That line from Jim Skillen’s interview about core differences between the modern-day spread of Islam and Christianity prompted this significant comment from a friend: “I have not heard anyone express the concept of relationship with the Muslim belief as he has. So often we hear that we should ‘turn the other cheek,’ or ‘live and let live. While [Skillen] stops short of militant reaction in the narrative, he does say to remain firm in the faith. I like it, and have a better understanding.”
I was going to reply to that comment in the comments’ area at the end of the interview, but instead, I want to do it here in a post, where there is enough space to do justice to the comment and perhaps take it a step further.
When Skillen spoke of contending with Muslims about our disagreements with them over how we ought to live, it was in the large context of the different ways in which Christians and Muslims practice the religious, political, and social areas of their respective faiths. And occasionally we may indeed need to turn the other cheek to one another.
But most likely, religious interlocutors, as Skillen notes, frequently need to contend with one another about how they should live, especially if Christians and Muslims, for instance, are working together on a community project. In such close quarters, responsible citizens seek to foster the kind of cooperation that results in an equitable outcome for the good of all (as much as is possible). Most people don’t have a problem with this, and I won’t spend more time with it here. Various aspects of such dialogue, diplomacy, and negotiations have been discussed in many and diverse ways in previous posts on this blog. As I say, most people – Christians, Muslims, Jews, and secularists alike – get this.
There is an elephant in the room, however. Irreconcilable religious differences, or core beliefs, are for many people a conversation stopper. It can easily enough prevent even starting down the road to seeking and finding cooperative arrangements and agreements. But it need not.
Everyone stands ultimately somewhere. And that “ultimate somewhere” is religious ground, the ground of faith. So ultimately there is no neutral ground, even for those who do not consider themselves religious. For instance, a theist believes that behind the material world an unseen God exists; an atheist believes that the material world is all that exists. Both are faith beliefs, and irreconcilably so, as between Muslims and Christians.
Irreconcilable core beliefs are simply a fact of life. But they need not lead to mayhem and murder. The secret is to be able to acknowledge – not evade or hedge – the fact that core differences exist that are not reconcilable. And then just get on with getting on with each other. I remember participating in all-day seminars and workshops in Washington DC, in which, during one session, some Muslim and Christian leaders in the room said to each other, only half-jokingly: I wish you would convert to my faith, but that’s not what we’re here for. We’ve convened this meeting to try to find a way to work together across boundaries to solve such and such a problem.
These leaders knew what they believed. They knew those core beliefs were irreconcilable. They agreed to disagree on them. But because they were not people with violence in their hearts, they also understood that their core differences did not prevent their public collaboration on an initiative for the mutual good of them all. This kind of responsible engagement is not uncommon and it is supported by the biblical wisdom tradition, although many Christians seem to be unaware of both.
Here are a few quick examples. Of core religious differences, wisdom theologian David Ford writes in The Shape of Living that the “best engagements are between those who can say where they are coming from and then patiently try to communicate and discuss matters of importance” (p. 30).
Timothy Keller, as founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan – a city wildly diverse in its religious and cultural ethos, also knows something about how to foster cooperation and peace amid human diversity. Keller locates this kind of pluralist engagement and “learning from the other” in the Bible’s teaching of common grace. Simply put, all human beings, whether they are Jewish, Muslim, or Christian, or whether they believe in God or not, share gifts of wisdom, insight, creativity, and beauty because these gifts come to everyone. Christians call this common grace, Keller said, because they consider these as gifts that come from God. “If that’s the case,” he concluded, “then I could expect that my neighbor who does not believe anything like I believe might still have wisdom from God that I have to listen to.”
Gabe Lyons, the founder of Q Ideas, once did a pretty outlandish thing for a Christian leader. He invited imam Feisal Abdul Rauf to a large Q Gathering in Portland, Oregon, in April 2011. Concerned about the heightened tensions between some Christians and Muslims in America that had not subsided since the previous summer, due to the ground-zero mosque controversy, Lyons knew that lack of understanding can be at the root of unnecessary relational problems, and he simply wanted to interview the imam, a peaceable Sufi, and “get understanding” (Proverbs 4:5).
Elsewhere, Lyons wrote: “Can you imagine a future where Muslims and Christians would work alongside one another in our communities to fight for justice, care for the poor, and offer hope to those in need?” He then cited the work of Eboo Patel, an Indian Muslim and American citizen who founded the respected Interfaith Youth Core, headquartered in Chicago, which works with Christians and Jews on community projects in many cities. Lyons then invited Patel to give the Q version of a TED talk. To Christians who questioned his decision to hang with Muslims, Lyons replied: “The longer I live the more I’m inspired by the life of Jesus and the way he was able to sit down and converse with people who were so unlike him.”
An unspoken irony in these episodes is that if Muslims such as Rauf and Patel can find justification in their religion to be peaceably engaged with Christians, can we Christians not find it in ours to be peaceably engaged with Muslims? After all, we are the ones who claim to be under the governance of the Prince of Peace (Sar Shalom).[Jesus: 5 of 7]
The “relational diplomacy” of the Christian-run Institute for Global Engagement is another example, which bears fruit in Muslim – Christian relations even in Pakistan. And the “principled pluralism” of the Christian-run Center for Public Justice is another exceptional case in point. My point is that the kind of biblically-based engagement we are considering is not being done in a corner. It’s becoming increasingly public. It’s just not reported on the evening news, which follows the old journalistic saw: If it bleeds it leads.
And for anyone wanting exceptional case studies from the Bible itself, I refer you to the fascinating stories of Joseph in the book of Genesis (chapters 39-41) and Daniel in the book of Daniel (chapters 1-6). [link to appropriate posts] We also have the example of Jesus himself, who taught and practiced outlandish ways not only of loving one’s neighbor but one’s adversaries. It is a gospel-shaped wisdom, and a bold one at that – requiring as it does, death to self.
God’s call to love, justice, and reconciliation is central to the entire biblical narrative. It is a huge area of human responsibility and obligation, and religious believers with strong core convictions do not get a pass on this, even if they feel pretty nervous about moving this way with God. I get that. When Jesus called peacemakers blessed, when he emphasized turning the other cheek, when he commanded love of enemies, when he required sheathed swords of his disciples, he was throwing down the gauntlet to the deepest depths of what it means to follow him.
And you know it don’t come easy. But desperate times call for bold measures.
©2015 by Charles Strohmer