Beirut is mesmerizing and Lebanon is simply stunning.
Nevertheless, even a brief analysis of the architectural subtext of downtown Beirut reveals how tragically imperative is the need for rectifying the contemporary state of interfaith or, more specifically, Christian-Muslim interaction.
Reflecting upon the seemingly endless variety of sectarian sanctuaries – each vying to outdo the other in social prominence and visual stature – one senses that interfaith interaction (here, as much as elsewhere) has often represented little more than insecure, adolescent-like maneuvering for social, political and spiritual predominance.
Tragically, the reality of this situation hit me most at a recent conference in Pasadena, Calif., where I came to understand how widely popular the idea of “polemic/apologetic as mission” truly is in interfaith interaction.
Many at the conference encouraged an interfaith approach in which one seeks to “shake the epistemological foundations of the other” by means of verbal assault, argumentative logic or both.
Even a cursory examination of Muslim-Christian interaction over the past 1,400 years reveals just how futile this approach actually is, not to mention scripturally suspect.
In the words of Institute of Middle East Studies director Martin Accad, Muslims and Christians “have both become experts at framing the other’s argument against them and at building defensive counter-arguments … and this interaction has become repetitive, circular and most often quite sterile.”
What results is “a caricatured representation of ‘the other’ that only convinces [one’s] own circles.”
A perfect example of this reality is the proliferation of interfaith debates, in which participants inevitably talk past each other in an attempt to win points for one’s “own team” at the expense or even humiliation of the other.
In employing such approaches and distorted characterizations, we merely serve to perpetuate a centuries-old exercise in futility by propagating our own self-perception as victims, as angels in a world full of demons.
We are, in reality, attempting to justify our own sense of self-importance and self-righteousness in contradistinction to the other.
In doing so, we are ultimately violating the self-sacrificing, self-giving and self-emptying spirit of Jesus Christ.
The more we can make the other group look bad, the better we feel about ourselves. It’s the bully principal, en masse.
What, then, is the solution to such a state of affairs?
For my part, as a follower of Christ, it begins with hearing the words of the Messiah and putting them into practice.
Christ obliges us to search ourselves before examining others, to turn the other cheek, to walk the extra mile, to not only tolerate but to love our enemies.
We are commanded to forgive not seven, but 77 times, and to make peace with others before coming to God in worship.
The embrace of those “not like us” inhabits the core of the messianic message. It is our mission.
Therefore, the closer we move to Christ, the closer we find ourselves in our enemy’s midst with arms outstretched in love.
Like Jacob, we find God in the face of our enemy, who happens to be our brother all along (see Genesis 32-33). In the process, we discover that we, in fact, have no enemies.
In reaching out and attempting to understand and listen to others on their own terms and in their own words – not via the distorted, defensive lenses of history – I have witnessed the apparently deep and seemingly impassable chasm between the historic communities of Christianity and Islam begin to shrink.
While important differences remain, dialogue fills the gap, historic and often-tragic misunderstandings and animosities begin to fade away, and authentic friendship and understanding fill their place.
Furthermore, I have found among Muslims a deep desire to explain themselves, their beliefs and practices.
This is indicative of a deep desire to be heard and understood on their terms and not through the interpretive lenses of others.
Consequently, such interaction provides a forum for our own voice as followers of Christ to be heard as well.
Beyond a forum for mutual understanding, such interaction also provides us the opportunity to learn more about ourselves than we would have been able to otherwise.
It is not until Jacob sets out upon his potentially life-threatening journey to encounter Esau that he is able to encounter God and discover his true identity and mission (see Genesis 32).
When we deconstruct our defenses, enter into our insecurities and open ourselves up to the vulnerability of listening to others, we begin to see how we look through other peoples’ eyes.
What we see is not always pretty, but if we are to be faithful to the reconciling mission of God through Christ to the world, and more specifically Muslims, such practice becomes imperative.
In his book “Exclusion and Embrace,” theologian Miroslav Volf put it well, “As we desire to embrace the other while we remain true to ourselves and to the crucified Messiah, in a sense we already are where we will be when the home of God is established among mortals.”
Jesse Wheeler is projects manager at the Institute of Middle East Studies, based in Mansourieh, Lebanon, at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary. This column first appeared on the IMES blog and is used with permission. Visit Arab Baptist Theological Seminary on Facebook.
Jesse Wheeler is MRel program administrator, support instructor for MENA history, politics and economics, and program support Instructor at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary’s Institute of Middle East Studies in Lebanon.