Dr. Syeed, I am honored by your invitation. I am energized about the potential to advance the common good through such a public exchange. I commend you on your proactive leadership.
And, at long last, we meet face-to-face. We first met, so to speak, in a common cause on CNN. We appeared together in February 2002 to challenge one of Pat Robertson’s many regrettable remarks about Islam.
As members of the Abrahamic-faith tradition, we have a love for stories. So, I share with you a story, a true story.
A young school girl approached a Baptist missionary in Lebanon. She asked the missionary, “Are you a Christian?”
The Baptist missionary woman replied that she loved Jesus.
The Lebanese school girl sighed with relief. “Oh good,” she said. “I was afraid that you were one of those murdering Christians.”
The sad truth is that we have many different types of Christians.
I am a Baptist Christian, who professes faith in Jesus and prioritizes Jesus’ commandment to love neighbor.
Regrettably too many Baptist Christians are less concerned with love for neighbor and too concerned with doctrinal purity and political conquest.
They wrap the American flag around the cross of Christ. They place military-camouflaged covers on Bibles. They see any challenge to our nation as a threat to their faith.
Consequently, they say hateful things about Islam.
You have heard the son of Billy Graham, who said after September 11, 2001, “I believe the Qur’an teaches violence. It doesn’t teach peace, it teaches violence.”
You have heard a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, who said in 2002 that the Prophet Mohammed was “demon-possessed.”
You have heard Charles Colson, who said only last year, “Islam is a vicious evil.”
“Christians will give their lives and die for what they believe…but Islamists are very different,” he said. “We will die for what we believe. They will kill for what they believe.”
These Baptists speak loudly. They speak often. But they do not speak for all Baptists. Some of us spoke early and have spoken about the wrongness of the bearing of false witness against our neighbors.
Some of us believe that Baptist preachers should never disrespect the Prophet Mohammed. Baptist preachers should never denigrate Islam as an evil religion. Baptist preachers should never demonize Muslims as people of violence.
I hope you will come to know the goodwill Baptists in North America, who are forging a new covenant around Jesus’ first sermon.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).
Jesus’ good news was to the poor, the destitute.
Jesus said that he had come to announce the year of jubilee. The year of jubilee was a moral vision of a time when slaves were freed, debts were forgiven and the land was given its rest.
What is my point?
My point is that goodwill Baptists are forging a new identity around Jesus’ moral vision of economic transformation and environmental restoration. That moral vision finds tighter expression in Jesus’ call to love neighbor.
Love for God and love for neighbor are at the heart of a prophetic letter from Muslim leaders to Christian leaders. This letter is a proactive initiative that has the potential to break down dividing walls and to bring together goodwill Muslims and goodwill Christians.
But once we have embraced “A Common Word” and found a common ground, what then shall we do?
Texans have a saying about people who are all show and no substance. They say such people are “all hat and no cattle.”
How do those of us here today move from the show of goodwill to advancing the common good?
We do so brick-by-brick. I offer two bricks for a new bridge.
First, I would like to find proven Muslim writers who would contribute opinion columns about contemporary issues to our web site, EthicsDaily.com ”EthicsDaily.com has a global readership of Baptists.
As we post columns from rabbis, we need to post columns from Muslim religious thinkers.
But more than opinion columns, I invite Muslim academicians to offer commentaries about the Qur’an. Rather than to read about what some Christians say Muslims think, Baptists need to read firsthand what Muslims think.
But more than opinion columns and commentaries, I would like to secure proven Muslim writers who would review movies which have Islamic themes. Baptists need to know how you see what we see.
Second, we plan to create a resource page on EthicsDaily.com where Baptists and Muslims can quickly find online material that educates and facilitates dialogue between our faith traditions.
Now moving from the doable to the possible, I place three suggestions on our discussion table.
First, would it be possible for mosques and churches to have “podium exchanges,” teaching opportunities in one another’s houses of faith?
Second, would it be possible for us to find projects, where we would work together to heal the hurts of the world?
Third, would it be possible for us to identify a public policy issue around which we could release an open letter calling for social reform?
Surely such an initiative would turn heads and create a new narrative.
I draw my final word from Jesus. I know Muslims have a deep respect for Jesus. Jesus told his followers to “be wise as serpents” (Matthew 10:16).
We need to pursue wisdom together to counter prejudice rooted in pride, ignorance and fear.
If we pursue wisdom, we will gain understanding. If we gain understanding, we will develop respect. If we develop respect, we will advance justice. If we advance justice, we will change the conditions of our people.
Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics, prepared this statement for a Muslim-Christian dialogue session at the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North American, held on Saturday in Columbus, Ohio.