Christian-Muslim Dialog

Christian-Muslim DialogMissionaries are a unique breed.  If you’re in the company of one, you can’t so much as hop a taxi or buy a hotdog from a street vendor without delving deeply into the life stories of the taxi driver or hotdog vendor.  Missionaries are ethnic restaurant connoisseurs, not so much for their love of food as for their love of stories.  Somehow they get busy owners to sit down and pour out their life stories.  Coming from Texas, I’ve met a lot of great story tellers, but missionaries collect stories like no one else.  They’re story curators.  They thrive on that stuff.

I had the good fortune to be with a bunch of missionaries when I studied at Duke’s Center for Reconciliation earlier this summer.  I took a class called “Listening Together” that examined scripture from the Bible and the Qur’an.  Many of my classmates were missionaries or had been at one time, and many had spent a lot of time in predominantly Muslim places.  A few told a particular story in common, and I found it to be rather poignant.

These classmates got started as missionaries in Muslim lands with the goal of converting Muslims to Christianity.  But as they experienced the extraordinary hospitality and gentleness of their Muslim friends and neighbors, and as they witnessed their neighbors’ devotion to God playing out in daily acts of love, gradually my classmates came to see they could do a lot more good by fostering Christian-Muslim dialog and understanding than by converting anybody.

Many of those individuals now work with an organization called Peace Catalyst.  Peace Catalyst’s mission is fostering reconciliation broadly, but much of their present work focuses on promoting connections and understanding among Christian and Muslim communities.  Peacekeepers work primarily with evangelical congregations and sponsor events with mosques to start dialog and build friendships.  I don’t know why Peace Catalyst chose to focus on evangelical communities.  It seems other denominations, Episcopalians for example, would make an easier starting point.  Maybe the founders had evangelical connections or felt Christian-Muslim dialog would have greater impact with evangelicals.  Regardless, I have to credit their vision and the loving way they go about their work.

One frustration voiced repeatedly was that Christian communities tend to compare their best to Islam’s worst.  Peace Catalyst initiatives help Christian communities to filter the media noise, to reject the stereotypes (e.g. all Muslims are violent extremists), and respect Islam as a peace loving and God loving religion.

While at Duke, horrifying news of a British soldier’s savage murder by an Islamic radical broke.  In the aftermath, a group fueling the anti-Muslim backlash planned to protest at a small mosque in York.  Having caught wind of the protest ahead of time, York Mosque greeted the protesters with tea, custard creams and signs reading “York Mosque welcomes anyone who condemns extremist violence.”  My favorite part of the story was that the potential confrontation, after 40 minutes of talking over sweets, gave way to an impromptu game of football.  The protesters wanted to be heard, and the Muslims listened.  In the end, they were united in their conviction that extremist violence must stop.

Once we start a genuine dialog with people from spiritual traditions different from our own, we may, like the York Mosque protesters, find more that unites us than divides us.

Join the conversation.  Has considering another’s perspective ever deepened your insight into your own spirituality?

Copyright 2013 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

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Conditions for Forgiveness

The Jewish tradition has three words for sin:  Chet translates literally to missing the mark.  Avon means desire, and pesha means rebellion.  We all miss the mark or fall short of our good intentions.  We each have free will, and at times, following our desires leads to rebelling against God’s will.  What does God do when that happens?  Different traditions answer that question differently.

Jewish theology describes God’s nature in terms of polar opposites that are simultaneously true.  God cares about justice and holds individuals and groups of people responsible for their actions.  God is also merciful to sinners who turn to him and change their ways.  Jews believe God is merciful and forgives when they take certain steps that include:

  • Tzedakah: helping those in need for the sake of fairness
  • Teshuvah: confessing, making amends to and getting forgiveness from those harmed, and, above all, stopping the wrongdoing
  • T’fila: prayer

The Jewish prayers of confession, called the vidui, include extending forgiveness to those who have harmed us.  The Jewish tradition encourages forgiveness but does not require it if the offender has not completed teshuvah.

Islam shares some similarities with Jewish teaching in the steps for receiving God’s mercy and forgiveness:

  • Confessing the offense to those harmed and to God
  • Making amends to and asking forgiveness from those harmed
  • Tauba: feeling remorse and committing to stop wrongdoing
  • Istighfar: asking God for forgiveness

Whereas Jewish forgiveness rests on evidence—e.g. securing the victim’s forgiveness rather than asking, stopping wrongdoing rather than intending to stop—in Islam, God’s forgiveness rests on sincerity.  Forgiving others, even enemies, is a virtue the prophet Muhammad taught by his words and his living example.  While God loves and rewards extending forgiveness to others, it is not a requirement if all the other conditions are
met.

The Christian tradition departs rather significantly from both these traditions with only one condition for receiving God’s forgiveness:

  • Forgiving the offenses of others, whether they deserve it or not

New Testament scripture repeatedly makes clear that God extends forgiveness under no other terms.  The Christian tradition does include a practice of confession of sins to God, but since Christians believe Jesus’ death atones for all sins for all time, Christians are drawn to confession to reconcile their relationship with God, to grow closer to him, to bring him joy and to receive his help to change rather than for forgiveness alone.

Another significant difference between Christian beliefs and beliefs shared by the
Jewish and Muslim traditions concerns the victim’s exclusive power to forgive.  In the latter two, God only forgives offenses against God, and offenses against man must be amended and forgiven among men as a condition for God’s forgiveness.  Although the Christian tradition does not require making amends and seeking forgiveness for harm done, the process of Christian reconciliation with God does require forgiving others, so it has a reconciling effect among men nonetheless.

Join the conversation.  What do you think about these different conditions for God’s
forgiveness?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.