by Grayson Robertson
I was privileged to view an extraordinary documentary recently that presents a very different picture of Christian-Muslim relations than that which is promoted by the media and religious extremists. The name of the documentary is Different Books, Common Word, produced by the Baptist Center of Ethics in 2009.
The film was the brainchild of the Center’s Director, Robert Parham and presented an alternative approach to Christian-Muslim relations in contrast to the traditional and more confrontational avenue taken over the years by the Baptist denomination. Mr. Parham’s film sought to build upon recent positive Baptist reception to issues of Christian-Muslim relations, most summarily represented by the inclusive response to the “Common Word” initiative by the Baptist World Alliance (the “Common Word” initiative was an open letter to Christian clergy signed by Muslim leaders throughout the world seeking commonality between Christians and Muslims in the wake of Pope Benedict XIV’s inflammatory remarks concerning Islam in a 2006 speech in Regensburg, Germany).
According to Mr. Parham, “we believe the Bible calls us to love our neighbors, not as a means of conversion, but because it is the right thing to do. And the right thing for goodwill Baptists to do is to speak up for Muslims in our culture of anger and to reach out with a hand of partnership.” The film offers several poignant and moving examples of positive Christian-Muslim interaction, sometimes in the face of outright provocation such as the 2008 firebombing of the Islamic Center of Columbia, Tennessee by an extremist Christian organization (see a clip from this part of the documentary here). In Columbia, the pastor of a local Baptist church led his congregation in developing a loving and constructive relationship with the Center, reaching out under the mantra, “they will know we are Christians by our love, not by our statements.” The President of the Center, in turn, welcomed the Christian outreach, saying, “you more or less witnessed to us, about the love that’s within the church according to the teachings of Christ.”
“…the Bible calls us to love our neighbors…because it is the right thing to do.” A novel approach, isn’t it? And so often in the evangelical community we see interactions with other faith groups, and Muslims specifically, that are not grounded in this most important tenet of the Christian faith. Many evangelicals see Islam as a threat to Christianity, not just in the eschatological context of dispensationalism, but also due to the unfortunate actions of criminals proclaiming to act in the name of Islam. The violent end-times images associated with millennial dispensationalism juxtaposed against radical Islam wrongly prompts many evangelicals to, at best, disengage with Muslims and, at worst, vilify Islam and Muslims, contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Jesus identified love of neighbor as the most important commandment outside of loving God. Indeed, love of neighbor in the vein that Jesus meant is an expression of unequivocal love of God Himself. He offered no exceptions to this commandment and provided the strongest example of living out this principle by going to his death rather than attacking his persecutors.
Mr. Parham’s film documents several similar interactions, some initiated by Christians, some by Muslims. The common denominator in each of the film’s examples is love of neighbor, a value that is at the theological forefront of both true Christianity and true Islam. The examples throughout the documentary of Baptists and Muslims putting their faith into action, without prejudice or the motivation of conversion, illustrate the alternative approaches some Baptists are undertaking to relate to Muslims peacefully and respectfully.
Grayson Robertson is a 2011 graduate of Georgetown University’s Islam and Muslim/Christian Relations Master’s program and lives with is wife and twin daughters in the Washington, DC area.