Who is my neighbour?
“If Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace. With the terrible weaponry of the modern world; with Muslims and Christians intertwined everywhere as never before, no side can unilaterally win a conflict between more than half of the world’s inhabitants. Thus our common future is at stake. The very survival of the world itself is perhaps at stake.” — A Common Word Between Us and You
These are bold words, to be sure; but when you stop and think about them, it is hard to argue that they are not true. Current estimates suggest that there are around 2.2 billion Christian adherents in the world today. Followers of Islam account for roughly 1.8 billion people. Added together, Christians and Muslims make up almost 60% of the global population. On a world scale, therefore, Christians and Muslims are finding themselves neighbours in virtually every corner of the globe. Our futures are undeniably connected.
Our pasts certainly have been as well. Places like the Middle East, Africa, and parts of Asia have many more centuries of history in Muslim-Christian relations than others, including the most painful chapters of the story so far. The conquests, the crusades, and their implications to this day, still have a profound impact on the lives of so many. However, Western Europe and North America are also becoming places where these two dominant religious communities are encountering one another in new ways. In Canada, Muslims currently account for about 4% of the population. This number has continued to grow steadily for some time, to the point where Islam is now the second largest organized religious tradition in the country. While around 60% of Canadian Muslims reside in Ontario, settlement in other regions is also increasing — and not just in major centres. Many of us are becoming neighbours closer to home as well.
Although there are some notable examples to the contrary, Christian and Muslim relations have often been heavily characterized by conflict and violence. Again, just within the last few days, we have seen the news from Indonesia of another instance of this kind of tragedy, and our prayers cry out for those killed and harmed. Groups such as the so-called Islamic State (Daesh), Boko Haram, Al Shebab, and others, are rightfully abhorred for their acts of evil perpetrated in the name of the Islamic faith. The growing persecution of Christians in various parts of the world is also a fact that cannot be denied. Though it does not always get the same attention in Western media, anti-Muslim sentiment, sometimes in the name of the Christian faith, including acts of vandalism, persecution, and violence, is also on the rise in many parts of Europe and North America. The shooting at the Grand Mosque in Quebec City in 2017, which resulted in the deaths of 6 and injury of 19 worshippers as they were finishing prayers, is a stark example of this within the Canadian experience. In other words, we have struggled mightily to live well as neighbours.
The early part of the 21st century, following from the prominent instances of the religiously motivated violence of 2001, saw an uptake in attention by many Christian leaders and churches of the need for a different kind of conversation with Islam than the one that was playing out in conflict. In the Anglican context, the 2002 Building Bridges initiative — organized by two successive Archbishops of Canterbury, George Carey and Rowan Williams — is one especially notable example which generated new relationships of friendship and theological dialogue over the next 5–6 years. The methodology and fruit of this work can certainly be drawn on more widely by Anglicans in years ahead. The recent launch of what is now known as the Anglican Interfaith Commission in February of 2018 promises a renewed focus on these kinds of efforts, with a special emphasis on the dynamics of Muslim-Christian relations in the global south.
A no less significant but not necessarily all that well-known initiative — this time coming from the Islamic side of the table — is a letter written in 2007 under the heading A Common Word Between Us and You. The title comes from a reference to a verse of the Qur’an which calls Christians and Jews into dialogue. As it says: “O people of the Book! Come to a common word between us and you” (Ali’Imran, 3:64). Through the impetus of the Royal Aal al-Bait Institute for Islamic Thought in the Kingdom of Jordan, 138 Muslim leaders, clerics, and scholars signed their names to this statement. The number of Muslim signatories has now grown to over 400, with people all over the world pledging their commitment. The letter addressed by name the then leaders of many different Christian world communions, including Pope Benedict XVI, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, Archbishop Rowan Williams, Lutheran World Federation President Bishop Mark Hanson, and many others, inviting them to take part in a conversation. Rowan Williams, whose engagement with the content of the statement has been particularly deep, has praised it for its tremendous potential to lead Christians and Muslims into a whole new spirit of relationship.
Since 2008, A Common Word has seen upwards of 280 Christian theologians, clergy, and heads of organizations give their endorsement to its vision, as well as over 70 formal responses from Christian churches, bishops, and leaders across the denominational spectrum (Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Anglican, Mainline Protestant, Evangelical, etc.). This kind of international and ecumenical interaction is certainly very important in its own right. However, I would suggest that the most significant commendation of the letter’s significance has come from the many subsequent iterations of local Christian-Muslim contact, study, relationship building, and cooperation in areas of common concern, that the A Common Word movement has inspired. The UK and the USA can boast of numerous instances of this, and Canada has examples as well. Going strong for 5 plus years now, A Common Word Alberta has brought together hundreds of Christians and Muslims from a wide range of backgrounds to get to know one another, to hear first hand from one another about the role that faith plays in their lives and families and decision making, to study one another’s scriptures together, and to consider ways of common action in areas of mutual concern such as support of refugees, people in need, and seeking reconciliation with Indigenous peoples in Canada.
In my view, the vision articulated by A Common Word is significant in the world of Christian-Muslim relations specifically, and interreligious dialogue more generally, for three main reasons:
First, it is an initiative that was born out of internal Muslim concern for the integrity of its modern interpretation. Never have we seen this kind of formalized and globalized outreach from the Islamic community. Never had such a diverse group of Islamic expressions and cultural backgrounds come together in this way to address the churches. These features alone show the seriousness with which the invitation has been made, and such gestures of hospitality surely deserve to be honoured.
Second, it does not underplay the fact that there are real and serious differences between what Christians and Muslims believe about God and how they practice their faith. It reads, “Islam and Christianity are obviously different religions […] and there is no minimising some of their formal differences.” The intent, therefore, is not that Christians and Muslims should set aside their uniqueness and become less distinctively Christian or Muslim for the sake of peaceable relationship. In fact, it is calling for precisely the opposite — to challenge Muslims and Christians to go deeper into the central teachings of their faith. This is an important principle which can sometimes be missed in certain expressions of interfaith concern. A Common Word invites Christians into conversation not despite their beliefs about the bible and Jesus and so on, but because of these beliefs. We are not seeking relativistic agreement, but rather understanding and learning. It is, therefore, entirely consistent with an authentic Christian and Anglican approach to the interreligious task.
Third, it affirms that, while the above is true, this need not prevent Christians and Muslims from identifying things that they do have in common which might allow them to pursue a new kind of relationship. As the letter puts it, “let our differences not cause hatred and strife between us. Let us vie with each other only in righteousness and good works. Let us respect each other, be fair, just and kind to another and live in sincere peace, harmony and mutual goodwill.”
The letter goes on to name some of the words we do have in common, focusing specifically on the central teachings that are found in the Muslim and Christian scriptures about the centrality and interrelationship between ‘love of God’ and ‘love of neighbour.’ According to the Islamic Hadiths: “None of you has faith until you love for your neighbour what you love for yourself” (Sahih Muslim, 45). This has clear points of connection with Jesus’ emphasis on what he calls the Second Great Commandment in the Gospels, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). A Common Word rests, therefore, on related truths affirmed in both traditions which insist that what we believe about God must translate into the way we reach out to others, whoever those others may be.
Anniversaries of events and statements are always important in the world of ecumenical and interreligious dialogue. The fresh initiatives and focused energy that were generated around the world by the 500th anniversary year of the beginning of the Lutheran Reformation in 2016–17 is one such example. The year 2018 effectively marks the 10th anniversary of the release of A Common Word, and I believe this presents an opportunity to lift up this document and the kind of engagement it invites for some renewed attention in the Canadian context.
And this opportunity comes at a timely point for society. While the varying tensions that exist between Christians and Muslims around the world must be taken seriously and acknowledged within their distinctive contexts, the context we find ourselves in in Canada is also unique. Over the last several years especially, many parishes and congregations, Anglican and otherwise, have heard the call to be involved in the sponsorship and settlement of families from Syria and the Middle East, many of them Muslims. In a lot of cases, this has brought us as Christians into contact with the cultures and faith traditions of these newcomers in previously unprecedented ways. These families have become our friends, our neighbours, and have challenged us to rethink old assumptions and stereotypes. Is there a next step to consider? How do we go forward in these relationships with integrity?
The Parable of the Good Samaritan, like many of the parables of Jesus, is one that is so rich with meaning that it allows itself to be interpreted again and again with additional meanings that build even further upon the ways it has been read before. We know that in the time of the New Testament Samaritans were ethnic and religious outsiders, generally shunned by the Jewish people. Jesus tells the story of the Samaritan who shows grace and mercy towards a Jewish stranger he meets along the road in response to the question, “Who is my neighbour?” One lesson to be learned in this narrative, of course, is that we must always be open to expanding our field of vision and expanding our hearts and minds regarding who God is calling us into relationship with.
In 2018 it is no big stretch to speculate about who some of the Samaritans of our day might be. These neighbours with whom we have had such a difficult and strained history have encountered us on the road in cities and towns across this country. A new gesture of invitation to dialogue has been made to us. I believe the Good News of God made known to us in Christ compels us to respond, to love our neighbours, and to step towards them in the way of the most merciful God and Father of all.
For more information about the A Common Word initiative around the world, please visit acommonword.com
If you know of organizations and places in Canada where Anglicans and other Christians are involved in building relationships of understanding and peace with our Muslim neighbours, please share the details with the Canadian Council of Churches Mapping Diversity Project by visiting councilofchurches.ca