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Not Afraid of TruthAlan WisdomApril 29, 2011
Earlier this week, one of my IRD colleagues passed on to me an article from the Salt Lake Tribune. “Leaders of a Presbyterian congregation in Salt Lake City,” the article reports, “have an answer to the Florida pastor with a penchant for burning the Qur’an. Wasatch Presbyterian Church is giving Islam’s holy book away for free.”
It appears that members of the Wasatch Church session plunked down $600 to buy and distribute dozens of copies of the Qur’an. Each copy will come with a bookmark inscribed, “This book was donated by the leaders of Wasatch Presbyterian Church, who are not afraid of truth wherever it can be found.”
A Wasatch elder was quoted as explaining that his church wanted to “push back against the lunatic fringe” represented by the Rev. Terry Jones, the pastor who garnered worldwide media attention and violent Muslim reactions with the incineration of a Qur’an at his tiny Gainesville, Fla., church. “You don’t have to let the nincompoops of the world control all the message,” the Presbyterian elder told the Tribune.
I have a lot of sympathy with the motives behind this gesture by the Salt Lake church. But I also have some serious questions about the means it chose to express those motives. If Presbyterians (and other Christians) want to show the love of Jesus to our Muslim neighbors, we may need to find a better approach than buying caseloads of Qur’ans.
Certainly I agree that our calling is to show the love of Jesus to those Muslim neighbors. And burning their sacred scriptures is not exactly the best way to communicate love. I, too, don’t want my Christian faith to be confused with provocative publicity stunts by a “nincompoop” pastor. But just because Terry Jones burns Qur’ans doesn’t mean that Presbyterians have to “push back” by passing out free Qur’ans. There has to be a faithful middle ground that respects Muslims without endorsing Muhammad’s prophecies that conflict with the Bible.
Discerning a Better Way
I, like the Wasatch elders, am “not afraid of truth wherever it may be found.” I have a copy of the Qur’an and did not hesitate to read it. I found there many worthy praises of God and exhortations to righteousness. These are truths that I can affirm. But I also found teachings denying that Jesus was God, denying that he really died, and therefore denying that he could have been raised from the dead. These are falsehoods that I, as a Christian, must reject.
Just a few days ago, Christians around the world celebrated the holiest week of the year—the week in which we remember Jesus’ death and resurrection. These are the central truths of our faith—the decisive events in all human history, we Christians believe. While I am not afraid to read books that deny those central truths, I would not want to promote any such book.
Christians should be happy to acknowledge the truths that God’s common grace has shown to all humankind—even adherents of other religions. But we should also be unafraid in proclaiming and defending the special revelation that God has given us in Jesus Christ. If a church distributes free copies of any book, it should be a book that presents the Gospel of Christ. I believe that Muslims can do an adequate job of distributing the Qur’an, and I respect their right to do so. I would not expect them to hand out copies of the Jewish or Christian Scriptures with which they disagree.
Trying to reach out to Muslims by distributing copies of the Qur’an does not seem likely to be an effective mission strategy. Applying the same principle, the Wasatch church might try to reach its Latter Day Saint neighbors by passing out the Book of Mormon. Maybe Presbyterians could appeal to Scientologists by buying copies of L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. Perhaps a future mission to North Korea might offer free sets of the late dictator Kim Il Sung’s eight-volume autobiography.
Of course, there might be better ways of showing Christ’s love to Mormons, Scientologists, and North Koreans. And the same applies to Muslims. If we want to show them Christian hospitality, we can invite them into our homes and churches. We can visit them in their homes and mosques. We can share meals and conversations. We can cooperate with Muslims in addressing community needs in areas such as healthcare, job training, education, and refugee resettlement. We can respectfully tell the Good News of Jesus Christ as the opportunity arises.
All of these neighborly activities can be undertaken without compromising our Christian faith in any way. Some churches have already been involved in these areas. I pray that more congregations would feel the same godly impulse that moved the Wasatch session—to reach out to Muslims with a striking gesture of kindness—but that they would also have discernment in determining the appropriate gesture.
Focusing on Christ, Not Ourselves
One key to discernment is to focus not on ourselves and our image in the eyes of Muslims, but instead on Christ and his intentions for them. We must define ourselves positively by the One to whom we belong, Christ, rather than negatively by the differences that separate us from other people.
It thus concerns me that the book inscription chosen by the Salt Lake church was all about themselves: “the leaders of Wasatch Presbyterian Church, who are not afraid of truth wherever it can be found.” They seemed driven mainly to prove—to Muslims, to the public, perhaps also to themselves—that they were not like those other intolerant Christians. They were “not afraid.” They were not “nincompoops.” They were not “the lunatic fringe” like the Qur’an-burning Terry Jones.
Jesus told a parable about a Pharisee who prayed in the temple: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11). But the one who “went down to his home justified” was the tax collector who recognized his true place before God, praying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” We recognize our true place as lost sheep rescued by Jesus—the Great Shepherd who also promises to bring other sheep into the safety of his fold, as they hear and follow his voice (John 10).
Our Muslim neighbors, and all our neighbors, are among those other sheep that Jesus is calling. We need to approach them in ways that help them to hear his voice. Certainly burning their sacred scriptures is not helpful. But promoting scriptures that contradict the message of Jesus is not helpful either. We must pursue a middle way with the integrity of both Christian charity and Christian faith.
Wisdom from a Neglected Resource
In charting this middle way, I would recommend a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) resource that has not been sufficiently consulted. It is a paper entitled “Respectful Presence: An Understanding of Interfaith Prayer and Celebration from a Reformed Christian Perspective” which was commended to congregations by the 1997 General Assembly. Here are a few samples of the wisdom to be found in that document:
In other words, faithful Presbyterians (and other Christians) are not afraid to engage Muslims or people of any other religion. We are not afraid of whatever truth or goodness may be found in their lives and their beliefs. But we are also, as the apostle Paul affirmed, not ashamed of the surpassing truth of the Gospel, “for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith…” (Romans 1:16).
Related articles at IRD:
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