Islam’s Olive Branch?

After the attacks of 9/11, many people in the West, including Christians, were asking, “Where are the moderate Muslims?”

They may have showed up last fall. A group of what appeared to be moderate Muslim leaders sent a conciliatory message to representatives of the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant faiths, offering to work toward a more peaceful coexistence between the world’s two largest religions.

How should Christians in the West respond to this offer?

A basis for peace?

Issued October 13, 2007, and titled A Common Word Between Us and You, the Muslim document stressed the need for peace between members of the Christian and Islamic faiths, since the two groups represent 55% of the world’s population.
A Common Word highlighted the common sentiments of the Quran and the New Testament, where man is commanded to love God and love one’s neighbor: “The basis for this peace and understanding already exists. It is part of the very foundational principles of both faiths: love of the One God, and love of the neighbor. These principles are found over and over again in the sacred texts of Islam and Christianity.”

The 138 signatories of the document impressed numerous Christian leaders, since these Muslim leaders represented virtually the entire religious landscape within the Islamic world.

More than 300 Christian leaders and theologians soon penned a response to the Muslim letter. Evangelical heavyweights like Richard Cizik, Bill Hybels, Brian McLaren, John Stott, Jim Wallis and Rick Warren added their names to that response, titled Loving God and Neighbor Together: A Christian Response to ‘A Common Word Between Us and You.’

These evangelicals offered to “extend our own Christian hand in return, so that together with all other human beings we may live in peace and justice as we seek to love God and our neighbors.”

Those conciliatory sentiments are followed by an acknowledgment of sin on the part of Christians toward Muslims, from the Crusades to the War on Terror. Before the dialogue could go any further, the authors of Loving God and Neighbor Together said, evangelicals needed to “ask forgiveness of the All-Merciful One and of the Muslim community around the world.”

The majority of the document which followed is an agreement with A Common Word, that in the principles of loving God and loving one’s neighbor there is “so much common ground” between the two faiths.

‘Groveling self-abasement’

Not everyone was pleased with the wording of the evangelical response. Dr. Bruce S. Thornton, author of Decline and Fall: Europe’s Slow-Motion Suicide, complained that “if it accurately represents the thinking of mainstream Christian leadership, then Christianity in America is in deep trouble.”

Thornton said the tone of the letter – the “groveling self-abasement of this language, particularly its begging forgiveness of Allah” – would probably only encourage jihadists. “The response opens on a familiar self-loathing note, in the therapeutic style that has convinced jihadists that Christianity in the West is an empty shell, a mere lifestyle choice,” he said.

Moreover, according to Thornton, the evangelicals revealed a “remarkable historical ignorance” concerning the aggressive expansion of Islam. “‘Outright hostility’ has indeed existed between Muslims and Christians, for the simple reason that for 13 centuries Islam grew and spread by war, plunder, rapine, and enslavement throughout the Christian Middle East,” he said.
While Thornton noted that “[f]or its part, A Common Word makes no apologies for the violence that Islam has perpetrated against Christian people up to the present day.” He added that “[t]his appeasing tone [by evangelicals] … suggests once again that the West is spiritually dead, its Christian faith in the hands of those who will not defend it, even in print.”

It is difficult to dismiss Thornton’s concerns that Loving God and Neighbor Together merely underscores the apparent lack of religious self-confidence on the part of many Western Christians.

But is there no way for Christian leaders to agree to a peaceful dialogue – with what appears to be a large group of sincere Muslims – without appearing weak?

In the months followingthe release of A Common Word, other Christians entered the debate, and the following principles seemed to emerge:

Christians should be peacemakers.

We should not be surprised that there are Muslims who desire peace. Karen P. Hughes, former under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs in the Bush administration, wrote a poignant response to A Common Word. At the close of her article, Hughes said, “We all are part of an increasingly interconnected world that calls on each of us – no matter what our culture or faith community – to work for peace, life, and hope.”

In fact, the goal of bringing peace to parties in conflict is part of the calling of the church. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9).

This quite clearly suggests that trying to end strife – which so often begets violence, murder and war – is supposed to be characteristic of the individual believer and the Christian community.

Christians are also commanded to take the initiative in trying to make peace with those who are in conflict with them. It may not always be an attainable goal in every situation, but Paul said, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Romans 12:18).

In this respect, the general sentiments of evangelicals expressed in Loving God and Neighbor Together are appropriate.
On the other hand, this means that Thornton gets it wrong when he is dismissive of Muslim overtures based solely on past conflicts. In fact, Christians above all people should be the first to turn the other cheek and forgive those who have wronged them.

Christians should pursue true justice.

What Thornton gets right, however, is reminding us of the history of Islam in order to warn us against being naïve concerning current affairs.

Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury for the Anglican Church, responded to A Common Word by saying that the letter was “particularly important in underlining the need for respect toward minorities in contexts where either Islam or Christianity is the majority presence.”

That seems to be a polite way of reminding all of us that the concept of peace should have real-life applications. One cannot expect Christians, who are denied true equality and religious freedom while living in majority Muslim nations, to get all giddy about a mere theoretical discussion about peace.

Archbishop Celestino Migliore, Apostolic Nuncio and Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, said in reference to A Common Word: “I think that the dialogue we have to establish with the Islamic community is not a matter of reconciling our theological tenets. Rather, it’s a matter of agreeing on the human dignity of every person, created in the image and likeness of God, which long precedes one’s religious affiliation. From that point on, we can talk to each other and cooperate for the common good.”

Ultimately, according to Samir Khalil Samir, a Catholic theologian and Islamic scholar at Saint Joseph University in Lebanon, as much depends upon the Muslim response to A Common Word as the Christian response. He said that the letter “is certainly also addressed to Muslims, even if not explicitly. What weight will it bring to bear in the Muslim world, considering that priests continue to be kidnapped, apostates persecuted, Christians oppressed?”

There must be no compromising the Christian faith.

So Christians should pursue a concrete version of peace, but does that pursuit trump all other considerations?
It is obvious to any student of the New Testament that being a peacemaker must never become a substitute for fidelity to the truths of Scripture and to Jesus Christ. For the same Jesus who called His disciples to the task of peacemaking also warned that He had “not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34).

This refers to the exclusive claims of Christ, and the division that adherence to those claims would bring, even among members of the same family.

Thus Migliore’s statement is worth repeating: that whatever peace can be brokered between the Christian and Muslim communities “is not a matter of reconciling our theological tenets.” The theological beliefs of Christianity and Islam are mutually exclusive.

This means that no Christian should embark on a quest for peace if it requires the watering down of the clear claims of Christ in order to maintain a dialogue with non-Christians.

For example, in Loving God and Neighbor Together, evangelical leaders quote 1 John 4:8 (“whoever does not love [the neighbor] does not know God”) in order to agree that love of the neighbor invokes a similar principle in both faiths.
But what is instructive is that, just a few verses prior to 1 John 4:8, Christians are warned “that many false prophets have gone into the world” (1 John 4:1), and that “every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.” This is, he said, “the spirit of the antichrist” (1 John 4:3).

Thus, loving one’s neighbor does not mean compromising the truth in order to reach some additional, worthwhile goal, even if that goal is peace.

There must be no compromising the Christian mission.

Christians, of course, are not simply called to believe certain things but to do certain things as well. One of those tasks is the fulfilling of the Great Commission.

Would any movement toward an inter-faith dialogue require Christians to abstain from preaching the Gospel to Muslims? If the answer is yes, then the quest is illegitimate and must be abandoned.

After all, where in the life of the early church were the first Christians exhorted to find “common ground” with pagans who denied Christ? Where were they encouraged to mute their proclamation that the Carpenter from Nazareth is “the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matthew 16:17)? Nothing in the Gospels or the Book of Acts even hints at the supremacy of pursuing political or cultural goals over the preaching of the cross.

This is a temptation to which the Western church has succumbed far too often. Over the last century the Christian faith in the West seems to have been deteriorating into nothing more than an ethical system that helps people live a better life in this world. It is a system of ethics that denies any need for the blood of Calvary or the work of the Holy Spirit.

The church must avoid taking any further steps down that path. After all, there are things more dangerous than conflicts with other men. A conflict with Jesus Christ is certainly one of them.