Loving Our Neighbors

Should Christians dialogue with Muslims? Some prominent conservative Christians approach such a question with deep suspicion, if not downright opposition. For example, Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has criticized evangelicals who signed a Christian letter to Muslims last fall, saying their participation reflected “naiveté that borders on dishonesty.” A Web site produced by James Dobson’s Focus on the Family approvingly quotes a Muslim convert to Christianity who wrote that the letter’s signatories “actually are betraying the Christian faith.” What, exactly, has raised such ire from the right? It all started last October, when 138 Muslim scholars and clerics released a statement titled “A Common Word Between Us and You,” which declared that “the future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians,” the basis of which can be found in “the very foundational principles of both faiths: love of the One God, and love of the neighbor.”

More than 300 Christians of all stripes signed a response drafted at Yale Divinity School’s Center for Faith and Culture, saying they were “deeply encouraged and challenged” by the Muslim initiative, and moved to “extend our own Christian hand in return, so that … we may live in peace and justice as we seek to love God and our neighbors.” That’s what really started to raise issues for some right-wing Christians. The Yale response, titled “Loving God and Neighbor Together,” included an acknowledgement that many Christians have been guilty of “sinning against our Muslim neighbors,” including actions “in the past (e.g. in the Crusades) and in the present (e.g. in excesses of the ‘war on terror’).” Mohler, of the Southern Baptist seminary, took umbrage at this apology and specifically defended the Crusades, saying, “Are these people suggesting that they wish the military conflict with Islam had ended differently—that Islam had conquered Europe?”

Brian McLaren, author of Everything Must Change and chair of the Sojourners board, responded to Mohler’s comments, saying, “Are you aware of how your line of thought could be used today to justify torture and other atrocities—that, to achieve a desired outcome in a ‘military conflict with Islam,’ we are justified in resorting to any and all means that were used in the Crusades? Do you realize how horrible this sounds—not just to a Muslim, but also to a fellow Christian?” Judith Mendelsohn Rood, a professor of history at Biola University, said, “Christians are being hit for writing a letter that apologizes to Muslims. But isn’t that the core of our faith, to acknowledge our own sin? Many things have been said and done in the name of Christ that have been incredibly damaging over the centuries.”

There’s an irony, of course, in the fact of self-proclaimed evangelicals who have such disdain for dialogue with “nonbelievers.” (How else can we witness to the “good news” of the gospel if we avoid conversation with people who don’t share our beliefs, or if we engage in something other than “respectful dialogue”?) David Neff, editor in chief of Christianity Today and a signer of the Christian response, said, “The point of the letter was to say we appreciate you putting the olive branch out there, and we’re eager to talk with you.” Dialogues between Christians and Muslims are not new. Since 9/11, there have been numerous high-level conversations between Muslims and Catholics (including, for example, an October 2006 “open letter” to Pope Benedict from 38 Islamic scholars) and an ongoing series of dialogues between Muslims and mainline Protestants. But evangelicals, until fairly recently, have avoided such conversations, particularly in public.

One recent initiative that has begun to redress this deficiency is the “Evangelical Christian-Muslim Dia­logue,” which held its second meeting earlier this year in Tripoli, Libya. The three-day interfaith gathering, which followed a November 2006 event in Chicago, brought together Muslim and evangelical scholars to discuss such topics as “Salvation and Atonement in Christianity and Islam” and “Religious Freedom and Persecution: Our Mutual Responsibilities.” Other panels focused on citizenship and civic responsibility, racial justice, and the nature of worship in the two traditions.

Such conversation is absolutely essential in today’s post-9/11 world, for painfully obvious political reasons and for spiritual reasons as well. As Rich Cizik, vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals, put it, “Reconciliation means building a common vision about our world; this can’t be done apart from a process of dialogue.”