Western Apologies

Last year, dozens of Islamic clerics, primarily organized by Jordan’s Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, unveiled “A Common Word Between Us and You,” which appealed for neighborliness with Christians. It even specifically cited religious freedom, while avoiding comment on Islamist terror or Islamist repression of religious minorities.

Predictably, faculty at Yale Divinity School quickly and effusively responded with “Loving God and Neighbor Together,” a love letter back to the Muslim clerics that offered Christian apologies for the Crusades and “excesses” of the War on Terror. Dozens of prominent Mainline Protestants and left-leaning evangelicals, including officers of the National Association of Evangelicals, signed on. In August, Yale Divinity School hosted a follow-on Islamic-Christian dialogue, to be repeated at Cambridge, England and the Vatican this Fall, Georgetown University next Spring, and Jordan in October 2009.

Not wanting to be left behind the interfaith parade, the National Council of Churches (NCC) has now produced its own rousing “Ecumenical Response,” to “A Common Word Between Us and You.” Amusingly, it was unveiled by the NCC’s Interfaith Relations Chairwoman Diane Eck, a Harvard professor of comparative religion. Ten years ago, The New York Times announced that Eck and her lesbian partner were the first same-sex couple to preside as head masters of a Harvard dormitory. Founder of the Pluralism Project, which celebrates and sometimes exaggerates the rise of non-Christian and Jewish religion in America, Eck, despite being a United Methodist, has a special affinity for Indian culture and Hinduism.

Much of Islam would denounce, and perhaps even stone, Professor Eck as an immoral idolater. But this has not deterred Eck from advocating a broader embrace of Islam in America. Nor did it obviously deter the NCC from appointing her as its spokeswomen to Islam and other non-Christian faiths. At the NCC’s September 2008 board meeting in New York, Eck hailed “A Common Word Between Us and You” as an “historic document, a kind of a Muslim ecumenical letter, a bold and timely invitation,” as quoted in an NCC news release. She said “there is no minimizing our differences, but our greatest commandments to the love of God and neighbor are common to us. Our very souls are at stake if we fail to come together in harmony.”

The NCC’s senior interfaith staffer, Antonios Kireopoulos, likewise declared at the same meeting where the NCC’s “Ecumenical Response” was unveiled: “The letter of the Muslim scholars to church leaders worldwide offers an unprecedented opportunity for collaboration between Muslims and Christians in the search for peace in the world.” Himself Greek Orthodox, he enthused: “In the United States, such an opportunity means the difference between friction and goodwill, between suspicion and friendship, in our communities.”

Present with the NCC board and hailing the NCC’s “Ecumenical Response” was Islamic Society of North America President Sayyid Syeed, who implored: “We need you to be seriously involved.” Speaking as left-wing NCC clerics rarely speak, Syeed actually sounded pro-American in his remarks at the NCC, sharing appreciation for America’s culture of toleration, and urging moderate Muslim alternatives to radical Islam. “When we hear the news in the Muslim world, about suicide bombers and the like, we are more pained than you because this is not what Islam represents,” he said, as reported by the NCC. “We must create models here that we can represent to the rest of the world. American Muslims are what Muslims can be in a democratic, pluralistic society. We need to take those steps together.”

Ironically, the NCC’s “Ecumenical Response” is actually superior in many ways to Yale’s “Loving God and Neighbor Together,” even though the latter was greatly aimed at ostensibly theologically conservative evangelicals, while the former originated with liberal Mainline Protestant dominated NCC. The aggressively interfaith oriented Diana Eck endorsed both manifestos, not surprisingly. But the NCC declaration offers no Christian apologies for the Crusades or the War on Terror. And unlike the Yale document, which often sounds Unitarian and effusively quotes the Koran, the Bible-quoting NCC statement elaborates on the Trinity and the Christian belief in God’s disclosure through Jesus Christ. Presumably the NCC’s Eastern Orthodox members, and not the syncretistically-inclined Professor Eck, can be credited for the theological muscle.

The Yale statement does at least very briefly mention religious freedom: “When freedom to worship God according to one’s conscience is curtailed, God is dishonored, the neighbor oppressed, and neither God nor neighbor is loved.” Meanwhile, the NCC document is largely silent, mentioning only that in “various places and times, Christian minorities and Muslim minorities have both fared well and fared badly in the context of religious majorities of the other faiths. In the present day, sectarian tensions are undeniable around the world, as are instances of positive interaction.” Perhaps “sectarian tensions” is a euphemism for Islamist repression and terror. The NCC declaration also feels obliged to admit that some “[mis]use the name of Christianity,” just as some “[mis]use the name of Islam.” And it optimistically opines that “when our faiths are most authentically practiced, they lead to a rejection of violence.”

But the NCC statement, with its greater emphasis on theology, does cite that both Christians and Muslims are equally called to resist sin. Meanwhile, the Yale declaration references “sin” only once, when declaring: “Christians have been guilty of sinning against our Muslim neighbors.” The possibility that Muslims may have sinned against Christians goes unmentioned, naturally. The NCC statement suggests that Christians and Muslims should together toil against “violence, poverty, environmental degradation, and other such ills.” Traditionally, the NCC sees its leftist politics as a unifying ecumenical and interfaith platform.

Meanwhile, left-leaning evangelicals often naively believe that apologies and niceness will open doors to their evangelism. “They told me that signing the statement would be especially helpful to Christians who live and minister in Muslim-majority countries and cultures,” explained Leith Anderson, National Association of Evangelicals President, about why he signed Yale’s “Loving God and Neighbor,” despite his qualms about it. “In fact, some suggested that not signing could be damaging to these Christian brothers and sisters who live among Muslims.”

In other words, perhaps Yale’s apologies will appease angry Islamists and they might persecute Christians less often. That desperate hope is hardly strong grounds for interfaith dialogue.


Mark D. Tooley directs the United Methodist committee at the Institute on Religion and Democracy.