Interfaith conference at Lipscomb sparks a firestorm in Nashville
Davidson County, home of Music City, has 106 congregations, according to the 2006 edition of Churches of Christ in the United States. Only Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, boasts more congregations with 142.
Among all religious groups, Davidson County’s roughly 40,000 Church of Christ members and children rank second to the Southern Baptists’ estimated 100,000 adherents there.
But those numbers eschew the reality that Nashville has a large and growing immigrant population with 60 to 70 languages spoken in the city’s schools, said Randy Lowry, president of Lipscomb University.
That reality means Nashville has become much more diverse, with increasing pockets of Hispanic Catholics and Sudanese Muslims, among others.
“We could choose, I guess, not to ever talk to each other,” Lowry said. “Or we could choose to live in a safe and respectful environment, to at least know who each other is.”
Lipscomb invited Muslim, Jewish and Catholic representatives to campus recently for “A Call to Conversation: An Invitation to Dialogue on Religious Conflict.” But the conference took a controversial turn after a front-page report in The Tennessean, Nashville’s major daily newspaper.
While Lipscomb had sought media attention for what Lowry deemed “a historic meeting for the city of Nashville,” the story represented anything but the kind of attention the university wanted — or needed.
“Christians must ‘let go’ some beliefs for sake of peace, theologian says,” the Page 1 headline screamed.
The article reported that Lee Camp, a Bible professor at Lipscomb, had said Christians must shed the idea that they need to promulgate a worldwide Christianity. “The most basic Christian commitment … is that we believe in the Lordship of Jesus,” the story quoted Camp as saying. “But, if we claim that, how can a Muslim or Jew trust us, if we say Jesus is the Lord of all Lords?”
As that day’s paper landed on driveways, a firestorm erupted in the Bible Belt city. Church of Christ members and the larger evangelical Christian community flooded Lipscomb with calls and e-mails of concern. In an era in which political correctness frowns on proclaiming Jesus as the only way to heaven, bloggers and others questioned whether Camp — and Lipscomb — had bought into an all-religions-are-equal brand of pluralism.
While top Lipscomb officials swung quickly into damage-control mode, many who had attended the conference deluged The Tennessean with complaints that the story mispresented Camp’s comments and the point of the interfaith dialogue. The newspaper defended the accuracy of its story but took the unusual step of offering Camp unedited space in the next day’s edition to clarify what he said.
“I was shocked when I saw the (original) article because it did not reflect anything I heard at the conference,” said Khaled Sakalla, secretary of the Islamic Center of Nashville and a panelist at the conference. “The way the article was published made it sound like you have to give up your faith to co-exist, which wasn’t anything close to what the conference was about.”
Tim Alexander, minister of the Smith Springs Church of Christ in Antioch, Tenn., offered a similar assessment, saying Camp’s comments were “grossly misrepresented.” Alexander, who earned his bachelor’s degree at Harding University and a Master of Theological Studies degree from Vanderbilt Divinity School, said many liberal theologians believe interfaith dialogue requires “yielding on distinctives” and pretending all faiths are basically the same.
But Alexander said Lipscomb — which he suggested has had a past reputation in the Nashville religious community as “rather closed-minded, rather insulated” — did not compromise at all by inviting dialogue with Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Buddhists and others.
“Lipscomb is not shrinking back in any way from our Christian claims, but it is saying that a mature Christian knows how to dialogue and promote peace in that dialogue with religious neighbors,” Alexander said.
Larry Bridgesmith, director of Lipscomb’s new Institute for Conflict Management, which hosted the event, said Camp was not referring to evangelism when he discussed backing away from promulgating a worldwide Christianity. Rather, Camp was critiquing an imperialistic or militaristic approach to faith, Bridgesmith said. “We, as children of God, are called to be peacemakers,” Bridgesmith said of the importance of the interfaith dialogue.
In his clarifying statement to The Tennessean, Camp said he insisted in his lecture that Christians not discard what is important to them. “I believe and teach that Jesus is Lord of Lords and King of Kings,” he said.
“This exclusive claim of the authority of Christ thus presents a problem for ‘conflict management.’ I went on to ask these questions: How can the Jew or Muslim trust us if we hold onto the exclusive Lordship of Jesus? Given that I refuse to deny the Lordship of Jesus, what can I or other Christians possibly contribute to peacemaking, whether global or local?”
Among Camp’s ideas: By serving and loving all people. By showing the gracious, generous hospitality of Jesus. By letting go of any strategy that seeks to violently impose “Jesus is Lord” upon another.
SEE FULL LIPSCOMB statements at www.lipscomb.edu.