07 June 2011

Common God, Common Purpose?

Written by 

           Syria’s Ba’athist regime has a history of bloody crackdowns, especially at the hand of the current president’s father, Hafez al-Asad. Most infamously, he had 10 to 30,000 people massacred almost overnight in the city of Hama in 1982. No opposition could be tolerated by this secularist regime (likewise for Saddam Hussein, his Ba’athist neighbor), especially in the name of Islam. Thirty years later, several hundred people have been wantonly killed in the peaceful “Arab Spring” protests of the last few months.

            Media reports keep emphasizing the brutality of the Syrian repression, despite the regime’s repeated promises of reforms. What is more, the Alawi ruling elite – a small minority considered heretical by mainstream Muslims – has carried out attacks against both the Sunni majority and the small Christian population. Recently in an address to the Religious Summit of the G8 in Bordeaux, France, the Syrian Orthodox Bishop of Aleppo, Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim, appealed to the worldwide church and the wider religious community to support a peaceful resolution to the Syrian conflict. In other words, “no regime change . . . no military interventions from the outside!”

            The message was passed on to Arizona-based Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding (EMEU: www.emeu.net) by some of the top evangelical leaders in Syria as a message US churches should heed. I won’t comment on the fact that the bishop totally sidestepped any misdeeds committed by the Syrian regime. But in a later message sent out by EMEU, a professor at the Near East School of Theology in Beirut commented on this address, affirming some points, yet at the same time deploring the lack of a “prophetic voice.” I think that’s easier said from neighboring Lebanon. Speaking truth to power in Syria is a scary proposition . . .

            But I do want to zero in on one aspect of Metropolitan Ibrahim’s address. It reflects a consensus of all the historical churches in the Middle East, from all the various shades of Orthodox churches, to the Catholics and evangelicals (an aside: evangelicals owe their presence to US Presbyterians in the 19th century, who, among other projects, founded the American University of Beirut and the American University in Cairo!). And my wife and I know this from our own six years in Egypt and the West Bank. The consensus is: Muslims and Christians worship the same God.

            These churches trace their origin to the Pentecost story in Acts 2. Look it up: Arabic was one of the languages supernaturally spoken! Over my sixteen years in Algeria, Egypt and Israel/Palestine I have memorized a good amount of scripture in Arabic – it’s a language I fell in love with early on! The name for God – long before the arrival of the Muslims – was Allah. And it still is. It’s from the same Semitic root el- (elohim, el-Shaddai, etc.) and it simply comes from the Arabic “the god,” as in “the God.”

            Back to Metropolitan Ibrahim. After citing several verses, he urges his audience to work for peace in Jesus’ name. This will include three ingredients, he adds: understanding (make an effort to know “the other”); respect (a two-way street); and justice – which he explains thus:

“A just peace means affirming the dignity of the people in accordance with their civil, political and human rights laws that are set by the international community. It also means rejecting all forms of racism that threats any group as lesser or inferior. As Martin Luther King, Jr said: “It is not possible to be in favor of justice for some people and not be in favor of justice for all people.”

            I’ll skim over some of his remarks on the present situation and get to his conclusion. Notice the powerful ethical implications of a common God:

            “Therefore, peace means a lot for us, but has to be done in a just way. I hope that you will have the motive to stretch out your hands to the Syrian people, both Muslims and Christians, in conscious support, so that they may, in their unity, lift up this horrible crisis, and move to a situation of peaceful living.

Finally, we are called to the one and common hope of humanity. I believe that, if we are to state an ideal saying to our troubled world, we can say that the one God commands us to honor our creation of the universe and its humanity, and to re-design our common understanding of living together, and respecting the diversity in peace.”

            Here we find a strong argument on the basis of a humanity created by the “one God,” though its premises are assumed, rather than made explicit. I argue for these explicitly in my book, “Earth, Empire and Sacred Text: Muslims and Christians as Trustees of Creation” – an expanded creation argument on the basis of both Bible and Qur’an. But it is also the point of Miroslav Volf’s new book, “Allah: A Christian Response.”

            Volf’s book, both easy to read and convincingly argued, is a refreshing spring that sprung up from two very different wells. The first was his Pentecostal preacher father in Croatia, who knew many Muslims, counting several of them as good friends. He taught his son that they worshiped the same God and that it was important to focus on this common theological ground. Then many years later, after 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the continuous spewing of prejudice against Muslims in the West, and finally the Pope’s ill-fated 2006 lecture in Germany, over a hundred prominent scholars and clerics from all tendencies penned a letter to the Pope and Christian leaders worldwide. Their message (now famously known as “The Common Word”): what unites Muslims and Christians is not some peripheral religious themes, but rather core convictions at the heart of their faith; namely, love for God and love for neighbor.

            Some of you will know that the first high-profile Christian response – a full-page add in the New York Times – was called the “Yale Response,” mostly penned by Miroslav Volf himself. This was the second stream of inspiration for his book “Allah.” His purpose in “Allah: A Christian Response” is simple: to demonstrate the plausibility of Christians, Muslims and Jews worshiping the same God, the God of Abraham, Moses and the prophets.

If indeed this is the case, he writes, “they will have a set of overlapping ultimate values, which will provide them with a common moral framework in which to debate their differences” (p. 260). Among other possible benefits (like cooperative work for peace and justice), such a stance is the best antidote to religious extremism. For a common God should in the case of Muslims and Christians highlight belief in a loving (“beneficent toward all and merciful toward transgressors”) and just God, helping to build bridges between the two (or three) communities, and extremism loses religious legitimacy.”

            To that “ultimate value,” add this one: “love for neighbors.” Volf explains,

“If God commands believers to hate all infidels and love only coreligionists, extremism has a religious sanction. On the other hand, if God commands believers to love all neighbors – utterly irrespective of their creeds – then we have strong religious reasons to oppose extremism and work for caring and just relations among peoples of all religions” (p. 260)

            Christians in the Arab Middle East (including Persian Iran!) have for centuries lived out their faith with great conviction; sometimes oppressed by their Muslim overlords, sometimes thriving in their midst while staying on their guard; but always believing that, in spite of their differences, the two faiths were focused on the one Creator God who will judge humankind on the Last Day. And now the emerging consensus is that the top two criteria for judgment are love for God and love for neighbor.

This leads us back to Metropolitan Ibrahim, gingerly speaking out in a Syria fraying on the edges and threatening to slip into civil war. The conclusion of his address is the following Beatitude: “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.” Add the sentence before, and you have the one point of this blog: a common God does make for a common purpose in the world, “to re-design our common understanding of living together, and respecting the diversity in peace.”