A rabbi, three imams, and four pastors sat down for dinner…
It sounds like the beginning of a joke, but this was my experience last week. I was one of the pastors gathered around a table of leaders from multiple faiths. We talked about our kids. We talked about our challenges in ministry. We even helped flag down a server so that our Jewish brother could request that his steak be replaced with salmon so that he could enjoy his cheesecake for dessert.
More than 400 leaders — Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Sikh, Hindu — convened in Washington D.C. last week for an event coordinated by Rabbi David Sapperstein, Pastor Bob Roberts, and Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyeh. While the Christians at the event were mostly from Evangelical communities, there were also Catholic, Orthodox, and Mainline representatives participating in the event, known as the Alliance of Virtue.
The Alliance of Virtue was born in January 2016 with the drafting of the Marrakesh Declaration in Morocco; a document signed by more than 350 leaders which stated that the persecution of religious minorities is contradictory to Islam, and called for an end to acts of terrorism in the name of the religion. Last week’s event followed up on the 2016 statement with a renewed call for peace, and a commitment by Muslim leaders to provide a billion meals for refugees displaced by violence in the Middle East.
The event got very little press coverage, in spite of the fact that Sam Brownback, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, made his first official appearance at the event. With the rise of anti-Muslim bigotry and hate crimes in the U.S., coverage of events like this — where Jews, Christians, and Muslims gather to talk about how they can work together to seek peace — is critically important.
According to a survey by the Pew Forum last year, just 35 percent of white evangelicals know a Muslim personally. That’s the smallest demographic in the country. In contrast, 40% of mainline Protestant and Catholic Americans, 50 % of unaffiliated Americans, and 73% of Jewish Americans reported that they have personal connections to Muslims.
This lack of connection is reflected in the perspectives of white evangelicals. According to the Pew survey, 72% of white evangelicals see a natural conflict between Islam and democracy, while only 44% of the general population shares this perspective. The statistics do not surprise me. It is a perspective that I hear frequently in the conversations that I have with Christians about Muslims.
When I have shared how I have seen Christ’s face reflected through Muslims, Christians have gotten visibly uncomfortable, and have been quick to dismiss my experiences and even me because it is an experience that they do not know. I have found that Christians can, at times, view the image of God with suspicion when that image looks different from them, and are willing to deny God’s ability to work in places that they are unfamiliar with. Sometimes Christians have a formula for how God can work, and variances from that formula are seen as a threat to God.
But God is greater than our suspicions. God is larger than our formulas. We see that in the many layers and dimensions of creation, in the richness of God’s word, and in the unity we have in our diversity in the Church. Perhaps we see that most clearly in the boundary-crossing life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ.
My favorite moment from my dinner at last week’s conference was when, looking at the backdrop behind the podium, dark blue with stars glimmering, we reflected at our table on Genesis 15:5, where God said to Abram, “Look up at the sky and count the stars — if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”
It’s time to look at the stars, to live in the light of them, to forward the gospel message through relationships characterized by justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Then the light of Christ’s love can — and will — shine through us in ways that testify to the power of the gospel and of the God that we love.