Sunday, January 27, 2008

"Vie one with another in good works." (5:48)

Hello friends,

This is kinda serious, so don't bother if you don't want to. :)

I just read a short letter signed by over 100 Muslim scholars, theologians, clerics, and leaders from throughout the world. It was put together by a Muslim institute in Jordan near the end of last year.

On the surface, it's yet another "call for unity" between people of different religious/political/social/etc. persuasions for the sake of not blowing each other (and everyone else) up. These seem to be a dime-a-dozen these days. Not to say that they're not important, and not to recuse myself from having made many of them, but for the large part they've lacked a rigor to which to bind any consequent commitment.

The problem seems always to be that wherever there are similarities, there are differences, too. And certain types of difference (religious, especially) carry with them entire identities and convictions and certainties that can’t lightly be primed over like an old coat of paint – they always show through, enough to distract at best, and to undermine at worst. Who’s work is it to examine the structure and stuff of our differences and find those shared spaces where we can engage each other?

Everyone’s, of course. But scholars can often initiate these conversations that, at first, stay amongst themselves, but hopefully over time, become the talk of the rest of us.

The Common Word statement is the result of a Muslim search of shared ground between Christians and Muslims. And as a Christian, I was deeply moved and satisfied. Many of my skepticisms were directly addressed. (Notably, about Jesus’ saying, “He who is not with me is against me.”)

One question: will this satisfy Christians (and Muslims) who believe that the end goal of their religions is the total submission and dominion over the entire world of their way of thinking, seeing, and believing? If you're Billy Christian from Colorado Springs, does it make sense to pause to find a common word with Muslims when their salvation is at stake? I wonder. I also don't think it matters (more on that below), but I still wonder.

I wonder what more conservative Christians will think. I wonder what agnostic or atheist friends will think. I wonder what my Muslim friends think. And I also wonder how these conversations can start to spread among people everywhere – after all, a “common word” needs “common people”.

The basis of the letter is a section of the Qur’an quoted by the authors, where God commands Muslims to reach out to Jews and Christians:

Say: O People of the Scripture! Come to a common word between us and you: that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall ascribe no partner unto Him, and that none of us shall take others for lords beside God. And if they turn away, then say: Bear witness that we are they who have surrendered (unto Him). (Aal ‘Imran 3:64)

You might ask, “Wait – isn’t this just telling Muslims to convert everyone to Islam? Isn’t this just telling Muslims that until everyone is alike, they must not rest?”

The letter addresses this. The authors refer to God’s recognition that the “People of the Scripture” (a Muslim name for all Jews, Christians, and Muslims) are not alike. In the Qur’an, God points out that there are difference not only between the People of the Book, but also within each religion as well.

They are not all alike. Of the People of the Scripture there is a staunch community who recite the revelations of God in the night season, falling prostrate (before Him). They believe in God and the Last Day, and enjoin right conduct and forbid indecency, and vie one with another in good works. These are of the righteous. And whatever good they do, nothing will be rejected of them. God is Aware of those who ward off (evil). (Aal-‘Imran, 3:113-115)

For me, the key is the implicit command in this section for all people of faith to “vie one with another in good works.” What a transformation that would be, and why not?

Finding a common word isn’t some fanciful utopian notion where a sea change is the prerequisite. A common word is the prerequisite for a sea change. We, each one of us, can decide that our actions and motivations be oriented towards the contest of good works that God is inviting us to join. It doesn't matter if Billy Christian from Colorado Springs is convinced or not - what about you? What about me? Can a common word be true, just for us? Because I think that it would be enough. Isn’t it invigorating to think about what our “staunch community” could accomplish, trying to outdo each other in reconciliation, compassion, mercy, and humility? And why wouldn't Billy Christian, in a moment when all else seems broken or beat, receive the same love? Why shouldn't he be converted to us?

What other staunch communities are possible? How about a staunch community of feminists and traditionalists, united to improve education and services for children? How about a staunch community of scientists and spiritualists, united to explore and conserve the world we live in? How about a staunch community of LGBT folks and their opponents, united to strengthen the place of love and family in fractured times? How about a staunch community of Democrats and Republicans, who instead of vying for power and influence, vie in good works, as the Qur'an suggests?

Why not then:
...they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
(Micah 4:3)

Here I go again – dime-a-dozen calls for unity. But the Common Word letter lays out a model for how these kinds of calls can go beyond the polite greetings that they often are: assemble people of conviction and integrity, identify what is essential, let go of what is not, expand the shared spaces, and spread the good news.

Please tell others.
And by the way - I am doing fine.


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