Combat or Humility in Multifaith Liminality? John W. Morehead

John M. Morehead is the Director of Multifaith Matters and He is the co-editor and contributing author for A Charitable Orthopathy: Christian Perspectives on Emotions in Multifaith Engagement, and Encountering New Religious Movements: A Holistic Evangelical Approach, and the editor of Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue.

In this liminal month I thought I would take the occasion to write about opportunities we have for reflection on how many Christians enter the space between their congregations and the sacred spaces of others. Unfortunately, some of the more insightful lessons come by way of questionable forms of liminal multifaith encounter. I will address two of them in the Christian encounter with Latter-day Saints and Pagans.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, known popularly as the Mormons, is a faith where ethics, ritual, and performance are especially significant. Although Christians usually focus on their doctrine, and where they diverge from historic orthodoxy, this is not the heartbeat of their lived religion. One of the more important aspects has been pageantry. When I first arrived in Utah in 2005 a friend of mine took me to the Mormon Miracle Pageant in Manti. This annual event was held for two weeks and drew an average of 15,000 people each night. The pageant used drama, costumes, and spectacle to tell the story of the experiences of their founding prophet, Joseph Smith; the story of the Book of Mormon, one of their books of scripture; and the exodus of Mormon pioneers in their westward trek. This was a faith-promoting event, but just outside the temple grounds where the pageant was held, Christian apologists and would-be evangelists stood shouting Bible verses, holding up signs demeaning Joseph Smith, and calling Mormons to repentance from their “cult.” I was struck by the pageant, both in its artistry and what it meant to Mormons, as well as by the confrontational methods of the Christians. Many times, the feelings stirred up by the evangelists would lead to shouting and threats of violence, sometimes requiring police intervention.

Although the LDS Church no longer puts on such pageants, other religious groups pursue their own sacred expressions in public space. One such example is WitchsFest USA held in New York’s West Village during the summer. Pagans don’t meet in buildings and formal houses of worship, and instead gather outdoors in order to pursue their spirituality and build community. The Pagans weren’t alone. Some thirty “street preachers” were there, holding up signs and preaching “sermons” with heated rhetoric through bullhorns. This clash was picked up in an article in Religion New Service where the festival’s organizer, RavenHawk, is quoted as saying that the preachers “aren’t just protesting. They are collectively at war with us.”    

These examples aren’t the only ways Christians are entering liminal spaces and engaging religious others, but they are far too common. And in the American context of post-Trumpian, Christian nationalist polarization such militant engagement may happen even more frequently than in the past.

In this season of liminality, as we reflect on what it means to enter the liminal space with others, we have to ask whether the Christlike way of cruciform humility is best embodied through combative boundary maintenance and heresy hunting under the guise of gospel proclamation, or whether we and the other would be better served in liminality as a way of encounter, learning, and mutual transformation.