Former National Council of Churches chief Joan Brown Campbell, in her sermon at Chautauqua today, urged that Christians reject the “exclusivity” of their own faith. And in today’s published interview with the Chautauqua, NY newspaper, Campbell reiterated Christians should not aspire to win other people to Christianity.
Campbell is retiring after 14 years as director of religious life at the famed, originally Christian retreat center, which she celebrated has become more interfaith under her direction. Chautauqua originally began as a Sunday school training camp for Methodists.
“Most compassionate congregations in the world are Muslim,” Campbell said, touting the interfaith “Charter of Compassion” organized by British religion historian and syncretist Karen Armstrong. Campbell urged: “We are called to a compassionate Christianity,” that embodies “Jesus’ dangerous dream” that “we all might be one.”
Campbell was citing the Gospel of John 17:21, which says: “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.”
In Campbell’s reinterpretation, this scripture is not Christ’s call for the church’s unity under His Lordship but for global unity because it “relates to all of humankind.” She urged a “Jesus not owned by Christians but Who cares for all. An embracing Jesus.”
According to Campbell, “Jesus says there will be one flock… No one is in or out in the world of Jesus.” She heralded this “challenge to Christian exclusivity” and insisted of humanity, “We are one. We hold all people as precious.”
Campbell insisted this “call to inclusive Christianity” is not a “call to discard the faith of our ancestors.” Instead, “You will reach out and embrace all of God’s own.” Quoting Desmond Tutu, she rhetorically asked, “Who will be excluded?” She explained: “Because we are Christian…we embrace the one.”
“God cannot be contained in our own religion,” Campbell said. “It’s not easy. We as Chautauquans have said we want to be a compassionate interfaith community.” She approvingly noted that Karen Armstrong is “calling us to a radical new understanding of who we are as Christians, to give up our exclusivity.”
But Campbell insisted: “We don’t have to give up the strength of Christianity.” Instead, “We will need to be the best Christians we’ve ever been. The world belongs to one God of history.”
In her Chautauqua newspaper interview, Campbell explained that her 14 years at Chautauqua “have changed me.” She said:
To say that the 2 p.m. lecture is now interfaith and to understand what that means has had the most influence on my faith journey. I think it is the responsibility of a Christian not to take his or her faith and say, “This is for everyone,” but to honor the faith of others, to believe that their faith means as much to them as mine does to me.
This is hard for Christians, because we remember the call to go into all the world and make Christians of everyone. We can no more do that today than we can fly to the moon. We have come to believe that we are not responsible for converting the world, but to be fully and completely Christian.
I am very proud of Chautauqua. It is in the board minutes that we will spend the next 10, 15, 20 years learning to be interfaith; not just Christians, Jews and Muslims, but open to all faiths.