Posted by: Titus Presler | September 24, 2014

Engaging difference – a major challenge of our time

It was an honor last week to be among the four people to be designated as 2014 Distinguished Alumni of Boston University School of Theology, where I earned the Th.D.  Among the numerous gracious events in this observance was a panel discussion in which the four of us were asked to present on the topic, “The Three Greatest Challenges Facing Us in the Next Decade,” and then engage in discussion among ourselves and with members of the audience.

The streaming link to the panel can be viewed here (I was the second of the speakers).  Following is the text of my remarks:


Engaging Difference: A Major Challenge of Our Time

Address by the Rev. Canon Titus Presler, Th.D., D.D.

Distinguished Alumni Panel at Boston University School of Theology

Boston, Massachusetts, USA, on Thursday, 18 September 2014

I am very grateful for the honor of being designated among this year’s Distinguished Alumni at the Boston University School of Theology, where my father Henry Hughes Presler graduated in 1936, and it is a joy to be included on this panel.

I’d like to begin with a story. Faith Friends is an inter-religious group, the only inter-religious group that meets in Peshawar. It brings together Sunnis and Shias, various Christian groups, and Hindus and Sikhs for mutual encounter and community-building. Its efforts, though small, seemed promising, so I invited the group to hold one of its meetings at Edwardes College, taking care to ensure that a good cross-section of Muslims and Christians from our faculty were included so that they could experience it. The meeting went well, and the attending faculty members agreed that this could be a good venture to try within our College community. The chair of the Islamic Studies Department and I planned an agenda and carefully selected those to be invited. The day for the gathering arrived, the tea and samosas were laid out. All the invited Christians pitched up, but only one Muslim arrived.

It turned out that the other Muslims stayed away in protest against a particular news item that had appeared on the Web that morning: Terry Jones, the notorious anti-Muslim pastor in Florida, had announced that he was going to have another Quran-burning. Jones’s announcement was an instance of gratuitous religious hostility that contributes to the world’s already heavy burden of religiously motivated conflict. The response of some colleagues in Peshawar in taking Jones’s bait was equally gratuitous, for how much more irrelevant to the situation in Peshawar could the Florida announcement be? Showing up at the tea were minority Christians whose communities were being subjected to indignities every day, and the majority Muslims stayed away because of a bizarre event being planned 10,000 miles away. The one Muslim who attended was indignant about his colleagues’ absence. “For many of us,” he said, “it seems that difference means danger. We need to get beyond the idea that difference is dangerous.”

At a gathering in New York on Sunday I was asked which of our students are most vulnerable to being radicalized by the extremist preachers who try and sometimes succeed in getting onto our campus. It’s hard to generalize, but it would be fair to say that the most vulnerable are those from the tribal areas along the Afghan border – they tend to be poorer and more disadvantaged.

“What are the three greatest challenges facing us in the next decade?” is the question we are asked to address. Who are the “we” who are facing whatever challenges? When we discern challenges from the perspective of God’s mission in the world I find it most natural to see the “we” as all of us, the entire global community, and then to focus on the responsibility and opportunity of Christians within that community – through churches, seminaries, and those outreach initiatives that we call mission.

The three challenges that seem most salient to me in scope and urgency are poverty amid the widening gap between rich and poor; environmental degradation that threatens the continuation of life on this planet; and the religiously motivated violence that is intensifying on all continents and on behalf of most major world religions. Challenges tend to be inter-related, as illustrated by the mission statement of the MacArthur Foundation, which is “committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world.” The foundation is saying what we all know – there is no peace without justice, and no justice without a livable environment.

Underlying all these challenges, though, I see the more basic and integrating challenge of the human encounter with difference. In our better moments we rejoice in the diversity of humankind – the rich and varied tapestries of ethnicities, cultures, languages, and their graphic, literary, architectural and musical arts. In gospel perspective, we learn from Jesus’ embrace of those on the margins, we see how the Christian movement grew through the embrace of difference, and we look forward to the full diversity of humankind gathered before God’s glory at the consummation of all things. In our churches and in institutions such as this seminary we devise policies that anticipate that eschatological community by inviting and cultivating difference.

In our worse moments – and there are many of them – we experience human difference as threat, and we fear it. In the words of my colleague in Peshawar, too often difference is dangerous – it is perceived as dangerous, and that very perception generates real danger. Histories of violation and violence are so engraved in our cultural memories that we use them to intensify and justify polarization and conflict. From just this summer, which is not yet over, consider the black-white confrontation in Ferguson, Missouri; the Palestinian-Israeli war in Gaza; the Sunni-Shia conflicts in Syria and Iraq; the Islamic State outrages against Yazidis, Christians and Shias; and the confrontations between Liberian slum residents terrified of Ebola and the medical workers dedicated to assisting them. Parties to these conflicts are energized, indeed driven, by histories of grievance for hurts they believe they and their forebears have suffered at the hands of those who are different – different racially, economically, socially, religiously. Gender violence – whether in Afghanistan, Boston or the National Football League – is patriarchy’s drive to retain privilege and power in relation to one of our most fundamental differences, the difference between male and female. It is not too extreme to say that the world is dying of difference – not difference in itself but of socially constructed perceptions of difference and the hostilities that are generated out of those perceptions of difference.

So if the encounter with difference is a virtually universal challenge to the global community today, how can we as Christians address that challenge?

First, we must acknowledge that Christians throughout history have responded to difference with efforts to ignore, belittle, marginalize, homogenize and oppress difference – not always, but often enough to make a sobering list: forcible conversion, most notably in early Europe and in conquered Latin America; wars of religion among Christians and against Muslims, the latter most notably in the Crusades; racism in churches of all places and periods; patriarchy, classism and heterosexism in churches of all times and places. And so forth! We must confess that we have much disgraceful history in the encounter with difference, that we are a work in progress, that we are not experts.

Second, we must reappropriate Christian theological resources that can inspire, catalyze and mobilize our communities to move from complacency to activism, from suspicion to exploration, and from fear to embrace in the encounter with difference. Genesis has two very different creation stories, but one element common to them both is God’s delight in creating difference and forming community out of difference. This is an understanding shared by Muslims, for I recall Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the founder of Islam Online, telling me that that the Quran says we were created different from each other so that we could learn from each other. The Incarnation of God in Christ Jesus signifies God’s self-emptying into a dimension of difference, namely humanity, which God then illuminated and, through accepting limitation to one culture, dignified all cultures as worthy bearers of God’s presence. The Gentile mission signifies the Holy Spirit’s redemptive and ever widening movement through all human societies and should be paradigmatic for our embrace of human difference.

Third, living in the way of the cross, we must be willing to be agents of reconciliation – servants of reconciliation – in the alienations of our age around difference, for reconciliation is the ultimate purpose of God’s work in the world. Which alienations any of us might address is a matter of call and circumstance, relationship and opportunity. The world of fundamentalist Islam is a formidable alienation today that I have felt called to engage. It has not been easy, but despite threat and attack I nourish hope, for there can be much shared ground between Christians and Muslims, and there are many Muslim partners to work with, both here and abroad. Whatever our particular struggle, reconciliation and healed community must be our vision.

Fourth, what sustains such a reconciling quest is not primarily justice but compassion. Justice is important and often justice is the best we can hope for, hard as it is to achieve. Ultimately, however, the claims of justice are minimalist, whereas reconciliation is maximalist. In reaching out to children, women, lepers, Samaritans, prostitutes, tax collectors, Jesus was being just, yes, yet his energizing motive was not justice but compassion, empathy with suffering, recognition of shared humanity. The Good Samaritan did not stop on the road for justice, though his act was just, but out of compassion. The vineyard owner’s wage to the workers hired at the end of the day was unjust, in fact, but he acted out of generosity.

Under so much of our division and hostility – and under our complacency with the way things are – is an implicit and insidious premise that others’ humanity is not quite equal to our own, that their suffering, however acute, is in some way their allotted portion, that the image of God in them can afford to be diminished, even effaced, that the difference between them and us is in some way indelible. No. Amid our differences, precious as they are, we are cut from the same cloth. We share the same image. It is God we share. It is God’s compassion that we must embody.





  1. Brilliant! Sandy McCann

    Rev. Cn. Sandra B. McCann, M.D. Communications Director Msalato Theological College Box 264 Dodoma, Tanzania http://www.footstepsinfaith.netSent from my iPad +255 (0)784115378 IN US: Box 580, Fortson, GA 31820 762 5242459


    • Thanks very much, Sandy. We think of you often and pray that God continues to bless your ministry as Msalato. Warm regards, Titus

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