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Loving Muslim Neighbors

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"Christians worship the Triune God revealed in Scripture and Muslims believe that this is blasphemy. We are not simple monotheists, but Trinitarians: God's identity as three persons is just as basic to our faith as the one essence that they share."

"Who is my neighbor?" the rich young ruler asked Jesus. The query was an attempt to deflect responsibility. Of course, I have a responsibility for my family, kinsmen, and fellow Jews, but surely not for the outcasts, the morally unclean, or the Gentile. No loophole, Jesus replied. Your neighbor is the one right under your nose, whomever God created in his image. Like the rich young ruler, we all have ways of defining "neighbor" as someone who is like us. This is group narcissism: not really loving my neighbor, but loving myself and what I see of myself in others.

Who Is My Neighbor?

We recognize our responsibilities to our own families, churches, and perhaps various voluntary associations. There are school ties—fraternity/sorority mates, secret societies, and alumni associations—where belonging gives advantages in climbing the corporate ladder or getting our kids into Harvard. In a less mobile era, churches reflected the demographics of their neighborhood, as it was often divided between the farm and the town, or along racial and socioeconomic lines (different sides of the tracks). Even in many cases where blacks and whites worshipped together, the former sat in the loft—never in the main gallery—and certainly did not drink from a common cup in Communion (Paul says something about this in 1 Corinthians). In our mobile society today, churches are divided more than ever into increasingly smaller niche demographics defined by the marketplace.

In all of these cases, we choose our neighbors. They are people who are like us. We share similar playlists on our iPods, shop at the same stores, drive similar cars, and even dress alike. When we move to a new city or suburb, we find a neighborhood, church, and school that most closely fit our own self-chosen identity. (Of course, some people have more freedom to choose than others.)

Our closest neighbors, however, are not those we choose; they are the ones who are chosen for us by God, either in his common grace (providence) or special grace (salvation). The most obvious example is our nuclear and extended families. The church is another place designed by God rather than the market—at least in principle. Ideally, based on biblical principles, a local church should reflect the unity of faith and diversity of culture that belong to its particular time and place. When the defining location is "in Christ"—"one Lord, one faith, one baptism"—then all sorts of people show up who are different from me. They are not only my neighbors, but also my brothers and sisters. I didn't choose them; God did.

Who is my brother or sister? Those whom God has given to his Son, and therefore to me, as someone to love in a concrete yet mysterious depth of mutual affection. But who is my neighbor? As far as our neighborhoods are concerned, increasingly, socioeconomic demographics are more definitive than other factors, such as race or religion, which cut across income levels.

Our family lives in a typical middle-class tract home. Two doors down from us is a family of Muslim immigrants. How do I embrace them as a gift from God—as neighbors rather than aliens? It is interesting to see how our children more naturally interact with this family than my wife and I. The children play together regularly, either at our house or theirs. Sometimes there is tension, especially when they get into a theological conversation! Sometimes the kids get into lively discussions, and our children have developed a genuine love for their friends, praying that they will come to know Christ and offering witness where they are able. For the most part, they simply accept one another as neighbors.

My wife and I do our best to remember not to offer treats during Ramadan. I've tried to help get one of the kids a job, my wife gave them a stroller, and we sign up for their school contests. But surely we are not loving our neighbors if we have not shared the gospel with them ourselves. I have done so with the oldest son from time to time, but I confess it's difficult. Faith is so bound up with culture—not only in Islam, but in their perception (too often the reality) of Christianity in America. Where do we begin? Yet we're neighbors. In Jesus' book, that word means a lot more than it ordinarily would in my own. Especially when it comes to the parents; the difference between us intrigues me, but it also allows me to justify a certain distance, even unavailability. I walk into their home, surrounded by framed texts in illuminated Arabic script and swords, and they too sense the dance of the porcupines. Yet I want to be their neighbor, and I suspect they might want to be mine. I want to see them from God's perspective, as a gift he has chosen for me, rather than as a resource I choose or don't choose for myself.

Building Bridges without Compromise

Some these days are stepping out into choppy waters by trying to build bridges to Islamic communities. In many cases the effort is social, but other times theology enters the picture, no matter how casually. For example, it is commonly argued that Christians and Muslims worship the same God and acknowledge many of the same religious principles, such as love of neighbor.

This kind of bridge-building is admirable for its motivation, and I don't question the sincerity of the neighbor-love on display, working to create greater friendship, understanding, and social cooperation. As a recent Newsweek cover story documents, this is extremely rare in Islamic countries, where persecution of Christians is alarming. In other words, wherever bridges of friendship and understanding can be built, so much the better.

I have, however, some concerns on two fronts. The more important concern touches the ultimate mission and identity of believers and the church. Do we in fact worship the same God? It is true that there is widespread misunderstanding among Muslims concerning the Christian view of God—for example, that the Trinity implies three separate gods and that the incarnation was the result of God the Father's sexual relations with Mary. Nevertheless, even when these misconceptions are resolved, the fact remains that Christians worship the Triune God revealed in Scripture and Muslims believe that this is blasphemy. We are not simple monotheists, but Trinitarians: God's identity as three persons is just as basic to our faith as the one essence that they share. With respect to the latter, we disagree sharply over who this God is: his attributes, character, purposes, and relation to the world.

Out of respect for our neighbors, we have to allow them to register their own "No!" to our creed, and out of faith we have to confess and witness to the revelation of God's Word. Doesn't love require that we extend neighborly friendship and seek to bring Muslims the gospel? Is this not the way it should be with all of our neighbors? Surely not every social event—whether public or in our backyards—has to be an evangelistic opportunity, but then it also should not be a religious one either—as if churches and mosques could find some common ground of faith for their charity toward each other. The bridge-building between neighbors should happen in neighborhoods, not in "interfaith" quasi-religious gatherings.

As to the alleged shared belief in a common law of love, even this is interpreted in radically different ways in the authoritative texts of both religions. The "love" of Allah is radically different in definition from love as it is manifested by God and commanded in Scripture. More importantly, there is no gospel in Islam. It is a religion of works-righteousness from start to finish, with no rescue operation of God incarnate for sinners. The God we worship is known in Jesus Christ, and any god who could be known apart from this Savior, dying and rising for us, is an idol. To separate belief in God from the gospel is to vitiate biblical faith at its core. The Allah of the Koran and hadith is the archetype of terror, and I have witnessed the overwhelming relief of those who have been freed from the fearful resignation to Allah by embracing the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ.

I do not for that reason wish to deprive my Muslim neighbors of the free expression of their religion. In fact, I would defend their right to it with life and limb. Nevertheless, our faith is missionary not in the jihadist sense, but as the inherent impulse of the gospel itself as good news that must be proclaimed to the ends of the earth. Certainly it is true that we should engage in civil conversation. It is not merely democratic values but also the New Testament that require Christians to love their neighbors regardless of the response. To tell Muslim friends, however, that we essentially worship the same God or that God likes religious diversity is to imply that God approves of idolatry, as if this rhetoric were equivalent to the diversity that God does in fact like—indeed, creates—when he saves people "from every tribe, kindred, language, and people" by his blood (Rev. 5:9).

Neighbor-Love without Illusions

My second misgiving is subordinate to the first, but perhaps still worth mentioning. I do not doubt that there are many Muslims who embrace democratic values, but it is naive for Christians to assume that Islam is simply a religion, much less one that is freely embraced. Ask any devout Muslim.

Until we come to understand, respect, and respond to Islam in all of its differences, we will not be prepared to love our neighbors properly. Islam does not proclaim to the world good news that is freely embraced by faith apart from political coercion. Islam makes no distinction between mosque and state. In fact, the nation that matters ultimately is Islam—the ummah or community of Muslims around the world. This is not only an international kingdom of those who are joined spiritually to each other in a common faith, but also a political state. Islam is a totally encompassing geopolitical, social, legal, and cultural system. Whatever divergences may be allowed by specific rulers, Islam itself does not recognize, much less tolerate, any idea of a state that permits the free exercise of religion. Believing that all people are by nature Muslim, Islam divides the world sharply not into believers and unbelievers, Muslims and non-Muslims, but rather into believers and apostates ("infidels"). The latter are called Dhimmis—literally, "one whose responsibility has been taken." If they are allowed to live within the Dar al-Islam (House of Islam), it is only as apostates who may not practice their faith (at least openly), much less seek to convert others to it. The non-Muslim world is Dar al-Harb ("House of War").

Now, it doesn't take much research to show that Christians have failed gravely in their discipleship. Our hands are stained with the blood of "Christendom," which in many ways was indistinguishable from Islam in its "one-kingdom" confusion. The difference, though, is that when we have confused Christ and culture, we have acted in clear violation of the teaching of the New Testament. Islamic states, however, are only inconsistent with their sacred texts when they do not impose sharia, declare holy war, and extend the universal caliphate of Allah to the ends of the earth as a political empire. Whether through patient moderation or radical extremism, Islam remains a worldwide culture that is only secondarily religious. One may endure a liberal democratic compromise for a time, but only for a time.

Love and War

The holy wars that God commanded in the old covenant were types, a mere foretaste of the final judgment when Christ returns. Yet we are now living in the period between Christ's two advents when the kingdoms of this age are ruled by God's common grace while his church grows and expands by his gospel. In Matthew 5, Jesus makes it clear that the era of a holy land, with holy war, is suspended. Instead of driving the idolaters out of his land, we are to proclaim the good news, endure persecution without retaliation, and pray for our enemies. No matter how Islam continues to expand its reign of terror across the globe, focusing especially on Christ's coheirs, believers everywhere must resist any appeal to political coercion to defend the faith. Like Paul who appealed his case to Caesar on the basis of his Roman citizenship, we may invoke our Constitutional liberties, but we must not claim any political privileges beyond the freedom to practice the Christian faith, including the freedom to evangelize, which is at the heart of that faith.

There are at least three easy ways of avoiding the command to love our Muslim neighbors. The first is to ignore them, to pretend that America is a "Christian nation" and that the "other" does not really exist. That's a version of the group narcissism I referred to above. The second is to demonize them, as if they were not fellow image-bearers of God whom we are called to love and serve and to whom we are called to bring the gospel. The third way is to try to establish some reli- gious common ground that can make them seem less "other" and more like us, so that we can love them. The hardest thing is to love them simply because they are our neighbors and, as such, make a claim on us in all of their differences from us, a claim we cannot ignore precisely because God's law and his gospel are true—savingly true—for them as well as for us. May we all pray for more of this kind of love.




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Michael Horton is the J. Gresham Machen professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California), host of the White Horse Inn, national radio broadcast, and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. He is author of many books, including The Gospel-Driven Life, Christless Christianity, People and Place, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, The Christian Faith, and For Calvinism.

Issue: "The Cross and the Crescent" July/August 2012 Vol. 21 No. 4 Page number(s): 30-35

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