Church and State: A Lesson from a Muslim

Church StateI came across a powerful article in the Out of Ur blog, part of the Christianity Today website, about how a Muslim professor was teaching Christian pastors about (now get this) Christianity.

Here’s the key excerpt —

When we arrived in the class, which included twenty seminarians—men and women from diverse racial and denominational backgrounds—the students were discussing a newspaper article. Patel and Meyer were using the report about tensions between Somali Muslim immigrants and Latino workers at a meatpacking plant in Grand Island, Nebraska, as a case study. The Muslims wanted the factory’s managers to adjust production schedules to accommodate their prayer times and holidays like Ramadan. Others in the rural community admitted being uncomfortable with the influx of so many Muslim neighbors—particularly after September 11, 2001.

“Imagine you are the pastor of a church in Grand Island, Nebraska,” Patel says to the class. “A reporter from The New York Times calls you because he is working on a story about the conflict between Muslims and Christians at the meatpacking plant. The reporter asks you, ‘What should Christians do?’ How would you respond?” After a few moments of reflection, a student answers.

“I would talk about the fact that this country was founded on religious freedom,” he says. “We have to respect other people’s beliefs.”

“Yes,” interjects another student. “But if they allow the Muslims to take breaks for prayer, it will disrupt the factory’s productivity. There is an economic reality to consider. If the plant shuts down, the whole community will suffer.”

For fifteen minutes the students debate the matter, fluctuating between constitutional rights and economic realities. Finally, Patel interrupts.

“I’m hearing you articulate two grand narratives. First, the narrative of American freedom. And second, the narrative of capitalism and productivity. But remember, the reporter is not calling you because you are an expert in economics or constitutional law. He’s calling you because you are a minister. Don’t be afraid to answer the question as a Christian. Answer out of the Christian narrative.”

The irony of a Muslim challenging a group of pastors to be more Christian was not lost on the students. Heads dropped as they contemplated a different response to the case study. Cassie Meyer assisted the students by adapting the scenario.

“Imagine you’re the pastoral intern at the church in Grand Island,” Meyer says, “and you’ve been given the responsibility to preach a sermon this Sunday addressing the conflict between the Christians and Muslims. What would you say from the pulpit? What would you use from Scripture?”

“The greatest commandment is to love God and love our neighbors,” says one student. “Whether we like it or not, these Somali Muslims are our neighbors and we are called to love them.”

“But many in the town don’t view the Muslims as their neighbors,” says another student. “They view them as intruders, unwanted outsiders, or even their enemies.”

“Do you think referring to the Muslims as ‘enemies’ in your sermon might inflame the problem?” Patel asks.

“I don’t think so,” the student responds. “Jesus calls us to love our enemies and to show kindness to aliens. But that would have to be made clear in the sermon. The story of the Good Samaritan comes to mind.” Patel is out of his chair, energized by what he is hearing.

“I want you to see what just happened,” he says. “I want to affirm this. You are using the grand Christian narrative to respond to an interfaith conflict. First, I heard the Christian story of loving God and loving your neighbor. Second, I heard the Christian story of the Good Samaritan and the call to love the stranger. By using these stories, you are defining reality through the Christian narrative.

“Remember, the three most powerful narratives on the planet are narratives of religion, narratives of nation, and narratives of ethnicity/race. You cannot afford to forfeit that territory by talking about economics or the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Don’t be afraid to be Christian ministers. If you don’t use the Christian narrative to define reality for your people, then someone else will define reality for them with a different narrative.”

Oh, wow … this is powerful stuff. And much needed by the Christian church.

We are not called to preach the United States constitution. Neither are we called to preach the free enterprise system. We are called to preach Jesus.

When we consider the question of aliens (Christian or otherwise), we nearly always think not as Christians but as Americans: What is in my best interests? How does immigration impact the economy? The government? We’ve so compartmentalized our thinking that it doesn’t even occur to us that God may have an opinion on the subject.

These are the same questions that the pagans ask. What does Christianity add to the discussion? Why don’t we think as Christians first? Why isn’t “Love your neighbor” the very first thing that comes to mind? And why don’t we ever preach the passages about aliens? I mean, God begins the statement of law in Deuteronomy by reminding the Israelites who he is and who he cares about —

(Deu 10:16-19)  Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer. 17 For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. 18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing. 19 And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt.

When was the last time you heard a sermon on the numerous passages that speak to our treatment of aliens? When have you heard a sermon that describes an illegal alien as a “neighbor”?

Now, what does that mean? Does it mean we open the borders? That we offer citizenship to all who ask? No. It means we consider the question as Christians — from within the Christian “narrative,” that is, the true account of who God is and how he deals with the world and how wants his people to deal with the world. And only after we’ve done the theology do we take up economics and constitutional law — if the theology even tells us to go there.

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2 Responses

  1. Jay,

    Thank you for reminding me that we are all strangers and pilgrims in this world, and that all men are our neighbors.

    Some subjects are so emotional because of economics and politics that we forget to view them from the perspective of the kingdom of God.

    I am a registered Republican, but this is one issue where I feel very uncomfortable with most Republican speakers – and not much more comfortable with what the Democrats are saying and doing.

    Living in Florida (and in an area with many Hispanic families), I see “the stranger in our midst” – and few Christians are doing much to touch them with the gospel. We do have one Mexican family that attends our congregation – spasmodically. The mother & grandmother is very faithful and outgoing, but other members of the family are erratic.

    I see the problem – but what do I do about it? How can I touch lives in a meaningful way when we (many times) cannot even communicate with each other?

  2. Jerry,

    As indicated by a recent comment, http://oneinjesus.info/2009/06/30/the-national-congregations-study-and-churches-of-christ-part-1/#comment-14598, there are many congregations with successful Hispanic ministries.

    I don’t pretend to any expertise, as we have a much smaller Hispanic population here and most speak serviceable English. However, I’m confident there are churches that can share how to work through the language barrier.

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