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Interaction with Muslims as Neighbors And a Baptist-Muslim Dialogue

Our overview of Islam has indeed been brief, when one considers the size and diversity of this religion. As important as it may be to understand some of what Muslims believe, it is also important for Christians to consider how we are called to love our neighbors. With increasing globalization, nations are neighbors on a world stage, while individuals and families are also increasingly becoming neighbors within local communities. Within a few blocks of our own church there is the modest North Penn Mosque, with its local community of several hundred Muslims (most of whom are Bengali immigrants, although there are representative Muslims here from many nations of the world).

We might look at our interactions with Muslims on a couple of levels. On the one hand, Christians believe in sharing our faith in the hopes that others may come to know God through Jesus Christ. It should be noted that Muslims share a similar missionary conviction, hoping that non-Muslims might come to share their own faith. So while evangelical Christians may desire to see the conversion of our non-Christian neighbors, we must also realistically understand that we have commitments before God to love our neighbors regardless of whether they are members of our own faith or not. If we can learn to genuinely promote peace with Muslims, we will be doing humanity a great service, including the generations that follow us on an increasingly crowded and fragile planet.

I. The Development of a Baptist-Muslim Dialogue.

The massive strain that has existed between Westerners in general and Muslims throughout the world has been highlighted and exacerbated by terrorist attacks and numerous wars in the Middle East. Since most people of faith oppose most violence and wars of aggression, it is distressing that acts of violence or wars are often fought in the very name of religion. It can hardly be escaped that many terrorist acts have been motivated by particularly radical kinds of religious beliefs, and while Western nations attempt to distinguish their motives as secular, large constituencies of Christians undergird governments involved in large-scale cultural clashes.

In the midst of this volatile religious situation, it is heartening that in recent years an overture from the intellectual and religious leaders of Islam was sent to Christian leaders throughout the world. On October 13, 2007 and “Open Letter and Call from Muslim Religious Leaders,” entitled “A Common Word Between Us and You” was signed by 138 prominent Islamic leaders from all parts of the globe. This open letter was a call to further dialogue, and based on common ground between Christians and Muslims on the great commandments of loving God and neighbor.

The Baptist World Alliance responded to this letter, as did numerous other Christian bodies, with a welcome for its peaceful, irenic tone. Acknowledgements have been made that both the Bible and the Quran repeatedly call for loving God and neighbor. The BWA also highlighted the need for discussion about what religious freedom might actually mean, in terms of not only being free to practice the religion of one’s birth, but also to change religions if one feels called by God to do so.

In response to these calls for further discussion, Dr. Roy Medley, General Secretary of our ABC-USA denomination, helped to initiate Baptist-Muslim dialogues here in North America. He was spurred on by visits to Lebanon where Baptists urged him to help brothers and sisters in the Middle East by finding ways to promote peace with Muslims, as well as a trip to the Republic of Georgia where he was challenged to work for as good a relationship with Muslims as the Baptists enjoy with their neighbors in that country.

In January of 2009 a group of 80 Baptist and Muslim leaders met at Andover-Newton Seminary in Massachusetts to engage in dialogue and observe each other’s worship services. Several papers written by Muslims and Baptists for that conference, along with the “Open Letter,” the BWA response, and Dr. Medley’s introduction have been published in the American Baptist Quarterly volume 28, no. 1, spring 2009 edition.

II. Hindrances to Peaceful Interaction

Clearly there are significant differences between Islam and Christianity, and a focus on those differences will highlight how far apart we may be. But sometimes Christians engage in rhetoric that Muslims find offensive, and if we were to hear it with their ears we might appreciate how misguided such language can be. For instance, Christian leaders from America (often televangelists and the like) have sometimes characterized Islam as an “evil” religion, or Muhammad as being demon-possessed, or even as a pedophile. These kinds of statements are taken by the other side as slanderous, and signs that these Christians do not respect them or have peaceful intentions. Often these pronouncements are made from ignorance or stereotyping, and have the effect of glossing over positive attempts being made by the other side at overcoming very real problems within the world community.

III. Biblical Bases for Peaceful Interaction

Matthew 22:34-40 give us what Jesus regarded as the “Greatest Commandment”: “Love the Lord you God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” He said the second commandment is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” While differences in understanding love for God remain, it was decided in the aforementioned Baptist-Muslim dialogues to start with the second command, where common ground might more easily be seen. Christians also point to the “Golden Rule,” in Matthew 7:12 Muslims point to a very similar saying of Muhammad, “None of you has faith until you love for your brother what you love for yourself.” When speaking about our neighbors, one might also consider one of the 10 Commandments, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16). One might even ask in today’s geopolitical situation if the command not to covet what belongs to our neighbor might even include petroleum? Additionally, Jesus commands Christians to love our enemies in Matthew 5:43-48, and Paul likewise urged peaceful living with enemies in Romans 12:14-21. See the interesting article, “Loving Bin Laden” from Mission Frontiers (March-April 2010).