What continues to impress me is how our Muslim neighbours continue to be so open to inviting me--a Christian--to share my perspective on really important subjects, even though they realize that they will disagree with me. I think we can learn from them about how to engage in conversation with those with whom we disagree. Below is the talk I gave. I've also attached the powerpoint presentation.
Friday, January 17, 2014
It’s a delight and an honour to be invited as a Christian pastor to join you for this very special day: the commemoration of the birth of the Prophet Mohammed. I am so impressed by this way you choose to honour your revered founder: inviting guests from other faiths and backgrounds to reflect upon a subject that was very, very important to both your founder and mine.
Islam and Christianity are both deeply concerned about the question you have posed today: Does faith have a role to play in our culture? Is our faith something public, or should it be private? Both Christians and Muslims agree that our faith is not something to be hidden in a closet.
Of course, it is true that our faith is something we hold very dear within our hearts, internally. But our faith is not just internal and private. If it does make such a difference inside us, can we not expect it to also make an enormous difference in our world, publicly? If our faith is internal and personal, transforming our lives from inside out, we should expect this personal faith to also be a public faith, a world-changing faith. If our faith is personally life-giving, surely we would also expect it to be life-giving when shared with others.
But what if people disagree with our firmly held convictions? What if our public faith, anchored deeply in our hearts, gets rejected? Won’t this cause trouble? Many in our culture are deeply fearful of this shadow side of faith. Some of the most popular books today, which keep climbing to the top of the bestseller lists, are written by a group called the new atheists, or anti-theists. They say that faith is a dangerous public enemy. They say that faith in God creates conflict and is the cause of many of the problems in our world.
The most famous of these new atheists are Richard Dawkins known for his book, The God Delusion; and Christopher Hitchens whose most famous book is God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything; and Sam Harris who wrote Letter to a Christian Nation: A Challenge to the Faith of America and The End of Faith; and Daniel Dennett who writes books like Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. These are very gifted communicators with persuasive arguments. Why are their arguments so persuasive to so many? Is it perhaps because, too often, we people of faith are not following our own books? Could it be because we preach love and mercy and peace, but we do not always act in love, in mercy, in peace?
I’m looking forward to what Shaykh Al Khaliq will share on this question this evening. I had the privilege of becoming a friend with his dear father, Imam Ismail Al Khaliq. We would often sit together with a cup of coffee and talk about ways to build bridges between our two faith communities. I learned so much from your gentle and gracious father, Shaykh, about peace, mercy and generosity.
Now, since I am a Christian pastor, I’ll share briefly the central Christian teaching on public faith (which we Christians have so often failed very miserably to follow) and then listen eagerly to learn the Muslim perspective.
We Christians go, of course, to the Injeel—the Gospel—to learn about the way of Jesus the Messiah, and his teachings. (We often say “Jesus Christ,” but Christ is simply the Greek form of al Masih, that is, Jesus the anointed King, Isa al Masih—as in the Holy Quran). So, what are the marks of a genuine public Christian faith, according to Jesus the Messiah? There are many, but I have only time to share with you four marks of genuine public Christian faith. I hope you will enjoy comparing how the Christian understanding is the same as Islam’s understanding in some ways, and different in others.
First and most obvious mark of public Christian faith: Jesus the Christ announces that it is political.
From the very first day of his ministry to the day of his death, Jesus insisted on using extremely political language: he proclaimed the Kingdom of God. Listen to his inaugural speech at the very beginning of his ministry (Mark 1:14-15): “Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The Kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news.’” Over and over again Jesus stated: “I have come to establish the Kingdom of God.” Story after story, he would begin, “The Kingdom of God is like…” More than one hundred times in the Gospels Jesus declares this Kingdom of God, and himself the King.
Muslims also believe strongly that their public faith is political. You do not usually speak of the Kingdom of God, but there is clearly the concept of God’s reign, or the Ummah Wāhidah. Surah 3:110 of the Quran says: "You [Muslims] are the best nation brought out for Mankind, commanding what is righteous and forbidding what is wrong….”
Second, Jesus the Christ teaches that the public Christian faith is peaceable. A peaceable kingdom.
Contrast the kingdoms of this world, which are always advanced by violence and conquest. Even today, presidents and prime ministers of this world are very adversarial, especially around elections. They attack one another with their words. There are always winners and there are always losers. But Jesus repeated over and over that the Kingdom of God is entirely different from the kingdoms of this world. In every way it is different. Listen to what Jesus said (John 18:36), “My kingdom is not from this world [my kingdom is from heaven]. If my kingdom were from this world, then my servants would fight…”
Jesus taught us, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, ‘Do not [violently] resist an evil person.’... Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:38-48) “Blessed are the peacemakers; they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9).
Third, Jesus the Christ teaches us that the public Christian faith is humble.
The night before Jesus was put to death, his disciples were arguing amongst themselves about who would be the greatest, and who would get the best positions in government when Jesus became king. So what did Jesus do? He got down on his knees, took a basin of water, and humbly washed each one of his disciples’ dirty feet—even the feet of Judas who betrayed him (John 13). And this is what he said that night: (Luke 22:24-27): “The kings of [this world] lord it over [their subjects]; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves ‘Benefactors.’ But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.”
We Christians have just celebrated the birth of our leader Jesus. We remember how he was born to a very poor teenage virgin girl. We remember how he was born in a barn. We remember how he was a refugee in Egypt. This is our humble king, Isa al-Masih.
Someone sent me an email about the President of Uruguay, José Mujica, this week. He is known as the world’s poorest president. His presidential salary is $12,000 per month, but he donates over 90% of it. He doesn’t see his place of leadership as an opportunity for personal gain and privilege. He drives an old VW, not a limousine. He refuses to live in the presidential palace, living instead in his small farmhouse and working the land while governing his country. He is there to serve. Has he perhaps learned from Jesus?
Fourth and finally for this evening, Jesus Christ reveals to us that the Christian faith is sacrificial. Politicians want us to be sacrificial. They want us to be patriotic. The greatest patriotism, we are told, is to be willing to die for your country, to sacrifice your life for your nation. The kings of this world demand that we lay down our lives for them and for their agenda. Our King Jesus did just the opposite. He laid down his life as the ultimate sacrifice for his subjects. Christ loved his enemies. He prayed for those who nailed him to the cross. He said, “God, forgive them; they don’t know what they are doing.” The cross is the central and ultimate symbol of Christianity. Jesus kept prophesying all throughout his ministry that he would be lifted up on a throne. Nobody understood that this throne on which he would be lifted up would be that terrible cross on which he died.
Now, many martyrs have followed Jesus in his death. This week we also commemorate the birth of Martin Luther King Jr. who sacrificed his life in 1968, the year before I was born, for the sake of millions in the United States. Listen to just a few sentences from one of his speeches: “To our most bitter opponents we say, “Throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our houses and threaten our children and we will still love you. Beat us and leave us half dead, and we will still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.” (“The American Dream”)
We should probably have added the fifth mark, courageous,” to the four above. I think of the Prophet Mohammed especially when I think of this word: courageous. The prophet was fearless. He was not afraid to be in the minority. He was not afraid to speak out and stand firm for what he believed in.
Courage is also the mark of one of our Mennonite organizations, CPT, Christian Peacemaker Teams. I’d encourage you to google CPT later. I have not yet served on CPT, but it is my dream and goal. Many Christian Peacemaker Teams have gone to Palestine/Israel to stand between Israeli soldiers with their guns and Palestinian teenagers with their rocks. Getting in the way, sacrificing their bodies, for the sake of the peace of the Kingdom of God. CPT has stood in the way in Iraq during the Gulf Wars, in Colombia, in Haiti, in troubled African nations. Courageous, sacrificial, humble, peaceable and political—for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
As a Christian I trust Jesus was true and not mistaken: these are indeed ways that faith can have an enormous role for good in our culture. Maybe you have heard how our new pope, Pope Francis, who is seen by many as the world Christian leader and who is certainly the most public Christian in the world, is receiving enormous amounts of favourable press. Why? Is it because we finally have a pope who is actually speaking like Jesus and living like Jesus?
I thought you might be interested in these pictures of the pope who is simply trying to follow Jesus our Leader.
· The pope embraced and kissed Vinicio Riva, a man scarred by a genetic disease.
· He visited people in prison at Easter, and washed their feet (a Christian tradition).
· He dresses like an ordinary priest and sneaks out of the Vatican at night to feed the homeless.
· He invited homeless men to his birthday party.
· He called for cooperation between Christians and Muslims!
This, I believe, is the Christian model for how faith can make a difference in our culture. Thank you for so much for your attention. Thank you for your hospitality to a Christian leader. And I look forward to the rest of this evening, and to learning more about how Muslim faith can make a positive difference in our culture.
God bless you.