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August 16, 2012

Are we even talking the same language?

by Arthur Brown

As a youth worker I’ve lost count of the times parents have complained that they don’t understand their children. “It’s like they’re speaking a different language” they lament. As I look at the various titles of books about Islam that have been published over the last decade, many written by evangelical Christians, I question whether the language that is so often used is motivated by a desire to promote understanding between Christians and Muslims, or to add to the fear, mistrust and ignorance that is already so evident. If, as Miroslav Volf suggests,

 ‘practices disclose the God (or the gods!) individual Christians or Muslims actually worship better than anything they or their holy book says about God’s character or God’s commands’, [1]

is true, I sometimes wonder which ‘god’ is being honored as a result of some of these fear-mongering texts. In contrast to these books are recently published ones such as Volf’s, ‘Allah: A Christian Response’, and Reisacher (ed.) ‘Toward Respectful Understanding & Witness Among Muslims’.[2] These books, at least in my view, not only offer better researched material that promotes understanding, but also a desire to demonstrate hospitality and warmth towards those of a different faith tradition than their own.  In many ways they echo the vision of IMES’ mandate ‘to bring about positive transformation in thinking and practice between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East and beyond.’ IMES’ Director Martin Accad suggests that,

 ‘the view that one holds about Islam will affect one’s attitude to Muslims; attitude, in turn, will affect one’s approach to Christian-Muslim interaction; and one’s approach will affect the ultimate outcome of that interaction’.[3]

 From where do our attitudes toward Muslims and their faith originate? Is it from reading a particular brand of Christian literature, which justifies keeping a ‘safe distance’ from those who supposedly pose a risk to our wellbeing, or is it from the relationships we develop with our Muslim neighbours, as we share our lives with them?

In Micah 6:9 we have clear instructions as to the type of worship that is not only pleasing to God, but required by him. As worshipers of God we are ‘To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God’. (NIV). Our worship of God therefore is largely practiced within the context of the relationships we have with people here on earth. How we treat others, including those of different faith traditions, becomes a central act of our worship. Are we acting justly in our relationships?

The God of justice, above all draws people towards Himself in a reconciliatory manner, and calls His followers to do likewise with enemies and neighbors alike.  However how we speak and write about the faith of others is also an issue of justice. The lack of grace, and for that matter accurate information about Islam, in much of what is written by evangelicals, does little to demonstrate justice and compassion, let alone love.

I am not saying that we should not engage in serious debate on contentious issues within an honest Christian Muslim dialogue. What I am saying is that the way in which we engage with those of differing perspectives reflects our theology in terms of the value we place on people. When critiquing elements of Islam we should be willing to engage in self-critique in a fair-handed way. We should also ensure we ‘do our homework’ and present accurate information, rather than lazy opinions that are likely to receive popular interest.

We become more fully human as we engage with others from different contexts and traditions. Pride and arrogance in ones own belief, however strongly held that belief may be, is not attractive.  Even though our theological vocabularies and beliefs may differ on a number of matters, surely there is a way that Christians and Muslims can engage in an uplifting and honouring discourse. Our motivation should never be to demonize, ridicule or insult, but should be to demonstrate unconditional love, grace and mercy, regardless of the response we may receive in return.

So, the next time you read a newspaper article or a book, or watch a news report that is referring to Muslims or Islam, maybe we should ask ourselves this question. Is the message being presented one that we – as followers of Jesus and those who seek to build His peaceable Kingdom here on earth – can accept, or is it one that we should challenge in the name of justice and fairness?

[1] Miroslav Volf Allah: A Christian Response (New York: Harper Collins, 2011), p.115

[2] Evelyne A. Reisacher (ed.) “Toward Respectful Understanding and Witness Among Muslims: Essays in Honor of J. Dudly Woodberry” (Passadena: William Carey Library, 2012)

[3] Martin Accad ‘Christian Attitudes toward Islam and Muslims: A Kerygmatic Approach ’ in Evelyne A. Reisacher (ed.) “Toward Respectful Understanding and Witness Among Muslims: Essays in Honor of J. Dudly Woodberry” (Passadena: William Carey Library, 2012), p.31

1 Comment

  1. Adib Sawaya says:

    “When critiquing elements of Islam we should be willing to engage in self-critique in a fair-handed way” I agree with this statement. Many of us cry ‘foul!’ – and rightfully so whenever we come across proselytizing Muslim literature that undermine the integrity of our faith by applying double standards, but we seem to have no scruples to do the same.

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