helped me to think
about two aspects of the contemporary world that will, if I am not mistaken, shape all of
our ministries in the years ahead.

First, we now live side by side, even in Kansas and Iowa, with persons whose faith
commitments and perspectives on life are unlike our own, persons whose claims about
the world and God’s will for it demand at least our attention and respect. As you know,
religious diversity in this country has grown dramatically since the Immigration and
Nationality Act of 1965. One of my daughters, Anna-Kapila, who lives in Kansas City
and is here this morning, was born in a Hindu Women’s Welfare Society ashram in
Mumbai, India; and, while she is now Christian, I have nothing but appreciation for the
Hindu women who cared for her out of their own sense of humanity and religious
conviction during the first months of her life.

Let’s get more pointed. I spoke frequently to Arnie about my growing faith in Jesus
Christ; but it would have felt absurd to me to say to this deeply religious man, “You need
to believe as I do in order to be in right relationship with God.” We were partners in an
often-passionate conversation (you know how passionate twenty year olds can be!)
about ultimate things, not competitors in some religious contest. Arnie and I had very
different backgrounds and convictions. But it quickly became apparent to us that our
differences were not a threat to the other’s faith; they were an enrichment of it. Ministry
in this era must stand firmly against the inclination to fearfully disparage those who are
unlike ourselves.

Second, the story of Arnie and his mother also reminds us that we live in a world that is
filled with violence, often perpetrated in the name of some religion–violence that can
only be called evil. The attacks in Oklahoma City and New York and, now, Boston were
truly horrifying, truly evil. But I must admit that I have been shocked by the level of
shock following these events, including the number of people who have publicly
wondered how God could allow such atrocity–as if this kind of terror were somehow
new. If the question of God’s presence hasn’t been raised by slavery or the destruction
of native peoples or the extermination of six million Jews or the death of two million in
Pol Pot’s Cambodia or genocide in Rwanda or an international economic system that
contributes to the death of thousands of children every day as a result of malnutrition
and preventable disease, then we hardly can raise it with integrity after 9-11! Ministry in
this era must recognize that such violence is, to say the least, widespread and deeprooted–
and face it head on. Ministry in this era must also recognize that people who do
such things can be found in nearly all religious communities, including our own. One of
the last times I heard from Arnie–now some thirty years ago, I regret to say–his letter
expressed outrage and anguish for the atrocities committed by Israelis, his own
community, in Palestinian refugee camps during the war in Lebanon.
* * *
These two points are not new, but I believe they are still worth repeating at this time of
commencement. Leaders in the church have often been narrow-minded, claiming that
God is ours rather than that we are God’s, and thereby refusing to take seriously the
witness of persons of different religions and cultures. I pray that you, graduates of this
seminary, will resist this tendency. On the other hand, leaders in the church have often
been timid, fearfully refusing to name evil for what it is. I pray that you will resist this
tendency.

However, it is the intersection of pluralism and evil that defines what may be the
greatest challenge you will face: to be both open to legitimate diversity and firmly
opposed to diversities that are demonic. Or as the theologian Marjorie Suchocki once
put it, we must be able to distinguish between Jonestown and an Amish village.
The complexity involved in this has been underscored for me by Deborah Lipstadt in her
book, Denying the Holocaust. After the book appeared, Lipstadt was frequently asked
by news organizations “to debate” persons who deny that the Holocaust ever happened.
She consistently refused, which often led to this response: “Don’t you believe that all
voices deserve to be heard?” Well, no! I am certainly willing, she said, to engage in
dialogue with people who disagree with me. After all, the destruction of those who are
different was the essence of Nazism. But, she writes, I will not give any legitimacy or
support to ideas that deny or defend evil. And I think I know how to tell the difference
between the two.

You see the problem. The very experience of religious and cultural diversity has led
many persons in this generation to conclude that religious beliefs and moral values are
a matter of personal preference. Live and let live. Such relativism has the benefit of
opening us to differences, but it won’t stand the test of modern evil. If one belief is as
good as the next, then how do we say “No!” to Qur’an-burning congregations or
religious practices that demean women or advocates of religiously-based terrorism with
sufficient conviction?

It seems to me that Paul offers useful guidance when he urges the Roman
congregations to “let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.”
Genuine love, the apostle is suggesting, will know when and how to hate, to oppose,
those things that stand against its realization. Let me put it another way: We are called
to love those whom God, the universal Creator, loves; and, for that very reason, we are
called to oppose those ways of acting, those attitudes of mind, that meanness of spirit,
which threaten those whom God loves. Saying “yes” to neighbors who aren’t like us
means saying “no” to all that diminishes them.

I hope you hear my urgency! While many in our society are learning to welcome the
stranger, many others are growing more fearful of those who are different. And this
fearfulness, in my judgment, makes the world an even more dangerous place.
I don’t know of any continuing education course for discerning when differences are
enriching and when they are destructive. But, for you who are graduating, I do have
three brief recommendations for the years ahead.

First, immerse yourself in the study of something that feels intolerable. Perhaps you
have done this in seminary; but, if not, I urge you to do so now. For me, in part because
of Arnie, that has primarily been the Holocaust. But there is no shortage of candidates,
including the history of colonial oppression or the systemic devaluation of women in
many cultures or the story of racism in this very city. Think about such things until you
know the face of evil and won’t be caught off guard by it, even if you can’t reduce it to a
formula.

Second, discover models with whom you can identify. This may mean studying the lives
of persons who have managed to balance openness to others unlike themselves with
outrage against injustice. Gandhi, King, and Mandela come quickly to mind, but there
may well be models closer to hand. Arnie became deeply attached to a wise rabbi we
met in 1969. Two years later, Arnie was back in Israel, marching with the rabbi on
behalf of Yemenite Jews who were at that time a group much discriminated against in
Israeli society.

Third, don’t be afraid to look critically at your own community of faith. I have forgotten
our exact conversation that day in the kibbutz museum, but Arnie said something like
this: “I wrote to my mother about you, but she doesn’t much approve of our friendship.
Some of her guards took pride in being Christians.” Facing up to our own community’s
complicity in evil is crucial for ministers in an age such as ours.
* * *
I shared much of this presentation with my wife who said, in her own supportive way, “I
imagine they’ll expect you to be a little more upbeat!”

Well, maybe so. But what can I tell you? Ministry is an impossible calling! None of us
can possibly do it on our own. But now the good news: We don’t. We, the church,
affirm those who are unlike ourselves in the name of the One whose image we see in
every neighbor. And we, the church, oppose evil in the name of the One who has
triumphed even over death itself. This is very Good News! Downright upbeat! For
which we can say together, “Thanks be to God!”

Michael Kinnamon
School of Theology and Ministry