I had the experience recently of presenting some guidelines on how Christians should relate to Muslims. It is a common part of my work and on this occasion I was tracing how our thoughts, within the Christian Muslim Forum, had developed from our Ethical Witness Guidelines via our Local Encounter commitment to our current ‘Principles’ which we aim to offer to as many Christians as possible.
Ideally as Christians, or as Muslims, we don’t need guidelines to tell us how to relate to each other as our Scriptures tell us how to do that anyway, though perhaps not in terms of doctrine. This is one reason why some people say that it’s best to keep theology out of our encounters with people of other faiths.
The Bible tells us: ‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect’ (1 Peter 3.15)
There is always a certain awkwardness around guidelines, especially of an interpersonal nature. Even the 1 Peter text suggests that there are difficulties both with those who are asking, and those giving an answer – potentially hatred, confrontation or a less than loving way of sharing what we believe. Indeed it is not easy, it can be new and scary for us, if it is unfamiliar, though exciting and wonderful when we experience it, and we don’t know which before it happens. Sometimes our leaders and pastors are in the same position as us and cannot give a lead because it is outside their experience too.
I know all too well, from my own experience, and observing that of others, that meeting someone different is a great, transformative experience. Sometimes all ‘inter faith’ has to do is create the right kind of space and let people of different faiths meet each other – ‘I’ve always wanted to meet …’, ‘I didn’t know that’, ‘I’ve always wanted to ask …’ But we can’t be everywhere, hopefully we can create lots of spaces, but never enough, and while we have large turn-outs for some events there are many more who have never properly met someone of another faith.
So what do we say about those encounters, how do we encourage more people to take part, what is our message? Without asking these questions, when I gave my presentation a different approach to the usual ‘worthy’ guidelines was suggested by the audience. So often guidelines are very careful, they say the right thing sensitively but it’s as if negative outlooks shape the agenda. Trying to represent the views and needs of a diverse group across different faiths can take us away from the heart of why we want to encourage encounter. In short it is not the language of do’s and don’ts but of excitement and possibility. As the Apostle Paul says, ‘the letter kills and the Spirit gives life’ (2 Corinthians 3.6). Or, truth is in the heart, not on a piece of paper.
I asked my colleagues how they would put the heart of inter faith encounter onto my flipchart pad, and they came up with these: ‘We are excited that inter faith dialogue will lead to new understanding’, ‘We are open to the possibility of inter faith encounter being transformational’.
To my mind both ‘transformation’ and ‘excitement’ fit well with how the Bible talks of responding to God and sharing in God’s love with others. For Christians, and all of created humanity, this is how we should live, or work, to improve society so that it can offer this, whether it is education or foodbanks. I haven’t yet given a talk on inter faith where I say – ‘All you need to know about inter faith is summarised in one word – love’. It can sound trite but it needs to be recaptured, fears and suspicion (and uninspiring statements) come from the place where the voice of love is lacking – consider how much love is in politicians fear or manipulation of issues around immigration, especially when contrasted with the Biblical view of caring for the stranger.
How much more is caring for the stranger, including getting to know them and sharing in what is important to them (and vice versa), an indication that we live in a Christian country than the prevalence of organised religion? We should also talk more about peace, which often seems to be a neglected part of our Christian message when in fact it is central. What kind of peace are we sharing with our neighbours and colleagues of different faiths? As well as living out our faith, it is peace which builds a harmonious and fruitful society. So will Christians be involved in inter faith? Yes, they will be at the forefront of it, excited at the prospect of following their Master in sharing love and peace, and when things are difficult, helping to create both of those. Because what else would the Christian do?
Of course this doesn’t answer all the questions, which is, in fact, where our guidelines come in! So please look up those I mentioned in the first paragraph and feel free to continue the dialogue with the Christian Muslim Forum, or support us, at www.christianmuslimforum.org.