What We Can Do about ISIS

Father NabilAt one point on my recent trip to the Middle East an Army chaplain said to me with tears in his eyes, “We are at the beginning of something like the Protestant Reformation, and Father Nabil Haddad is like Martin Luther.”

Father Nabil Haddad is the Catholic priest who invited six of us to World Interfaith Harmony Week in Amman, February 1-7. For several years now Father Nabil has been working with Episcopal priest Bill Sachs, who convenes our interfaith group in Richmond, and he and Bill agreed that it would be good for us to have this experience. Apparently our group is something of a novelty–Muslims, Christians, and Jews who not only “dialogue” about the serious business of interfaith relations, but who also eat together, travel together, and sometimes, just for fun, bowl together. Father Nabil wanted to see that for himself, and also wanted his colleagues here in Jordan to see it.

And so he invited us to his house for dinner, where we were greeted by his wife and adult children (“Wait a minute. Wife and children? Didn’t you say he was a Catholic priest?” Yes, he is. A Melkite Catholic priest, which is closer to Greek Orthodox than Roman Catholic, and yet in full communion with the worldwide Catholic Church). His children were perfect hosts (I got the feeling they’d had some practice), and his wife had cooked the entire meal we enjoyed, and we enjoyed it entirely.

Along with our delegation Nabil had invited a half-dozen US Army chaplains he’s become acquainted with. This was a surprise to us, but we’re learning that with Father Nabil you have to be ready for almost anything. The chaplains turned out to be terrific guys and one of them identified himself to me as a Southern Baptist pastor from Washington state.

As we were getting to know each other our conversation was interrupted by the news that the Jordanian pilot being held by ISIS had been executed, and in the most horrific way imaginable. Someone asked Father Nabil if he would lead us in prayer, and we all stood and joined hands while he prayed for the family of this pilot, and for the country of Jordan, and for peace in the Middle East.

For the rest of the evening this tragic news was the topic of conversation. We ate dinner with the television on, and at one point Father Nabil got a call asking if he could come and make an appearance on national television. That’s when I got into a conversation with the chaplain who told me that Nabil was like Martin Luther.

It surprised me, coming from him, because in the course of conversation I learned that he was a Mormon, and I felt my spine stiffen just a little bit. I can talk to Muslims and Jews. I can even talk to Episcopalians (smile). But here was someone who was not exactly “orthodox,” if you know what I mean: someone whose religion was just enough different from my own that all I could see were the differences and all I could feel was an urge to distance myself.

But I stayed with it. I kept on talking with him. And then he said that remarkable thing, with tears in his eyes, and it made me look at him in a different way: as a fellow human being, certainly, but as someone who was also looking for peace in the world and between our warring religions.

Like me.

That’s been my experience over and over on this trip, as I ride on the tour bus beside a Muslim imam, and talk with my Jewish rabbi roommate after the lights have gone out at night: I’ve been seeing all the ways in which we are like each other on the human level, but also in our desire to see that day when all of God’s children can live in peace. Father Nabil said, “When my Jordanian friends see you–Muslim, Christian, Jew–eating together, traveling together, laughing together…I think they are very jealous! You are setting an example for us.” That doesn’t mean my interfaith group is trying to create “one world religion.” Not at all. In fact we are finding that the more passionately we embrace our own religious identities–as Christians, Jews, and Muslims–the more we are able to respect and appreciate each other’s religions. And what is central to each of them is a love for God and neighbor.

Which makes it clear that ISIS is not Islamic.

When ISIS killed that Jordanian pilot (a faithful Muslim) it let the world know that its agenda is not Islam vs. Christianity; its agenda is to gain control through fear, and it doesn’t care who it kills in order to achieve that goal.*  But suppose that instead of eyeing each other with suspicion the world’s religions joined hands and prayed–for the end of ISIS, the end of extremism, the end of fear?

That’s what we did in Father Nabil’s living room. I joined hands with a circle of friends that included a rabbi, an imam, a Catholic priest, a Baptist minister, and a Mormon chaplain, and we prayed together for an end to the kind of violence and hatred that could do such a thing to another human being. We did it in part because Father Nabil believes this is the only way to achieve peace in the world–for the many religions to stop arguing with each other and join hands in prayer to the One who would love to see his children come together…

…in peace.

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*When Ammar Amonette, the imam who was traveling with us, heard what ISIS had done to the Jordanian pilot he said, “This is not Islam.  The Quran does not allow this kind of killing.”

How Good and Pleasant It Is

Nabil HaddadI’m traveling to Amman, Jordan, next week with a priest, an imam, and a rabbi.

Sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, doesn’t it?

But it’s not.  My Richmond interfaith group has been invited to participate in something called “World Interfaith Harmony Week” by Father Nabil Haddad, a Catholic priest who lives in Amman and works to promote peaceful relations among Christians, Muslims, and Jews.

These days, more than ever, that kind of work needs to be done.

I told someone at the Jewish Community Center that I was on my way to Jordan for this conference and he said, “Well, good!  Someone needs to tell those Muslims to quit blowing us up.”  I tried to explain that it’s not “those Muslims,” but rather radical extremists who are the problem, and you can find those in almost any religion.  “Not ours,” he said.  “You don’t see us cutting anybody’s heads off.”

Maybe not today, but during the Crusades “Christian Soldiers” massacred both Muslims and Jews in their efforts to re-take the Holy Land.  And, yes, they used swords.  Many modern-day extremists refer to those events when they try to justify their own actions.  “We are only doing what was done to us!” they say.

Yes, but that was a thousand years ago.  Can’t we let it go?  Must we always be at war with each other?

In my interfaith group we are often reminded that Jews, Christians, and Muslims (through Ishmael) consider Abraham their ancestor.  If that’s true, if he is in fact our “father,” then we are in fact “brothers.”  It doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything anymore than my biological brothers and I agree on everything,  It certainly doesn’t mean that we have to adopt each other’s beliefs or practice each other’s religion.*  But I hope it would mean that we would try to get along with each other, and at the very least not kill each other.

I love the beginning of Psalm 133: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (KJV).  It is good and pleasant.  And the times I have spent with the members of my interfaith group talking, sharing meals, and even bowling together, has convinced me that we don’t have to hate each other just because we’re different.  We “children of Abraham” can dwell together in unity.  May it be so as we travel to Amman, and may we set an example for the world to follow.

These days, more than ever, that work needs to be done.

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*I spent a good bit of time on the phone recently trying to convince a woman that I was not promoting “Chrislam” (her word for a supposed synthesis between Christianity and Islam).  For years in my interfaith work I have followed the advice that the best way to have interfaith dialogue is to be a wholehearted adherent of your own faith and not try to water it down or make it more palatable to others.  That’s how we reach a place of mutual understanding and respect.

KOH2RVA: Day 264

Interfaith Jefferson

I’m not sure whose idea it was that my interfaith group should visit Monticello, but that’s what we did on Wednesday. There was something in the memo about Thomas Jefferson’s commitment to “religious liberty,” and how important it is for all Americans to be able to worship in the way they choose. So, Jefferson himself (and not just his statue) might have been pleased to pose with Ben Romer, a Jewish rabbi (at left); Ammar Amonette, a Muslim imam; Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence; Nathan Elmore, a Baptist campus minister; Jim Somerville, a Baptist pastor; and Bill Sachs, an Episcopal priest. Not pictured above is Imad Damaj, head of the Virginia Muslim Coalition for Public Affairs, who snapped this photo.

We went from Monticello to the Kabob Palace in Charlottesville for lunch (delicious), and for a meeting with Peter Ochs, the Edgar M. Bronfman Professor of Modern Judaic Studies at the University of Virginia. Dr. Ochs coined the term “scriptural reasoning,” and is the co-founder of the Society for Scriptural Reasoning, which promotes interfaith dialogue among Christians, Jews, and Muslims through scriptural study groups. So, after lunch, we studied some scripture.

We looked at a verse from the Qur’an about the Creation, this one, 2:117, which reads: “Originator of the heavens and the earth. When He decrees a matter, He only says to it, ‘Be,’ and it is.”

We noticed how similar that one is to Genesis 1:1 that reads, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” and continues in verse 4 with, “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”

And then we looked at John 1:1 that reads: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” and continues in verse 3 with, “All things were made through him.”

The imam had trouble with that one. “How could the Word be God and God be the Word?” he asked. “Those sound like two different things and God, as you know, is One.” And I said, “Well it says right here, ‘God was the Word’ and ‘the Word was God.’ The two are one and the same.”

We didn’t get much past that on Wednesday, but pause and reflect on that moment when the Baptist pastor and the Muslim imam were discussing Scripture in the most cordial, respectful way you can imagine. That probably wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t spent some time together already, getting to know each other and becoming friends. Part of our “mission” in this interfaith group, is to show all of Richmond that just because we come from different traditions and have different beliefs, we don’t have to be enemies. We are trying to model true interfaith friendship. If you have eyes to see it, it is a way of bringing heaven to earth. And on Wednesday, even though we didn’t agree on everything,

We talked like old friends.

KOH2RVA: Day 184

don't hateLast night I went to something called an “Interfaith Friendship Dinner” in the Adams Room at Richmond’s First Baptist Church. There were about 30 people there, mostly Episcopalians, with a generous number of Muslims, Baptists, and Presbyterians mixed in (the Jewish delegation had to cancel at the last minute due to illness).

Why interfaith friendship, and why at a Baptist church? I stood at the podium last night and explained it like this:

“There is a story in the Christian tradition about a time when an expert in the law of Moses asked Jesus how he could inherit eternal life. Jesus said, ‘You’re the expert. What do you think?’ and the lawyer said, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ ‘Good answer!’ Jesus said. ‘Do that and you will live.’ But the lawyer asked (and I’m sure you’ve heard this part before), ‘Who is my neighbor?’ And Jesus told a story in which the example of ‘neighbor’ was a Samaritan: someone who shared a common religious ancestry with the Jews, but who was of another faith. And that’s us, isn’t it? Jews, Christians, and Muslims can all trace their religious ancestry back to Abraham. Although our paths have diverged since then and we claim different faiths I think Jesus would say that we are still ‘neighbors’ and still bound by the obligation to love each other. But we can’t love what we don’t know and that’s why we’re having dinner tonight: to get to know each other so that we can come to love each other.”

Several others stepped up to the podium after that including Bill Sachs from St. Stephens Episcopal Church who has been doing interfaith work for years. “Those of us who invited you here tonight don’t have any master plan,” he said, “no grand design. Our goal is interfaith friendship.” Wallace Adams-Riley from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church echoed those sentiments, as did Ammar Amonette from the Virginia Islamic Center and Alex Evans from Second Presbyterian Church. But Imad Damaj, a professor at VCU and a tireless advocate for interfaith understanding, said, “We do have a master plan. We want to see Richmond united. And one of the things that threatens to divide it is religion.”

That’s true, isn’t it? The same kinds of tensions that once existed between Christians and Jews in this country now exist between Christians and Muslims, and some of the emails that are forwarded to me by well-meaning church members don’t help. But what we did last night helps. Sitting around the tables, breaking bread together, talking about our common struggles, bursting out laughing—these things help us get to know each other and as we do the possibility emerges that one day, if we keep it up, we might learn to love each other,

Just as Christ commanded.

KOH2RVA: Day 97

Bowling ShoesIt may have been the article I posted back on Day 61 about bowling alleys that inspired me, but whatever it was, when my interfaith group started talking about how we could move beyond dialogue to friendship I suggested that we go bowling together.

Interfaith Bowling.

At first they thought I was joking. I sometimes do. But the more we talked about it the more it seemed that almost everybody was willing to throw a few gutterballs for the sake of friendship. And so we picked a time and place and agreed to show up at Sunset Lanes on a Sunday afternoon a few weeks later.

When I got there Bill Sachs from St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church was waiting, his bowling shoes already laced up. I paid my money and got my shoes and a ball and was feeling pretty good until Ben and Karen Romer from Congregation Or Ami showed up, with their own custom-drilled balls and non-tacky bowling shoes.

I should have known right then.

Imad Damaj and his son, Bilal, from the Islamic Center of Virginia showed up a little later. Several in our group had to cancel, and so we ended up with just the six of us—two Christians, two Jews, and two Muslims. We bowled three games, and talked and laughed and cheered each other on, but when we added up the totals at the end it was clear:

The Jews killed us.

I know that doesn’t sound very “politically correct,” but it’s true. Karen Romer, the rabbi’s wife, is a personal trainer and a regular bowler, and she was bowling strikes or spares in almost every frame. She had a high game of 188, which was so much higher than my own high game I won’t embarrass myself by telling you the number.

But apart from all that friendly competition, interfaith bowling “worked” in the sense that it brought us closer together. It helped us see each other as human at a different level than when we’re all dressed professionally, sitting in a conference room, talking about our work and how important it is.

It’s hard to be pretentious when you’re wearing bowling shoes.

Why is interfaith friendship so important? Because religious pluralism is a fact of life in America these days. We can no longer pretend that we are a “Christian nation.” It leaves us with a choice: when we learn that our new neighbors are Muslim we can either hunker down and hide behind our neatly trimmed hedges or go over and invite them to tea.

If the Kingdom of heaven is ever going to come to Richmond, Virginia, it’s going to come by extending an open hand, not by raising a clenched fist.

And that applies to everybody.

KOH2RVA: Day 83

hands-with-plantBack in September I had coffee with Jeremy and Monica, church planters who are working here in Richmond. They had visited First Baptist several times and appreciated our emphasis on reaching the city with the love of Christ. That’s what they’re trying to do, too. They are a delightful young couple who don’t look at all like you might expect “church planters” to look. It’s just one of the things I appreciate about them.

When we had coffee I asked them if they would be willing to partner with us on our year-long, every-member mission trip. I said, “We’re trying to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, and it sounds like you are, too. We can’t offer you money, but we can pray for you and encourage you.” They said that would be perfect, and when I left that meeting I had this wonderful feeling that in addition to all our members who were out there bringing heaven to earth we had Jeremy and Monica, too.

Here’s the latest update from them:

Some of you may have heard from us about an Egyptian Muslim family we came across last month. We were waiting to meet a friend at a festival, and this lady and her two sons sat next to us as a table. They started asking us about what we thought about Jesus, the Bible, the Koran, Mormons, Islam, culture, Egypt, American and global politics. This conversation went on for about an hour then they gave us their contact info and we invited them over for a meal.

Now, they were previously complaining that Americans never “hang out” for more than an hour, so we had them over for 4 hours and just enjoyed a wonderful meal while talking about many of the same issues at more length. Finally, the mother shared her frustration with “American Christians,” so we decided it was time to share the gospel with her and help her remove her focus from “American Christians” to the person of Jesus Christ. We unpacked many elements of what it means to be forgiven by the Lord through the work of Christ, we talked about the Trinity (as they had been asking about that!), and we talked about eternal life based on grace (not based on works).

At the end of the conversation one of the sons said, “In Egypt, we could never have these conversations without everyone getting angry and screaming at each other.” And they went on to say that they were very appreciative of being able to have those conversations here in our home with freedom, grace and charity. No one was yelling, no one was being rude, we were all just taking turns sharing and asking questions and LISTENING!

Please pray for Jeremy and Monica as they continue to build their friendship with this family, and consider their example of inviting your Muslim neighbors over for a meal, not so much to look for ways to convert them, but simply because this is what Jesus tells us to do—to love our neighbors. I believe that in the context of true friendship you will have plenty of opportunities to share your faith as well as to ask questions and listen, just as Jeremy and Monica did.

Interested? Look for tomorrow’s post: “How to have your Muslim neighbors over for dinner.”

KOH2RVA: Day 65

This afternoon I’m headed to Roanoke for the annual meeting of the Baptist General Association of Virginia—our state convention. It’s going to be an interesting meeting, and I’m sure I’ll have something to blog about tomorrow and the next day, but I’m not leaving until this afternoon and it’s because I’m having lunch with these guys.

These are some of the religious leaders in the interfaith group I meet with from time to time. In the top photograph you see Nathan Elmore (left), a Baptist campus minister at VCU; next to him is Imam Ammar Amonette, from the Islamic Center of Virginia; and on the right is Imad Damaj, President and founder of the Virginia Muslim Coalition for Public Affairs. In the bottom photo you can see Rabbi Ben Romer on the left, from Congregation Or Ami; Wallace Adams-Riley in the middle, Rector of Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church; and on the right Bill Sachs, Executive Director of the Center for Interfaith Reconciliation. Bill is the one who calls us together on occasion to have lunch and talk about what we might do for the good of the city.

I’m becoming more and more convinced that if we want to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, we have to learn to get along with each other, and I mean all of us: people of different races, people of different classes, and people of different religions. I like the way Imad Damaj said it, especially after the events of September 11, 2001, made many people suspicious of Muslims.  He said: “We have a new reality [in Richmond], and we either have to choose between being an inclusive, open place to all, or to continue in the lines of divisions and anxieties and intolerance that bring the worst out in us.” He added: “I think this diversity we have is going to bring out the best in us.”

That’s why, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, this group hosted a city-wide forum where we talked about the possibility of something more than “interfaith dialogue,” where people discuss the similarities and differences in their religions in an effort to promote understanding; we talked about “interfaith friendship,” where people of different religions try to break down the barriers that divide them and build bridges of genuine trust.

At one of our recent meetings I remembered a conversation I had with a man in one of my former churches who told me he wasn’t a racist, that he had “a lot of friends” who were black. “Do you ever have any of them over for dinner?” I asked, “because that’s what friends do: they eat together.”  And so I’m going to postpone my departure for Roanoke long enough to have lunch with an imam, a rabbi, and a priest (sounds like the beginning of a joke, doesn’t it?). I’m doing it because we’re trying to do much more than understand each other’s religions: we’re trying to become friends.

This is a different way of bringing heaven to earth than some would choose–where you convert everybody to your way of thinking and get rid of anybody who doesn’t look like you–but people have tried that way before and it didn’t work.  Remember the Crusades?  The Spanish Inquisition?  The Third Reich?

I’m willing to give this way a try.