On Sept. 11, 2001, I was a chaplain in a psychiatric hospital in northern Virginia. The hospital was home to a handful of Muslim patients from other countries. Most patients were Christian.
Soon after the 9/11 attacks, a handful of Christian patients attacked some of the Muslim patients. Name-calling escalated to fistfights. Staff restrained and separated the men before grave injury occurred.
I was especially thankful for the presence of a Muslim volunteer chaplain, an Egyptian gentleman named Dr. Mustafa. He came to the hospital shaking his head in sorrow. “The Quran says that if you take an innocent life, it is as if you took all life,” he said. He was broken-hearted that the Sept. 11 attacks had been carried out in the name of his faith.
Dr. Mustafa and I put together a commemorative service to honor the dead of 9/11. Then, to quell violence between Muslim and Christian patients, we did some educating about the shared elements of our two traditions. Thankfully, there were no further assaults.
I was reminded of those days when I read recently of a statement made by 138 Islamic leaders called “A Common Word Between Us and You.” (Read it at www.acommonword.com.) The statement, put together by Muslims bridging various schools of thought, points out that Christians and Muslims must live at peace with one another if the world is to enjoy peace, as adherents of the two faiths make up 55 percent of the world’s population. Further, they point out that Christianity and Islam share two divine imperatives: the love of God and the love of neighbor. The statement’s authors draw from their own scripture but also write knowledgeably and respectfully about Christian scripture to make their case. They call upon Christians to remember Jesus’ words, “For he who is not against us is on our side” (Mark 9:40).
The statement’s authors say they were not motivated by desire for “polite ecumenical dialogue.” Such dialogue, usually occurring between high-level religious leaders, can be fruitful, but there is an urgent need for understanding among the day-to-day followers of both faiths: “With the terrible weaponry of the modern world; with Muslims and Christians intertwined everywhere as never before, no side can unilaterally win a conflict between more than half of the world’s inhabitants. . . . The very survival of the world itself is perhaps at stake.”
Skeptics will question the sincerity of “A Common Word,” pointing to Muslim extremists who justify bloodshed on the basis of a distorted understanding of Islam. There is no denying that such extremists exist. They have also existed in Christianity over the centuries. Religion, like just about any “-ism,” can be used by anybody to justify anything. This does not justify denouncing a given faith. It calls instead for greater thoughtfulness and education about the faith as a whole. Ignorance about Islam, combined with anger and sorrow over terrorist attacks by self-proclaimed Muslim radicals, leads to a vicious circle of violence spiralling out of control. That is not what God wants – not for Christians, Muslims or anybody.
Does it dilute the strength of our Christian faith to learn something about Islam, or to reach out in friendship to our Muslim neighbors? I think the opposite is true. Living in peace is not easy. We can’t count on vague feelings of good will to make it happen; it will take all the resources of our faith to make peace in a fractured world. I commend to you “A Common Word,” and the positive responses for Christian leaders, as steps in the right direction.
* CONNIE CLARK, an Episcopal priest and chaplain in Evanston, Wyo., welcomes comments at email@example.com. You also may comment by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.