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GOTT-November 28, 2007

The Thoughts of One Signatory to “Loving God and Neighbor Together”

The extent of agreement of major Christian leaders—representing a broad diversity of positions—in responding to the Muslim initiative is truly extraordinary…

That’s my friend, Miroslav Volf (from the eighth paragraph of this press release), writing about the exchange of open letters between Muslims and Christians linked to in the previous post.  And I couldn’t agree more.  The list of signatories is very encouraging.On the other hand, the reaction on Christian blogs has been…well, let’s say: decidedly mixed.  And much of the negative reaction has been vehement.  I don’t want to make too much of that.  Such is the world of blogs (especially in cases of courageous anonymous comments), and, sadly, the sub-world of Christian blogs can seem no different at times.

But, for those who are wondering “What could they possibly have been thinking?!!,” I thought I would present my reactions to four complaints that seem to keep popping up in the negative reactions.  But please remember, I’m only speaking for myself, as one signatory to the letter — and one who had no hand in the drafting of it.

As it happens, all four negative themes are present in this piece by Joseph Farah — and they are generally presented more thoughtfully there than elsewhere in the blogosphere.  So I’ll use Farah’s post as my source of complaints.

1.  “As a Christian myself, I want to make it very clear these men do not speak for me.”  (It should be “men and women.”)  This statement by Farah is echoed elsewhere in Christian responses on the internet.   Though it is abundantly obvious, still, I do think that in future exchanges, both sides to this emerging discussion should explicitly acknowledge that they have co-religionists who advocate and take a much less conciliatory stance to the other religion.  (And in many cases, “much less conciliatory” is a gross understatement.)  I found no place in the letter I signed where it was stated or even hinted that the letter speaks for all Christians.  It’s hard to say much of anything while speaking for all Christians.  The idea here isn’t to try to speak for all Christians, but to show that, perhaps against some appearances, there are many Christians, from remarkably varied points of view, who share the sentiments expressed in the letter, and who do want to reach out in the ways articulated there.

2.  Quran interpretation.  Farah spends much space warning about the proper understanding of the Quran.  Again, in this respect, he is like others writing on-line.  I’m no expert on the Quran — though some of the signatories to the Christian letter most definitely are.  Of course, there are passages I find troubling, and there are readings of the whole that I find troubling.  There are also, of course, passages in the Christian Scriptures that I find troubling.  (Oops — I can hear it now.  Before going off on this, please call to mind that almost every Christian, including many heroes of the faith, is troubled by, and has to wrestle with, some parts of the Bible.)  There are also parts of the Quran, including some that are cited in the letters, that I find wonderful and uplifting.  Nobody should look to me for the best way to put it all together and understand the teachings of the Quran — I have a hard enough time trying to understand my own Scriptures!  I’m not about to tell these learned Muslim clerics and scholars that they are misreading their own holy book — and I’m certainly not about to urge them to adopt a harsher and more militaristic reading of it.  The understanding of their own faith that the Muslim writers present in their original letter has important common ground with my own Christianity.   I celebrate this, even as I recognize, as is made explicit in the Christian letter, that there are important differences between the two faiths.

3.  Acknowledging and Asking forgiveness for Christian sins against Muslims.  The portion of the Christian letter that seems to most incense some Christians is this, from the second paragraph:

Since Jesus Christ says, “First take the log out your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye” (Matthew 7:5), we want to begin by acknowledging that in the past (e.g. in the Crusades) and in the present (e.g. in excesses of the “war on terror”) many Christians have been guilty of sinning against our Muslim neighbors. Before we “shake your hand” in responding to your letter, we ask forgiveness of the All-Merciful One and of the Muslim community around the world.
(I should note that Farah himself cannot be fairly characterized as “incensed” about this, though he does seem to think it was inappropriate.)

Of course, there have been such Christian sins against Muslims, some of them amounting to atrocities.  I don’t think I’ve encountered any of the complainers actually denying this.  But they seem to think that it is inappropriate to acknowledge that fact and to ask forgiveness (at least to ask it from the people sinned against) for these sins.  The reason for this seems to be the existence of Muslim sins, some of them atrocious, against Christians.  For my part, this portion of the letter didn’t bother me at all; in fact, I thought it was a great idea.  If these sins have occurred (which I haven’t seen anyone actually deny), they should be acknowledged.  And I think it is almost always appropriate to ask forgiveness from those against which one has sinned, even if they have also sinned against you (and even if they haven’t acknowledged this), and this case seems to be no exception.  (There are exceptions, it seems to me, and I’m tempted to describe when I think this occurs, but I will, at least for now, resist this temptation.)  Will the Muslim writers reciprocate with a similar acknowledgment and apology?  I don’t know.  (And I wonder about those who so confidently declare that it will never happen.)  I hope so: the reconciliation that this process is groping toward would seem to me rather empty if it doesn’t happen in the light of an acknowledgment of the sins of both sides.  But I would want my side of the dialogue to do this whether or not the other side does.

4.  Evangelism.  Many of the Christian complainers have a positive suggestion as to how Muslims can better be engaged: (attempt to) convert them to Christianity.  Here’s Farah:

If today’s Christian leaders want peace, they should be about the business of their Lord, spreading the Gospel to Muslims and other non-believers, rather than conducting interfaith dialogues with those who keep those non-believers in darkness.

I am a Christian.  I want everyone to come to accept, know, and love Jesus.  (Notoriously, I happen to be one of those Christians who actually believes that, eventually at least, everyone will come to accept Jesus — that every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord.  Still, I want to promote that happening sooner rather than later.)  Similarly, I of course suspect that at least some of the Muslims who signed the original letter, convinced that their faith is correct, are hoping that Christians convert to their faith.  But until this hope of mine is fulfilled, I want to find what common ground there is with Muslims (while acknowledging the differences that exist), and to make what peace is available with them.  That’s the goal of the present effort, as I see it.  And I don’t see that effort as hindering any efforts to bring anyone to Christ.  Quite the opposite.  Even the aspect of this effort that seems to so bother some other Christians — acknowledging and asking forgiveness for Christian sins against Muslims — seems to me to be a help here.  Christian sins against non-Christians (and against fellow Christians) themselves seem a great hindrance. But given their existence, what should be done?  “Yes, but atrocities have been committed against us, too!” doesn’t seem to me an obvious winner as an evangelistic strategy.  (I should explicitly make clear here that I’m not advocating forgetting that Christians have been persecuted and are being persecuted.  We should always remember this, and pray about it.  I’m just not sold on the value of pointing this out as the main strategy to deal with the sad fact that Christians have been guilty on this front.)  Call me crazy, but the path of acknowledgment and repentance doesn’t strike me as an obviously unChristian alternative.  And, to my thinking, at least, displaying that some Christians are inclined toward that path doesn’t seem at all a hindrance to evangelism.

Update 1/8/08: Focus-on-the-Family-produced Citizenlink weighs in against the Christian response here.  And Brian McLaren (another signatory to the Christian response) replies here.

Posted by Keith DeRose


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God help us. We have no right to share the gospel with anyone that we do not regard with dignity as one made in the image of God. “Through the use of dialogue, groups are able explore complex, difficult issues from many points of view. Individuals suspend their assumptions to the greatest degree humanly possible but, at the same time, they communicate them freely.”1.

Suspending of assumptions is key, though difficult,for us as Christians. I lived in the Holy Land 6 1/2 years among Palestinian Muslims and Christians. Lives were changed because of a willingness to engage in loving dialogue and the desire to live incarnationally among the hurting.

1.Charles Sapp, “An Abridged Primer on Discourse: Discussion, Dialog, and Productive Conflict,” Regent University, Virginia Beach, VA.

Posted by: Ivy Gauvin | November 29, 2007 at 10:01 AM

Through the support of several congregations in the Shenadoah Valley of Virginia, I have watched a growing openness, engagement, and cooperation in community needs (e.g., with the homeless) among the Muslim community. The imam often expresses very favorable comments about Jesus and possesses deep friendships with local Christians. Relationships are growing between Christian and Muslims; it is marvelous to watch and even be a part of.


Posted by: Dan Seifert | December 08, 2007 at 12:06 AM

We should never try to “hold our end up” in our dealings with anyone, no matter what they believe. It seems to me that the true way to approach Muslims is as Christians, followers of Christ first of all, and showing his strange revolutionary humility and love. My Muslim friends from school were most impressed by that simple devotion to service in love than anything else. “Let them see your good deeds and praise your father in heaven”. I also think that we force Muslims to face the gospel most directly when we stick to it, and don’t let them off the hook by indulging ourselves in woolly thinking.
God Bless

Posted by: Josh W | December 11, 2007 at 11:59 PM

Well, this is slow response on my part. (It’s a busy time.) But just in case you still have your “ears” on, Josh W . . .

I’m at a bit of a loss to tell what thinking in particular was striking you as “woolly,” and at a complete loss as to why you’re calling it “woolly.”

Posted by: Keith | December 14, 2007 at 02:41 PM

While I fully agree with Ivy, Dan and Josh, and with the post, in regard to point no.3, so wonderfully expressed, I’d like to make a little point.

The letter “…acknowledg(es)ing that in the past (e.g. in the Crusades) and in the present (e.g. in excesses of the “war on terror”) many Christians have been guilty of sinning against our Muslim neighbors…”, seeming to forget that the Crusades were a response to Muslim aggression, an almost life-and-death situation against the Muslim hordes that swept away the christian Middle East, North Africa and, later, Constantinople, the Rome of the East.

Spain “re-conquered” its land after 600 years or so; Southeastern Europe has not nearly managed it; and India was filched from Islamic rule and passed on to the present “rulers”.

I could say much more, but do not know the forum on which to express it all.

Posted by: Anil Siqueira | January 31, 2008 at 09:09 AM

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