Sometimes it seems as though it is impossible for a week to pass without a confrontation between the worlds of Islam and Christianity. My family and I came to Pakistan to be ministers of peace, yet peace between these two faith movements, whether in Pakistan or elsewhere, is proving to be a rare and precious commodity.
It is not so much the headline-grabbing atrocities of Islamic State that worry me, though goodness knows there are too many of them. What worries me is that the fear and mistrust between Muslims and Christians is percolating down to every level of society: in government circles, in the media, and onto the streets of every city in the West. Battle-lines are becoming entrenched at a very personal and local level. This is deeply concerning, since it is at precisely those levels that this division needs to be healed.
One recent example of this is the case of the Wheaton College Professor who is facing the sack for wearing a hijab to class and claiming that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. This thorny issue raises its head again and again and has become something of a litmus test for anyone working in Christian-Muslim relations, a divining rod for either religious intolerance or wishy-washy liberalism, depending on how you look at it.
So what do I think? Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? My answer is simple: which Muslims? And which Christians?
After all, this is a debate in which complexity is scorned. We all want an easy answer, a glib articulation of our belief, an opinion which can be defined in a single Facebook update, and yet the complexity of the question is too vast to contemplate. There are around 2.2 billion Christians in the world and perhaps 1.6 billion Muslims. Are we honestly saying that all Muslims have the same belief? Or, for that matter, all Christians? Are we really so arrogant as to presume that we can gaze into the head of every single Muslim on the planet to determine how they conceive the nature of God to be?
Do I worship the same God as the blood-soaked footsoldiers of Islamic State? Absolutely not. The question itself is repugnant. The nature of the God they serve is as far removed from that of Jesus Christ as the east is from the west. But what about my friend Saira, a devout Muslim who organises her local youth to clean up rubbish in her area and organises inter-faith events, at significant personal risk, to heal communal tensions? What about the Muslims in the UK who filled sandbags and organised food donations for those affected by flooding? Or my landlord, who pays for vegetables to be grown in his garden and leaves them for the poor to collect so that they can eat? I sometimes feel as though these Muslim men and women are better Christians than I am.
Or, to look at the question another way, do all Christians worship the same God? Donald Trump claims to be a Christian, yet his gun-toting, selfish, hateful idiocy is hardly redolent of the fragrance of Christ. The KKK claimed to be Christians, as did Fred Phelps, he of “God Hates Fags” notoriety. Yet so do the Catholic nuns who run a leprosy hospital in Rawalpindi, and Pope Francis who washed the feet of Muslim immigrants, and St Francis of Assisi who went to the Egyptian Sultan to preach peace during the height of the Crusades.
I believe in the uniqueness of Christ. I do not believe that all religions are the same. Yet it is foolish of us to think that Islam is homogenous, that everyone bearing the name “Muslim” has beliefs identical to everyone else. Is it possible that some seek to follow the same God as me? Not only possible, I believe it is certain. Jesus commended the faith of people as implausible as Roman centurions, tax collectors, and Samaritans (who, let’s not forget, were the enemies of the Jews). In this debate, as is so often the case in the collision between Islam and Christianity, we need to recognise complexity, act with compassion, and have the mind of a Christ who transcended narrow boundaries.
Sorry if you were expecting a single sentence answer…