Due to ongoing reverberations from the June 2016 PCUSA General Assembly where a “Muslim partner” led the gathered Presbyterians in a prayer to Allah seeking their conversion to Islam, newly appointed Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson, Jr. has published a defense of the denomination’s position on interfaith relations, particularly with Islam.
Entitled “Remembering a Biblical Narrative That Shapes Our Interfaith Commitments: Building Bridges Through Interfaith Work“, this 1400 word document seeks to justify the PCUSA approach of linking together arm in arm with non-Christian (indeed anti-Christian) religions and marching buoyantly into a utopian future where all is love and beliefs don’t matter.
Nelson begins by greeting readers “…in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” But that hopeful start is lost in all that follows. We are led by the title to hope that Nelson will give us a biblical narrative showing how to navigate the minefields of interfaith relations. Instead, we are told to ignore beliefs that rightly separate us and lift instead a common “ethic of love.”
The only biblical text Nelson cites in defense of his view is one he has to misquote in order to justify his stance. In Mark 9:38-41, Jesus’ disciples report to him they had come across a man not of their group who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name. They had ordered him to stop since he was not of the twelve chosen by Jesus. When Jesus hears this, he upbraids them, saying, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us.” Nelson is keen to show that the key for Jesus is commonality of purpose, not being part of his immediate group. Apparently for Nelson all interfaith groups seemingly have the same purpose, and so are acceptable to Jesus, and should be acceptable to us. Though the biblical text makes clear that the unknown man in question is doing ministry in Jesus’ name, and that Jesus’ rationale for not prohibiting him is that “no one doing ministry in my name can in the next moment badmouth me…,” Nelson incredibly twists this text in order to baptize interfaith cooperation:
“Jesus acknowledges the commonality of purpose between groups of religious leaders other than our own. When the disciples of Jesus reported to him that there were others casting out demons in another name, he responded, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mk. 9:39–41).” [Emphases mine.]
The problem is, this man is acting in the name and under the authority of Jesus, not from some competing religious stance. Jesus affirms his ministry because it is being done in his name, not in the name of some other religious authority. To use this text for support of interfaith relations, particularly with regard to Islam, a religion that denies the gospel significance of the name of Jesus, is to abuse Scripture in pursuit of a personal agenda. How could the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the PCUSA, who should read the Bible more carefully than this, do such a thing? Does he not know the corresponding passage found two chapters later in Luke (11:23): “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters”? But that doesn’t fit too well with interfaith activism.
I think this approach has to do with priorities based on muddled thinking. Nelson makes clear that “binding interfaith communities together” is what inter-religious partnership is all about. Oneness of the whole world community is God’s goal, with ” interfaith commitment as a witness to God’s call for human and religious unity.”
In order to forward the agenda of Christian-Muslim interfaith cooperation, Nelson argues that:
- We must not pay attention to differences in belief, but rather operate from a common “ethic of love.” Further, with regard to the “three great religions,” we are bound by a common ancestor — Abraham.
- “We who are engaged in interfaith work recognize that it is not categorical theological faith stances or beliefs that bind the interfaith community together. Our bond with one another is bridged by an ethic of love.”
- “We also understand the bridge among the three great religions (Judaism, Islam, and Christianity) through Abraham.”
- We essentially worship the same God as Muslims, and obey the same commands to love the world.
- “Our acknowledgement of the same Creator—who may send different prophets, messengers, and servants at particular times in history—may differ, but love is the centerpiece of God’s expectations for us. Therefore, we worship the same God, but may derive different messages in our reflection, prayer, and meditation. Furthermore, we agree that any message that is devoid of love is oppositional to God.”
- “True Islamic believers of a Supreme Being witness that there is no worship, service, or faith expression unless love is the basis of our actions and relationships—Love for God, Love for Neighbor, and Love for Self are common elements of faith, practice, and worship.”
- “However, our interfaith work is held together by love, because both the Koran and the Bible teach a faith grounded in love.”
- We must not get hung up on Islamic extremism, because all religions have extremists, including Christianity, and we must get the log out of our own eye before helping Islam get the speck out of its.
- “In all faith experiences, we have read and, in some cases experienced, extremism. We have witnessed acts of violence by Muslim extremist [sic]. We have also seen professing Christians engaged in similar actions.”
- “We are challenged in this age to differentiate the acts of extremism in all religious cultures, including our own. Acts of non-love leading to killing and other violent and vitriolic actions against another person or group are not measures embraced by any of the three great religions’ (Judaism, Islam, and Christianity) holy books or core faith values.”
- Our primary concern with interfaith relations is the common goal of “justice advocacy work,” not the salvation of the world through faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. After all, what is most important is that everyone gets along in a healthy way, whether they actually follow Jesus or not.
- “We struggle together to end “Islamaphobia” [sic] and other hate crimes against our interfaith partners.”
- “…I acknowledge the contributions of those who witness in the Spirit of Jesus by healing, loving, and standing on behalf of others.”
This document is riddled with errors too important to ignore. Let’s set the record straight on the key faults:
- Differences in belief lead to strife; an ethic of love binds us together. Therefore we should avoid doctrinal differences and focus on mutual cooperation and love. Yet if as Christians we believe that those who reject the gospel are doomed to hell, how is it loving to put the call to evangelize aside, and simply seek to cooperate to make the world a better place? The apostle Paul in a passage urging reconciliation to God through Christ says about his own motivation for preaching the gospel, “For the love of Christ compels us….” Does not the Christian ‘ethic of love’ compel us to preach the good news to the lost rather than to lock it away so as not to cause offense?
- Judaism, Islam and Christianity share a common ancestor in Abraham and so we are bound together by the same core religion. In point of fact, Ishmael and Isaac are progenitors of races, not of religions. Very few Muslims can trace their lineage back to Ishmael, only certain groups of Arabs. And of the total worldwide population of Muslims, only roughly 16% are of Arab extraction. The Jews as a race can trace their lineage back to Abraham through Isaac, but the vast majority of Christians cannot (only the tiny percentage who are of Jewish descent). What links Christians with Abraham (and God’s promises to him) is not Isaac but Jesus Christ, as Paul says: “that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (Gal 3:14). The religions of Islam and Christianity are identified not by genetic lineage to Abraham, but by belief systems claiming linkage to Abraham’s relationship with God, and in this regard the two religions are in large measure at odds.
- We acknowledge the same Creator differently, but since love is the centerpiece of God’s will for us, we worship the same God. This is wrong on many levels, but two points stand out. First is the logical inconsistency. If the command to love is what shows we worship the same God, what do we say about atheists who believe human beings are called to love one another; or Immanuel Kant with his “categorical imperative;” or Krishna in the Hindu Baghavad Gita; or Bahaullah; or Baba Ram Dass; or… or… or…? Do we all worship the same God because love is the central command of our respective beliefs? Second, in point of fact, Islam does not teach love as the centerpiece of Allah’s will for Muslims. Rather, obedience to his commandments is central, and among these the spread of Islam by conviction or coercion is paramount. Those who refuse to bow before Allah (“submission” is the proper translation of the Arabic term “Islam”) are not to be loved but to be hated and destroyed, if possible. I understand that for Christians (or even those raised in a Judeo-Christian culture but not believers themselves) this is difficult to imagine, but it is nonetheless true. Here is a selection of relevant passages (I could produce scores more) showing the intolerance of Allah and his followers to unbelievers (including especially Jews and Christians):
- “And they say: ‘Be Jews or Christians, then ye will be rightly guided.’ Say (unto them, O Muhammad): ‘Nay, but (we follow) the religion of Abraham, the upright, and he was not of the idolaters'” (2:135).
- ” Lo! Those who disbelieve, and die while they are disbelievers; on them is the curse of Allah and of angels and of men combined” (2:161).
- ” And slay them wherever ye find them, and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out, for persecution is worse than slaughter….And fight them until persecution is no more, and religion is for Allah” (2:191, 193). [Note that this command is in force until all religion is subsumed or subjugated under Islam.]
- “Warfare is ordained for you, though it is hateful unto you; but it may happen that ye hate a thing which is good for you, and it may happen that ye love a thing which is bad for you. Allah knoweth, ye know not” (2:216).
- “Let not the believers take disbelievers for their friends in preference to believers” (3:28)
- “Those who believe do battle for the cause of Allah; and those who disbelieve do battle for the cause of idols. So fight the minions of the devil” (4:76).
- “So choose not friends from them till they forsake their homes in the way of Allah [i.e., become Muslims]; if they turn back (to enmity) [i.e., become apostates], then take them and kill them wherever ye find them, and choose no friend nor helper from among them…”(4:89).
- “O ye who believe! Take not the Jews and the Christians for friends. They are friends one to another. He among you who taketh them for friends is (one) of them. Lo! Allah guideth not wrongdoing folk” (5:51).
- “Lo! the worst of beasts in Allah’s sight are the ungrateful who will not believe” (8:55).
- “Then, when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever ye find them, and take them (captive), and besiege them, and prepare for them each ambush. But if they repent and establish worship and pay the poor-due [i.e., become Muslims], then leave their way free. Lo! Allah is Forgiving, Merciful” (9:5).
- “Fight against such of those who have been given the Scripture [i.e., Jews and Christians] as believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, and forbid not that which Allah hath forbidden by His messenger, and follow not the Religion of Truth, until they pay the tribute readily, being brought low” (9:29).
- “He it is Who hath sent His messenger with the guidance and the Religion of Truth, that He may cause it to prevail over all religion, however much the idolaters may be averse” (9:33).
- “O Prophet! Strive against the disbelievers and the hypocrites! Be harsh with them. Their ultimate abode is hell, a hapless journey’s end” (9:73).
- “O ye who believe! Fight those of the disbelievers who are near to you, and let them find harshness in you, and know that Allah is with those who keep their duty (unto Him)” (9:123).
- “So obey not the disbelievers, but strive against them herewith with a great jihad” (25:52).
- “He it is Who hath sent His messenger with the guidance and the religion of truth, that He may cause it to prevail over all religion. And Allah sufficeth as a Witness. Muhammad is the messenger of Allah. And those with him are harsh against the disbelievers and merciful among themselves” (48:28-9).
- “And there hath arisen between us and you hostility and hate for ever until ye believe in Allah only” (60:4) [This is supposedly a statement made by Abraham against his polytheistic peers, which Muslims are to emulate today.]
- “Lo! those who disbelieve, among the People of the Scripture [i.e., Jews and Christians] and the idolaters, will abide in fire of hell. They are the worst of created beings“ (98:6). This is as opposed to the Muslim community, which comprises “the best of people, evolved for mankind (3:110).
- To sum up, Islam does not teach an ethic of love toward all, but only toward fellow Muslims and those willing to become Muslims. The rest of the world becomes an enemy to be hated, conquered or destroyed.
- Extremism is found in all religions, so we must discount it as not indicative of any religion. Since all human beings are sinners, it is to be expected that some sinners under any belief system will act out in violent and aggressive ways. The central issue is whether particular belief systems reject or encourage these kinds of behaviors. It is clear that the teachings of Jesus preclude the use of the sword in the advancement of the Kingdom of God. It is equally clear that the Qur’an endorses the use of the sword in the advancement of Islam. While Christian leaders can rightly castigate those who do violence to others in the name of Jesus, Muslim leaders do not have the same warrant based on their holy scriptures.
- Muslims, and those of other religious groups are our “partners,” since we share a commonality of purpose. Hence, Nelson speaks of Mr. Said (the man who led the Qur’anic prayer at the General Assembly) as “a Muslim partner.” But a partner to what end? Apparently, our commonality of purpose is to “end “Islamaphobia” [sic] and other hate crimes against our interfaith partners.” Yet if we are really interested in “justice advocacy work,” why not press our Muslim partners to end the persecution and murder of Christians throughout Muslim majority countries? By far the vast majority of religious hate crimes throughout the world are perpetrated against Christians, and in the vast majority of cases the perpetrators are Muslims. Why is the PCUSA not speaking out courageously against Islamic injustice seen in this and many other evils, or does our commonality of purpose end in our bemoaning hate crimes against any religion other than Christianity?
- God’s “call for human and religious unity” will result as we all act from a common ethic of love. As we have seen already, Christianity and Islam do not share such an ethic.
But even if they did, the New Testament informs us that fallen human beings will never form such a unity until they are joined by the Holy Spirit in the body of Christ through the reconciling work of the cross. As Paul says in Eph 2:14-16, “He [Christ] is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility…so that he might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross….” Interfaith work on the basis of a fictional ethic of love will not accomplish what Nelson hopes. Only the gospel can do that. So why not devote full attention to evangelism?
I applaud Mr. Nelson’s desire to foster good relations with non-Christian religious groups. But this must not be done at the expense of truth, nor in a way that subordinates the proclamation of the gospel to the amelioration of social evils in the world. I would hope that before the PCUSA Stated Clerk makes any more pronouncements relating to Islam he will take the time to actually learn something of the belief system of those with whom he wishes the PCUSA to partner.