If asked to identify factions clawing at each other's religious throats on the American and world stage, who would you cite? Protestants vs. Catholics? Muslims vs. Jews and Hindus? In popular consciousness, Evangelical or evangelistically minded Christians and Muslims are two plausible contenders. Controversial publicity alleges unwelcome proselytizing by the U.S. military in Afghanistan. Christians in Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia and elsewhere fear for their homes, worship spaces, and very lives, sometimes ostensibly converting to Islam in hopes of procuring greater safety. Zealous political pundit Pat Robertson observes, "The entire world is being convulsed by a religious struggle ... whether Hubal, the Moon God of Mecca, known as Allah, is supreme, or ... the Judeo-Christian Jehovah God of the Bible is Supreme."
Is conflict inevitable? Fighting and fighting words aside, relations between Evangelicals and Muslims are far from uniform. More quietly but no less significantly, Evangelicals and Muslims are seeking sacred flourishing together and collaborating to alleviate human suffering.
Carl Medearis, co-author of Tea with Hezbollah, Yale University's Joseph Cumming, and Muslims like Jordan's Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad who authored "A Common Word" signed by dozens of Muftis and Muslim leaders worldwide see Jesus' teaching as a basis not for division, but for Muslim-Christian unity. Even if Muslims and Evangelicals differ in some understandings of Jesus, both affirm Jesus as a virgin-born prophet and Messiah whose message is preserved in what Muslims call the Injil or "Gospel" and Christians identify as the New Testament. Indeed, Medearis and Cumming are among the first contemporary Christians to lecture and dialogue about Jesus at Egypt's Al-Azhar University -- the foremost academic institution in Sunni Islam.
Medearis and his New York Times bestselling coauthor Ted Dekker detail in Tea with Hezbollah about praying and discussing Jesus' teachings with the unlikeliest interlocutors: Hamas and Hezbollah leaders, Saudi Arabia's Minister of Oil, two of Osama bin Laden's brothers, and now deceased Lebanese Sheikh Ayatollah Fadlallah. Medearis relates on his blog how peace-making initiatives arising from Tea with Hezbollah include the India-Pakistan disputed region Kashmir. At the 2011 National Prayer Breakfast, one Kashmiri leader encountered a Pakistani presidential contender who is the son of Pakistan's first female Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto. "The two met with some other key political leaders and began a friendship that could literally change the face of that region. And it was all bathed in prayer and done in the name of Jesus."
South of Washington DC, the Muslim Chaplain at Duke University, Abdullah Antepli (who once lead a prayer for Congress), co-teaches a class with Hebrew Bible / Old Testament professor Ellen F. Davis, "Listening Together: Christians and Muslims reading Scriptures." Antepli and Davis lead mostly Christian and Jewish graduate students in studying the Quran, Bible, and other Jewish, Christian and Muslim writings for three hours a week. Professor Davis recently visited Sudan, and she expresses appreciation for Surah Al 'Imran 3:113-114 in the Quran affirming Jews and Christians who "hasten to do good deeds as if competing with one another ... Whatever good they do, they will never be denied the reward of it." Surah 3:113-114 echoes Hebrews 10:24-25 in the New Testament, "And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another."
When I was writing my Harvard University thesis on Evangelicals and Muslims last spring, I discovered that care for the poor and orphaned is one area where Evangelical Christians and Muslims are not merely talking about cooperation, but cooperating. Syrian Christian Chawkat Moucarry, author of several books on Christianity and Islam, and Director of Interfaith Relations for the Evangelical NGO World Vision International, discloses that World Vision operates in twenty Muslim-majority countries where Muslims comprise most of the World Vision staff. "Without ignoring the distinctive beliefs of each tradition, knowing our common ground enhances our work for the common good of the communities we serve."
Likewise, Evangelical Joel Rosenberg relays reconciliation between himself -- a Jewish convert to Christianity who worked for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- and Tass Saada, a former assistant to PLO chairman Yasser Arafat. Like Rosenberg, Saada sought to reorient his life around the teachings of Jesus. When Rosenberg and Saada met to spearhead humanitarian work in Gaza and the West Bank, they were deeply moved. "Here we were, a former aide to PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and a former aide to Prime Minister Netanyahu, hugging each other -- not trying to kill each other -- in the heart of Jerusalem. All because of the work Jesus had done to give us hearts of love rather than hatred." If Rosenberg and Saada can learn to love each other because of Jesus, is it possible others can too?
What about the ubiquitous desire of Evangelicals and Muslims to convert each other? Last fall, Imam Antepli participated in a dialogue with evangelism professor Stephen Gunter, moderated by Duke Divinity School Dean Richard Hays. Antepli and Gunter playfully hinted that they would like to see the other convert, but instead of sniping and griping, Hays led these professors in an exchange about what they admired about each other's faith: care for the poor, spiritual discipline, and mutual devotion to the One True God.
Antepli is also friends with J.D. Greear, a Southern Baptist pastor at the rapidly growing Summit Church in Durham, NC. Greear lived in Muslim majority Indonesia for two years, where he developed a reputation for praying with and for local Muslims. When some were scolded for petitioning prayer from and with a non-Muslim, they quickly defended Greear as a righteous person, "someone who has God's ear." On a larger scale, when a radical Muslim faction facetiously offered to "protect" Christian Indonesians celebrating Christmas, thousands of other Indonesian Muslims stood to safeguard their Christian compatriots, an action replayed by Christians shielding praying Muslim protestors in Egypt this February. Would Greear and Antepli do the same for each other? Yes, in a heartbeat. Greear quotes French philosopher Voltaire, "I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. beloved by many Muslims and Evangelicals alike proposed in his "The American Dream" speech a message as applicable to Evangelicals and Muslims today as it was to King's original audience in the 1960s: "We must all learn to live together as brothers (and sisters), or we will all perish together as fools." As Evangelicals and Muslims like Carl Medearis, Prince Ghazi, Imam Antepli and Pastor Greear labor globally and locally in the spirit of Jesus to realize the first option of King's vision, I pray their efforts multiply.
Benjamin B. DeVan has taught religion, philosophy, and African American literature at North Carolina Central University, Peace College, and a January term mini-course at MIT titled, "Religion: Bringing the World Together, or Tearing the World Apart?" He completed his MA in Counseling at Asbury Theological Seminary, his MDiv at Duke University, a ThM at Harvard in World Religions with a thesis on evangelical Christians and Islam, and is now a doctoral candidate at Durham University in Great Britain writing a dissertation on the New Atheism.
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