A Little “Believing Thinking” on the Fifteenth Anniversary of 9/11 ___________________________________________________________________________
The world changed 15 years ago, or was it that we just noticed 15 years ago how much the world had changed? On that morning when airliners began flying into buildings, we couldn’t imagine what was happening. And here, 15 years later, many of us still can’t believe what has happened. Nearly 3,000 people died on the morning of September 11, 2001, and since 9/11 the best estimate is that 1.3 million people have died in the ensuing “War on Terror.”
Because the 19 terrorists who perpetrated the 9/11 attack were all Muslim extremists, and because the Muslim community in the United States has become increasingly visible, vocal and vulnerable over these past 15 years, we who are American Christians have had to think through our response to and our relationship with our Muslim neighbors. This hasn’t been easy because we’ve got history. “Emotions burn hot, and fears run high” for both Christians and Muslims. From the moment that Islam was born, Muslims and Christians have been in competition with each other. Each of us convinced of our own truth, each of us committed to our own mission, we’ve spent the last 1400 years trying to convert each other, sometimes by persuasion, at other times by force, even as we have contended with each other for the hearts and minds of the rest of the worlds’ people. For these reasons, and so many more, Christians and Muslims have not always “shaken hands in friendship.” In fact, more often than not we have behaved as bitter rivals looking on each other with suspicion and contempt.
This makes all the more remarkable the letter that was issued in October of 2007 from 138 international Muslim scholars and religious leaders to Christians calling for honest dialogue and mutual respect. This Common Word said –
Muslims and Christians together make up well over half of the world’s population… If Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace. With the terrible weaponry of the modern world; with Muslims and Christians intertwined everywhere as never before, no side can unilaterally win a conflict between more than half of the world’s inhabitants. Thus our common future is at stake. The very survival of the world itself is perhaps at stake… So let our differences not cause hatred and strife between us. Let us vie with each other only in righteousness and good works. Let us respect each other, be fair, just and kind to one another and live in sincere peace, harmony and mutual goodwill.
Who could possibly argue with this? The only real question is how? How do we prevent our differences from becoming the cause hatred and strife between us? I find the beginnings of an answer in Genesis chapter 25 – the story of the death and burial of Abraham. This is a brief and direct narrative. In verse 9 of Genesis 25 we’re told that after Abraham died, that Isaac and Ishmael came together to bury him. It’s so understated that it’s really easy to miss. Isaac and Ishmael, half-brothers, came together to bury their common father Abraham. Now, the last time that Ishmael was mentioned in the story that the book of Genesis tells, Abraham was sending him and his mother, Hagar, away into the wilderness (Genesis 21). It’s an ugly story, a “text of terror.” All that the Biblical text tells us in the set-up to this story is that Ishmael, Abraham’s son by Hagar, the handmaid of Sarah his wife, was “mocking” Isaac her son. The word translated “mocked” in this verse can also be translated as “played with,” and it’s this fuzziness of translation that led to the emergence of a Jewish tradition that says that what Ishmael did was to shoot arrows at his little half-brother Isaac! This made Ishmael the object of Sarah’s rage, which was only layered on top of her shame for not having trusted the promise that God had made to her and Abraham that together they would have a son. The mere sight of Ishmael in their family must have been a painful reminder of their unfaithfulness, and so whatever happened in Genesis 21 between Ishmael and Isaac that day, Sarah immediately insisted that Abraham send Ishmael and his mother Hagar away. This was not a strategy designed to engender warm feelings between Abraham’s two sons, in fact, it’s customary in some circles to think and talk about the morass that is the Middle East today in terms of this ancient Isaac/Ishmael divide, the family feud between the children of Abraham.
But when Abraham died, these long separated and bitterly divided brothers came together again in their common grief for a moment of uncommon grace, and I think that therein lies the promise for us on the 15th anniversary of 9/11. You see, for all of the hostility and suspicion that surely must have existed between Isaac and Ishmael, when Abraham died, they found a way past their very real and quite substantial differences to stand together again, side by side. And it seems to me that we who are Christians and Muslims, Abraham’s spiritual children, have got to find a way to do be able to do this same thing today. Just like Ishmael and Isaac, there are things that bring Christians and Muslims together, and there are things that drive us apart. When and where our beliefs and values are complimentary I believe that we need to gratefully embrace that commonality, and when and where our beliefs and values vary, we need to graciously own those important differences.
For example, both Islam and Christianity agree that God is merciful. That’s a commonality that I believe we can claim and celebrate together as Muslims and Christians. It’s the first and perhaps the most important plank in a bridge of mutual understanding. But as a Christian I believe that I must go even further. I must be very clear with myself and with my Muslim friends and neighbors that the way that I know that God is merciful is through the “suffering, redemptive love revealed in the life, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus who is the Christ” (Shenck 206). You see, Jesus Christ is decisive for Christianity.
Now, I know that Jesus matters to Muslims too. I know that Muslims believe that He was one of the six greatest prophets who ever lived, and that’s really saying something because Muslims believe that God has sent 124,000 prophets throughout history to speak His word to humankind (Elass). I know that Jesus is accorded the same honor and dignity in Islam that is accorded to Mohammed. In fact, I know that Muslims believe that Jesus was literally born of a virgin, preached the truth of God’s love, worked miracles during His lifetime and that He will come again before the end of the world.
Servant of God (Prophet `Isa/Jesus Quote Calligraphy from Quran 19:30) ______________________________________________________________________________
These are all commonalities between us that I believe we can claim and use as even more planks in that bridge of mutual understanding that we must build. But, after celebrating and exploring these convictions about Jesus that we share as Muslims and Christians, as a Christian I believe that I’ve then got to go on to name those convictions that we don’t share, those core beliefs that the church has “culled from the Scriptures and believed for the last two thousand years” (Elass 54), what Peter Kreeft calls “the three crucial Christian doctrines that Islam denies – the Trinity, the Incarnation and the Resurrection” (87). What’s missing from Islam’s affirmation of Jesus, are the very things that I find to be so essential to historic Christianity’s classic affirmation of Christ, and what this means is that while I think that I can and must walk side by side with my Muslim brothers and sisters for just as long and for just as far as I possibly can, there nevertheless comes that moment when we must part company and go our separate ways because, for all of the things that we do hold in common, there are some other things, some pretty fundamental things, about which we couldn’t be further apart, and almost all of those things have to do with Jesus.
I really do believe that what the New Testament tells us about who Jesus Christ is and what He has done for us is true and that it needs to be believed. This is what makes us Christians, and what that means is that when and where Islam deviates from what the New Testament teaches about Jesus Christ, that’s when and where I must respectfully but conscientiously part company with them. And by the way, every Muslim conversation partner that I’ve ever had has told me the same exact thing. It’s what we believe about Jesus Christ as the Son of the Living God, our Lord and Savior as Christians, that compels Muslims to part company with us as well.
So, is that it? Is this how the story ends — each of us, Christians and Muslims, with our backs turned to each other walking away from each other in opposite directions? Is 9/11 the natural and inevitable outcome to this clash of convictions and civilizations? I doesn’t have to be. You see, my affirmation of what Christianity teaches doesn’t require me to hate my Muslim neighbors and friends, or to think that I must destroy them because they don’t agree with what I believe and teach about Jesus Christ. Sure, they think I’m wrong, and I think I’m right. This is an impasse to be sure. But if Jesus Christ is who Christianity says that He is, and who I believe that He is, then it follows, doesn’t it, that in addition to trusting Him as my Savior, that I’ve got to pay attention to the things that He taught and to follow the example that He set as my Lord? And right at the top of that list is loving my neighbor, and then when my neighbors becomes frighteningly un-neighborly, to love them as my enemy. And as that Common Word that the world’s Muslim leaders addressed to the Christian community back in 2007 pointed out, the Koran teaches them to do the very same exact thing. And so, without either of us surrendering our heartfelt and carefully thought-through convictions, just like Ishmael and Isaac in our Scripture lesson this morning, in the experience of commanded and committed love, Muslims and Christians can find a meeting place, some common ground.
“The basis for peace and understanding (between Christians and Muslims) already exists,” the Common Word observed. “It is part of the very foundational principles of both faiths… The necessity of love for… the One God… and the necessity of love of neighbor is the common ground between Islam and Christianity.” The only question is, will we, like Ishmael and Isaac in Genesis 25, find the courage to make the long journey of the heart to stand together there on that common ground of love, side by side as Christians and Muslims. The 15th anniversary of 9/11 last Sunday makes this one of the most urgent questions of our time. DBS +