Ministry Lessons from a Muslim
Leadership Journal has published an article on Eboo Patel, a Muslim who is the executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), which is an organization that “brings together religiously diverse young leaders to serve their communities”. He was asked to co-teach a class on interfaith leadership at McCormick Seminary along with Cassie Meyer, a Christian who serves in leadership training at IFYC. He has said, “Even though it is not my tradition and my community, I believe deeply that this type of evangelical Christianity is one of the most positive forces on Earth.”
How ‘bout that? That’s a far better eye opener than caffeine first thing in the morning.
He is a devout Muslim who challenges us to be more Christian, and to be unafraid to interpret life and circumstances through our own Christian narrative. He makes the point that we often see and speak through other narratives – through capitalism and productivity, or the narrative of American freedom. But he demonstrates emphatically that we have a unique Christian narrative which gives us what we need to bring our story into conversations of life and reality.
In my tribe we are often taught defense of the faith, propositional truths of scripture and doctrine, and how to express a rhetoric of beliefs and Christian culture. But we are not often taught to see ourselves as immersed in the Christian story which has the power to not just give us sound bites of truth, but to give us a deep wisdom for living and loving in this complex and hurting world. We have a story that is centered around a God who enters wholly into the world of the other, and who brings a new and deeper understanding of what His heart for people is like. He has given us everything we need for life and godliness, says 2 Peter 1:3.
We have a narrative that gives us the wisdom we need to figure out how to make space for the other. Many struggle with the dichotomy that exists in Christendom between the liberal side of us which leans towards some confusing boundaries, and the more conservative side which, in its energy to preserve Christian identity, may lean towards seeing other religions as a threat, or even as the enemy. It is true that in my tribe there is considerable hesitation around loving and accepting those of another faith, as if choosing to embrace them means we must then merge our beliefs. My last couple of posts dealt with questions of syncretism.
I struggled immensely with this very thing back when I was in college. As part of a campus para-church organization, we felt we must share the gospel with everyone (not a bad idea) but that drive got in the way of establishing friendships outside of the group. It’s hard to be a true friend if you have an agenda to convince and change someone. To allow friendship for it’s own sake was risky – we felt we would be in danger of compromising our faith and worse, wasting an evangelistic opportunity. That produced a pretty anemic kind of love. (That was a long, long time ago for me, whew!) But this story really stood out to me: Cassie Meyer says, “The girl who led me to Christ in high school actually walked away from her faith in college. She was the strongest Christian I knew, but once she left home and started becoming friends with Jews, Hindus, and Muslims, she had a crisis. She’d been told these people were going to hell, that they were the enemy. The only way she could reconcile her friendship and admiration for these people was by abandoning her faith and affirming that all religions are true.” I remember seeing that happen more than once. There was no middle ground.
There has not been a whole lot of teaching that has helped and encouraged us to understand that we may hold to our beliefs and yet be unafraid to move with genuine love into relationships with those who believe otherwise. But we have a God who is full of surprises, and here is a Muslim giving us genuine help to dive into our own Christian narrative to inform and shape us as we relate and speak confidently as Christians, while offering respect and openness to true connection and collaboration.
A student of the class describes the foundational principle of the class:
“Religious pluralism is different than relativism. Relativism says you cannot make exclusive truth claims, that everyone is right. Pluralism simply recognizes that we live in a very diverse culture; there are a lot of different religions. Pluralism means talking about how we can live together and still maintain our own religious identity. Truth claims are okay.”
A few more interesting quotes:
“In my experience, the hardest thing about interfaith dialogue is Christians who are afraid to talk about Jesus, and that’s a tragedy. That’s what I appreciate about evangelicals. They enter the room and they want to talk about Jesus. They’re not afraid to own their identity and their narrative, and that gives freedom for everyone else to do the same.”
“I thought the class was a call to believe that all faiths lead to the same place,” says Maria, “and I don’t believe that.” She went on to explain that her denomination is very intentional about not engaging in interfaith dialogue. But now she realizes how important, and how possible, interfaith cooperation is. “Can my church respect another person’s identity? Yes. Can we have mutually encouraging relationships? I believe we can. Can we work together toward a common cause? I believe we can.”
“This class has reminded me of a basic Christian belief—that we are all created in God’s image,” she says. “When I’m in conversation with my friend who is a Muslim, can I honor her as someone created in God’s image? I believe that’s what God calls me to do.”
And from Dr. Patel: “Don’t be afraid to be Christian ministers. If you don’t use the Christian narrative to define reality for your people, then someone else will define reality for them with a different narrative.”
It’s the most encouraging article I have read in a while. It reaffirms the truth that we have what we need to love just as Jesus did and we have the freedom to do so without fear or caveat. That is a world changing love. And it will call us to become better students of our own story, so we may move beyond propositions and rhetoric to reflect on the redemptive plot, themes and movement of the Jesus story. Our story is able to speak powerfully in all aspects of life in this world that we share. As Dr. Patel said, evangelical Christianity is one of the most powerful forces on earth. I would say that it is Christ Himself in us, our Hope of Glory, who loves and transforms the world as we live and love and move as He did. I agree …that is undeniably powerful and powerfully hopeful.