Muslim-Christian Relations and Freedom of Conscience
originally published at ABTS Lebanon
In reflecting over the long history of Muslim-Christian interaction, it appears some hopeful winds of change are blowing. I realize that runs counter to the conventional view that Islamophobia is on the rise…which I acknowledge. Nevertheless, I see some hopeful signs.
There is a noticeable movement among contemporary Evangelicals towards peaceful coexistence with Muslims. I was struck in watching this video by Dr. Rick Love and observing his ministry trajectory from the International Director of Frontiers (a church-planting mission agency) to become the director of Peace Catalyst International whose goal is “to follow Jesus by catalyzing peacemaking initiatives that ignite a global peacemaking movement, primarily between Christians and Muslims.” That story is also related in his book, Glocal: Following Jesus in the 21st Century. Among other things Dr. Love relates the story of a news reporter who visited a class he was teaching on mission among Muslims. Shortly after the reporter’s visit an article appeared in a progressive publication titled “The Stealth Crusade.” The short summary of the article appears under the title: “Inside one Southern university, Christian missionaries are being trained to go undercover in the Muslim world and win converts for Jesus. Their stated goal: to wipe out Islam.” Important: Dr. Love never spoke in this way in his class. Rather, the reporter was taking his cues from students attending the lectures who gave him this unmistakable impression.
The article was a “wake-up” call for Dr. Love and he responded with some pervasive changes in his ministry approach. He describes his epiphany that in a “google-ized” world, his walk must match his talk and vice versa. Dr. Love explains, in the past, there were separate “Christian, Muslim and secular worlds.” Today there are no “separate” worlds as our worlds inter-penetrate one another through travel, immigration and media. Dr. Love determined he could no longer promote “stealth” mission. Going undercover in the Muslim world was no longer an option. He wanted to speak the same language whether in the Muslim, Christian or secular world as we all live in all those worlds, all the time.
There are numerous other examples of this movement towards establishing peaceful relations between Jesus-followers and Muslims. These are hopeful signs I see on the horizon of Muslim-Christian relations.
While these movements towards peaceful relations between Muslims and Christians continue their forward march, another movement is emerging with vigor. Increasing numbers of people of Islamic backgrounds and cultures are self-identifying as followers of Jesus.
One need not long ponder that reality to realize that this latter movement may introduce some awkward moments into the former one. I hope that won’t be the case. Let me say it again, I hope that increasing numbers of people following Jesus will not impede, hamper or embarrass the movement of positive, transparent and hospitable Muslim-Christian relations. I hope the two movements can be complementary.
Christian movement away from “stealth” evangelism to overt peacemaking will doubtless be a welcome transition for Muslims. Think of the relentless association of Western missions with colonialism and neo-colonialism. For Muslim peoples, Western mission is understood to go hand-in-glove with Western trappings of power. We can envision Muslims breathing a sigh of relief that Christians are actively pursuing peaceful relations, forsaking power associations in their missionary zeal.
And it’s a welcome change for Christians whether in the East or West. No one gains from religious militancy. In the post 9/11 world, we can all breathe a sigh of relief when Muhammad and Peter sit down for a conversation rather than point their guns (and missiles) at each other.
What happens, though, when Muslims are abruptly faced with the reality that these peaceful overtures do not equate to a cessation of evangelistic zeal…when the first movement runs smack into the second? When Muslims fully realize that Christian leaders like Dr. Rick Love are still equally committed to obeying Jesus’ “Great Commission?”
Let’s face it. Both faiths are “missionary” faiths. They both aspire to world-wide expansion. Christian dialogue with Muslims does not signal an end to their aspirations to spread the gospel. On the contrary.
I recall visits by Muslim clerics to the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut to engage in some aspect of dialogue. While there, the cleric would likely meet a handful of students whose names reveal that they were born Muslims. Apparently, this Evangelical institution has not renounced faithfulness to Jesus’ Great Commission for the sake of dialogue. What is his reaction? What is ours?
As Christ-followers engage in dialogue with Muslims, we do so for many good reasons: to understand our Muslim friends, to help Muslims understand basic Christian values, to contribute to a cessation of a centuries-long hostility, etc. There is another reason. Followers of Jesus pursue faith-conversations with Muslims: to take Jesus’ good news to all the nations and peoples of the world.
What I’m suggesting is not new, but I’m wondering how transparent we are in our dialogical relationships with Muslims. Isn’t that the intention, after all? No more hiding. Is evangelism one of our goals? I suppose some will say “no,” but I’m suggesting that for most Evangelicals, it’s a primary motivator. We have peaceful faith-based conversations with Muslims because we respect and love them and because we want to share our faith with them.
This can work when both sides of the dialogue accept a “democratization” of faith—that the individual has the right to her own convictions of conscience. In brief, an open dialogue on matters of faith assumes freedom on both sides to embrace what is being shared. Yes, the tables can be turned. Christians must not be incensed to see church members embrace Islam—a robust and vibrant faith that is attracting millions around the globe. Freedom of conscience, right?
It also bears mentioning that some Christians will find this “democratization” intolerable though Western democracies generally guarantee an atmosphere of freedom to pursue it. On the other hand, in many Muslim states, the freedom to embrace an alternative religious viewpoint simply does not exist. If these states wish to eradicate the “stealth” mission of Christians, their best move would be to ensure freedom of conscience for their citizens.
To participate in faith-based conversations between Muslims and Christians, must we not also embrace a new way of thinking about the relationship of faith and public life? Aren’t we wagering for transparency and openness as a better means of faith-sharing than stealth and infiltration? And does that not have implications for Western societies (Islam must be allowed to thrive on Western soil) as well as Muslim countries (freedom of conscience must be granted to the individual even when this counters societal dictates)?
If that happens, it could be a new day in Muslim-Christian relations.
1 See “Two Faiths, One Friendship” (2F1F). Michal Meulenberg and Sondos Kholaki established 2F1F. Their website is creatively named “miss understanding.” See also the Christian-Muslim Relations Team (CMRT: link) working in relationship with the Eastern Mennonite Church “to equip Christians around the world for life-giving relationships with Muslims through dialogue, witness, peacemaking, and hospitality.” See also Pastor Bob Roberts and the Global Faith Forum. Our own Institute of Middle East Studies is a pioneer of peaceful Muslim-Christian relations in the Middle East. The IMES team has been a force for explicit and hospitable Muslim-Christian conversations through the Middle East Consultation, “khebz w meleh” (Bread and Salt) and the Master of Religion in Middle Eastern and North African Studies (among other noteworthy initiatives).