First, let me just say that to assert “Christianly” thoughts on the topics of Islam, Muslims, and the Ground-Zero mosque is by no means to suggest that this is the authoritative biblical view on these matters. Merely, mine is an earnest attempt to filter these subjects through the lens of a consciously Christian worldview in hopes of finding that way which may be most pleasing to God, both for myself and the church at large.
To be sure, there are very strong feelings surrounding these complex and convoluted issues in light of the current conflict between the West and the various Islamic regimes. However, as Christians we are not to be ruled by our emotions but by the Lord Jesus Christ. How would our Lord have us respond to these difficult questions?
To begin with, we must separate the interests and actions of the state (public interests) from those of the individual (private interests). God has given the power of “the sword” to the state, meaning the authority to wage war (presumably just), preserve peace and safety, enact justice, and so forth (Romans 13:1–4). This authority is not given to individuals unless they are acting as agents of the state, such as soldiers in armed service, law enforcement officials, and the like. The state has specific and limited responsibilities and authority. Likewise, the individual Christian has responsibilities and duties that differ from the state.
Specifically, my concern is the conduct and disposition of the Christian church, both individually and corporately. On the one hand you have some Christians like Dr. Terry Jones, pastor of The Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, who plans to host a “Koran burning” to commemorate 9/11. The event is intended to “give Muslims an opportunity to convert,” according to pastor Jones. Everything this pastor says about Islam may be true, technically speaking, but his actions do not convey love for Muslim people. Thus I struggle to believe that the conversion of Muslims will be a likely outcome. On the other hand, there are those who mistakenly believe that Christians and Muslims worship the same god and that surrendering our distinctly Christian theological convictions is the loving response. Still others want to ignore the moral contradictions inherent within Islam and pretend that violence is anathema to the faith.
Of course, this isn’t the first conflict in history between Christianity and Islam. That being the case, are there lessons to be learned from the past that might offer us insight as we seek to be faithful to balance truth and love in the face of conflict?
In the thirteenth century, Pope Innocent III called for the Fifth Crusade. The crusade got underway in 1217 under Pope Honorius III. The goal was to first take Egypt before attempting to reach the Holy Land. This campaign lasted for four years and was eventually lost by the crusaders.
In 1219 Francis of Assisi was present in the city of Damietta, Egypt, with some of his friars and the Christian army. It was during a period of truce in September 1219 that Francis-along with fellow friar, Brother Illuminato-boldly walked into the Muslim camp. He was completely prepared to die for the sake of the lost. When he reached Muslim territory he was taken prisoner, beaten, and put in chains by the sentries. Eventually, he was brought before the sultan, al-Malik al-Kamil, general of the Muslim army, and ruler of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine.
Upon meeting Francis, al-Malik asked if he was a messenger from the crusaders. Francis replied that he was indeed a messenger, a messenger from God. He then proceeded to give witness to his love for Jesus, and said that he wished to save the souls of the sultan and his men.
Initially the sultan was taken aback by Francis’ boldness. After all, the Muslims had just defeated the Christians in a pitched battle, and now one of them dared to state that the Muslims must convert to Christianity. However, as author Frank Rega points out, “the love flowing from Francis began to move the Sultan, and according to one contemporary writer, ‘that cruel beast became sweetness himself’” (Frank M. Rega, St. Francis of Assisi and the Conversion of the Muslims, [Tan Books: Charlotte, NC, 2007]).
The sultan’s advisors demanded that Francis and Illuminato be beheaded for their blasphemy but the sultan was moved by Francis’ “concern for his soul” and so they were allowed to remain in the Muslim camp for many days, dialoging with the sultan and preaching to Muslims who a few days before had killed five thousand Christians. Francis and Brother Illuminato would eventually part on excellent terms with the sultan. According to Rega, early Franciscan literature records that al-Malik converted to Christian faith on his deathbed, although this remains unproven.
Francis seems to have successfully differentiated between the role of state and his personal responsibility as a Christ-follower. On the one hand, he firmly believed that the Crusade was a justifiable response to Muslim invasions of European lands. Francis even told the sultan, “It is just that Christians invade the land you inhabit, for you blaspheme the name of Christ and alienate everyone you can from His worship” (Rega). However, Francis was personally willing to go to the Muslims, risking his own life. His conduct was so loving and gentle that he won over his enemies. He did not openly attack Islam or Mohammed. In fact there is no indication that Francis ever even studied the Koran or was familiar with tenets of Islam. Thus, he did not engage in polemics trying to prove the superiority of the Christian faith. His goal was simple: carry the presence of Christ to the unbelievers, and the essence of God's love, mercy, forgiveness, and salvation.
Today, we don’t have to go to the Muslims. God, in his providence, has brought the Muslim to us in unprecedented number. It is here, that the Muslim man or woman-our neighbors living in a free society-can first encounter the love of Christ through his followers and hear the truth of God’s redeemer Son. I fear that as tensions escalate, many Christians will succumb to their emotions or confuse their individual duties with national interests and fail to follow Christ in their opportunities to love Muslims.
In part 2, I will distinguish between the ideology of Islam and Muslim peoples and how the former falls under the interest of the state while the latter is an interest of the church.