Over the past year, Murat and I have become very good friends. He is a young guy in his 30s with a wife, a young son, and another child on the way. He is an engineer who works just around the corner from my office in Eldersbur, Md., and as we have shared lunches together, attended meetings together, and gotten to know each other, I’ve found him to be an all-around good guy with a sincere faith who loves his family and his home in America. In fact, I’d trust him with my money, my home, and even my wife and children.
Oh, and by the way, he’s also Muslim.
But that’s not all. In nine days, Murat and I will depart from Washington, D.C.’s Dulles airport and spend a week and a half in the Middle East together. An organization he is a part of has graciously invited me and six pastors affiliated with our Association to tour their home country. During those ten days the plan is to learn as much as possible about these great people, their history, their culture, and their faith. In the process of learning, we will also discuss a broad range of topics including religious liberty, civic discourse, religion in the public square, religious extremism, and ultimately, our respective faiths, how they drive us to behave as we do, and the hope we believe they provide not only for this life, but the life to come. We have communicated clearly to our Muslim friends that our greatest desire would be for them to know Jesus Christ as we know Him. But we have also committed to not allow our mutual friendship to be affected, regardless of whether they decide to become Christian. After all, Murat isn’t my “project.” He is my friend.
I write this post one day after the 11th anniversary of the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania–a day when all of a sudden, Islam understandably became a subject of interest to every American, and automatically suspect to many. In that context, together with a swath of other attacks since then inspired by Islamic extremism, one might wonder how on earth a relationship like the one I’ve described above can be developed. Couple this with the atrocity that took place yesterday in Libya, and the aversion to Islam becomes even more acute. In this environment, how on earth can a group of Baptist preachers engage these people at all?
The answer however, is quite simple. Jesus demands it!
Our opportunity to build relationships with Muslims here in the Baltimore-Washington D.C. area, as well as our forthcoming opportunity to build relationships with the broader, global Muslim community, hasn’t come without hard questions from some within our own tribe. I get it. Still, the commissioning remains from our Lord; not just to share our message, but to be sent as He was sent to us (John 20:21), which means incarnating ourselves among those He wants to know Him, and being their friends (John 1:14).
Truth is, if you are an evangelical Christian (and I am) and you want to get yourself into hot water with your own tribe, there are two groups of people you should get really close to: The homosexual community, and the Muslim world. And over the past year as I have listened closely to some from my own tribe, I’ve discovered five predominant issues that are preventing us from engaging our Muslim friends as we should.
1. Mystery. Up until roughly twenty years ago, Islam was to most Americans nothing more than a weird eastern religion that was largely confined to the middle east. Over the past two decades, North African immigrants into Europe as well as immigrants into the United States from various parts of the Middle East have forever changed that dynamic. And since the sum total of our exposure to them has been the stereotypical Middle-Eastern terrorist, we find living across the street from them a bit uncomfortable.
So how do we solve this mystery? It’s pretty simple actually. Start by welcoming them to the neighborhood! A play-date with the kids, or a meal together (just be sure to respect their dietary laws) will most likely result in your getting to know some really good folks who, like you, just want the best for their kids and to enjoy the good life this country affords.
A young mother I know just tried this approach, and in her own words, “My kids have Muslim friends and I would like to learn more. I can’t relate if I don’t know. And honestly, I do not see evil when I look into a Muslim mom’s eyes. I see a woman who loves her family and her faith.”
2. Media. I could write an entire blog post just about this issue. For one thing, if the only source you use in seeking to understand the world is American news media, then you simply don’t understand the world. CNN, FOX, MSNBC, pick your poison. Each network has its own angle and its own presuppositions, and none is as interested in actually reporting the news as they are increasing their own ratings, which is why when it comes to Islam, they go for the most sensational approach possible!
Unfortunately, turning to the printed page often doesn’t help matters. Just this past week, a regrettably uninformed preacher told a local congregation here to read a fictional novel written by Joel Rosenburg and “you will understand what Muslims are looking for.” Problem is, whether it is a book, a magazine article, or a TV segment, the propensity to generalize blinds much of the American populace to reality, and that reality is that when a religion boasts 1.6 billion followers worldwide, it will also boast a great deal of diversity. Think about the difference between an Orthodox Priest in Armenia, and a Pentecostal preacher in Alabama. BOTH are Christian, and yet they are very, very different from each other. The Muslim world boasts that same sort of diversity, which means they only way to really know what your Muslim neighbor believes is to enter into relationship with him or her.
I live in a politically “blue” state, and often when it is discovered that I’m an evangelical Christian, those who don’t know me will sometimes ask uninformed questions like “so why do you all hate women and homosexuals?” When confronted with such questions, I’m rightfully offended, because I’ve been “generalized,” lumped in with the Westboro Baptist “church.” What if a Muslim Imam said to his congregation, “Just watch Fred Phelps and the Westboro Church, and you will know what Baptists believe?” Feel that offense? Yep, that’s the same offense your Muslim neighbors feel when you and I buy the generalized line given us by much American media today.
3. Speculative Theology. God’s Word tells us that there are things that are clearly revealed, and other things which, ultimately, the Lord keeps to Himself (Deuteronomy 29:29). When it comes to the study of so-called “end-times” theology (“eschatology” for those who like ten cent doctrinal verbiage), there are within Christendom at least four different ways of understanding how those events will play out. There are, additionally, four different interpretive ways of approaching the meaning of the book of Revelation! This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t study these things intently, or that we shouldn’t form opinions based on our own understandings of these passages and hold to them strongly. But it does mean that we hold to our opinions tentatively!
For example, I think Scripture is clear that as we approach the end of the age, God is going to turn His attention back toward the Jewish people. I believe Scripture predicts a mass conversion of Jews, who will finally come to recognize their true Messiah. What is unclear to me (and also, to a good percentage of evangelical scholars) is whether the current geo-political state of Israel plays any prophetically significant role. It might, and I certainly admit that my colleagues who believe this strongly may be correct. However, Scripture speaks clearly of people groups, not “nations” as you and I understand that term. So if you think 1948 was a prophetically significant year, good for you! But when you allow speculative theology to inform a rigid and narrow view of U.S. foreign policy (and in doing so also assume a prophetically significant role for the United States. Another post for another day!) the results can be bad. Point in fact is that the results have been bad!
American Christians, by and large, have taken one very narrow and very novel (its less than 200 years old) interpretation of the Divine promises to Israel, and applied it with the force of an equally narrow foreign policy that says to many in the Arab world, “If you want to know Jesus, you have to accept our politics as well.”
Now, don’t hear what I’m not saying. I believe Israel as a nation-state has a right to exist, and that the U.S. should see her as an ally. I love the Jewish people, and long for them to come to their true Messiah. I also don’t believe we should countenance ANY terrorist activity toward ourselves or our friends. But when these positions begin to be mixed with our theology in such a way that we are saying “This is God’s position,” the results on the Great Commission are catastrophic. Prior to 1967, nearly 2/3 of the Palestinian world was Christian. Today, largely because of evangelical-driven foreign policy, its less than 10 percent. How could we have ignored the concerns of our brothers in Christ?
Speculative theology has done a lot of damage to the attempts of American Christians to make Jesus known in the very part of the world where He is least known! Our position should be that we want everyone to come to faith in Jesus. A friend said this to me the other day: All religions without Jesus at the center are sad. Are you less “lost” in Judaism than you are in Islam? If you take the Bible seriously, it clearly says that there are only two kinds of people in the world: those with a relationship to Jesus Christ, and those without. Whether its a Muslim, a Jew, a Hindu, or just a mean-as-hell, unregenerate Baptist deacon, lost is lost!!!
Unfortunately, our theological speculation has resulted in much of the Muslim world believing we don’t value their souls as much as their Creator does. Read Genesis 16 more closely. God loves the sons of Ishmael too!
4. Fear. Eleven years after 9/11, polls still give strong indication that many Americans fear Muslims, and Christians are not exempt from those numbers. Largely because of the close association of Islam with terrorism, many are afraid because they assume this is the majority position in the Islamic world. And many “conservative” talk-show hosts are happy to pour gasoline on that fire!
Here is the reality. Islam has 1.6 billion adherents globally. That’s more than 20 percent of the global population. If even a significant minority of Muslims were terrorists, we would be seeing far more bloodshed! The simple fact is that the overwhelming majority of Muslims are people just like you and me who have many of the same concerns we have.
Of course there are violent people who commit their violence in the name of Islam! And when they do, they should be pursued, and they should be punished. And when I say “punished,” I mean killed! When you set off a bomb and kill innocent people, I don’t care why you did it. You should pay the ultimate price for it!
Funny thing is, the Muslims with whom I’m in relationship all agree with me. If anything, they are more visceral in their opinions than I am, because they realize the “blowback” that comes when someone commits atrocity in the name of their religion. It’s regrettable that many Christians have allowed their fear to keep them ignorant of their neighbors.
5. “Church boys.” This will be the shortest, and the bluntest statement of this post. To engage the Muslim world in any meaningful way, we need men! While I’m very thankful that the ladies love Jesus and want to serve him, the women are signing up by almost a 2 to 1 ratio when it comes to building relationships with Muslims.
We need some “church boys” to grow a backbone and invest their lives among these precious people! Where are you men?
Our current international context of fear and suspicion grants us a great opportunity to model Kingdom living, which lives fearlessly, and which does what it does out of love for all people created in God’s image and likeness, and not because we are trying to defend some national position or manage God’s end-times agenda. I’m grateful for a group of pastors in central Maryland who get this, and I’m grateful to my Muslim friends for the opportunity to get to know them even better!
When I return, I’ll be posting about our experiences, and everything we learned, as well as how we will continue to walk together in life with these precious people.
Joel Rainey is Director of Missions of the Mid-Maryland Baptist Association and Adjunct Professor at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, Md. Follow his blog at www.joelrainey.blogspot.com.