The view from my office in New York City overlooks Ground Zero. Every day I’m in the office, I have the opportunity to observe the massive construction project as well as the thousands of visitors to the 9/11 Memorial pools. It is all a stark reminder of how a person’s faith can be radicalized and politicalized.
Unfortunately, violence perpetrated by those who have hijacked their faith continues to occur on almost a daily basis.
The Islamist terror group Boko Haram has killed hundreds of Christians in northern Nigeria since 2009. The killings have escalated in recent months, and security forces have clearly failed to protect lives, forcing hundreds to flee for safety.
Earlier this month, al-Shabaab from Somalia attacked two churches in Kenya leaving 17 people dead and scores of people injured, including women and children.
However, attacks are taking place against Muslims as well. Last week an Islamic Center in Missouri was torched. Earlier this year a mosque in Queens was firebombed.
Whether deaths occurred or not, all these acts of violence need to be condemned by all faith leaders.
As a Christian leader, let me specifically address the Muslim-Christian conflict.
The world needs peace, and members of the two biggest world religions need to play a major role in defining the future of the world. If we promote war and strife in our lives and teaching, violence and bloodshed will follow; if we advocate peace and justice, lives will be saved.
Let there be no doubt that as Christians, we want to live in peace with Muslims and with all men and women in this world. This is intrinsic to our religion from its founding, even though we have not and do not always consistently practice what God and our written revelation commands us. We regret the actions of Christians in the past and in the present whose actions have not or do not match the teachings and examples of Jesus.
Jesus commands us in Matthew 5:9-11: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.”
In Luke 10:5, Jesus commands us: “When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’” And Jesus’ brother, James, rightly echoes his brother’s words when he says: “Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.” (James 3:18).
Similarly, Jesus’ apostle, Paul, writes in Romans 12:17-18: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”
In 1 Timothy 2:1-2, Paul extends this command to the political world: “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone, for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”
So be assured, that we support any effort that would promote peace in places where Muslims and Christians live together in the same countries throughout the world.
If we want to live in peace in these countries, we cannot wait until we have solved all our theological problems. Justice and freedom of religion are a crucial part of the peace that we all desire. No country in the world at any time in history has achieved peace between religions through those religions agreeing on all differences between them and by uniting.
Normally, it was the other way around. When the religions decide not to use violence, coercion, or political pressure against each other, a platform was built on which the religious groups could coexist despite their differences, each able to fully practice and propagate their faith, freely allowing all members of that society, of all major and minor religious communities, to choose what religion to follow or not to follow.
Even within our religious communities, it is obvious that we cannot agree in detail between the different theological schools. The differences between Sunnite and Shiite Islam, or Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic Christianity readily come to mind. Wherever those differing schools are able to live peacefully together in one state, it is not because they have agreed on everything, but because either the state forces them to live in peace (which is rarely a lasting solution) or because they themselves have decided to leave their differences in the realm of theology and conviction.
Peace in the political realm cannot depend on theological uniformity. Indeed, it is evident that even when governments share religious beliefs that even then, they may go to war with each other. Instead, we must acknowledge that religious freedom is a basic human right for everybody, especially for those that err from our point of view. The true test of religious freedom is not how we treat those who agree with us, but how we treat those with whom we differ.
The World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) that serves a worldwide family of 650 million Christians, at the last General Assembly unanimously passed a statement on Religious Freedom. The following three statements extracted from the document are particularly relevant:
- The WEA affirms religious freedom to exercise any or no religion as defined by the relevant declarations of the United Nations. The right to religious freedom is indivisible and cannot be claimed for one particular group only to the exclusion of others.
- The WEA therefore aims to work collaboratively with all who share its goals of supporting religious freedom, be it political powers or representatives of other or no religions. The WEA affirms the intention of Christians to live together peacefully with adherents of other or no religions and to work together for the common good and reconciliation.
- The WEA differentiates between advocating the rights of members of other or no religions and endorsing the truth of their beliefs. Advocating the freedom of others can be done without accepting the truth of what they believe.
Unfortunately, there are some that believe that building bridges between the different faith communities is of no use whatsoever. I have been told personally that when I meet with people who differ from us, whether politically or religiously, I am meeting with the enemy and should stay away from them.
I really hope this point of view represents a very small minority.
I have seen wonderful examples around the world where those of different faiths, even with a previous history of violence, are now living in a far more harmonious society. In every one of these situations people who profoundly differ in their beliefs got together and figured how to live in a more peaceful community.
Pollyannaish? Maybe! But as a follower of Jesus, I have to be a person of peace, reconciliation and hope. It is not an easy journey. But it is a road we must take to create a less violence-filled world. Are you ready to join me on this journey?