By Jesse S. Wheeler
As recently arrived Projects Manager for the Institute of Middle Studies (IMES) in Beirut, Lebanon, I consider it my privilege to assist in the fulfillment of IMES’ institutional mandate: To bring about positive transformation in the thinking and practice between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East and beyond. Given contemporary geo-political realities and “the increasingly urgent NEED to dispel mutually false perceptions between peoples of different religions and cultures,” as our website affirms, I can think of few other areas for which “positive transformation” is so urgently called.
Beirut, as a city, is mesmerizing and Lebanon, as a country, is simply stunning. Nevertheless, even a brief analysis of the architectural subtext of downtown Beirut reveals just how tragically imperative such a need actually is in rectifying the contemporary state of interfaith, or more specifically, Christian-Muslim, interaction.
Reflecting upon the seemingly endless variety of sectarian sanctuaries each vying to outdo the other in social prominence and visual stature, church bells and calls to prayer ringing out in an ever expansive audio war, and minarets and bell towers progressively climbing higher and higher in a battle for sky dominance, as majestic as they are, one gains a sense that interfaith interaction (here, as much as elsewhere) has so often represented little more than an insecure and almost adolescent-like maneuvering for social, political and, I guess by consequence, spiritual predominance.
Tragically, the reality of this situation hit me most at a recent conference in Pasadena, CA, USA wherein I came to understand just how widely popular the idea of “polemic/apologetic as mission” truly is when it comes to interfaith interaction. Many at the conference encouraged an interfaith approach whereby one seeks to “shake the epistemological foundations of the other” by means of verbal assault and/or just plain good argumentative logic … Or… “Five sharp shocks!” as the keynote speaker encouraged.
Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), even a cursory examination of Muslim-Christian interaction over the past 1400 years reveals just how futile this approach actually is, not to mention scripturally suspect. In the words of IMES Director Dr. Martin Accad, Muslims and Christians “have both become experts at framing the other’s argument against them and at building defensive counter-arguments…and this interaction has become repetitive, circular and most often quite sterile.” What ultimately results therefore, is “a caricatured representation of ‘the other’ that only convinces [one’s] own circles.” The proliferation of interfaith debates is a perfect example of this reality, whereat participants inevitably talk past each other in an attempt to win points for one’s “own team” at the expense or even humiliation of the other.
In employing such approaches and distorted characterizations, we merely serve to perpetuate a centuries’ old exercise in futility. We merely propagate our own self-perception as victims, as angels in a world full of demons. We are, in all reality, simply attempting to justify our own sense of self-importance and self-righteousness in contradistinction to the other, and in doing so are ultimately violating the self-sacrificing, self-giving, and self-emptying spirit of Jesus Christ. The more we can make the other group look bad, the better we feel about ourselves. It’s the bully principal, en masse.
What, then, is the solution to such a state of affairs? For my part, as a follower of Christ, it begins naturally with hearing the words of the Messiah and putting them into practice. Christ obliges us to search ourselves before examining others, to turn the other cheek, to walk the extra mile, to not only tolerate, but in fact love our enemies. We are commanded to forgive not seven but 77 times and to make peace with our brother or sister before even coming to God in worship. The embrace of those “not like us” inhabits the core of the messianic message. It is our mission.
Therefore, the closer we move to Christ, the closer we find ourselves in our “enemy’s” midst with arms outstretched in love. Like Jacob, we find God in the face of our enemy, an enemy who happened to be our brother all along. And in the process, we discover that we, in fact, have no enemies.
Therefore, in reaching out and truly attempting to understand and listen to others on their own terms, in their own words, and not via the distorted, defensive lenses of history, I have witnessed the apparently deep and seemingly impassable chasm hitherto existing between the historic communities of “Christianity” and “Islam” begin to shrink. While important differences nevertheless remain, dialogue fills the gap, historic and oftentimes tragic misunderstandings and animosities begin to fade away, and authentic friendship and understanding fill their place. Furthermore, I have found amongst Muslims a deep desire to explain themselves, their beliefs and practices, indicative of a deep desire to be heard and understood on their own terms and not through the interpretive lenses of others. Consequently, such interaction also provides a forum for our own voice/s as followers of Christ to be hear as well.
Beyond providing a forum for mutual understanding, however, such interaction also provides us with the opportunity to learn so much more about ourselves than we would have ever been able to otherwise. It is not until Jacob sets out upon his potentially life-threatening journey to encounter Esau, that he is able to encounter God and discover his true identity and mission. As such, when we deconstruct our defenses, enter into our insecurities, and open ourselves up to the vulnerability of listening to others, we begin to see just how we look through other peoples’ eyes. And, what we see is not always pretty.
But, if we are to be faithful to the reconciling mission of God through Christ to the world, and more specifically Muslims, in imitation of His loving, self-giving sacrifice, such practice becomes imperative. And so, I conclude with my favorite words from theologian Mirslov Volf, who maintains: “As we desire to embrace the other while we remain true to ourselves and to the crucified Messiah, in a sense we already are where we will be when the home of God is established among mortals.”
 For more on this, consult: Martin Accad, “Christian Attitudes towards Islam and Muslims: A Kerygmatic Approach” in Toward Respectful Understanding & Witness Among Muslims: Essays in Honor of J. Dudley Woodberry, ed. Eveylne A. Reisacher, (Pasadena: William Carey Library: 2012). Citation from earlier rendition.
 Jacob motif inspired by John Paul Ledarach, The Journey toward Reconciliation, (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1999)
 Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, (Nashville: Abingdon Press: 1996)
Thanks for sharing these thoughts Jesse. I particularly appreciated your mention of “authentic friendship” taking the place of misunderstandings and animosity between religious groups. Isn’t that the goal after all, sincere and lasting friendships? I am often surprised to see how much effort goes into peace making, encouraging dialogue and fostering coexistence, while friendship rarely registers on anyone’s radar. It’s as if people are ready to talk and listen, but friendship is out of the question. Ye I have found no more satisfaction in my experiences of crossing religious and cultural divides (in Lebanon and outside) than the friendships that are forged in the exchange. My hope for any Interfaith Relations is that it achieves more than just acceptance or tolerance, but it achieves friendships that endure through political and religious pressures. I’m encouraged to see you share the same sentiment. God Bless!
Jessy, thank you for this insightful blog. When I picture dialogue the image that comes to mind is of people talking. We live in a world were there is a great deal of talking from mass media to an individual shouting on a street corner. As you helpfully state in your post we need to be prepared to listen to the “other”. I find it interesting that so often in the gospels we see Jesus asking questions. In Mark ch 10 Jesus heals Bartimaeus by giving him sight. Before he does this he asks “What do you want me to do for you?” verse 51. I always found this strange as I thought the answer was obvious. Yet there is a power in listening to the “other” and allowing their voice to be heard.
Thank you Jesse for bringing up the “embrace” idea of Miroslav Volf which he explained as: “God received hostile humanity into divine communion and gave us this model to teach human beings how to relate to each other”. Hence it is more successful to win the other by the power of love than argumentation because the person’s ego would never admit its failure. I guess when we allow human ego to dominate and to control the person, it becomes very hard to embrace the other and it creates a bigger schism between each other. That’s why starting by embracing is crucial and will open the door to communication and listening to the other as you mentioned. I find that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. statement about ending the violence supports similar idea on dialoguing “People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other, they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.”
Very well said. Thank you Mireille. Dr. King’s statement is spot on!
Jesse, Lebanon’s diversity may be simply stunning as you mention in your blog and Christian-Muslim interaction is to be commended – however, currently the deep divisions in Lebanese society are increasing and sectarianism is flourishing. The ongoing dispute between Ahmad al-Assir, a Lebanese salafist cleric from Sidon againt the Shiite militant group Hezbollah is just one of the growing concerns, not to mention the attack on 4 Sunni clerics last Sunday or the dialy shootings in Tripoli. This conflict is not between Muslims and Christians, Maronites are split between the country’s two main blocs. This conflict is mainly between the Muslim groups themselves! Lebanon’s problems are compounded by the growing amount of (Sunni) Syrian refugees in the Bekaa Valley (in the past 3 months the influx of refugees has trippled), the spilling over of the Syrian war into North of the country and the increasing provocations of Israel in South Lebanon. Where should we start with the reconcilling mission of God? Christians in Lebanon have an unique opportunity to be the “salt” of the earth in this time of confusion and uncertainty. How can we support the Christian in Lebanon to listen, understand and embrace?
[…] on their own terms and in their own words, ‘not via the distorted and defensive lenses’ of historical animosity. When the Qur’an, Muhammad and the early Muslim community therefore speak of the ‘one true […]