Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Christian/Muslim Interfaith Dialogue

I consider interfaith dialogue to be both a genuine way of witnessing to the gospel of Jesus Christ (a way of conversation that listens and expects to learn and doesn’t just drown out the other), and a necessary part of peacemaking. In our current context the most urgent need is for greater Christian/Muslim dialogue and understanding. This needs to go on at the grassroots level with groups from local mosques and churches gathering to inform each other about beliefs, customs, rituals, etc. Only by truly knowing our Muslim sisters and brothers can we keep from bearing false witness against them.

When I have made such statements on other blogs, I have been accused of either believing in universal salvation (that is for God to decide, not me), in believing that “all religions are equal,” whatever that would mean, or in denying the Good News of Jesus Christ. This is not true. I am a Christian. I would be overjoyed if every Muslim became Christian–just as every Muslim I know would be overjoyed if we Christians (whom they consider to have some truth, but to be imperfectly worshipping and serving God) would convert to the “Straight Path.” As far as I can understand, Islam and Christianity, though holding to several common beliefs, also hold mutually incompatible ones. We disagree over some very important things: Although Muslims believe in Jesus’ virgin birth, they deny that he was God incarnate and deny his Sonship (“God has no sons.”). They deny both the crucifixion and the resurrection. They deny the Trinity and, like our Jewish sisters and brothers, suspect that the Trinity either means that Christians cannot do math or that we aren’t really monotheists.

These are significant areas of disagreement. I don’t want to minimize them. Nor do I wish to avoid discussing them–although sometimes it helps to build relationships of trust before tackling really strong differences.

My concern is to defend the religious liberty of Muslims, to avoid bearing false witness against Islamic neighbors by sweeping generalizations that compare the best of Christianity against the worst exemplars of Islam, and to work together with Muslims for justice and peace in the world.

Currently, I see a debate going on WITHIN the major world religions over whether the pursuit of justice (as each sees it) or the advance of their faith can use violent means. The question of whether Islam is or can be nonviolent is something only Muslims can decide. I know which side of that debate to cheer for; I’m pulling for my friends in the Muslim Peace Fellowship and similar organizations and for the heritage of Khan Abdul Gaffer Khan, “the Frontier Gandhi” who led a nonviolent army of Pathans along the Indian Afghanistan border (in the area now between Afghanistan and Pakistan) that was the most disciplined part of Gandhi’s nonviolent movement. But I cannot, as a Christian, say which group is heretical according to Islamic teachings. I can say that, from the inside, about Christianity. The nonviolence of Jesus and the early church was RIGHT and the abandonment of this nonviolence and embrace of “just war theory” by the later church constitutes a massive heresy. Yes, for 16 centuries now, the MAJORITY of Christians have been heretics. I work to call the church universal to repent and re-embrace the nonviolence that Jesus taught and practiced.

We Christians have an advantage in seeking to reform our faith: Throughout much of the Christian world, there is widespread literacy. People can read the New Testament and see that they violent false preachers like John Hagee are blowhards who don’t have a clue. By contrast, illiteracy is widespread in the Islamic world, making the average Muslim even more vulnerable to manipulation by fanatics posing as scholars. Considering how widely Christians confuse militaristic nationalism with the gospel, I believe we should spend less time criticizing Muslim violence and more time criticizing our own compromises with violence–and praying for the success of reform movements like the Muslim Peace Fellowship.

Meanwhile, we need to continue to seek better understanding among all faiths, especially the three monotheistic faiths.

September 21, 2006 Posted by | evangelism, interfaith, Islam, religious liberty | 6 Comments

JPT Practice # 5 Advance Democracy, Human Rights, & Religious Liberty

It should go without saying, but recent years have proven otherwise: One cannot and should not try to “advance democracy” by means of military invasion or coercion. Democratic movements must arise indigenously. Established democracies seldom go to war with other democracies and, not needing to fear uprisings from repressed peoples, can spend much less on military budgets. (The U.S. is a glaring exception here, but is thereby becoming less democratic; more a plutocratic oligarchy.) As Roger Williams, Richard Overton and others knew long ago, the lack of human rights and religious liberty is a major cause of war. Protecting and spreading these norms works for just and lasting peace.

Since established democracies rarely fight other democracies, spreading democracy works to create “zones of peace.” Note: Democracies sometimes do support non-democratic regimes which violate human rights and sometimes democracies fight “proxy wars” through other nations. Democracies are not perfect. They are quite capable of bad behavior. Just Peacemaking theory supports advancing democracy for 2 reasons: 1) Self-determination and self-rule are goods in themselves. 2) Since democracies seldom fight each other and tend to spend less on military preparations and arms, the more democracies, the fewer wars overall. See further, Spencer Weart, Never at War: Why Democracies will Never Fight Each Other (Yale Univ. Press, 1998); Rudolf Rummel, Power Kills: Democracy as a Method of Nonviolence (Transaction, 1996); Bruce Russett, Grasping the Democratic Peace: Principles for a Post-Cold War World (Princeton Univ. Press, 1993).

But the question naturally arises, How does one “advance democracy,” if one rules out doing so by military force from without? Well, for one, one doesn’t sell arms or otherwise support a dictatorship–no matter how much it may look in the short term interest of one’s nation. One also can offer incentives and reward moves that are steps to democratic reform. If a democratic movement develops indigenously, one can support it diplomatically and can sanction a nation which tries to suppress such a movement, especially if the movement is nonviolent. If a democratic movement wins, but is suppressed by a military (e.g., Burma), one can refuse to recognize the non-democratic government as legitimate. Trade sanctions and other tools can be used to pressure the government into recognizing the democratic elections.

One must also support universal human rights. This can be done through government agencies and international bodies (e.g., the UN, the International Criminal Court, etc.), but NGOs such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First, etc. also have vital roles to play. It is difficult, if not impossible, to promote human rights abroad while violating them domestically. The campaign against the U.S.’ use of torture, secret prisons, domestic spying, and other human rights violations is a vital part of the struggle against global terrorism and for peace.

A vital part of this practice is the promotion of religious liberty for everyone. That includes standing up for the religious liberty of those with whom one disagrees. Christians must support the religious liberty of Muslims, Jews, Budddhists, and atheists, as well as defending the religious liberty of Christians. One cannot try for special privileges for one’s own religion. Government should be religion neutral.

Pope Paul VI coined a phrase which became a by-word of Catholic missions in the 1970s and 1980s, “If you want peace, work for justice.” Working nonviolently to advance democracy, human rights, and religious liberty, sows seeds of peace domestically and globally.

September 21, 2006 Posted by | just peacemaking | 1 Comment