Across the Great Divide

I can remember it like yesterday. It was three weeks before my wedding day -- Sept. 10, 2001. The next morning my brother woke me up just before the first tower crumbled.

Since 9/11, I've traveled the world many times over. Some have called me a "freelance missionary," since in any given year I can end up visiting just about any country on the planet. Out of all the places that I've been and all the people I've met along the way, one experience stands out that continues to shape my attitude toward how Christians should (and shouldn't) engage Muslims today.

It was shortly after I moved back to the U.S. from Senegal. A filmmaker named Stephen Marshall was looking for a zealous Christian missionary to participate in a feature-length documentary film about the role that religion plays in the post-9/11 clash between Christianity and Islam. I was the zealous Christian missionary.

Marshall came to my home, interviewed me along with my family, and asked us about how our faith affects our views on capitalism, democracy, Iraq, Afghanistan, the so-called war on terror, and everything else under the sun. A few weeks after the interview, I accompanied Marshall to Pakistan to demonstrate to him the plight of Christian minorities living in predominately Muslim countries. I was glad I got that point across. I thought my work was done.

Then Marshall told me about Khalid.

Khalid is an Irishman who converted to Islam in a Saudi Arabian prison. Khalid believes that democracy is human-made law, and that the hope of the world lies in Islamic sharia law. He also believes that 9/11 was "defensive jihad," a just retribution for the presence of U.S. troops in Muslim lands, U.S. support of Israel, the sanctions in Iraq that (according to UNICEF) killed 500,000 children, and U.S. support for dictators throughout the Muslim world.

When Marshall asked me if I wanted to travel to London and go head-to-head with Khalid on camera, I refused. But then the strangest thing happened. A few months later I was in Brazil. After I preached in a Pentecostal church, a man came up to me and told me that I’d go to London before the end of the year, and that I would have a great victory. I took that as a sign.

The meeting didn't go as I expected. Khalid was hot-tempered and ready for a fight. I was trying to be gentle and Christ-like. Not an even match. It took me all of about two minutes to realize that there wasn't going to be the Dr. Phil moment where Khalid discovers his inner child that wants to be loved. I realized that if there was going to be a victory like the one prophesied, it would be a victory in reverse. I would be the one changed.

Many of Khalid's ideas sounded crazy to me. But I realized, based on my experience in Senegal, that he wasn't alone in his complaints against Western decadence and U.S. foreign policy. Senegal is one of the most peaceful, tolerant Muslim countries in the world, yet I often had conversations with people who wore bin Laden T-shirts. Even though they knew I was American, the attitude of some of them was, "Bin Laden's my hero. By the way, are you thirsty? Let's have tea together!" Meeting Khalid forced me to examine my worldview and to think hard about how some people in the Muslim world view U.S. foreign policy and Christians who support that policy with their votes and their military service.

What does it mean for Christians to build bridges with Muslims? It doesn't mean that we compromise the essentials of our faith. Often people think that the work of "building bridges" leads to either compromise or the glossing over of religious differences. This is why words such as "dialogue" and "bridge-building" can be taboo in evangelical circles, because the stereotypes are sometimes true. But there are some people changing that. People like Rodney Cardoza.

Rodney Cardoza is the founder of Abrahamic Alliance International, an organization that builds peace by uniting Jews, Christians, and Muslims to serve the poor and marginalized. While most attempts at dialogue and bridge-building tend to gloss over the theological differences between Christians and Muslims, Cardoza tackles them head-on and dares to suggest that many of these differences can actually be reconciled by a careful reading of the Bible and the Quran. Cardoza's work is helping Muslims rethink their assumptions about the testimony of the Bible. The fact is, Jesus is all over the Quran. The Quran affirms Jesus was sinless and born of a virgin, and that he healed the sick and raised the dead. In addition to referring to Jesus as the Word of God and the Messiah, the Quran calls Jesus the Spirit of God -- hinting that Jesus manifests the presence of God, who is Spirit. The Quran even affirms Jesus is coming back to judge the living and the dead, something the apostles preached often in the book of Acts.

While it’s true that the vast majority of Muslims today deny Jesus was crucified, that hasn't always been the case, and according to respected scholars the Quran is far from clear on this matter. In a publication titled "Did Jesus Die on the Cross?" Joseph Cumming, the director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture Reconciliation Program, a program that builds bridges between Christians and Muslims, wrote, "Throughout the centuries there has never been just one, single 'correct' Islamic answer to the question of whether Jesus died on the cross ... Among the varied answers which Muslims have given through the centuries, I believe that there is much more room to find common ground with Christians than is generally supposed by either Muslims or Christians today."

For centuries theological differences about the crucifixion and about whether or not Jesus is the "Son of God" have seemed intractable, but a growing number of Christian scholars such as Cardoza and Cumming believe that interpreting the Quran through a biblical lens can result in surprising agreement.

Mark Siljander is a former Republican member of Congress who started his career highly suspicious of Muslims and all things Islamic but has since written a book called A Deadly Misunderstanding, in which he chronicles his journey of peacemaking and bridge-building with Muslim leaders around the world. When I asked Siljander about the dangers of slipping into the postmodern all-religions-are-equally-valid philosophy, he gave a surprising answer.

"Let me be so bold to say, without succumbing to postmodernism and the all-ways-lead-to-God type of thinking, that we (Christians and Muslims) actually agree and don't necessarily realize it initially," Siljander said. "I believe we don't have to give up any of our theological precepts; however, we will have to be willing to stretch our thinking from the religious and cultural boxes that we find ourselves incarcerated in. So it's not a theological compromise. We need to be liberated from our non-scriptural cultural understanding."

By helping Muslims see Jesus in their own book, Christians can help Muslims become better Muslims. And vice versa: Muslims can help Christians become better Christians by clarifying cultural and linguistic misunderstandings.

Christians should at least be open to the possibility that when the New Testament and the Quran are understood in their original context and languages, many of the doctrines are compatible. While it will never be possible to reconcile the actual practice and interpretations of the vast majority of Christians and Muslims, acknowledging the possibility that the sacred texts themselves are reconcilable allows Christians to pursue both the peacemaking and disciple-making commands of Jesus.

Best of all, we can pursue these commands transparently, not under cover where representatives are one thing abroad and another thing back home (missionaries cloaked as humanitarian workers). Even if the sacred texts turn out to be irreconcilable, it's probably not a bad idea to show Muslim friends that so much in the Quran mirrors what we read in our Bible. Because at the end of the day, if Christians want to build bridges with Muslims, why not start with the person that both faiths love and admire: Jesus!

Aaron D. Taylor is the author of Alone with a Jihadist: A Biblical Response to Holy War (Foghorn Publishers, 2009).

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