In the immediate as well as broader canonical contexts of the Quran, if it were not for the extensive exegetical tradition of Islam, verse 157 of SÅ«rat Ä€l-Ê¿ImrÄn (SÅ«ra 4) would be understood simply as another piece of polemic against the Jews who, in verse 155, were being accused of breaking their covenant with God and killing his prophets.
Instead, verse 157 becomes the springboard of an entire religious tradition that denies the most fundamental claim of the Christian faith; namely the centrality of Jesus’ death on the cross and the importance of his death for human salvation.
In its near-unanimous denial of the historicity of the crucifixion of Jesus, the Muslim exegetical tradition – and I don’t say the Quran – stands largely alone. It also stands in rejection of the entire purpose of biblical salvation history.
Recently, I sat with a godly Muslim man in his living room, talking about Jesus. He adequately explained to me the symbolic and relational meaning of the affirmation that Jesus is “the Son of God.”
He could even grasp the depth of the affirmation that, “in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9).
He did not see that the Quran in its overall message necessarily denied that Jesus had died on the cross.
But what he could not comprehend was how that death could actually bring life and salvation to those who put their trust in this divine initiative.
It is not the “historicity” of the cross event that is the most difficult aspect to agree on in the Christian-Muslim conversation.
But what remains notoriously hard to grasp, not just in the interfaith context, but also for Christians, Muslims, Jews and other human beings, is how life and salvation can actually emerge from death and apparent failure.
The Apostle Paul admonishes us through one of the earliest hymns of the church found in Philippians 2:5-11 to embrace God’s initiative practically as the model for our own behavior.
“Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!
“Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
This doxology posits that God coming to us in Christ raised a unique challenge to the human understanding of power.
It is not through logic and debate that the cross becomes victorious, but rather as disciples of Jesus embrace the model that it provides.
If we understand the importance of self-giving in God’s economy of love and reconciliation, and its centrality in God’s ordering of human relationships between each other and with him, then the cross begins to take new meaning, beyond simply a conversation about whether it happened historically or not.
But it is neither easy nor natural to our human thinking to acquire the mind of God in what brings peace to this world.
In situations of human conflict, whether interpersonal or international, each party attempts to gain the upper hand on the ground in order to be in a position of power at the time of peace negotiations.
Weapons of war, destruction and invasion are dispatched by powerful nations in an effort to impose peace. Or at best we preach a morality of peace, love and forgiveness as the tools that we hope might lead to peace and reconciliation.
But amid our most concerted human efforts, the words of Jesus to Peter still ring true for us: “You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”
He calls us aside, along with his disciples, and instructs us, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:23-25). “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it” (Mark 8:33-35).
Churches following the Western rite recently celebrated Easter Sunday. Eastern churches will relive the Paschal meal, betrayal and crucifixion of Jesus on Friday, April 29.
In the unique country of Lebanon, where both dates are celebrated, we have the unique privilege of a prolonged reflection on the weakness and power of the cross and resurrection.
The cross invites us to quit striving to be God’s well-meaning mercenaries according to the instinctive human understanding of power.
The implication of the cross only begins to unfold as we get drawn into the divine logic about the functioning of power: power in weakness, forgiveness in persecution, love in response to hatred, life out of death, true love as self-sacrifice and the laying down of one’s life for others.
If these values were the driving force of all of our relationships, from interpersonal to interstate, our world would certainly look quite different.
Martin Accad is director of the Institute of Middle East Studies (IMES) at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut. A version of this column first appeared on the IMES blog and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @marzaatar and IMES @IMESLebanon.
Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series. Part one is available here.