A minister’s conversion to religious pluralism.
Brad R. Braxton
A pilgrimage to Africa was my pathway to religious pluralism. In 1992, I made my first trip to Mother Africa and visited the Gambia. This small African nation would play a large role in awakening me to the beauty of religious pluralism.
The trip occurred during my two-year matriculation as a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford. As grateful as I was for the coveted privilege to study at Oxford, I was constantly aware while there that I was living and studying in one of the capitals of white culture. During my Oxford years, I was not the victim of overt prejudice, but, in subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways, the message was conveyed that white cultural experiences were the measuring rod. Surrounded so intensely by “whiteness,” I felt compelled to understand more intimately my “blackness.” The Gambia had figured prominently in Alex Haley’s research that led to his famous book Roots and the subsequent television series. In an effort to reconnect with my own African roots, I chose the Gambia as my introduction to Africa, traveling there during the break between Oxford’s winter and spring terms.
For more than a week in the Gambia, I immersed myself in African culture—eating the food, listening to the music, browsing through village markets and talking with village elders. Those elders told stories, handed down through generations of oral tradition, about the faith, foibles, and feats of their Gambian forebears.
One morning during the trip, I was reading the New Testament while sitting on the porch of a sparsely furnished Gambian guesthouse near the Atlantic Ocean. The equatorial sun had warmed the early morning air. But the warm air was nothing compared to the numinous, warm presence that overshadowed me as I began hearing voices with my “third ear” that imparted wisdom in my soul. I realized that a council of invisible African ancestors had convened around me.
According to African religion, the visible and invisible dimensions of existence are connected by Spirit—the eternal life-force animating the universe with divine purpose. When honorable members of an African tribe die, they continue to live as spirits. These ancestral spirits provide moral guidance to those who are still physically alive.1
As the invisible ancestors surrounded me that morning in the Gambia, they irrevocably expanded the contours of my sacred universe. For several weeks before the trip, I had struggled to find an appropriate research topic for my forthcoming master’s thesis at Oxford. The revelation from the ancestors instantly pierced my mental fog. Their counsel enabled me to identify my thesis topic—an unapologetic cultural reading of Christian texts through the lens of African and African American experience. My Oxford thesis was successfully written, defended, and later expanded to a book.2 In hindsight, I realized that when the ancestors speak, it is wise to listen.
This visitation introduced me to manifestations of religion that had predated Christianity by many millennia. In Africa, a continent replete with cultural and religious pluralism, my previous understandings of “exclusive salvation” through Christianity felt woefully narrow. Nevertheless, it was not lost on me that I had first met the African ancestors and experienced a deep dimension of African religion precisely as I was reading the Christian scriptures. Deep anchorage in the texts of my native religious tradition was a bridge, not a barrier, to a greater appreciation of the diverse array of other religious traditions.
In Africa, I began to imagine religion as a kind of African music—a complex, polyphonic performance of intertwining voices giving witness to all that is sacred. Christianity, for me, was an important voice, but it was no longer the only voice. The solo had become a chorus. At age seven, I had converted to Christianity and been submerged in the waters of Christian baptism in my family’s Baptist church in southwest Virginia. Sixteen years later, I traveled across the waters of the Atlantic Ocean for another conversion—a conversion to religious pluralism.
Since that life-altering encounter in 1992, I have been a devotee of pluralism, and my ministry and scholarship have gravitated toward interfaith settings and initiatives. As a Christian, I believe that in Jesus Christ I have all the sacred truth I typically can withstand—but I do not have all the sacred truth there is. Others also have sacred truth; those who practice African Traditional Religion; those who seek right relationships with God through the Qur’an or the Torah; and those who seek to eliminate suffering through mindfulness and meditation. By linking with and learning from other traditions, we all are enriched.
The ancestors assured me that if I wrestled long enough, the enigmas of the book of Revelation would reveal a clear, compassionate word about pluralism.
Over the years, my conversation partners have ranged from orthodox religionists to unorthodox atheists, and every interfaith encounter, whether comfortable or contentious, has revealed to me important dimensions of sacred living. My friend, the noted interfaith educator Eboo Patel, provides a marvelous definition of pluralism: “a society characterized by respect for people’s religious (and other) identities, positive relationships between people of different religious backgrounds, and common action for the common good.”3
In 2009, nearly two decades after my visit to the Gambia, I participated in an interfaith gathering that further refined my abiding commitment to religious pluralism. At that time, I was the senior minister of the Riverside Church in New York City, a progressive, Christian congregation known for its social activism and ecumenical approach. The Riverside Church was hosting a conference uniting Muslims, Jews, and Christians by exploring the similarities and differences in the scriptures of the Abrahamic traditions. Scholars, clerics, and interfaith advocates from Canada, the Caribbean, and across the United States convened in New York City for three days of scholarly presentations, symposia, and roundtable dialogues.
The culminating event was the Sunday morning worship service at Riverside. As the host pastor, I was invited to be the preacher. In the days leading up to the service, I grappled with how to approach this exciting and unusual homiletic task. I was a Christian pastor and a scholar of the New Testament with profound interfaith commitments, who was preaching alongside Muslim and Jewish clergy at an interfaith conference about the scriptures of the Abrahamic traditions. How could I provide a soul-stirring, intellectually robust, and rhetorically polished witness to religious pluralism in the fleeting moments of one sermon?
Once again, the African ancestors came to my aid, speaking as clearly in the hustle and bustle of the city as they had near the picturesque Atlantic shores of the Gambia. Rather than avoid the scriptures of my tradition in service of a bland ecumenism, the ancestors encouraged me to ground my understanding of pluralism in the Christian scriptures. The ancestors also reminded me of some exegetical notes I had made years earlier about a fascinating, alternative way to interpret the concluding verses of the book of Revelation, one of the most enigmatic books in the Christian scriptures. The ancestors assured me that if I wrestled long enough, the enigmas of the book of Revelation would reveal a clear, compassionate word about pluralism. Once again, the ancestors were trustworthy guides. Their guidance has usually come through gentle nudges and promptings that sharpen my perception.
They brought to my remembrance one of my graduate school mentors, Emory University biblical studies professor John Hayes. Hayes was a wise and witty interpreter of ancient texts, who encouraged students to get the “guts” of any book we read. He rightly said that we would never be able to read all that was assigned to us. Consequently, he urged us to focus on the first and last chapters of our reading assignments, and especially the last chapter, since typically the last chapter held the book’s conclusions.
In the spirit of that suggestion, as I prepared my sermon I revisited the first chapter of the first book in the Christian scriptures. Genesis 1:1 declares, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”4 The Christian scriptures open with a grand affirmation of God’s creativity. God lovingly establishes divine order from the confused contents of a churning chaos.
With that in mind, I turned to the last chapter of the book of Revelation. As John’s apocalyptic pilgrimage concludes, he receives a marvelous vision of the transformation of heaven and earth. While parts of the book of Revelation contain provocative, even disturbing, images of judgment and destruction, Revelation 22 reinforces the theme of hope that is the heartbeat of John’s message. I decided to focus my sermon on some verses from this last chapter in the Christian scriptures:
Blessed are those who wash their robes so they can have access to the tree of life and can enter into the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the sexually immoral, and the murderers, and the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood! . . .
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. (Revelation 22:14–15, 21; emphasis added).
As a result of a “war in heaven,” Satan—the great dragon—and other demonic forces are defeated and cast from heaven (Revelation 12:7–12). After further contestation, evil is finally subdued in all realms of existence (20:7–15), and the stage is set for God to radically transform the creation. This cosmic transformation occurs when the New Jerusalem descends from heaven to earth:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and earth had ceased to exist, and the sea existed no more. And I saw the holy city–the new Jerusalem–descending out of heaven. (21:1–2)
In this section, we are in the “New Jerusalem.” This brings to mind my childhood. Although more than thirty years have passed, another voice that accompanies me—that I can still hear in my “third ear”—is the sonorous singing of Brother Herbert Wiley, that sainted deacon in my home church—First Baptist Church in Salem, Virginia.5
Rarely did a Sunday pass in my youth that I did not find myself sitting in the pew of that church. This was partly because my parents were both leaders there: my father was the pastor, and my mother was a gifted musician and religious educator. Memories of the fervent worship, the fiery religious rhetoric, and the spiritual nurture offered to me by my parents and the seasoned “mothers and fathers” of that church sustain me even to this day.
In the mid-week prayer service at First Baptist Church, Deacon Wiley sang with great gusto those spirituals about the New Jerusalem:
I will meet you in that city of the New Jerusalem. I’ve been washed in the blood of the lamb.
Sweeping through the gates of the New Jerusalem,
Washed in the blood of the lamb.6
I want to be ready,
I want to be ready,
I want to be ready,
to walk in Jerusalem just like John.7
Why were the spiritual elders in a small church in the foothills of southwest Virginia singing about the New Jerusalem? They realized that the New Jerusalem symbolized the redemption of violence and the emergence of a new way of life where God’s unmitigated presence would be enjoyed by all. The book of Revelation declares that God will dwell among the people in the New Jerusalem.
On that spring day in 2009, when I looked out from the ornate pulpit of the Riverside Church at a sea of conference participants—some in hijabs, some in yarmulkes, some in vestments—I thought about how the image of the New Jerusalem is instructive for interfaith cooperation. As I understand it, the New Jerusalem is not heaven. It’s heaven on earth. Some Christians are wistfully waiting to be plucked into the sky during the so-called “rapture.” But the book of Revelation asserts that the sky will plunge to the earth. Thus, the New Jerusalem is a symbol of the transformation of this world. In light of the need for all religions to find harmony—and especially the Abrahamic religions—the New Jerusalem is a relevant symbol for interfaith cooperation.8
Currently, Jerusalem is a site of contestation, not cooperation. Consequently, we should interpret Revelation’s depiction of the New Jerusalem not as “pie in the sky” rhetoric, but rather as an invitation for on-the-ground, peaceful coexistence among contemporary Muslims, Jews, and Christians living in and around that ancient city. By extension, the New Jerusalem also symbolizes an exhortation for everyone to live harmoniously on city blocks and boulevards and rural farms and fields around the globe.
“Let all God’s people dwell together in the New Jerusalem,” I declared in the sermon. “Not the New Jerusalem in some distant, eternal future, but the New Jerusalem in the up-close, right-now, present.” Biblical scholars Wes Howard-Brook and Anthony Gwyther suggest that the “New Jerusalem is found wherever human community resists the ways of empire and places God at the center of its shared life.”9
But the journey in Revelation 22 into the New Jerusalem is neither smooth nor straightforward. There are various aspects in the last few verses of Revelation 22 that must be examined in the name of intellectual honesty and theological integrity. The pilgrimage to the end of the New Testament requires us to pass through some of the most difficult material in the book of Revelation.
Persons who want to dwell in the New Jerusalem are called to wash their robes: “Blessed are those who wash their robes so they can have access to the tree of life and enter the city by the gates.” Participation in God’s future will be predicated upon appropriate behavior in the present. Earlier in the book of Revelation, the saints paradoxically whiten their robes by washing them in blood (7:14). This imagery is not the glorification of mindless martyrdom. Instead, it can be read as a metaphor for the valiant struggle and willful sacrifice necessary to resist the dehumanizing forces of empire.
The challenge for faith communities is to learn how to articulate passionately the central concerns of our traditions without resorting to name-calling.
The forces of empire do not die quietly. They will strike back. Some of the deadliest weapons of empire include religious and racial bigotry, gender-based chauvinism, and public policies cloaked in the respectable language of fiscal restraint that economically exploit vulnerable people while allowing corporate greed to go unchecked. Frederick Douglass, the nineteenth-century freedom fighter, declared, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” To wash our robes is to demand the dethroning of the death-dealing powers of empire in order to make room for God’s kin-dom—the big, open house, where sacred siblings live peacefully in the presence of our heavenly father who is divine mother of us all.
The next verse, however, provides a dreadful example of defamation and deformation: “Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the sexually immoral, and the murderers, and the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood!” Unfortunately, this verse is filled with religiously inspired venom. The derogatory language and harsh tone are inexcusable and stand as irrefutable evidence that mean-spirited name-calling (e.g., “the dogs and the sorcerers”) finds its way even into the Christian scriptures.
In my ministry, I have found it important to emphasize that critique of the Bible is not sacrilegious. Instead, it arises from a deeply held religious belief that sometimes the “Good Book” does not contain good news. So many people could be liberated from psychic and social oppression if faith leaders empowered faithful people to question sacred texts, especially when those texts “misbehave.” The biblical scholar Elsa Tamez rightly suggests that faithfulness to the good news requires us to distance ourselves from the harmful elements of sacred texts.10
Many self-righteous Christians have used negative words like those in this verse to condemn and humiliate people who represent cultural diversity. More specifically, these parts of Christian scriptures have been used to exclude socially marginalized persons, and especially lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons. The challenge for faith communities is to learn how to articulate passionately the central concerns of our religious traditions (love, justice, peace, alleviation of suffering, salvation, enlightenment, and fellowship with ancestral spirits) without resorting to name-calling and defamation of character.
Words like “heathen,” “pagan,” “unsaved,” “infidel,” and “hell-bound” are dangerous. Such words strangle grace to death, thereby eliminating the promise of peaceful life among diverse people seeking the sacred. Preaching on Revelation in an interfaith setting, I have felt it important to apologize, because the Christian scriptures are not at their best in Revelation 22:15. When we defame people, even in the supposed name of God, the best elements of our religious traditions are deformed, and we devalue the irrepressible image of God inscribed in every person. If Revelation 22:15 were the last word, we might rightly insist that the final impulses in the Christian scriptures were hatred and exclusion and not hospitality and inclusion.
Thankfully, there is still another word! The final verse in this chapter provides rehabilitation. The defamation that leads to deformation stands in need of rehabilitation.
The inclusive nature of God’s grace resounds as Revelation 22 concludes. The best translation of this final verse is likely, “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all,” and not as the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation renders it, “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints.” The NRSV translation “with all the saints” refers to another (and probably later) manuscript where Christian scribes altered this verse because of its original, radically inclusive, final blessing upon all. Apparently, those scribes needed to box in God’s blessing, lest grace spill over onto the “unsaved.” Consequently, those Christian scribes changed this verse to read “all the saints,” thereby restricting grace only to Christians.11 But it is likely that the original manuscript simply extended a final benediction of grace upon all.
The last word of the last chapter of the last book in the Christian scriptures is the most inclusive word, whether we are reading in English or Greek. In English, the last word is “all,” a translation of the Greek word for “all,” pas. Even as the Christian Bible emphasizes the importance of Jesus, it celebrates the necessity of inclusion.
The first words in the Christian scriptures are: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” The last words in the Christian scriptures are: “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all.” If we want the “guts” of the Christian library and pay close attention to its opening and closing chapters, a clear message emerges: God’s ultimate plan is creative transformation that ushers in radical inclusion! The Christian Bible begins with creativity and ends with inclusion.
In other words, there is sacred, creative energy moving through the cosmos that seeks to bring everyone and everything into harmony for the sake of goodness and peace. “All” is the last word in the Christian scriptures. “All” is a boundary-breaking word; a defense-lowering word; a hope-instilling word.
As I have preached this message of pluralism in diverse settings, sometimes thundering the word “all” and other times whispering it, the responses have been positive and palpable. “All” relaxes anxiety-ridden shoulders. “All” causes joyful hands to clap and loving hands to embrace. “All” brings smiles to faces. The word “all” invites us to be sisters and brothers, to live peacefully together, to learn from one another as we dwell under the expansive tent of “all.”
In the word “all,” there is room for the Muslim and the monk; room for Judaism and Jainism; room for the Buddhist and the Baha’i; room for the Hindu and the Humanist; room for the agnostic and the atheist; room for the skeptic and the seeker. By using the word “all,” we are empowered to call anyone hospitable to the sacred spirit of creativity moving through the cosmos to unite us our sister or our brother.
“The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all.” Pluralism celebrates polyphony. In my pilgrimage to pluralism, many voices—arising from the ancestors, the scriptures, my parents, spiritual elders, mentors, and academic texts—have taught me that when we strive to be inclusive, all should actually mean all!
- John S. Mbiti, Introduction to African Religion, 2nd ed. (Heinemann, 1991); Monica A. Coleman, Making a Way Out of No Way: A Womanist Theology (Fortress Press, 2008), 101–123.
- Brad R. Braxton, No Longer Slaves: Galatians and African American Experience (Liturgical Press, 2002).
- Eboo Patel, Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America (Beacon Press, 2012), 71.
- This and subsequent passages are from the New English Translation (NET).
- This black Baptist church was established in 1867, a mere two years after the end of the Civil War.
- Probable adaptation of Tullius C. O’Kane’s hymn “Washed in the Blood of the Lamb” (1870) and/or Elisha A. Hoffmann’s hymn “Are You Washed in the Blood?” (1878).
- “I Want to Be Ready,” African American Spiritual, composer unknown.
- Each of the Abrahamic religions claims Jerusalem. For Muslims, Jerusalem is the location of the Dome of the Rock, the spot from which the prophet Muhammad ascended into heaven. For Jews, Jerusalem houses the Western Wall, the remnant of their once glorious Temple. For Christians, Jerusalem is the locale of Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection.
- Wes Howard-Brook and Anthony Gwyther, Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now (Orbis Books, 1999), 184.
- Elsa Tamez, “Women’s Rereading of the Bible,” in Voices from the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World, ed. R. S. Sugirtharajah (Orbis Books, 1995), 52.
- G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Eerdmans, 1999), 1157. I typically preach from the New Revised Standard Version translation of the Bible. I departed from that practice in this sermon and instead used the New English Translation of the Bible because of the difference in the translation of Revelation 22:21. This subtle difference, which is historically plausible, makes all the difference for people committed to interfaith cooperation and religious pluralism.
Brad R. Braxton is the founding senior pastor of the Open Church in Baltimore. He was a lecturer on ministry studies at Harvard Divinity School in the 2016 spring semester. Previously, he was a program officer at the Ford Foundation in New York City and the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor of Homiletics at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. This essay is adapted from one of his sermons, “The Last Word on Pluralism.”