On being friends with Muslims

By Brian Edgar

Muslims in Australia frequently find relationships with the rest of society to be strained. Consequently, Christians have a responsibility to work to ensure that social relationships are positive and healthy and, consequently, whatever else is needed Christians need to follow God’s example and do as Jesus said and love Muslims just as they love Christians (‘love your neighbour as yourself’).

Christians believe that the meaning of life is to be found in God’s unconditional love known in Jesus Christ, and that the most fundamental characteristic of love is to seek the good of the other.  Hatred is incompatible with love – and so is fear, which is frequently manifested in hatred. The propagation of fear undermines the Christian ministry of love.

This is how “A Statement on Christian – Muslim Relationships” begins. It was written by me as Director of Public Theology for the Australian Evangelical Alliance at a time when the Muslim community was finding it very hard.  But the message is just as true today……

Interpreting Muslim and Christian life and belief

Christians and Muslims live together in many very different cultures and contexts, and it’s not surprising that they have many different attitudes, behaviours and interpretations of their own and the others’ faith.

Some Muslims look at the Christian Scriptures, the example of Jesus and the actions, attitudes and words of some Christians and perceive Christianity as a peaceful religion, while others have looked at different passages of the Scriptures, the history of the Crusades, the current language of some Christians and the military actions of some ‘Christian’ countries and have concluded that Christianity and Christians are opposed to peace and perhaps violently disposed towards Muslims.

Conversely, just as Muslims interpret Christianity in a variety of ways Christians understand Islam variously, not least because Muslims themselves differ in their interpretation of Islam and the nature of appropriate Muslim-Christian relationships.

In some contexts Muslims are supportive of religious liberty and are active advocates of peaceful relationships with other religions.  In other contexts however, there are countries where Islamic influence is officially sanctioned or socially dominant in such a way that religious minorities suffer significant limitations on their religious freedom, serious discrimination and in certain places outright persecution and death simply for being Christian.  Complicating the matter is terrorism that is identified by some Muslims as being motivated by Islamic teaching, even though this is vigorously repudiated by other Muslims.

It is legitimate and necessary to debate the relationship of Islamic theology and practice to matters of peace, war, violence, religious liberty and the nature of state and nation. This will necessarily involve the theological, moral and political examination and evaluation of various perceptions and expressions of Islam.

This being the reality, both Christianity and Christians, and Islam and Muslims, should be subject to mutual examination and self-examination.  This should express itself in a number of ways.

  • Christians ought, when legitimately criticised, to repent of any actions for which they are responsible which are contrary to peace.  At the same time they may legitimately debate whether the interpretation given to their texts, attitudes and actions is actually right and appropriate and whether they apply universally to all Christians.  However, having these matters raised by Muslims for debate is legitimate, and does not necessarily constitute vilification, not least because Christians themselves will differ on the interpretation and the significance of some of these issues. This does not mean that an accurate consensus can never be achieved.
  • In the process of dialogue it is important not to mis-represent the position of other people or groups, distort facts, be one-sided, ignore contextual differences, or over-generalize. It is never appropriate to inculcate fear into situations, be involved in personal or communal abuse, engage in or encourage religious violence.
  • The most fundamental element of any evangelical approach to Christian-Muslim relationships is that Muslims are to be actively loved. This is essential and indisputable. Equally, Christians should be able to live without fear of Muslims. It is to be hoped that both Muslims and Christians will work to persuade their own communities of the need, in every context, for peaceful relationships, for religious liberty and for the necessity of an end to religious injustice, discrimination and persecution.
  • The present reality of terrorism in no way justifies retaliation in kind or verbal or physical attacks on Muslims in Australia. Christians must avoid and repudiate any inadequate representation of the situation, including the identification of ‘Muslim’ with ‘terrorist’ Christians in Australia also have a responsibility to be advocates on behalf of the several hundred million Christians who suffer persecution of different kinds including that which exists in countries under Islamic control or influence.

Evangelism

For Christians, as well as many Muslims, there is a legitimate, indeed essential ‘missional’ dimension to faith. This poses a particular challenge to Muslim-Christian interaction, but ought not be used as a reason for anything other than peaceful relationships. Dialogue between Christians and Muslims is important as it leads to better mutual understanding, but dialogue does not exclude debate and dissent. Some Muslims may want to point to perceived theological and practical problems in Christian thought and life and some Christians will want to do the same with respect to those aspects of Muslim teaching and life with which it disagrees.

This is appropriate and it is, in fact, an important dimension of dialogue, especially where there are important social issues that affect the nature of life together – such as discrimination, injustice or persecution. On the one hand global issues cannot be separated from local dialogue as Christians are part of one, universal church. On the other hand, they can and should be distinguished, and blanket judgments are rarely helpful.

Christians believe in seeking religious truth and in communicating the gospel.  Some focus on confronting perceived social and theological problems associated with Islam and Muslim-Christian relationships in various parts of the world. At times they understand very well the nature of Islam and the concerns of Muslims and are able to discern points at which Muslims may differ among themselves.

Others are less concerned to deal with differences and difficulties and choose to begin by discerning similarities and establishing strong connections with Islam.  As God in Christ identified with us by becoming one of us, they immerse themselves in Muslim thought and culture.

Whether confronting differences or connecting similarities, any authentic, Christian approach to Islam will be theologically based on a Trinitarian theology and will avoid unfair generalisations, hatred and fear. The communication of the gospel will be facilitated by positive relationships between those who represent different approaches towards Islam.

Religious liberty, democracy and law

The Christian understanding of justice is not that it is self-serving (justice for ‘us’) or only for those who ‘deserve’ it but rather that it involves a commitment to the protection of the weak, the poor, the socially disadvantaged and, as in the present situation, the minority who may well be treated unfairly. Religious liberty extended to all is an important element of this understanding of justice.

To identify oneself as a person of religious conviction does not in itself infringe the liberty of others. The imposition of secularism (such as France’s ban on head coverings) is as unhelpful as the imposition of religious behaviour whether Christian (as with medieval ‘Christendom’ where the politicians and the military were seen as agents of the church) or Islamic (as when all aspects of Sharia law are applied vigorously and required of non-Muslims). Evangelicals take religious liberty to be fundamental and, as part of their own commitment and faithfulness to society, offer that freedom, under the same conditions of respect, to those of other religions.

There are nations where Islamic influences mean that Christians are deprived of religious liberty and even persecuted, and these are matters that the international community should address vigorously.  A country where a Christian culture is, or has been dominant, such as Australia, must not become a place where religious minorities are persecuted, discriminated against or vilified. Australia is and clearly will remain a multi-cultural and multi-religious society.

The Victorian Racial and Religious Tolerance Act

The Victorian Racial and Religious Tolerance Act (2001) says that a person must not ‘engage in conduct that incites hatred against, serious contempt for, or revulsion or severe ridicule’ of any person or group on the ground of that person or group’s religious belief or activity.

In determining whether that has taken place the motive of the person engaging in that conduct and the validity of their assumptions are considered to be irrelevant. A person is not in contravention of the Act, however, if they are acting ‘reasonably and in good faith’ in the conduct of genuine academic, artistic, religious or scientific purposes or in matters of public interest. Nor are they in contravention of the Act if they are engaging in purely private conduct.

Despite these qualifications the law suffers from being aligned with racial vilification. One should not be deceived by the linguistic fact that ‘race’ and ‘religion’ are two words that can be used to describe people, they are, in fact, very different.

Race is simply something that a person has as a part of their physical nature and one cannot deal with race apart from the people who identify with that race. Vilification which incites hatred on the basis of race is certainly inappropriate. Religion, however, involves both persons and a theoretical system, a set of beliefs that can vary considerably, value judgments and certain cultural-religious practices. It is possible, to some extent, to discuss religion as a theoretical system as distinct from persons.

Precisely what constitutes a particular religion is debatable and precisely what constitutes inciting hatred is complex. The film ‘The Passion of the Christ’ was considered by some to be anti-Semitic and thus a potential incitement to hate Jews. For most people, however, it was merely a reasonably accurate portrayal of the final hours of the life of Christ.

The problem is that what is intended as a reasonably accurate portrayal of a historical event can be perceived differently and under the Act the intention is irrelevant. The film is, however, exempt by virtue of being a genuinely artistic activity although another qualification is that in so doing the person still has to be determined to be acting ‘reasonably and in good faith’.

It would be inappropriate to argue that all religious statements (including, for example, those that use religious arguments to actively call for violence) should be exempt from legal action.  But the present law has not contributed very positively to the situation so far. Tolerance and understanding are the product of relationships rather than law, and the courts should not be used to resolve conflicts even if material is presented which is incorrect or perceived as insulting, infuriating or in bad taste. Christians do not believe that a new law is the answer to every social problem and this is grounded in the Biblical notion that the law, while being good and useful, cannot make people good. It is therefore important that Christians do not try to make civil law do what it cannot possibly do: that is, eradicate sin and make people good, kind and loving.

Christian living

Being Christian means having an unswerving commitment to Jesus Christ. This is described in many ways: he is the Lord, the unique Son of God, the Saviour of the world and ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life’. The full meaning of these terms takes time to be explored but Christians will always seek to communicate as well as they are able the claim that ultimately Jesus Christ is the key to truth.  This is central to Christian faith and therefore will always be an element of Christian-Muslim relationships, just as it will central to any engagement with another religion or system of belief.  It is this very commitment to Jesus Christ however, which means that love for Muslims, peace in social relationships and religious liberty and justice for all should permeate everything that is said and done.

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