As a team we teach about Christian/Muslim relations in North America and around the world. When the response time comes we can always expect questions about Islamist terrorism. It is obvious that there is global concern about terroristic movements such as Nigeria’s Boko Haram. We are writing this at a time when Christian communities with a 2,000-year history in the Middle East are being uprooted and scattered in response to Islamist threats against their lives. In acts of reciprocal terror, both Israel and Gaza have been pummelled by a month of rocket attacks. U.S. drone attacks regularly kill leaders of movements opposed by the U.S. government. The disturbing question we face in our commitments to peacemaking is: “What has gone wrong?”
When we listen to our Muslim neighbours, we hear two different voices. One is the voice of Muslims who are committed to the conviction that God’s mercy is paramount as they strive peacefully to bring every area of life into submission to his will as “the most merciful and compassionate” God. The other voice is that of Muslims committed to doing whatever they can to impose God’s justice and judgment, as understood in Islam, on the rest of the world till all have been submitted to his will. We hear both voices.
The prophet of Islam mirrored both these voices. During 12 years in Mecca with no political power, and often with his life under threat, he proclaimed an understanding of Islam that suggests that forgiveness and tolerance are the better way. Then came the momentous event of his pilgrimage from Mecca to Medina, known as the Hijrah. In Medina he became not only prophet, but also statesman and military commander. He defeated his enemies in battle and in time returned to Mecca leading his army in victory. He forgave defeated enemies who demonstrated remorse, but allowed other of his detractors to be handled as traitors.
Both these faces are present in the Qur’an as well as the Muslim traditions. Some Muslims are especially formed by the “sword” verses of their scriptures; others are formed by the “suffering for righteousness” verses. These different interpretations are not strange to Christians who also meet a God of vengeance and a God of forgiveness in the Bible. However, the reign of God in the biblical messianic vision is the restoration of peace centred in redemptive love.
Six hundred years before the prophet of Islam, followers of Jesus in Galilee forcefully attempted to make him their king. He rejected that invitation and instead took the journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, where he was crucified. Those wounded welcoming arms of that Man on the cross are the arms of the One who is “God with us.” Open arms are for forgiving; they are for embrace and reconciliation. This is the reason churches across the Middle East are recognized as communities of reconciliation and forgiveness.
Three hundred years after Jesus, a third journey happened that has immensely distorted the gospel witness. Constantine, in defence of his imperial ambitions, had the cross painted on the shields of his soldiers. He won the war under the sign of the cross. Seven hundred years later, Christian Crusaders devastated the Middle East under the sign of the cross. Many Muslims perceive the wars of the last decade as a continuation of those Crusades. Witness Serbian militia planting crosses in the ashes of burned-out Kosovo villages during the Serb-Kosovo war 15 years ago.
These three journeys powerfully inform our modern situation: Jesus to the cross in Jerusalem; Mohammed to power in Medina; Constantine to empire in Rome. These are journeys in different directions; which journey do we choose?
Just over a year ago one of our team met with the associate to the Grand Mufti of Egypt. Our team member told about the Anabaptists of the 16th century who would not participate in Europe’s wars against Muslims because Jesus calls his disciples to love the enemy. He explained that he is a member in a community who join with peace-loving Christians and all people of peace in seeking to build bridges, not walls. He shared that although we recognize our inadequacy, nevertheless, we seek to be people of Christ’s peace.
The imam responded by saying that he had a message to all American Christians:
- First, work for justice and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. He observed that the church in America carries special responsibilities for encouraging justice with peace in Israel/Palestine.
- Second, follow Jesus. He observed that as American Christians follow Jesus they become a life-transforming community. He commented that historically Egyptian Christians have been examples of communities of transformation.
We appreciate this counsel from the associate imam of Egypt in these troubled times. We invite you to join us in taking these practical, transformative steps:
- Pray that God’s kingdom will come on earth as in heaven—pray for shalom!
- Commit to working for justice.
- Develop friendships with Muslims.
- Share generously with church agencies working in the current refugee crisis.
- Show hospitality to the displaced persons who come your way from regions in turmoil.
- Express appreciation for the ways so many Muslims show compassion and serve the broader community.
- Always commend Christ in your words and actions!
Our world needs communities of witness and healing who confess that the God of the universe is fully revealed in that Man on a cross who forgives and reconciles his enemies and who, in his resurrection, brings about a new creation.
--Posted Sept. 24, 2014