Love of God & Love of Neighbor: A Call to Action

Love of God & Love of Neighbor: A Call to Action

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I can't love God unless I love my neighbor, and that love requires that I be willing to actively promote and defend his/her opportunity to believe something different than I do.

*Editor's Note: Dr. Seiple made this presentation 7 October, 2009 at the "Common Word" conference at Georgetown University. This conference was the fourth in a series of international meeting of Muslim and Christian scholars and practitioners regarding what each faith teaches about loving God and loving our neighbor.

Introduction

Good afternoon, my name is Chris Seiple. I am president of the Institute for Global Engagement, a "think-and-do-tank" that builds religious freedom worldwide through holistic scholarship and relational diplomacy.

Part of the Institute's mission is to sponsor research and education programs examining the role of religion in public life worldwide, and in particular to study how freedom of conscience and freedom of faith—or the lack thereof—a ffects the health, development, and indeed the security of all societies.

One example is our annual Global Leadership Forum, which this year was held at Georgetown and was titled "Evangelicals and Muslims: Conversations on Respect, Reconciliation, and Religious Freedom." Another example is our one-of-a-kind journal, The Review of Faith & International Affairs, which last year published a special theme issue with commentaries on the Common Word project. Through its public events and publications, the Institute for Global Engagement aims to participate in and encourage a principled pluralism where faith has a legitimate voice in the public discourse on all issues.

The Institute also promotes religious freedom internationally through what we call "relational diplomacy." We work top-down with governments and bottom-up with grassroots organizations to transform relationships of distrust and zero-sum conflict into relationships of mutual respect and win-win cooperation. We develop agreements with local partners that practically promote religious freedom in a manner that is sensitive to their culture and consistent with the rule of law.

Christian faith is what motivates our work at the Institute. We believe that the freedom to choose, to change, to share, or to reject faith is the foremost gift from a gift-giving God. We believe that we become more in God's likeness the more we work for those made in his image—no matter what they believe. We believe, therefore, that religious freedom is the responsibility to respect and be reconciled with the other.

Put differently, I can't love God unless I love my neighbor, and that love begins with the opportunity for him/her to believe something different than I do. At the Institute for Global Engagement, we are fiercely "3NP": non-profit, non-partisan, and non-proselytizing.

A major focus of the Institute's work in recent years has been Muslim-Christian relations and respectful promotion of religious freedom for Muslims and other religious minorities in Christian-majority countries, and for Christians and other religious minorities in Muslim-majority countries. In our experience of engaging and learning from Muslims worldwide, especially in Pakistan and Syria, three axioms have emerged that link theology to practical action, across three levels of engagement:

  • Individual Level: Scriptural illiteracy inhibits identity.
  • Community Level: Pluralistic respect restores responsibility.
  • Institutional Level: Holistic "seminary" strengthens security.

I will describe each of these axioms, illustrating them with examples from our own work in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), before briefly discussing their practical implications. First, however, it is important to understand the global context in which they operate.

Context

Our contemporary era is one of globalization. Globalization is many things, some of which are positive, but its impact is often experienced as a siege on identity.

Despite being told that we live in a global village, our understanding of the world and ourselves is threatened by a deluge of data. There has never been so much information with so little insight. There has never been so much communication with so little connectedness.

In this context, people yearn for meaning. They seek relationships of trust and respect. This is only natural since our global God created us to be in relationship with him and each other—to understand our own story in the context of his.

In this search for meaning, two interrelated thresholds emerge for people who believe in God. The first is the difference between lived faith and overly-institutionalized religion. People of faith constantly seek the face of God (Psalm 105:4) and try to apply his principles—in community—in a world that is often more gray than black-and-white.

By contrast, overly-institutionalized religion often seeks simplistic certainty. It can become an ideological checklist that provides self-legitimacy, defining what is black and what is white. The opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty. When faith becomes a religion, we begin to pray to a god that always agrees with us, a god that will validate our "deceitful hearts" (Jeremiah 17:9) and selfish desires. (If you are interested in what Jesus taught about this threshold, read Matthew 23.)

Once we begin to worship the self, it is all too easy to cross that second threshold: from respect to mere "tolerance." If I worship a god made in my image, then there is no responsibility to respect another human being. And once I grudgingly tolerate rather than sincerely respect the inherent dignity and common humanity of the other, the process of de-humanization begins. Stereotypes, extremism, and violence are not far behind. Tolerance is not enough.

So how do we ensure that we remain respectful people of faith and not merely religious people who offer token tolerance of the other? In my work at the Institute for Global Engagement, the three axioms I mentioned earlier have been helpful.

First: Scriptural Illiteracy inhibits identity. I am an evangelical Christian. My understanding of the Christian scriptures, especially the four Gospels, can be reduced to this: I cannot become who I was intended to be unless my identity is rooted in my neighbor. In respecting and serving my neighbor I seek to embody the incarnational engagement strategy of God through his son, Jesus. In loving my neighbor I love God and learn of his love for his creation.

I've really only learned this irreducible fact through the work of the Institute for Global Engagement ... and I am someone who has been a Christian all my life, someone who read the Bible on a regular basis before coming to the Institute. In other words, it is very difficult to internalize the "simple" teachings of Christ. The only way to do so, I'm convinced, is to stay grounded in scripture and therefore ready to demonstrate my faith by what I do (James 2:18).

The only thing more difficult for Christians than loving our neighbor, however, is staying grounded in scripture. According to a 2007 poll by George Barna, fewer than half of all adult Christians can name the four Gospels; seven out of ten "born-again" Christians said they do not believe in moral absolutes; and only one out of ten Christians base their moral decision-making on the principles taught in the Bible.{footnote}Please see: http://apostolicmessenger.wordpress.com/2007/11/13/biblical-illiteracy/.{/footnote}

Is it any wonder that another 2007 poll by the Pew Forum reveals that only 24% of white evangelicals have a "favorable view" of Muslims? (Which is to say that 75% of white evangelicals do not have a favorable view of Muslims.) And this year, Pew reported that a majority of white evangelicals believe that torture is "often" (18%) or "sometimes" (44%) justified with captured terrorists who have been motivated by their own misunderstanding of Islam.{footnote}Please see the Pew Forum website: http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1210/torture-opinion-religous-differences{/footnote}

I'm not an expert on Islam, but I think it fair to mention that the overwhelming majority of Muslims that I have met have a similar complaint: that Muslims themselves are not as familiar as they should be with the scriptures of the Holy Quran.

For example, this summer IGE Senior Research Fellow Mike Gerson interviewed several Afghan women who held leadership positions in their country.

"People need to be educated in the values of our own religion," says Rahela Hashim Sidiqi, a senior adviser at Afghanistan's civil service commission ... The main challenge, says Sidiqi, is "the lack of education about Islam itself, particularly in rural areas where culture and Islam are mixed. People don't see the difference between tradition and religion."{footnote}Michael J. Gerson, "An Afghan Feminism," The Washington Post, 10 July 2009 (available from: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/09/AR2009070902502.html).{/footnote}

The importance of scriptural groundedness was also driven home for me through my 2005 experience in meeting and developing a working relationship with Akram Khan Durrani, then the Islamist leader of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province—a leader who had been elected on an anti-American and pro-Shari'a platform. When I was first asked whether I would like to meet with him, my answer was as American as it was easy: Not only "no," but "hell no." It never crossed my mind that this man was made in the image of God. I was illiterate of my own holy scriptures.

God has a sense of humor though, and 18 months later, at my invitation, Akram Khan Durrani made his first trip outside the Muslim-majority world to visit the United States. When we first met, I had no idea what to say to him, but I found myself asking him this: Why do you do what you do?

He told me that he believed he would stand before our Creator on the last day and be held accountable for how he treated those in his care. It was then that I began to understand who my neighbor was. And that I shared common values with this neighbor—despite irreconcilable differences in our theology and politics—because we took our reading of scripture seriously.

I am a better Christian because of my friendship with Akram Khan Durrani.

Practical Implications. Spend time in the Holy Scriptures. Educate your family and fellow believers about your own faith and the belief systems of others. Do not be afraid to name and clarify both similarities and differences. Our first principle of engagement at IGE is this: "Know your own faith at its richest and deepest best, and enough about your neighbor's in order to respect it."

This is the most practical thing we can do for our faith, our global security, and our common fight against terrorists.

A second axiom I've found useful is this: Pluralistic respect restores responsibility. Obedience to God cannot be lived out as an individual. It must be lived out in community. We believe in an Absolute, but we are so in awe of him that we must realize that we cannot know the Absolute absolutely. We must be humble in our understanding of how his teachings are practically applied.

To do so, we must be in trusting relationships with one another; otherwise we end up worshiping a God made in our own image. Faith communities—literate in their scriptures—are responsible for their members, ensuring that they respect those outside their own faith community.

Toward this end, it is imperative that our respective communities—no matter the policies of our governments—seek the integration with, not the assimilation of, our neighbors.

Integration is rooted in respect for all. It accepts other opinions and beliefs, agreeing to disagree. Integration actively protects and promotes the minority amidst the majority culture. As long as each party remains simply civil, the public square is open for discussion.

Assimilation is based on mere tolerance, a process where there is explicit and implicit pressure on the the minority to assume all the characteristics of the majority culture. Minorities are not understood as enhancing and equal members of society. They are tolerated, there to do jobs that no one else would, and would not otherwise be valued. Tolerance is not enough.

The choice between integration and assimilation begins with the faith community. If we are people of faith, we must choose respect for our neighbors out of the command to love them. This is not the false "pluralism" of touchy-feely relativism, but rather a robust pluralism in which candid, realistic relationships can flourish, producing enduring and tangible effect.

In Pakistan, the Institute for Global Engagement promotes respect for the other and his/her religious freedom through a variety of means. For example, currently we are funding two cohorts of students at the University of Science & Technology in Bannu (a two hour drive southwest of Peshawar, right along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border).

In May of 2006, IGE took a delegation of Muslim-Americans and Christian-Americans to Bannu to speak about their own experiences with integration and respect. Among them was an older, Pashtun-speaking doctor from Ohio, as well as a younger, Urdu-speaking woman from Massachusetts. Both were practicing Muslims. As they spoke first at each of our engagements, the faculty and students began to sense the mutual respect within the delegation, and the delegation's respect for the people of Pakistan.

As a result, and in mutual consultation with the university, we developed a scholarship program where men and women, majority and minority students, from the tribal areas and the NWFP, would be educated together. The only requirement is that they engage in an intentional and ongoing conversation about Islam and global society; i.e., a discussion about what it means to engage/respect the other.

Practical Implications. What is your mosque or church doing to reach out to, respect, and learn from the other place of worship? And once mutual respect has been established, how now will you live out your faith? I believe that we become better believers the more we work with others who do not share our belief. Begin at home, building something practical together that serves others, then pray about where you might go together. It's amazing how big God is once we allow for the fact that he is bigger than our imagination.

Finally, a third axiom that I would suggest is this: Holistic "seminary" strengthens security. Only the best of faith defeats the worst of religion. I have "seminary" in quotes here because it's a Christian word meant as analogy to both faiths and to education. I use it to refer to education within the faith, as well as education about the faith.

In other words, it is the ongoing responsibility of faith communities to institutionalize their education such that the faith does not become a backward form of reactionary religion. I am convinced that the first line of defense against religiously-motivated terrorism is properly trained pastors, priests, imams, monks, etc. They will teach their flock the best of faith, shepherding it to exercise its religious freedom responsibly.

Equally important, however, is the ongoing responsibility of the government to understand faith well enough to show it respect. In particular, when troops and civilians from Christian-majority countries are present in a Muslim-majority country, it is imperative that they are equipped to understand local interpretations of faith and culture. Without this equipping, it is impossible for them to demonstrate respect, and thus impossible, ironically enough, for them to accomplish a mission that serves the people.{footnote}Please see Chris Seiple, "Success in Afghanistan Lies where Religion and Politics Meet," 5 August 2009(available from: http://www.csmonitor.com/2009/0328/p09s01-coop.html).{/footnote}

Consider this illustration from the Institute for Global Engagement's experience in Pakistan. After our May 2006 visit to the NWFP, a legal case came up in Peshawar involving a British-era church on the grounds of Peshawar University (a state university in the Islamic State of Pakistan). The congregation wanted to refurbish it. Some students, however, saw that desire as un-Islamic (especially as it is illegal to build churches in Pakistan).{footnote}For about IGE's work in Pakistan, please see our 2007 trip report, "Engaging Conservative Islam" (available from: https://www.globalengage.org/pressroom/ftp/658-from-the-president-engaging-conservative-islam.html){/footnote}The conflict was rendered moot, however, on December 19, 2006, when Chief Minister Akram Khan Durrani visited the church in broad daylight, and contributed $50,000 to the refurbishment of the church while laying its new cornerstone.

While none of you heard about this on CNN or FOX News, such an act by an institution of the state increased the protection of the Christian minority while promoting a different and more stable understanding of security. The Shari'a courts later confirmed this action, largely because it was Akram Khan Durrani who did it.

Curiously, the Institute for Global Engagement never asked for such action. While the Christian Bishop in the area attributed this outcome to the reconciling work of the Institute, I attribute it to God, who smiles when we show respect and love for each other.

Practical Implications. What are the curricula to educate local and national government officials and military personnel about the role of faith in culture? How should religious minorities be educated about their engagement of Christian-majority and Muslim-majority countries? How should Christian-majority and Muslim-majority populations be educated about minorities? How can we learn from each other about how to address the intersection of religion and realpolitik? Educating those who lead and advise government institutions on this issue—not to mention those who implement the policies—is a national and global security imperative.{footnote}Please see Chris Seiple, "Waging Peace," GovtExec.com, 20 May 2003 (available from: http://www.govexec.com/dailyfed/0503/052003db.htm); and, "Obama's Afghan Dilemma: Go Big or Go Home?" Commentary at the National Journal's blog on national security (available from: http://security.nationaljournal.com/2009/09/obamas-afghan-dilemma-go-big-o.php#1352488).{/footnote}

Conclusion

This is hard work. But as my brother in humanity—Dr. Qibla Ayaz, Dean of Islamic Theology at Peshawar University—has often told me, it is not ours to finish the task, nor to shirk from it. As believers in the Creator of the universe, our success is—and will always be—defined only by our obedience to him.

 



 

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