23 March 2008

A Response to Richard John Neuhaus, Public Square Comment “Islam and Christianity: Changing the Subject” First Things (February 2008)

March 28, 2008

I am one of the signatories of the “Christian Response to a Common Word Spoken Between Us” whose name was published in the New York Times of November 13, 2007. While I admit that the letter was rather effusive, reflecting Arabic style, I did not read it as “supine.” Rather, as a Jewish follower of Yeshua HaMashiach, and as a scholar of Islamic history teaching Middle Eastern Studies at a major evangelical Christian university, two particular passages resonated for me: an acknowledgment of our shared pasts, and our responsibility as citizens and believers for the acts committed by our country and people of our faith throughout history. Although accepting individual responsibility for things we have not done personally is ethically complex, acknowledging the sinfulness of humanity over the centuries is fundamental to improving human relations in humility as we face the future.

The first passage reads:

“A Common Word Between Us and You (sic) identifies some core common ground between Christianity and Islam which lies at the heart of our respective faiths as well as at the heart of the most ancient Abrahamic faith, Judaism. Jesus Christ’s call to love God and neighbor was rooted in the divine revelation to the people of Israel embodied in the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18).”

The core idea here, that God created us, calling upon us to worship and serve Him by treating one another with dignity and respect, is one that is too easily dismissed by those who want to focus on our differences.

Although great progress has been made in recent years, many Jews, Muslims, and Christians still know remarkably little about one another’s beliefs. The fundamental importance of the Hebrew Scriptures to all three religions is not widely known or accepted at the popular level. Today, Islamic anti-Semitism and anti-Christianism are fueling attacks on Israel and the Christians in the Muslim world. In response, Christian apologists are claiming that Allah is the “moon god” of a pagan religion--a pernicious idea that is making its way increasingly into mainstream evangelical culture. By neglecting the historical development of all three religions, important bridges between them are being sundered at the popular level, where hate finds a ready medium. While it is extremely important to understand the sharp differences between them, it is equally important to understand their commonalities as well.

After centuries of rejection by Christians, the connection between the Christians and Jews has been transformed by the rejection of the teachings of contempt and supercessionism that denied the roots of Christianity in Jewish culture. Although many Christians surprisingly are unaware of their problematic connection to the powerful anti-Semitic strands in the history of the Church, they must understand that non-Christians associate them with Jewish suffering. Perhaps evangelicals prefer to see anti-semitism as an aberration, it is an historical fact that cannot be dismissed as of no concern to the contemporary Church.

Among Muslims, the Marcion heresy that threatened the Early Church has taken root among salafis who reject the historicity of Muslim origins and their connection to the religious texts and teachings of Judaism and Christianity. Ahistoricism in Islam has legitimized the rejection of continuity—and connection—among the three monotheistic religious traditions, a rejection that lies at the heart of the difference between radical and moderate Islam. The majority understanding of Jews and Christians as Peoples of the Book along with the Muslims, has been rejected in favor associating them with pagans and heretics, as taught in the Hanbali tradition. The doctrine of the “uncreated Koran” has made the rejection of the Arab, pre-Islamic past as a period of darkness unworthy of study increasingly important, preventing Muslims from engaging in “higher criticism” to better understand the teachings of Muhammad. As in the West in the early modern period, Muslims fear that subjecting the Koran to historical examination will lead to disbelief. This fear has prevented Muslims from seeing the continuities—and differences—between their scriptures and the Bible. Such studies are still in their infancy, despite centuries of Islamic tradition based upon grammatical and syntactical studies of the Koran as well as “Orientalist” scholarship. The spread of Wahhabism, which teaches a literalist interpretation of the Koran, has led to renewed interest in Koranic Studies worldwide and may lead to a deeper and fuller appreciation of the influence of Jewish and Christian ideas in Arabia and the development of Islamic civilization.

The other idea that Jews and Muslims would like to hear Christians is stated in this way:

“Before we ‘shake your hand’ in responding to your letter, we ask forgiveness of the All-Merciful One and of the Muslim community around the world.” The letter continues; “...[W]e want to begin by acknowledging that in the past (e.g. in the Crusades [we Jews would like to see “The Inquisition, Pogroms, and the Holocaust” inserted there, along with “the Crusades”] and in the present (e.g. in excesses of the "war on terror") many Christians have been guilty of sinning against our Muslim neighbors.”

While the historic record is complex, today’s Christians must understand that they are associated in non-Christian minds with the savagery of the pogroms along the Rhine and the slaughter of innocent Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Muslims by the Crusaders. Violent anti-Semitism is a part of the history of the Church, and, like it or not, Christians today must grapple with this fact. In the War on Terror, the U.S. did not have to leave the infamous Abu Ghraib detention center standing when we entered Baghdad. Scholar Kanan Makiya and filmmaker Michael Wood helped Americans understand the brutality of Saddam Hussein in the ‘80s: the first thing we ought to have done when we arrived in Baghdad was to tear down that infamous symbol of Saddam’s tyranny. Instead, we are forever saddled with the images of Americans as brutalizers in a war that was devoted to freedom, and for which our sons and daughters are still laying down their lives.

While Christians today may forget that at one time Christianity was the “state church” in the Middle East, Muslims and Jews have not. Muslims see the United States as a Christian country, one of a long line of regimes that have sought to impose and homogenize faith and culture in their region in the name of their religion. None of us today would want to become subjects of such regimes, as some critics of the letter speciously have suggested we’d prefer! While the United States in totally different from the medieval Christian and Islamic empires that ruled the Middle East, as outsiders we are pegged as aggressors, and our support of Saddam, his use of chemical weapons against the Kurds and Iran, our preservation of his rule through the 90s which led to genocidal policies against the Shiites and Kurds of Iraq, and which also resulted in economic sanctions affecting the common people rather than Saddam’s Baathist supporters, led undeniably to great suffering. Can we not acknowledge our sins in allowing Saddam to rule for so long, despite his crimes against humanity, before 9/11? Is it not a sin that we failed adequately to defend our own nation against attack?

As an American who has long accepted the necessity of warfare in the Middle East as the lesser of evils in the last resort, the failures of our foreign policy and intelligent communities have been shocking and incredible. Like many other Americans, I hope that the final word is not out, and that one day we will learn the full truth about all of the disinformation that we have endured since the Gulf War to liberate Kuwait.

Therefore, the letterwriters’ decision to put quotation marks around the phrase “War on Terror” didn’t strike me as important enough not to sign it. It did not mean that each person who signed the letter opposed the war. As citizens of a democratic country, we have to assume responsibility for the actions of our government, which acts in our name. Our nation has brought harm to innocents—not just Iraqis, but Israelis, Palestinians, Lebanese, Jordanians, Egyptians, Syrians, and others—through bad foreign policies that have led to a failure of diplomacy to resolve the many conflicts in the Middle East, at great human cost. Those officials who are elected to high office—the president and the legislature—represent us and bear the heavy burden of making decisions in complicated, difficult, and sometimes terrifying circumstances. Whether or not we voted for them, we need to pray for them, thanking God that we are not the ones who have to make the hard decisions. The least we can do is accept our part of the responsibility for these actions.

Therefore, as Christians, and as citizens of the United States, we must strive to strengthen and protect good governments by engaging in peacemaking efforts, grounded in strength and wisdom on all levels, rooted in the values, ethics, and beliefs that have sustained civilization. To do this, we must face our own history and the consequences of the evils that have shaped the international state system of which we are a part and for which we will be judged.

For the full text of “A Common Word Between Us” and the Evangelical Response, see: http://www.yale.edu/faith/

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