Popes, Apostles, and Rickety Metal Chairs
The following piece was originally published at Off the Page as part of a series called "Loving our Muslim Neighbors: Soft Power, Strongly Applied."
With the last salvo of his book The Search for Truth about Islam, Ben Daniel asks Christians and Americans, in particular, a pivotal question: Will we embrace Muslims as “full participants in the religious and cultural life of our nation” as a way of choosing “the narrow path that leads to peace”?
Some Christians might object or at least stiffen at Daniel’s employment of “the narrow path” analogy for these broader purposes. No matter our proclaimed and pious love of God and neighbor, this is simply too big an “ask,” right? Given the fractious political atmosphere in the United States, the call to Christian living—among this neighbor—seems destined to encounter obstinate if not hostile opposition from the majority Christian community. In fact, Thomas S. Kidd writes, “Traditional American Christians’ views of Islam illustrate the grave difficulties of maintaining exclusive religious views in a pluralist global society.”
But unbeknownst to me, in the fall of 2006, I was on the cusp of making a first move toward Muslims. It would lead me to the hookah pipes of a Lebanese-American cafe near Virginia Commonwealth University, and, eventually, to the house of a sheikh in Muscat, Oman.
For this American Protestant evangelical, the impetus for a first move involved an unlikely pairing—an outright conspiracy—between Pope Benedict and St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. So much so, I prefer to say: When it comes to learning how to love Muslims, the Pope and the Bible made me do it. And in the spring of 2007, I did it. While serving as a pastor in dear old Clemson, South Carolina, I nervously walked into a mosque for the first time.
As if to symbolize the anxieties of some Christians, the Islamic Society of Clemson geographically sits on Old Stone Church Road. After a bit of righteous persistence (several months of emailing), I had arranged an informal Christian-Muslim conversation with a few Muslim men. Gathering around fold-out tables that channeled the church fellowship halls of my youth, I found a rickety metal chair to call my own.
I was literally surrounded. In no particular order, there was the middle-aged engineer and family man from Algeria with the vintage Bin Laden-like beard; the thirty-something PhD student from Ghana with the warm, infectious, West African smile; the two twenty-something graduate students, one Turkish, one Moroccan, the Moroccan wearing a black jacket à la Grease; and the African American from North Carolina, a Baptist who converted to Islam—and converted to chicken barbecue—in his late teens.
Several months earlier, Pope Benedict had given a lecture in Germany at the University of Regensburg. Most of his erudite speech focused on the interactive relationship between faith and reason. At one point, however, in the context of his remarks, the Pope ventured into Christian-Muslim relations to quote a fourteenth-century Byzantine emperor who disparaged “what Muhammad brought that was new.”
In the aftermath, many global Muslim and Christian leaders strongly criticized the Pope. Some Muslims in various geographies responded with violence. But, I suppose, like the Yale theologian Miroslav Volf, who analyzed this important interfaith moment in his book Allah: A Christian Response, I was most captured by the need—and a glaring one—for constructive Christian approaches to Islam and to Muslims. I believe this includes, but is not limited to, the necessity for a certain kind of dialogue.
Chawkat Moucarry, a Syrian-born Christian who serves World Vision International as Director of Interfaith Relations, says, “We often think of dialogue as verbal engagement, but this is a very narrow view. Dialogue is first of all about an open attitude toward others, a disposition that reaches out and welcomes people who are different or even antagonistic.” Turning the screws, he reminds us that dialogue can help us “overcome our ignorance, our prejudice, our self-centeredness, our fanaticism, and our spiritual pride.”
Dialogue is first of all about an open attitude toward others, a disposition that reaches out and welcomes people who are different or even antagonistic.
Pondering Pope Benedict’s seemingly un-careful comments, later that fall I had a providential encounter with the Spirit of God. Preparing for a sermon on Ephesians 2:11–22, I could not escape the compelling gospel action right before my very eyes. Jesus the Christ, through his coming and his cross, had expressed the definitive pattern for peace and reconciliation in a divided and divisive world.
It stands to reason, I thought, that any truly Christian engagement with Muslims must continue what the South African-born missionary David Bosch calls “the logic of the ministry of Jesus.” And the first move love always makes—toward peace and reconciliation—is to break down barriers in order to become a bridge. For many of us, no doubt this will feel like an impossibly narrow path.
That is, until we intentionally surround ourselves with Muslims.