Islam and Christianity: A Conversation with James Skillen

The Farthest Mosque JerusalemA leading social and political thinker and practitioner, James Skillen is the author and editor of many books and journal articles, and he is president emeritus of the Center for Public Justice. His new book, The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introduction, has been aptly cited as “a call to political repentance.” Having known Jim for a long time, I have greatly benefited from his biblical grounding and generosity of spirit on a staggering array of topics. Since retiring from CPJ, he is sharing his wisdom by writing, speaking, and mentoring more than ever. This conversation took place at the Terminal Brewhouse in Chattanooga and afterward via email.

Charles Strohmer: Jim, let’s begin with what you see as some core differences between a Christian and a Muslim view of religion and politics in the context of the spread of Islam and Christianity.

James Skillen: Islam is basically a religion of law and its scholars are scholars of the law, and there is no imperial authority. The chief authority is God, who has directed his word through the Prophet. And the Qur’an, in Arabic, is not debatable. It’s the law. Of course Islam has become very complex because you’ve now got all sorts of different schools of interpretation. But what gives it its identity as a whole is the Qur’an.

Where I think it makes the most sense to understand Islam politically is in its view of history, that the whole world should become the dar al-Islam (the abode of the people of God in obedience to Allah). The indisputable idea is that God is creator and sovereign over all, so the dar al-Islam has to unfold, but not necessarily by force, although the early Islamic conquests in the Arabian peninsula and across north Africa and into Spain were seen as satisfying this progress of the dar al-Islam. And this created the idea of the umma, the unified community of Muslims.

CS: Where do militant groups today, such as ISIS/ISIL and al Qaeda, fit in? They are seeking to spread the dar al-Islam through force and violence.

JS: For some Muslims, the big crisis since the end of World War One and the collapse of the Ottoman empire is the shrinkage of Islam. I just heard it again today on the radio: Why isn’t the umma increasing like it should, where is the progress of the dar al-Islam? So there has arisen a radical fringe element that believes you can take up arms to advance the spread of the dar al-Islam, and people like Osama bin Laden and the leader of ISIS [Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi] have found legitimacy for that militancy in the Qur’an, whether against non-Muslims or even against Muslims, such as those who support democracy and other things of the West.

So there’s this crisis in Islam in which, on the one had, you have those who, like ISIS, want to see rise of a new caliphate that rules the dar al-Islam through sharia law, and on the other hand you have those who have accepted much about the West.

CS: This doesn’t sound unlike the Christian hope for Christianity to spread around the world, for everything to come under the lordship of Christ.

JS: I would say it is very parallel to a Christian view of the kingdom of God that will someday be fulfilled. It can’t be stopped. The gates of hell will not prevail against God’s progress of this. But the Christian community is not called to conquer all nations but to preach the gospel. Christianity itself cannot be brought by force. With Islam, the nations need to come under rule and everybody needs to submit.

I think the parallel that ought to exist in Christianity is to say, and you see this in Isaiah and other biblical prophets, that to come to church regularly but not to live a life of holiness and justice, that’s mocking God. I mean, you can’t have the God who is the sovereign of all just as a Sunday activity. So to bring all things under the lordship of Christ has to be understood as each thing in its God-ordained sphere of activity. So the radical difference from the radical Muslim and the radical Christian, I would say, is that Christians do not see force as their means for bringing in God’s kingdom. God will do that in his own good time.

Wheat and Tares iconCS: Someone once said to me something like: Christianity is a kind of voluntary society and arose as such, but Islam arose as political religion. Would you say that’s an accurate way to describe a radical difference between the two faiths?

JS: I think Christianity is as much a political religion as Islam, but the view of the political is different. In Christianity, Christ is confessed as king and lord of all. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him. But the political task of Christians is one of following Christ as disciples, and Christ did not call them to try to clean up this world of all the weeds that fell into the field of good plants (Matthew 13). God will decide when that should be done. In the meantime we are to live as those seeking justice and loving our neighbors in the world that God is upholding in Christ with the same rain and sunshine falling on the just and unjust alike. The Muslim view of human responsibility under God’s law on earth is very different.

CS: This idea about bringing all things under Christ’s lordship within their God-ordained spheres – many university students and graduates are struggling with this. You often call this “sphere sovereignty,” which is quite different than the Islamic view of sovereignty.

JS: I think Abraham Kuyper’s phrase about “sphere sovereignty” places too great an emphasis on the kind of authority the “sovereign” should have. This is understandable in his context, but his main point was that only God is truly sovereign. And he delegates that sovereignty in differentiated measure to the different arenas of human responsibility. No single human authority, whether church or state, can subsume all human responsibilities under its ultimate sovereignty.

The better way for us to think about this today, I think, is for us to emphasize different kinds of responsibility God has given us, most of which exist by the very nature of what God created us to be: friends, spouses, parents and children, gardeners and farmers and shepherds, priests and governors, and so on. What is required is that we learn how to serve God in every sphere of responsibility in accord with what is required of that responsibility.

In our sin we go crooked, backwards, destructively, violently with our responsibilities, such as by dishonoring our friends, rejecting our parent’s responsibility, destroying the earth, and killing each other. In the new life of Christ into which we have been called, the whole of our identity as human beings – the image of God – is called to repentance and to the renewal of all creational responsibilities. And since these responsibilities are diverse, it is a mistake (historically demonstrated) to ask governments to rule families, or to treat a farm like an engineering corporation, or to expect church leaders to tell us how to vote or how to run a business or how to do chemistry.

Jesus healing the blind manCS: What about the secular / sacred split that afflicts Christianity? It has been severely attacked by Muslim intellectuals such as the Egyptian political activist, the late Sayyid Qutb, who taught that the secular / sacred dichotomy is at the root of the world’s ills. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and Osama bin Laden before him, and other radicalized Muslim leaders, are absolutely opposed to the split. And the caliphate that al-Baghdadi is trying to create through ISIS/ISIL seeks to rid the world of it.

JS: Christians should not be accepting any sacred / secular dualism, which in a sense goes back to the Middle Ages, when the Catholic church established a distinction between the religious and the secular. The “secular” didn’t mean “not related to God.” It meant related to God via the Catholic church, the sacraments. Then after Christendom fell apart and the church could no longer command politically with moral authority, the secularists said: Thank goodness we’re getting rid of God and the priests and the hierarchy. We don’t need priests for the things of this world. And so they have what’s before them: a secular world.

All that remains is for that to be radicalized by saying: There is nothing else that exists but this world. There is nothing transcendent that can lead to faith in the radical secularity of this world, in which humans are totally in charge and the idea of God is dispensed with. In Islam generally and in radical Islam as well, there is no recognition of such a secular reality. There is only what God created and God himself, who calls us to rule everything under God. So ISIS would say: We’re not going to get anywhere just by blowing people up. We need a political entity not only to replace the Ottoman empire but to do better than that by establishing a domain, a territory, in which all who live there submit to shari’a in submission to Allah, who will bless this effort and pretty soon the whole world will be submitted to Allah. And the idea of the “secular” will disappear.

What the Christian would say is that there is no secular if what you mean by it is something separated from God and is on its own. Instead, every vocation should be seen as one of the aspects of human dedication to God, in which you love God with all you heart and your neighbor as yourself. And within that framework we would not accept any duality of life. You can and should accept distinctions, such as between churches and states or schools and families, and between this age and the coming age, but this age is not a secular age as compared to the coming age as sacred. It’s all part of God’s one creation.

CS: So where do we go from here? What do you see as a gospel-shaped-wisdom response to Christian – Muslim relations and to U.S. policy toward Muslim majority countries in the Middle East? The problems can seem so overwhelming that one may be forgiven for throwing his or her hands up in despair.

JS: There is no easy answer, because what is really required of Christians is that we show we agree with Muslims in rejecting any acceptance of the “radical secular.” Christians need to show what this means by living it out in every arena of their responsibility as disciples of Christ. In many cases this requires more than churches and Christian publishing companies, more than Christian colleges and some evangelistic organizations on university campuses. It will mean Christians finding appropriate ways to organize themselves in their responsibilities as attorneys, doctors, engineers, bankers, broadcasters, and much more. We have to learn how to quit treating any part of our lives as “secular” and not part of our Christian walk.

At the same time we need to gain a deep understanding of what Muslims believe and how they live in many different countries and settings. And then we must learn to engage them wherever possible in friendship and conversation – where we work, where we study, and where we vote and pay taxes. And in all of that we need to be bold to contend with them about our disagreements as to what the Bible teaches and as to why we ought to live to obey God.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

For interested readers, this site will help you start discovering the wealth of Jim’s wisdom, much of which is being made available on the Web.

Images by Mohammad Usaid Abbasi, Ted, and Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P., respectively (permissions via Creative Commons)

9 thoughts on “Islam and Christianity: A Conversation with James Skillen

  1. A very interesting piece at minimum. I have not heard anyone express the concept of relationship with the Muslim belief as he has, “we need to be bold to contend with them about our disagreements as to what the Bible teaches and as to why we ought to live to obey God.” So often we hear that we should “turn the other cheek,” “live and let live,” etc. While he stops short of militant reaction in the narrative, he does say to remain firm in the faith and continue to unashamedly share the Gospel. I like it, and have a better understanding. Thank you! j

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  2. This is a very commendable interview. Great words of wisdom from James Skillen! For many years, I have read histories, analyses, articles, and books on the American/Middle East problem. The solution usually looks something like this: From the pacifistic pundits we receive advice regarding Middle East/Western relationships: education and development. From our Christian sages, we receive the advice: establish relationships.

    As I understand it, in the past ten years, we have spent more than a billion dollars on education and development in the Middle East. The long-term efficacy of this remains to be seen. As far as establishing relationships, most of the Christians that I know here, in and around Knoxville, have at least some contact with people of Middle East origin.

    One Christian woman works at reconciliation with her Muslim family. Another campaigns for a Palestinian-American she’s known since he was a boy. Christian staff at a cancer center are praying for a patient (a Middle Easterner) who just got the news that he has to navigate the cancer world and battle a language barrier! The Middle Eastern owner of the best deli in town easily passes the time with a Christian who is waiting on his Reuben. A Christian co-worker teases his close Persian friend, a medical research scientist, about his love of bacon, and they laugh! Christians at a local business have collected money to aid a Muslim friend who has come on hard times. An imaging center provides free mammography services to local Muslim women; the providers are Christian. Separately, these gestures aren’t earth-shattering, but collectively, as gifts from the body of Christ, they are POWERFUL!

    Yet…, a few years back I read a book by a soldier who had been an aid worker in Bosnia. In the camps, refugees were being fed, clothed, and educated. On a train ride an old woman said something to the man that changed his life: Why can’t you help us? The humanitarian aid was of little use to a people imminently fearing for their lives. So while we love our neighbors here at home — the second greatest commandment — and while we build schools and hospitals in the Mideast — a worthy endeavor at any financial cost — how do we go about helping to save the lives of those falling weekly to the swords and guns of men of evil intent?

    I don’t know, don’t claim to know. Probably watching too much “Burn Notice” and “Munich” and, Lord knows, my diet is heavy on WWII, and even after air strikes kill ISIL/ISIS leaders others spring up to take their place, like the Hydra myth, but ISIS is no myth.

    As I admitted, I don’t know. Lord, help my un-knowing.

    Linda

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    • Thx for your encouraging note, Linda. You have identified and aptly illustrated a vital point about the potential latent in what used to be called “cross-cultural” relationships. Respecting the image of God in people. Those examples you gave in the Knoxville area are, I believe, part of a quiet stream of the Spirit that is running throughout many cities and communities everywhere among Christians, Muslims, and Jews. I see it and hear about it in my travels and have participated in it. The problem is that the mainstream media rarely report on this. So it’s as if it doesn’t exist. But if people are willing to go searching on the Web, with a little patience it doesn’t take long to find organizations dedicated to it everywhere, even in difficult places. Here’s just two that I’m personally acquainted with: http://www.theparentscircle.org/ and http://www.heartforlebanon.org/. So thx for encouraging sharing.

      And regarding your cry: “how do we go about helping to save the lives of those falling weekly to the swords and guns of men of evil intent?”, I want to give a shout out to my friends at IGE who are running the Cradle of Christianity Fund ( https://globalengage.org/news-media/press-release/an-update-on-the-cradle-fund ). They are _right there_ in the thick of it, providing aid to the families who have fled ISIS. I can’t say enough good things about this Fund, so it is with with unabashed zeal that I ask readers to think about supporting it: https://globalengage.org/support-ccf.

      Charles

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    • Thx for stopping by and taking time to write, Nancy. So glad the Skillen interview was helpful. And I do imagine what it would be like if every Christian was Christ-like in deed. But then I grieve, knowing we are so far from that. Yet we can get much closer to the ideal (so speak) if we took Jesus more seriously — I’m thinking here of his Sermon of the Mount. I suppose that is a big reason why I so ken on writing and teaching about our need to increasingly rely on God’s peaceable wisdom, of which Christ is the original model. Here’s an attempt to summarize what I mean: https://wagingwisdom.com/2014/08/29/the-governace-of-sar-shalom/

      Thx very much for raising awareness of the interview on your Facebook page. Much appreciated. Bless you.

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  3. An interesting interview. It brought out for me the need of each human for a “great hope” for the future of the world – the kingdom of God for the Christian with each person playing their part until God brings the fullness of the kingdom on earth. A peaceful and loving bringing of a world at peace and without the bad things that afflict life now. Interesting to see this in contrast to an Islamic hope of a political order, potentially brought by force.

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    • Hey, Paul, thx for taking time to share your good thoughts here. I have often pondered the contrast you mention. Jim Skillen says it better than I could. I would like to see Muslims reading his book “With or Against the World,” which is about America’s role, and his new one, “The Good of Politics.” Both are very readable and articulate a Christan vision of politics and international relations that might surprise them. Best, C.

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