Faith to faith

During the past three weeks, we have shared stories and pictures of MCC’s Middle East work, while traveling in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Manitoba and British Columbia. Below is a devotional reflection that Daryl shared at MCC’s Annual General Meeting in Abbotsford, B.C.

Matthew 15:21-28: The Canaanite Woman’s Faith
21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ 23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ 24He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ 26He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ 27She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ 28Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.

Professor Haghani with former MCC worker Wally Shellenberger, at Shi'a-Mennonite dialogue in Winnipeg

Last week Mennonite and Shi’a Muslim scholars gathered at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg for a theological dialogue about human nature. They presented papers on their respective understandings of a diverse range of topics — including sin, grace, perfection, conscience, culture, human rights and what it means to be created as male and female. But perhaps the most interesting part of the dialogue was not the papers presented but the questions the scholars ask of one another as that sought to tease out their areas of agreement and disagreement. After 10 years of dialogue, the scholars respect and trust each other. They have clearly become comfortable with being transparent about their own beliefs, while being willing to listen to and learn from each other.

An important part of MCC’s work around the world is learning to engage people from other faith traditions. In the Middle East where we live, this means learning to interact with Muslims and Jews. Truth be told, learning to interact with people from other faiths is not limited to the Middle East or to MCC’s international program. It is a fact of modern life in communities across Canada and the United States.

Frankly, there is not agreement in MCC’s constituency about how we should engage people of other faiths. Some say that the purpose of our engagement should be to convert Muslims and Jews and others to Christianity. Others say that it is more important to simply learn to understand one another, to respect the beauty of each faith, to offer a Christian witness and to leave the rest to God.

Cindy with Fatemeh, one of nine Iranian women scholars who attended the dialogue

I’d like to suggest four guiding principles for how we as Christians can most helpfully engage people from other faith traditions.

1) The spirit of our engagement must be humility
Several years ago, Christiane Ammanpour produced a three-part series for CNN in which she explored religious extremists in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions. In all three faiths, she found those who were ready to kill in the name of defending or promoting their particular religion.

At about the same time that Ammanpour was airing her documentary, eight Muslim, eight Christian and six Jewish scholars were gathering in Stony Point, New York, to explore how their respective faiths “could lay the groundwork for nonviolent alternatives to resolving conflict and addressing injustice” in the world.

But before the scholars could talk about religion as a tool for peacemaking, they had to humbly acknowledge that each of their religious traditions has sometimes been co-opted to support the use of violence against the other. Specifically, they confessed that “Jewish, Muslim, and Christian sacred texts all contain sections that support violence and justify warfare as a means to achieve certain goals. In particular historical circumstances, these texts have served as the basis to legitimate violent campaigns, oftentimes against other faith communities.” So, for example:
• Jewish scholars reflected on Hebrew texts about the wars against Amalek and the seven Canaanite nations – texts which some use today as justification for the Israeli occupation of Palestine and oppression of Palestinian people.
• Muslim scholars reflected on the Qur’anic call to jihad and “a Qur’anic exortation that calls on Muslims to kill infidels ‘wherever they are found’ (9:5).”
• Christian scholars reflected on biblical texts that have been used to support Christian holy war, and “just war” and Christian Zionism.
Indeed in the Middle East today, the memory of the Christian Crusades is still fresh, and is reinforced each time the U.S. attacks another predominantly Muslim nation. And one need not study the history of Christian anti-Semitism beyond an elementary level to realize how Christians have contributed to the deep feelings of insecurity that many Jews feel today. Prominent church leaders like Martin Luther called for the burning of synagogues and defined Jews as “the born enemy of the German Christian.” Many Christians stood silent during the Holocaust. According to scholar James Carroll, “Support of Hitler was not only allowed to Catholics, but was required of them.”

Our own Anabaptist response to Jewish suffering during World War II and the Holocaust was modest. In the early 1940s, MCC helped to house a very small number of Jewish refugees in southern France. MCC also provided food packages to Messianic Jews in Hungary in 1947 and 1948.

The spirit of our engagement must be humility. The Christian scriptures remind us that, “We see through a glass darkly.” Far too many times we Christians have not modeled the way and spirit of Jesus as consistently as we might have.

2) The basis for our engagement is our common humanity
Meaningful engagement begins when we humbly remember that God created all human beings. All are created in God’s image. Indeed, the Bible is clear that God loves the whole world. If God created all human beings, then all humans have immeasurable worth. One of MCC’s Muslim partners in northern Iraq has modeled this lesson for us powerfully.

In the 1980’s Saddam Hussein developed a systematic campaign to empty out some 4,500 Kurdish villages in northern Iraq. More than 200,000 Kurds died in Saddam’s “Anfal” campaign and hundreds of thousands more were displaced.

In 2004, a Kurdish man named Dana attended the Summer Peacebuilding Institute (SPI) at Eastern Mennonite University. Dana is the executive director of a Kurdish NGO that operates a variety of development projects in northern Iraq. The concepts he learned at SPI have dramatically changed the way that Dana runs his NGO today. Now each project must have some peacebuilding component.

Several years ago MCC shipped some $2 million in material resources to Iraq – relief kits, school kits, blankets and more. Dana’s NGO was one of the organizations through whom MCC distributed these resources. About five miles from their headquarters in Suliemaniyeh, is an internally displaced persons (or IDP) camp where 62 Sunni Muslim families from Baghdad live. Because of their associations with Saddam’s Baathist party, they no longer feel safe to live in Baghdad, so they have fled to northern Iraq. Only problem is, they are not welcomed in northern Iraq either. When he received MCC’s material resources, Dana told his staff that some of the resources would go to the Sunni IDP camp. His idea nearly created a staff revolt. “We’re not giving any of these resources to the people who gassed our ancestors,” they insisted. But Dana used this opportunity to remind his staff that, in spite of the terrible things some of the members of the camp had done in the past, they were human beings in need. And as a humanitarian organization, they had a duty to respond based on human need, not on whether or not they liked the beneficiaries.

It was a powerful example to us of learning to see the humanity of those who are different than us – indeed, the humanity of even our enemies. The basis for engagement is our common humanity.

3) The power of our engagement is authentic witness
For more than 10 years now, MCC has had a relationship with a conservative Muslim educational institute in Qom, Iran – a place where many of Iran’s clerics are trained. Over the years, four MCC couples have studied at this institute. The Muslim clerics have told MCC workers, “If you ever become tempted to convert to Islam, we want you to leave, because you won’t do us any good. What we need from you is to be authentic Christians.”

MCC need never to shy away from our identity as a Christian organization. We need not shy away from the fact that our work is done in the name of Christ. One Muslim partner in Gaza specifically wanted to keep MCC’s “in the name of Christ” labels as a reminder that not all Western Christians support war and violence.

But authentic witness is not just about sharing words. It is also about how we live – how we demonstrate our faith in daily life.

Several years ago we had lunch in the home of an Iranian professor in Qom. He told us that earlier that day he had been asked to give a lecture to his students about Christianity. It seems that his institution was concerned with the number of Muslim youth who are converting to Christianity. Some are fed up with all the rules associated with Islam – and so they see Christianity as an easier religion. The professor took an interesting tactic. Rather than trash the Christian faith he told his students that true Christian faith means following Jesus in the way of the cross. It means laying down one’s life in service for others. It means learning to love even our enemies. Think about these things before you become a Christian.

4) The purpose of our engagement is greater faithfulness
In our years in the Middle East, our faith has been strengthened by hearing the Muslim call to prayer five times each day. It is a beautiful rhythm for life. We will always hold with us powerful images of cab drivers stopping along busy highways, pulling out their pray rugs and prostrating themselves in prayer. We have also been challenged by the seriousness with which many Muslims observe fasting during their holy month of Ramadan; and by the Jewish tradition of Shabbat – which offers a powerful reminder of how important it is weekly to set aside time for worship, rest and family.

The purpose of our engagement with people of other faiths is to be mutually transformed. In the Gospels it is fascinating how often that Jesus points those outside his own Jewish religious community as the true examples of faith – the ones we can best learn from. In the same way today, we sometimes see faith best modeled and understood by those outside our own faith community. As a Christian, I firmly believe that our salvation is rooted in Christ; and that, in Jesus, we see the fullest revelation of what God is like. But as Christians, we have not always done such a good job of following Jesus and his example. Sometimes we need those outside the Christian community to help point us back to Jesus.

It goes both ways. One of MCC’s Muslim partners in Iraq shared with us recently how he finds the Christian understanding of God’s mercy and grace to be much more helpful than the judgmental image of God that he grew up with in Islam. This conversation reminded us that we are all on a journey – and that God is drawing all people to a clearer understanding of God’s true nature.

Our engagement should lead to mutual transformation. Reading the Gospels, living in the Middle East and listening to the Shi’a Muslim and Mennonite Christian scholars last week have convinced me that interfaith conversation is not really optional for serious people of faith. Our conversations with persons outside of our own faith tradition are necessary if we hope to faithfully follow Jesus. For often it is the faith and example of the stranger that points us most clearly to the way of Jesus.

Prayer: God, help us to be secure enough in our own faith so that we can effectively engage people from other faiths.  Help us to be consistent enough in modeling our own faith so that we can provide an authentic witness to the way of Jesus. Help us to be humble enough about our own faith so that we are also able to learn from the faith of others.  In the name of Jesus we pray. Amen

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