Let's commit to forging lasting bonds between Christians and Muslims

Sometimes I go to the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops just to see things I might otherwise miss.

The other day there, I ran across this "Statement of the Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs" about dialogue with Muslims.

It's not bad. In fact, I suggest all Christians do something sort of radical: Take it seriously. Which would mean creating ways for Christians and Muslims to commit to long-term relationships in which they would learn about each other and move away from denigration and hatred.

Oh, I know. First, those who participate would have to be able to articulate their own faith clearly so that the conversation that takes place is not what a rabbi I know calls "interfaithless dialogue," in which people ignorant about their own religion converse with people of other faiths equally ignorant about their own.

But let's assume we can collect Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox and other Christians who are able to do what the small New Testament book of Jude advocates: "contend for the faith." Or, more hospitably, do what the first book of Peter suggests: "Defend the hope that is in you."

What would happen if such Christians took seriously these words from Lumen Gentium from the Second Vatican Council: "But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Muslims" (16).

And what would happen if everyone took seriously the words Pope Francis spoke in November to the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue: "Dialogue does not mean renouncing one's own identity when it goes against another's ... We do not impose anything, we do not employ any subtle strategies for attracting believers; rather, we bear witness to what we believe and who we are with joy and simplicity."

Ever since 9/11, Americans have been blitzed with anti-Islam messages, some vicious, some subtle, but all seeking to discredit an Abrahamic faith that has introduced monotheism to a huge segment of the human population.

Conventional wisdom might suggest that I would be among those most open to such propaganda, given that my own nephew was one of the people murdered on 9/11 by religious extremists who claimed to be following Islam. (They followed Islam in the same way that the most violent among the Ku Klux Klansmen or the most devoted anti-gay disciples of Fred Phelps' disgusting so-called church in Topeka, Kan., follow Christianity.)

But I've resisted the temptation to blame all Muslims for the terrorists who hide behind Islam. I came to know Muslims first when I was a boy living in India for two years. Later, when I began focusing my journalistic efforts on religion, I met many Muslims who, like me, are appalled at the violent extremism perpetrated in the name of Islam, including acts by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The USCCB's Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs has it right when it says, "Sadly, in recent years, there has been a deliberate rejection of this call to engage in dialogue with our Muslim brothers and sisters by some in the Catholic Church and in other ecclesial families. We understand the confusion and deep emotions stirred by real and apparent acts of aggression and discrimination by certain Muslims against non-Muslims, often against Christians abroad."

But it's also right when it says, "Still, it is our belief that the most efficient way to work toward ending or at least curtailing such violence and prejudice is through building networks of dialogue that can overcome ignorance, extremism, and discrimination and so lead to friendship and trust with Muslims."

The question for us is what our congregations are doing about this. Over the years, mine has invited various Muslims to speak, but we've not done enough to create a lasting relationship with them. If that's true of your congregation, let's commit to fixing that. Now.

[Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and award-winning former faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily "Faith Matters" blog for the Star's website and a monthly column for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans. Email him at wtammeus@gmail.com.]

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