By Martin Accad
My father worked for the Bible Society in Lebanon for most of his life, serving as its General Secretary for over 25 years. Growing up, several of my summers were spent in the distribution of Biblical literature and in organizing viewings of the Jesus Film in Christian, Muslim and Druze villages. I have mostly fond memories of drinking icy lemonade and mulberry juice on hot summer days, listening to pleasant conversations about religion and about Jesus in the atmosphere of friendly home gatherings.
As the various teams gathered back together in the evening, one group that had been involved in showing the Jesus Film recounted a striking anecdote. As the story of Jesus unfolded on the screen and came to the scene of the crucifixion, silent sobbing could be heard from some sections of the audience. But suddenly, a group of young men stood up and started shooting their AK-47’s in the air. These were the years of the Lebanese civil war, when light and heavy weapons were normative in most village homes. The religious affiliation of those passionate youth did not matter. As they watched the film, whether Christian, Muslim or Druze, their sympathy for Jesus had grown, and they could not accept the tale of betrayal and injustice that ensued. Just as Peter had sworn allegiance to Jesus’ protection, those young men exclaimed that if they had been Jesus’ companions, they would never have allowed anyone to lay hands on him and put him to death.
Peter swore: ‘Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death’ (Luke 22:33). He pledged: ‘Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you’ (John 13:37). But Jesus knew about human weakness. ‘Before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me,’ was his response (Luke 22:34; John 13:38). Elsewhere, having just confirmed to his disciples that he was ‘the Christ, the Son of the living God,’ Jesus had to readjust their expectations, and he went on to reveal to them that this same Son was to go to Jerusalem, suffer at the hands of religious people and leaders, be killed, and rise back to life after three days (Mark 8:27-38; Matthew 16:13-28). At this paradox of the suffering of God’s chosen one, Peter has the audacity to take Jesus aside and rebuke him for his statements. It is this same gut reaction that grabbed the young men watching the Jesus Film in that village of Lebanon.
In the process of writing my book Sacred Misinterpretation: Reaching across the Christian-Muslim Divide, I have been spending hours with the text of the Qur’ān. I am again deeply impressed at how it exudes with passionate love for Jesus. I wish every Christian would spend more time reading the Qur’ān. It reports his miraculous birth, his incredible ministry of healing and of raising people from the dead. It despairs at the evil of those who misunderstood him, rejected him, and gathered all their powers to get rid of him. And at what it sees as the arrogant claims of his contemporaries that they had managed to kill him, the Qur’ān in its fourth sūra (chapter) retorts in rebuke in verse 157:
And (they) said: ‘We have killed the Messiah Jesus, son of Mary, the Messenger of God.’ However, they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, though it was made to appear as if it had been so (…) They certainly did not kill him.
In the immediate as well as broader canonical contexts of the Qur’ān, if it were not for the extensive exegetical tradition of Islam, the verse would be understood simply as another piece of polemic against the Jews who, in verse 155 were being accused of breaking their covenant with God and killing his prophets. In that context, the denial of their achievement in killing Jesus two verses later would make sense, but not to the extent of affirming that Jesus had not died at all. Verse 157 would then be arguing that the Jews did not succeed in killing Jesus, and it could be conjectured from the immediate literary context itself that this was so because God ‘raised him up to Himself,’ as in verse 158. This would be a convenient affirmation of the Biblical narrative that confirms that the Jews had not actually succeeded in killing Jesus, since he had risen from the dead three days later.
But the extensive exegetical material of the Muslim tradition does not allow for such a straightforward alignment of the Qur’ānic and Biblical texts. Instead, verse 157 becomes the springboard of an entire religious tradition that denies the most fundamental claim of the Christian faith; namely the centrality of Jesus’ death on the cross and the importance of his death for human salvation.
In its near-unanimous denial of the historicity of the crucifixion of Jesus, the Muslim exegetical tradition – and I don’t say the Qur’ān – stands largely alone. It also stands in rejection of the entire purpose of Biblical salvation history.
More recently, I sat with a godly Muslim man in his living room, talking about Jesus. He adequately explained to me the symbolic and relational meaning of the affirmation that Jesus is ‘the Son of God.’ He could even grasp the depth of the affirmation that, ‘in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form’ (Colossians 2:9). He did not see that the Qur’ān in its overall message necessarily denied that Jesus had died on the cross. But what he could not comprehend was how that death could actually bring life and salvation to those who put their trust in this divine initiative.
It is not the ‘historicity’ of the cross event which is the most difficult aspect to agree on in the Christian-Muslim conversation. But what remains notoriously hard to grasp, not just in the interfaith context, but also for Christians, Muslims, Jews, and other human beings, is how life and salvation can actually emerge from death and apparent failure.
In the second chapter of his letter to the Philippians (vv. 5-11), the Apostle Paul admonishes us through one of the earliest hymns of the Church. This doxology posits that God coming to us in Christ raised a unique challenge to the human understanding of power. And Paul urges us to embrace God’s initiative practically as the model for our own behavior:
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (NIV, emphasis mine).
It is not through logic and debate that the cross becomes victorious, but rather as disciples of Jesus embrace the model that it provides. If we understand the importance of self-giving in God’s economy of love and reconciliation, and its centrality in God’s ordering of human relationships between each other and with him, then the cross begins to take new meaning, beyond simply a conversation about whether it happened historically or not.
But it is neither easy nor natural to our human thinking to acquire the mind of God in what brings peace to this world. In situations of human conflict, whether interpersonal or international, each party attempts to gain the upper hand on the ground in order to be in a position of power at the time of peace negotiations. Weapons of war, destruction and invasion are dispatched by powerful nations in an effort to impose peace. Or at best we preach a morality of peace, love and forgiveness as the tools that we hope might lead to peace and reconciliation.
But in the midst of our most concerted human efforts, the words of Jesus to Peter still ring true for us: ‘You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.’ He calls us aside, along with his disciples, and instructs us: ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.’ ‘For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it’ (Matthew 16:23-25; Mark 8:33-35).
Churches following the western rite will celebrate Easter Sunday on April 21. Eastern churches will relive the Paschal meal, betrayal, and crucifixion of Jesus on Friday, April 26. In the unique country of Lebanon, where both dates are celebrated, we have the unique privilege of a prolonged reflection on the weakness and power of the cross and resurrection! The cross invites us to quit striving to be God’s well-meaning mercenaries according to the instinctive human understanding of power. The implication of the cross only begins to unfold as we get drawn into the divine logic about the functioning of power: power in weakness, forgiveness in persecution, love in response to hatred, life out of death, true love as self-sacrifice and the laying down of one’s life for others. If these values were the driving force of all of our relationships, from interpersonal to interstate, our world would certainly look quite different.
* This is a revised version of a post that was published by IMES on April 7, 2016.
 Safi Kaskas (translator), The Qur’an: A Contemporary Understanding, 2015.