A Dialogue Too Friendly for Focus on the Family
by Brian McLaren
Monday, January 07, 2008
On January 3, Focus on the Family’s CitizenLink sent an email by associate editor Stephen Adams called, “Evangelical Leaders Pledge Common Cause with Islam.” Their target once again was the National Association of Evangelicals, echoing an attempt last year to oust Richard Cizik for having common cause with the birds of the air and flowers of the field against global warming.
This time NAE President Leith Anderson and Vice President Rich Cizik are in trouble for signing a cordial reply to a request by 138 Muslim scholars for civil dialogue and increased understanding between Christians and Muslims. I too signed the document, and thought I would reply to the criticism, just as I did to the Muslim’s request for dialogue. (Focus on the Family’s statements are in italics.)
1. They apologize for the ‘sins of Christians’
How can we not apologize for our sins? Should we claim we have no sins? Or should we knowingly refuse to acknowledge them? Isn’t the humility to confess sins a Christian virtue?
2. [They] leave the deity of Christ open for discussion.
If we only have discussion with people who acknowledge the deity of Christ as we do, won’t that mean we will only be speaking to Christians with whom we already agree? How can we be peacemakers – not to mention bearers of the good news, following Jesus’ commands, if we consider it unfaithful to discuss essential matters with people who differ from us? And besides, are you aware of how some Muslims have been misinformed so that they misunderstand our understanding of the Deity of Christ – that they think we believe that the living God, like some Greek deity of antiquity, had physical sex with Mary? Wouldn’t it make sense to try to better explain what we mean when we call Jesus Lord and Son of God, so as to correct this misunderstanding? Wouldn’t respectful dialogue be required for that kind of communication to take place? And in the meantime, shouldn’t religious leaders be reaching out to one another so that we don’t leave the field to religious extremists and hawkish politicians who have proved themselves highly willing to resort to terrorism and war?
3. An attempt by leaders of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) to win friends and influence Muslims is alienating another group — evangelical Christians.
I’m sorry when anyone feels alienated by those of us who try to follow Jesus’ command to be peacemakers and to treat others as we would be treated, but didn’t Jesus, when faced with a choice of reaching out to those considered untouchable outsiders by the Pharisees, side with the excluded? We intend no offense to Focus on the Family or anyone else in this attempt to respond in a God-honoring way to our Muslim neighbors, and hope that by better understanding our motives, you will be less alienated in the future.
4. Dr. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Seminary (Southern Baptist), termed it “naiveté that borders on dishonesty.”
Did it border on dishonesty for God, who has all power, to be expressed among us as a Word “veiled” in frail human flesh? Was it naive for Jesus to go to Jerusalem, knowing what waited for him there? Would it be naïve or dishonest for us to claim to love our neighbors and even our enemies, as Jesus taught us, and then to reject requests for dialogue? Wouldn’t it be more naïve to think that the problems between Christians and Muslims around the world will be resolved by a refusal to dialogue? And when our neighbors come to us, reaching out their hands in friendship, and when our hearts tell us – after sincere prayer and reflection – that we cannot fold our arms in exclusion but must open them in friendship, how can we not respond?
5. Their response — initiated by Yale Divinity School and endorsed by other liberal Christian leaders — apologized for the sins of Christians during the Crusades and for “excesses” of the global war on terror, without mentioning Muslim atrocities.
When you have a conflict with your wife where both you and she have made mistakes, do you only agree to acknowledge your own faults if she will also acknowledge hers? If you say, “Yes, I may have made a small mistake, but you made even bigger ones,” do you expect this to lead to a better relationship? If Muslims apologized for their faults, would you then be willing to dialogue with them in a respectful way?
6. It even seemed to acknowledge Allah as the God of the Bible.
Are you not aware that the word “Allah” is simply the Arabic word for God, just as in English we say God, and in Spanish people say Dios, and in Greek, theos? Did you know that when millions of Arabic Christians pray, they use this normal Arabic word for God? Don’t you know that throughout history, the Christian faith has used the words for God already found in the language and culture into which they came with the good news of Jesus Christ?
7. The very name of the Muslim communiqué — A Common Word between Us and You — is from a verse in the Quran that condemns “people of the Scripture” (Christians) for alleged polytheism (the doctrine of the Trinity).
Are you aware that the trinity is not just a matter of disagreement, it is first a matter of misunderstanding between Christians and Muslims? Do you see that we can only deal with disagreements when we have achieved some basic understanding of what we mean by our key terms? Are you aware that many Muslims believe that our doctrine of the trinity affirms that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three different gods? Can you suggest a way of clearing up this misunderstanding without respectful dialogue? And are you aware that the apostle Paul respectfully quoted the writings of Greek philosophers and respectfully referred to Greek religion in his dialogue with the Athenian philosophers? With Paul’s example in mind, should we never have any interaction with the Quran, one of the most important works of literature in the history of the world and unspeakably precious to about 21 percent of the world’s population – except to argue with it? Have you ever actually read the Quran?
8. Mohler said the agreement “sends the wrong signal” and contains basic theological problems, especially in “marginalizing” Jesus Christ. He also condemned the apology for the Crusades. “I just have to wonder how intellectually honest this is,” he said. “Are these people suggesting that they wish the military conflict with Islam had ended differently — that Islam had conquered Europe?”
Would it send the right signal if we rebuffed their request for dialogue? Does it marginalize Jesus Christ to try to practice his teaching by loving our neighbor, loving the “other,” reaching out to those whom we have offended and who have offended us in a desire to seek reconciliation and make peace? Are you aware of the atrocities associated with the Crusades – the rape, torture, mass slaughter – all by people who were supposed to be in a tradition of “just war theory?” Are you unaware that our behavior fell far below that of our own ideals, and don’t you believe we should acknowledge that fact? Are you aware of how your line of thought could be used today to justify torture and other atrocities – that, to achieve a desired outcome in a “military conflict with Islam,” we are justified in resorting to any and all means that were used in the Crusades? Do you realize how horrible this sounds – not just to a Muslim, but also to a fellow Christian?
9. Gary Bauer, president of the Campaign for Working Families, told CitizenLink the NAE leaders “have left the (card) table without their pants — that is, they’ve been taken and may not even realize they’ve been taken.”
Was Jesus more concerned about “being taken” or giving himself to the dangerous work of reconciliation? Was it a mistake for him to allow himself to be stripped naked at the “table” of the cross? Whose politics should we professed followers of Christ follow in situations like this? And how do you know we have been taken? On what do you base your suspicion? Could your suspicion be a matter of religious prejudice, perhaps bordering on racism? How would you know if a group of Muslim scholars were completely sincere in their desire to reach out for peace? How do you defend your suspicion in light of the teaching of Jesus, which invites us to forgive seventy times 7 offenses in the pursuit of reconciliation?
10. Bauer said he already was dismayed by the NAE’s recent controversial excursions into questionable areas such as global warming.
Can you see, even though you may disagree with it, the logic of our actions – those of us who are concerned about both the stewardship of the planet and the pursuit of peace with our Muslim neighbors? Can you see that Jesus’ love for “outsiders” – the Syrophonecian woman, the Samaritan woman, the Roman centurian, not to mention notorious sinners – motivates us to love our Muslim neighbors; and it motivates us to join God in caring for the birds of the air and flowers of the field? Do you understand how for many of us these “excursions” flow from our understanding of Jesus’ message – the good news of the kingdom of God?
11. Sookhdeo called for Christian leaders who signed the letter to withdraw their names, saying the confession of guilt puts Christian communities in Muslim areas of the world at risk.
By this reasoning, would you oppose the invasion of Iraq because it also put Christian communities in Muslim areas of the world at risk? And does it put Christians at risk more when Christians humbly admit their faults, or when they arrogantly remain in denial about them? When they reach out in friendship in response to Muslim scholars, or when they rebuff requests for dialogue?
Brian McLaren (brianmclaren.net) was a pastor for 24 years. Now he serves as board chair for Sojourners. His most recent book is Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope, and he launches an eleven city tour at the end of January (deepshift.org). Just before the tour begins, he will be in Davos for the World Economic Forum, participating in Muslim-Christian dialogue.