Friday, February 6, 2015

A third way for Christians to engage with Muslims

Some Christians regard Muslims as the enemy, and are quick to link them all to terrorists.

Other Christians are just as eager to paper over differences between the faiths and focus on, say, their common connection to Abraham.

Joshua Ralston, a professor at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Va., sees a third way for Christians.

To approach Muslims with honesty about disagreements. With the love Jesus calls on his followers to have for their neighbors. And with a freedom that allows adherents of both faiths to bear witness to their beliefs – including Christians’ claims about Jesus and Muslims’ claims about the Prophet Muhammad.

“If we’re going to improve our encounters with one another, we have to create this space for us to both share what is deepest about what we believe,” he says. “Friendship isn’t always marked by agreement. It’s marked by honesty and exchange and trust.”

Ralston, who lived in Egypt and the Palestinian West Bank in 2011-13, will speak at 4 p.m. Sunday (Feb.8) at Charlotte’s Union Presbyterian Seminary, 5141 Sharon Road. The event is free. Here’s some of what he told me in an interview.

On the charge that moderate Muslims don’t condemn terrorism: “Islam is a diverse religion – just like Christianity – and there are numerous Muslims who have issued fatwas (Islamic rulings) against suicide bombings. There is a massive statement signed by the heads of many major Islamic institutions against ISIS. There are Muslims who are continually standing up against these terrorist militant groups. And Muslims are the ones who have been killed more than anyone else.”

On Christian amnesia: “I don’t want to justify at all what happened with the burning of the pilot from Jordan (by ISIS). But I keep seeing all these Christians posting, ‘What religion would ever do this?’ As if we’ve totally forgotten the Salem witch trials. As if we (Presbyterians) totally forgot that John Calvin – one of the main founders of the Reformed Presbyterian tradition – allowed for the burning of a heretic in Geneva. That doesn’t justify it. But Christians – our hands aren’t clean historically. And they aren’t clean right now: In the Central African Republic, Christian militias are killing Muslims.”

On Duke University’s plan – later reversed – to let Muslim students use the chapel: “There are issues that need to be discussed: Is Duke’s chapel a Christian space or a university space? But the virulent anti-Muslim backlash became the main issue. And yet when they decided to do the call to prayer (outside the chapel), there were Christians from Duke Divinity School and local pastors there there in support of the Muslims. That story needs to be told as much as the Franklin Graham (reaction to Duke’s plan).”

Being Christian in the Middle East: “You can’t be a Christian in Saudi Arabia publicly. But I think in our minds we think all of the Arab world and all of the Muslim world is like that. That’s not the case. I lived in Ramallah (in the Palestinian West Bank) for almost two years. I went to church publicly, On Easter, Muslims would come out and celebrate with Christians. And Christians would celebrate Ramadan with Muslims.”

On Franklin Graham’s claim that Muslims worship a different God: “Christians and Muslims both speak of the same God, but we speak about God differently and on some of those points we disagree. Most Christians have this belief in the Trinity. (Muslims don’t.) But neither do Jews. And I’m sure Franklin Graham thinks Jews worship the same God.”

-- Tim Funk