Embracing transformation

Christian-Muslim dialogue enhances understanding -- and faith
September 11, 2008

Editor's note: Three Episcopalians were among the 25 Christians and eight Muslims who attended a week-long seminar on Christian-Muslim relations at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., this past summer. The Rev. Richard Simpson, rector of St. Francis Episcopal Church in Holden, Massachusetts, reflects on the experience.



Our diverse group was male and female, young and old, ordained and lay, conservative and liberal, Christian and Muslim. In the mornings we spent our time learning something of the theological traditions of the other, and particularly in reading each other's sacred texts: The Christians studied the Qur'an as the Muslims gathered with their Oxford Annotated Bibles to study the Gospels of Mark and John. In the afternoons, we conversed with each other.


Toward the end of the week, the Muslims attended mass at Holy Trinity Parish in Georgetown (a Roman Catholic parish run by the Jesuits) and visited with the clergy at local Episcopal and Lutheran congregations. The Christians attended Friday prayers at a Virginia area mosque and met with its leaders afterwards over lunch.

As we commemorate the seventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and continue to sort out Middle Eastern policy and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I want to share some thoughts that grow out of this experience.

1. All religious faith and practices are deeply intertwined with culture and politics, and it is impossible to compartmentalize the "spiritual" or the "theological" as something separate from the various world(s) we inhabit. It is helpful for us to remember that not all Muslims are Arabs and not all Arabs are Muslims. In fact, Arabs make up about 15 percent of the total population of 1.3 billion Muslims, the largest number of whom live in Indonesia. Significant minorities of Arab Christians live in the Middle East, especially in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. Most important is that not all Arabs (whether Christian or Muslim) are terrorists.

2. Both Christianity and Islam are "contested" religions. Within each of these great traditions, debates are going on between fundamentalist interpretations of the traditions and pluralistic interpretations. As Episcopal Christians, we know that every word spoken by Benedict XVI or Pat Robertson doesn't express our own understanding of the Christian faith. We need to resist the temptation to define Islam in monolithic ways based on extreme statements that may be made by a few people that are in fact not representative of the majority.

3. In our conversations with others, including Muslims, we must refrain from contrasting our ideals with their failures. We might like to describe our own faith as a religion of love, and we are on solid ground in so doing. We could quote First Corinthians 13 or John 13:34 as central to who Christians are. We then want to contrast our "love" with a few of the most problematic texts from Islam that suggest intolerance, ignoring the overwhelming core of that tradition that focuses on right relationship with God and all humankind. The great gift of spending time actually reading the Qur'an in the presence of Muslims was to be able to begin making judgments about what it does say: primarily that, as children of Abraham -- Jews and Christians -- we are fellow pilgrims and "people of the book" who worship the same God and therefore deserve to be treated with respect. This is not to suggest that Islam doesn't have its own difficult texts; it is simply to insist that those texts, like the ones in our own Scriptures, need to be read within this larger context.

I returned home knowing more about Islam. The paradox is that I found this experience deepened my own Christian faith and made me an even more committed "follower of God in the way of Jesus."

Muslims and Christians do not believe the same things; we are different. I am not a fan of interfaith conversations (or ecumenical conversations) that ignore those differences. But our awareness of those differences should never negate what we share in common. Experiences like mine invite us to move beyond fear and toward understanding. And through deeper understanding, perhaps we can work together (along with Jews) to promote peace and justice. The well-being of our planet depends on it.

My prayer is that as we remember the victims of 9/11, and rightly condemn all terrorist actions, we also are intentional about taking action that leads to both personal and communal transformation. We Christians might begin by critiquing the false stereotypes that abound through our mass media, because those stereotypes violate the commandment of Moses that we not bear false witness against our neighbor, and they violate the commandment of Jesus that we love our neighbor.

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