Thursday, July 9, 2009

Ministry Lessons from a Muslim

I've copied here an article of interest to anyone involved in sharing the gospel. It was written by Skye Jethani and Brandon O'Brien, published Monday, July 6, 2009

The original can be found at:
http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/buildingleaders/ministrystaff/ministrylessonsfromamuslim.html

A Muslim's unexpected message to church leaders:
Fully embrace your Christian identity.

Eboo Patel is not the most likely seminary professor. His credentials are not the issue. Patel earned his doctorate from Oxford University, and he is a respected commentator on religion for The Washington Post and National Public Radio. He has spoken in venues across the world, including conferences for evangelical church leaders.

What makes Eboo Patel an unlikely seminary professor is that he is Muslim.

The editors of Leadership first encountered Patel at the 2008 Q Conference, where he challenged 500 Christian leaders to change the rules of interfaith dialogue. "Muslims and Christians might not fully agree on worldview," he said, "but we share a world." Patel spoke of his enduring friendships with a number of evangelicals and his desire to move beyond the "clash of civilizations" rhetoric that dominates Christian/Muslim interaction. While holding firmly to his belief in Islam, he also affirmed church leaders. "Even though it is not my tradition and my community," Patel wrote after the conference, "I believe deeply that this type of evangelical Christianity is one of the most positive forces on Earth."

We were intrigued, so we contacted Patel to talk more about the ramifications of increasing religious diversity in America, as well as his outsider's perspective of the church's response. Patel gave us more than we bargained for. He invited us to attend a class he was teaching on interfaith leadership at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago.

Patel is not on the seminary faculty. He serves as the executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC)—a Chicago-based international non-profit that brings together religiously diverse young leaders to serve their communities. The seminary invited Patel to co-teach the course on interfaith leadership with Cassie Meyer, a Christian who serves as the training director at IFYC.

Be more Christian

When we arrived in the class, which included twenty seminarians—men and women from diverse racial and denominational backgrounds—the students were discussing a newspaper article. Patel and Meyer were using the report about tensions between Somali Muslim immigrants and Latino workers at a meatpacking plant in Grand Island, Nebraska, as a case study. The Muslims wanted the factory's managers to adjust production schedules to accommodate their prayer times and holidays like Ramadan. Others in the rural community admitted being uncomfortable with the influx of so many Muslim neighbors—particularly after September 11, 2001.

"Imagine you are the pastor of a church in Grand Island, Nebraska," Patel says to the class. "A reporter from The New York Times calls you because he is working on a story about the conflict between Muslims and Christians at the meatpacking plant. The reporter asks you, 'What should Christians do?' How would you respond?" After a few moments of reflection, a student answers.

"I would talk about the fact that this country was founded on religious freedom," he says. "We have to respect other people's beliefs."

"Yes," interjects another student. "But if they allow the Muslims to take breaks for prayer, it will disrupt the factory's productivity. There is an economic reality to consider. If the plant shuts down, the whole community will suffer."

For fifteen minutes the students debate the matter, fluctuating between constitutional rights and economic realities. Finally, Patel interrupts.

"I'm hearing you articulate two grand narratives. First, the narrative of American freedom. And second, the narrative of capitalism and productivity. But remember, the reporter is not calling you because you are an expert in economics or constitutional law. He's calling you because you are a minister. Don't be afraid to answer the question as a Christian. Answer out of the Christian narrative."

The irony of a Muslim challenging a group of pastors to be more Christian was not lost on the students. Heads dropped as they contemplated a different response to the case study. Cassie Meyer assisted the students by adapting the scenario.

"Imagine you're the pastoral intern at the church in Grand Island," Meyer says, "and you've been given the responsibility to preach a sermon this Sunday addressing the conflict between the Christians and Muslims. What would you say from the pulpit? What would you use from Scripture?"

"The greatest commandment is to love God and love our neighbors," says one student. "Whether we like it or not, these Somali Muslims are our neighbors and we are called to love them."

"But many in the town don't view the Muslims as their neighbors," says another student. "They view them as intruders, unwanted outsiders, or even their enemies."

"Do you think referring to the Muslims as 'enemies' in your sermon might inflame the problem?" Patel asks.

"I don't think so," the student responds. "Jesus calls us to love our enemies and to show kindness to aliens. But that would have to be made clear in the sermon. The story of the Good Samaritan comes to mind." Patel is out of his chair, energized by what he is hearing.

"I want you to see what just happened," he says. "I want to affirm this. You are using the grand Christian narrative to respond to an interfaith conflict. First, I heard the Christian story of loving God and loving your neighbor. Second, I heard the Christian story of the Good Samaritan and the call to love the stranger. By using these stories, you are defining reality through the Christian narrative.

"Remember, the three most powerful narratives on the planet are narratives of religion, narratives of nation, and narratives of ethnicity/race. You cannot afford to forfeit that territory by talking about economics or the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 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."

Patel's call to stand firmly on the Christian narrative isn't what most students expect to hear from a Muslim professor.

"The more theologically conservative students are usually uncomfortable at the beginning of the course," says Patel. "But they leave feeling affirmed. It's the liberal Christians that are more challenged. They're not used to being told to 'be more Christian.'"

A false dichotomy

The exhortation to "be more Christian" is reiterated repeatedly in the class we are attending, and it represents a different approach to interfaith dialogue. Cassie Meyer says that most Christians have been told there are two ways to engage people from other faiths.

"The more liberal side says that Christians need to let go of their unique identity and affirm that all religions are valid; all roads lead to God. The more conservative side holds firmly to Christian identity and belief, but they sometimes see people of other religions as the enemy, so there is little desire for cooperation," she says.

Meyer believes this dichotomy is one reason some people raised in the church abandon the faith as adults.

"The girl who led me to Christ in high school actually walked away from her faith in college," Meyer recounts. "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."

Meyer and Patel believe there is another way. Somewhere between religious relativism and religious fundamentalism is a third option—what they call religious pluralism. This is the foundational principle of the seminary course.

"Religious pluralism is different than relativism," one student tells us. "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."

Meyer believes church leaders need to model and teach Christians how to cooperate with and befriend people of other faiths without abandoning their own convictions.

"If we don't," she says, "it will either mean more people will leave the church, or there will be more conflict between Christians and other groups." An African student in the class agrees.

"Where I come from, there is so much conflict," he says. "People are killing each other because of their beliefs. As a Christian, I am called to have compassion on the crowds, like Jesus did, and love my neighbor—even the neighbor I disagree with."

Created in God's image

In our increasingly secular society, many people have come to view religion as a problem and the source of conflict between groups. This sentiment was popularized in John Lennon's 1971 song "Imagine," in which religion is presented as an obstacle to world peace and harmony. But Eboo Patel is helping these seminary students turn conventional wisdom upside down. He sees the potential for greater cooperation and coexistence by embracing our different religious identities, not abandoning them.

"If you enter a ministerial gathering as a Christian minister and downplay your Christian identity in an attempt to make everyone comfortable," says Patel, "as a Muslim leader, I'm immediately suspicious. I don't trust you. Embracing your identity as a Christian creates safety for me to be a Muslim." A student from a liberal denomination jumps in to affirm Patel's statement.

"In my experience, the hardest thing about interfaith dialogue is Christians who are afraid to talk about Jesus, and that's a tragedy" she says. "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."

"We have often viewed particularity and pluralism as mutually exclusive," says Patel. "We think that if you are one thing, you must be disrespectful of other things."

The message of embracing identity and acknowledging theological distinctions brought great comfort to some students in the class. Maria, a self-identified Pentecostal, was initially hesitant about taking Eboo Patel's class.

"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."

Michael also confessed to being apprehensive about taking the class on interfaith leadership.

"As an army chaplain, I have to deal with religious pluralism all the time," he says. "But God placed me in this class for a reason, because I've had a very negative view of Muslims." Speaking to Patel, he says, "I'm an African-American man from one of the poorest sections of Chicago. I was raised Pentecostal and now I'm a very conservative Presbyterian. But God has shown me that I need to reach out and view you as a man created in the image of God, respect you, and when possible, work alongside of you. God humbled me, Dr. Patel, in ways you can't even imagine."

Maria and Michael, both from conservative Christian backgrounds, were not the only students challenged by Patel's class. Amy comes from a mainline church with a more liberal theology.

"I grew up believing in Jesus," says Amy, "but I was also told to accept what everyone else believed, too. I was supposed to love and accept everyone, and that meant taking different identities, including my Christian identity, and merging them together. But I've never really understood what that meant. It never made sense to me. How can I believe in Jesus and in everything else?

"This class has helped me see another way. Now I understand that I can love others, I can have compassion for others, I can even work alongside others, and still retain my identity as a Christian. I don't have to give up my belief in Jesus."

Eboo Patel and Cassie Meyer hope their class will create more momentum for interfaith dialogue and leadership.

"With religious conflict on the front page every day," says Patel, "you would think there would be a huge, robust field called interfaith leadership. But there isn't because it is really hard."

"It's not easy to engage meaningfully with others and hold on to your own identity," says Meyer.

"The ability to bring mutually exclusive people together is the gift of the great leaders of our time," says Patel. "If religious leaders will not model for their people how to live beside other faiths, then who will?"

Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today International/Leadership Journal.

No comments:

Post a Comment

What do You think?