Through Windows and Around Tables
by Nathan Elmore
In April, I had the pleasure of visiting the Embassy of Finland, a modernist, Euro-chic building sitting quietly along Embassy Row on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, DC. As an ambassador of sorts, I was representing Peace Catalyst International as we pulled up our chair to the proverbial table.
Muslim and Christian leaders, and others, were here to fight—for human flourishing.
Globally, of course, the fight against extremism inspired by Islamist ideologies has many fronts. There are the ubiquitous cultural clashes in the US and Europe; the political struggles in Muslim-majority countries; the military combat zones in a variety of geographies. But perhaps the most significant fight is the one taking place within Islam itself (though some Muslims would shy away from labeling it as such).
The Marrakesh Declaration emerged in January from a gathering organized by the Forum for Promoting Peacein Muslim Societies. As the collaborative product of approximately 300 Muslim scholars, jurists, theologians and religious-affairs officials representing over 120 countries, the statement primarily attempts to address equal rights of citizenship for religious minorities in Muslim-majority countries.
For Christians, to read the declaration with faith, hope and love is to glimpse windows of opportunity—even as we guard against being naive or simplistic about the challenges. Will Muslim leaders across quite a few sectarian lines—in Pakistan and Indonesia, in Egypt and Nigeria, in Iraq—widely embrace it? Will governments in Muslim-majority countries practically act on it? Will religious freedom win the day?
Below are four reflections from this unique experience on an otherwise typical Wednesday.
These reflections are mine. And they are especially tailored for the hearts and minds of American Christians.
The real enemy in Christian-Muslim Relations has been and still is fear and loathing in the hearts of Christians, in the hearts of Muslims, in my heart, in yours.
Thus the biblical proverb: "Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it." I believe the strongest enemy is always the heart.
Sure, there is that worrisome, intensifying relationship between ignorance and fear. It plays nightly on the evening news, minute-by-minute on Twitter, and everywhere along the 2016 American presidential campaign trail. Across our denominations and sects, all Christians and Muslims of goodwill are right to do everything we can to tear apart this desperate relationship between ignorance and fear, which is certainly a marriage of convenience.
But it appears more-than-obvious that the relationship between fear and loathing is a far more destructive marriage than the one joining ignorance and fear. The social implications, including amplified cycles of hostility, conflict and violence, are genuinely much scarier for all of us.
For Christians as for Muslims, fear and loathing in the heart must be undone—and then replaced.
Combating extremism inspired by Islamist ideologies—especially the kind that promotes and produces violence—may occasionally take bullets and air strikes, but ideas cannot be destroyed or killed by force or counter-violence.
For the political dove as for the political hawk, it is true that Islamist extremism must be fought. But I believe there is an array of weapons—including quite a few non-military ones—that Christians and Muslims must access and use in this long-term fight.
The comprehensiveness of the fight against Islamist extremism proves the need for non-military weapons. Military solutions cannot constructively address the urgent re-assessment taking place within Islam, or the tenuous moment in global Christian-Muslim relations, or the political fragility in international affairs.
Countering ideological extremism, and diminishing it, defies pithy mantras. Yet perhaps re-phrasing that famous real estate slogan is helpful: it will undoubtedly take "Education, education, education." The best case to make in the face of extremism and its dehumanizing effects is always the case for better ideas.
Christians must come alongside, encourage and support mainstream Muslims who are working hard to make this case from within their faith-tradition.
For Christians, persistently demonstrating love for Muslims takes us to a place beyond the values of respect and tolerance—although, religious boundaries and barriers can make it difficult to travel there.
I do not wish to minimize or dismiss the impressive variety of boundaries and barriers to love. They are emotional and psychological, they are political, they are cultural, they are national.
Notwithstanding, I believe religious boundaries and barriers—especially when they are made self-consciously with theological materials—construct the most formidable blockades to love. Christians who are inspired by the example and mission of Jesus must push past any religious boundary or barrier that would weaken love of God and love of neighbor. Ultimately, these loves cannot be separated.
Naturally, I believe in respect and tolerance. In and of themselves they are exceptionally good values. But they are not enough. They do not contain the real power to transform our situation.
Only when Christians persist in demonstrating love for Muslims will we tap into a kind of strength more powerful than any religious boundary or barrier.
The Christian-Muslim Engagement Equation:
Cooperation > Friendship > Dialogue = Peacemaking
For the sake of peacemaking, I believe it is significantly better for Christians to dialogue with Muslims than to not. Constructive Christian-Muslim engagement requires open tables where we practice the arts and skills of listening and speaking, empathizing and critiquing.
However, cultivating authentic friendships with Muslims is significantly better than even the best dialogue initiatives. Christian-Muslim friendships are something beyond conversations, statements and declarations. They are one example of living peaceably with Muslims as much as it depends on us (to paraphrase St. Paul).
But there is still something significantly better: cooperation. As Christians, we do not lose our unique identity when we develop a cooperative mentality. In fact, collaborating where we can with Muslims takes dialogue-plus-friendship to the next level and puts it into the service of the common good.
Christians who desire to work for the common good must have a vision of human flourishing, not just Christian flourishing.