Today’s post is by Peace Catalyst’s Midwest Regional Director, Martin Brooks, and was originally posted on his blog.
I have learned so much from my Muslim friends over the years. Does it sound strange to your ears to hear me refer to Muslims as friends? To some it does. But I have found that people all over the world have similar concerns. The vast majority of people hope for peace and for their children to thrive. Many are concerned about matters of faith, and many are not. I sometimes find myself positioned between my Christian and Muslim friends, urging both sides to be nice. Sadly, many Christians have no Muslim friends, and many Muslims have no Christian friends, and this lack of friendships provides fertile ground for stereotypes and misunderstandings. If you don’t have a friend you can ask about your concerns, you have to rely on books and other forms of media to shape your opinions. The problem is that the people who write books want to sell those books. People who print magazines, produce newscasts, and want to fund their ministries too frequently play to the fears of the uninformed. And how are you to know who is telling the truth? Don’t get me wrong. I am not minimizing the crazies out there with their selfish agendas. They are there, and they are a threat, but my friends are not crazies.
I want you to have the experience of having good Muslim friends, friends you can talk to about anything. Want to know about what’s happening in Egypt or Syria or Tunisia? I have Muslim friends I can ask about anything. Want to know what Muslims think of Jesus or why Muslims “don’t speak out about terrorism” (They do, which is why I put it in quotes)? Want to know what they think about U.S. foreign policy and the aid that we give to the world? Do you think they like Al Jazeera? Why did the Palestinians vote for Hamas, and what do they think of Israel (which is, by the way, often very different from what they think of Jewish people)? How do Iranian people view the recent elections? These are important conversations that are not happening because we don’t take the time to get to know each other.
Let’s turn this around. What if your Muslim neighbor wanted to know why our Christian nation exports so much pornography, why we seem so determined to wage war on Muslim nations, or why we support Israel regardless of what they do? You may have a good response for all of these questions, but would a Muslim feel safe asking you? Or would he avoid the conversation, assuming you disagree and that there is no reasoning with you? What I’m getting at is this: are you in friendships that allow the conversations to happen? Both sides have some serious questions. Both sides can learn from and be challenged by the perspectives of the other. We will achieve better results by processing these things together. It reminds me of James’ teachings to be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to become angry, for God’s righteousness is not achieved by man’s anger (James 1:19-20).
If you have Muslim friends, I suspect you might hear a different perspective than can be gleaned from the major media or people wanting to sell books. Here is how it plays out for me. Somebody will make a gross generalization about Muslims like, “They just want to impose Sharia law on all of us and force us to become Muslims.” I hear that and think, “Not the ones I know.” The ones I know still have their biases, but at least I get to hear the bias from both sides rather than hearing one side talk about the other side. I suspect somewhere in the middle we will find some truth.
Recently I heard a preacher talk about Jesus’ story of the prodigal son. Whenever I hear that story, I place myself in the story. Am I the son who has gone too far and squandered what has been given to me? Am I the older son looking down my nose at others who don’t obey the rules as well as I do? I have been both, and probably will be again. But there is a third character in the story I never presumed to be: the father. I never assigned myself to this role because we typically think of this as representing God, looking down the road, longing for the prodigal to come home. Of course, I would never claim to be on par with God–that’s not what I’m saying; however, I began to identify with the father after attending a class at Duke Divinity School.
In the courtyard at Duke there is a bronze statue depicting the return of the prodigal. The older son has returned from the field where he had been busy doing everything he knew to be right and good. He is indignant that the father would extend any grace or mercy to his brother, much less reinstate him to the family with rings and robes. The statue shows the older brother towering over his smaller Jewish father, arms crossed and defiant. His posture reflects his rejection of the father’s lavish love. The younger son is in tattered clothing, kneeling at the side of the father, face downcast and clinging to the father’s waist. He has nothing to offer the father… or the older brother. He is totally dependent on the mercy of the father… and the father accepts him.
The statue at Duke helped me relate to the father. The bronze sculpture of the father shows the younger son clinging to his waist and the older son standing proud, but the father is standing between the two. One hand is on the older son, the other arm around the younger man’s shoulders. The father is pleading with his sons to live together in peace. You see, it is only in peace and acceptance that relationships can be repaired. It is only in peace that the father’s joy will be complete.
I don’t feel like I’m doing a very good job, but I want to be like the father, standing between my Christian friends and the children of Ishmael, loving both and pleading with them to be reconciled. I am not saying we should ignore our differences, hold hands, and sing “kumbaya” (although that would be an improvement over what is happening now). Imagine if God did “come by here.” I wonder if he would stand between the warring factions of humanity and say, “You need to figure this out.” Blessed are the peacemakers. There are still serious doctrinal differences between the communities, and I am not asking anyone to set those aside as insignificant. What I am advocating is treating people with dignity and respect like we ourselves want to be treated. Friendships and mutual respect are the only way to diffuse the inaccurate stereotypes and get closer to God’s compassion and truth.