I have to admit, I was a little nervous about going to church this morning. Most of my worries were unfounded. In fact, the preacher was the most upfront I’ve ever heard, in any church context, about the specific responsibility Christians have to love their Muslim neighbors. And this guy was specific. Thinking your Muslim co-workers’ dress and customs are “weird”? Making snide comments to friends about Islam? Refusing to make eye contact with someone in a burqa at the supermarket? You need to repent.
While I applaud (loudly!) pastors who correct the church’s post-9/11 Islamophobia, what did concern me was the underlying reasoning for our ability to love our Muslim neighbors. We don’t need to fear this “enemy” any longer because Christ has won the victory. In fact, we know Islam to be “absolutely wrong.” The enemy isn’t really an enemy, just a helpless, needy soul searching like everyone outside Christ’s fold.
Over the last ten years of my journey as a Christian the great lesson, a lesson I fail daily, has been Jesus’ Gospel proclamation to make ourselves vulnerable to the otherness of the Other, just as he himself made himself vulnerable to a human life and a human death. In terms of inter-religious dialogue this does not mean we exclude specificity. Doing so would mean we are being dishonest about the nature of our otherness. What this does mean is that we are called, each day anew, to meet the vulnerability of loving our neighbors, even our enemies. Triumphalism, the spirit that “we’ve got it all figured out and you’re welcome to join us” is the death of this vulnerability.
But what exactly does this mean in terms of Islam? How about really grappling with the fact that we’re part of a triad of monotheistic religions that share a common history? Or thinking seriously about what it means that we share roughly 75% of our Scriptures in common? Or wrestling with the fact that Christians are willing to form strong bonds with Judaism (even in it’s most horrifically violent, nationalistic forms) yet are often afraid and confused when it comes to the Islamic community? I don’t have answers to any of these questions but they give me pause, and I know that their answers could have real, lasting implications for my faith and for the church.
We can think seriously and deeply about these questions because Jesus opened his life to what was radically other and in turn reconciled us to a righteousness from which we had become estranged. Jesus introduced this same contingency into the religious world of the Jews and early Jewish-Christians, contingency we are still called to work out with patience and humility. Ecclesia semper reformanda est (“the church is always reforming”) is the Reformers expression of this vulnerability (even though they did this very, very poorly) and the legacy of those of us who believe the church must loop back for “a rediscovery of something from the past whose pertinence was not seen before, because only a new question or challenge enables us to see it speaking to us” (Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom).
So, yes, an excellent first step is to address the underlying behavior of your congregation towards Muslim neighbors and co-workers. If you haven’t preached this sermon, do it. But we also have to go deeper than this to how we got to these behaviors in the first place. Is it because we thought we had nothing to learn, nothing to change, no convictions embedded in our own religious experience that need to be challenged and corrected? It may be that our Muslim neighbors are the ones to help us expose and uproot the sin that so easily entangles.