On Sabbatical from my normal duties as senior pastor, I have examined race relations in America because I think that the church in America should be where black and white, Asian and Hispanic, Arab and Native American people come together. How do we lead the church to be that uniting space where people delight in one another, celebrating our differences and rejoicing in our shared life in Christ?
While race has been the topic of my study (through reading and interviews with church leaders), I am aware that followers of Jesus in America also need to set a tone of love and peace in relation to Muslims. Many high profile “evangelicals”[i] have been downright hateful in their stance toward Muslims. This antipathy is combined with woeful ignorance. I pray that a part of my church’s renewal and step toward multiethnic worship and community will be the witness of peace and love extended to Muslims.
Here, I offer my own experiences, which I grant are limited.
First, I have traveled in a town that is 70-80% Muslim. Each year from 2011-2016, I have spent time in Kombolcha, Ethiopia. There, I have been a part of the Children’s Hope Chest work that provides school uniforms, school supplies, meals, and other support to extremely poor children and their families. The CHC program is run out of a church and part of the curriculum is the presentation of the Gospel. In my times there, I have never been confronted or threatened by any of the 180,000 Muslims who live there. I do not know of any of our kids in the program who have suffered because they are participating in a Christian program. It is has been peaceful and safe.
Second, shortly after the election of President Trump, his attempts at travel bans from 7 majority-Muslim countries, and the fears aroused in American Muslim communities, one of our church members reached out to a Mosque in Durham, NC. Her efforts lead to me actually speaking at an ecumenical event there. The hospitality was generous. I felt welcomed and the Holy Spirit led me to publically repent on behalf of Christians for the ways we have failed to show love to our Muslim neighbors. My repentance was graciously received.
Third, as I blogged earlier this summer, I read A Common Word (editor, Miroslav Volf). In this book, I learned that Muslims place as high a value on the two great commandments as do Christians. Love of God and love of neighbor are central tenets of Islam.
Fourth, as a part of our Sabbatical, my family had the opportunity to travel to Egypt. There I learned that no one dislikes the Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS more than your average everyday Egyptian. Cairo is an enormous Muslim city (over 20,000,000 people). From the rooftop of the Barcelo Hotel, you can hear Mosques across the city issue the call to prayer. It echoes through the canyons of buildings. As in Kombolcha, I felt safe, and never threatened. Now, I need to acknowledge that the people who worked so hard to assure my comfort there are in the tourism business. They need my dollars and they need me to come home to the U.S.A. and put in a good word for them. They are financially motivated to makes things nice for Americans willing to spend money. Even so, I met others not a part of that business.
One day, we were enjoying the rooftop pool, a cool relief from the unrelenting sun’s heat, and I met a man from Bagdad, Iraq. He and I discussed religion and life in Iraq. He felt that my wife and I, as adoptive parents, were a blessing from God. He was charming and genuine. He is an engineer and was in Cairo for a conference. He had no personal gain in being nice to me. His kindness was just that, kindness.
These experiences through reading, conversation, and the receiving of generous hospitality lead me to think that Muslims are people just like my neighbors in Chapel Hill are people. Some Muslims are terrorists – a few. So too are some of the members of Westboro Baptist Church. I don’t condemn all Baptists as terrorists because of what they do. Among the 20,000,000 Egyptians in Cairo there are good-hearted people, lazy people, thieves and liars, hard workers, and every variety of humanity you’d find anywhere.
It broke my heart to read the Voice of the Martyrs report that more than 100 Coptic Christians have been killed in Egypt.[ii] There are terrorists Muslims (and terrorist Christians and terrorist Buddhists in South Asia and terrorist Hindus in India). Most Muslims (and most Christians and Buddhists and Hindus and Jews) are just people, people God has called us to love. What happened to our Coptic brothers and sisters calls for lament and for prayer. But it is not an indictment of Egypt any more than Dylan Roof’s villainous act at Mother Emmanuel Church in 2015 is an indictment of all white people in Charleston, SC.
More than simply acknowledging the humanity of Muslims, we who follow Jesus are to affirm Muslims as our neighbors. We believe they are wrong about Jesus. They see Jesus as a venerated prophet. We see Jesus as the Son of God, the human incarnation of the second person of the Trinity, and the Savior of the world. You can’t believe that and be a Muslim. You can’t not believe it and be a Christian. The differences are irreconcilable. Muslims worship the same God we do, but their belief about God, in my view, is wrong. But the difference I have with my Muslim neighbor, my Muslims friend, should be discussed over a cup of coffee in a friendly environment. I don’t need to condemn him. I can befriend him and share God’s love with him.
As we rode to the airport on our last day in Egypt, the sun was setting and we passed a church, one of the few. In the fleeing sunlight, I looked at the crosses on the church roof. I realized how powerfully I felt God’s presence, the Holy Spirit’s hand, there in Cairo, a sprawling Muslim metropolis. The crosses on the church reminded me God is there. I and all Christians need to remember God is present in our interactions with Muslims. God is love. When we are with our Muslims neighbors and aware of God’s presence, we are to show love through neighborly friendship, welcoming conversation, and Holy Spirit empowered grace.
[i] I put “evangelicals” in quotes because the term is one I really don’t want to surrender. The perception in America is that evangelicals are white, are people who vote Republican, hate homosexuals and Muslims, and are quick to condemn to Hell anyone whose theology does not align with their fundamentalist hyper-Calvinism. My definition of evangelical is a person who shares the good news that in Jesus, God had come, the Kingdom is inaugurated, and all who repent of sin and turn to Him can have eternal life in His name. I put “evangelicals” in quotes because I think true evangelicals are those who lovingly point the world to Jesus, not those who constantly condemn others to Hell.